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TurningPoint Student Response System

Do audience response systems enhance presentations in classrooms and lecture halls? This week's Opinion comes from the director of Educational Technology Services at the University of California-Berkeley. Victor Edmonds reflects on his experience with the systems.

Audience response systems have been around for years but had a reputation for being complex, expensive, and slow. Three years ago, Professor Alex Pines and Mark Kubinec, the teachers of the large introductory chemistry course at Berkeley, were looking for techniques to make their already lively classes more interactive. They found not only that the technology had become more user friendly and could be implemented for not much money, but that it had a surprisingly positive effect on the class environment.

The technology is taking off here on campus. Installation of receivers in classrooms is not difficult, but is best done by or at least in cooperation with the classroom technology people. We ran into trouble with one receiver unit that interfered with our assistive listening system until we moved things around. The tricky part would be the hand held units. How would we get one in the hands of each student in a large lecture hall? Permanently mounted units would get destroyed and passing them out and collecting them would take up class time. We settled on selling them to each student through the bookstore, and bundled them with the textbook. The students, used to the high prices, took it in stride. Some sold back the unit at the end of the semester; some kept it for use in another class. I have heard reports that some students have reused their units for two more classes.

It is hard to imagine the effect of these units unless you have seen them used well. You would think you could get the same information by asking students to raise their hands, but that is not a good comparison. First there is the instructional dimension. The instructor prepares class thinking about what the students know, what kinds of questions might be asked, what kinds of results might be shown. It is a perfect example of technology encouraging better teaching. One professor said he prepares one question to ask at the end of each class, and that simple discipline has focused his teaching while the instant feedback tells him what he needs to do next time. Our chemistry professors have devised a system of quizzes that has students theorizing and working out ideas in small groups. When the professor then presents the material, they are ready to understand and remember.

Secondly, the social dimension is bigger than one would imagine. Putting up your hand in class is pretty complex thing, kind of dangerous, socially and academically. But everyone is willing to give anonymous answers. Everyone is equally involved and the answers are honest. And fast. The professor is working with everyone's contribution, which is quite different than working with the idea of that one hand raiser. This leads to the third factor. This is fun. Something about pushing the buttons and seeing your answer made part of a big graph in the front of the room is fun. Students are smiling. The class becomes less formal and the atmosphere much more student centered.

For these reasons when I was scheduled to lead a panel at the Syllabus2004 conference in Berkeley I was glad for the opportunity to use a personal response system. Turning Technologies volunteered to provide the equipment for the session, the software, the training I would need, and lastly the support at the auditorium. The experience was addictive. Once you have presented this way it will seem a waste of time and energy to do otherwise. You can present so much better if you ask the audience what they think, what they are interested in, and whether they understood your presentation.

Turning Technologies is primarily a software company. They offer fully integrated packages but they can also use the devices you already have on hand. For the Syllabus conference they brought top-of-the-line RF hand held units. This way the audience didn't have to point the devices, useful in this context, but no big deal in a class. Professors tell me students learn very quickly how to point their less expensive IR devices right at the closest receiver, which in most cases looks like a small red dot in the ceiling or on a side wall.

I have mixed feelings about the current shape of the TurningPoint software. It is so full of features. It's the epitome of feature creep. They have thought of everything. If you want it, this software can do it. I cannot begin to tell you all that it can do. I used the basics-a yes/no question, multiple choice questions, Likert scale questions. Each of them with a count down timer. Then I correlated two demographic questions with the audience responses to content and opinion questions, and at the end I re-asked my beginning question and showed the percentage of change from the beginning of the session. And I would call myself a rank beginner. I would prefer to introduce my professors to a simpler interface. I asked the Turning folks if they had a TurningPoint Light for the classroom. They said they haven't felt a need and that they have many professors using the software in class. I guess they should know. They know how to ask.

As you can probably guess, this is a Windows-based system, not available for the Mac. Simple direct interface is not a value here. The software uses PowerPoint so all you know about PowerPoint you can use here. Then it overlays another set of features in the TurningPoint bar. You can right click your way into loads of other menus. Excel is involved in making the charts. It is really pretty simple to pull down a question type and then fill in the text you want. You can select what kind of graph it will use. If you stopped there you might have a good presentation. But then you have all those PowerPoint features you already know, and then there is a menu item that looks like a pair of eyeglasses. Let's see what will do. What if I right click on one of these. Pretty soon you are in trouble. But then again you might be the type who will thrive in this presentation supermarket.

After you are all prepared you run through your presentation in the demonstration mode. The software provides you with a random set of student answers so you can get an idea of how things will look. The demo setting stays active till you go back in and turn it off. The first time I used it I was part way through a disastrous presentation-thankfully it was a rehearsal in front of volunteers-when I realized that the data couldn't possibly be coming from this audience. Then I went in and turned off demo. Then things went pretty well. But I had over prepared and kept everyone's attention on the technology rather than the content. When I gave that presentation again with half as many slides and probably half as many features, it went very well.

I heard from many folks that this technology would make my presentation slow and that waiting for the graphs to come up would be painfully long. This certainly was not true of the TurningPoint software. I used the timer, which off course I could set to an infinite amount. I set it to ten seconds. I made it look like the New Year's Eve ball. Of course I had other choices. I would ask the question, start the timer. The audience could change their answer at any time till the ball had dropped. Then the graph, in the style and colors I had chosen, showed immediately. Not only did the technology not slow up the presentation, I felt we got more done in a shorter time. The questions chunked the presentation into clear topics. The fast software just focused things with a quick and relaxed pace.

And it's fun. This technology makes it easy to involve the audience. I felt like I was Louie Anderson on Family Feud. "And the answer is…" I knew from the audience responses that I wasn't telling them something they already knew and that I was emphasizing the parts they were most interested in. There was one part of the presentation that I thought was very important, but the audience didn't, so I dropped it and gave them more of what they were curious about. I do not think I have ever gotten so much praise for a presentation.

Presenting in front of 152 people-you have all kinds of data on your audience-at a conference I was glad I used an operator. But with some discipline and practice I could do it alone.

The Turning Technology folks have a full Web site with training materials and a demo that lets you use the actual software. They gave me terrific support. They clearly believe in their product. Their Web site says "TurningPoint will change the way you interact with your audience forever." I think that is absolutely true. I wouldn't give a presentation without it.

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