App for facilitating calling on people

“Two posts in one day?” you ask? Yep, I’ve kind of forgotten how useful it is to organize my thoughts here and to get such useful feedback from you awesome folks.

I’ve been working on a new web app and I’m looking for ideas for how to improve it. It’s called “My Turn Now” and it helps people “raise their hands” in a discussion in a way that allows the facilitator(s) to equitably lead the discussion. The name comes from the phrase my middle kid used to say (imagine a really cute 5-year-old voice when saying it) when they wanted a chance to try something.

The problem it addresses

I was actually inspired to write it when I took over facilitating a standing committee of faculty. It only had 8-10 people on it but it was clear that a few were frustrated at how they were occasionally being ignored or talked over. I wanted the ability for me to better keep track of who wanted to contribute and to do it as equitably as possible.

It was inspired by the “raise hand” feature of so many online web conferences, most notably Elluminate Live back in its heyday. If participants hit the button the facilitator (and the rest of the “room”!) were shown the chronological list of the raised hands.

How it works

The facilitator begins a meeting and sends around a link to all participants. They’re shown a window with two buttons side-by-side. One is for “new topic”s and one is for “follow up” questions. Underneath each is a live chronological queue of each type of question, showing the name of each person who has raised their hand and how long ago they did it. Here’s a dummy example (note that this one spanned multiple days).

Example of what a user (non-facilitator) sees

This is a screenshot of user sdfdsfsd. That’s why only that “raised hand” has buttons next to it. Each user can unraise their hand or transfer their question over to the other queue.

The facilitator has a similar view but with buttons next to each that allow it to “call on” the person. Really that just removes it from everyone’s screen.

As a facilitator you can watch both queues and decide how long to let the current topic go while also watching to see how many people want to contribute.

At the end of the class/meeting/whatever, the facilitator can get a report about the discussion. Here’s an example from the first meeting I used it in a couple years ago:

Chart available to facilitator(s) after a discussion

The small text in the middle explains how to read the colorful chart. A quick impression is that this meeting spent most of its time following up a single idea because everything went blue for most of the meeting.

The chart at the top can be useful in seeing what kind of contribution each person made. It can also help you get a sense of the experience each contributor had.

Programming logistics (skip if you don’t care)

The database schema for this app is pretty straightforward. I store meeting details in one table, and hand raises in another, updating whether its a new topic or follow up and whether its been called on. The “created_at” and “updated_at” are automatically updated so the date chart above is pretty easy.

The chart uses the fantastic Google Charts API. I love using that. You just have to get your data in the right format and it just works.

The hard part was finding a way to push the data to all the participants in real time. I have played around a little with Meteor which is really good at that, but I could never get my local server working right. Luckily I dug a little in the Laravel/PHP world and stumbled on Pusher. It does all the dirty work of the crazy realtime crap, leaving me with just managing the data. Note that the free version of Pusher has a cap of 100 simultaneous connections so if I really want to extend the use of this I’ll have to start paying some money. I’d only do that if it’s worth it, of course.

What excites me about it

I know I’m not great at calling on people equitably. I also know that when I’m best at that, I’m not great at actually following the discussion. I think this could be a great tool for folks to diagnose issues with how they (or possibly their student discussion leaders?) facilitate conversations.

Feedback I’ve received has been interesting. I’ll get to the negative stuff below, but one major positive is that people love getting to know the names of people. I did it in a group of 20 or so faculty and I got exactly that feedback. It was interesting because I just assumed they all knew each other.

I think the chart/roundup could be really useful in diagnosing lots of things:

  • How much did everyone contribute?
  • Who has to wait the longest on average?
  • Are there patterns to who I call on?
  • Do I spend too long on single topics?

I also think that having everyone see just who and how many are interested in participating can help people self-regulate their own contributions.

If someone is way down the “new topic” queue but realizes their point meshes with the current conversation topic, they can hit “transfer” and likely move way up because that queue might be shorter. Similarly if the current topic goes away from your follow up, you can shift over to the new topic queue.


Other, shall we say less-positive, feedback is mostly about how unnatural it feels. People really like to 1) just start talking and/or 2) physically raise their hands, often while using body language to indicate the relevance of their particular contribution.

There were a lot of technical problems with version 1.0 (small buttons, hard to see, duplicate names, etc) but I’ve mostly cleared those up with version 2.0. I’m not really as worried about those I guess.

What’s next?

So now I need help.

  • Is this something I should encourage others to use?
  • What are the best test cases for it?
  • What are the major assumptions I’ve build in that I might be blind to?
  • What student populations might be helped? hurt?
  • What should be added? Subtracted?

Here are some starters for you:

  • I think this is cool! Can I use it? I’m excited to use it in . . .
  • I can’t believe you ripped off my idea. Ever heard of Google? Use it, jerk.
  • I like the chart, especially the part that . . .
  • I hate the chart. Instead you should . . .
  • I checked out Meteor and Pusher. They suck. Instead you should . . .
  • Why don’t you just write an iOS app?
  • Why don’t you just write an Android app?
  • This assumes students have smart phones. You need to stop assuming people have those.
  • Wait, you program in PHP. Last post I’m ever going to read of yours, goodbye.
  • Why don’t you write this in Mathematica?

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in programming, teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to App for facilitating calling on people

  1. bretbenesh says:

    I think this is a great idea. I would consider using it in my classes if I were sure that all my students had access to it (I suppose this means that I am voting that you make an Android and iOS version, but this still wouldn’t guarantee that all of my students have access to it).

    • Andy Rundquist says:

      Certainly making it a web app allows for all (smart) phones and laptops to be able to do this. I wonder what it would be like to make an interface where an instructor (or helper) could just keep track of actual hands raised. In other words, there might be a single screen in the room somewhere that the instructor could hit the “raise hand” button for folks who literally raise their hand. You’d still get the benefits listed above, but now someone has to pay attention to doing that. Certainly students could share phones to do this as well, so you wouldn’t necessarily need a screen for every student.

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