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Toward a Vision of a Smart Classroom

by Dr. Bhaskaran Raman on May 30, 2017

Have you imagined classrooms of the future, how they would look?  Today, despite the smart-device revolution and near-ubiquitous networks, technology is viewed as a distraction in a classroom, and even more so in an exam-room.  Having taught several classes of size 100+ at IIT Bombay, I believe that technology can be a positive enabler in a smart classroom.  Future classrooms should have enhanced interactivity, and enriched communication through the correct use of technology.  Students should be able to collaborate with one another, and teachers should be able to interact better with students, get feedback on their understanding, and also conduct exams easily.  The path to this vision lies in the effective use of the smart-phones already lying in the students’ pockets, to build a smart classroom.

We have conceptualized several applications in this direction.  The applications below are in different stages of development: some in early prototypes, some well tested and used.

SAFE (Smart, Authenticated, Fast Exams):  We have built SAFE, a system which leverages students' smart devices to conduct objective exams in a proctored setting. Being electronic, SAFE avoids the overheads of printing question or answer papers, distributing them in the classroom, collecting them back, and manually correcting them. The operation of SAFE is depicted in the animated gif below.

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SAFE saves immense time and resources for the teacher. Importantly, as the name suggests, SAFE is safe: we employ a whole host of mechanisms to ensure the integrity of the exam, ensuring that students do not use the electronic means to cheat. The student will be able to use the device only for the intended purpose during the exam: SAFE prevents other uses of the device, including Internet access, chat, messaging, voice calls, referring to documents stored in the device, etc.  We have conducted over 150 quizzes and exams in over a dozen courses at IITB, over the last 1.5 years.

A smart clicker: Clicker is a technology which can be used for classroom interaction, to pose short questions during the course of a lecture. This would engage students interactively, as well as provide instant feedback to the instructor on whether the students are following the topic. Clicker as a teaching tool is well known in pedagogy. While there are specialized hardware clickers available, they are not cost-effective to procure and maintain.  A smart-phone app based clicker is not only easy to maintain, it also allows a richer set of questions, such as numeric or text-based.

File sharing: Teachers sometimes have to share a file (slides, documents, videos, web pages etc.) in a classroom setting before class work can proceed.  Encouraging group-learning would also lead to sharing of data among student peers during the class.  Such transfer of data has to happen over WiFi since classrooms don't often have wired access.  Achieving this quickly, efficiently, and reliably can be a technical challenge in large classes, as several tens of devices have to share a common WiFi channel.  Handling various devices’ power-save modes poses an additional challenge as well.

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App to handle doubts: Today, large classes are the bane of effective questioning and interaction.  A student may have a doubt in class, but opportunities to pose questions can be rare in a large class.  We envision an app to connect students with one another as well as with the teacher, to clarify doubts and questions during a class. Students can ask and manage doubts/queries, in a Quora like system, in a classroom setting. This will include features such as upvote/downvote, edit, delete, mark-as-answered, logging, etc.

Mic app: If a teacher is teaching a class of 100-200 students, it is typically in a large room with only one mic, for the teacher. This is an additional factor which dissuades students from asking questions: even if there are extra mics available for students, passing them around can be cumbersome.  A specialized mic system would be unnecessary, if only we can use the mic built into each students’ smart-phone. In an app for this context, we will setup a quick VoIP call between the student's phone and the instructor's phone (connected to a speaker), and thus mimic a conventional mic system.

Challenges: The vision of the smart classroom is critically dependent on availability of a highly reliable and high performance Wi-Fi solution. The system should be able to support several hundred student devices simultaneously in each classroom. Aside from delivering high throughput, WiFi Access Points should also minimize application response time during peak usage intervals. Finally, the system must be reliable. Even short downtimes during examination hour is unacceptable. In our experience, controller-based WiFi installations do not scale very well, leading to WiFi bottlenecks and annoying delays during the classroom hour.

We have been actively collaborating with Mojo Networks for two years to build a smart classroom of the future. We have successfully used different Mojo WiFi access points to conduct examinations and quizzes, even in classrooms with over 200 student devices.

We are exploring solutions to help us better manage traffic at the link/IP layer of the Access Point to further scale the WiFi installation. We are also working on features to allow stand-alone operation, where part of the server software runs at the Access Point itself, without having to depend on backhaul Internet connectivity to a cloud-based server. Such a solution will be of use in situations where power and/or Internet outages are common; such robustness will be especially of use for the SAFE exam app, where such outages should not be allowed to disrupt an ongoing exam.

Dr. Bhaskaran Raman is Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. He teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in wireless networks, computer networks and protocols,
Internet-based distributed systems, and operating systems. He received his PhD in Computer Science from University of California at Berkeley.

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Topics: Wireless security, WiFi, Cloud Managed, higher education, WLAN, featured