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Case Study

University of Delaware Responds to Classroom Clickers

"Have you ever found yourself standing in front of your class in the middle of a lecture and wondering what in the world is going on in the minds of your students?" --Douglas Duncan, University of Colorado, from the book, Clickers in the Classroom

Any instructor who has had the experience Duncan describes can appreciate the idea of using clickers, or personal response devices, to gauge student participation and understanding. At the University of Delaware, with nearly 20,000 students, clickers are not only engaging students during class, they're starting to be used for homework assignments and as campus-wide polling devices.

Clickers are small wireless keypads that allow students to respond electronically to instructor questions at various points during class. They're generally especially useful in large lecture classes, where keeping all students engaged and at a similar level of understanding can be challenging.

The university adopted the devices as a standard last fall, according to Janet de Vry, University of Delaware's manager of instructional services within the IT user services department. Since then, it has installed receivers in every classroom seating 35 students or more.

The devices are being used heavily in introductory sciences, de Vry said, including biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology, and are starting to show up in social sciences classes such as political science. "In any class," she said, "if you can know what your students know before you teach, and know what they know afterwards, that's fantastic."

To use clickers in class, instructors plug their laptop computers into the receivers through a USB cable. An instructor installs the free software, then issues a simple command during class to display questions created ahead of time.

System Considerations
The university decided to address the clicker issue last year when it realized that faculty members were experimenting on their own with various devices. Fearing that students might eventually be asked to purchase several different clickers for different classes, and that IT would be asked to support a variety of devices, a committee began researching a single university-wide personal response system option.

Although de Vry led the committee, members consisted mostly of faculty members, who, owing to their experimentation, had a good idea of what they wanted in a student response device. Research led the group to eventually select Interwrite PRS RF clickers from Interwrite Learning. The devices contain not only a keypad, but--in a feature that the committee found compelling--a short LCD display panel that can show text typed by the user. Support for both Mac OS X- and Windows-based systems was also important. "It was the best tradeoff between ease of use, functionality, and cost," de Vry said. "You might be tempted to get a simpler [model], if you didn't have faculty with experience with other [devices]."

The Interwrite clickers also use radio frequencies to communicate with the receivers, rather than infrared light, which is also commonly used in such devices. According to de Vry, feedback from professors who had used different devices indicated that because infrared requires line of sight to communicate, it can be problematic in some classroom situations.

Participation and Professional Development
Use of the devices is optional in any class and up to the professor; if an instructor requires a clicker for a course, students purchase it ahead of the course as they would a textbook. The University of Delaware bookstore sells Interwrite devices for $46.65.

The university promoted the devices heavily initially, de Vry said, through classes, a summer course in which those who had used the devices discussed their benefits, and articles in the campus-wide daily online publication.

It also helped when the chair of psychology department held a full-day symposium for 90 faculty and staff members on interactive teaching in which the keynote speaker, Douglas Duncan, demonstrated how clickers can be useful in teaching physics. Duncan, who is a professor at the University of Colorado and has written a book called "Clickers in the Classroom," also discussed how faculty can use response devices to move students beyond content into higher-level thinking.

Student Use
Because the clickers can store answers and upload them later, they are also being used for homework assignments. Students can complete a short quiz on the device outside class, for example, then "turn in" the assignment at the beginning of class. With results at hand, the instructor can then assess and discuss them with the class.

An unanticipated way the devices are being used is for polling students on an issue. A yearly resident hall project, for example, is using clickers to poll students for opinions. de Vry said she's also seen the device used to good effect in staff meetings and faculty training sessions.

After some basic programming by the university, de Vry said, the devices also can be used with WebCT, the university's course management system, or with Microsoft Excel. In those cases, data collected from clicker responses can be imported into WebCT or Excel in order to create an ongoing record of student attendance or performance.

Clicker responses are anonymous in class but are tracked by a device number, which is linked to a particular student. Some faculty members, for example, give a small amount of course credit to students for clicker responses.

In gauging the IT effort required for setting up a clicker system, De Vry estimated that one member of her IT staff devotes nearly full-time effort to the project the first year, most of that spent on training, Web page development, and intense faculty support that included a short online video on how to use the devices. Now, a graduate student handles the bulk of the support. She recommends that schools considering such devices budget appropriately for training and support. "They need help and a place to go," de Vry said. "They're not going to adopt [the devices], if you just work with faculty without a support organization.... Support of the faculty is really critical."

Interwrite sells its PRS RF (radio frequency) clickers in a class pack of 32 for $1,796,  including the receiver and the software. Some universities, as the University of Delaware has done, sell the devices through the bookstore. Others buy the class packs and distribute them to the students themselves.

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