Smart Classrooms

Purdue U Brings Social Networking to the Classroom

"Hotseat" allows students to text in class

In most classrooms around the world, using cell phones to send text messages and laptops to access sites like Facebook and Twitter are very much discouraged. Considered a high-tech distraction that impedes the learning environment, such actions often end in the student being reprimanded, penalized and even having their devices confiscated.

Things are a little different at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, where some professors--especially those who teach in large lecture halls--have come to embrace social networking as an instructional aid. Using an application developed on campus, the educators who enrolled in the program have come to think of social networking via texting and online portals as a tool, rather than a distraction.

Known as Hotseat, the application allows students to comment on the class and then enables other participants--including professors, students, and teaching assistants--to view those messages. Students either use their Twitter, Facebook or MySpace accounts to post the messages or log in to the Hotseat Web site to send text messages. The application resides on the Web; there is no software for professors or students to install.

Created by a team of developers that includes Kyle Bowen, Purdue's director of informatics, Hotseat was intended as a way to manage the logistics of teaching a classroom of 100-plus students. "We were looking for a better way for students to engage the instructor and each other in terms of classroom discussion," said Bowen, "and to find a way to encourage that type of interaction both in and out of the classroom."

Bowen said the team's first stop was at online portals like Twitter and Facebook, both of which have proven themselves as effective social networking tools for people worldwide. The problem is that such tools allow anyone and everyone to "connect" in a way that isn't always productive in the educational environment. Plus, said Bowen, not all students are "connected" to such sites, nor do they all carry laptops to class with them.

"We needed a way for students to connect with one another in an open environment," said Bowen, "but not necessarily with everyone else who is on Twitter and Facebook."

That need lead to the development of Hotseat as a tool students could use to participate in classroom discussion with the help of online tools that most were already using and familiar with. To address the fact that not all students use laptops in the classroom, Bowen said his team integrated mobile capabilities into the application, thus allowing students to tap into the system with their cell phones via text message.

Bringing the concepts to fruition was a team that comprised one core application developer and several other IT experts who created the user interface and mobile application. The group started developing the application in June 2009 and finished it within about three months.

During the development phase, Bowen said his team also began talking to educators about Hotseat's potential usefulness in the classroom environment. "There were definitely some concerns over how well this was going to work as an instructional tool," said Bowen, who didn't expect the application to have universal appeal among the university's faculty. "This is for the professor who is open to receiving feedback about his or her course."

Purdue University launched three Hotseat pilot courses (with two different faculty members) for the fall semester. So far, Bowen said, feedback has been largely positive, with professors using the application in myriad ways. A faculty advisor, for example, will give a short lecture, retreat to his computer for a few minutes to address the questions and concerns raised by students on Hotseat and then recommence lecturing.

Bowen said professors also use Hotseat to encourage collaboration and feedback from their students. "A faculty member will pose a question to the class and have students respond via their laptops and cell phones," he said, noting that such interaction would be impossible without a technology tool filtering and delivering the information to and from students.

Hotseat also allows students to discuss controversial topics without the fear of embarrassment that comes from standing up and speaking in front of a class of 100-plus students. "The technology provides a cloak of anonymity," said Bowen. "The faculty member knows who made the comment or gave the feedback, but the other students don't have access to that information."

Finally, Bowen said, Hotseat also encourages interaction among the students themselves and allows them to set up study groups and ad hoc meetings by posting comments like, "I'm thinking of studying this material tonight--anyone want to meet at the library at 6 p.m.?"

According to Bowen, the multidimensional application is gaining ground at Purdue University, where the adoption rate among those students and educators enrolled in the program is 76 percent. "The number continues to rise," said Bowen, whose goal is to create a dedicated Hotseat "app" next year.

"We're continuing to expand Hotseat's mobile capabilities," he explained, "and [are] currently working on a native iPhone application whose pilot will be launched for spring semester, and available in full production next fall."

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