Are Simple Classroom Response Systems Best?

I was quoted this morning in “At Universities, Is Better Learning a Click Away?“, an Associated Press story on the future of classroom response systems by AP reporter Eric Gorski.  The story features Michael Dubson, who teaches physics with clickers at the University of Colorado-Boulder.  CU-Boulder, and its physics education research group in particular, has been very active in the world of clickers (including contributing to these great videos), and I was glad to hear Michael Dubson’s perspectives on the technology in the AP piece.

CU-Boulder is an i>clicker campus, and Dubson makes the case in the AP story that a simple, dedicated clicker device is preferable in most instances to more flexible systems based on smart phone apps.  Indeed, i>clicker devices have only six buttons–an on/off button and buttons labeled A, B, C, D, and E.  This is a very simple system, but, as inventor Tim Stelzer argued at the Louisville clicker conference back in 2008, multiple-choice questions with five answer choices work very well for the kinds of formative assessment and peer instruction many instructors use clickers to implement.

Gorski places me on the other side of a somewhat-artificial divide:

Derek Bruff, assistant director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching, said simple clickers are great at multiple choice questions. But he’s more excited about using smart phones, which allow students to ask questions of instructors, hold back-channel discussions with each other and respond in their own words.

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m definitely excited by the possibilities of using smart phones as “super-clickers” or to facilitate backchannel discussion in the classroom.  It’s true that I’m more excited by smart-phone systems than I am by simple clickers like i>clicker, but that’s largely because I’ve been involved in teaching with clicker with several years and I’m eager to leverage that experience to consider new kinds of technology-facilitated classroom dynamics.  (For one thoughtful perspective on those potential dynamics, consider Sean Seepersad’s recent post on moving away from clickers.  I hope to blog about Sean’s post soon!)

I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about the pedagogy of multiple-choice questions (while writing my book, blogging about clickers here, and giving talks on the subject around the country), and I think the multiple-choice format is often underrated.  I even have an article coming out (soon, I hope!) titled, “Multiple-Choice Questions You Wouldn’t Put on a Test: Promoting Deep Learning with Clickers.”  So I definitely get where Michael Dubson is coming from: Five-answer multiple-choice clicker questions are incredibly useful in all kinds of courses.

All this to say that one of the principles I attempted to uphold when writing my book was that everyone’s teaching context is different–different students, different disciplines, different institutions, different teaching styles and experiences.  I’m interested in helping instructors think more intentionally about their teaching choices, exploring the pros and cons of choices both traditional and innovative.  So while I may be more excited myself about smart phone systems, I always encourage instructors to select technologies and teaching practices that make the most sense in their particular teaching contexts.

I’m glad for clickers to receive the attention of the Associated Press.  The story has been all over Twitter today, and I hope it makes its way into print and online newspapers across the country.  And I’m glad that I could help Eric Gorski out as he was researching this story.  Eric also contributed to a short video piece to accompany his article, and he blogged about the story on the AP’s Facebook page.

Thoughts on the AP story?

Image: “The Nabla System (Forgotten Seed)” by Flickr user Syntopia

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