Teaching Tax: On Clickers and Laptops

By Sam Brunson

I’ve used clickers in class ever since I started teaching. In fact, thanks to Paul Caron’s tireless advocacy, I’ve known I was going to use clickers since before I entered academia.

And, like Paul, both I and my students[fn1] have found clickers tremendously helpful in the classroom. In my experience, they do three main things:

  • They force all students to actively engage with the class. It’s easy enough to sit back in class and passively absorb (or not) the content. Sure, whomever I call on has to actively engage, but I can only call on a small portion of my class on any given day. But clicker questions allow students to not only listen, but actually answer, at least a handful of questions.
  • They tell me how well the students grasp what I’m teaching. If most of the students get the right answer, I know my explanation and the discussion were helpful. If a significant portion get it wrong, I know that I need to go back and address it again (and, depending on the answers they choose, I may be able to figure out where I or they went wrong).
  • They tell my students how well they grasp what I’m teaching. If most of the students get the problem right, a student who gets it wrong knows that she may need to go back and review the topic. Or ask a question. Or do something else.

But I have a problem:

iclickerLoyola recently changed its classroom response system. When I arrived, the university use i>clickers. The students bought a remote, and the school provided me with a receiver to plug into my computer. And, because the whole university, not just the law school, used i>clickers, and because students could sell their remotes back to the bookstore, there were plenty of remotes available at a relatively affordable price. Sure, the clickers had limitations (questions had to be multiple choice, and you couldn’t have more than five answers), but they worked really well.

This year, Loyola switched vendors. Now we use Top Hat. And honestly, Top Hat has great functionality. I’m no longer limited to asking multiple-choice questions, or to no more than five answers. I had some fun asking open-ended questions where students had to come up with the answers, and the results were, perhaps, more engaging even than the traditional five-question multiple-choice questions.

And how does Top Hat go beyond multiple-choice? Rather than purchase a remote, students purchase a four-month, twelve-month, or lifetime[fn2] subscription. And, while the pricing is kind of steep compared to a used remote, schools can apparently negotiate pricing with Top Hat to reduce the cost. With a subscription, students can use their laptops, phones, or tablets to answer questions.[fn3] (I should note that, while we use Top Hat, the move from physical remotes to subscriptions and students’ own devices seems fairly pervasive; Loyola considered four or five different vendors, and, while functionality and interfaces differed here and there, they were all bring-your-own-device systems.)

Which leads to my problem: the evidence is becoming more and more compelling that students who take notes by hand learn, retain, and understand better than students who take notes on laptops.[fn4]

Now, I’m not going to ban laptops in my class (though I may create a laptop-free zone in my classes so students who want to take notes by hand won’t be distracted by whatever their classmates are watching). Law students are adults, and I’m willing to let them make their own choices, though I will point them toward the studies, so that their decisions are informed.

But, while they can make their own decisions, I feel like using a response system that requires the students to use a laptop (or phone) in class puts a thumb on the scale. And that thumb is on the wrong side of pedagogy.

So I’m reaching out to you, readers: what would you do in my situation? Would you use clicker questions even though they’ll push students on the margin to disadvantageously take notes on a laptop? Would you drop clicker questions in spite of pedagogical benefits of using them? Would you do something else altogether?

(N.b.: if your comment doesn’t show up right away, I promise it’ll be up soon. Our anti-spam software requires us to approve a person’s first comment; once you’re approved, though (and, unless you’re spamming or trolling us, you’ll be approved), you’re in the discussion.)

[fn1] At least, based on their comments to me and their course evaluations.

[fn2] The lifetime subscription is for your “student life”; iirc, that means up to four or five years.

[fn3] (And for students who don’t have access to a computer, smartphone, or tablet (assuming they exist)? They can actually text their answers in.)

[fn4] I’m not sure what the copyright limitations on Doonsbury comic strips are, so I’m not going to embed it, but you should also read this.

4 thoughts on “Teaching Tax: On Clickers and Laptops

  1. Thanks for this post Sam! I wonder, sometimes, if I am the only person other than Paul using clickers. We still use I-Clicker, so, my perspective is aligned with your pre-change view.

    I love getting feedback in real time from my class. I also think that when things slow down, I can get a group consensus. For example, when someone realizes that they are not alone in their perspective, they are more forthcoming in answering questions.

    For my use, I only need a couple basic answers to further the discussion. I am at a loss for how a more robust answering system will help me pedagogically. How would you envision an open ended question helping?

    I am not a laptop fan and the studies consistently support that they are more harmful than useful in learning. But, like you, I don’t want to govern the decisions of adults. So, I allow laptops.

    With my bias/experience out of the way. To answer your questions.

    Would you use clicker questions even though they’ll push students on the margin to disadvantageously take notes on a laptop?

    I would. I find the use of the questions far outweighs the marginal cost of the software. Are you the only professor at Loyola using a clicker? Because it would seem that if more than one class required the use, the cost would continue to be less? Why not ask the law school to just have a technology fee that covers the cost (make the tax less salient 🙂 !)

    Would you drop clicker questions in spite of pedagogical benefits of using them?

    No. But, if you were worried about the costs you could run old school clicker questions by having students fill out paper or raise hands.

    Would you do something else altogether?

    I would keep clicker questions. I find them useful and it seems that you do also. The question is about cost/benefits. I find the benefits high and the costs low (maybe lower depending on the overall usage at your school). Alternatively, you could run free programs like polls. Hey, you could run a twitter poll instead of a clicker question. But, this would involve more technology in the class room. I know Josh Blackmun would sometimes have a live chat going during his lectures to monitor how students were grasping the material. I wonder if he still does this and if it was effective.

    I hope this thread gets a lot of comments. I wonder what people think!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, David. I totally agree that clickers have been great; the thing is, I’m not sure how to quantify their benefit vs. the detriments of using laptops, much less how to quantify how many students who would have taken notes by hand my using clickers will push toward taking notes on laptops. I mean, it’s really only going to affect students on the margin, but I’m not sure how big that margin is.


  3. I started with einstruction, using clickers. Turning Technologies purchased einstruction, and then added the Anywhere option (laptops, iPhones, etc) (and stopped supporting einstruction). I used Anywhere for the first time this past spring. Because I don’t mind students using laptops, I did not explore the possibility of allowing use of clickers AND an “anywhere device.” I think that can be done with Turning’s setup. I don’t know about TopHat’s system. It might be worth asking them. There might be a solution there.


  4. I use (and love) clickers, at least in my large 1Ls class! And I discourage, but do not ban, the use of laptops for all your reasons. The clickers are one reason I have not banned laptops. Increasingly, students can access the polls through other devices like phones, and we may get to a place where that option comes to dominate. I also have been happy to start seeing people actually adopting long-promised stylus-and-tablet interfaces, so that I hope in another decade actual laptops will seem dated for notetaking. Meanwhile, however, I stick with warning students (repeatedly) that taking notes ≠ making a transcript, and allowing them to learn how to use laptops effectively (or not).


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