Monday, June 27, 2011

Talk to Me! Click. Vote. Tweet.

Thx to UNC-Charlotte for the pic of students clicking
One of the culture shocks experienced while offering workshops to Chinese students at Sias International University was the silence out there. They didn't ask questions. They didn't want to answer questions when asked. Turns out they didn't want to embarrass ME in case I didn't know the answer. I explained that American professors are comfortable not knowing the answer, and we encourage questions.

Now, I'm thinking, I didn't quite tell the truth. OK, I hope that I told a theoretical truth, but in practice, we know we're generally asking the few, eager, extroverted, usually attention-seeking students in the front rows. We know their questions and we know our answers. What if we really did want students in the back rows to let us know what they don't understand? There are new and interesting ways to ask them, even in large lectures and I'd like to think aloud about a few of them.

First, the infamous "clickers" or more formally "classroom response systems" (CRS). Clickers can be a great way to get low-stake feedback. For those new to these hand-held gadgets, here's Wired's take on the subject. But, the classroom setup and the individual devices can be both pricey and hard to manage. Too often
purchased by the students and poorly used by the instructor, the cost and cumbersome management can cause some resentment.

Some say the technology is not the pedagogy, and all we really need is fingers or paper. Anyone who knows me would predict that I'd easily agree with first statement, but think the absence of anonymity in public voting with fingers means you sacrifice honest and unworried responses. There is great value in digital voting, especially when used to "talk back", to tell me what was understood, to share confusion and give me a chance to see where I got it wrong in teaching. For that, I love all the instant voting/digital tools. And if the voting can leverage gadgets already in the students' pockets? Bonus.

So I want to mention PollEverywhere, which is a great alternative to clickers. Web-based, it allows students to respond to questions via whatever they have: smart phone text, Twitter, Web page. It allows us to leverage what our students carry AND ask them what is not known. I like the low stakes entry, as the software offers free polling when asking for less than 30 responses. Instructors can test in small courses or in doing group work, and if you love it, ask your director/dean/CIO to purchase a site license for unlimited responses. It changes the large lecture experience.

Another way in to the participatory learner is to use Twitter via SAP's interactive PowerPoint Twitter tool. Ask students to create a Twitter account and send you Tweets that are compiled dynamically right in your PowerPoint presentation. I love this plugin, and have found it invaluable in teaching and in presentation settings where I know a number of people would otherwise be zoning out.

It occurs to me that "blended learning" could also be used to describe a F2F class that logs into webinar software (Adobe Connect, WebEx, GoToMeeting, ... you choose) and make use of the chat, poll, discussion notes feature of real-time participation.

Lots of choices. We'd be using them if we really want to "know that our students know what we need them to know" (Tom D'Angelo). All of them would tell us. If we asked the right questions. In the right way for our increasingly diverse learners. Assessment amplified, and delivered via a plethora of software and devices now found in our pockets, backpacks, app-ready devices.
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