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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

June 10, 2005

Faculty sought for fall pilot of classroom clickers

by Anne Krapfl

As class begins, the instructor announces the channel for which that room is programmed. Students turn on inexpensive transmitters, set the channel and "check into" class. Twenty minutes later, the instructor puts up on a screen a multiple-choice question that gets at how well students are grasping the material just covered. Students select and transmit their initial answers, spend a few minutes talking in small groups about the question and submit second answers. A large, anonymous lecture environment suddenly has become a lot more participatory.

The latest in an evolutionary line of classroom "personal response systems" will be pilot-tested fall semester. At least a dozen of Iowa State's largest classrooms will be equipped with receivers for "clickers" (as they're commonly called) that operate on radio frequency. The system will help faculty take attendance, record responses to class discussion questions and even give graded quizzes. The intent is to get students more involved in class, regardless of its size.

"We see it as a way to increase interaction in the classroom," said Susan Yager, associate director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT), which will train faculty in the pilot. "The technology helps students feel involved, included in class."

Fast feedback

It's also a way for instructors to get feedback quickly, she added.

"These systems change the dynamics of a lecture," said Craig Ogilvie, associate professor of physics, who has used an alternate, infrared-based system for three years. "With these clickers, students stay involved in the lecture. Their mood changes, they don't zone out, because they know they'll be answering questions at some point.

"I get a good sense of what they know," he added.

The new technology experiment will require assistance from numerous campus units, including Instructional Technology Center, CELT, the classroom scheduling unit of facilities management, University Book Store, Academic Information Technologies (AIT), provost's office and faculty members who agree to give it a go this fall.

"A lot of people are coming together on this one," said Matt Darbyshire, manager of ITC's classroom technology services. "We've watched these systems evolve and it was obvious that radio frequency is the way to go."

Darbyshire's team is learning the new technology early this summer and equipping classrooms for the pilot project. An AIT team led by Randy Dalhoff is working on a computer program to make the classroom response software compatible with WebCT, a Web-based course management system seeing increasing use among ISU faculty. The goal is to achieve that compatibility by the start of fall semester.

How it works

The radio frequency system that will be tested is the CPS (Classroom Performance System) sold by eInstruction, Denton, Texas. A $10,000 grant from the provost's office paid for the 30 classroom receivers, about a dozen of which are being installed this summer. Another dozen will be in portable kits for use where needed, according to Darbyshire, and the others will be used for training faculty.

Students will purchase the transmitters or "clickers" at the bookstore for $16. They'll register the serial number on their clickers so that the instructor's software recognizes from which transmitter - and thus student - data was received.

eInstruction also requires a licensing fee of $15 per semester for every transmitter in use to support the software. For now, students will pay the fee, although that issue is a concern, said ITC interim director Jim Twetten.

The instructor plugs in the classroom receiver to a universal port on a laptop computer. The software provides options for functions such as taking attendance, giving pop quizzes (with questions presented orally or visually) and giving graded quizzes. (Once the software is compatible with WebCT, grades could be uploaded to WebCT at the end of class.) The program can display the number of responses for each question as well as the correct answer. The technology confirms to students that their answers have been received in the system and one receiver can receive and confirm up to 1,000 answers in less than 10 seconds. It also tracks which clickers, of those in attendance, have responded to a question.

Yager noted that classroom technologies generally involve more planning and require more prep time for class - both of which are good things from her perspective.

Yager and Ogilvie agree that a downside to taking class time for student feedback is that it chips away at the clock and the volume of material that gets covered. Ogilvie estimates that he asks students to use clickers, on average, three to four times during a lecture.

"Faculty have to be more creative about how they use their class time and, for example, what material only goes on the class Web site," Yager said.


Radio-frequency response systems are the latest development in faculty efforts to overcome limitations to teaching large class sections. At Iowa State, a low-tech model introduced several years ago in the physics department were packs of lettered cards - A, B, C, D, E - that faculty distributed each class period. An instructor would ask a multi-choice question and students flashed the card corresponding to the correct answer.

"It was very unsexy for the students," Ogilvie recalled.

Other campus strategies for teaching large classes are things such as the "one-minute paper" at the end of class or a "turn to your neighbor" exercise, both of which asked students to reveal what they didn't understand from a class session.

An older cousin to the radio frequency clickers is infrared clickers, whose waves are shorter than radio waves. Several infrared classroom response systems presently are used on campus, including in the Kildee and Curtiss auditoriums.

The limitations of infrared are apparent in the classroom response system, said Darbyshire. A single receiver can handle up to 40 transmitters - if the transmitters are within about 40 feet, he said. He also noted that faculty had to allow as much as two minutes between questions on a quiz so the infrared system receive all, or nearly all, the student answers. Student responses, even in attendance taking, frequently were dropped. The infrared system also doesn't confirm that an answer has been received.

"The faculty who use infrared said they never had a 100 percent response rate for the students in the room," Darbyshire said. "Our conclusion was that if we went with the infrared, we'd have to flood the room with receivers."

Ogilvie, a user of the infrared system, also acknowledged the occasional log jam in the system, but said he uses "clicker" quizzes only for an extra credit option.

"From a pedagogical viewpoint, any system is great," he said. "These systems make a big difference in learning."

Photo by Bob Elbert.

Try it out

To participate in the fall pilot program, contact Matt Darbyshire, 4-6074.

Q&A about the technology and fall pilot project