Clickers and the “Last Technology Holdouts”

Jeffrey R. Young’s Chronicle article, “Reaching the Last Technology Holdouts at the Front of the Classroom,” has apparently struck a nerve among professors, particularly those who are critical of educational technology. As I write this, the article has 59 comments on the Chronicle site, which is far more than most articles receive. Even the graph accompanying the article has received 13 comments!

Since clickers are mentioned in the article and in many of the comments, I thought I would weigh in here on the blog…

First, it’s worth noting that Chris Dede, the Harvard University learning technologies professor interviewed for the article, doesn’t make the argument that professors who don’t use technology are shirking their duties. Several of those who left comments seem to think so, however. For example, here’s comment #33 from Emily in NY:

“Dede does nothing in this article but set up a false dichotomy between professors committed to outdated, boring and irrelevant teaching methods and those eagerly embracing the modern technologies that contemporary students crave.”

Here’s the closest Dede comes to that argument, in the National Educational Technology Plan he helped draft for the US Department of Education in March:

“The challenge for our education system is to leverage the learning sciences and modern technology to create engaging, relevant, and personalized learning experiences for all learners that mirror students’ daily lives and the reality of their futures.”

Dede’s arguments in the Chronicle argument are focused on motivating professors to tap into the latest research on learning and continue to improve their teaching practices over time. From the report he drafted, it’s clear he thinks that technology can help with that, but he doesn’t seem to be making the argument that professors who don’t use technology are irresponsible, just those who stick with the same teaching methods you’d find in a classroom circa 1900. Sure, technology can be a big part of change, but many of the teaching innovations mentioned in the article (such as David Pace’s work on enhancing history teaching) don’t involve any technology.

Speaking of false dichotomies, however, here’s one from comment #18 by user “tee_bee”:

“What matters is that students learn–and a skilled teacher with a blackboard is still going to do a far better job than a bozo with some clickers and powerpoint slides.”

True, a skilled teacher is going to do a better job than a bozo any day, regardless of technology. But comparing a skilled teacher to a bozo isn’t really important here. Might technology (including clickers) help a skilled teacher be even more effective? Yes, that happens. And might technology help a relatively novice teacher become more effective? Yes, that happens, too. Those are the kinds of changes in teaching that are worth thinking about and encouraging, and I think that’s a point that Chris Dede would agree with.

How might teaching with clickers help a good teacher be even more effective? Several comments on the Chronicle article were skeptical of clickers’ potential for doing this. For example, here’s what user “ikant” said in comment #21:

“I’m young, tech-savvy, and pretty unconvinced by this article. I can’t speak for all fields, of course, but I’m pretty skeptical that good class discussions and quality writing in the humanities are particularly improved by clickers etc… the heart of what I do is in trying to educe questions, critical thought and excitement about books which students might previously have thought were utterly irrelevant to them, and (my evaluations indicate that) I do this very well with no particular technological bells and whistles in the classroom. Am I missing something?”

I’m glad that this instructor is capable of leading effective class discussions, foster critical thinking, and increase student motivation in the classroom. Let me clear: Doing so is entirely possible without clickers! However, not all instructors are as skilled as “ikant” appears to be and even for instructors like “ikant,” it’s possible that clickers would enhance an already productive classroom environment. Some examples from past blog posts:

Here’s a similar comment (#26 on the Chronicle site) from user “csgirl”:

“The reason I don’t use blogs and clickers is that they simply are not appropriate to the material I teach. Clickers in particular are useless to me – I care about the strategies my students are using to solve problems, not whether they can click the right answer in a quiz.”

This is a common misconception about clickers, that they’re just good for quizzing students basic conceptual understanding and recall. Here’s another formulation of it, from user “chewy18” in comment #53:

“They might work well for understanding basic concepts or in preparation for recognition/recall examinations where the test question is a line long and the answer a word or two in length. What about those of us who teach upper division courses where we struggle with students who have not, until they reach senior status, even been exposed to the analytical reasoning process. Suddenly they discover that life is, after all, not a multiple choice test and developing an argument that could go either way, is a requirement. How does that appeal to the clicker technology?”

Sure, clickers work well for assessing basic conceptual understanding and factual recall, but they’re useful for teaching at the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, too. Here are some more examples from past blog posts that demonstrate this:

And for “csgirl,” here’s a great collection of resources on using clickers and peer instruction in computer science from Daniel Zingaro.

Finally, you can imagine how this comment (#37) from user “fizmath” made me feel:

“The teacher/physician analogy is lousy. We have real data to show that new medical tech benefits patients. You can’t say the same about blogs, videoconferencing and those stupid clickers.”

(This is a response to Chris Dede’s analogy that teachers who don’t update their teaching methods over time are akin to physicians who don’t update their medical practices over time.)

Want some research? Try these studies, all of which are well designed and support the claim that clickers used in appropriate ways enhance student learning:

  • Stowell & Nelson (2007) – Clickers provided instructors with more accurate assessment of student learning during class than other response methods, including a show of hands.
  • Yourstone, Kraye, & Albaum (2008) – The use of clickers for end-of-class quizzes improved student exam scores by four points over the use of pencil-and-paper quizzes discussed the next day in class, likely because of the immediate feedback clickers provided to students on their learning.
  • Hoesktra (2008) – Clickers helped students be more attentive during class (since they know clicker questions could be asked at any time) and participate in more meaningful ways (both before votes are submitted and after results are displayed).
  • Smith et al. (2009) – Students actually learned from each other when discussing clicker questions in pairs prior to voting. They don’t “simply choose the answer most strongly supported by neighbors they perceive to be knowledgeable.”
  • Mayer et al. (2009) – Clickers made it easier for instructors to ask their students questions during class and for students to respond to those questions, leading to improved student learning through better class discussions.

My summary for those skeptical of using clickers in the classroom: Read the literature, find out how those in your discipline are using clickers effectively, and see (preferably by experimentation) if those methods might help you to enhance your teaching, regardless of how effective you are currently as a teacher. If a classroom response system doesn’t help you do your job better, then don’t use one. They’re not for everyone. However, don’t write clickers off without first investigating their potential. They’re far more useful and versatile that you might think at first.

Image: “Innovation” by Flickr user thinkpublic, Creative Commons licensed

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