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:
Loyola 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.)
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?
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[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.