Most professors consider text messaging in class range from rude to downright intolerable, but in physics professor Oliver Baker’s class last semester it was not only acceptable, but encouraged.
Students enrolled in Physics 150 this past fall had the option of using zuku, a new technology that allows students to ask and answer questions in class via anonymous text messages to a Web site accessible to the professor. After modifying the product based on feedback from Baker this fall, zuku is preparing to launch in large lecture courses at Yale and beyond and as a tool in corporate meetings, speaking engagements and political campaigns.
Co-Founder and President of zuku Patrick Barber said he started working on the project fourteen months ago after realizing during an especially long conference that he wanted to ask a question, but did not feel like raising his hand. As he watched the audience fiddle with their blackberries, he considered the possibility of using that technology as a vehicle for anonymous, instantaneous feedback to facilitate interactions between speakers and spectators in conferences, corporate meetings and education.
“It made perfect sense to put zuku into a classroom setting,” Barber said. “In any large class it is not easy to ask a question, a potentially embarrassing question … the main feature of zuku is its anonymity.”
Based in Madison, Conn., zuku made its debut during a pilot program at Yale after Baker heard of the new technology through other professors in the physics department and contacted Barber. Baker said he sees zuku as an alternative to the clickers used in large lecture classes and said he could see it easily incorporated into other types of classes on campus.
Baker utilized the technology to assess how well students understood the material with quick multiple-choice problems. In seconds, the zuku Web site provided Baker with a distribution of answers so he could see whether his students had a good grasp of the subject or needed more explanation.
“Any large enrollment class could benefit from zuku as a way to get real time feedback from students that doesn’t put them on the spot,” Baker said.
Zuku can also be used to text anonymous questions before or during class that a professor can answer either online, in an individual reply or in subsequent lectures, but students said they rarely took the extra time or initiative to utilize this feature.
While zuku was not implemented in Physics 151 this spring due to lack of wireless internet access in the scheduled classroom, Baker said a number of students who had taken Physics 150 requested the technology and he said he plans to use it again in the future. He and Barber have also discussed introducing zuku to other members of the department for use in their large lecture courses.
For both Baker and Barber, using zuku in Physics 150 was a learning experience. Barber made several changes to the system after the course, including adding a feature that instantly informs students whether or not their multiple-choice answers are correct. Baker said he also suggested adding the capacity to display figures with the questions, a feature that would be especially useful for conveying physics diagrams.
Nick Bayless ’10, a student in the class, felt the biggest problem with the system was a lack of clarity in Baker’s explanation of how to use the program.
“The class attendance averaged about 100 people and only 30 were usually answering,” Bayless said. “Maybe people were just not paying attention, but he also explained it in a complex way … it would have been easier to participate if he told us in more detail how to use it.”
Bayless is a staff photographer for the News.
But Baker said that most trouble with the technology came merely from his lack of experience, and was not indicative of problems with the system itself.
Barber said zuku is still working out some kinks but is preparing to launch in a variety of venues, including other institutions of higher education. Barber has also been in touch with Blue State Digital, a Boston-based communications firm working on Barack Obama’s campaign that is considering using the product to reach out to younger voters and make political speeches and rallies more responsive to individual questions and concerns.
“Blue State had seen other texting applications but not with the same intent — they were aimed at getting cellphone numbers to reach out and contact people,” Barber said. “With zuku, people can use their cell to just ask questions spontaneously. It enables the speaker to find out what people are really thinking and actually respond.”
Barber said zuku is being used this term in a lecture at Claremont McKenna College. Last week, Harvard discussed implementing the system in science and social science classes, he said.