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Innovative instruction

By Daniel Miller

May 9, 2005 9:00 p.m.

Think of all the “stupid” questions students never
ask in class.

Now, imagine a tool that allows students to anonymously interact
with their professors during class, so that there is no fear of a
stupid question.

Electrical engineering Professor William Kaiser did just that,
and then he developed that tool ““ Individualized Interactive
Instruction, or 3I.

3I is a free software program that connects students to their
professors via laptops equipped with wireless Internet
connections.

Using the software, students solve problems and are also able to
ask the professor questions, while the professor is able to monitor
students’ keystrokes in real time.

This allows the instructor to pinpoint areas of deficiency for
students, and offers an anonymous forum for students when they are
stumped, which Kaiser and his students say enhances the learning
environment.

3I is modeled after a similar program Kaiser has used during his
weekly “town hall” office hours, which accommodate up
to 50 students.

“I’ve always felt as a professor that I
haven’t been able to act with a lot feedback,” Kaiser
said. “For example, I might interpret a quiet group as bored,
but it could be because I am going too fast in the
lecture.”

On April 20, Kaiser was presented with the 2005 Brian P.
Copenhaver award for faculty who promote innovation in teaching
with technology.

Kaiser said the award should be shared with his associates who
worked on and programmed 3I ““ Greg Chung, a senior research
associate in the National Center for Research on Evaluation,
Standards and Student Testing and engineering students Lawrence Au,
Andre Encarnacao and Paul Espinosa.

Located at UCLA, the National Center for Research on Evaluation,
Standards and Student Testing aims to improve the quality of
eduction in the United States primarily by studying how students
learn and educational testing methods.

Chung became involved in the development of 3I to study how
students learn using the software and said 3I’s potential
success lies in the simplicity of its design and ease of use.

“The technology is simple and it makes sense,” Chung
said. “I think it will help support large classes where
instruction is really lecture-based.”

In Kaiser’s Electrical Engineering 10 class last quarter,
students used the Educational Testing Service’s Discourse,
which is similar to 3I.

While Kaiser was pleased with the results of using Discourse, he
said the software was expensive, and decided it would be best to
develop his own version, which was made possible by funding and a
donation of 90 laptops from Hewlett-Packard.

Kaiser said it was important for the software to be free and
open-source, making code available to be modified to fit
users’ needs. 3I is very similar to Discourse, but will cost
nothing for other professors to use.

“We will be saving UCLA money by making it free,”
said Encarnacao, a third-year computer science and engineering
student.

Espinosa, also a third-year computer science and engineering
student, said he looks forward to the implementation of 3I later
this summer.

“Someday kids will be using this software and I’m
looking forward to that,” Espinosa said. “I’ve
told a few friends who may use it in class and they thought it was
pretty cool.”

For the three students, designing 3I along with Kaiser was an
invaluable experience. The students said they are gaining
experience with something they eventually want to do for a
living.

“It’s something that I’ve been waiting to do
instead of doing homework assignments,” Espinosa said.
“I get to do something that gets to be used in real
life.”

The students lauded Kaiser as a progressive professor who has
given them a great deal of freedom in designing the software.

“I had Kaiser as an undergraduate and now he’s my
adviser ““ I’ve known him to always be very
forward-thinking when it comes to technology,” said Au, a
first-year electrical engineering graduate student.

Kaiser said his town hall meetings were not compulsory, but were
well-attended. Kaiser said students seemed to appreciate that the
software allowed for a level of anonymity, and this sentiment was
echoed by students who attended the meetings.

“It allowed people to ask questions when they normally
would keep silent, and allowed people to answer the problems posed
without fear of embarrassment of giving a wrong answer,” said
Adam Wright, a second-year computer science and engineering student
who was in Kaiser’s class last quarter.

Wright said he believes that most university classes will use a
system like 3I in the future, which is in line with Kaiser’s
thinking.

Kaiser said 3I could easily be implemented not only in other
engineering classes, but in many other disciplines, from
mathematics to the social sciences.

“It’s not only the benefits for the students but
there is a benefit for the instructor as far as reshaping the
quality of the instruction,” Kaiser said. “Students
might find that their professor is becoming more
effective.”

Kaiser also said the system could eventually work on tablet
computers or PDAs and did not rule out implementing text messaging
with cell phones.

Chung conducted a survey of students who used Discourse and
found that the software has had a positive impact on student
learning, and showed that using the software in the town-hall
setting proved to be more effective than one-on-one office
hours.

“Instead of goofing off or reading the newspaper like they
would in typical discussion sections, students are actually very
engaged,” Chung said. “There is almost total silence in
class.”

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