Calling the Clicker Vote

As classroom devices proliferate, institutions look to campuswide adoptions to ease costs for students.
June 23, 2011

Given a choice, would college students prefer to pay for more than one type of remote-controlled in-class voting device, a.k.a. “clicker”; carry more than one clicker with them from class to class; or neither of the above?

At California State University, the systemwide student government has picked the third option. Last fall, it passed a resolution calling for each California State campus to choose a single brand of classroom clicker, thus becoming one of a growing number of institutions to pursue clicker standardization as a way of curbing redundant costs for students. The system has responded by instructing those campuses that have not standardized clickers to do so. This spring, the Pennsylvania State University System went one step further, announcing that it would deploy a single brand of clicker across its 20 campuses.

These moves mark the first state-level acknowledgments of the pervasiveness of clickers, a technology that is hardly new but now appears to have bled well into the mainstream. And with the major clicker manufacturers now offering applications for smart phones, observers see a future beyond clicker standardization that could portend greater savings for students — and complications for professors.

Clickers have made inroads with the mainstream professoriate by promising to combat several things many professors dislike even more than trendy teaching toys: absences, boredom, and lack of feedback. In the more than 10 years since professors started experimenting with clickers, a substantial literature has emerged, with many studies charting a rise of attendance in those courses — possibly due to the fact that clickers allow professors to more precisely review the class participation records of individual students over the course of a semester. Periodic clicker surveys can also serve to keep students on their toes and alert professors when certain lessons are not sinking in.

But as the number of professors who use classroom clickers to poll — and occasionally quiz — their students has grown over the last decade, so has the likelihood that students will enroll in more than one class where the technology is used. If the professors use different brands, the students have to buy multiple devices, which generally cost between $30 and $60 each and sometimes come with periodic licensing fees.

This might not seem like much in light of the hundreds of dollars students spend per semester on textbooks, and the thousands they spend on tuition. But the compounding of clicker fees can come with a high “insult to injury” effect, says Doug Duncan, a senior instructor of astrophysics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who has studied student opinion and behavior around clickers since his institution adopted them in 2002.

For professors, Duncan says, the price of exercising consumer independence when it comes to choosing clickers can come at the cost of student goodwill. By forcing students to spend redundantly on the tiny remote controllers, an instructor can seed resentment before he even steps up to the lectern.

“There are few things you can do to piss students off more than to force them to buy more than one [clicker],” says Duncan. According to his surveys, students often suspect the redundancy is part of a conspiracy to bleed them for some extra cash, rather than a mere lack of planning — although neither explanation reflects well on the professors.

The proportion of classes that use clickers is still small: less than 7.4 percent across all types of institution, according to a fall 2010 survey of CIOs by the Campus Computing Project. However, the technology holds special appeal for professors teaching large survey courses where gauging the zeitgeist without clickers is basically impossible. Since those courses enroll many more students than most, the likelihood that students end up in more than one clicker course might be higher than that 7.4 percent would suggest.

While standardization policies usually do not bar faculty from using their choice of clicker brand, they do effectively limit their choice by stipulating that instructional technology services will only support a certain type of clicker system. But this has not yet been a point of contention; professors are not as protective of their clicker brand loyalties on clickers as they are of their loyalties to certain textbooks or learning-management systems, says Jim Julius, associate director of instructional technology services at San Diego State University.

Some vendors have tried to ride those stronger loyalties by bundling their clickers with textbooks. One such vendor is iClicker, which is owned by the textbook publisher Macmillan. But that strategy has not panned out, with the textbook bundles accounting for a “disappearing percentage” of clicker sales, says Troy Williams, vice president of Macmillan New Ventures. Instead, the movement toward clicker standardization has found clicker manufacturers trying to win over whole campuses at a time.

Now that most college students have smartphones (more than 60 percent, according to the most recent Educause data), it would natural for phones to supplant clickers by way of apps, which several of the leading vendors already offer — including Turning Technologies' ResponseWare app, or eInstruction's vClicker Mobile Edition. For students, this would render moot the problem of buying and keeping track of duplicate remote controllers (though paying for multiple apps could still be a headache in the absence of standardization).

But the migration to mobile clicker apps might be foiled by professors’ perennial anxiety over permitting students to use their mobile devices in class. Many instructors remain suspicious that mobile devices, as they grow in sophistication, pose a threat to learning — and have thus banned them in class. When phones are banned, professors can spot violations as easily as they can spot a device being used, says Duncan; when students are asked to have their smartphones at the ready in case of a vote, it becomes harder to enforce bans on extracurricular browsing.

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