BYOD thoughts – moving on from clickers

EugeneClickersIs it time for me to move away from clickers? Can I use an online system that will do the job, and make use of devices that students already own (and can use for other purposes, unlike clickers)?

In most of my larger classes, I’ve found clickers (classroom response systems) very helpful in providing feedback to both students and me, encouraging discussion … and waking up students in 8:30 classes!  Classroom response systems, as educational technologies, can be helpful tools but also have potential pitfalls; how they are used makes a huge difference in terms of outcomes. (Want to know more about clickers? Here’s a plug for an essay I wrote back in 2008 – and the references within).

[Note – I find clickers useful in LARGE classes. In my dream-teaching-world, I’d have class sizes that would allow me to do a lot more interaction with all my students that wouldn’t require technology!]

As tools, they may not be the only (nor the best) option available. I didn’t expect clickers to actually be around all that long – I’d figured technology would emerge that allowed students to use their own devices to do the same thing (and, hopefully, more). Indeed, we now have both free (e.g., Four Good Alternatives to Clicker Systems) and commercial systems that provide this functionality (e.g., LectureTools, Learning Catalytics, Top Hat). Until recently, some things discouraged me from using these alternatives – technical barriers, and financial concerns – so I’ve continued to use clickers.

Clickers cost students money (at least, at the schools where I’ve taught). I’ve appreciated when efforts are made to keep clicker costs low – York University, for example, didn’t mark up the cost of clickers when I was there. It’s been a surprise to me, though, that unlike many other types of technology, the cost of clickers (at least, of the type used by the universities where I’ve taught) has been going up! It’s not like the clickers are becoming more advanced, really – or, at least, not in a way that makes them any more valuable to my students or me. I was horrified this year to learn that a new TurningPoint  (credit-card sized, partial screen) clicker sells at the UWindsor bookstore for over $70! (Used ones at the bookstore are $33.33 – it might be possible for students to get a slightly better price through private sales.) 

When I first started using clickers, the cost for a new one was in the $30 range. I could see this as similar to paying for a lab coat, safety goggles, dissection kit, or other items required by some (but not all) university courses. I would not have expected the cost to double over time. On top of that, I’d guess many students have to purchase at least one new battery for their clicker. 

This past year, I’ve also had (or, maybe, just noticed) more cases of academic dishonesty with clickers – people getting classmates to go to class with their clickers. This was disappointing and problematic. How do I deal with academic honesty issues that are clearly in violation of the course policy (in the syllabus – which, I know, nobody reads) but involve so few marks in the calculation of the final grade? (I follow guidelines in the literature in giving some marks towards clickers to reward and recognize the value of student participation/work, while making sure it is not such a huge component that it becomes high-stakes.) I won’t go into this issue further here, but let’s just say it helped push me to look for other options.
The University of Windsor is now running a pilot of LectureTools, which means that I can use the system without my students having to pay for a license. So … I’m going to give it a try in my (relatively) smaller intersession course. (I will be providing alternate methods for students to participate in activities if they don’t have a device.) Learning Catalytics is also an option for classes using the Pearson “Mastering” system.

Assuming adequate wifi in my classroom (requested after consultation with some helpful folks at our Centre for Teaching and Learning), and that the system performs as advertised, I have one major concern left:  Will my students have devices?

Certainly, most university students at this school have a device. I’ve often heard colleagues say that “all students have them”. I’m not so sure about that. (I think that the potential for distraction during class makes some professors frustrated, and it can certainly *seem* like the entire class has a glowing screen competing for their attention. While some professors ban use of laptops in the classroom, I’d rather exploit the power of these devices, as described nicely by Perry Samson in his “Deliberate engagement of laptops in the large lecture classroom [pdf].”)

The “bring your own device” (BYOD) model could allow educators to make use of a lot of potentially useful educational tools and technologies. There are some schools/programs that mandate students possess a suitable device for this purpose. Instructors there can expect students to have devices, and be able to use them. That’s not the case here.

At least a few universities, including York University’s Steacie Science & Engineering Library, have device-lending programs. I think this is a great idea, but requires planning, purchasing, maintenance and troubleshooting – not a minor initiative, particularly for schools that are dealing with budget cutbacks. I’d love to see a similar program at the University of Windsor, but that may not be feasible.

Could the university make low-cost devices available to students for purchase through the bookstore? There are some Android tablets that are in the price range of a (new) clicker. The UbiSlate 7Ci is a very low cost model – listed at $37.99, though additional costs for shipping and handling would bring the price to closer to $50 (if you live in Ontario and buy from their website). Walmart advertises a few sub-$100 tablets, too. Admittedly, the reviews I’ve seen for any of these tablets are not great – basically, they suggest you get what you pay for. Still, if a student can use one of these to access Lecture Tools (or other educational online system), that should be enough to justify asking students to bring a device to class rather than a unitasking clicker, right? 

Oddly enough, I feel kind of uncomfortable with the idea of specifically asking students to bring a device – and suggesting they get a low-cost tablet if they don’t already have one. I’m not entirely sure why I feel this way – perhaps because clickers are clearly educational technology, while I am in the habit of thinking of a tablet as a personal device that is chosen and used differently by different individuals? 

My other big worry about students bringing their devices for classroom activities?  Troubleshooting. I can handle basic clicker troubleshooting (“Are you on the right channel?”, “Try a new battery!”).  I’m fairly tech-savvy, but no IT professional. There are great people in CTL and our IT services department, but if many instructors start having students using devices in our classes, can the local help desk provide adequate technical support for those devices? As an educator, I don’t mind investing some time in learning and maintaining technology that can help facilitate teaching and learning … technical problems already end up eating up a lot of time that should be going to the teaching and learning activities themselves, though. With so many universities embracing online learning and innovative technology in teaching, I hope we’ll see resources being allocated to support efforts involving these technologies (including the instructors and students using them).

If anyone has tips or suggestions that they’d like to share about BYOD or using a system like LectureTools, I’d really appreciate hearing them!


3 thoughts on “BYOD thoughts – moving on from clickers

  1. jchoigt

    I hope to be posting soon about my experience with Learning Catalytics this year, first in a large (200-students) intro bio class and this spring in a 30-student senior-level developmental biology class. Georgia Tech does have a mandatory laptop policy, so I had no qualms about whether students would have devices or not. But in any case, I think that 99% (or more) of students now have smart phones that they can use, and indeed I find that about a third of students used their phones to answer questions. I did purchase 2 Androis tablets for about $100 each, but never had to use them. Only glitches were with wifi dead spots; some students had to use their phones because their laptops would not connect.
    As for tech worries, I ran into fewer problems than with clickers. With clickers, I had to install software on my laptop; Learning Catalytics has no extra software (other than a web browser), and I had essentially zero issues, either on the instructor end or student side. I really liked the flexibility and additional capabilities, and found myself using open-ended long-answer questions quite a bit. Students really liked Learning Catalytics as well.
    At this point, I and other instructors who have tried Learning Catalytics have all abandoned clickers. The only thing I miss about clickers is the ability to administer our multiple-choice exams with clickers, which I can’t do with Learning Catalytics because they can access email and the web browser with their devices.

  2. My university has made a conscious decision to phase out physical clicker devices and move toward software-based solutions, namely Top Hat and Learning Catalytics. There’s a fairly large (but still in the minority) base of clicker users on campus and it appears that most of them are going with Top Hat. I’m much more used to Learning Catalytics, as I’ve been using it for about three years now.

    After using Top Hat for a semester and Learning Catalytics prior to that, I’m actually considering moving back toward physical clicker devices instead. The software-based solutions have some nifty options, but in the end I just found them to be a lot of hassle, and quite often the technology got in the way. There were wi-fi dead zones or extremely ill-timed network failures. There were students without smart devices — usually 1-2 students per class that I taught (size = 30), enough so that I needed to keep a fleet of loaner devices maintained in my office which was a lot of overhead. Sometimes the software wasn’t up to snuff — for example it is a massive PITA to typeset math in Top Hat (MathML… yuck) and the user interface is really weird and nonintuitive.

    Whereas, physical clicker devices *just work*. There are no network connections, no screens, no issues with access, nothing. I can typeset a Beamer slide with my question on it and just go. Clickers are kind of like the iPod Shuffles of ed tech — nothing fancy but they do one job and do it very well.

    I managed to procure a box of 120 clicker devices — older model Turning Point RF’s — when the IT department made the decision to move to Top Hat and Learning Catalytics. These technically belong to the department. So I am considering applying for a grant to get 50-100 of these devices that are “mine”, and then set up a rental system whereby students get them for free and use them for the semester and then must turn them in at the end of the semester or else pay a $50 replacement fee.

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