Any gathering of technology specialists who work in education -- or educators who specialize in technology, as it were -- is bound to attract its share of gimmicks, gadgets and digital fads that won't be seen at the next meeting or will, by that time, have been consigned to perpetual semi-obscurity deep in some forgotten corner of blogland.
At this year's BbWorld '08 conference, held among the neon lights and unavoidable distractions of Las Vegas, perhaps it was inevitable that a few such bells and whistles would find their way into the program. At an annual affair whose focus is how best to marshal the latest information technology (namely, course management software sold by the conference's organizer, Blackboard) for educational ends, that meant a bevy of sessions devoted to Web 2.0 buzzwords and various plug-ins and modules intended to enhance the learning experience for that ever-elusive but somehow increasingly important demographic grouping: the so-called millennials.
So there were speakers on hand to talk about the benefits of blogs and wikis, podcasts and vodcasts, social networking and text messages, all to penetrate the mysterious minds of pampered college students who otherwise, it would seem, would rather pass their time listening blissfully to their illegally downloaded music while blowing off classes and obsessively checking their friends' Facebook status updates.
In some cases -- like blog, wiki and iTunes U functionality -- the Blackboard suite was the preferred vehicle to show how colleges can integrate that grab bag of Web technologies into their course materials. In others -- like 3-D modeling, Flash animations, embedded video and even "holographic professors" -- presenters demonstrated how other tools can be used to jazz up a mere 2-D, Boomer-oriented lecture.
Yet at a session on Thursday discussing social learning techniques, at least a couple of audience members registered a rare instance of discontent with the status quo while a presenter spoke about Blackboard's new built-in blogging capabilities. "I'm tired of tying everything back to Blackboard!" one audience member blurted out, causing some murmurs in the packed room and also encouraging a few others to chime in.
The presenter, Darla Ausel of Clarion University's Learning Technology Center, quickly changed the subject, but not before several protests were lodged about relying on the platform for blogging purposes: For example, will such content be readily available on the Internet, say, 30 years from now? Don't we expect permanence on the Web?
Ausel responded that in many cases, course-related blogging might make more sense behind a password-protected wall, and that in any event such content can be exported for other uses.
One Simple Little Device
Whatever educators collectively decide about the utility of Web 2.0 tools in the classroom, one simple little device that received some notice during the conference's last day may be on its way to delivering on its hype: the humble clicker. The small, handheld wireless input tools that resemble a miniature remote control have gradually found their way into high-tech classrooms over the past several years -- especially in business-oriented fields -- with some instructors swearing by them and others dismissing them as yet another needless gizmo.
But what if they're not? Recent studies at Ohio State University, for example, found that students in physics classes making regular use of clickers -- in quizzes, for example -- earned final exam scores that were about 10 percentage points higher than those without. The gains also seemed to minimize differences between the sexes.
At the session, 34 percent of the audience said (through their clickers, of course) that they had used the devices either as students or as instructors. Another 24 percent had used them only as instructors, while an additional 24 percent had never used clickers at all. (The rest had never seen or heard of them before.) And, in a quick clicker survey, the audience was mainly (62 percent) from four-year colleges.
Kathy Keairns, a senior instructional design coordinator at the University of Denver, talked about her institution's experience with clickers and how they've improved the quality of instruction and learning there. In one chemistry class, for example, the professor assigned 10 percent of the course grade to "clicker questions" asked in class -- three points per session, one for attendance and the other two for correct answers.
The results, she said, were increased attendance, more active participation in class and more cooperative learning, since students discussed the questions before they answered them with their clickers. Ninety percent of the students in the general chemistry course rated the devices as "useful" or "very useful."
A political science professor who used clickers to demonstrate public opinion polling concepts in class also found that the quality of discussions improved, Keairns said. Other benefits, she added, were an emphasis on "time on task" and the availability of prompt feedback.
So do clickers enhance student learning? As with many classroom technologies, the answer, she said, is: "It depends." Clickers have to be used properly and in combination with well-designed and well-thought-out questions that are delivered with enough discussion and context. Given those constraints, it seems, clickers could make it out of Vegas intact.