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Beware Publishing Reps Bearing "Free" Gifts That Click

Audience response stations, or “clickers” have returned to the educational technology stage as a great tool for tracking student knowledge as well as their misconceptions. Ohio State University instructional designer Tom Stone considers their costs and benefits from a campus-wide perspective.

They're clicking with faculty and gaining popularity quickly. But they also have the potential to create expensive burdens on both students and those who support instructional technology for classrooms on campus.

Thousands of classes nationally began using "Ask the Audience" classroom response systems last year. Each student in a classroom uses a device resembling a TV remote control with several numbers and/or letters on the keypad to enter responses to a question displayed on a screen. The results of the quiz or survey questions are captured wirelessly and instantly tabulated and displayed. This enables the instructor to quickly ascertain student comprehension of a particular subject so the class can spend more time on it or move to another topic – perhaps one chosen by the students in an instant poll. Opinion surveys also can help generate deeper discussions and unveil divisive issues to explore during precious class time.

Many instructors who have tried these clickers have been pleased with the increased level of interactivity and engagement the devices can bring to a classroom-learning environment, especially in traditionally “one-way” large lecture halls with more than 100 students.

Why the sudden surge in interest and use of these devices that have been around for several years, in fact that received a flurry of adoption more than a decade ago? The answer: national publisher sales forces promoting the “new” technology.

About a year ago, a major textbook publisher began a full-court-press marketing plan -- offering professors the systems at no cost, in exchange for requiring students to buy one of their textbooks bundled with a “free” clicker.

However, these systems come with many hidden costs, both for students and for those supporting their use in the classroom. There are time-consuming issues (and therefore costs) in terms of installing the receivers and software in a classroom, training the faculty member to use the software, and supporting students who have trouble "activating" or "reactivating" their clicker. As multiple brands (typically not interoperable) yoked to different textbooks are adopted on a single campus, the costs and headaches multiply.

Textbook publishers have found that offering these systems to a professor can help “sweeten the deal” to get a new textbook adopted and reduce the sales of used copies of their books. Adding the clicker as a required supplement bundled with the new textbook not only helps sell new texts, it stifles sales of used copies that take away from publisher revenues.

Students pay immediately in terms of the difference in cost between the used textbook and the new one that has the “free” clicker and an activation code bundled with it. For example, an $80 new book would cost about $60 used. Buying the used book in a class requiring the response system would add a separate clicker payment (about $5) and activation code (an additional $15). Those economics favor the purchase of the new book, and reduce the sell-back price of the used book to the student. Further, clickers provided by most publishers won't work without activation, so the used clicker has little market value. Finally, who is going to pay for all of those batteries and absorb the costs of damaged clickers?

Because publishers have exclusive marketing deals with various vendors of Audience Response Systems, institutions often discover they have several different systems on campus, potentially in the same classroom. This proliferation multiplies support issues; each different receiver has unique hardware, interface software, and question-bank file formats. Without policy and planning, colleges and universities will have students carrying around a backpack full of different brands of clickers walking into classrooms with multiple receivers, both wireless and infra-red, running a variety of software programs on different update cycles.

In addition, even as course management systems are moving toward supporting open standards such as SCORM and the IMS QTI protocols, most student response systems have not begun adhering to such emerging standards. Question databases created for one system can’t be imported easily into another without losing system-specific formatting and features. Fortunately, at least one of the vendors is working on moving in the direction of supporting SCORM by the end of this year.

Such issues raise the need for campuses to create policies and strategies about the adoption and use of classroom response systems. If students are going to be required to buy clickers, should they be bundled with textbooks or site licensed for the campus at large based on open standards? From discussions taking place on many campuses, it appears this is quickly becoming an issue to resolve before too many of these “free” gifts add up to an expensive and messy situation to be fixed retroactively.

Regardless of how these systems are implemented, somebody is going to pay. There’s no such thing as a free lunch or a free clicker. The costs of campus-wide solutions aren’t hidden and require an upfront investment by the campus. Even if these costs are recouped from students, planning and administration require time and resources. Campuses also should consider the advantages and disadvantages of leasing clickers to students during their educational career rather than relying on sales.

Colleges and universities should set policies about adopting and supporting student response systems and evaluate pursuing a standardization strategy - preferably one that has implemented or promises to implement emerging open standards such as SCORM and QTI. Audience response systems offer very real educational benefits and should be seriously considered as an innovation that can assist student learning. However, campuses must find a solution that clicks for them, their professors, and their students.

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