Software bridges the gap between class & home

Student-led project revamps pre-class preparation and in-class agenda, connecting students and professors

Jawwad Siddiqui, a co-creator of SharpScholar.
Jawwad Siddiqui, a co-creator of SharpScholar.
Photo: 
A screenshot of the SharpScholar interface.
A screenshot of the SharpScholar interface.
Photo: 

Skipping class and downloading lecture slides instead might not cut it when professors use SharpScholar, a student-designed educational software.

In 2013, three students — Jawwad Siddiqui, Comm ’15; Amin Nikdel, CompSci ’14; and Tejas Mehta from the University of Toronto (U of T) — created the original software to enhance student-professor communication, and have made improvements since.

Students using SharpScholar progress through a lesson on their own before class, during which their knowledge of concepts is tested and they’re able to ask questions anonymously about course content.

Professors, who are provided with data about student comprehension and the percentage of students who completed pre-lesson preparation, can then decide to tailor their in-person lectures by focusing on a particular concept that many students had trouble with, or by moving on to something more difficult.

“Then there’s a real-time polling component of SharpScholar, similar to iClickers but we’re very much focused on web devices or laptops, just quickly answer it and that consensus goes to professor,” Siddiqui said, adding that the combination of “pre-class preparation” and “in-class polling” gives the professor an overview of student learning.

“And for the student too — for example, I, before class, knew I wasn’t understanding linear equations, but in class when I solved the problem, I answered it right.”

He said 20 Queen’s professors currently use SharpScholar, and other Canadian universities that use it include Western University, Ryerson University, Waterloo University and McGill University.

Siddiqui said while going to school used to be the sole means of acquiring information, the Internet has changed this structure — and schools haven’t caught up. Students are now able to gain knowledge outside the classroom by way of their own research, and SharpScholar helps to bridge the “communication gap” between students and professors.

Since the lecture content with this software is much more student-driven, he said, it benefits those individuals that are engaged in the class and makes those who aren’t “realize how they’re missing out”.

“Right now, the problem is no one really feels missed out because a) if they were absent, they’re like, ‘okay, I’ll get lecture notes off of someone, or I’ll Google it’; b) if they were in class, they’re like, ‘even if I don’t pay attention, lecture slides are still there’,” he said.

He said the team’s short-term vision involves facilitating collaboration amongst professors through the sharing of innovative practices.

“Before right now, the way teachers innovate is Teaching and Learning Centre at each of the universities … what we want to be is the teaching and learning offices for all of, of course Canada, but globally as well,” Siddiqui said.

After graduating this year, Siddiqui plans to continue working on the software with Nikdel and Mehta in Toronto.

Jim Hamilton is an adjunct lecturer in the School of Business who used SharpScholar in Fall 2014 for MBAS 837, a course about Sales Management.

He told The Journal via email that the software has changed the course and his interaction with students by providing an “[o]pportunity to assess comprehension and to identify areas of concern prior to [the] start of class”, adding that students “[a]ppreciate the opportunity to engage before the class and to see how their feedback improved the class experience”.

Kevin Sanderson, a student using SharpScholar for CISC 332, told The Journal via email that the software has “a lot of potential” and “with some small design changes [it] would be a great application to help decide what to cover during lectures”.

Sanderson, CompSci ’15, cited two drawbacks of the software in the “Understanding meter” — which gauges students’ comprehension of course concepts — and the questions that track pre-class understanding of concepts. In regards to the latter, he said questions could not be dismissed without submitting a response.

“[I]f you continue moving through slides you might prompt another question that will appear after submitting an answer to the previous question, which is frustrating because your focus is taken away from the material and placed on solely the question which may be based on a slide you are now past,” he said.

He added that the software has “ensured” that he previews lecture material and that it “helps narrow down what is or isn’t understood”.

“We waste less time in class as we touch on material everyone understood and spend more of our time on content that wasn’t perceived well, given the feedback the professor received from SharpScholar,” Sanderson said.

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