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Administrator Magazine: Technology
Scholastic Administrator is a must-read resource for 240,000 of today's results-driven school leaders. Every issue features leadership for education executives, insight, and analysis into what's next in education, and reporting on cutting-edge technologies in real life applications.

Learning by Clicker

Forget attendance and simple answers—today’s schools are using personal response devices to disrupt the traditional ways students are taught.

By Pamela H. Derringer

As more schools introduce clickers, or personal response devices, into every classroom, the way these small devices are being used is becoming more sophisticated, more intrusive, and more vital to teaching and learning.

"This year, clickers have taken off like wildfire," says Belinda Hartzler, technology coordinator for Wayzata (Minnesota) Public Schools, which use Turning Technologies' NXT clickers. "Last year was the pilot, but this year everyone wants them. I can't meet the demand for devices or training."

Clicker use is now in its third phase, says Tina Rooks, vice president and chief instructional officer of Turning Technologies. Although she estimates that only one school in five is using the devices, their use is rapidly deepening. Schools typically begin using the handheld devices for grading and attendance, followed by formative assessments and comprehension. Now, teachers are investigating ways to facilitate discussions with clickers. For instance, teachers can poll the class, divide students into small discussion groups, and then poll them again to see what they learned from one another, she says. And because clicker responses can be anonymous, clickers encourage participation, even from shy students or with sensitive topics, she adds.

Ian Beatty agrees. He's the lead investigator on a recent six-year National Science Foundation-funded study on how high school teachers use clickers in science and math. He discovered anecdotally that even teachers who were primarily motivated by just trying to keep students alert ended up using clickers more proactively. The reason, explains the assistant professor of physics education at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, is that those teachers gleaned unexpected insights into the way students think by using the devices.

Boosting Student Engagement
Although no major, long-term study has demonstrated clear-cut proof of improved learning from clickers or slates (there have been some small, positive research results), it's clear the devices are popular with students, who love the game-like experience.

"The biggest impact is motivation," says Jacquie Gilmore, a middle and high school math teacher for the Rochester (New York) City School District. "They come in every day and ask for clickers. They love challenging themselves and competing with their classmates. They're doing work but it's fun."

Clickers have grown more sophisticated since the conversion from infrared to radio frequency several years ago. LCD screens are now common, adding texting capability, which, in turn, facilitates open-ended questions and self-paced learning. Communication capabilities also have been upgraded. Some devices enable students to input their clicker responses via computer. And others let teachers transmit questions or comments to students collectively or individually via clicker. eInstruction's Web-based vClicker also works with Apple's iPhone. And Promethean has recently boosted reporting and analytics.

In Rochester, Gilmore monitors students while they answer questions with clickers, enabling her to help those who are struggling or adapt instruction if many are having difficulty. The SMART Response PE clickers also let Gilmore tag certain questions by skill and assessment standard for review after class.

Slate adoption, too, is growing quickly. Schools are converting from whiteboards to slates because they are mobile, less expensive than whiteboards, facilitate more student interaction, and eliminate the need for a short-throw projector, explains Qwizdom CEO Darin Beamish.

Slates also are becoming more powerful. For example, eInstruction recently introduced the Mobi View slate, which gives teachers a larger touch screen, centralized control over student devices, and full access to lesson plans, applications, and eInstruction's ExamView assessment content library.

"It's like embedding a smartphone inside a whiteboard," explains eInstruction CEO Steve Kaye. Mobi View offers more functionality, expanded data access, and better reports, all resulting in actionable data and faster teacher collaboration, he says.

Choosing the Right Device
Finding the clicker best suited to an individual school district is not a task for the faint of heart, with many factors to consider. For starters, most vendors offer multiple models from basic to advanced, with different combinations of features.

Ease of use, predictably, tops most lists. But ease of use is inversely proportional to features and complexity, according to Derek Bruff, assistant director for teaching at Vanderbilt University. Vanderbilt went with Turning Technologies, which offered the best compromise, he says.

There's more to decide: Is it better to select clickers from a company whose roots are in clickers or choose the device to match your whiteboard maker?

Rochester schools, whose Model Classroom project is piloting clickers for benchmark testing, are standardizing with SMART in large part because the devices will work seamlessly with its interactive boards.

Selecting a single vendor for whiteboards, document cameras, and personal response devices results in a more integrated platform, according to Tim Cliby, Rochester's coordinating director of instructional technology. Rochester, in turn, saves IT staff time by not working with multiple hardware products or software applications or versions, he says.

Purchasing multiple SMART products enables teachers to use the company's notebook collaborative platform, which unites everything from lesson preparation to delivery, plus clickers and formative assessment resources, in one system, says Stephen Yai, SMART's product marketing manager.

But integration with whiteboards isn't the only issue. Sometimes integration with data systems is more important, as Wayzata schools discovered. The Minnesota district initially experimented with one model clicker, only to discover that it wasn't compatible with its Performance Matters data-mining software. It ended up choosing another brand, tech coordinator Hartzler says.

According to UNC's Beatty, the biggest challenge with clickers or personal response devices is figuring out how to integrate them into the heart of the lesson rather than tagging them on at the end. With clickers, in particular, the greatest difficulty is learning how to write good questions and then managing the class discussion, he says.

"We know that clickers are a powerful, often transformative tool," Beatty says. "But we knew that many teachers found creating questions difficult...and saw less than spectacular results."

Speaking from her experience with slates, Janis Mitchell agrees on both points. Now a fifth-grade teacher at Lake Hills Elementary School in Michigan City, Indiana, Mitchell led the first elementary class to experiment with slates almost five years ago. Her class had six slates, one per table, and used them effectively for vocabulary games, editing student compositions, and geometry. However, the slate software didn't run well on the school's Linux (Ubuntu) software and the funding for professional development was eliminated for elementary schools, killing the initiative in the lower grades.

Robust PD Is Vital
"Professional development is the key," Mitchell says. "If you want teachers to use technology, it needs to work all the time and you need tech support. And they have to learn how to make it flow into instruction."

Beatty's research team worked with some 40 high school teachers, mostly in science and math, teaching them how to work with clickers and, in turn, studying their experiences and compiling best practices. Beatty concludes that teachers cannot fully use clicker capabilities beyond basic functionality without formal professional development because the most effective questions are often counterintuitive.

Despite the critical role of professional development, a teacher's success or failure ultimately hinges on the individual's underlying attitude and thought processes rather than best practices or tech support, Beatty says. In some cases, a single insight can convert a teacher from frustrated user to evangelist, he says.

For clickers to transform education, teachers also must be encouraged to tweak best practices for their needs and/or skills; otherwise, they will not "own" the technology, Beatty adds. But they should make changes with peer support so the changes are positive instead of negative, he cautions.

Bottom line: Do clickers improve learning? Rather than attempting to quantify academic improvement via test scores, Beatty's group focused on using clickers to promote discussion and critical thinking, which, in turn, should result in better learning. Although the results are still being analyzed, Beatty says it's evident clickers can be "an extremely powerful tool" or just "one more gimmick," depending on how effectively they are used.

Investigating Alternatives
The purchase of personal response devices and slates may be growing fast, but some ed tech advocates say there are less expensive ways to get the same classroom interactivity.

Jim Hirsch, the associate superintendent of technology for Plano (Texas) Independent School District, says districts could simply use student cell phones.

Instead of whiteboards and tablets, Plano uses BenQ interactive projectors and IdeaPaint dry-erase paint to turn classroom walls into interactive surfaces. And Plano promotes student collaboration through its school portal and open-source Web applications such as EtherPad, a word processor, Scribblar, a whiteboard collaboration tool, and Poll Everywhere, a technology that allows responses to be calculated via texts or Twitter.

Meanwhile, students in Greg Kulowiec's history class at Plymouth South High School in Massachusetts have been using their own cell phones for years to make their studies more interactive. For example, students use free resources like Polleverywhere.com to vote on an idea and then discuss the topic in class. They use their phones to participate in history scavenger hunts and to make a 40-question review test into a contest.

"I'm not a big fan of expensive clickers," Kulowiec says. "You can get a lot of the same function from cell phones, and they are everywhere."

Top Clickers and Slates
There are a lot of models to choose from, so be sure to match your needs with these devices' strengths.

SMART Technologies
The SMART Response PE has an LCD screen and big, colorful buttons. It allows you to input questions from Word, PowerPoint, or PDFs.

eInstruction
The CPS Pulse integrates with ExamView, captures assessment data, and supports text entries, including formulas.

Qomo
The QRF900 features a full-color LCD display. It can even be used outside the classroom by allowing students to send and store information.

Turning Technologies
The ResponseCard NXT has cell phone-style text entry and self-paced test mode for summative assessment.

Mimio
The MimioVote assessment system tallies responses from teacher-led or self-paced testing and can download results into spreadsheets and lesson plans.

Qwizdom
Qwizdom's new Q6 Student Response System includes text input, mixed expressions, and text-edit features.

Promethean
The ActivExpression supports more types of questions, math equations, symbols, and even Likert scales. Teachers can intervene and differentiate instruction with the self-paced learning feature.

Renaissance Learning
The Renaissance Responder has cell phone-style, short-answer capability, self-paced math quizzes, and can import state or national standards and formal assessments.

elmo
The Wireless Tablet allows students to draw, annotate, and manipulate images. It can also communicate with multimedia applications. Its 18-hour battery will provide enough power for three full school days.

About the Author

Pamela Derringer is a contributing writer for Scholastic Adminstr@tor magazine.

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