Maybe you’all already know about clickers in the academy. I just found out. In case you’re as clueless as me, clickers are the things used in recent game shows where the responses of a live audience are required. Don’t think of “Family Feud,” where people are actually required to think of a word (for themselves!) and type it in. Think of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?,” where they have to choose one of four possible answers. Universities across North America are requiring students to buy these things, and professors are rushing to incorporate them into their classes. Here’s a description from a website:
“Students in Ann Auleb’s biology of human sexuality class at San Francisco State University are often shy about joining classroom debates on gay marriage, abortion, circumcision and other emotion-stirring topics. But more students came out of their shells this spring when Auleb introduced ‘clickers’ into her classes. Students used the handheld gadgets, which look and work a lot like TV remote controls, to respond to classroom polls and quizzes without ever raising their hands or voices. Using special receivers connected to their laptops, instructors were able to instantly gather responses to personal yes-or-no questions like, ‘Would you have your child circumcised?’”
Even leaving aside the question of whether anonymity fosters truth-telling, it seems to me bizarre to think that anything real or interesting could be gleaned from a chart of yes or no answers. When does the professor ask “why?” And how do clickers help a student articulate her reasons? And how much attention is going to be paid to the self-account she offers, given that it won’t be chartable or power-pointable?
Maybe clickers work better in science classes. But I doubt it. Here’s another description:
“Harrison (Physics, UofT) said the pedagogy behind them creates an enriched learning environment. He describes a scenario where half the class gets the multiple-choice question right and half get it wrong. The instructor can then break the students up into small groups and have them take a few minutes to discuss the question. “Then you ask them again and typically the number of students who get it right goes up dramatically. When you’ve got a 1,000 students in Convocation Hall divided into groups of four or five, arguing about physics amongst themselves, the energy level in the room goes way up,” Harrison said. “It’s the best kind of learning. It’s interactive, the students are learning from each other and the engagement is fantastic.””
I have no doubt that many students like to be divided into small groups where they can chat. I think this is a good thing to do in class. But what makes Harrison think that the results that follow the discussion aren’t caused directly by some students telling other students the answer? And, more importantly, what do clickers have to do with this experience? Harrison surely knows intuitively when half the class doesn’t understand what he’s saying. And if he doesn’t, why can’t he ask, “do you get it?,” and watch for the nods and the frowns?
Douglas Duncan, from the University of Colorado, has already written a book called, “Clickers in the Classroom.” The most-quoted tag-line is: “Have you ever found yourself standing in front of your class in the middle of a lecture and wondering what in the world is going on in the minds of your students?” Well, yes. So I ask them, “what’s in your minds?” If there are 14, it works pretty well. If there are a hundred, it’s still somewhat effective. If there are two hundred, it starts to break down. But even then it gives me things to work with that a multiple choice survey couldn’t provide.
My web search on clickers didn’t unearth one dissenting voice. Oh, except for the several sites that mentioned technological incompatibility. Here:
“Universities are looking to thwart the compatibility issue by settling on one technology supplier and requiring all professors to use their equipment, according to DTC analysts. But such ‘standardization,’ in industry lingo, may go against the grain of professors, who tend to be very independent-minded, Ward [chief executive officer and president of e-Instruction, which is based in Denton, Texas] said. ‘Those institutions have a hard time dictating (to professors) what they do in the classrooms,’ he said. ‘The emphasis is on academic freedom.’”
That’s what academic freedom comes down to these days: freedom to choose which high-tech corporation you want to be beholden to for your pedagogy.