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February 23, 2006

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Student reponse statistics on professor's laptop
A laptop screen at the front of a classroom shows how students responded to a question asked by the instructor. Numbers represent identities of students who send their answers by wireless clickers similar to TV remote control devices. (Staff photos Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)

Harvard launches wireless classroom

Lessons in the palm of your hand

By William J. Cromie
Harvard News Office

It's not what you'd expect a college classroom to sound like, especially at Harvard. It's as noisy as a singles bar on a Friday night. Students are talking to those beside them and in the rows in front and behind them. Some of the conversations are heated. Many students are clicking what look like TV remote control devices. Some are using cell phones or huddled over laptop computers. The teacher, Eric Mazur, Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics, checks his cell-phone screen to see how the students are doing.

It seems more like chaos than class. But Mazur sees this as the classroom of the future, where students teach one another with the help of wireless technology.

"I cannot make people learn," he says. "Learning is a hard process. Students have to do it by themselves. I see myself as an available and encouraging coach. If I can use technology to facilitate that role, I think it's marvelous."

The technology he talks about includes a Web site that students can access, in class or outside, with wireless devices such as cell phones, laptops, and personal digital assistants. On the screens are questions that Mazur expects only about half of them can answer. Those questions provoke animated discussions.

The questions are shaped by misconceptions that Mazur looks for and then corrects. The students learn the right answers from one another.

Mazur wants students to learn in the classroom, instead of spending their time writing in notebooks. With wireless communication, teachers will not be confined to the front of the class, tied to a blackboards and slide projectors. "That is what classrooms will be like in 2010," he predicts.

Physics 1b at Harvard is not quite there yet. The University does not require students to buy Web-enabled cell phones or laptops, so those who don't have them use remote control "clickers" to register their answers on screens at the front of the room.

"We developed a hybrid system that lets us have a wireless classroom in 2006 instead of waiting until 2010 when all students will carry wireless devices with them," Mazur says.

Harvard started using clickers in 1998. Now the infrared gadgets are used in colleges all over the world in courses ranging from physics and economics to art and French drama. That's a path Mazur sees cell phones and laptops following.

students with Professor Mazur
Chelsey Forbess '07 (left) and Jonathan Paul '07 discuss a question about physics posed on a computer screen with Professor Eric Mazur. They can answer the question via wireless devices and with the help of their classmates.

Clickers click in class

Mazur has been doing research and teaching physics to Harvard undergraduates since 1984. In 1991, he decided to go beyond blackboard talk and impersonal exams and to teach interactively. "I switched from teaching by telling to teaching by questioning," he says. "I used a show of hands, flash cards, anything I could think of to immediately find out what students had learned or thought they had learned."

By 1993, Mazur began taking advantage of available technology. With support from the National Science Foundation, he divided his students into small groups, each of which had a handheld, wired computer.

His students used the computers to answer questions about what he had just taught them, or thought that he taught them. The tactic revealed how much his students didn't know.

"I suddenly realized that many students didn't understand what I had just told them," he recalls. "I knew immediately that I would have to spend more time explaining that material. Before, I would have gone on to the next topic and increased the number of students that I left behind.

Using Web-enabled cell phones, teachers can immediately determine how many students correctly answer their questions.

"In addition, the technology freed me to walk around and talk to students. It personalized the class for me and for them."

But equipment maintenance proved to be expensive and time-consuming. Replacement of batteries and cables and network problems made the setup "too cumbersome and difficult to scale-up," he recalls.

In 1998, Mazur adopted a so-called "personal response system," using clickers that flash beams of infrared light at sensors around the room. A computer that receives the information allows him to determine how many students are right. He can receive that information on his cell phone.

Although use of clickers has expanded beyond all expectations, they have disadvantages. "You lose the ability to pose anything but multiple-choice questions," Mazur points out.

Getting the right answers

The next step was to take advantage of a technology many college students use daily to connect wirelessly to Web sites and one another. Why not create a site that questions them about what Mazur wants them to understand? This prelude to "the classroom of the future" began this term, with 35 out of 160 students using wireless electronic devices and the rest answering by clicker.

In a recent class, about a third of the students gave wrong answers to a question. Mazur called a short break, and the class buzzed with, "What answer did you get?"

"Students who are right can clear up misconceptions the others have," he notes. Not only can a student teach another, he or she can learn more effectively by trying to explain, by reinforcing his or her own knowledge. The second time around, most of the class gave the right answer.

"Standing in front of a class, I have no idea what conceptual difficulties a student faces," Mazur admits. "When you understand the material as well as I do, it's hard to figure out what students don't get, or why they don't get it. The solution is to give students the opportunity to teach each other. And technology helps me do this, to have the classroom in the palm of my hand."

Students praise the interactivity, according to a quick poll following one session. "After class, I can go to the Web site and refer back to the questions," said one senior. "That's helpful."

A pre-med student noted that interaction makes the class more congenial. "Some course you take, there's more competition and hostility than you want," she noted.

Senior Ingrid Brinkman said that the interaction was helpful but doubted that the technology itself aided her learning.

Mazur agrees completely. "Teaching is more important than technology," he says. "But the technology promotes interaction that makes learning more effective."

He doesn't, however, look forward to students' evaluation of him at the end of the semester. "When they critique my teaching, some of them will probably say, 'Professor Mazur didn't teach us anything, we had to learn it all on our own.' That'll be perfectly all right with me."

Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College