A wireless handheld technology similar to the remote control you use to control your television set is transforming large, impersonal college lecture courses into dynamic, interactive learning labs. Although initiated mostly in colleges, this style of instruction–dubbed “interactive teaching” by its proponents–has potential far beyond the lecture hall.

In a recent “Ethics and Public Policy” class, Brown University professor Ross Cheit asked his students if they had a moral obligation to report cheating if they knew about it.

The room began to hum, but no one called out an answer or raised a hand. Still, in 90 seconds, Cheit had roughly 150 student responses displayed on an overhead screen, plotted as a multicolored bar graph–64 percent, yes, 35 percent, no.

Several times in the average class period, Cheit’s students weigh in on his questions using handheld wireless devices.

The devices, simply called “clickers” by Cheit’s students, are increasingly finding their way into college classrooms and are being used on hundreds of campuses nationwide. Users say they change the classroom dynamic, providing a way to get feedback and engage students in large, impersonal lecture halls. They also say the devices provide a way around students’ fear of giving a wrong answer in front of their peers, or of expressing unpopular opinions.

“I use it to take their pulse,” Cheit said. “I’ve often found in that setting, you find yourself thinking, ‘Well, what are they thinking?'”

In hard science classes, the clickers, which allow several possible responses, are often used to gauge understanding by posing multiple-choice questions. Cheit tends to use them to solicit students’ opinions.

In both cases, students are required to get involved.

“It forces you to be active in the discussion, because you are forced to make a decision right off the bat,” said Jonathan Magaziner, a sophomore in Cheit’s class.

Megan Schmidt, a freshman from New York City, said the clickers are an effective tool for spurring conversation in class and getting a feel for what other students think.

Stephen Bradforth, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California, helped launch a trial of the clickers in an honors chemistry class there last fall.

He said the clickers increased class participation and improved attendance, though it’s still too early to say whether students who used the clickers were doing better on standardized tests, such as those used to gain entrance to medical school.

Kevin McRoskey, a senior biomedical ethics major at Brown, uses a wireless device to participate in an ethics in public policy class. (Associated Press photo)

Professors used the clickers to survey students to check their comprehension of the material, Bradforth said. The surveys sometimes showed the students easily grasped topics the professors thought would need a lot of explanation and stumbled on those they had thought the students understood.

That can make for better teaching, Bradforth said, though it requires significantly more work from professors, who have to think about their lesson plans in a different way, and learn to respond to the feedback they’re now getting from students.

Eric Mazur, a Harvard University physics professor who’s a proponent of interactive teaching, says teachers don’t need technology like clickers to teach in a more responsive way. But he says clickers are more efficient and more comfortable for shy students than surveys conducted by a show of hands.

Mazur envisions students someday using their laptops, cell phones, or other internet-ready devices for even more interactivity.

For now, the clicker systems appear to be taking off. Some textbook publishers are writing questions designed to be answered by clicker and are packaging the devices with their books.

Most universities that use them require students to buy the clickers, although at Brown, they’re loaned through the library.

Made by companies including the Maryland-based GTCO CalComp, eInstruction Corp., of Denton, Texas, and Hyper Interactive Teaching Technology, of Fayetteville, Ark., the devices cost about $30 a piece. Each company’s device offers slightly different features, but the systems typically allow instructors to display class results as a whole, or record each student’s individual response.

That means the clickers can be used to give quizzes that can be graded automatically and entered in a computerized gradebook, saving educators time. But several professors said they have avoided doing that so students to encourage students to see the handheld devices as positive, rather than punitive.

While at the college level, the devices originally took hold in science classes, they are finding their way into the social sciences and humanities, where the anonymity they offer might be an advantage.

When it comes to sensitive topics, such as affirmative action, “people [who] are against it will click, but they might not raise their hands and say it,” Cheit said.

Cheit said the clickers also give each student a chance to weigh in.

“In a large class, the people [who] are willing to speak up and are vocal can dominate a class,” he said. “This [technology] gives everyone an equal voice.”

Links:

Brown University
http://www.brown.edu

University of Southern California
http://www.usc.edu

Harvard University
http://www.harvard.edu

GTCO CalComp
http://www.gtcocalcomp.com

Hyper-Interactive Teaching Technology
http://www.h-itt.com

eInstruction Corp.
http://www.einstruction.com

Mazur envisions students someday using their laptops, cell phones, or other internet-ready devices for even more interactivity.

For now, the clicker systems appear to be taking off. Some textbook publishers are writing questions designed to be answered by clicker and are packaging the devices with their books.

Most universities that use them require students to buy the clickers, although at Brown, they’re loaned through the library.

Made by companies including the Maryland-based GTCO CalComp, eInstruction Corp., of Denton, Texas, and Hyper Interactive Teaching Technology, of Fayetteville, Ark., the devices cost about $30 a piece. Each company’s device offers slightly different features, but the systems typically allow instructors to display class results as a whole, or record each student’s individual response.

That means the clickers can be used to give quizzes that can be graded automatically and entered in a computerized gradebook, saving educators time. But several professors said they have avoided doing that so students to encourage students to see the handheld devices as positive, rather than punitive.

While at the college level, the devices originally took hold in science classes, they are finding their way into the social sciences and humanities, where the anonymity they offer might be an advantage.

When it comes to sensitive topics, such as affirmative action, “people [who] are against it will click, but they might not raise their hands and say it,” Cheit said.

Cheit said the clickers also give each student a chance to weigh in.

“In a large class, the people [who] are willing to speak up and are vocal can dominate a class,” he said. “This [technology] gives everyone an equal voice.”

Links:

Brown University
http://www.brown.edu

University of Southern California
http://www.usc.edu

Harvard University
http://www.harvard.edu

GTCO CalComp
http://www.gtcocalcomp.com

Hyper-Interactive Teaching Technology
http://www.h-itt.com

eInstruction Corp.
http://www.einstruction.com