Can Clickers Promote Collaboration and Creativity?

Wesley Fryer, on his “Moving at the Speed of Creativity” blog, recently argued that clickers shouldn’t be put in the same basket as laptops or netbooks when it comes to educational technology in the classroom.  He writes:

Personally I am NOT a big fan of clickers. Clickers don’t promote creativity. Clickers don’t empower learners to create and share content, or collaborate. I have been in many classrooms equipped with electronic whiteboards and even clickers, where the ISTE NETS were not being met AT ALL.

There’s a great discussion in the comments below Fryer’s blog post about clickers, faculty development, and active learning.  Fryer has apparently not seen clickers used to foster active learning, but he’s open to hearing ideas.   Here’s what I said about these issues in the comments:

Dean Loberg makes some great points above about the use of clickers as a faculty development tool, giving faculty members an easy way to become more student-centered in their learning. It’s true, as Wesley Fryer points out, that for a few hundred dollars, you can purchase a netbook that replicates the function of a clicker while also allowing a larger set of rich interactions. However, basic clicker models run closer to $25 than $70, so clickers can be cheaper by a factor of 10.

Furthermore, shifting from “stand and deliver” teaching to a mode of teaching that leverages the interactive capabilities of a class full of networks is a big shift in one’s teaching. That shift might not be an easy one or even an appropriate one for all teachers in all teaching contexts. Polling students to gauge their understanding during a lecture makes sense to most instructors used to the “stand and deliver” method. Since clickers are surprisingly flexible instructional tools, instructors who adopt them for use in very limited ways often find more interactive, student-centered ways to use them.

How can clickers be used to foster student creativity and collaboration? I think the key idea here is to think about using clickers to ask questions you wouldn’t put on an exam. Imagine providing students with four or five contribution factors to a particular historical event, then asking them to select the factor that was most significant. This kind of question wouldn’t work on an exam, unless you had an essay question to accompany it in which students justified their answers. However, this is a great clicker question, since it asks each student to evaluate the given options and commit to his or her answer, creating conditions for a fantastic classwide discussion of the question. Having students pair up to discuss their answers before voting adds even more to the collaborative dynamic. And knowing the distribution of student responses to this question gives the instructor useful data for making the discussion more relevant and responsive to the students.

I blog regularly about teaching with clickers. If this topic interests you, you might start with my recent post on using clickers to teach critical thinking.

I’ll add here that instructors who use clickers in rather limited ways (just taking attendance, for instance, or facilitating the grading of quizzes) don’t always find more student-centered ways to use them.  I’ve blogged in the past about the challenge of helping instructors think creatively about their use of clickers.  The fact that Wesley Fryer, who is clearly a creative and enthusiastic proponent of educational technology, hasn’t seen clickers used well reminds me that it continues to be important to share best practices for engaging students with clickers.

Image: “school bag” by Flickr user joe.yeah / Creative Commons licensed

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