Clickers Uber Alles

I can certainly see the appeal

Every student in Mr. White’s class has been assigned a palm-size, wireless device that looks like a TV remote but has a far less entertaining purpose. With their clickers in hand, the students in Mr. White’s class automatically clock in as “present” as they walk into class.

They then use the numbered buttons on the devices to answer multiple-choice quizzes that count for nearly 20 percent of their grade, and that always begin precisely one minute into class. Later, with a click, they can signal to their teacher without raising a hand that they are confused by the day’s lesson.

Lots of costs though, too, and only some are financial. I vote no to clickers. What do you think of them?

4 thoughts on “Clickers Uber Alles

  1. Yet another expensive technology that only marginally improves the students’ experience. Before all of this technology, there were excellent teachers that sparked the minds of their students in ways that changed those students’ lives. All they need is a great book and a good head on their shoulders. Other teachers would strive to emulate the teaching-paragons of their past, and think and experiment to improve upon them. Now, we simply fetishize technology, dump money on gimmicks, complain about how there isn’t enough money for more teachers, and complain about how the cost of tuition is going up.

  2. I use clickers in my physics class to ask multiple-choice, ranking tasks, or even numerical questions to see how well students understand the concept we’ve just discussed. Usually the way it works is that I’ll ask a question and poll the students to see what percentage of the class got the answer right. I’m not left waiting for a student to raise their hand or only relying on the vocal students to answer, since with clickers, the student is more or less anonymous when answering via clickers. If a significant percentage of the class gets the answer right, I know I can quickly move on to a more challenging question or new topic, but if half of the class ends up with the wrong answer, I can now ask the students to break up into pairs or groups of three to discuss and compare their answers. I can then poll the class again with the same question to see if the discussion helped their understanding and use this as a springboard for further discussion. Our students’ don’t incur a financial cost, since our department has a set of clickers that we share among our faculty. Basically we use clickers to provide formative assessment, to engage students who would normally be too intimidated to speak up in class, and to encourage interaction between the students’ themselves. As the article mentions, you can even ask a multiple choice question that doesn’t have a right answer, since your intent might be just to foster discussion among the class.

    None of this are my own ideas; I’m basically describing the approach that Eric Mazur developed for his introductory physics courses at Harvard. He wrote a book about it (Peer Instruction) that’s gained a lot of traction in the physics research education community.

    Anyways, now I’ve described how I use clickers in my class, I’m curious to know what are the reasons for voting no to clickers. I’m not saying clickers should be used in every classroom (I know the way I use them can be improved in many ways); I’m just genuinely curious why someone would see clickers as a bad fit for their class.

    • It’s a fair question, Alchemist, and a good one.

      Before answering, though, I’d like to distinguish between the sorts of clickers we use at HW (distributed in class to students) versus the sort described in the article (assigned to students at the beginning of the term and utilized to monitor their attendance as well as do things of the sort we do with the clickers we use.

      In the first case, I can see how they are appealing and useful. I don’t think there’s anything that they can do, though, that I can’t do with $1 for a pack of 30 index cards and an extra 3 minutes or so. Let’s price them at $20/clicker for the sake of argument. I’m not convinced that my time is worth nearly $200 a minute (showing my math: 30 students * $20 clicker = $600 vs. 1$ + 3 minutes = $599 vs 3 minutes = $199.67 per minute). So, in short, I think I can do what you do with the clickers (in our classes, anyway) without them (assuming I’m willing to “invest” the relatively short amount of time required to collect and tally the results myself. The same would not be true if I were lecturing to 300 people. I think they’d be invaluable in those circumstances for exactly the reasons you suggest.

      In the second case, there are a whole host of other issues involved–autonomy, surveillance, managerialism, privacy, disciplinary training, tracking, expectations, “spillage”/loss, cost, accuracy (if I’m there, but my clicker isn’t have I attended?), and the rest that all make me feel a bit squirrelly about the techno-creep and our willingness to employ such tools to those ends. I would be very nervous about unintended consequences of deploying clickers in the fashion described in the article.

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