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At Ryerson University, a poli sci prof uses Top Hat to promote engaging, inclusive discussion in a large-format class
Professor Patrice Dutil spent 20 years working in government, the non-profit sector, and with associations until he joined Ryerson University in downtown Toronto in 2006 to teach public administration and political science. “No matter what my class size, I always emphasize that students must learn how to debate, and how to communicate their point of view articulately,” says Dutil. “Political science is based on argument and that’s a skill that will serve students no matter where they land after graduation.”
Classes at Ryerson are typically segmented into large blocks of time, and Dutil teaches both two-hour and three-hour lectures. “It’s a huge challenge to keep students interested and alive for that long, no matter how dedicated they are,” he says. “So I use Top Hat to provoke discussion, and for debating purposes. I’ll break up the lecture with lots of questions deployed through Top Hat, and then challenge students on why they answered the way they did. It gives them the chance to pause and think a little bit. And they love seeing how everyone answered the question, and being part of the discussion that happens afterward. If I pose a fact-based question, and a fraction of the class gets it right, there’s a howl in the audience. For me, it’s wonderful to hear that sense of pride.”
Today, Top Hat–related activities in the classroom count for 10 percent of his students’ final grades in all his courses, and it’s all linked to participation. “Listen, I understand why a lot of professors are resistant to bringing technology into the classroom, or are even intimidated by it,” says Dutil. “There’s nothing worse than fumbling in front of a class. The seconds feel like hours.” Dutil readily admits that he’s no digital native (he bought his first personal smartphone in 2016), but he’s found Top Hat’s classroom engagement app easy to use. And more importantly he knows his students are always on their phones, and he needs to meet them there.
“I may be older, but I’m not naïve. No matter what I did, there was always at least one-quarter of students not paying any attention to what I was saying, and focused on their phones. We’re dealing with students who have incredibly short attention spans. Add to that, usually a quarter of the class doesn’t even bother to show up.” Attendance can’t be factored into the students’ final grade, according to department policy, but participation is, and Top Hat allows Dutil to see exactly who is participating in class.
“Top Hat makes my lectures more provocative, more dynamic and more effective, and that’s why I use it.“
“The students who perform best always tell me this: the key to success is attending all the lectures and all the tutorials,” says Dutil. “I’m here to educate students, not to entertain them. But Top Hat makes my lectures more provocative, more dynamic and more effective, and that’s why I use it. If engaging lectures can get students to class more often, I’m setting them on the path to good outcomes.”