Article: Freeman, Bell, Comerton-Forder, Pickering, & Blayney (2007)

Reference: Freeman, M., Bell, A., Comerton-Forder, C., Pickering J., & Blayney, P. (2007). Factors affecting educational innovation with in class electronic response systems. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 23(2), 149-170.

Summary: Fourteen faculty and staff involved in a clickers pilot project reflected on their experiences in the project (some in writing, some in structured interviews) using questions based on Rogers’ model of the diffusion of innovation. Each question was tied to one of the five factors identified by Rogers that drive adoption considerations–relative advantage, cultural compatibility, complexity, trialability, and visibility. Two non-adopters were included among the fourteen. This article presents an analysis of these reflections.

  • Relative Advantage – The article includes a nice inventory of reasons clickers can improve student learning and faculty job satisfaction according to the instructors studied. These advantages, however, were offset by the time (time to learn the technology, time to learn the pedagogy, time to set up before class each day) and risks (risks of technical failures, risk of being surprised at what faculty learned about student study habits and misconceptions) involved in using clickers. Faculty not already using active learning strategies in the classroom found that the disadvantages generally outweighed the advantages.
  • Cultural Compatibility – When discussing this factor, the authors expand on the notion that faculty already using active learning strategies (in support of constructivist pedagogies) find clickers more compatible with their current teaching practices than faculty not using such techniques. The authors also note a few aspects of faculty culture (promotion and reward systems, for instance) that are risk-averse to teaching innovations, particularly those involving technology.
  • Complexity – Clickers presented some hardware issues, but problems learning to use the software were even more significant, particularly for faculty not already using PowerPoint.
  • Trialability – Given how difficult the system was to learn and to set up on a daily basis, it was difficult for faculty to trial the system.
  • Visibility – The private nature of teaching limited the visibility of faculty use of clickers among other faculty. Also, the pilot participants had on the whole poor experiences with the technology, so they were less inclined to tell their colleagues about it.

The authors provide some advice for dealing with the challenges to adoption outlined above.

  1. Provide technical and administrative support to faculty using clickers.
  2. Promote faculty with constructivist pedagogies to leadership positions.
  3. Utilize project teams to support faculty.

Following up on the third point, the authors provide some advice for such project teams:

  1. Include a mix of faculty and staff.
  2. Include not only innovators and early adopters, but also “early majority” faculty (to use Rogers’ terms).
  3. Include mostly faculty who are constructivist in their pedagogies.
  4. Include discussion of research on instructional technology.

Comments: It’s important to note that this pilot project was conducted in 2004-05. Classroom response system hardware and software have improved in ease of use and reliability greatly since then.

I agree with the authors that instructors already using constructivist approaches to teaching are more likely to see clickers as compatible with their teaching. However, adopting clickers can often be seen as a “low threshold activity,” as least as far as changes to one’s teaching practice are concerned. (Technical hurdles can sometimes be more significant, as mentioned in the article.) Instructors used to lecturing can fairly easily start to use clickers effectively by asking an application clicker question a couple of times during a class session.  Doing so gives students a chance to apply what they’ve just heard about and provides the instructor with a useful assessment of student learning, while not requiring the instructor to change his or her teaching practice in big ways.

This idea that faculty already using student-centered teaching approaches are more likely to make use of clickers and use them well was mentioned in Fies and Marshall (2008).  The question I asked in my post about that article is relevant here, too: How can instructors using clickers be helped / encouraged / supported in using student-centered approaches to teaching with clickers?  I think Ian Beatty’s suggestion in the comments on that post was a useful one–share and discuss with faculty examples of clicker questions designed to meet useful pedagogical goals.

Interestingly, there’s not much mention of student resistance to clickers in the article as a compatibility issue or a risk of using clickers. In my experience, student resistance can be significant if clickers aren’t used in ways that students perceive as contributing to their learning, particularly if students are shouldering the cost of the hardware.

The authors make a good point about the difficulty of trying out clickers for a class period or two. Many teaching and technology centers and offices make available sets of clickers for faculty to borrow for this purpose.  Perhaps it makes sense to also offer the services of a “clicker facilitator” who would actually set up and run the system during class for the faculty member. That way, the faculty member could try out the system without having to learn much at all about it.

I think the visibility issue the author raise is also important.  It is too rare that college and university instructors visit each other’s classrooms.  In some places, classroom visits only happen for evaluation purposes or when an instructor is in trouble of some kind.  This is a wasted opportunity, however, since all instructors can benefit from learning about each other’s approaches to teaching.  I would bet that instructors on the fence about using clickers who visit the classroom of an instructor experienced in using clickers would benefit from that visit by seeing in very concrete ways how clickers can be used to engage students and “uncover” student misconceptions.

Update: I just read a great post by Stephanie Chasteen exploring Rogers’ model of diffusion of innovation.  She discusses how the factors mentioned above affect the adoption of educational innovations, and even makes the point that I did that clickers can be used in ways that are compatible with the traditional lecture method of teaching.

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