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The Great Clicker Debate

By Blake Cooper

Published May 13, 2014

The use of interactive classroom response systems—or ‘clickers,’ as they’re commonly known—is a rising trend in higher education, and UB is no exception. But what do UB students think about them?

“There have been several hundred studies on the use of clickers...and they generally all point to the same conclusions: attendance is improved dramatically in classes using clickers, and student performance on tests improves as well.”
Dr. Clyde Herreid, Professor
UB’s Department of Biological Sciences

Blake Cooper (UB Student, Class of 2016) is originally from Canandaigua, NY. He is studying Spanish, Linguistics and Comparative Literature, and beginning work on translating an Argentinian novel into English.

Why Clickers?

The concept behind the clickers is simple: students can respond to instructor prompts by entering an input on a hardware device (or clicker) that they bring with them to class. Data from student responses is collected, and can be presented visually to the class or examined at a later time. Clickers are commonly used for attendance as well as reinforcing classroom concepts through quizzes.

Much of the initial response from students was positive. Dr. David Forliti of UB's Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering published a survey of students in his Thermodynamics I (MAE 204) class on the UBIT website. He used the clickers to quiz students on newly-learned concepts, and their responses earned points counting towards the students' grades.

Many of the students felt clickers made them more engaged and more likely to come to class. Only 3.9% of students surveyed felt the clickers weren’t effective in enhancing learning, while over 77% wanted other large classes at UB to adopt the clickers.

Dr. Clyde Herreid, a professor in UB’s Department of Biological Sciences, was an early adopter of the classroom response technology, implementing the use of clickers almost a decade ago. “I wanted the students in my large student enrollment course, Evolutionary Biology, to be engaged. Students in such courses frequently feel alienated and stop coming to class.”

Dr. Herreid believed the clickers would help improve critical thinking skills. And so he did what any good professor at a research university would do with a theory: he tested it.

“I have received two National Science Foundation grants to test these and other ideas about clickers,” Dr. Herreid said. “Today, there have been several hundred studies on the use of clickers in virtually all disciplines, and they generally all point to the same conclusions: attendance is improved dramatically in classes using clickers, and student performance on tests improves as well.”

Clicker Controversy

Despite the now well-documented benefits of using clickers, the subject remains controversial among UB students. One reason is the price tag. The average price for a clicker is around $50, which many students find too expensive. Another major issue is standardization. There are several common models of clickers on the market, and students are sometimes left with the added financial burden of purchasing a different clicker for each class.

Mike DeAngelis, a pre-Pharmacy student and member of the Class of 2014, has had to use technology from two different companies during his career at UB-- iClicker and Top Hat (formerly Top Hat Monocle).

“[Top Hat] is the most accessible,” according to Mike. “You can use it on any Internet-enabled device or even a regular phone” through text messaging.

In addition, some students have been dissatisfied with the occasionally less-than-smooth implementation of the technology. Remo Apuzzo, a Chemistry and Economics major (Class of 2015), has experienced classes grinding to a halt once the clickers come out.

“One of my professors last semester had trouble setting up the software on a daily basis,” Remo said. “She would forget to turn something on, the software wouldn’t run, or she would forget to start the timer to begin recording responses.”

While many faculty members remain convinced of the potential of the clickers, technical hang ups like these and the lofty price tag of purchasing multiple clickers have caused some students to question whether the benefits might be outweighed by the inconvenience the clickers bring.

One Clicker to Rule Them All

The issue of standardization is one that UBIT has sought to address with UBclicks, a 2007 initiative that selected one brand, Turning Technologies’ ResponseCard clickers, as the university-wide standard.

New and used models of the ResponseCard hardware clickers are currently available at the UB Bookstore. Like Top Hat, Turning Technologies offers a software alternative to the hardware clickers for mobile devices, called ResponseWare. The software is a cheaper alternative to the hardware clickers, but unfortunately there’s one significant roadblock: wireless bandwidth. Because the UB Secure wireless network has been designed to accommodate average traffic—and not entire classrooms using the network at once—UBclicks currently advises faculty to rely on the hardware clickers instead, which work through radio frequency (RF) technology.

Dr. Herreid is among the professors who adopted the Turning Technologies system when it became the campus standard. He noted that there are now extensive resources to train professors in use of the Turning Point software, including “an intern supported by [Turning Technologies] who is on duty much of the time in UB’s Teaching and Learning Center.”

Will most UB instructors adopt the UBclicks technology? Only time will tell. Until an affordable, effective standard is widely embraced by both students and faculty, the debate will continue.