Classroom Capture

Homegrown Software Boosts Interactivity at Community College

In search of an inexpensive solution to engage students in challenging courses like physics and astronomy, a semi-retired professor has created a popular interactive software tool that reportedly increases  classroom participation and boosts grades and learning.

The software, still in somewhat of a developmental stage, is called FarSightNet and is in use at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston by several professors, including Joan Brenner, a professor in the science department who teaches physics and astronomy.

She also happens to be married to Jeff Brenner, the quasi-retired professor who wrote the FarSightNet software several years ago under his company name, SpaceTimeLinks LLC. He was intrigued by the idea of using simple interactive document software to truly engage students in hands-on problem-solving in classes like physics. "Too many people are delivering lectures with lovely PowerPoint presentations," Brenner said. "There's nothing that forces the student to think through the problem."

Brenner's FarSightNet software allows a professor to mark up PowerPoint slides or other material on a tablet computer in class during a lecture. The slides and notes are projected onto a large screen for students to view. The software saves the marked-up slides, with all handwritten notes captured as well, so that students can download them later. In that sense, the software isn't unlike other commercial collaboration products already available. Where FarSightNet differs from some products--although again, there are other commercial products in the field that offer this feature--is that it also allows interactive written responses from students in class, each of whom is equipped with a wireless tablet computer. FarSightNet allows the professor to "call" on a student to solve an equation, for example, and can project that response on the board for everyone to see.

Lectures imported into FarSightNet can be in a wide variety of formats, including PowerPoint, Word, Photoshop, and many others. Other material can include textbook contents from a CD, a typed document, or an Internet site. The software converts the content into pages, then presents it in scrollable windows, allowing the instructor to add notes by drawing on or marking up any screen. Jeff Brenner said that the software uses little server processing power, relying on the client instead. And there are no constraints in FarSightNet on the number of students who can connect wirelessly at one time.

Benefits of the software include the cost--Brenner isn't charging Bunker Hill Community College anything for its use--as well as its interactive classroom capabilities and low server overhead. Also, the ability to save a professor's handwritten notes for distribution via the Internet and later review by students is a powerful asset, Joan Brenner said.

Her students' response to FarSightNet has been positive, according to Brenner, a long-time professor. She has seen grades, attendance and student participation all improve since she started using FarSightNet several years ago. Although educators sometimes fear that classroom capture software will cause attendance to drop, attendance has actually improved, Brenner said. Part of the reason, she said, is that a challenging physics class is simply more enjoyable for students when they aren't frantically scribbling notes throughout. Brenner also said that students who are normally quiet have tended to interact more and raise their hands when FarSightNet is in use, perhaps because there's a more relaxed atmosphere that encourages participation.

She also has seen more interactivity and questions from the class, perhaps because students now feel freed from their notes and more able to interact. With FarSightNet, she said, "instead of trying to scribble everything down, [students] can pay closer attention."

And that points up another benefit to the product, the Brenners said--or indeed, to any tool that helps students by recording what the instructor writes down in class. Good note-taking can be a huge challenge in complex classes such as the ones Brenner teaches, which might involve detailed physics or astronomy diagrams.

Joan Brenner said she has been frustrated over the years when she's seen the poor notes taken in class. "When I've looked at my students' notes [periodically], I've realized that what I was saying and what they were getting down" weren't the same thing at all. Other teachers have confirmed to her that student notes are seldom an accurate picture of what went on in the classroom.

Her previous physics students found FarSightNet so useful that the following semester "they practically went on strike, demanding the same [tool]" from their new professor, Brenner said.
Her overall sense of the product is that it is helping students learn more, and at a faster pace, although so far most of her observations are anecdotal. "After all these years of teaching, I have a pretty good sense of what people should be able to do at this level," she said, "and more of them are doing it at this point."

Joan Brenner has also used the software in honors seminars she teaches on a variety of topics that teach students how to perform research, and write abstracts and papers. Using FarSightNet, each student's written material can be projected on a large screen one-by-one for class discussion. "Let's say each student has written an abstract for their term paper," Jeff Brenner said. "We [can] put them up on the screen and collectively go through an annotation ... just like you're red-lining a piece of paper."

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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