Antiskimming Software

Business professors find another use for software created to help them teach case studies: preventing students from skimming.

July 15, 2015
An example of a word cloud generated by student responses.

Are you reading closely?

Chances are you’re not. Web traffic analyses of online publications show most readers scroll only part of the way through a story before disappearing. Maybe you’re off to a new story, the comments section or a different website altogether.

But what if, in tomorrow’s edition, we used that traffic data to call on you in front of all of our readers? That’s the idea behind ForClass, a student engagement platform that aims to stop students from skimming through reading assignments.

Skimming is “human nature,” said Jeffrey S. Lehman, vice chancellor of New York University at Shanghai. “You’re thinking about a lot of different things at once, and your mind tends to wander as you read.”

But as an instructor, Lehman still needs to spark discussions about dense texts written by Aristotle, Confucius, Plato and other philosophers in Global Perspectives on Society, a freshman requirement at the university. In a course that enrolls 300 students, those who skimmed or skipped their reading could easily disappear in the crowd -- but not anymore, Lehman said.

This year, NYU Shanghai began using ForClass, developed by the start-up of the same name. The platform supports what some instructors in reading-intensive courses have been doing for years: requiring students to answer questions about assigned reading before class to show they have gotten through the texts.

ForClass then gathers that data, collected from open-ended, true-or-false and multiple-choice questions embedded in the reading, in a dashboard. Before class, faculty members can review the data to identify interesting responses, concepts students may be struggling to grasp or students who didn't do the work. Once in the classroom, the instructors can display word clouds of responses, zoom in on individual answers and hopefully invite more students to participate in class discussions.

In effect, the platform flips a specific part of the classroom. Instead of gambling that prepared talking points on a specific text will trigger a meaningful debate, faculty members using the platform can call on students they already know made an interesting observation.

“The software is billed as an assistant to teaching, but I would describe it as just as much help to reading,” Lehman said. “It helps students read more closely, more carefully, and helps us as teachers frame the conversation more sharply.”

Faculty members at about 70 colleges and universities around the world are using ForClass, said Gad Allon, the professor of managerial economics, decision science and operations management at Northwestern University who co-founded the start-up. Many of those professors work in business schools -- the field in which the platform got started -- but also in engineering schools. The start-up markets itself directly to faculty members, he said, pitching its platform as a tool to help instructors keep track of how individual students are consuming and reacting to texts used in their courses.

“The main issue we see with quite a bit of tech is it tries to make the faculty somewhat redundant,” Allon said. “There is a lot of pressure to make the classroom time shorter and shorter and to take more and more things out of it. We want to make sure the things in the classroom are the most effective. We can help faculty do that.”

Apart from adoption in a handful of history departments and NYU Shanghai, ForClass has yet to make inroads into the humanities. Shimer College, a Great Books institution that may seem like a natural fit due to its Chicago campus and interest in exploring how it can use online education, has not discussed piloting the platform.

“At Shimer we do this the old-fashioned way, with close reading of primary sources and discussion classes limited to 12 students maximum,” said Susan E. Henking, Shimer’s president. “Our students call others to in-depth reading as an aspect of community responsibility. Yes, we believe in digital as an aspect of this, for our students live in both worlds.”

The start-up’s content library of case studies highlights that the platform is still primarily aimed at business schools. If instructors use copyrighted material, the royalty costs are often passed on to students either as part of their tuition or fees, or through a subscription that costs about $10 a month. Instructors can also use their own content free of charge, but it needs to be formatted for use with the platform.

Early ForClass adopters stressed the effect they felt the platform had on engagement -- particularly for nonnative English speakers and other students who may not be the first to raise their hands in class.

“You know that other [students] have opinions and you know that they gave it some thought, but they’re not necessarily willing to stand up in front of a class and express themselves,” said Robert S. Rubin, associate professor of management at DePaul University. “It takes the fear out of the Socratic method … and softens it, because students know they’re going to be called on.”

Allon said future plans for ForClass include being able to provide predictive analytics. As the use of the platform grows, he said, it will be able to suggest questions that other instructors found provoked interesting reactions from students.

“One of the biggest difficulties faculty have is asking good questions,” Allon said. “We can turn to faculty now and say, ‘Based on the makeup of your class, this is how your class is going to respond to a specific question.’ The next step is we’re going to tell you which questions are best.”


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