Clickers as Essential Elements of the 21st Century Classroom?

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported (briefly) on a new survey from CDW, a “leading provider of technology products and services for business, government, and education,” indicating some differences in how faculty and IT staff view the role of technology in higher education. Here’s what caught my eye from the Chronicle story:

“The most popular tools cited by professors were e-textbooks and online documents, with faculty members reporting far less enthusiasm for other electronic tools. Under a quarter of faculty members surveyed use wikis or blogs in their teaching…”

While I’m an active user of blogs in my courses and I see a lot of value in wikis for student collaboration, the bit about e-textbooks and online documents doesn’t interest me that much. Those two technologies are more about content delivery than interaction. Sure, they have their uses, but they’re not as likely to lead to active learning experiences as more interactive tools.

What bugs me about this Chronicle story is that there’s no mention of classroom response systems. I mentioned this on Twitter, and a couple of people there poked fun at my tweet about this omission. Sure, I’m going to notice whether or not clickers are included in a survey like this. I did write a book about teaching with clickers, after all. However, it’s not that clickers weren’t addressed in the survey. In fact, they were listed right along with many other educational technologies as response options in the survey itself, and the publicly available report from CDW notes that 34% of institutions support the use of clickers by faculty. (More on that statistic below.)

I think what bothers me is that clickers rarely seem to rate a mention in stories like the Chronicle‘s on educational technology. Sure, e-book readers are all the rage these days and there are plenty of people in academia talking about the potential of e-textbooks. Blogs and wikis get a lot of attention, too, which is great since they are useful tools for fostering out-of-class interactions among students. But what about technologies that enhance the in-class experience for students? Yeah, I know I’m biased, but those are the technologies that I see as having the greatest potential to have a positive impact on higher ed. Why? Because what happens during class still looks a lot like it did 20, 50, or even 100 years ago. There’s great potential for growth there, and in-class, interactive technologies like classroom response systems can be a big part of that.

Back to the survey: Only 34% of IT professionals surveyed indicated that they support faculty use of clickers? That seems low to me, given that it seems that every campus I hear about has at least a couple of faculty members teaching with clickers. Perhaps at many of those places, that’s all there is: a couple of faculty members using clickers without any formal IT support. That would explain the 34% statistic.

This bothers me, too, particularly when, according to the CDW survey, 59% of IT professionals consider lecture capture technologies “essential” to the 21st century classroom. That’s just more content delivery. It doesn’t do much to increase student engagement and interaction. Yes, it’s true that students who know they can watch a lecture after class might take fewer notes and have more mental bandwith for paying attention and engaging during class. And lecture capture tools that allow students to collaboratively mark-up and share lectures after class have a lot of potential for outside-of-class interaction and learning. But why not put some more support behind a technology like clickers that’s designed to support formative assessment and student engagement during class?

Image: “Overhead Projectors at US Grant High School in Oklahoma City” by Flickr user Wesley Fryer / Creative Commons licensed. I’ve been wanting to use this image for a while now. What we consider an essential classroom technology one year can be a recycling challenge the next!

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