Army's interactive classroom enhances training for dangerous missions

The Army Defense Ammunition Center uses a wireless response system integrated with PowerPoint to make classroom instruction more interactive and effective.

If you’re teaching a subject such as explosives safety, you don’t want students to find out in the field what they didn’t learn in the classroom. You’d also prefer to know if students are missing something before they fail a final exam. So the Army Defense Ammunition Center, which teaches explosives safety training for the Defense Department, is using a system that helps keep track of what its students are learning while a course is in progress.

“We train people for all of the services,” said Pat Wheaton, a logistics management specialist and DAC instructor. Some of the courses conducted at DAC headquarters in McAlester, Okla., and 13 other locations across the country and overseas have as many as 5,000 students a year.

The center has been using a wireless student response system that makes classroom training more interactive. TurningPoint from Turning Technologies integrates into PowerPoint presentations used in the classroom to let the entire class answer questions.

“It replaces verbal questions you would ask anyway,” Wheaton said. “It allows the instructor to monitor his quality of instruction and the students’ retention of knowledge at the time of training.”

The instructor isn’t lulled by a student who sits upfront and answers every question correctly, while others sit in the back of the room and keep their mouths shut. Instructors can identify topics that students are struggling to understand and correct them before they become problems on an exam or in the field.

“Almost every question we have had a high miss rate on before — say, 30 percent — we have been able to reduce to 10 percent or less,” Wheaton said.

Introduced in 2002 and now in its fourth generation, TurningPoint consists of a set of handheld devices with keypads, a USB transceiver that operates at the edge of the Wi-Fi frequency range, and software that integrates with applications on a classroom PC.

“The most commonly used application is an add-in that exposes another ribbon in the PowerPoint slide,” said Turning CEO Mike Broderick. “It’s as simple as putting a device in the hands of every student. The instructor asks a question, and instead of one student raising his hand, everybody picks up a device and answers.”

There are two models of devices: a high-end model, such as a mobile Internet device that contains an LCD screen and a full keyboard, and a simpler model, which DAC uses, that is about the size of a handheld calculator with a numeric keypad. The larger model can provide simple answers to questions. The smaller unit is used primarily with multiple-choice or yes-or-no questions or questions with numerical answers.

The largest market for TurningPoint has been K-12 schools and higher education. But the government and corporate professional training centers are showing interest, and TurningPoint is on a General Services Administration schedule contract.

“We’re early in that market, but we’re seeing it growing lately,” Broderick said.

A DAC employee who was a former high school teacher brought TurningPoint to Wheaton’s attention about three years ago, he said.

“They were using it at the high school,” Wheaton said. “He said, ‘Have you thought about something like this?’ It sounded pretty cool.”

Wheaton found out later that his daughter’s high school was using TurningPoint.

He ordered a handful of devices for a trial and developed questions that could be integrated into the classroom instruction. “It was just a matter of inserting a blank PowerPoint slide and typing in the question.” The class response is displayed on the slide in a chart or graph.

The system was first used in two classes, for the Army and Air Force, on lightning protection. The two classes use the same textbook but different service-specific publications as reference material. “We noticed you could use the same question for either course and just change the wording depending on the reference” material, Wheaton said. The system helped instructors identify questions with high failure rates so they could provide additional instruction.

Much of the center’s training occurs in 10- to 12-month intern programs for two career courses: ammunition manager and quality assurance specialist for ammunition surveillance. “When we had done this for about six months, we knew we had to get this into the intern programs,” Wheaton said.

TurningPoint is being used in six of the intern courses and at six of the other 13 DAC training sites around the country and overseas.

Because of DOD security requirements for equipment and applications that access the department's networks, the TurningPoint system is used only on computers that do not connect to a network.