At our Texas CoSN clinic session today on “hot technologies” for K-12 schools, Greg Veal of Lewisville ISD discussed use of Discourse Software (commercially sold by ETS) for helping students remain engaged in class and providing immediate feedback to the teacher about what students are thinking and understanding. (He also talked about other student response system solutions.) Unfortunately, Discourse software licenses are pretty expensive, especially if a school district is wanting to buy them for LOTS of students. According to the ETS Discourse website:

Instructors can use the Discourse tool for teaching and formative assessment. With this instructional delivery and assessment platform, teachers can monitor each student’s learning and progress as it occurs. In teaching a lesson with the Discourse tool, each student uses a computer to respond to every question and activity. Teachers monitor each student’s response, keystroke by keystroke, on your computer. The Discourse tool gives teachers 100 percent student participation and real-time assessment. It allows teachers to “look over each child’s shoulder” and gain unparalleled insight into each student’s comprehension.

My question to Greg was if he had tried the open source variant of Discourse software– and he along with others attending the session wanted to know what that software program was. I knew I had used by social bookmarks at some point in the last year to save a website to that software product– and sure enough, with a little digging tonight I found it in my EdTechSoftware bookmarks. I told the participants that I’d post the link on my blog, so that is the purpose of this post!

The open source software program is ETH Lecture Communicator, and it looks a lot like Discourse except it is free and multi-platform. According to the project website:

ETH Lecture Communicator is a tool to improve the interaction in the classroom between instructor and students. The system is based on a network infrastructure (e.g., a Wireless LAN) and portable computers brought to class. The tool enables the instructor to create and carry out in-class online-assessments and facilitates organized instant communication for big classes. Online-assessments can be constructed from questions of various types (e.g., multiple choice quizzes, item rating, item matching, lickert-scale, free text). The student answers are processed automatically whenever possible and a result summary is made available to the instructor. Students can ask content-related questions. Fellow students have then the possibility rate such questions (i.e., to indicate if they are also interested in the question or not). The instructor sees the student questions in order of priority and can first answer those that interest a high number of students. The tool is intended to improve the overall quality of a lecture by providing continuous feedback to the instructor about the students’ understanding of the material. It also motivates the students for more interactivity and thus fosters active learning.

Do you have any experience using ETH Lecture Communicator, or know of anyone or a school system that has? According to the website the software is being “developed at the Laboratory for Software Technology of ETH Zurich, Switzerland.” I don’t recall how I found this software program in the first place, but I’m glad I saved it in my social bookmarks! Without social bookmarks and my blog, I think I would remember much less and be able to find/locate upon request far less! 🙂

As a side note, I was interested to see tonight that a simple Google keyword search for “discourse software” (without quotes) yielded the ETS discourse software site first, and my personal homepage notes from NECC 2003 on discourse software second out of over 16 million hits. Interesting, and pretty remarkable. 🙂

While no software program is a “silver bullet” for the challenges of teaching, I think student response software– especially software like Discourse and ETH Lecture Communicator that permit open ended answers, should be widely used everywhere students and teachers are in 1:1 settings. The price is right (free) and so is the pedagogical model: one of interactivity and conversation.

If you end up using either of these software tools, or know of others like them, I would love to know the results and your perceptions of them as well as recommendations for best practice use.

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  • Richard Sheldon

    I have been looking at Discourse, but can not find a price for it. I then found this page and ETH Communicator which looks really interesting. I have two questions which you might be able to answer for me.
    1. How much does Discourse cost?
    2. With ETH Communicator, is is possible for teachers and students to enter mathematical notation?
    Any information that you could send me would be much appreciated.

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