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New for back-to-school: 'Clickers'

Students returning to school this fall may have a new item on their list of supplies--a gadget that's making classrooms more interactive. Photos: Clickers in the classroom

Culture
Students in Ann Auleb's biology of human sexuality class at San Francisco State University are often shy about joining classroom debates on gay marriage, abortion, circumcision and other emotion-stirring topics.

But more students came out of their shells this spring when Auleb introduced "clickers" into her classes. Students used the handheld gadgets, which look and work a lot like TV remote controls, to respond to classroom polls and quizzes without ever raising their hands or voices.

Using special receivers connected to their laptops, instructors were able to instantly gather responses to personal yes-or-no questions like, "Would you have your child circumcised?" They used the results to start discussions in the 350-student class.

News.context

What's new:
Gadgets called "clickers" are appearing at hundreds of U.S. colleges and high schools, giving teachers and students alike instant feedback on how well lectures are sinking in.

Bottom line:
Clicker technology is becoming cheaper and more reliable as manufacturers replace infrared clickers with ones that use radio frequency. But compatibility among clickers and receivers will be key to the technology's success.

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"They're getting hard numbers on what people see and what people believe, and I think that's exciting for the students," said Christopher Fisher, Auleb's graduate teaching assistant. "I think there's a big concern with being normal. They get to see how they fall in line with their classmates. It definitely sparks some conversation."

So far, Auleb and her assistants are impressed with the technology, also known as classroom response systems--and apparently they aren't alone. The devices are appearing at hundreds of colleges and high schools across the country, giving teachers and students alike instant feedback on how well lectures are sinking in. The technology can also make classes in big lecture halls more engaging and interactive, especially for students who have grown up on the Web, cell phones and video games, proponents say.

The technology, based on radio frequency or infrared signals, has been around for years but has caught the attention of American educators over the past year or so. Schools and universities--most in the United States--bought nearly a million clickers last year, almost double the previous year, according to U.K market research firm DTC Worldwide. DTC, which tracks the global market for education technology, expects that 8 million clickers--$350 million worth--will be sold annually by 2008.

At San Francisco State, about 40 instructors are using clickers, according to Fisher. Other major schools using the devices include Harvard University, Northwestern University, Ohio State University, Purdue University and the University of Washington. eInstruction, one of the largest clicker companies, said that more than 700 universities are now using its devices. Turning Technologies, an Ohio competitor, has sold its version to more than 250. High schools and grade schools are adopting the technology too, they said.

Student shenanigans
"It's absolutely taken off," said Darrell Ward, chief executive officer and president of eInstruction, which is based in Denton, Texas.

One reason for schools' sudden interest in the technology is that textbook publishers are helping to sell the systems by bundling discounted clickers and related software with their books. Turning Technologies has an exclusive distribution agreement with Thomson Higher Education, a text book division of The Thomson Corporation. McGraw-Hill Higher Education sells clickers from eInstruction, and Pearson Prentice Hall sells clicker systems made by Columbia, Md.-based GTCO CalComp.

The technology has also become cheaper and more reliable over the past year or so as manufacturers replace infrared clickers with ones that use radio frequency, said Todd Pinney, manger of Turning Technologies' higher education unit.

Radio frequency technology is easier to use and set up because it requires fewer receivers and processes student responses faster than infrared, Pinney said. They're also easier for students because they don't have to aim the devices in any particular direction.

Clicker

The newer clickers use a 2.4GHz signal, the same range as a typical cordless phone or Wi-Fi network, Pinney said. The receivers are the size of a flash drive and plug directly into the USB port of a laptop or desktop computer.

Some companies, including Turning Technologies, have created software that incorporates quiz questions and responses into Microsoft's PowerPoint presentation slides. That feature appeals to William Zoller, a chemistry professor at the University of Washington, who began using the Turning Technologies system in his 280-student freshman chemistry course this spring.

Zoller, a longtime PowerPoint user, began slipping slides into his presentations every week that posed multiple-choice questions such as, "To which group of elements does bromine belong?" In some cases, including the bromine one, he found he needed to revisit certain subjects. "The instant feedback lets me change the pace of the class or cover material again," Zoller said. "I can just back up a couple of slides."

Other instructors find the devices useful for taking attendance and administering graded quizzes. Scores are automatically logged into the system, eliminating the need to collect and grade each test by hand.

Although many instructors give the technology rave reviews, there's a dearth of research on how student response systems actually affect performance, including test scores, attendance and grades. It's also easy to imagine students engaging in some shenanigans with the devices, handing them off to a classmate and skipping class, for example.

Technology suppliers say such behavior hasn't been a big concern so far. "With the number of pads that we have in the market, we rarely hear of negative issues associated with cheating," eInstruction's Ward said.

Worth the price?
Perhaps that's because students want to make the most of their investment. In many cases, college students foot the bill for the clickers to the tune of $6 to $60 per device, depending on their features and whether they come bundled with a textbook.

Some pupils, including Pardis Esmaeili, a student at San Francisco State, balk at these prices. "Personally, I felt kind of like it was a waste of money because it didn't work most of the time," she said. "I felt like I didn't even use it. I kind of gave up on it."

Esmaeili paid $30 for an infrared clicker that was required for Auleb's class. This fall, Auleb plans to switch from infrared to a radio frequency system, which should work better, Fisher, the teaching assistant, said. The new clickers will also have another feature--a light that flashes green or red to indicate whether the signal was received or not, he said.

Such improvements may be welcome. Yet new iterations of the technology could force students to buy more clickers than they bargained for. A lack of compatibility among clickers and receivers from different manufactures could further worsen the problem at schools using multiple, incompatible systems.

Universities are looking to thwart the compatibility issue by settling on one technology supplier and requiring all professors to use their equipment, according to DTC analysts. But such "standardization," in industry lingo, may go against the grain of professors, who tend to be very independent-minded, Ward said.

"Those institutions have a hard time dictating (to professors) what they do in the classrooms," he said. "The emphasis is on academic freedom."

In the not-too-distant future, compatibility concerns may be made irrelevant by a new generation of systems that replace clickers with more common devices many students already own, such as Internet-enabled cell phones and laptops with Wi-Fi capability.

Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard, is already experimenting with such a system. Mazur has used numerous generations of student response systems since 1992 for his introduction to physics courses and has even written a book on the subject.

"I think we want to get away from specialized infrared devices and go to consumer devices," Mazur said. "Why require students to buy a remote control and ask them to carry it around when they have already a device that can communicate?"

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