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Perry Samson demonstrating the Echo360 platform in class


Perry Samson, a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering, has been teaching at the University of Michigan for 38 years. In his early teaching years, Samson thought that getting through a lecture without students asking many questions was a sign of a job well done. “I assumed that I’d nailed it. I’d do a little lecturer victory dance, throw down the chalk and leave the room."

Samson has since come to the “sobering” realization that when students are silent in class, it doesn't signal that they follow what is going on. Many students just don’t feel comfortable asking questions or expressing that they don’t understand in class, said Samson.

“If you want a class to be quiet, try asking any question. Students will start looking at their shoes to avoid you,” said Samson. By surveying his students each semester, Samson found that just half of his male students and around a quarter of his female students said they felt comfortable asking questions in class. Nonnative English speakers in particular expressed high discomfort, said Samson.

One way to encourage nonverbal student engagement in class is to use clickers. But instructors are limited in the kinds of questions they can ask with these tools. You can do polls and ask multiple-choice questions, but you can’t ask students to click on the point on a weather map where you’d expect to see high wind speed, said Samson. Some students also think clickers are lame. “Instructors end up using clickers just to get attendance, and students know that,” he said.

Frustrated with the limited engagement that clickers offer, Samson decided to develop his own solution. Working with a group of students, Samson co-founded a company called LectureTools, which enabled students to give feedback to instructors in real time using their phones, laptops or tablets. LectureTools was acquired by lecture-capture technology company Echo360 in 2012.

Samson uses Echo360 to broadcast his lectures live. Both students in the lecture hall and elsewhere can participate through the Echo360 platform. They can answer Samson’s questions, ask him questions, make notes and use a "confusion alert" to signal when they are confused -- a feature Samson playfully refers to as the “WTF button.” While other video-capture platforms like Panopto, Kaltura and Sonicfoundry’s Mediasite offer similar features to Echo360, none share the confusion-alert feature.

Last semester, Samson said he received 770 questions from students. While he’s teaching, the questions are fielded by a teaching assistant, but he will review what students are asking, and where they indicated confusion, after class. This information then shapes how he approaches the next class -- whether he needs to review material or perhaps explain it in a different way. Samson said that the platform allows him to experiment with his teaching to figure out what works and what doesn’t. “It helps me identify when I’m being boring, when I’m going too fast. It’s changed the way I teach,” he said.

Though Samson doesn’t know whether students are doing better academically because of the platform, he does know that engagement is way up. All students can see the questions being asked and answered, but they don’t know who is asking them. The instructor, however, can see who is engaging and who isn’t. “It’s opened up a door,” said Samson. “When you give students the opportunity to interact, by God, they do.”

With more interaction between students and instructors comes more data. With more data, instructors can glean increased insight from the platform. Samson can already see who’s taking notes, who’s asking questions, who’s looking at lecture captures after class. With statistical modeling, Samson said by the end of the third week of each semester he can predict which students are going to fail with 90 percent accuracy. The potential of the platform to be used as an early-warning system for students at risk of failing is an important one, said Samson.

Stephanie Cole, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas Arlington, has been using Echo360 for around five years. Cole said that she too uses the platform to identify students who she anticipates will struggle. “I contact students early in the term to indicate that I’ve noticed they’re not participating, and then point out to them the difference that spending more time with the material can make to their performance,” said Cole.

But there is room for improvement. Samson, who has an advisory role with Echo360 and tests new features in the classroom, said that he would like to see the confusion alert enhanced to give instructors more information. Currently, the platform enables students to click on a flag when they see a slide in the lecture they don’t understand, but it doesn’t specify what is confusing the student.

Richard Caccavale, senior director of product marketing at Echo360, said that he anticipated improvements to the confusion-alert feature to be rolled out later this year. Students will be asked to specify whether it is something the instructor said that confused them or something on a lecture slide. The students will also be encouraged to expand on what they found confusing or ask a question.

“When I know how you are confused and what’s confusing you, then I can hope to help,” said Samson. “Just knowing a student is confused is helpful, but if I had more information, it would help me hone my messaging better. That’s the next step.”

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