Thursday, August 11, 2011

Click N for “No”: An Educational Technology Returns from the Dead

As a graduate student at the Stanford School of Education, I often attended lectures in a large lecture hall at CERAS, the Center for Educational Research. The distinguishing feature of the otherwise ordinary lecture hall was that it was equipped with large cash register-like keypads that were embedded in the tables in front of each seat. When we asked what the keypads were for, we were informed that they were part of a “state-of-the-art” student feedback system that had been installed during the 1960s. During the course of a lecture, students would press Y or N on the keypad to indicate whether they understood a lecturer’s point, or they might key in a specific number to respond to a mathematical question. When they were installed in the late 1960s, these keypads were hailed as a revolutionary educational technology. No longer would lecturers have to wonder whether students understood a particular point; instead, students could anonymously key in Y or N. A breakthrough in student learning was surely just around the corner.

As it happened, even in their 1960s and 70s heyday, the keypads were seldom used. The machines turned out to be unreliable, and, more importantly, the professors at the School of Education turned out to be largely uninterested in the supposed transformative power of the keypads. By the time I arrived at Stanford in 2001, the technology had been dead for twenty years. I was still free to press Y or N to indicate my low level of comprehension or my secret disagreement with the lecturer, but, alas, no one was monitoring the response.

Imagine my surprise, then, upon discovering that Stanford’s white elephant is making a 21st century comeback. This time, however, the keypads have gone wireless. In the contemporary version of the “student response system,” students are issued small credit-card sized “clickers” upon which they can press Y or N or a numerical response. As was the case with the Stanford system, the results are made available to the lecturer, and with our 21st century technology, the fruits of this “instant polling” can now be instantly displayed in a nifty Powerpoint slide.

Obviously, this technology has some degree of possible usefulness. Professors can receive instant feedback on the lecture from students and can run quizzes in class. Some research indicates that where the technology is employed, students maintain that they like it, and that their level of engagement in the class increases. The companies selling clickers (only $40!) tout the benefits aggressively.

Yet despite the promised benefits, I am not particularly enthusiastic about the return of this particular technology. There are several reasons for this: first, it is associated with a transmissive model of teaching; second, much more innovative and interesting technologies are available for use; third, it validates certain tendencies within the university system that I find problematic. I will briefly explain each of these reasons.

Turning to the first reason, clickers will allow me, the professor, to check whether the student has “got it.” To reprise what Karl Popper liked to call the “bucket theory of the human mind,” I will be able to verify whether I have successfully transmitted the particular concept I was discussing to the student’s brain bucket (Or, more accurately, the student’s perception of his/her bucket). Now, as I pointed out above, this has a certain appeal, since I do wish to transmit concepts to students sometimes. Yet much of what I do does not line up well with this particular conception of learning. For the most part, I’m not primarily interested in transmitting knowledge. I am, rather, concerned with awakening students’ interest in particular kinds of questions--I want to get them fired up about investigating philosophical and historical questions in education. It’s not at all clear to me that clickers line up well with a more inquiry-based approach like this. 

Clickers do, however, line up very well with the good ol’ [my knowledge→your brain bucket] approach that has served us long (and perhaps not exactly well) in education. Therefore, contrary to the way in which they are billed, clickers aren’t really much of a “student-centered” teaching tool at all. They are, rather, a tool that palliates the worst aspects of transmissive teaching by getting students to click Y for Yes on occasion. Instead of enabling and promoting student-centered learning, clickers perpetuate the teacher-centered classroom.

Second, I fail to see why, as an instructor, I should spend my time on clickers when I have much more exciting tools at my disposal. In my class, I can use blogs (with embedded video and all the other bells and whistles) to interact with my students, which allow the students to marshal the powers of the internet to express a full opinion. A clicker allows students to choose between an array of canned responses, whereas a blog opens the way for students to construct their own response, drawing from a variety of sources and media types. Granted, students constructing their own response might not always be preferable, but one would hope that it often would be. This is particularly true at the university level, where students should be learning to formulate ideas on their own.

Third, clickers perpetuate (to reprise one of my favorite Bushisms), the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in the university classroom. If students don’t understand an aspect of a lesson, is it really so much to ask to expect them to ask a question about it during class or to speak to their teaching assistant/professor later on? Furthermore, if students have an opinion on a particular question, should they not also be capable of articulating that opinion rather than just clicking (a), (b), (c), or (d)? There’s a lot of hand-wringing right now about whether “the youth” are losing their ability to express themselves due to their use of the “corrupted language” of text messaging. At least text messaging (in contrast to clickers) requires people to construct an actual message!

To conclude, I think it would be for the best if this particular zombie educational technology returned to the obscurity from which it emerged. Zombie technologies are tough, though, and I expect that clickers may be lurching towards your university classroom at this very moment. In order to prepare yourself, keep in mind the following tip: to knock out a zombie educational technology, you’ve got to aim for its vulnerable core principles.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post, Dave! (I've been waiting for an opportunity to write that -- being a frequent blog lurker but rare blog commenter).

FYI - Zombie clickers appeared virtually overnight at McGill U a couple of years ago. At some point last year, I began receiving zombie emails from zombie administrative offices asking if I'd be using them in my classes. When I order books at the bookstore, via the zombie online order form, it asks me if clickers will be used in my class.

In short, while McGill is usually among the foremost universities at 'lurching' towards things -- good or bad -- it seems to have sprung like a sleek and finely conditioned panther at the clicker technology. So far, I'm happy to say, I have absolutely no personal experience upon which to base a personal report about their lack of effectiveness.