Teaching with the Catchbox: it's working even when it's not working!

Teaching with the Catchbox: it’s working even when it’s not working!

If you’re a teacher, you have surely asked yourself at some stage: “What can I do to motivate my students to ask, as well as answer more questions, and generally engage more with my class? At the same time, what can I do to encourage the others to listen more to their colleagues’ arguments?”

Up until 10 months ago, my best solution was to reduce drastically the presentation time, and pepper my sessions with as many problem-based tasks as possible – some fairly simple, some rather more wicked – which I would discuss with my students in class. While this made the session’s learning objectives clearer and more motivating to achieve, I constantly felt that more could be done to improve the student experience: the problem-solving part was working well, but the subsequent group reporting and analysis could have been better. The three main challenges I was facing were: having rather shy students speaking in low voices that were hard to hear; working in large classrooms with poor acoustics; and having rather active students who would quite happily monopolise the conversation or interrupt their colleagues and lecturers in mid-sentence. Dealing with these challenges was not easy and I kept thinking of something one of my mentors – Chris – used to mention when reflecting on managing group discussions: the talking stick (aka “the speaker’s staff”)!

However cool this idea was, though, introducing a talking stick to a group of MA students in Translation Studies and expecting them to buy into it was a bit ambitious (if we’d been studying anthropology or had touched more on cultural studies, perhaps it would have made more sense); not to think of the prospect of students impaling their colleagues by javelining the stick right across the room… Even though Health and Safety experts had not had the foresight to mention the prevention of talking stick accidents in their guidance, common sense had to prevail.

I therefore “kept calm and carried on” as the law of the land encourages us to do until, based on my network and hashtags followed, Twitter thought I’d appreciate an ad about the Catchbox. And that was it. I had found my Talking Stick and I had no doubt it was going to solve my student engagement challenge. But how did I underestimate its power!

First things first, though: the Catchbox is not a microphone in itself – it just turns some of the most popular lapel mics into (Fun) Identified Flying Objects (FIFOs). I didn’t have a mic in the lab I usually teach in, so in addition to the €599 for the Catchbox, I also needed a microphone and was advised to go for this Sennheiser digital microphone and receiver (which cost £450 at the time – kudos to Leeds Uni for genuinely supporting learning and teaching). A cool £1,000 later, I had a set-up which injected more fun and energy into my colleagues’ and my sessions right away.

On top of that, the fact that this kit was so expensive also registered with our students who made sure we were all playing catch rather than dodgeball. Sure thing, we had a few throws going a bit wild, but both the kit and the “kids” were all right every time.

In addition to using the Catchbox in the lab, my colleagues and I have been using it all over our University given that Sennheiser mics are available pretty much everywhere here (more kudos to Leeds Uni)! You need to unplug the lapel microphone from the Sennheiser mic, twist and pull the black Catchbox part out, and connect the Sennheiser to the Catchbox using the cable provided. Now put the polystyrene enclosure back in the Catchbox (if you’ve seen the 1996 The Rock and still remember Nicholas Cage sweating heavily while putting the green nerve gas balls back into their enclosure, don’t worry: putting the mic back into the Catchbox is nowhere near as dangerous or complicated!) There is a gratifying thud combined with an automatic twist when the magnetic parts meet and arrange themselves. Clever design, Catchbox team!

Over the last 10 months, the Catchbox has become a favourite with our students, lecturers, and invited speakers, too (as the image gallery below shows). Above all, it has also helped us do much more besides using it as a soft and cuddly Talking Stick:

  • everyone’s voice now comes through loud and clear through the room sound system, so everyone hears everyone else without any issues;
  • everyone’s contributions are recorded alongside the tutor’s or students’ screens for revision after the class (we use ABtutor and Mediasite in the lab; more about them in another post);
  • nobody interrupts anyone else anymore. At all! Whoever has something to say simply puts her or his hand up and waits to catch the orange FIFO. That’s it;
  • asking for the Catchbox is viewed as a big deal by all the students: everyone else is super quiet, so whoever has the Catchbox feels the responsibility to make a valuable contribution to the discussion – while the general atmosphere is still relaxed. The Catchbox makes everyone think their arguments through first, so without exception all the discussions we’ve been having throughout the year have been genuinely interesting: “It [the Catchbox] is useful (and fun), and I like how it gets the class much more involved in answering questions” said one of my students in the module review;
  • throwing/catching/dropping/looking out for the Catchbox gives pretty much everyone a chance to loosen up a little, do a bit of exercise and realise that you can have serious conversations and learn useful things without the need for stern looks or any kind of sticks. Or, as another student mentioned in the module review: “The presentations were always engaging and dynamic, and the Catchbox helped encourage discussion and debate in an entertaining manner.”
  • the biggest surprise for me was when, in a lecture room without Sennheiser mics and in the presence of some really high-profile guests (UN and EU senior linguists), my students still threw and caught the Catchbox whenever they had questions or contributions to make. To me this looked like a deeply meaningful and rather beautiful piece of choreography, and it was both intriguing and fascinating to witness an example of a technology whose role goes beyond its actual features, which is adopted wholeheartedly by its users, and which continues to fulfil its deeper purpose (i.e. help groups organise themselves for meaningful, democratic communication) even when its practical purpose cannot be achieved for technical reasons.

The Catchbox in the University of Leeds Centre for Translation Studies

So, after 10 months of throwing, catching, and coming up with more engaging activities for my students, I must confess I am quite addicted to the Catchbox (I am by no means the only one, though: I have a feeling that using his language and tech skills to promote the Catchbox to new markets would be Seb‘s dream job:)

From the teaching side, I cannot recommend the Catchbox enough. It is an excellent piece of kit and the company behind it is a lot of fun and very responsive, too. Kudos!

From the practical side, the only two things worth mentioning are:

  • make sure you always have spare batteries. The Catchbox itself is quite good on that front, only needing 1 AA battery which on average lasts me for about 24h of actual use, but the Sennheiser D1, eats batteries like there is no tomorrow! Excellent sound from the D1 seems to need 2 AA batteries approximately every 12h of use. Other Sennheisers are less hungry, though, so choose wisely.
  • it can get very warm for the Sennheiser D1 (but not for other Sennheisers, mind) inside the Catchbox, especially if you teach continuously for 4 hours at a time like I need to. Take the polystyrene enclosure out during each break, therefore, and let it breathe for a few minutes. Then imagine you’re Nicholas Cage and proceed to save the world again and again!