The Costs (and Benefits) of Clickers

This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education includes an essay by Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, titled “Classroom Clickers and the Cost of Technology.”  (You’ll need a subscription to the Chronicle to use that link, unfortunately.)  In his essay, Bugeja expands on a few points he made about clickers in a prior essay.  I thought I would respond to a few of his points here.

I agree with some of Bugeja’s takeaways from his institution’s experiences with clicker vendors.  He argues that students should be involved in decisions about instructional technology, that chief information officers should be consulted by departments making such decisions, that faculty adopting technologies should be aware of not-so-obvious costs of using these technologies, and that administrators should be prudent when conducting cost-benefit analyses of new instructional technologies.

Those are all very sensible points.  However, I see some problems in the ways Bugeja uses clickers as an example in support of these points.  The fundamental weakness of the essay is that Bugeja seems to be doing a cost-benefit analysis on clickers without paying much attention to the benefits portion of that analysis.  As well-referenced as the cost portion of his analysis is, he fails to consider any of the research looking into the impact of teaching with clickers on student learning.

For instance, he quotes Ira David Socol of Michigan State University as saying, “The idea of wasting money on a device no more sophisticated pedagogically than raising your hand drives me nuts…”  However, there’s strong evidence (Stowell and Nelson, 2007) that when the hand-raising method is used, fewer students participate and students are more hesitant to answer questions honestly than when a classroom response system is used.  Those are significant differences and to ignore them is to fail to accurately describe key benefits of using clickers.

Bugeja also writes that had students at his institution been asked to weigh in on the cost-benefit question regarding clickers, “they probably would have said no because of excessive student fees.”  I can’t speak for students at Iowa State, but a number of published studies of student perceptions of clickers, including Trees and Jackson (2007), MacGeorge et al. (2007), and Kaleta and Joosten (2007), indicate that students respond positively to clickers, particularly when clickers are used in ways that engage them in class and provide them with feedback on their learning.  It should be noted that in the studies I just listed, students were required to purchase their own clickers.  Thus, there is evidence that students see the benefits of clickers outweighing the costs.

A second weakness of Bugeja’s argument is that he discusses the cost side of the cost-benefit analysis by focusing on the cost to install and maintain infrared-based classroom response systems.  IR systems are indeed costly to install and maintain and a bit of a pain for faculty and students to use.  However, arguing that classroom response systems aren’t worth the cost because infrared-based systems are costly is a bit like arguing that automobiles aren’t worth purchasing because steam-powered cars are a pain to use.  Very few colleges and universities are still using infrared-based clicker systems.  The radio frequency systems now in common use eliminate almost all of the installation, maintanence, and usage problems of the infrared systems.

As Bugeja points out, at Iowa State relatively few faculty members used clickers when the infrared system was the only one available.  When the easier-to-use and more-reliable radio frequency system was made available, “users then multiplied throughout the university.”  Bugeja makes good points about the costs involved in supporting early versions of clicker systems, but given how usage increased when more mature technologies were made available, I think a stronger takeaway is that institutions should be cautious when implementing new technologies.  Waiting for “version 2” can help institutions avoid costs.  Universities now in the process of rolling out clickers widely can take advantage of the more mature radio frequency technologies and thus avoid all the hassle of the older systems.

There’s more I could say about this essay, but I’ll stop here for now.  I encourage you to respond to Michael Bugeja’s essay as well as my thoughts in the comments section below.

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