A quartet of Penn freshmen may have changed the dynamic of large lecture classes with the push of a button.
During last semester’s PennApps hackathon, Ben Hsu, Alex Sands, Ajay Patel, and Gagan Gupta—all students in the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology—developed software for iPhones that has the potential to replace clickers in the classroom. Their portal, LoudCrowd, allows professors to take attendance and enables students to indicate when they are confused and submit questions mid-lecture.
The four students became fast friends after learning of their mutual interest in application software development, and agreed to team up for PennApps. A brainstorming session the day before the competition sparked the idea of addressing a problem that they had in a Computer and Information Science class—the course required the purchase of expensive, low-tech clickers.
“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be so much better if we could just use our phone to answer the clicker questions that the professor sent us?’” Hsu says.
After 40 hours of coding during the hackathon, the team completed a rough prototype of LoudCrowd, which they refined by the end of the fall semester. As a result of the product’s marketability, the team was rewarded with one of the five positions in the eight-week PennApps Accelerator program, which is designed to help competitors launch start-up companies.
With guidance from an Accelerator mentor and a $1,000 grant, the team has successfully piloted LoudCrowd in three classrooms and one student club so far this semester, with a total of 600 users.
One of the first faculty test-drivers is Jane Willenbring, an assistant professor in the Department of the Earth and Environmental Science in the School of Arts & Sciences. Using the app, she can ask her students a question while she is teaching and report the results of the “quiz” to the class in a bar graph form.
“If we are really serious about having a diverse student population in terms of income, then we have to cut down on extra costs such as $60 clickers,” she says.
In addition to the Apple app, the developers created a web-based platform and are working on allowing access to non-smartphones. Sands says they intend to implement an expanded pilot next semester with more universities in the Philadelphia area.
Originally published on February 20, 2014