CIRCL perspectives offer a window into the different worlds of various stakeholders in the cyberlearning community — what drives their work, what they need to be successful, and what they think the community should be doing. Share your perspective.
Mohammad Muztaba Fuad is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Winston-Salem State University (WSSU). His Mobile Response System (MRS) facilitates anonymous communication, interaction and evaluation of in-class interactive problem solving activities using mobile devices. Learn more about MRS in this 2016 NSF Video Showcase video.
How did you get started in cyberlearning?
At my institution, we have a lot of students who are the first in their family to go to college. They’re really happy to be in college, but sometimes they are not so motivated to study. Another problem is that a lot of the students come from economically challenged families, and they are working 2-3 jobs, so they don’t have enough time to study. This leads to students not practicing critical skills after class.
At the beginning of my teaching career at WSSU, I maintained a mostly traditional, lecture oriented classroom. In such environment, most of my students seemed to understand the different computer science concepts and programming skills. However, after a week or so, when I gave a quiz to the class, most of the students were failing. When you see a lot of students failing, you think how can you improve, what can you do better? I surveyed and talked to students to figure out what might causing that. I discovered that even when students understood difficult concepts in class, the lack of immediate practice made them forget key components of the skill later on.
So I started adding a short quiz at the end of each class. I would go through a concept and a couple of examples, and then at the end of the class I gave them a short quiz on the content covered in that class. This was a short paper and pencil quiz, at most 1-2 questions, but it was analytical problem solving type, not multiple choice. They could use their notes, but not the book or my slides. The students loved it. They got feedback the next day after I graded it. We did that for 2 years, collected data and published about it. But there were 2 issues: It involved a lot of grading, and it wasn’t real time — the instructor needed at least a day to grade before they could give feedback. We wanted something more instant.
Around 2010, we began to see a lot of mobile devices in class, and lot of students on facebook. You can ban that, but we thought if you can’t beat them, join them. We thought: Let’s see if we can prompt them with problems in their cell phone or mobile devices. We looked into what others in academia and industry were doing regarding that. There were some mobile-based approaches and a lot going on with clickers, but the problems were fairly static in nature. We wanted something more interactive where students could actively participate in problem solving. We submitted a grant to NSF to fund a system to do that: to prompt students with interactive problem solving activities during class. We built the Mobile Response System in a year, piloted it for a semester, and then for the past 4 semesters we have been using it. We can prompt students to solve problems interactively, allow students to practice with interactive problems, and provide them with real time feedback. After using MRS in class, students are more engaged and fewer of them are failing — and most importantly, students love the system with associated interactivity during class.
Can you say more about the kinds of problems the students are solving?
For the past 4 semesters, we’ve used MRS in 1 sophomore and 1 junior-level computer science classes: a digital electronics course and an algorithms course. An example of an interactive problem we give is doing a bubble sort visually. If they don’t truly understand the concept, they won’t be able to follow the algorithm to sort the numbers. In another class, we test them on an algorithm called k-map. They have to work the algorithm visually to solve a particular problem. The interactive nature of problem solving allows students to go back and forth through the exercise, reset their attempt, and see consequence of choices they make. Once the student submits their answer, the faculty side of the software immediately grades it and sends back to the student the correct answer, their answer, and the breakdown of the grade.
The system also lets students ask questions anonymously. Some students don’t ask questions in class because of peer pressure or shyness. But with the system, they can submit questions anonymously, and vote for each other’s’ questions, anonymously.
Note that the platform we built isn’t restricted to computer science: It can work in any discipline. An instructor just needs to design the interactive activity they want the student to be involved in, through the application programmer interface (API) we developed. We have a faculty member in chemistry who is using MRS with an interactive activity suitable for his class. We have developed 8 interactive course modules, of which 3 can be used in any disciplines and 5 are specific for computer science and information technology majors.
Do you provide the devices for students?
If a student has an Android device, they can use their own device. Otherwise we provide an Android tablet, which we purchased as part of the grant. We built the system in Android because we have several undergraduates working with us to build the app, and our students learn Java as part of the program. To put it on an iOS, they would have to learn a whole new language, which adds a steep learning curve. So for now, we’re using Android.
At Cyberlearning 2016, did you make connections that might impact on your work?
I showed this work at the CL16 Gallery walk and in NSF Demo Night. There was a lot of interest, and I got good feedback. One of the program directors in CISE talked with me about how to extend it, and we’ve been in touch. For another project, I’m looking into virtual reality (VR). I met a VR company representative from Denmark and also from Google and am in touch with them.
I often get a lot of questions about how we use our MRS system in distance learning. We are only using it in class right now. Our students are also telling us that they want to use it at home to practice. So we have come up with a version they can use at home, though their work isn’t graded. We have 3 different problems or course modules that they can take home. But that is another thing we’re looking at: For distance learning and online courses, why can’t we do exercises more interactively?
What do you see as most unique about your work?
The ability for instructors to more easily make exercises interactive is unique. There’s not much support for faculty to develop things that are interactive. There are simulations that students can go through, but after the simulation ends, if you want to ask the students a question interactively, there’s little support out there. MRS provides support for constructivist learning through visual and interactive problem solving.
Using MRS can also reduce cheating. The way we designed it is that you can give each student a unique question. You can’t look to your neighbor to get the right answer. And we can track what students are doing, including if they’re going out of the app to Wikipedia or Google. One of the patterns coming out is that if you give them a chance to cheat, they’re actually not cheating. They are more involved with the problem because they find it more interactive and engaging. They aren’t going out of the app. They can use their notes to solve the problem, and they do that proficiently.
Another benefit is students being able to ask questions anonymously, and see what others are asking and vote for that. So as the instructor, if I only have 5 minutes to answer questions at the end of the class, I can pick the top few. During class I can also see a new question pop up in real time, and if I have time, I can answer it in class. This practice has spread to other classes that aren’t using this system: we’re now using Google Forms to let students type in questions during class to help shy students. You can’t vote questions up over there, but you can see and add questions.
What kinds of help or support would like from the cyberlearning community?
I’ve gotten a lot of interest at Cyberlearning 2016 and other PI conferences where I present this research. I also presented our work at the 2016 NSF Video Showcase. Afterwards, we exchange emails and discuss our experience. We get lot of feedback about what people like and what they would like to see changed. Since there is a big community of educators in cyberlearning, I’d like more people to see it and try it. We really want it to be easy for faculty and students to use, so we want to propagate it to more university instructors who want to use technology in class, and get their feedback on the system. We want to have a bigger impact.