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Software created by alumni personalizes large lectures

April 14, 2013

MSU students are no strangers to large lectures.

Many classes on campus have enrollments in the hundreds, so keeping all of those students involved and engaged can be a daunting task. But two alumni are accepting the challenge.

John Pytel and Dave Mulder are the co-founders of GoSoapBox, a company whose software is designed to make large classrooms more interactive.

Using the software, students can indicate when they are confused by the lecture material, instructors can administer quizzes and polls, and the class can provide anonymous feedback to teacher questions.

“Many of the classes at MSU use hardware-based response systems. They require you to purchase that external device,” Pytel said, referring to iClicker-like devices. “We’ve optimized that concept to work with mobile devices. (The software) is compatible with anything with a web browser.”

Pytel said the initial concept was simple.

“Dave (Mulder) came up with the original idea — a simple platform that would allow students to ask questions and vote for questions they like,” Pytel said. “It came out of the observation that in these large lecture halls, no one ever wanted to ask a question.”

GoSoapBox was launched in February 2012. To date, the app has been used by more than 70,000 students and teachers in 100 countries.

“We have seen great adoption of the product,” Pytel said. “Most new users come from referrals, teachers sharing this with their colleagues.”

Associate professor of communication Steve McCornack teaches one of the largest classes at MSU, COM 225: An Introduction to Interpersonal Communication. This semester, 591 students are enrolled in the lecture. McCornack recognizes the contradiction of class subject and size.

“(Teaching the class) seems very natural, ” McCornack said. “On the other hand there is this irony. We are talking about interpersonal relationships, and it’s a mass lecture.”

McCornack was skeptical about the necessity of software like GoSoapBox.

“If you’re talking about a math or science class, it could be really helpful,” McCornack said. “In my class, I’d see it as a detriment.”

When technology is introduced into his classes, McCornack notes a difference in the atmosphere of the classroom.

“What does that do to the relationship between me and you?” he asked rhetorically. “It puts a device between us. It mediates (the experience). The class as a whole perceives it as a theater event and not an interaction.”

Journalism and political science freshman Kit Kuhne recognizes the value of such software in the right context.

“For students who are not currently participating, it would be really nice,” Kuhne said. “The software would be good for certain types of classes, not all, but some.”

GoSoapBox is offering a free semester-long trial of their service to MSU professors. Professors can sign up at gosoapbox.com using an @msu.edu email address to receive the free trial.

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