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Introducing a radiofrequency clicker system: staff perceptions
by Daniela Gachago


Background
Electronic voting systems (EVS), also called personal response systems (PRS) or "clickers" have slowly entered the UK higher education system as a tool to enhance interactivity and engagement in large lectures (Simpson and Oliver 2007; Draper and Brown 2004; Nicol and Boyle 2003). The College of Science and Engineering (CSE) at the University of Edinburgh (UoE) has been using clickers since 2004. In 2008 the University embarked on a lengthy procurement process to replace the existing Infrared (IR) technology with radiofrequency (RF) technology. RF technology is becoming the current standard, promising a number of benefits, such as simple installation with a single USB wireless receiver, stronger signals, no line of sight issues and confirmation for students on receipt of their votes (Caldwell 2007). In July 2008 the decision was taken to purchase Interwrite Crickets, mainly because of its cross-platform compatibility and automatic allocation of channels.

The CSE is one of the largest users of clickers in the UK, with about 70 lecturers and more than 2000 students using clickers on a regular basis (mainly on first and second year courses where large classes are more common). The University is relying on a student "loanership" model, where students borrow a handset from the library through its issuing system for a semester and either return it at the end of the semester or renew their loan for another semester. Academic staff are supported by the College clicker support team, which maintains the College clicker website, runs regular training events, organises the dissemination of clickers and assists lecturers during their first lectures.

During the summer of 2008, RF receivers were installed in 90 centrally bookable lecture theatres and teaching spaces and the clicker software was upgraded. Although the University had already used Interwrite IR clickers in previous years, the RF technology came with a new software, Interwrite Response, which needed re-training and some time for staff to get familiarized with the software. The clicker support team in the CSE in collaboration with a colleague of the Teaching, Learning and Assessment (TLA) Unit offered a number of training sessions for lecturers to upgrade the software, try out the new system and also to discuss how to use clickers effectively in teaching and learning.       

17-clickers-1



Figure 1: Students using the new clicker system      
                                  

The new RF clicker system has now been in use for one academic year. To collect feedback from staff using the system we developed an online questionnaire. The remainder of this article summarises the results of this survey. We previously collected staff perceptions on clicker usage in April/May 2008 (Gachago 2008). Feedback from lecturers on clickers was very positive, highlighting benefits of clickers such as increased interaction between lecturers and students, improving feedback for both students and lecturers by revealing common misconceptions and giving students an insight on how they compare to their peers. However, lecturers also reported challenges when using clickers, such as the technical issues which lecturers were encountering, especially with the software, and problems using the managed desktop machines in the lecture theatres to run clicker sessions. It became evident that staff expected a significant improvement through the RF upgrade in the set up and running of clicker sessions. We will compare the data gathered then, with the data gathered this academic year, to see whether the RF clicker system delivered on its promises and whether the new system resulted in a different use of clickers by academic staff at the College.
 
Clickers in the CSE
As mentioned above, 68 lecturers are currently using clickers in the CSE. At the end of July 2009 an email was sent to all of these lecturers with a link to an online questionnaire. In total 24 responses were received by mid-August 2009, which represents a response rate of 35%. The responses were from six of the seven schools that used clickers in the previous year (Figure 2).
 

School

Respondents per School

 

User per School

Engineering

4

17%

20

Chemistry

4

17%

11

Physics

5

21%

10

Informatics

1

4%

8

Biology

6

25%

13

Geosciences

4

17%

5

Maths

 

 

1

Total

24

100%

68

Figure 2: Respondents and Users by School

Most respondents have been using clickers for more than a year (83%), which puts them in a good position to judge whether the RF clickers represented an improvement to the previous IR technology (Figure 3).


One year:

4

17%

Two years:

7

30%

Three or more years:

12

53%

Total

23

100%

Figure 3: How long have you been using clickers?


RF clicker upgrade
This year's RF clicker upgrade seems to have been a success. The majority of lecturers perceive the RF clicker system as an improvement to the previous IR system (Figure 4).


Yes

12

80%

No

3

20%

Total

15

100%

Figure 4: Has the RF clicker technology been an improvement to the previous IR technology?

Lecturers described the new system as more reliable and easier to use:

"Less flaky, better response rates, easier to set up."
"The new technology proved extremely reliable and hassle-free for me. It is basically plug and play."

They particularly approved of the possibility of using their own laptops with a USB receiver:

"It is particularly an improvement if using the clickers in a lab or other room that is not fitted with a receiver."


Lecturers reported some problems due to the change of system, including the necessity to select a channel for students, the decreased battery life of the clickers, the decreased number of choices on a clicker handset (six as opposed to the previous 10 options) and the missing confidence level buttons.

Although the upgrade has been seen for the majority of users as an improvement, more than 50% of staff still experienced technical problems (but less than last year) (Figure 5).

 

2008/2009

2007/2008

I had no problems at all:

11

38%

9

24%

With the clicker software:

9

31%

13

35%

With the data projector:

1

3%

2

5%

With the managed desktop machines:

4

14%

7

19%

With the receivers:

4

14%

6

16%

Total

29

100%

37

100%

Figure 5: Did anything go wrong with the clicker sessions?


We had also hoped that the new system would increase student response rates, which have caused concern in previous years, especially in courses, where only a few members of a course team used clickers and in Semester 2 courses, which in general seem to have had lower response rates than Semester 1 courses. However, the response rates have only slightly increased (Figure 6). This might not be as significant as a problem as it appears, as one of the lecturers points out:

"I think although only 30% of students actually vote, most students are participating in thinking about the questions and are formulating responses."

 

2008/2009

2007/2008

25%

2

8%

3

10%

50%

11

46%

14

47%

75%

9

38%

9

30%

100%

2

8%

4

13%

Total

24

100%

30

100%

Figure 6: How many of the attending students do, in general, vote on a clicker question (approximately)?

Impact of the new technology on the use of clickers
One of the main advantages of the RF clicker system is the possibility of using a lecturer's laptop to run the clicker questions, since all lecturers now need is one USB wireless receiver to collect responses from students. The old IR system had to be run through the managed desktop lecture PCs, which were wired to up to seven receivers, depending on the size of the classroom.

Responses show that lecturers have taken advantage of this: 67% of respondents used their own laptops as opposed to the managed desktop machines (Figure 7).

The managed desktop PC:

8

33%

My own Windows laptop:

10

42%

My own MAC laptop:

5

21%

My own Linux laptop:

1

4%

Total

24

100%

Figure 7: Which system do you use to run your clicker questions (most of the time)

Clickers sessions can be run in various ways: questions can be prepared in advance using an MS PowerPoint add-in (which integrates MS PowerPoint and the Interwrite Response software) or the software can run "standalone", with the question bar on top of any other application displaying the question. This year lecturers have made more use of the MS PowerPoint add-in than last year. This could be due to the increased use of lecturers' own laptops as mentioned above (Figure 8).
 

 

2008/2009

2007/2008

Integrating clicker questions into MS PowerPoint using the PPT add-in:
16

67%

12

40%

Using the PRS standalone version, but with questions prepared beforehand:
5

21%

18

60%

Making questions up "on the spur of the moment":
0

0%

0

0%

A mix of the above:

3

13%

 

 

Total

24

100%

30

100%

Figure 8: How did you mainly use clicker questions?

Lecturers also seem to have gained confidence in using clickers: they use clickers more regularly during the semester and ask more questions per lecture (Figures 9 and 10).

 

2008/2009

2007/2008

In all lectures you were teaching in this course:

12

50%

11

37%

In several lectures:

8

33%

11

37%

In one or two lectures only:

2

8%

2

7%

Not in lectures, but in workshops, labs, practicals etc.:

1

4%

1

3%

Other (please specify):

1

4%

5

17%

Total

24

100%

30

100%

Figure 9: Did you use clickers in ...


 

2008/2009

2007/2008

1-2:

8

35%

17

59%

3-5:

15

65%

12

41%

over 5:

0

0%

0

0%

Total

23

100%

29

100%

Figure 10: How many questions do you generally ask per lecture?

Lecturers perceive clickers to be a more and more useful teaching tool (Figure 11). This year, some lecturers even rate clickers as an essential tool in their teaching (see Figure 12).

 

2008/2009

2007/2008

Not at all useful:

1

4%

0

0%

Not very useful:

1

4%

2

7%

Useful:

5

22%

11

37%

Very useful:

13

57%

11

37%

Extremely useful:

3

13%

6

20%

Total

23

100%

30

100%

Figure 11: How useful were the clickers as an aid to teaching?


Yes

10

45%

No

12

55%

Total

22

100%

Figure 12: Would you say clickers are an essential part of your lecture/practical/lab etc.?


As other authors have noted, clickers are not just an entertaining gimmick, but can actually add to a students learning experience and thus increase student performance (Preszler et al 2006). CSE staff view clickers mainly as a tool to increase interactivity in large lectures and to improve students' engagement. But they can also give valuable anonymous feedback to lecturers and students and improve understanding of concepts. The following are statements from academic staff on the usefulness of clickers:

On increasing interaction / engagement:

"I clearly see learning/thinking going on in lectures".

"The clicker section comes half way through the lecture and provides an important method of keeping the audience engaged".

"I find them useful as they are a way to engage the students and have them actively participating in the class".

"Useful to break up the one-way traditional lecturing style; to engage students by giving them time to reflect on material being presented".

"I found the clickers increased the student's "enjoyment" of the lectures".


 
On giving feedback

"I find them very useful in providing a form of feedback during the lecture that would be difficult to obtain by other means".

"I use them mainly to gauge understanding and then adjust pace etc. accordingly".

"They give me instant feedback on how well [students] have understood a concept I have just described. This gives me the opportunity to go over it again if required".

"To let student know how well they are doing compared to rest of class".

"[They help me] determine the course of the lecture based upon student understanding".


Innovative ways of using clickers
The most basic way of using clickers is to ask students to vote individually on a question and only allow one vote. However, nearly half of the lecturers (n=10) now use clickers in more innovative ways, such as encouraging students to discuss with their peers before voting. Stephen Draper, a lecturer at University of Glasgow and one of the first clicker users in the UK, is convinced that: "Possibly the most productive application, [...] is in using the equipment to initiate a discussion" (Draper nd). Lecturers also ask students to revote on questions, after having explained a question in more detail or allowing students to discuss with their peers (see e.g. Nichol and Boyle 2003 or Bates, Howie and Murphy 2006). Clickers are also used for revision (either of a previous lecture, lecture block or in a special session before exams). Some lecturers use clickers for a 'pub-quiz' style assessment, individually or in groups, where clickers are assigned to specific identities and a cumulative score is being calculated at the end of the quiz (Figure 13).


 

2008/09

I encourage peer discussion before voting

8

I ask students to revote on questions

8

I encourage students to vote in pairs/groups

3

Figure 13: How do you use clickers?

Conclusion
The College of Science and Engineering has been successfully using clickers for more than five years now. What started as a number of small pilots has grown into a college-wide initiative involving more than 2000 students and about 70 lecturers. The recent upgrade to radiofrequency technology has been a success. It is seen as an improvement by the majority of lecturers, providing more flexibility and reliability. Through the years of experience, lecturers have gained the confidence to use clickers more regularly and frequently in lectures, trying out innovative ways of engaging students and encouraging discussion and interaction, to a point where some lecturers perceive clickers as an essential part of their teaching in first and second year.
 
Daniela Gachago
eLearning advisor
College of Science and Engineering, University of Edinburgh
Daniela.Gachago@ed.ac.uk

References
Bates S P, Howie K and Murphy A S (2006) Electronic voting systems; from one way transmission to two-way conversation. The Journal of the Higher Education Academy Physical Sciences Centre (ISSN 1740-9888), 2 [Online]. Available from www.ph.ed.ac.uk/elearning/publications/evsfinal.doc [Accessed 12/08/09]

Caldwell JE (2007) Clickers in the large classroom: Current research and best practice tips. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 6:9-20 [Online]. Available from www.lifescied.org/cgi/reprint/6/1/9.pdf [Accessed 12/08/09]

Crouch, C and Mazur E (2001) Peer instruction: ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics, 69, 9: 970-977 [Online]. Available from web.mit.edu/jbelcher/www/TEALref/Crouch_Mazur.pdf [Accessed 12/08/09]

Draper S W and Brown M I (2004) Increasing interactivity in lectures using an electronic voting system. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 20: 81-94 [Online]. Available from www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~steve/ilig/papers/draperbrown.pdf  [Accessed 12/08/09]

Draper S (nd) Electronically enhanced classroom interaction [Online]. Available from www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~steve/ilig/handsets.html [Accessed 12/08/09]

Gachago D (2008) Feedback on Personal Response Systems ('Clickers') - lecturers' perspective. Internal report [Online]. Available from www.scieng.ed.ac.uk/LTStrategy/resources/Clicker_feedback_v0_7_incl_exec_summary.pdf [Accessed 12/08/09]
 
Nicol D and Boyle J T (2003) Peer instruction versus class-wide discussion in large classes: A comparison of two interaction methods in the wired classroom. Studies in Higher Education 28, 4: 457-473 [Online]. Available from www.ph.utexas.edu/~ctalk/bulletin/glasgow1.pdf [Accessed 12/08/09]

Preszler R W, Dawe A, Shuster C B and Shuster M (2007). Assessment of the effects of student response systems on student learning and attitudes over a broad range of biology courses. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 6: 29-41 [Online]. Available from www.lifescied.org/cgi/reprint/6/1/29.pdf [Accessed 12/08/09]

Simpson V and Oliver M (2007). Electronic voting systems for lectures then and now: A comparison of research and practice. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 23, 2: 187-208 [Online]. Available from www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet23/simpson.html  [Accessed 12/08/09]
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