iClick, You Click…

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Love them or loathe them–and for most students, the latter applies–clickers are an integral part of large-size lecture halls that most Penn State students experience at some point in their academic career.

At one point or another, almost every student–even those who never use a clicker–will question the implementation, usage, and even necessity of these hated devices. They’re expensive and clunky, but worst of all, their purpose is so simple that they seem unnecessary. Surely a simpler and cheaper solution exists, right?

In order to find out what really makes these devices click, I spoke with Group Leader for Technology Classroom Support, the man behind the selection of the iClicker system, David Test.

I want to thank Mr. Test for being incredibly transparent and sharing every detail that he was able to share with me regarding the evaluation process for the clicker systems at Penn State.

While many, myself included, might have initially believed that the student bookstore was the decision-maker for the clicker systems used across campus, the mastermind behind the evaluation and selection process for the system is really Penn State’s Information Technology Services, according to Mr. Test.

When the previous clicker product had reach its end-of-life, ITS started a pilot program to evaluate current clicker solutions and selected two possibilities. After this selection, they ran the pilot in the spring ’11 semester in which 1400 students used a competitors product and 1400 students used the iClicker product. Student and instructor feedback heavily favored the iClicker system, and so the decision was made to move forward to implement this device.

In addition, Mr. Test mentioned that ITS interviewed almost every instructor that has used a clicker in class or lecture since 2004 as another base for selection.

As mentioned, these clickers don’t come cheap. At The Student Bookstore on College Avenue, a new clicker will cost $37.50 and to rent one for the semester will run $17.95.  That seems a bit steep for a device that simply records attendance or allows students to answer a poll question, so I asked Mr. Test if there were cheaper options that ITS evaluated.

ITS evaluated and continues to monitor and review online polling systems to replace a physical clicker system, but the biggest roadblock to this option is that currently the wireless systems in Penn State classrooms aren’t capable of handing the simultaneous traffic that a lecture hall such as 100 Thomas would create.

In addition, not all online solutions are free, and because these solutions are run via web or mobile, there are a “never-ending list of failure points.”

As wireless support in classrooms across the university improve, ITS will continue to evaluate online and mobile options on a semester-by-semester basis, but Mr. Test says their implementation won’t be in the near future.

As for Penn State’s contract with iClicker, the university has a 5-year contract that extends only to the University Park campus in which the university will offer iClicker as the sole ITS-supported clicker system on campus. Professors are free to choose other systems, but ITS will only provide technical support for iClicker systems and hardware.

From what I can tell, though we may hate the dreaded clickers and the high cost to purchase or rent one, it appears as if they’re the best option in terms of functionality and usability in the classroom at this point in time. Hopefully in the future the classroom wireless network will be able to support the bandwidth that would result from simultaneous mobile and web action in a large class

If you have any clicker horror stories, or just a thought one way or the other about the use of clickers at Penn State, leave a comment below.

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  1. First off, there is a much cheaper and more effective replacement. It’s the one I used when I had a young skull full of mush: we raised our hands.

    Second, if there’s a real need for this sort of thing, why not just have students text from their phones? It’s not like there’s a student on campus that doesn’t have the mega-thousands-unlimited text plan.

  2. Unfortunately, when you ask students for a show of hands in response to a question, you’re not likely to get independent and accurate responses. It’s all too easy for students to wait and see how their peers respond before putting their hands up. (There’s some good research that backs this up: http://derekbruff.org/?p=9.)

    As for texting from phones, as the article above points out, these services aren’t free. They may be cheaper than clickers in some case, but even if students have unlimited texting, there’s still a cost to the institution to use the service. Moreover, the issues mentioned about Wifi coverage apply to cell tower coverage, too, in many cases.

    The text-messaging option might work, but it’s not a sure thing, depending on cell coverage on campus.