LectureTools and Placemark Questions

There were a lot of mentions on Twitter the other day of the recent Campus Technology article “Fostering Classroom Interaction, Minus the Clickers.” The article describes a Web application called LectureTools developed by Perry Samson, a professor of atmospheric, ocean, and space sciences at the University of Michigan.  In a nutshell, LectureTools is a suite of tools designed to support active learning, including clicker-like survey and quiz tools, PowerPoint sharing and annotation tools, a backchannel (student-to-instructor) tool, and a podcast tool.  These tools are useful outside of class, but they are even more useful during class, provided one’s students all have laptops and WiFi connections.

It’s clear that Samson has put a lot of time and effort in developing this suite of tools and that he’s had success in using it to enhance his classroom dynamic.  The functions accomplished by these tools can be accomplished in other ways, of course, but LectureTools integrates these functions, which likely has some value for students and instructors.

Here’s what caught my attention in the Campus Technology article:

“Where on this weather map do you expect it’s going to rain today?” Dr. Perry Samson asks the 200 students in his introductory class on extreme weather. Almost instantly, dots begin to appear on the displayed map, as students indicate their answers through their wireless laptops. In moments, a clear pattern emerges on the classroom display as Samson continues the lecture.

That’s a kind of free-response question that I haven’t seen before!  I really like the idea of sending an image to students’ laptop screens (or smart phone screens, for that matter), letting them mark it up somehow, and then displaying an aggregation of students’ markups on the big screen for the whole class to see.  That would seem to set the stage for a productive class discussion, one informed by patterns in the student responses.

Samson calls this kind of question an “image-based question.” I might call it a “placemark question,” after the little virtual push-pins one can use to mark locations in Google Earth.  This kind of question would be particularly useful, I think, in earth, oceanic, and atmospheric science courses, although any course in which students analyze images or graphics might find this question type useful.

LectureTools is another example of a classroom response system in which the response devices aren’t clickers.  These more general classroom response systems have a lot of potential, in part because of the greater flexibility in the nature of student responses.  See my last post for a different (and hypothetical) classroom response system with potential use in literature courses.

One more thing: This probably goes without saying, but I’m not opposed to the use of clicker-based classroom response systems!  Multiple-choice questions can be incredibly useful, sometimes in ways that surprise those who consider them limiting.  Also, many clicker systems are very simple and easy to use, which is a plus for many instructors.  I don’t know how easy or hard LectureTools is to use, but I know some instructors prefer simple, single-use systems to complex, integrated systems.  You’ll need to consider what kinds of technologies work best for you.

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