I used the platform TopHat during my tutorial for 1B06 – “What on Earth Is Religion?,” a two-term course offered by McMaster University’s Department of Religious Studies. TopHat is a “comprehensive teaching platform” that helps instructors to make the classroom more interactive with a suite of integrated digital tools. The course instructor, Philippa Carter, gave this platform a trial run in the main lecture, and I decided to do the same in my tutorial of forty students so I could learn more about it and the advantages and disadvantages of using technology in the classroom. Now that the course is complete and the grades are submitted, I wanted to reflect on what the platform did and didn’t do, and how it informed my teaching philosophy and my approach to digital pedagogy.
Concern: Is it really comprehensive?
When I began using TopHat, my biggest question was just what a “comprehensive teaching platform” is. The claim to be comprehensive sets the bar very high. Does this platform really cover all exigencies of the classroom? After exploring TopHat, it was apparent that it is really a complement of tools that facilitates certain aspects of classroom administration and communication. The tasks that I perform in an introductory religious studies tutorial are not highly technical or demanding, but I was only able perform a handful of them using TopHat with limited success. However, I ultimately had to rely on other platforms for essential classroom tasks. For example, I could not substitute or integrate TopHat with our course management system, Avenue to Learn, to record marks, and I had to use platforms such as PowerPoint and Prezi to present content. Yet, despite TopHat’s limitations, I was able to use it for taking attendance, posing questions to my tutorial members, and facilitating group work both in and out of the classroom.
Initially I was very happy with the attendance function, which allows students to indicate that they are present by texting a code to a TopHat phone number or by entering the code on the TopHat app or website using a computer, tablet, or other wifi-capable device. Then that data could be exported into a comma separated values file (.csv) for importing into Excel. I regularly exported the attendance data because several of my students did not purchase a subscription to TopHat, so I had to enter their marks manually. I appreciated this tool because I could record attendance data without the time-consuming process of taking a roll-call or without the hassle of passing around a sheet of paper and collating the data after each tutorial.
However, after the first term I stopped using this function. It became apparent that students would text the code to friends who were skipping tutorials so that they could log their attendance dishonestly, even though the window for logging attendance was short—usually a couple minutes. Additionally, if students came in late, they had to be manually logged, which made it somewhat less convenient than directing late students to a sign-in sheet. There were also several occasions where students would contest their absences by claiming technical difficulties—claims that are difficult to verify. As a result, I was not getting accurate attendance data for each class. The attendance was only as good as the student’s honesty, memory, and wi-fi connection.
I also noticed that I was not connecting with the students as well as I felt I should. I had taken for granted how important it is to say each student’s name and make eye contact with them—a basic level of engagement that provides a foundation for further interactions, especially with students who are less prone to talk in class or stop in for office hours. So despite the great convenience of the TopHat attendance tool, I took roll-calls for the second half of the course, and, as a result, I had more accurate attendance data and more consistent familiarity with each of my students.
Another feature that I used several times is the “Question” function. This feature enabled me to pose a question to the tutorial, which they could answer on their devices. There are several question formats from which to choose, including word answer, matching, multiple choice, among others. I only used word answers because I was not testing my student’s knowledge—I was trying to facilitate discussion. The questions can be assigned points for correct answers, which are tabulated in the TopHat gradebook; however, I preferred to use questions as a low-stakes means of having students to interact with course topics, so no points were assigned. The students’ answers can be opened for the entire class, so that everyone’s answer is visible to their classmates on their devices and on the projector display in the classroom. After introducing the topic, I would pose a question, have the tutorial break into small groups to discuss and respond, and then we would come back together to discuss the results. At first I was concerned that students would find the questions function to be too gimmicky, but it was well received. It took the place of having groups write responses on the blackboard, only without digging around for extra pieces of chalk or deciphering poor handwriting scrawled on dirty chalkboards. TopHat made this familiar approach to discussing topics more streamlined and easier to document.
A third feature that I used was the “discussions” function. This feature was useful for managing group work throughout the year. My tutorial had a group project on which they collaborated throughout both terms of the course that was broken into two parts: a proposal and the final project. Apart from the initial proposal, there were no other built-in opportunities for feedback, so I used the discussion function to prompt the groups for details about their projects and their progress throughout both terms. I made these responses visible only to myself, and left the discussions open throughout the week so that groups could work on them together outside of the tutorial. These discussions provided a valuable set of a data to draw upon when I calculated the final participation grades—I had both quantitative attendance data and qualitative records of what each of the tutorial members did in their groups.
TopHat is a useful suite of tools that was mostly helpful for engaging students in my tutorial and for facilitating group work outside of the classroom. Although the attendance feature saves time, it is not foolproof, and unscrupulous students can easily take advantage of the system. While TopHat is a valuable set of tools, it is far from comprehensive, and I had to supplement it with other platforms, such as PowerPoint and Avenue to Learn (our course management system). The most problematic aspect of TopHat is that it did not integrate into Avenue, which is where attendance marks and participation marks ultimately needed to be recorded. I could collect data on the completion of certain activities by each student and their attendance, but there was no simple way to transpose them into another system. In sum, there are some promising aspects of TopHat that I would like to see integrated into a more comprehensive course management system, but as a stand-alone platform, it was primarily useful for eliciting and recording student feedback.
As regards digital pedagogy, my experience with TopHat is an example of how digital tools are only good insofar as they can work in tandem with others. While there were many innovative features of TopHat that I did not describe in this review, they could not be easily implemented without a way to integrate them into the course management system. Furthermore, the attendance feature is an example of how technology in the classroom can save time, but at the cost of creating distance between the instructor and the students. In contrast, the questions and discussions functions are examples of how digital tools can make classroom participation easier and provide instructors with a record of what happened in the classroom. In other words, digital tools like TopHat have the potential both to create barriers and to break them down. It falls upon the instructor to recognize how digital tools are playing out in their learning environment and to set aside those that do not make a substantial contribution.