Student Response Systems | Feature

Giving Classroom Polling a Second Chance

When Washington & Jefferson College (W&J) of Washington, PA, started exploring classroom polling solutions six years ago, the institution’s IT department wasn’t very impressed with the limited choices that were on the market at the time. It also wasn’t overwhelmed by the results that the traditional "clickers" – devices used to quickly garner feedback from students in the classroom – provided once installed and in use.

"Clickers add a useful element to classroom teaching, in particular as formative assessment tools," said Michael Camden, assistant director of academic technology. "However, purchasing and maintaining the devices can be costly and time consuming and can get in the way of the actual teaching process."

During its first attempt to integrate polling into the classroom, Camden said W&J was following the recommendations of several textbook manufacturers that were advocating the use of classroom polling. "They saw it as a way to get a gauge on where students were at in class," said Camden.

The original equipment was built on infrared-based (IR), line of sight technology and designed for use within a confined area. "If the professor didn’t have a direct line of sight, the student responses weren’t properly recorded," he explained. "Students in class literally had to duck their heads in order for the technology to work."

Later versions of the polling equipment, which relied on radiofrequency (RF) technology, solved some of those early issues, said Camden. Unfortunately, the associated software was difficult to use. "There was a pretty steep learning curve for professors," he recalled. "After two semesters of testing out the equipment faculty decided that it wasn’t working well and pulled the plug on the initiative."

Try, Try Again

As it goes with so many failed IT implementations, it would be years before anyone at W&J would bring up the idea of using polling technology in the classroom. Camden, who remains active in the K-12 field where he originally started his career, is now borrowing a page from that educational sector and has been exploring the available options for the last two years.

Using extra funds from the school’s IT budget, Camden purchased student clickers and polling software from Turning Technologies and began demonstrating it to W&J faculty members. He acquired several more units after a number of faculty members expressed interest in using the new polling equipment in class.

Camden quickly realized that he wasn’t dealing with the same, old-school student response technology that W&J had grappled with years earlier. For example, line of sight is no longer needed and students—armed with the clickers—can now be positioned further away from the receiver, which plugs into the classroom computer and collects the feedback.

The polling software is also easier to use, according to Camden, and features improved interfaces and the ability to import the information into PowerPoint presentations, learning management systems (LMS), and websites. And although the polling software comes with those advanced functionalities, "if you have a faculty member who just wants to use the basic assessment tools then he or she can do that," said Camden, who recently helped a non-tech-savvy professor get up and running with classroom polling within 15 minutes.

"He was amazed at how easy it was to use," Camden remarked. "It was a matter of bringing up a screen, typing in and saving a question, and having students key in their responses."

The polling equipment’s lower price points are another attractive quality for today’s budget-conscious institutions. "With the proliferation of smartphones, you really don’t even have to use a hardware device anymore," said Camden. "Students can text their answers to a specific number and those responses roll right into the polling system."

Getting to the Next Level

Camden said W&J may take its polling initiative to a new level by allowing students to bring their own devices into class and integrate that equipment with the classroom polling system. "We haven’t done much with it yet but it’s certainly an interesting new way of polling classes," said Camden. W&J is also exploring web-based and SMS text input solutions from providers like Poll Everywhere and Pollit.

So far, Camden is pleased with the rebirth of W&J’s classroom polling initiative. An increasing number of professors have expressed interest in the solution over the last 18 months and several of them have attended conferences to watch the technology "in action."

From a pedagogical standpoint, Camden said polling has proven itself as an effective form of assessment, particularly in terms of measuring comprehension of new topics. "Being able to quickly see whether the class understands the reasons for the War of 1812 before moving onto the next topic is invaluable," said Camden, "and far more effective that relying on students to raise their hands in class.

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