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Published April 8, 2012 | Biology

Deceptively Small Packages

Some people think if they don't need information technology, they need not bother to learn how to use it, particularly if it's not going to add something to their class. I love using IT in my Biology classroom, and when I learn about something new, sometimes I just find an excuse to use it. I've rarely regretted this supposed frivolity.

An Unexpected Beginning

The excuse for using clickers came five or six years ago. I used to teach biology using traditional PowerPoints and nothing else. I asked questions and always felt troubled that not all of my students would reply. Were they or weren't they sure of the answers? What topics needed more attention?

So I started looking for ways to make the classroom more active. The funny thing is that one of the sales reps from a publishing house came to see me promoting a textbook, throwing in clickers as a technology that was a free trial with the books. I wasn't so sold on the textbook, but the clickers were another story.

They gave me only six pads, with the software, the receiver and everything else that we needed to run it, and I started with six students. I loved it, and my students loved it. I was able to convince the IT service to buy two packs of 40 clickers each. People could borrow them from the IT department. And that's how it started.

An Unexpected Result

Now, my classes are almost all clicker based which I feel promotes interaction between myself and my students. Students have to do assigned readings before class. Class begins with two clicker questions based on these readings. Then, I present the main concepts of the chapter, and then, we apply those concepts for the rest of the class using clicker questions and activities.

Although every student answers questions individually, discussion is de rigueur...

Each student is assigned a clicker pad for the semester. Every time they use the clickers, their responses are recorded, and I use the results for a certain percentage of their class grade. They know that this is graded. It is serious stuff. They do the pre-class readings!

Although every student answers questions individually, discussion is de rigueur when I project a question on the screen. I allow a certain amount of time for discussion which is really peer instruction. My questions are not straightforward; they're not recall questions. They're more conceptual questions. I want meaningful interaction to happen. Although grading is individualized, I feel that there is an aspect of team grading because of the discussions that ensue when you project a question. Discoveries are made in class as students try to convince each other of the justice of their responses

Students are aware that they must understand this information in order to answer the questions.

Let's say the class is covering how glucose levels in the blood are always maintained around a certain range of concentration, which is a concept of homeostasis. Instead of me lecturing about the components of that increment control system in the body, I assign that information as a chapter reading. As well, I post animations or videos on Dropbox and Google Docs for students to view.

Students are aware that they must understand this information in order to answer the questions. They will have been given some of the questions before they come to class, but some of them are presented on the spot. Gradually, we construct the different components of that control system. And, as they answer the questions, the entire class becomes engaged in constructing a concept map of the topic/concept being discussed.

The effect that clickers have had on my teaching has been profound. I can now spot problematic content areas and focus on topics where students need more attention. Also, without realizing it, I seem to have anticipated what is now being called the flipped classroom.

The Expected Occasional Glitches

In my opinion, the main disadvantage of clickers is technical. Sometimes things don't work the way you would want them to work. My class then reverts to the old ways of asking questions. I don't panic when that happens, and the occasional glitch only serves to illustrate clickers' advantages.

In the future, I see students having a clicker app on their Smartphones. I wouldn't have to worry about going to the IT department to borrow the clickers, distribute them, collect them and bring them back. Although I'm used to it now, I would like to see a more practical way of doing things.

I remain fascinated by technologies that are innocently small yet produce massive results. Share your experiences of the impact of information technology that has arrived in deceptively small packages.

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