22 January 2012

Classroom motivation and assessment with Clickers and iDevices

Part 1 – An evolutionary history of software-specific systems and unique clicker devices

Readers should note that I (Catherine Ousselin) am a gadget-geek. I am constantly testing and piloting hand-held devices that can be used to encourage student participation, comprehension, and engagement. This love of the gadget most likely comes from my Sears brand "Atari 2600" system, circa 1980 and the two "Speak-and-Spell" devices that my parents bought us to encourage our spelling and math skills.
Thank you, Mom and Dad!  

I have been using an “Audience Response” system since 2003. I started with Qwizdom and my students went wild. Qwizdom provided me with 30 devices and never asked for payment as long as I demonstrated them to other teachers! The students loved the silly, outdated graphics as well as the 
"Mars Mission" and "FastTrack" games. 


I continued for nearly 6 years with Qwizdom until I noticed that the games were never updated and that my computer no longer appreciated the software. 

I had heard that there were new “clickers” that allowed students to text their replies. After contacting Promethean (known for their boards and ActivInspire software), my students were treated to a beautiful new set of clickers that allowed them to text complete paragraphs and to use accents.


The software is exceptionally easy to use. A basic review with multiple styles of questions could be created in under 15 minutes. The only drawback of the program was that there were no games or challenges to motivate the students. Whereas Qwizdom provided the space ships with their ranks and times, the ActiveInspire only allowed the students to see a bar chart with times and answers. Although outdated and malfunctioning, the students preferred the Qwizdom games. They enjoyed the competition. ActiveInspire seemed dull. I appreciated the data collection provided through the ActiveInspire software because it could track student progress and other important data. Unfortunately, when I proposed the clickers, students would slightly roll their eyes. Although I had piloted the devices with them, they soon grew weary of this tool. Perhaps they were put off by the numerical (“old-school”) texting operation. By the time I had purchased the devices, pull-out keypads were everywhere. QWERTY texting was more natural to the students. Their attitude was disappointing since I had used the last of my technology grant to purchase the system. 

Update 1: Promethean World now has QWERTY keyboards on a new device called ActivExpression2.

In an attempt to find yet another system, I turned to SmartTech as I have a SmartBoard in the classroom and had seen a demonstration of their newest XE Response System. I was excited to offer my students what they wanted: QWERTY keypads and SmartTech. 

If you are unfamiliar with the Smart Notebook software, you might wish to download for the trial period. You do not need a SmartBoard to run the software, just an LCD projector. Notebook offers Flash games that allow students to interact with the material in creative and thoughtful ways. The games are fun and productive. Most of all, they are magnificently easy to create. Type in the words, click “Create,” and the
 games are ready. Here are a few examples of Flash activities that I made for my TPRS story on «La légende de Carcassonne» These activities do not require (and don't accommodate) the use of clickers. They are an engaging way to start a class or to review before an assessment.   

The activity building template is as easy as typing the text, choosing a picture, and adding the answer.

There are 18 games/activities to choose from.

I had assumed that Smart would incorporate their Flash games into the Response system.  
Regrettably, this was not to be the case. The system was quite similar to the ActiveInspire software: multiple-choice questions, true-false, short-answer, agree-disagree, etc. 

Strangely, though, there was no option to use accents on the student devices. With the Promethean devices, accents were available by switching the device language. This lack of accents stunned me because Smart is a Canadian company. They market their devices and software in Quebec and around the world! During my one-on-one training (in my classroom!) with a Smart Rep, we contacted the company to inquire about the lack of accents. It was not in their plans to add them. This was an issue for me. To spend nearly $3,000 on a system that had neither extra motivational software nor accents for World Language teachers led me to heavily consider the purchase. 

To be fair, I tried the XE system in its Beta state. The devices were weighty, but not too cumbersome. The buttons were similar to most phones and math teachers could incorporate functions and graphs into their lessons as the keypads included math symbols. The devices stayed with me for one month during which I used them twice. While not a determining factor for me, an important issue for the students was the lack of student response time data. If there are no games or quirky graphics to hold the students’ attention, there should be at least the possibility to show which student answered first and correctly. They relish being the quickest texter in the class. I politely returned the system to Smart and informed them of what needed to be improved if World Language teachers were to adopt this system.

Note: Since my last exposure to Smart and its Response software, I have learned that the company has Beta software available that will allow students to connect their iPods/Pads, etc. to the teacher station. I have downloaded the software for a trial use, but receive messages that I need a code to activate the system. This will be a project for Spring Break.  Software-specific clickers will soon be obsolete. 

Before purchasing any devices or deciding on software, please continue reading part 2 which will be uploaded later today (22 January 2012). 

I have continued to use the Promethean/ActivInspire software as it does allow me to quickly assess basic knowledge and skills of the students. I offer small rewards of points and (yes) candies for the top five students. I don’t use it too often or they tire quickly of the repetition. Additionally, the assessment sets are never more than twenty questions. I have learned from many experiences that Freshman through Juniors need small doses of different exposures. Clickers are wonderful to engage quiet students who will not raise their hands to participate, but who will text any verb conjugation in less than ten seconds!

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