Are the days of free-standing clickers numbered?

The Scholars received an interesting email yesterday from an instructor who asked:

"The days of free-standing clickers are numbered. Why buy extra hardware and software when most everyone already has what they need? (The makers of GPS receivers are learning the same lesson.) About a year ago I asked my students, Can you access the internet in this room right now? In a room of 40, all but 2 hands went up. Between smartphones, laptops, netbooks, tablets, and eReaders with web browsers, you're hard-pressed to find someone who can't access the internet if you provide them with wifi."

This is a very good question - why, indeed, would instructors ask their students to purchase a $32 response device instead of allowing them to purchase a $15 software license for their laptop or mobile device? (Prices reference MSRP for TurningPoint device and 1 yr license sold at UK.) On the surface, it doesn't seem to make sense, but here are three common reasons why instructors do this.

First, some instructors use audience response systems, or clickers, to take attendance. This approach is especially popular in large classes of 100+ students. The stand-alone responders work on a radio frequency, so the student has to be physically in the classroom to participate. Turning Technologies' ResponseWare software, like other online polling systems, allows responses to come from anywhere in the world, so it can't be used to ensure that the student is actually in his or her seat. While we don't recommend that instructors use clickers exclusively for attendance purposes, they often consider that feature as a secondary benefit.

Second, while there can be many benefits to technology usage in the classroom, many instructors are concerned that students who use multi-function devices during class, especially mobile phones, may get distracted by email, games, and texting instead of focusing on the lesson. Although there are a variety of ways to structure classes to increase student engagement, including best practices for audience response systems, some instructors decide that they'd rather just minimize the opportunity for distraction by banning phone and laptops in favor of a single-purpose device.

Third, it may seem unintuitive to those who live online, but using free-standing clickers can actually be easier on instructors than using online polling. Instead of explaining to students that they need to buy a software license, download an app, and/or log into a third-party website, instructors simply have to inform the campus bookstore that students will need a clicker with their textbook. Here at UK, many of our required "core" courses use clickers, so students often already have them and know how to use them, and most of our smart classrooms have TurningPoint receivers pre-installed at the smart teacher stations, so all the instructors need to do is walk in with their PowerPoint slides and start teaching. This greatly reduces complexity and the chance that someone will need tech support.

To use the online ResponseWare software (or an alternative system, like PollEverywhere), instructors usually have to register for an account in advance and remember to log in at the beginning of each class to receive responses. While free and easy, these are still extra steps. If not all students in the class have smart phones or laptops, such as the 2 students in the class of 40 mentioned by our letter writer, instructors have to do extra work to integrate responses coming in from both systems and may not be able to display meaningful results immediately after polling. Finally, instructors who need identifiable data for grading purposes may not get it if they use third-party software that does not track responses.

In short, while online polling systems have some definite advantages - freedom from dedicated, stand-alone hardware being just one of many - there are still arguments to be made for the familiar, reliable clicker system. As with sales of GPS devices, which are either accelerating or dead, this debate does not appear to be ending any time soon.

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