Thursday, December 31, 2009

Beneficial Use of Audience Response Systems

I have in recent weeks been working on researching the pedagogical and beneficial uses of audience response systems. Many of the articles I have read included comments from teachers and/or professors who, although had never tried using an audience response system, did not see them as a useful tool. The arguments typically revolve around the notion that students' low attention span should not be appeased by technology and mere button pushing. In a previous post, I had discussed some reasoning behind why one should use TurningPoint; this post will continue with more reasoning.

"Like any technology, these systems are intrinsically neither good nor bad; they can be used skillfully or clumsily, creatively or destructively. However, they can produce results that are eye-opening and potentially of great value to both students and instructors for enhancing the teaching-learning process" (Clickers: A Teaching Gimmick that Works).

Audience Response Systems, perhaps in their most basic form, are tools; as such, they must be used properly in order for benefits to be known. A shovel is a very beneficial tool for digging, but if it is used to screw in a screw, the benefits will not be known. The question that should then arise is, in what ways will use of the technology be beneficial to learning?

Research on using audience response systems from a pedagogical perspective mention the Mazur Group from Harvard, and the notion of using peer instruction. Peer instruction is a technique for which students discuss a particular concept in class with their neighbors. It can be used to spark an entire class discussion. Primarily, it is used to engage students in the lesson. When paired with TurningPoint, a powerful combination is formed.

The typically described scenario works as follows. A professor polls his/her students to determine whether they are following the material. On the cases in which students' answers diverge, the professor may then ask the students to discuss amongst each other why they believe their answer was correct. Then, the same (type of) question is re-polled. From here, a class-wide discussion may then take place to determine which answer is correct and why.

By using this approach, granted the students' attention spans are appeased via technology and button pressing, they are actively learning using this method as opposed to passively learning in a more traditional lecture setting. As students are more active in their learning process, a greater sense of communion is established within the classroom. Lectures lose the monologue characteristic, and become more of a dialogue between the professor and students. With the use of TurningPoint, the dialogue may not always be verbal, but an explicit bi-directional communication is developed during the class session.

So why is this important? Why not just lecture and let the student absorb what is taught? He or she should be working to understand the material, or fail (comment #3).

As someone interested in internet-based technologies, this reminds me of the internet communications protocols TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) and UDP (User Datagram Protocol). With UDP, the protocol can be used for essentially broadcasting messages; it does not make a check to be sure the recipient of the message actually receives any part of it. TCP, on the other hand, makes several checks to be sure the recipient will be able to, and does, receive the entire message in full.

Simple lectures that typically broadcast a lesson act similarly to the UDP protocol. There is no exact means of determining who is absorbing the material, nor how much. By using TurningPoint, however, along with peer instruction, a lesson can become more akin to TCP. In real-time assessment, a professor may know the material was not absorbed by most of the class, going over the concept(s) again to be sure the whole class is able to understand.

Many uses of TurningPoint during a presentation can be found to be beneficial towards better experiences for both presenter and audience, even outside of a classroom setting. However, within the classroom (not necessarily higher education), using TurningPoint with peer instruction has been shown to increase students' actual learning.

To finish this post, I pose a (not so) simple question. Is it better to broadcast a lecture as a soliloquy, or immerse your students in an actively engaged classroom setting?

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