Two months ago I attended the Turning Technologies User Conference 2012 at Aarhus University, Denmark, the first of its kind in Continental Europe (following the success of last year’s UK conference, reviewed here). Turning Technologies manufactures the electronic Personal Response Systems (PRS) or ‘classroom clickers’ that we use at City University London to poll students’ responses to specific questions posed during lectures, so I was keen to learn more about how other users internationally deploy this technology in their teaching.
A brief outline of each of the sessions is given below. The conference agenda, including abstracts for each of the presentations, is available here and the full conference programme (which was combined with Aarhus University’s ‘Frontiers in Science Teaching’ conference to create a two-day event) may be downloaded here.
Keynote – ‘Turning Lectures into Learning’ (Eric Mazur, Harvard University)
Following a welcome from Michael Broderik, CEO of Turning Technologies, the day opened with a keynote presentation by Professor Eric Mazur, whose ground-breaking teaching method of ‘peer instruction’ has brought him international recognition. He discussed how he developed peer instruction during the early 1990s as a response to the problem of the transmissive nature of traditional lectures, making lectures more interactive by placing students at the centre of their learning and thereby fostering a deeper level of understanding. In brief, the process is that a key conceptual question is posed; without conferring, the students vote for the answer they believe to be correct; they are then invited to discuss their answer amongst themselves in small groups; finally, the poll is taken again to see if more students have been persuaded towards the correct answer by their peers’ explanations. Professor Mazur illustrated his method with several worked examples, including, towards the end of his presentation, one from his teaching in ethics to demonstrate that peer instruction was not applicable exclusively within pedagogical contexts in which there is a definitive answer.
‘Writing good great Exceptional Clicker Questions’ (Siara Isaac, EPFL, Lausanne)
‘Museum Studies Using TurningPoint’ (Mikel Asensio, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and Elena Pol, Interpretart)
Then followed the first of three parallel breakout sessions. In an interactive presentation, Siara Isaac invited the audience to write and revise PRS questions to turn them progressively from good, to great, to exceptional questions that nurtured deep-level understanding. Her discussion was informed by common mistakes in the authorship of multiple choice questions, but she also argued that to write exceptional (rather than merely good or great) PRS questions, a more creative approach may be necessary. Meanwhile, in the room next door, Professor Mikel Asensio and Dr Elena Pol discussed their use of personal response systems within museum studies. They noted that the information traditionally provided in museums was often quite weighty (for example, large amounts of printed text mounted on walls) and that this is not particularly engaging or interactive for visitors. As a solution, their institution has taken to using personal response systems to stimulate their guests’ interest in their collections as well as to gather important demographic information about them.
Interaction in Lectures with Mobile Devices (Will Moindrot, University of Manchester)
Using Electronic Voting Systems in the Arts and Humanities (Christopher Wiley, City University London)
After lunch, Will Moindrot discussed the logistical challenges presented by the use of personal response systems in lectures involving large numbers of students (it was particularly interesting to have considered this perspective given that personal response systems are often cited as being a means of dealing effectively with large-group teaching). He reported back on the students’ experiences of the solution implemented at the University of Manchester, namely the use of ResponseWare technology (a good explanation for which is to be found here) to enable students to vote using their own mobile devices without the need to be supplied with a bespoke handset. The concurrent session was my own presentation on using personal response systems in the arts and humanities. I (Dr Christopher Wiley) argued for the potential of PRS to enhance teaching in areas other than the traditional sciences, for instance, by soliciting audience opinion on a contentious point (with the aim of nurturing debate and generating arguments for and against prior to a repoll), or asking ‘subjective’ questions that stimulate discussion among students in that there may be more than one valid or correct answer. My presentation was illustrated by examples drawn from my teaching as a music lecturer who has used PRS for the past four years, as well as feedback received from my students.
‘Diagnostic Processes In General Practice’ (Lars Bjerrum, Copenhagen University)
‘Improving Practice and Addressing Practicalities: Embedding Audience Response Systems at the University of Kent’ (Daniel Clark, University of Kent)
In the final breakout session of the day, Professor Lars Bjerrum explained how personal response systems may be used to illustrate different approaches to the diagnostic process in general practice (as distinct from the diagnostic process within the context of a hospital). Such approaches include pattern recognition and deductive reasoning, and his presentation referred specifically to patients in primary care. Next door, Daniel Clark discussed e-learning strategy at the University of Kent in relation to the use of personal response system technology, which was piloted there five years ago. He spoke about positive feedback received from staff about the pedagogical value of PRS, current practices at the university (for instance, using PRS to facilitate revision sessions), the challenges posed by the embedment of this new technology in teaching and the solutions that were implemented, and the means by which PRS is promoted to staff on a continuing basis through training sessions (see here for further information). His presentation yielded an insight into the strategy of a single higher education institution as well as offering helpful guidance to others seeking to implement similar initiatives within their own contexts.
‘Turning to Your Neighbour’ (Julie Schnell, Harvard University)
The day concluded with a follow-up session exploring peer instruction, led by Dr Julie Schnell, who amplified the specific concept of ‘turning to your neighbour’ which is at the heart of the method. Through worked examples, she discussed the benefits and drawbacks of two fundamental questions relating to its implementation: whether or not to take an initial vote before inviting the students to discuss a given question with their neighbour; and at what stage in the peer instruction process to display the poll results to the audience. Professor Mazur’s opening keynote had already given us experience of some of these different approaches, for instance, revealing the results of the initial poll to us immediately for one question but withholding them for another.
The conference also benefitted from a number of poster presentations, including ‘Adding Value To Your Handsets – Making Video Interactive’ (Sue Palmer, Empowering Confidence) and ‘Clicking Your Way to Research Data’ (Sue McMillen, Buffalo State College). All in all, it was a highly informative event and a valuable opportunity to network with people implementing personal response systems in a variety of technology-enabled teaching settings, and to share thoughts, practices, and solutions.