A fresh take on the classroom clickers (aka ‘PRS’)

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Just yesterday I attended and presented at the first European Turning Technologies User Conference at the University of Surrey. Turning Technologies are the US-based manufacturers of the classroom clickers / PRS that we use here at City. The keynote for the day was none other than Harvard Professor Eric Mazur, developer of the ‘Peer Instruction’ model of teaching and learning. His keynote and all other recordings from the day are on YouTube here

What I presented on:

I talked about and demonstrated a TurningPoint technology called ResponseWare  (RW) and discussed how I had piloted this with Cengiz Turkoglu and his students from the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences (SEMS) at City last year. RW basically enables students to vote with their mobile devices as opposed to the regular clickers – this technology brings with it many practical and pedagogic benefits (but also some challenges too!). I also talked a bit about how we knew that our students weren’t really happy with the idea of using their mobile devices in class, but trialled RW with them nonetheless! The slides from my presentation which explained what happened can be found here

ResponseWare at the University of Surrey

Paul Burt and his colleague Ceri Seviour at the Centre for Educational and Academic Development (CEAD) at the University of Surrey gave a presentation on their experience of using RW. They started off with giving some background about their highly successful clicker library loan system, which has seen zero losses in clickers since it was introduced 4 years ago! However, they explained that one problem they faced was that students perceived the non-return fine of borrowed clickers as a significant risk – this was reducing engagement in the technology. Further, they knew that over 80% of their students owned some kind of internet-accessible mobile device so why not make use of these? A further justification for using RW was that it removed the headache of worrying about mixing channels (seasoned clicker users will know what I’m talking about here!).

Paul and Ceri then discussed their very recent experiences of using RW:

  • They piloted with 80 RW licences initially, now have 450 (since Sept ’11). Each RW licence is available for 2 years and is based on concurrent use.
  • They use a simple Outlook calendar to manage the distribution of licences across the University, this is working well and since the start of the semester they have had several lectures (sizes ranging from 100 – 350 students) using RW
  • They were given significant IT support throughout and this was highlighted as key to the success of the project  – this was necessary in order to troubleshoot problems relating in particular to the WiFi
  • They found that students own many more mobile devices than they had anticipated and many had non-English configuration (which made running around trying to troubleshoot on Chinese language devices almost impossible!)
  • They did experience performance issues which are as yet undiagnosed but they are working on it, e.g. students experienced quite a significant lag in displaying the polling results on their mobile device screens. It remains unknown whether these issues are related to the WiFi connections or are a TuringPoint server issue.
  • Student evaluations of RW are on the whole quite positive – 59.%% said they liked the concept of using voting technology in lectures and were happy to use their own device to vote with

Tips for a successful RW experience

Paul and Ceri helpfully outlined some tips for getting the best out of RW:

  1. Generate helpsheets not only for staff but also for students
  2. Set-up a website that contains links for direct access to the RW app for a variety of different mobile operating systems for students (TurningPoint has one but it is too US-centric and confusing for UK-based students)
  3. Before you start, seek assurances about the capacity of the WiFi for mobile devices in the classroom where you intend to teach. WiFi access points may indicate that they can support 128 connections, but actually they may only support half this number (i.e. 64) when connecting up mobile devices –  this is due to some technical point which I’m still struggling to get my head around but Paul said does happen and we have to watch out for this!

Using clickers to support the marking and moderating process

Fellow Brit Dr Abby Cathcart now based at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) talked to us about her experience of teaching (and assessing) cohorts of up to 1250 students! In addition to widely differing class sizes, Abby also jokingly contrasted the average climate of Sunderland (where she worked 4 years ago – 9C) with that of Queensland (a sunny 26C !). She admitted that the first time she heard about clickers she thought they were ‘edutainment’, but after her experience she is completely convinced of their pedagogic potential, especially in terms of improving feedback to students.

Abby’s main use of the clickers was in marking teams, where for 1250 students, marking teams are typically made up of 25 tutors, all of whom have varying levels of experience and opinions. She uses the clickers to collect opinions from all 25 markers  about student work, as in the past she found that one or two voices (usually the experienced tutors) would tend to dominate when all tutors met. Marking novices would rarely speak up  if they thought their opinion would rock the boat.  Abby found that more graders participated in the moderation discussion when clickers were used, with markers commenting that they felt ‘bolder’ and ‘more confident and prepared’. The paper outlining Abby’s work can be found here

Using clickers to highlight feedback for students

Finally Dr Cathcart also talked about strategies that she uses to improve the way students engage with the feedback that is given to them. She found that nearly 45% of her students didn’t even bother to collect the feedback she had so painstakingly written for them (this is in line with national figures). She also took into account a point made by Phil Race where he said that students must receive feedback on their assessments within 48 hours otherwise there is no point in doing it! To overcome this, Abby really emphasises to students at the start of the course that giving them feedback is ‘something we do really well’ and that students can expect high quality feedback on their assessments. Abby gets her students to understand their assignments and the assessment criteria for them by showing them a sample from a real piece of student work in relation to an assessment criterion, then having the students use the clickers vote on which mark they would give it. This is followed up by group work where students discuss the mark – as Abby says this ‘springboards a social construction of how to make sense of the assessment criteria’.

Final Thoughts

I’m glad I attended this conference. I’ll admit I did think it was going to be very corporate and that TurningPoint were going to try and sell stuff to me. However I couldn’t have been more wrong and its focus was on the practical and the pedagogical in equal measure  – so highly useful and thought-provoking too. Looking forward to the next one!

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