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As a school project we've developed a web based tool (similar to a clicker) which helps the teacher understand how large proportion of their students actually understand what she/he says. Now we've been approached by our school's business incubator who thinks we should commercialize the idea.

What makes our solution unique right now is our focus on extreme simplicity both for teachers and students, but there are many similar ideas on the market. That makes me wonder why they haven't succeeded in making clickers omnipresent. Only a small percentage of lecturers use these tools despite claims from their manufacturers that they improve learning dramatically.

Why doesn't every teacher use a clicker or similar tool? Is it just tradition or are there practical issues to using them that discourage most teachers?

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What is a "clicker"? – mbork Apr 23 '14 at 17:45
@mbork a clicker is a system of small devices handed out to each student to allow them to answer questions during class. It allows for a more interactive lecture. Here's one example link. Our system is similar, but only focuses on the question we felt was most relevant: "do you understand?". It's also easier, quicker and cheaper to set up but I don't even know if this is an issue for lecturers. – Johan Wikström Apr 23 '14 at 18:31
@JohanWikström: I see. What a strange idea. Why not just ask the students in a "traditional" way? Frankly, I can't see much point in using such devices, at least in the context of teaching. (Game shows, that's another story;).) And BTW: I've never heard of anything like that, so I'd suggest explaining it in the question. – mbork Apr 23 '14 at 18:55
I have a very low-tech clicker technology I use in all my classes. When a student doesn't understand something I say, they raise their hand and ask a question. – James S. Cook Apr 23 '14 at 19:55
I recently saw a presentation about a study claiming that clickers have a neutral to detrimental effect on learning in physics classes. I would imagine the same conclusion might hold in math, to some extent. – David Z Apr 24 '14 at 6:03

10 Answers 10

up vote 30 down vote accepted

Every time I add a new technological object to my classroom, I increase the chances that my class does not happen that day.

Imagine if you could only make copies for your students in class in front of your students, but the copies came out very quickly. This would be extremely stressful, because when you brought a quiz to class, there would be a small chance that the copier would not work that day, and so your class would be compromised.

Clickers and all other technological advances in the classroom are thus (for me) automatically suspect since they make the class inherently less reliable.

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I agree 100%. Standing in front of a bunch of people and teaching them something they don't already know right out of your head incorporates a certain element of 'magic'. Standing at the front of the class while a student fetches someone to help with an interactive whiteboard destroys that magic. – jwg Apr 23 '14 at 19:49
"Every time I add a new technological object to my classroom, I increase the chances that my class does not happen that day." True, but this doesn't mean we shouldn't use technology if it makes sense and can improve student learning. If the payoff is greater than the risk, then it wouldn't make sense NOT to use technology. – Robert Talbert Apr 24 '14 at 12:38
I don't think clickers are very disruptive (as described above) and as such shouldn't impede you having your class without them like you do today. The copier analogy is not a good one. – David Wilkins Apr 24 '14 at 14:29
@DavidWilkins I'm standing by the copier analogy. A quiz that fails to be copied does not impede me having my class, but it removes an assessment from the syllabus and I will have to fix the grading of the course. Similarly a clicker that fails to work does not impede me from holding my class, but I will have to deal with the same grading issues due to missed attendance/participation points. RobertTalbert's point is a better counterargument -- that of course there is some risk but perhaps it is worth taking. – Chris Cunningham Apr 24 '14 at 14:35
@ChrisCunningham My intent was not to completely disagree, I don't think clickers are a good alternative to raising one's hand, but I say that without having been involved with lectures consisting of over 80 students, unless you consider performance classes like band/orchestra, in which a clicker would be extremely disruptive and prohibitive. – David Wilkins Apr 24 '14 at 14:44

Here's what I've found, based on my own clicker use for the last 5-6 years and by doing clicker workshops:

  • Cost. Clickers (and their software BYOD variants) cost money and many profs don't want to ask students to buy Yet Another Item for class when textbooks are so expensive already. Also, many IT departments don't want the hassle of managing fleets of clickers.
  • Shelf life. To make matters worse, there's often no standardization among clicker devices on the same campus, so one class will require Turning Point RF clickers and another will require a Top Hat license while another will require an iClicker. In this case students end up laying down serious amounts of money for essentially a unitasking device -- or rather, several of them, which will likely never see the light of day after the course is over.
  • Not having a sense of how best to use the things. There are some amazing things you can do pedagogically with clickers, but many faculty don't see these or fail to think outside the lecture box. Or, the faculty know what can be done but it sounds time-consuming to convert lectures over to clicker-driven classes, so they bail. (Which is too bad since this is not entirely true.)

For me, having just spend a semester using a web-based BYOD type of clicker implementation, I'm not so sure I'm going to stick with it. The web-based tool I used had some neat features that physical clickers can't do, but I lost track of how many times someone's wifi connection would drop out in the middle of a lesson or something like that. Physical clicker devices just work IMO.

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Just for reference, do you have a link to that web-based tool? It would be very helpful to us. So the main problem is that the web devices don't work all the time? That's interesting. – Johan Wikström Apr 23 '14 at 19:01
@JohanWikström: the most reliable technology is no technology, or simple one like paper & pencil, wooden stick acting as a pointer, chalk & blackboard etc. With any electrical device there is at least one way something may go wrong (flat battery), and with any web/network-based device the number of ways something may go wrong is much larger. (That said, I admit I like technology/gadgets etc. a lot;).) – mbork Apr 23 '14 at 19:13
@JohanWikström - It's Top Hat that I used this semester, but honestly I don't know how much of the issues that I had to do with Top Hat, or how much had to do with our sometimes-spotty network or with the students' devices. The wifi-based solutions to me are still an emerging technology despite the near-ubiquity of wifi itself. – Robert Talbert Apr 23 '14 at 22:29

Only a small percentage of lecturers use these tools despite claims from their manufacturers that they improve learning dramatically.

Maybe people who actually use these tools have a different opinion on their effectiveness to that of people trying to sell these tools?

I'm a part of the network support team in a college, I don't deal directly with classroom support for things like this all that much but I talk to staff who do support it, and lecturers who are actually in the classrooms.

As Chris says, it's one more thing to go wrong - not just in the local sense of "batteries won't work" but for a web-based tool like you have (?) it's at the mercy of someone like me having a bad morning and blocking half the internet by accident (it can happen). It's something else that might get lost, stolen, or whatever. It's one more thing to set up.

These might sound like small issues but there is a wildly varying level of comfort and confidence in using IT technology in lecturers and for those who are not comfortable with technology, no matter how simple you make these things, they're still a trial to endure rather than a tool to help them.

And that's not even considering that some lecturers will be quite happy using alternative methods. Despite being an IT person myself and quite comfortable with using technology, if you're ever in a lecture room listening to me talk about something expect me to write on all the whiteboards many times over before expecting to see anything like a clicker appear.

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Haha, I guess I'm oldschool enough that I consider whiteboards (as opposed to blackboards) already too much technology (chalk is much more reliable than whiteboard markers!). – mbork Apr 23 '14 at 19:16
"Maybe people who actually use these tools have a different opinion on their effectiveness to that of people trying to sell these tools?" +100 for that sentence. – mbork Apr 23 '14 at 19:19
And one more thing: "someone like me having a bad morning and blocking half the internet by accident (it can happen)." – now I understand why I couldn't use the web yesterday – it must have been RobM's fault... – mbork Apr 23 '14 at 19:20
It usually is @mbork :) - and Johan, I'm sure you're aware of this but it really does make little sense to base your marketing on what your competitors claim is happening, surely. – RobM Apr 23 '14 at 19:22
I studied CS in university and some projector or the projection screen or laptop not working and holding up a lecture despite a room full of CS people certainly happened more than once. So yes I can't really argue with the argument here. – Voo Apr 23 '14 at 22:01

As in other answers and comments: while in gigantic "classes" one might hope to either get meaningful responses, or do quick polling/quizzing via in-real-time responses, ... techno-glitches make it impossible to depend on these, in the first place.

The potential plus that feedback can be anonymous, allowing perhaps more sincere response than otherwise, would be a wonderful result to realize. However, in those huge-class scenarios, and given our contemporary academic culture, there is scant reason to believe that clicker responses are ... that.

The faux-benefits of anonymous response are misleading, I think. Instead, I've always implemented systems that allow me to learn everyone's name even in classes of up-to-150. Even if "kids" seem to desire a sort of anonymity, it seems to me that they benefit from belief that the instructor is aware of them as an individual, not as a stat on a clicker.

Reading facial expressions and body language gives me quite a lot of information. Techno-vulnerable yes-no stuff is not only limited and high-overhead, but too narrow a pipe for what I want to know about the people in the room.

(I'm not at all a technophobe, btw, having written a web browser in Perl, etc. But not a technophiliac, either. Trying to be a realist.)

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+1 for the "classes". Nicely said. – James S. Cook Apr 24 '14 at 10:56
allowing perhaps more sincere response than otherwise - Nah, not all of use cared. We knew they were anonymous and not part of the grade, so (at least within my group of friends) we just hit the nearest button on the clicker. And "E" usually wasn't an option. – Izkata Apr 25 '14 at 3:52

I've used clickers and helped other faculty with clickers for over 10 years. I'm at a very large, very research-oriented public university. Here are the reasons I've seen for why research faculty don't use clickers when they teach:

  • They team-teach, which means all instructors have to agree to use them
  • They teach only 5 weeks a year, and have to re-learn the technology each time. They get very frustrated with changes in software and hardware
  • They have a low tolerance for student confusion with technology. Without an expert TA to do the grading and solve student problems, clickers are too much work.

Our teaching faculty (senate-level lecturers) all teach much more often and all use some sort of audience response device. This group is generally willing to try anything and can make anything work. The major difficulty with BYOD web-clickers is:

  • The lecture hall wifi can't handle 440 students submitting at once
  • Not every single student wants to bring a device to class. This is less of a problem as smartphones become nearly ubiquitous, but still.
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People have mentioned lots of good thoughts but I'll add a bit. Even staying away from ancient history and sticking to recent years, in addition to clickers (I don't know the vendor they want me to use here), people have been telling me that I should record my classes on video (we have Tegrity), digitize all my whiteboard work (we have SmartBoard), flip my classroom (I think they want me to use Kahn Academy), or fold in MOOC's (there seems to be interest in EdX) or Open Educational Resources (the one at Carnegie Mellon is often mentioned), and use a learning management systems (we have recently switched to Canvas, so things built in the prior one may well be lost).

No one wants to be that guy. But aren't you skeptical?

Here are two specific things that are in my cloud of help-make-me-skeptical thoughts. (1) These things are all a ratcheting-up, that all add degrees of franticness to the class and therefore threaten a focus on the work at hand. (2) Going back to ancient history, the best guide to success for typical students has been to come to class and to do the homework. Perhaps new stuff is a big win, and faculty that are interested should definitely experiment (I've tried some things on the above list; for example last semester I flipped a Business Calc class), but I often take a pass myself.

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First of all, I like the idea of short reinforcing videos, but all this is placing a huge burden on the teacher. After 10 years, I should be able to pull this stuff off the net and curate it rather than build from scratch. But that's just theory, even if I can find materials that pass my 98% of everything is crap filter. Right now, this means a huge investment. Having said that, I think you should look into CLOZE questions. CLOZE is a reasonable standard, so even if they switch from Canvas to moodle/next flavor, you can keep your question set. CLOZE embedded questions are awesome – Dov Apr 25 '14 at 2:33
I wonder what you are talking about? Possibly you meant to reply to a different post? – Jim Hefferon Jun 3 '14 at 21:45
check out using a learning management systems with web-based questions as opposed to videos. Both require effort, but videos are a lot more effort, and questions can port around better. With a video you still need questions to see who watched, how much they retained. I am finding (for computer science at least) that asking targeted questions strongly reinforces the learning by forcing students to focus on the specific questions I want them to consider. – Dov Jun 7 '14 at 15:44

I originally wrote that there is independent data showing no difference in outcomes.

This was based on a presentation at Stevens Institute of Technology where they tested clickers and found that students were more enthusiastic in class, and that attendence rose. At the time, they said that scores did not rise. Scores after all, are the objective goal. If students don't understand any better, then the immediate goals are more ego-gratification for the professor.

Today, 10 years later, the professor says they use clickers, and find that they still achieve the immediate improvements. He cannot tell me about grades because they don't do any studies on it. It is hard to believe that grades cannot improve based on better attendance, but without objective measurement, I still believe their initial impressions which were based on comparison of year on year scores. Another way of looking at this is that as the studies by the ASU modeling curriculum found, students of physics don't believe what they are writing. When asked what happens in a "real" situation they give Aristotelian answers. In other words, the lecturer can improve lecture mechanics with clickers, but unless they change the way they teach, the fundamental scores won't change because the students don't really believe the physics. Anyway, sorry, but that's peculiar to physics.

I teach programming, and I find that multiple choice questions are of limited utility. I can sometimes ask the right question. But the best test of computer programming ability (aside from asking for an entire program) is to see whether people know what to type in a particular place without prompting. This is short answer, and complicated short answer since multiple answers can sometimes be acceptable. I will attach some sample questions I ask below.Example of CLOZE questions

Personally, using clickers takes time, and I have moodle and can tell them to review things at home and answer my questions there. That way, I get them to study out of class, review what we did, and it reinforces it without taking up classtime. I find that works better for me, but in any case I am teaching graduate classes, without access to uniform clickers.

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Do you have a link or reference to the data you mention in the first paragraph? – Wrzlprmft Apr 24 '14 at 7:43
No, but I know it was a study of physics students in freshman year. I will ask the guy who presented and get back to you. The upshot was there was initially more interaction, which seemed net positive, but there was zero impact on scores which was their metric. – Dov Apr 25 '14 at 2:29
@Wrzlprmft this study, although not only about clickers, says it works – Sulli Apr 25 '14 at 12:36
Checked back with the professor who presented. Clickers there appear to work as well. At least, he discusses enthusiasm and class participation which you have to believe would have an impact. – Dov Apr 28 '14 at 15:12

I don't use clickers nor anything like that because I teach on the assumption that each person seated in front of me is an adult, in charge of their own learning. Of course that is not true in many cases these days, but to me the fact that university students want to behave like children is still no reason to treat them as such.

Because of the above, and since the students have already lots of means to communicate with me (personally before, during, and after class; office hours; email) plus other resources (the course web page, their notes, the textbook, tutoring, online searches), I find no use for clickers in my class.

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Exactly. You know, there is another side to all of this. What if clickers work? What if we feed the students like little baby birds and they do learn more? If it all works, and they learn more content then what? We have created a class of creatures who cannot think for themselves unless someone entertains them. We should be creating challenges for them to overcome with the (if this still makes sense) "old college try". That ought to mean something! – James S. Cook Apr 26 '14 at 17:33
"We have created a class of creatures who cannot think for themselves". That's only true if you use the clickers in a way that doesn't reward thinking. Nobody here has mentioned a very common method used with clickers: you ask the question, don't display the results, and then ask everyone to discuss their answers with people around them and respond again. Frequently the class converges on the correct answer with no instructor help. In this case, someone must be thinking for themselves; contrast that with a lecture in which it often seems no one is doing any thinking at all. – Dan Drake May 2 '14 at 17:40
@Dan: of course someone is thinking by himself or herself. But I don't see how getting the whole class to ask a question to the thinking minority helps at all. – Martin Argerami May 2 '14 at 18:02

A colleague of mine recently tried out a very cheap low-tech alternative: university students were provided with red and green pieces of cardboard, to be folded by the students themselves. They were asked to place these on their desk, one hidden inside the other, and could thus very visually indicate their answer to the basic question “do you understand”. The results were quite good, so I think I might adapt that approach when next I'm facing a larger audience.

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Greetings MvG and welcome to ME:SE! – Chris Cunningham Apr 25 '14 at 18:51
A colleague of mine used to use clickers but then switched to a system like that mentioned above: she gave the students pieces of paper with A, B, C and D printed on them large enough to fill the page, and she asked them to hold up the appropriate sheet in response to occasional multiple choice questions. I might try that next time I teach a large class. – Neil Strickland Apr 26 '14 at 19:13
I sometimes ask my students to shake their heads up and down if they understand, side to side if they don't, or shrug their shoulders if they're middling. No technology, No hassle, No cost, always works. – David Ebert Apr 27 '14 at 15:30

I really liked using clickers myself. Ultimately (and this was about 8 years ago) I only had two classes that used them for attendance and a daily quiz. Physics. The problem with them was that they were somewhat expensive, didn't always work, and if you forgot yours you were SOL for that lecture's participation points. The one thing that stood out in my mind was that between the two physics classes we had to have two different clickers. They had changed the type of clicker used between the two classes even though they were parts 1 and 2.

I imagine if clickers were used more often they would require at lease some uniformity between departments and from the school's purchasing. I personally really did think they were a great idea. Perfect for instant feedback from students.

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