What do game shows and university lectures have in common? If you said prizes and give-aways offered by a handsome host and scantily clad offsider, you’d be wrong. If you said questions and audience participation, you’d be on the right track.
There’s nothing new here: Socrates started this approach to teaching and learning centuries ago. But now new technology offers a twist: instead of students learning by asking questions, they learn by being asked questions. Just like the button, buzzer and countdown we’re familiar with on game shows, lecturers are able to pose a question to the audience, their students, as part of their powerpoint presentation and let the students respond with an answer using a small handheld device with a numeric keypad which communicates with a computer system via infrared or wireless.
Like the game show, the goal is to get the question right and the element of competition against yourself and your peers makes it fun. Despite the responses being in one direction (from keypad to receiver), the technology facilitates a two–way communication channel between the teacher (who posed the question on the slide) and the student (who responds to the question via the keypad). Not only does the student find out that they’re not alone in their confusion, the teacher discovers if the intended message has got through. If not, the teacher knows to resend the message, preferably worded in a different way, drawn in a diagram or even acted out. The outcome is instant feedback, closed feedback loop and a bit of fun, all at the press of a button. It’s a win-win situation.
The technology is known by a number of different names, such as Computerised Audience Response Systems, CARS for short, or Electronic Classroom Communication Systems. I’ve been using the TurningPoint software and KEEpad devices for testing knowledge about computer programming, analysis and design and for anonymous peer assessment of group projects in my lectures. TurningPoint can be used with a variety of response devices including infrared and radio frequency keypads as well as networked PDAs, laptops and desktops. Figure 1 shows what a typical handheld device from KEEpad looks like. Products such as TurningPoint offer sophisticated presentations and question-style formats together with analysis and reporting features.
CARS have been employed for teaching in many fields including: physics, business, statistics, mathematics, information systems, pharmacy, psychology, medicine and electrical engineering in many universities nationally and internationally. The responses from individual keypads can be received and collated for each session and used to provide instant grading, polling or just feedback to the participants. At university this is helpful for in-class tests or even potentially as a way to make exam assessment quicker and easier. In recent times, the same basic concepts can be found in the Channel 9 Worm used to monitor the political debate between Howard and Rudd in the lead-up to the federal election.
What do elections and university lectures have in common? Again, you might have answered prizes and give-aways. Again you’d be wrong. The right answer was voting. CARS lets the audience consider a range of answers and vote on their preferred choice. However, more like reality TV than the game show in the case of the election, someone gets voted off. In the future, when we have workable solutions to the security, privacy, identity and possible coercion and intimidation issues associated with online voting, we’ll be able to register our election vote from the comfort and convenience of our own homes. As in the lecture theatre, we’ll be able to instantly see the tally rise. No more polling booths. No more counting and waiting.
But CARS aren’t just a game or gimmick. They’re designed to be engaging and motivating: key ingredients for learning. Interaction is a big part of being engaged, but that’s difficult in a lecture shared with tens or hundreds of other students where the norm is extreme passivity rather than active learning. Typically, when a question is posed in lectures, mister or missus know-it-all jumps up with the solution leaving the other mere mortals to either continue catching up on sleep, let the answer enter one ear and exit the other unchallenged or inwardly groan as they admit to themselves they’d never be able to provide such an answer.
Even when a voting approach is taken in lectures using a show of hands in response to a set of options, the US election approach prevails with only a few individuals courageous, confident or interested enough to declare their preference. Game show participants may be willing to be the weakest link or show they’re not smarter than a fifth grader, but your average self-respecting student prefers to remain anonymous while finding out how they’re going and how they compare to their peers. When it comes to the growing numbers of international students the reluctance to speak up is even greater.
Using the keypads requires students to pay attention in lectures and think about the content for themselves. In this respect, this technology has the potential to significantly change the character and capabilities of the students we graduate.
CARS is an educational tool which contradicts many of the current trends in education. Rather than encouraging distance education, self-paced and self or individual learning, it encourages learning together, at the same time, on campus and with a teacher present. While the technology could be used synchronously with students and teachers participating from different and multiple locations via their own computers, I suspect that much of the “atmosphere” and “excitement” which tends to be felt in the classroom when using the CARS technology would not exist when used in a remote mode. Much like the shortcomings of teleconferencing that “should” be a cheaper and more productive way to conduct meetings, the lack of face-to-face communication and socializing has resulted in poor uptake of that technology.
As we should realize by now, technology is not a silver bullet for education. Giving each child a computer will not magically increase learning. Flexible study and work arrangements will not guarantee successful course completion. Sending teachers to professional development to learn the latest technology will not necessarily improve teaching. However, engagement and connection between the student, teacher and the learning material will deliver improved outcomes. Environments enabled by technology, like blogs, chat rooms, facebook, wikipedia, interactive whiteboards and CARS have the potential to build a learning community where each participant, student and teacher, is encouraged to be at times the learner and other times the learned.