By CHONG JINN XIUNGbytz@thestar.com.my
KUALA LUMPUR: How do you keep students interested in their lessons in a classroom even when there's no teacher present?
That was the question Imagine Cup 2012 Malaysia finalist, Team Rhapsody, hopes they have answered with their innovative low-cost teaching solution called Wizboard.
The application is also the team's solution to teacher attrition that is faced all over the world. It is also their entry at the upcoming Imagine Cup worldwide finals in Sydney, Australia, from July 6-11.
The idea for Wizboard came to Chan Wai Lun, 22, and his teammates Ker Jia Chun, 21, Tan Jit Ren, 21, and Wong Mun Choong, 24, when they observed that all their lecturers were repeating the same lessons every semester.
"It suddenly struck us that we could make an application that would enable the lecturers to teach a lesson with less repetition and instead focus on giving attention to individual students."
Wizboard will run on any notebook or desktop PC that has the Microsoft Windows XP operating system or higher.
A typical classroom setup is a notebook plugged to a projector with an infrared device (in this case, a Nintendo Wiimote) mounted on a tripod, pointed towards the projected surface, and an infrared pen.
The pen acts like a mouse pointer, allowing the teacher to interact with the surface as if it were a virtual blackboard.
"We chose the Wiimote (usually used with Nintendo's game console, the Wii) because it is a low-cost and commercially available product that we could integrate into the application.
Lessons taught on Wizboard can be saved online and made accessible to other students via the Internet. These lessons can also be translated into different languages.
"Knowledge is meant to be shared so imagine if some of the best teachers in Cambridge or Oxford could save their lessons with Wizboard and share them with students around the world?" said Chan.
The team has even designed Wizboard to work on smartphones and tablets powered by Windows, allowing students to see what is presented on the virtual board on their mobile devices.
"This not only enables students sitting at the back of a large lecture hall to get a clear view of the lesson, but also allows them to participate in pop quizzes that a teacher can conduct on Wizboard," Chan said.
Team Rhapsody designed their own file format, the ".wb", to compress the lesson into a small enough size to be shared even on a slow Internet connection.
This isn't the first time the four creative young talents from the Asia Pacific University College of Technology and Innovation (UCTI) have represented Malaysia at the Imagine Cup, an annual competition organised by Microsoft.
The boys were Team Cyber Knightz last year and placed among the Top 16 worldwide in the software design category, with their Health3 system that helps monitor the status of cancer patients.
"This year we hope to do better and place among the Top 8 teams at the least. We have learned much from our past mistakes and will be better focused," said Chan.
"It is not often that a team gets into two Imagine Cup finals and this will be our last time because most of us will graduate at year end."
The boys intend to set out as entrepreneurs after they graduate. They already have a name for their future company, DreamX.
"An Imagine Cup trophy will definitely help highlight our future endeavour and maybe make it easier for us to get funding from venture capitalists when that time comes," Ker said.
Since making its debut in 2003, the Imagine Cup Malaysia leg of the competition has grown in leaps and bounds, said Dr Dzaharudin Mansor, Microsoft Malaysia's national technology officer.
"From just having 90 students participating in the first year to the more than 1,800 for this year's competition, we have come a long way.
"We hope the Imagine Cup will be a catalyst for young bright minds in this country to show how their technology ideas can help solve real-world problems."