Is the university going to hell in a handbasket? Please vote “yes” or “no” on your clicker.

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.

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11 thoughts on “Is the university going to hell in a handbasket? Please vote “yes” or “no” on your clicker.

  1. Yup, those clickers have really caught on. Did you know that there are faculty members at your very own institution who are using them? I haven’t heard from students as to whether they like them or not, since none of my students are apparently in any of these classes right now. I was surprised (and intrigued) to hear that this was going on here, where classes tend to be quite small. Apparently these are being used in large science lectures, which makes a bit more sense. The students who talked to me about the clickers said that they are used to gauge student participation each day. Attendance can be taken by seeing whether students chime in with their clickers each day. The way one student described this to me made it sound as if clickers were being used to police the students, rather than foster learning in any way. That might just be one student’s interpretation. I suspect the professor/s has/have other motives.

  2. We have large science lectures? Where attendance can’t be taken by eye, or by a senior student? And if it can’t be checked by eye, what’s to stop students sending their clickers in with other students?

    But the heartening thing is that the more high-tech your panopticon gets, the more falls through the cracks.

  3. One point of light: When we were hiring the head of Instructional Technology, the committee dumped one candidate who loved clickers — and the leaders of the dumping were the head of ITS and the committee member who uses clickers in his 100-person science class.

    In a huge class, they have their uses. But I’ve never heard of people using clickers in a class of less than 75 people, and I hope I never do.

  4. I love the feel of a clicker in my hand but can’t imagine using it in teaching.

    What about the clickers in faculty voting issue? What say ye?

  5. Ooo the feeling of power. Who cares, eh, that it’s totally delusional?

    Voting sure, whatever. I’m good with clicker voting. But my class is not an election.

  6. This disturbs me to the core and I am not a university professor.

    I see it as an outgrowth of standardized testing in which all knowledge can be determined by a simple “A, B, C or D” bubble. Is it a faster way of determining that information? Yes. Does it give you any good reliable information about what the student knows? Absolutely not.

    In my classroom, it would be useful to have the students feel greater access to technology and involvement in their learning. Allegedly. That’s it.

    In the university? Blech.

  7. This just in… (via a student).

    Word is that at least one class (chez nous) using clickers on campus has an enrollment of around 30-35. I’m disturbed…but disturbed by my being disturbed, because I’m not sure exactly why I’m disturbed yet. I need to think through the issues more…but don’t really have time. Am I just crotchety and old-fashioned? Perhaps. I haven’t thought this through enough. Of course, I’m still pissed off about having to use stiff sliding whiteboards as opposed to chalkboards, so who am I to judge…

  8. I never understood the handbasket part of the hell quote. Why handbasket? Wouldn’t it get burned up? And who is carrying said handbasket? If not handbasket what other kind of baskets are there? Just a thought.

    I think all professors should have clickers and we should just mysteriously click them at odd intervals. THAT would get their attention.

  9. Oh the devil is carrying the basket, sure. Whoever that happens to be. My usual variant is “hell in a handcart” which maybe makes more sense — at least in my crazy brain it makes sense that the devil would push a wheelbarrow. But people don’t seem to say that anymore. Anyhow I love the phrase: it’s so fuddyduddy me.

    I know what you mean, shhhhh. A solidly grounded argument against the high-tech classroom is hard to formulate, especially one that’s measured and takes into account that some new pedagogical methods might be good ones. But we can at least start from the fact that people can’t seem to make judgments when it comes to technology. They work themselves into a fever of enthusiasm for anything new and digital. No one asks: is this better than what we were doing before?

    White boards are environmentally unsound.

  10. “But more students came out of their shells this spring when Auleb introduced ‘clickers’ into her classes.”
    By that standard, I “came out of my shell” today when I saw a really hot woman in class and poked her on Facebook rather than approach her in real life. If only there were a way to poke ANONYMOUSLY – then I’d REALLY be “coming out of my shell.” Stupid university/academia… Love from Columbia, JB
    PS: When Ahmadinejad made that comment about homosexuals, I woulda clicked in “Eat my dick” (can Pomona’s IT guy make that possible?)

  11. (can Pomona’s IT guy make that possible?)

    When I’m forced to use clickers in my classes, I’ll insist on this as pre-set option # 5.

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