Classroom response systems

A while ago I wrote about th every limited way that many educators use student response “clicker” handsets. Now I read yet another article on the topic.

Classroom response systems – elearnspace

The thrust of the article is that the use of specialist handsets is limiting, and it considers alternatives such as commodity mobile phones using bluetooth, SMS and so on. But it still misses the point. Even while acknowledging that students have massive access to communication technology, its use in education is almost universally limited to answering multiple-choice quizzes.

This is “in the box” thinking. A quiz is an extremely blunt instrument for measuring student engagement and learning. The lack of a “back channel” of information flow to the teacher has been a limitation of education ever since the first students gathered at the feet of a master. This unidirectional transfer has become such a part of the educational process that it is no longer questioned. Sometimes it is even seen as a virtue, rather than an unfortunate consequence of scale. Communication from student to teacher is carefully isolated in the small bubbles of tutorials, seminars, and one-to-one chats. “Proper” education, it appears, takes place when listening to lectures and reading textbooks.

With pervasive communication technology we now have a way of breaking out of this constraint. Think of the possibilities!

  • Imagine every participant gets to indicate privately whether the pace is too fast or too slow.
  • Imagine every student is free to raise non-interrupting questions or misunderstandings, and others get to answer them or vote them up if they have a similar problem. Common problems can be addressed immediately, others can be dealt with individually later.
  • Imagine student notes, thoughts, and problems could be shared both with the teacher and the other students during a session, as well as being recorded for later use, rather than each student having his or her own “silo” of bafflement.
  • Imagine a screen with a real-time “dashboard” of student interests and concerns as the session progresses, so a teacher can adapt and drive the session with open eyes.
  • Imagine students could “log in” and “log out” of sessions without disturbing other students or the teacher, and yet still be able to track what they have missed.

All of these things are technically possible. Most are possible using commodity “clicker” hardware, let alone the power of a modern mobile phone, Wi-Fi iPod, or laptop.

Before dismissing this as a pipe dream, consider that these things routinely happen at technical conferences, where it is not uncommon for a large proportion of an audience to be twittering, blogging, messaging and commenting throughout each presentation. Strangely enough, this does not seem to result in the wisdom of the presenter being swamped by mindless chatter, rather that it is amplified, distributed, and even sometimes corrected.


  1. That’s an interesting concept Frank. We have a problem still that most of our teachers are not ready for implement these “simple” clicker handsets anyway. I can imagine some teachers folding because their “class” is not sitting attentively perched on every one of his words.

    But back on the issue of clickers as they are today, in the K-12 arena, cost of these things is a real issue. It’s not so simple to ask every student to buy their own clicker, so they end up buying a class pod (say 30) and share it between classes. Then they learn the issues of contantly needing to register the things for each new student that grabs one. Time wasted and people discouraged.

    For those K-12 schools with 1:1 computer labs or 1:1 laptop programs, they may want to consider “Virtual Clickers” –

  2. I’m a big fan of the idea of a classroom “backchannel,” and Frank’s done a great job here of describing the possibilities of such a thing. Unfortunately, there are big gaps in terms of technology and pedagogy between a backchannel like Frank describes and the standard college or university lecture. Making it relatively easy for faculty to negotiate those gaps is a significant challenge.

    I think that the use of classroom response systems to collect student responses to multiple-choice questions posed by instructors is a nice stepping stone to a richer interactive classroom experience. Clicker technology has matured to the point where many faculty are able to use it comfortably, and teaching approaches that make good use of clickers don’t have to be too different from those faculty are used to using.

    I’ve seen many faculty start using clickers in relatively limited ways, see how the technology can change the classroom dynamic in productive ways, then start experimenting with other ways to use it to interact with students during class.

    Even multiple-choice questions can be extremely useful when used with classroom response systems. They can be used to generate discussion certainly, and well-designed questions can surface important student misconceptions. One limitation of the backchannel that Frank describes is that it relies (for the most part) on students identifying their own misconceptions and misunderstandings. Well-designed multiple-choice questions can help students realize misconceptions they didn’t even know they had.

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