Clickers, Pedagogy and Edtechtainment

June 20, 2008

Imagine a board room at a large corporation. The CEO is at the head of the conference table surrounded by the senior executives of the company. The CEO asks a question and each executive, rather than articulating her/his thoughts takes out a “clicker” and responds by selecting “yes”, “no”, “a”, “b”, “c”, etc. Of course this is a ludicrous scene. Yet, in thousands of college classrooms this scene is played out on a daily basis. Professors ask students to respond to questions by using a remote control audience response system euphemistically referred to as a clicker. We may be preparing good clickers, but are we preparing thoughtful students?

The argument in favor of clickers is that they engage students and enhance class participation. Individual students can respond, or groups of students can discuss a problem and settle on a particular answer. The professor may choose to discuss responses, collect votes prior to and after a debate, or even use clickers to administer multiple choice tests. Another argument supporting clickers is that they allow professors to ascertain students' comprehension of initial constructs prior to moving on to more complex concepts.

The question confronting anyone who uses clicker technology in her/his classroom is not how to use clickers, but why use them in the first place? What can clickers accomplish that cannot be accomplished without clickers? I believe that clickers add little to classroom pedagogy, and can ultimately diminish scholarship. Can use of clickers capture the thoughtful and creative responses that, hopefully, professors attempt to incorporate into their classes? Are we fostering an educational environment in which technology supersedes scholarship, an academy dominated by edtechtainment -- pedagogy by gimmickry?

Understandably, professors frustrated with large class sizes turn to technology such as clickers in an attempt to engage students. Often, the technology become the handmaiden of an administration bent on sustaining huge classes where students need opera glasses to see the instructor. No wonder students are bored; answer their cell phones and text messages to friends. Of course, there is nothing untoward about a professor wanting to engage students, about wanting to maintain their attention and elicit their responses. Sadly, today’s educational zeitgeist insists that to reach the 21st century learner professors must use a blend of technology, education and entertainment. There is an assumption that today’s student is long on technology skills, but short on attentional abilities. To engage students we must entertain them.

Clickers may, initially, engage students. However, there is a risk that using clickers can foster an epistemology predicated on achieving a correct answer rather than challenging a student’s schema and insisting on some modicum of inductive thinking. Critical thinking demands methodical and careful reasoning. Can clickers, often used with the goal of responding in a multiple choice format, successfully achieve this core educational objective? I can imagine faculty members at a faculty senate meeting being asked to use clickers to respond to a question on tenure. It is risible, and I can picture several professors throwing their clickers at the speaker. Clickers would seem to be a short-term solution to a long-term problem -- how do we foster an environment of intellectual curiosity, reduce the impact of enormous class sizes and motivate students to value the educational process?

Of course, there are professors who can use clickers productively and encourage students to respond thoughtfully. Conversely, there are professors who can engage a large auditorium of students without the use of an audience response system. I would argue that clickers be used as a last resort and that the clear pedagogical advantages of using clickers be fully investigated prior to their adoption.

I am a strong supporter of using technology to enhance pedagogy. I have successfully implemented student participation hardware and software using the University of Washington’s classroom presenter, but my underlying mantra has always been technology in the service of pedagogy. Prior to clickers, or any technology being introduced into a classroom, it must be evaluated and have substantial empirical support. We must ask ourselves: Are there other, more rigorously supported technologies that can serve pedagogy more effectively?


Alan Groveman has taught psychology at several colleges.


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