March
3rd 2009
Clickers? Excuse me: are we training dogs here?

Posted under: jobs, students, technoskepticism

clickerYou know I can’t go too many days without getting my technophobia on, kids!  Check out the new tag I’ve added here, “technoskepticism.”  I considered “technophobia,” but I don’t fear new technology–I just think that much of it is a waste of my time.  I remain open to the possibility that someday, somewhere some new technology will really excite me instead of cause me to slap my forehead and ask, “who falls for this $hit?”  And, you may not want to be reminded of this, but once upon a time 8-track tapes were the I-Pod of 1974, and Commodore 64s were the Facebook of 1982.

So–clickers.  Have you used them in class?  What kinds of advantages do you think they bring to a classroom in the humanities in particular?  I’ve been invited to attend a workshop on them, and I’m half tempted, given the ridiculous 123-seat survey course I’m scheduled to teach in the fall.  How many annoying clicker questions do you need to write for a 50-minute lecture?  (“In her later reclusive years, Emily Dickinson left her home a) every day, b) when the church bells of Amherst rang out, c) to refresh her nosegay when lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d , or d) never.”)

I heard this fairly depressing report on them on NPR yesterday, and I can’t help thinking that all of the problems teachers may experience with not knowing if students are getting anything out of lectures could be solved by the old-fashioned technology used by top-notch prep schools and liberal arts colleges throughout history:  classes small enough (say, up to 40) where professors know the students’ names and can gauge student interest and throw out provocative questions to keep student attention.  (By the way, check out the comment to the NPR story from a Baa Ram U. student who proclaims that clickers are ”a huge waste of time!”  Ha!)

But, as I have asked here before, who will pay for it–that is, the technology of small classes we all know works.  I guess it’s just so much cooler to pretend that there’s an easy high-tech fix to a problem that’s as old as teaching itself.  Yeah, let’s buy a bunch of equipment that will be obsolete in another five years instead of hiring more professors who will stick around for 25-35 years!  I am interested in hearing your experiences of working with this technology, and I may yet attend that workshop next week, but for now, in case you can’t tell, I’m a little skeptical.

56 Comments »

56 Responses to “Clickers? Excuse me: are we training dogs here?”

  1. Knitting Clio on 03 Mar 2009 at 7:43 am #

    I have a colleague who uses them. She finds that it keeps students engaged during class time. However, she also finds that while they do well on the in class questions, the information isn’t retained for midterm/final.

  2. Historiann on 03 Mar 2009 at 8:04 am #

    Whaaaaa? You mean you actually have to take notes, do the reading and writing assignments, and study instead of just pressing a button?

  3. amd on 03 Mar 2009 at 8:34 am #

    Like almost anything else, they are better in some people’s hands than others. In my (limited) experience they seem have the biggest impact when they are 1. used to facilitate discussion/ collaboration between students or 2. used to quickly gauge the preconceptions a class might have on an issue – especially an issue that they might not feel comfortable talking about in a huge class.

    But yes I do think that their impact is probably mainly felt in classes that are too big or laid out poorly to use other methods to facilitate discussion or collaboration the old-fashioned way, or too big to build an environment where students will talk. (My bias is that they also work better in classes where students are collaborating to puzzle out a “right” answer – but I have no real evidence for that.)

    That said, for my purposes the anonymity (we don’t use the textbook provided ones) is useful – since I see students once in a term, I don’t get the chance to build *any* kind of relationship with them. They’re more comfortable being wrong anonymously, which makes them more likely to participate.

  4. squadratomagico on 03 Mar 2009 at 8:35 am #

    They are very popular in the sciences here at OPU, where classes often are over 200 in size. I know one History colleague who ordered them for the course, but seldom ended up using them (and was resented by students because of it). I’ve also heard a student complain that the model she bought 2 years ago, for $35 or so, and with the promise that it could be re-used, already has had to be replaced at the cost of another $35. The newer style and the older ones apparently are not compatible with one another.

  5. Historiann on 03 Mar 2009 at 8:52 am #

    amd–thanks for your thoughts. I can see advantages in some environments (like you said, if students will only participate anonymously or not at all, perhaps it’s better to give them the option of participating anonymously.)

    Sq.–ha! Planned obsolescence, and yet another battery-operated gaget that will have to be take to a special environmentally-correct recycling center instead of just tossing it into a landfill. Yegads!

  6. quixote on 03 Mar 2009 at 9:14 am #

    The NPR report was pathetic. Preparation for it seemed to consist of one class visit to a prof who’s a fan plus talking points from the company’s promo materials. How much critical thinking the devices foster can be seen in the fact that the teacher has to tell the class “If you like the idea, answer yes. If not, then no.”

    That said, from what I’ve seen, clickers can be somewhat useful in science classes. Perhaps in any fact-based discipline where the facts themselves can be hard to understand. In that case, they are a quick way of finding out whether the teacher made sense or not. You can achieve the same effect by having students raise their hands or hold up different-colored index cards in response to a question. That’s much cheaper, and the cards can be reused. :rollseyes:

  7. Historiann on 03 Mar 2009 at 9:18 am #

    But quixote–the colored cards don’t collate themselves into stacks that are immediately turned into bar graphs projected into a PowerPoint slide! That must be worth a couple thousand bucks, right?

    Good low-tech substitution idea, though. (Is that already common in science classes?)

  8. quixote on 03 Mar 2009 at 9:21 am #

    Postscript re anonymity: yes, that’s a benefit. But a) the teacher can do a lot toward fostering an atmosphere where almost any student is willing to hazard a guess, and b) is the anonymity worth $30 per student per class per semester to the students?

  9. Historiann on 03 Mar 2009 at 9:25 am #

    quixote–great point. Given my ‘druthers, I’druther try to work on classroom dynamics where at least some will try to hazard guesses. (I’ve done this by giving students an in-class practice exam question, for example, by posting a brief essay question and asking them to write for 10 minutes, then collecting the answers on paper and using a document camera to read through and critique a few of the answers.)

    That said: in a darkened classroom where only the first 3 rows of students are truly visible to me on the stage, it’s difficult to do much about the classroom dynamic. It is what it is–and I don’t take attendance, so presumably the only people who show up regularly to class are those who are interested in making an effort.

    This is why my 40-seat cap on all classes is my preferred technological solution.

  10. quixote on 03 Mar 2009 at 9:26 am #

    OMG. I forgot about the bar graphs. You’re absolutely right. They look so good in that tenure portfolio, don’t they? (:rollseyes: a whole bunch more!)

    I wouldn’t say the low tech substitution is common, although some type of feedback about comprehension really ought to be since it (comprehension) (and feedback come to think of it) is so often lacking in science classes.

  11. Profane on 03 Mar 2009 at 9:27 am #

    Please! No! DON’T DO IT!

    http://www.margaretsoltan.com/?p=6304
    http://www.margaretsoltan.com/?p=4561
    http://www.margaretsoltan.com/?p=3877

  12. Indyanna on 03 Mar 2009 at 9:27 am #

    Don’t “collate themselves into stacks…” Just what we need, more epiphenomenal ephemera piling up and impersonating “data” (which nobody will use anyway). The colored cards point reminded me of that renegade wizzard physicist appointed to the panel assigned to find out why the space shuttle (Challenger?) exploded on liftoff. At an early hearing, while a tablefull of eminent hacks ruminated on feasibility studies for longitudinal assessment exercises to disaggregate risk factors, he took a piece of the rubbery sealant used on the solid rocket boosters and dropped it into his glass of ice water. Before the second witness was called he essentially reached (and elegantly demonstrated) the finding that was issued several years later about the impact of a cold Florida morning on a “mission-critical component.” The problem with the cards is that the money would go to the stationary store up on Main Street, sending thousands of consultants and manufacturers’ reps. to the unemployment line. Why do we want to know whether the students are “engaged,” anyway?

  13. Historiann on 03 Mar 2009 at 9:38 am #

    Wow, Profane–and I thought *I* was the crankiest young fogey around! I thought that first link was especially helpful. Thanks for sharing them. I esp. liked the comment that opposed spending money on gagets and software that are only marginally better than raising hands in class. And, truth be told, if a student doesn’t understand the material after attending class faithfully, taking notes, and doing all of the assigned reading and writing, then it’s up to them to seek face-to-face help. This seems to be one of the skills that sort the A/B students from the C/D/F students–caring enough about one’s own education to get help, instead of tuning out and passively accepting the grades they’re earning.

    That said, if a prof. is besieged by students who say they don’t understand, that may well indicate that it’s the teaching that needs fixing, not the students. But I still say that ultimately, the quality of education a student gets is up to the student hirself.

    And Indyanna: why should we prop up an old media business like the stationery store down the street, when we could direct our students’ money to a high-tech startup?

  14. Clio Bluestocking on 03 Mar 2009 at 10:18 am #

    But it’s technology! That means it’s automatically good! Right? ‘Cause of all of those “digital natives” whom everyone seems to think can’t function unless they have a new toy. Also, if we aren’t buying the new toys, how can we be considered to be keeping up with the new pedagogy? How will the number crunchers ever collect data to prove to businesses that college education we provide is relevent to their “real world”?

  15. Buzz on 03 Mar 2009 at 10:21 am #

    There are a few professors in my physics department that use these, but they don’t seem to be all that useful. However, one professor did get a grant to develop a much more sophisticated system. He hands out iPod touch to each student, and he has software to track and process the answers they give to the questions he reveals at various points in the lecture. It works pretty well, but it’s still quite a bit of work to prepare (especially since the software package is still undergoing development).

  16. Professor Zero on 03 Mar 2009 at 10:53 am #

    Well, apparently with Twitter you can have people Twittering to each other in a lecture and the lecturer can see what they are saying, and work responses into the lecture. To me this sounds boring, distracting, and ADHD producing.

    I resent all this proprietary technology and software and I would, as a student, resent not being allowed to just listen and take notes during a lecture … having to click would be a major distraction and I think I would refuse.

    It would also be a drain on energy. If you are in a difficult course or major you just can’t afford that – not if you’re at a competitive school, or if you’re trying to make grades that will get you into graduate or professional school. You have to conserve energy and use time wisely, ends which these clickers would not serve.

    Except when it was to see a non subtitled film or listen to some authentic audio I refused to go to the language laboratory for all the foreign language courses I took in college because the exercises were so dull and basic that sitting and doing them all felt like abuse. That meant losing points, but I was gaining points elsewhere by putting that piece of study time to better use.

    I also never attended the large science or math lectures in college because the professor would just read the book at you. I had already read the chapter because homework had been due from it. I spent the time outdoors finishing the problem sets, and then went to the section meeting where discussion supplemented, and did not just repeat what the book said. Having to go to the lecture and click for points would have been counterproductive in many ways.

    Great post and glad you’ve warned us about this.

  17. AndrewMc on 03 Mar 2009 at 10:53 am #

    We’re phasing them out at my institution. It turns out that the students would sell them to the students from the next semester, who would then have a Clicker full of quiz questions already answered. So, it was making it too easy to cheat.

  18. Professor Zero on 03 Mar 2009 at 11:00 am #

    Cool re phaseout!!! I came back to say this post has a great title … using a clicker WOULD make me feel like a dog in training … also sort of like one of those torture victims under the cattle prod, you know, this thing buzzes you and you have to respond. I already turn off my phones to work, I don’t want to have a clicker snapping at my heels.

  19. Historiann on 03 Mar 2009 at 11:52 am #

    Thanks, Prof. Z–when I think “clicker,” all I can think about is “Uncle Matty” and his highly successful dog training videos from the 1990s! I hear you about the distractions of using a clicker–esp. re: ADHD. I too think the world of information is full of so many distractions already.

    AndrewMc, I’m amazed to hear about the ease of corruption with these toys. I had no idea they stored data–I thought they worked more like a TV remote than a handheld computer. The more I learn, the less I am excited about this.

    By the way, the “proprietary software” at Baa Ram U.–or at least the gaget sponsoring the training session here–is “iClicker.” Let me know if you all know something about that one in particular.

  20. GayProf on 03 Mar 2009 at 12:02 pm #

    Hey — At least clickers would make taking attendance a breeze.

  21. Notorious Ph.D. on 03 Mar 2009 at 12:40 pm #

    I’m a skeptic as well, mostly because good humanities classes don’t lend themselves to multiple choice questions. How does this reflect what we’re supposed to be teaching them? If they want to learn to be button-mashing automatons, then surely there are other places they can go.

    ((grinds teeth))

    You want cynical young fart? Here is how I imagine that the process unfolds:

    COMPANY REP: We have a thing! It’s interactive!

    SOME ADMINISTRATOR: Oooh! Shiny! Let’s get the shiny interactive thing! Then we can say that we have the shiny thing! And the machine that goes Ping!

    CAMPUS TECH PERSON: Cool. This can do a gazillion things.

    PROFESSOR/INSTRUCTOR: Why do I need this again?

    CHORUS: It can do a gazillion things that you can’t do right now! And it’s shiny! Kids like technology!

    PROFESSOR/INSTRUCTOR: (dubiously) Welll…. okay… I like being able to do new things in ways that students will respond well to. But I don’t know how to use it, and I’m awfully busy with my four preps and my grad advising and my committee work and we’re doing a hire… I just don’t know if I have time for another meeting.

    CHORUS: Don’t worry; we have a webinar** for you that will explain all gazillion applications!

    PROFESSOR/INSTRUCTOR: But which of those gazillion things will actually help me do what I do in my class? You know, those “expected learning outcomes” that I had to submit to you in triplicate last fall?

    CHORUS: Well, you should really consider changing your courses to accommodate the new technology. I mean, we’ve invested the money and all. And there’s a whole Shiny New Interactive Thing (SNIT) initiative now, with funding for professors who use it, and three new people to administer it. So just figure something out, okay?

    six weeks later…

    STUDENTS: (raising hand) Uhh… professor? I can’t do the assignment. My clicker isn’t working.

    fin

    (Of course, if there were clickers in my classroom, I’d be lucky if the students didn’t spend all day looking for the mute button.)

  22. Notorious Ph.D. on 03 Mar 2009 at 12:42 pm #

    **”webinar” is an actual term used in an actual e-mail to actual faculty at my real-live four-year university.

  23. Indyanna on 03 Mar 2009 at 12:54 pm #

    We get “webinar” all the time from the drone-iverse (i.e. the administerium). I keep hearing things like “works pretty well,” or “works fairly well,” or “works for some things but not others,” but no definition of what “works” even means. At what point does the distraction cost of trying to measure every brain wave in the room subvert the underlying purpose of the educational process? I know what I *could* go for though, from the great infomercial warehouse in the sky: a Web 2.2 version of one of those “clappers,” with which you could turn the lights on hard over a particularly drowsy island of students, while increasing the electro-tint scaling value of the windows in another corner of the room where the sun glare was intruding. That would be worth $35 per capita!

  24. Historiann on 03 Mar 2009 at 1:07 pm #

    Notorious and Indyanna, you both hit on something that I hadn’t considered, which is the possibility that administrators who are less tech savvy even than we are, are vulnerable to being sold a bill of technological goods in the name of keeping up with the other-university Joneses and catering to our Gen Web 2.0 “customers.”

    I’m not sure how it works at Baa Ram U.–if there’s only one company of “clickers” or if our classroom format supports many different ones–but you all are helping me decide that maybe I’ll skip that training session and get that hour of my life back. (Especially because it’s next Tuesday, which is a non-teaching day for me, and I ordinarily like to save the time and gas and work from home…)

  25. Susan on 03 Mar 2009 at 1:20 pm #

    I love Notorious’s formulation. If what you want your students to do is regurgitate information, then sure, use a clicker. But otherwise? I’m sure you can ask higher order multiple choice questions, but I find coming up with wrong answers hard work. And if it requires higher order thinking, it’s not right or wrong.

    Anyway, this seems to me like a big scam. It may “work” (whatever that means) but how about some cost benefit analysis?
    And I too have been invited to webinars. . .

  26. Study & Money » Blog Archive » Welcome, Readers from… on 03 Mar 2009 at 2:12 pm #

    [...] …Historiann.  Historiann’s proprietor comments on UD: Wow … and I thought I was the crankiest young fogey around!  [...]

  27. Z on 03 Mar 2009 at 2:28 pm #

    “…administrators who are less tech savvy even than we are, are vulnerable to being sold a bill of technological goods in the name of keeping up with the other-university Joneses and catering to our Gen Web 2.0 ‘customers.’”

    Yes, this is what keeps happening to us. And the administrators don’t understand or accept that if the students don’t have 24/7 access to fast computers, it’s not technophobia, it’s just poverty, which no amount of anti technophobia lecturing will resolve.

    The other thing of course, and this is related to the multiple choice question issue, is that in my fields the kinds of questions and exercises that are put on shiny new objects tend, in terms of content, to be relics from the 1950s — and no, I do not mean from books that were so stellar they went classic.

  28. Z on 03 Mar 2009 at 2:32 pm #

    P.S. notorious phd – great script!!! And this is exactly what does happen:

    “six weeks later…

    STUDENTS: (raising hand) Uhh… professor? I can’t do the assignment. My clicker isn’t working.”

  29. AndrewMc on 03 Mar 2009 at 3:40 pm #

    Re: “redo your classes”

    I was told this exact thing by a state governing board rep who said that classrooms were inefficient and that we needed to “redesign our classes to make them more efficient.”

    “Efficient” seemed to be synonymous with “bigger classes, using more technology,” though it wasn’t exactly clear how that was supposed to work.

    I asked “Every class in our university?”

    SGR: “Yes.”

    I started laughing, and asked if a week was quickly enough, or did he need it done sooner? Then I asked what to do when that particular directive contravened other directives from this same board.

    I don’t get invited to those meetings any more.

  30. Historiann on 03 Mar 2009 at 4:54 pm #

    I suppose all of those classrooms that will sit 20-45 students will just sit empty? I wonder if Mr. State Governing Board was willing to tear down and rebuild most of the classroom buildings on campus?

    I’m a little dim, but it has slowly dawned on my over the last few years how much of our pedagogy is shaped by the size and layout of our classrooms, which (in my case) were mostly designed and laid out to suit the needs of students in the 1950s and 1960s.

  31. Sisyphus on 03 Mar 2009 at 5:41 pm #

    Bleah! I actually liked the idea of the clicker when it first came out, because I’ve TA’d big lectures (soc-sci ones over in WM ST) where doing quick warm-ups at the beginning of lecture or “poll the audience” type questions was actually a great way of starting discussion and extending the reading to the students’ lives (and was thinking that being able to ask questions about students’ study habits and reading practices _anonymously_ would really work well for sneaking in researchers’ findings about how to study well).

    But if this new technology was actually about facilitating student learning, then they should have installed the clicker technology directly into the seats when they re-did the big fancy new lecture hall across the way (I’ve seen who wants to be a millionaire; I know they can do it.). Then it would just be a matter of profs who want to use that technology getting scheduled into the “interactive lecture hall.”

    But no —- students pay 60 bucks to get their own clicker and bring it to class and sell it back to the bookstore for a fraction of that at the end of the quarter! To make it worse our university does not have one standard clicker agreement, which means that there are two or maybe even three of those circulating around the campus and students may have to shell out for one for their chem course and another for their calc one. Pfffffft!

  32. Historiann on 03 Mar 2009 at 5:50 pm #

    Oh, lord–Sis, and everyone: I think the faculty of the United States of America (and some in Canada) need to stage an intervention.

    It’s interesting: most of the time I’ve posted about my technoskepticism, either most of you (as in the Facebook post) or some of you (the e-book post) will tell me I’m all wet, or that there are some attractive features of the technology in question. This comments thread is about as imbalanced as the Facebook rant thread!

  33. ortho stice on 03 Mar 2009 at 7:33 pm #

    At Concrete University — a large state University that is feeling the “crisis” of the current “economic crisis” — Clickers are a hot commodity. They’re frequently sold-out at the Corporate Bookstore on Campus.

    In a time when “austerity” has become a buzz word inside the halls of Concrete University, the Clicker is seen by administrators, as a gift from the Academic Gods. Clickers increase profit and productivity. Clickers allow for larger classes, hassle-free assessment, fewer teaching assistants, and more adjuncts — all of which lead to, during a time of economic “austerity,” greater profit and productivity. We all hail the Clicker!

  34. susurro on 03 Mar 2009 at 8:02 pm #

    clickers are mandatory for the sciences at my uni and there was some talking of making them mandatory at the law school based on the outcomes in the sciences. My students who use them say: they are an expense they don’t need, they don’t make them feel more engaged, they help with some forms of retention but not most, and some find them anxiety producing. I worry about the cognitive issues, there is a reason why the pincer grip is considered an indicator of positive brain development after all. And I agree with Prof. Cero, for those already prone to ADHD or other LDRs this technology seems far more disruptive than instructive, tho again, those with impaired motor skill development already use similar devices to participate in classes, so for them it is probably a plus to have it standardized.

  35. What happens if you decline to click? « More or Less Bunk on 03 Mar 2009 at 8:35 pm #

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  36. Rose on 04 Mar 2009 at 7:07 am #

    I agree, Historiann, that clickers are evidence of the sheer banality of evil.

    However–and I’m sure your other “technoskeptic” posts have garnered similar comments, so I’ll keep it brief–I think there’s a logical fallacy in claiming that “Commodore 64s were the Facebook of 1982.”

    By that reasoning, blogging would be the note-passing of 1980. Depending on the blog (not yours!) that analogy may be apt. However, writing a blog is qualitatively different in terms of scope, audience, purpose, and agency. I’m somewhat of a technoskeptic, too, but I think we have to be careful not to lump all emerging technologies together.

  37. Eduardo on 04 Mar 2009 at 8:37 am #

    I went to a clicker session last fall, given by one of our biology profs, to see if they’d be useful for my US survey sections. It seemed theoretically exciting for “polling” the class about certain things and moving towards a paperless class with in-class/clickered/blackboard quizzes. But when he started talking about the drawbacks — lots of preparatory work and set-up on top of normal lecture prep (you’d nearly have to script every class) and the usual network crashes and “downtime” that happen every semester — I was scared off … at least for now. You essentially have to prepare for the clickers not working in class, by always having a back-up plan, ie. being ready to give a paper quiz if the clickered quiz isn’t working.

    I’m not a technophobe … but … the possible pitfalls did frighten me.

  38. Matt L on 04 Mar 2009 at 8:51 am #

    When I read the post and first started looking at the comments I thought, “OK a little skepticism is in order, but you all seem willing to throw out the baby with the bath water on this one.” Then I started reading about the clicker being used for quizzes instead of polling, being required by the university in the name of efficiency, the mutual incompatibility of the different clicker systems, and exorbitant prices for clickers charged at the bookstore ($60 come on! I bought a new remote for my TV and paid less than $10!), I realized you were right. This is a bad idea.

    But the point I would like to make is that none of these shortcomings are the fault of the clickers. These are all pre-existing pathologies within the university, and the clicker provided an occasion for them to become manifest.

    Right now my survey classes are capped at 30 students per section (But I teach three sections plus an upped division, so I have about 110-120 students a semester, no TA). If I had to teach a 60 student or larger section, I would totally use clickers for three things:

    1. attendance
    2. polling students about their opinion on a topic in lecture
    3. reviewing the main points of the lecture or reading

  39. ccenglish on 04 Mar 2009 at 9:23 am #

    Wow! I’m surprised by how negative this is! I actually used clickers for the first time yesterday — and in my developmental reading/writing class (one level below English 101).

    The students loved them. Okay, yes, that may be seen by some as irrelevant. But if it gets a group of developmental writing students excited about doing a review of MLA style, then I’m all for it. I also used the clickers to to do some polling to start discussion of some essays we read on children and TV viewing, and the level of participation in the discussion afterwards was noticeably higher.

    There are a few differences, though, between my situation and the ones outlined above. My class has about 25 students, and I know everyone by name. The clickers were not used for attendance or quizzes, just for anonymous polling. Also, the students did not purchase the clickers — the college bought several class sets, and we (those of us who are interested in trying them) are taking turns checking them out as needed.

    I don’t think I’ll use them every day, but I definitely will bring them back again.

  40. Professor Zero on 04 Mar 2009 at 9:52 am #

    Sisyphus and Matt L … yes. Exactly. And all … I don’t find this thread unbalanced or negative, even if it is largely anti clicker!

    Ccenglish … I believe you and maybe these are good for developmental classes … I’ve just always had low tech ways to do anonymous polling, which *does* do wonders for discussion, especially with less experienced students.

    Still, many of my students cannot afford the books. If we were going to buy them something, I’d rather buy them the books. When we were open admissions we had a different population again, and there were people in class who hadn’t eaten for a while. I organized a rotation of people who could afford to buy breakfast for the group, and we’d pretend it was a daily party (to get over the 8 AM class blues) so nobody would be embarrassed. This improved performance a *lot* more than any clicker.

  41. Historiann on 04 Mar 2009 at 10:31 am #

    Rose–I guess the reason I thought that the Commodore 64 is the Facebook of 1982 is that people spent inordinate numbers of hours writing silly little programs and staring at their TV screens being amused with their cleverness. No, they weren’t networked–but nothing was in 1982 (outside of DARPAnet and Pentagon computers.) You could also call them the blogs of 1982, I suppose.

    Matt L., you’ve got the best line going here: “none of these shortcomings are the fault of the clickers. These are all pre-existing pathologies within the university, and the clicker provided an occasion for them to become manifest.” Right on.

    ccenglish–if they work for you, then use them. I too was a little taken aback by people’s negative experiences with Clickers, since I’m accustomed to being lectured by my commenters about how other technologies are really great or at least useful in some circumstances. But this thread is nearly unanimous–like Eduardo, it seems like there are so many possible problems (not to mention the expense for students) that they really don’t outweigh the few circumstances in which I can imagine myself using them.

    I really am concerned about the expense to students–especially for those at Poverty U. where Prof. Susurro teaches, or at Concrete U., or at Prof. Zero’s university, which apparently needs to consider offering a school breakfast and lunch program…$40 or $60 for a toy you might not be able to use in another class is a foolish, wasteful expense.

  42. Terminal Degree on 04 Mar 2009 at 4:40 pm #

    I taught a class of 100 students a few years ago, with no teaching assistants, at a university that required me to take attendance. I would have given anything to have a simple way to take roll.

    That said, I *still* wouldn’t have used clickers. Some of my students, like Prof. Zero’s, truly don’t have enough to eat. (For example, one of my students volunteered to do some relief work after a natural disaster, and he raved about the fact that he got to eat *three times a day*.) Another one is living on ramen noodles (she’s in the dorm but can’t afford a meal plan). There is no way I could ask my students to buy a clicker.

  43. Professor Zero on 05 Mar 2009 at 5:46 am #

    I’ve figured out where they *would* be good – safety courses for oilfield and construction businesses, and even some of the safety classes we have to take here. They are really dull, yet in some areas the information is really necessary, and the response needs to be documented somehow for insurance and other legal reasons. Hand out clickers, sure! And those industries can afford them!

    Still, university lectures still mean to me an intellectual getting up and talking … it all seems sort of weird to me, Heidegger lecturing with a clicker, you know…?! As though he *were* giving an oilfield safety course.

    Suddenly I wonder: do the military use them for training courses? If so, what do they say about their usefulness or not?

  44. Indyanna on 05 Mar 2009 at 11:02 am #

    Imagine what Whitefield, Tennent, and Davenport could have done with a clicker, though, especially if one of the buttons controlled a trapdoor under the back row of seats? Slackers in the hands of an angry Prof. I might have to rething the paradigm.

  45. Historiann on 05 Mar 2009 at 11:27 am #

    HA! Good one, Indyanna. You crack me up.

  46. lesboprof on 06 Mar 2009 at 9:18 pm #

    I am using clickers in my 100+ intro class, and they are working fairly well. I use them for attendance, polling students on opinions and ideas, and as part of question/answer sessions. We also plan to use it for a jeopardy-style game for exam review. Here is my feedback so far.

    Drawbacks: They don’t always work and they take a while to work.

    1. They don’t always work, in that they don’t always connect with the monitor (or whatever it is called). I would guess that 80-90% of my students can regularly get on, which leaves 10-20% not connected. That is no big deal when the issue is polling or Q&A. I don’t count responses for grades. I would never use them for graded quizzes in class, though, for this reason.

    2. They take a while to work. After I ask a question, it can take up to a minute for the clickers to all register. It isn’t instantaneous. (That was a surprise to me.) My IT folks tell me that it is due to the number of students using clickers. That is kind of a pain. So, when I do attendance, I play a song related to the topic for the day. It works well.

    Benefits: Students like them, they keep class engaged, and they make attendance WAAAAYYY better.

    That said, students in my class dig the clickers. On a recent survey, they rated it pretty high. They like being asked questions and hearing what other folks are thinking. They like being anonymous in their responses. I usually talk about their responses, and they will talk when they know they aren’t the only one who thinks that.

    I LOVE using these for attendance. Even with those students who cannot connect, it is soooo much better than taking roll/doing a sign-in sheet for so many students. It actually automatically uploads to the gradebook in Blackboard. I just ask students who can’t get their clickers to register to turn in a sheet of paper with their name and clicker #. We then fix the attendance list on Blackboard by adding these names. It is still quicker than putting that info into excel or trying to keep up with sign-in sheets.

    So, I would use them again.

  47. Leslie M-B on 08 Mar 2009 at 1:44 am #

    As always, an insightful post, Historiann. My response became too long, so I posted it here on my blog.

    Really, I’m not a fan of clickers, but I refuse to believe they are never useful or are as much a money-suck as glossy, full-color textbooks with new editions every year.

  48. Historiann on 08 Mar 2009 at 7:36 am #

    Thanks, Leslie–I think faculty should use them if they believe they’re useful. I remain convinced that they’re an artifact of universities trying to do more with less, however.

  49. When Students Teach Faculty About Instructional Technology on 09 Mar 2009 at 7:22 am #

    [...] this new technology and how can it possibly help me to improve student learning? For example, this faculty member thinks clickers are a waste of her time and students’ money. It’s entirely reasonable for faculty to raise these [...]

  50. Marianaria Bibliotecaria on 09 Mar 2009 at 4:15 pm #

    Just wanted to answer the multi-choice question in your second paragraph: it’s C, right? (I love the thought of barbaric yawp meets Emily.)

  51. Joseph B. Axenroth on 01 Jun 2009 at 1:17 pm #

    I think the advantages or benefits that the clickers have in the humanities are effectively the same as in the sciences, or any area, for that matter. So long as they are used effectively. Clickers are tools, and unless you are properly trained in how to use the tool, the benefits and advantages may not be known. If used incorrectly, the tool will hinder the learning experience.

    You should NOT use clickers simply for the sake of using them. Many people who left comments, who found them to be ‘useful,’ also made the claim that the tool works for engaging students.

    Clickers, by their very nature, are Audience Response Systems. They are used to allow your audience (your students) to respond to your lecture, all in real time. In effect, your students can have a complete dialog with you. Although not always verbal, since the initial response is via the clicker, it provides an excellent starting point for group or class discussions.

    In fact, a proven effective use (in SEVERAL disciplines) pairs the clicker with peer instruction. There is much literature out there showing that, if used correctly, the students will not only just retain the information during class time, but the final exam will increase by a full letter grade.

    Bottom line: the clickers are only an effective tool if the teacher / professor incorporating them into a course does so effectively.

  52. Derek Bruff on 12 Jun 2009 at 10:10 pm #

    I’m a little late to this discussion, having just found it on a Google blog search, but I’ll agree with Joseph Axenroth and say that classroom response systems can be very effective tools for generating personal reflection, small-group discussion, and classwide discussion in classes both large and small, in the sciences as well as in the humanities.

    Attending a lecture and taking notes works very well for some students, particularly the students who go on to careers in academia. They’re able to assimilate and process the information shared in the lecture as it comes to them and/or after class as they review their notes. Many students, however, benefit from more active processing of information during classtime, when their classmates and their instructors are available to help them process.

    A well-crafted clicker question can go a long way in helping students make sense of new information during class. Let’s say you pose a multiple-choice question for which there is no single correct answer but for which there are perhaps more justifiable answers and less justifiable answers. Something like “Which of the following motivations best explains so-and-so’s actions in such-and-such novel?” Instead of posing this question, hoping that all your students take a moment to think about it, then hearing from the handful of students who have the time and courage to share a response, suppose you ask all of your students to respond to it using their clickers.

    Sure, some students might just press a button, but since you’re using the clickers, you communicate a message to the students that you really do want to hear from all of them, not just the ones who raise their hands. Not only that, you’re giving each student a chance to consider the question, weigh arguments for and against each answer choice, and commit to what s/he thinks is the best answer–all before s/he hears what the other students think about the question.

    All students are thus given a chance to respond independently to the question, which helps prepare them to engage more seriously with any discussion (small-group or classwide) of the question that follows. They’ve had time to formulate something to contribute to that discussion, and they’re more invested in the topic at hand since they’ve had to commit to an answer.

    Furthermore, since their responses can be tracked, you can hold them accountable for their participation, which motivates them to participate. And since their responses aren’t identified to their peers, it creates a safer environment for risk-taking, since many students are hesitant to appear looking ignorant in front of their peers by volunteering a wrong answer.

    The bar chart showing the distribution of responses gives you a quick sense of how your students are approaching the question at hand, and you can then respond to those results to guide the discussion in productive ways. For instance, if one of the options is a reasonable one, but wasn’t selected by many students, you can play devil’s advocate and help them reconsider that option.

    Also, when multiple answers are popular, the bar chart shows students (a) that they’re not alone in their confusion and (b) that the question is one worth considering since their peers have such different views of it. This, too, can motivate students to participate in subsequent discussions.

    And since students expect multiple-choice questions to have single correct answers (and, in fact, often expect every task or challenge to have a single correct answer, one that should be memorized and regurgitated on a test), when you tell them that the clicker question you’ve been discussing with them doesn’t have a single correct answer, you’re creating conditions that can have a very positive impact on their intellectual development!

    I could go on, but I hope that some of the pedagogical benefits of classroom response systems are starting to become clear. These systems are popular in the natural and social sciences, but I would argue they have great potential for helping to create productive classroom dynamics in the humanities, particularly through the use of questions without single correct answers.

    As Joseph Axenroth said, the technology is just a tool. A chalkboard is a tool, too, one that can be used in pedagogically productive ways or in pedagogically unproductive ways. As noted above, some of the criticisms of clickers stem from the less than ideal ways some universities and colleges relate to instructional technologies. That certainly occurs, which is why it’s important to implement clickers in sensible ways, opening up the door to the pedagogical benefits I’ve mentioned here.

    Also, I’ll point out that your basic clicker runs about $20-25, not $60. Most of the systems available now are extremely fast, reliable, and easy to use. There are also systems that allow students to submit their responses via text-messaging or the Web, so students can use existing devices (cell phones, laptops) instead of clickers. So there are options for implementing the technology sensibly.

  53. Why Clickers? on 12 Jun 2009 at 10:28 pm #

    [...] just discovered a blog post by Ann M. Little, a historian at Colorado State University, expressing a fair amount of skepticism about the use of [...]

  54. Geeky Mom » Blog Archive » Clickers! on 08 Jan 2010 at 7:39 am #

    [...] number of posts have commented on the Chronicle article and the NPR story on clickers. I really don’t like [...]

  55. hater on 24 Sep 2010 at 3:30 pm #

    Can anybody say, “landfill”? Clickers suck and they are an environmental nightmare.

  56. dr. truth on 22 Apr 2011 at 9:24 pm #

    Internet, television, radio, electric lights, antibiotics. Tools for fools. If most of you posters had it your way we would still be getting all of our information from library books selected via the Dewey Decimal system. “Clicker hate” is what I call it. Wanna teach these kids something? Have them actually tuned in during your next class- and clickers will do it when used properly. These students aren’t fundamentally different than we were at their age, but their modes of communication are totally different. Lecturing every day and throwing out “thought provoking questions” might work in a class debate on abortion, or the 2nd amendment, but it won’t work everywhere… and lecturing from “on high” comes off as arrogant at least as often as clickers dumb down the classroom.

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