In Search Of Answers, Teachers Turn To Clickers More teachers are equipping their classrooms with little keypads that let students instantly, and anonymously, answer questions. Teachers say the clickers are improving the quality of education, but some students feel like they're on a game show.

In Search Of Answers, Teachers Turn To Clickers

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. It's time now for ALL TECH CONSIDERED.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: This week, we're heading back to the college. And for those of us who've left our school days far behind, today's campuses may seem a bit foreign. Dorms are a wired maze of laptops, iPhones and webcams. Classrooms lecturers are downloadable as mp3s and finals are often administered online. Well today we're going to explore how one new technology is helping resolve an age-old classroom dilemma - the blank stare. It's called clickers. It can be hard for teachers to know what students are absorbing in class. But these little keypads allow students to instantly answer questions. Dan Bobkoff of member station WCPN in Cleveland went to see them in action.

DAN BOBKOFF: Before visiting Conor McLennan's Memory and Cognition class at Cleveland State University. I'll admit that I couldn't really see how these little clickers could change teaching.

Professor CONOR MCLENNAN (Psychology, Cleveland State University): Today, remember, we're going to have review for exam one, which is on Friday, and we'll have a number of clicker slides throughout the class today.

BOBKOFF: Then I saw how he uses them for everything. His students have a pen in one hand and a credit card-sized clicker in the other. And anytime he has anything to ask them, the question goes up on the projector screen.

Prof. MCLENNAN: Okay, so if you're interested in being interviewed after class by Dan for the story and your use of clickers and whether you like them, you can respond yes. If not, say no, but again…

BOBKOFF: So the students grabbed their clickers to punch in either yes, they will talk to me. Or no, they have better things to do. A few seconds later a bar graph pops up showing that just 16 percent said yes. And I guess you are part of the 16 percent who said yes, that you would talk to me.

Ms. ALLISON FIFOLT (Student, Cleveland State University): Yes, I am.

BOBKOFF: Allison Fifolt is a senior at CSU. This is her first class using the clickers.

Ms. FIFOLT: It's good and it's nerve-wracking. You kind of feel like you're on a game show…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FIFOLT: …because you get to compete with everyone else.

Prof. MCLENNAN: So which of the following is not characteristic of a mental representation? Is it one, a mental representation of an object is not the same as its physical representation? Is it two, mental representations provide the base of…

BOBKOFF: The class stares at the question on the screen. Some rest their clickers on their cheeks while they think. A countdown appears on the screen. And then, time's up and they punch in their answer.

Prof. MCLENNAN: It's not the case that we are conscious of almost our representation.

BOBKOFF: All right, so maybe Psychology 372 isn't really as dramatic as "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," but the students did seem into the whole thing. In fact, Professor McLennan polled his class - with the clickers, of course - and found that 96 percent of them really like using them. And by constantly polling, McLennan gets an instant read on how much of the material they are absorbing.

Prof. MCLENNAN: If you answered perceptual, why did you think it's perceptual? Just guessing? So, over 20 percent had perceptual.

BOBKOFF: Nervous giggles from the class.

Prof. MCLENNAN: No one wants to admit that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MCLENNAN: Guessing? Okay, so now you know. So, on some of these points…

I thought people would be less likely to speak up because now they can respond anonymously, they don't have to ever open their mouth. But it turns out to be the other way around, actually they know everybody is answering the questions, everyone's in the same boat, then they are more likely to speak up and interact.

BOBKOFF: After class, McLennan opens up his laptop to see how each student voted on the questions. That way he can identify those who might need extra help. The industry calls the clickers student-response systems, and one of the big makers of them is Turning Technologies based in Youngstown, Ohio. Brad Gant runs their education division.

Mr. BRAD GANT (Vice President, Educational Sales, Turning Technologies): You know really, students outside of the classroom, their lives are filled with technology. And a lot of times we ask them to power-down when they come into the classroom, not use that technology. This is a chance to use the technology to engage the students.

BOBKOFF: Some of the newer models even allow for open-ended responses, beyond just multiple-choice. And a few months ago, Turning came out with apps for iPhones and BlackBerrys. So someday soon, bringing a cell phone to class might be as essential as a pen.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Bobkoff in Cleveland.

BLOCK: And we are joined now as we are most Mondays by Omar Gallaga, who covers technology culture for the Austin American-Statesman. Omar, welcome back.

OMAR GALLAGA: Hi Melissa, good to talk to you.

BLOCK: And you know I've seen these clickers in action. I can think of a lot of pitfalls. What would you say the main challenges are for teachers with technology like this?

GALLAGA: Well, in the case of clickers, students may give the impression that they are following along and that they are understanding what's been put in front of them, but that's no indication of whether they are going to retain that knowledge. It's a tool, like - like any other - and it certainly not a substitute for the teaching and not something to become overly reliant on. With other technologies in the classroom, from social networking to putting materials online for students' access, it's not enough to just do it. You really have to do it well.

BLOCK: Yeah. And it's hard to see where any thing like critical thinking would come into play for just punching a button for a multiple question.

GALLAGA: Right, the open ended ones are more interesting and especially as things like iPhones and BlackBerrys become more ubiquitous and become compatible with these things. But yeah, definitely in the multiple-choice, you are not really getting the indication of whether they are getting a deeper knowledge of the information.

BLOCK: Well, apart from clickers, Omar, what are some of the most effective ways that schools are putting student's knowledge of gadgetry and technology to good use?

GALLAGA: Well, one long-time trend is students getting universities to issue them laptops as part of their tuition, or at least offer them a discount. But in other ways, universities are also increasing the technology available to students. They are bolstering their Wi-Fi networks, they are making lectures and class materials available online, even as subscribable Podcasts if students want to subscribe to those. Many professors utilize technology that students are already using - everything from iPods to social networking sites like Facebook. It opens more channels of communication. Students for instance may want to chat with their professor over Facebook rather than just send an e-mail. For the student, it's all about access. They need to have a range of options to get as much information as they can.

BLOCK: And you do see colleges bragging about being the best wired campuses. There are magazines that rank schools based on all the bells and whistles that are available to the kids there. And I guess for parents, you want to know, you know, apart from the technology, is that really working? Is it helping them learn?

GALLAGA: Right. There's a lot - there's a lot more to it than just hardware, or just the network. There was a list in October, the top 20 wired colleges that PC Magazine and the Princeton Review put together. And some of the determining factors for their top 20 were also things like tech-related course work, not just web design classes. For instance at the University of Pennsylvania, they have a high-tech intellectual property course.

BLOCK: As you look ahead, Omar, what would you say is next for universities using technology like this?

GALLAGA: Well, what seems to be happening right now is that social network sites are being utilized more and more. There are free services like Facebook and students are using them to create groups, to chat with professors, to create message boards. In the past, they might have had to set up their own Webpage or Web site to kind of coordinate with student groups or create, say a student organization Web site, but now those tools are readily available and free.

One company I spoke to a few months ago called Wiggio is doing something similar for students who want to create groups online, but they are also adding voice and text messaging, shared calendars, conference calls, file sharing. They are really giving students the tools that, you know, a large cooperation might have for their employees, but they are available free and they're ubiquitous, so it's like having an entire IT department for your student group.

BLOCK: Okay, thank you, Omar.

GALLAGA: Thanks very much for having me.

BLOCK: Omar Gallaga covers technology culture for the Austin American-Statesman.

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