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Hacking the Classroom: Purdue U's Approach to Augmented Learning

A Q&A with Kyle Bowen

A term more familiar in the competitive world of the television industry, "second screen" offers a simple way for viewers to access additional information relevant to a TV program. At Purdue University, researchers aim to put the concept to work in the classroom — making an enriched and interactive learning experience with classroom apps easier. Here, Kyle Bowen, Purdue's director of informatics explores his latest research on "hacking the classroom": how to leverage the second screen concept to help instructors and students negotiate the realm of multiple and varied classroom apps.

Mary Grush: Just to set the context, what do you mean by "second screen"?

Kyle Bowen: The idea of second screen comes to us from television, where the networks have realized that they are competing for eye time… It used to be that when you were watching television, you would sit on the couch and be fixed on the television screen. But, that's not really the case any more. People who watch television now have mobile devices — tablets, phones, laptops — through which they consume material. And so, there is a battle between the television show and the connected media… Similarly, in the classroom, these devices may compete with what's going on inside of the classroom. But, they don't have to be distractions, as now there are so many different ways to use them to plug additional, highly relevant material into the class.

These devices can, of course, be used to bring up material from the Internet that is relevant to the lecture at hand. Or, they can be used with any of a number of social tools to engage the students inside of the classroom. But, each one of these uses finds the students disengaged from the presentation itself and requires them to shift their focus from one place to another. That begins to strike at the cognitive load of some of the students in the classroom.

What second screen does, is to allow us to have the technology begin to build seamless connections between these tools — between these different experiences — in such a way that it helps extract more value from the live classroom experience. The class becomes a collection of people who are all enjoying the same experience together. Each one is still sitting in the classroom as an individual, but the technology is building connections and threads between them.

It's essential to do all this in a seamless way, which is synchronized as a live experience — as opposed to presenting students with a disconnect from the classroom experience.

Grush: So, right now, in the context of your research, is second screen a theory, a technique, an approach to infrastructure, or a specific tool that you’re developing?

Bowen: Second screen is a theory or concept around how to create this kind of engagement. There are already several apps developed by the networks in an effort to facilitate this kind of simultaneous experience. But what we're exploring at Purdue is, how can we create a similar type of experience inside of the classroom? This should be synchronized with the lecture or presentation such that it provides both bonus material and relevant topical and social connections.

Grush: Is this an approach that considers a BYOD, or a BYO-App if you will, type of audience? Or, do you need to control the type of tools people are bringing into the classroom?

Bowen: The intent is to take advantage of the ubiquitous technology and the available apps that students bring with them into the classroom. Students bring along the tools that they have self-selected. So it's a matter of using the technology that they already have, and placing our apps on those devices — and of course we want to make this available on a wide variety of platforms. And yes, one of the big challenges that we are trying to overcome is that students have so many different types of tools that we want to incorporate in a common classroom experience.

As for apps, a student may have one app for consuming e-text, another for accessing Internet-based material, plus another app to create notes or to capture important parts of the lecture, and yet an additional social app for engaging in some type of discussion. So, it's not unrealistic to think that a student may use two or three, or more apps in any hour-long lecture. What we are now attempting — rather than trying to create a massive, monolithic mobile app that hopes to contain all the desirable features — is how to synchronize these multiple apps in a helpful way.

Grush: For example?

Bowen: Well, if polling needs to occur at a specific point in the lecture, how can we synchronize this across all the devices? Or, if the presentation centers on a specific portion of e-text, how can we pinpoint that text — and potentially supplement that with Internet resources such as online articles or research or YouTube videos? And all this should be offered right there and then, when the key topic is being presented.

Grush: Long term, would you see a kind of intelligent interface coming out of all your research and development work?

Bowen: We are working on a new tool right now, which we will begin to pilot in the Spring 2014 semester, that is not only a delivery vehicle, but also allows active research on how second screen works inside of the classroom. That tool, coupled with feedback from instructors plus our previous experience with the classroom apps we've developed for Purdue Studio, will eventually incorporate analytics that could potentially allow us to reconfigure features automatically, or at the very least, inform faculty's use of the technology.

Grush: What are the takeaways now, for the CIO to begin to think about?

Bowen: The important part for the CIO to pull from this, and to begin thinking about, is that a second screen approach will increase the load on — but also the value of — the wireless infrastructure inside of the classroom. Many of the individual functions and tools we talked about are already seen in today's classroom, of course; we're talking about some pretty common apps. What second screen will do for all this, is that it will create an additional reliance on these tools, but at the same time it will begin to create some commonality around how they are put together in context. With the interconnection of these technologies, the second screen strategy will ease the burden of implementation and support while it offers new possibilities for instruction.

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