TEACHING AT PITT: Integrating Top Hat and Collaborate in your teaching

By Joe Horne

Two new educational teJoe Hornechnologies — Top Hat and Collaborate — are available to Pitt faculty and students starting this semester – and both of these technologies are free to use. This article gives you a brief overview of what these technologies can do, and where you can get more information about what they might bring to your learning environment as well as assistance integrating them in your course.

Both technologies center around opening new modes of communication, connection and collaboration between you and your students — and who doesn’t want more of that?

If you’ve been thinking about using a Student Response System (SRS) or “clickers” in your course, Pitt now has an institution-wide agreement that gives Pitt students and faculty free use of Top Hat — already the most widely used clicker-system on campus.

Effective immediately, neither Pitt students nor faculty have to pay an individual yearly fee to use the Top Hat system. No one is required to purchase a separate device or clicker to use either. Students just need to download the free app to their phone, tablet or laptop — or simply use Top Hat via their browser.

For faculty members who are already using another free or fee-based system in their course, it’s probably time to consider looking at the Top Hat system. By using the Top Hat system, your students will no longer have to spend money on expensive devices or annual contracts for use. If you are interested in moving to the Top Hat platform, contact the Teaching Center at teaching@pitt.edu to get assistance migrating from your current platform to Top Hat.

Are clickers right for you?

Should you even use clickers at all? It depends. It’s never a good idea to integrate a technology for the sake of technology. Instead, look at the challenges you face in your class.

  • Do you have a class with low participation?
  • Do you have a class where students rarely speak up, almost never ask questions, and stare blankly at you when you ask them questions?
  • Would your class discussions benefit from an anonymous way to respond to questions around difficult topics?
  • Do you need a motivator to get students to attend class?
  • Would it be helpful to you to see in real time how well students understand certain topics before moving to the next topic?

Clickers were once seen as a logical tool for managing large enrollment courses, but when the technology is free, it can offer many useful pedagogical possibilities in small and medium-sized classes. Some studies suggest that some students who use response technologies in class may become distracted, so make sure you are integrating these thoughtfully. Consider talking to a teaching consultant to create the best learning experience for your students.

Let’s Collaborate

Collaborate has been around for more than a decade. It’s essentially a webinar tool built exclusively for the purpose of education. It does all the things that tools like Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting and Zoom can do, and also offers a handful of unique teaching features that appeal to many faculty.

A tool like Collaborate appeals more immediately to faculty who wish to add a real-time online component to their course. Collaborate is especially powerful at making an online experience more personalized by allowing students to have profile pictures, empowering students to hold a variety of assigned roles within the online session, and incorporating face-to-face gestures like raising a hand to ask a question or using breakout rooms for small group work assignments.

Collaborate also enables faculty and students to annotate documents and graphs in real time, and best of all, it integrates with Courseweb for easy management and integration with what you’ve already set up for your course. With this integration, both you and your students can access Collaborate inside your Blackboard course, which makes setting meetings and managing invitations an easy process for everyone.

Even if you’ve never taught online and have no intention of doing so, many faculty who teach traditional face-to-face courses find that virtual office hours can be useful to some students. Studies suggest that there is rarely a significant increase in the number of students who take advantage of office hours when virtual sessions are offered; however, students in classes that offer virtual office hours tend to report higher levels of satisfaction when compared to classes that offer only face-to-face office hours.

In my own experience, when I taught classes composed mostly of nontraditional students, particularly classes where many of the students worked off-campus jobs, the option of later office hours, offered virtually, was appreciated and well-received. You might consider trying a little experiment to see how your own students respond.

If you have teaching assistants who help you with your course, they too could offer a virtual study session. In fact, your students can form study groups within Collaborate all on their own if you enable the feature.

Evaluating any educational technology can be daunting, but trying to implement something new on your own can be downright terrifying. Luckily, you’re not alone. Give us a call or send us an e-mail (teaching@pitt.edu) telling us what you are interested in doing, learning or trying, and we’ll connect you with someone who can help. When trying a new technology, it’s often best to start with a small step. Whatever you decide to do, we’re happy to help.

Joe Horne is the director of Teaching Commons in the University Center for Teaching & Learning.



Pitt’s Center for Teaching and Learning has a full slate of workshops scheduled throughout the fall term, from using Blackboard, to preventing cheating and encouraging student participation.

Three new offerings include:

Walkshopping Our Urban Campus: Oakland’s Global Architectural Languages

10-11:30 a.m. Sept. 19, start at the Frick Fine Arts Building

This walking workshop is designed to help instructors consider opportunities to include the physical space of the Pitt campus in learning activities. The workshop will be led by Thomas Morton, a lecturer in the History of Art and Architecture department and Tahirah Walker from the teaching center.

Enhancing Diversity Practices in Online Courses

Noon-1:30 p.m. Sept. 25, Room B26, Alumni Hall

Presented by the Center for Diversity in the Curriculum @ the Teaching Center, this class will teach best practices on integrating diversity concepts into online courses and how to apply inclusivity into course planning and teaching.

Understanding Our Students: Financial Challenges & Instructional Choices

11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Oct. 23, Room B26, Alumni Hall

Pitt students will speak candidly about their experiences with financial challenges, poverty and homelessness. And the facilitators — Mary Ohmer, a professor in the School of Social Work; Erkia Kestenberg Gold, from the Center for Urban Education, and Joe Horne, director of the Teaching Commons — will look at how instructors can help students through choices they make in the classroom.

For more details on all of the classes and to register, visit the Teaching Center website. Pre-registration is required.