Technology in the 21st-Century Classroom

Audience Response System Technology in the 21st-Century Classroom

 by Scott Hollenback, Psi Beta’s Midwestern Vice-President, Waubonsee Community College, IL

     How many instructors have stood in the front of a college classroom in the midst of a lecture and looked out onto a sea of blank stares? Based on these vacuous looks, we have the tendency to ask the question “Do you understand?” Wouldn’t it be nice to actually determine whether students legitimately understand that which we are trying to teach? Establishing and maintaining student interest, as well as engaging those students in the classroom, are among the challenges faced by today’s college instructors. Many instructors have stood in front of the classroom while lecturing to a room filled with students having blank stares or other indicators of disinterest and disengagement. When questioned whether they understand the material being presented, many students smile or nod with affirmation. However, the question remains as to their actual level of understanding. Therefore, the ability to ascertain the alleged understanding would be helpful. This need is particularly critical in those sections of college courses having large enrollment numbers, where students appear to be significantly less active in asking questions, less willing to become behaviorally engaged, and less likely to complete course assignments in a timely fashion. In addition, it has been documented that a reduction in student involvement in the classroom, which appears to be more likely to occur in large classroom settings, is linked to decreased student performance.

     Conversely, classroom activities that increase student engagement and active classroom participation have been shown to increase student performance and should be considered a central feature in the learning process. Keeping this in mind, it would seem imperative to engage students as soon as possible in order to allow them to have a significantly more positive and successful educational experience.

     Despite some of these previous statements, students perceive the majority of the instructional methods utilized in the field of education today as poorly engaging. Although the typical methodology of didactic lecture is a relatively effective means of disseminating information and is seen as a mainstay in higher education, one of its limitations relates to the lack of active involvement or audience participation in the classroom context. Additionally, the use of feedback has been found to improve the potential for learning, specifically when students obtain feedback that is relatively immediate and corrective in nature. Feedback has the capability of providing students with a measure of certainty whether or not material has been learned.

     Computer-aided instructor provides one promising approach for engaging students in the classroom in order to better facilitate learning. The wireless audience response system (ARS) is a specific technological alternative to promote engagement and learning. Audience response systems allow individual students to respond anonymously to instructor questions within the confines of the lecture setting. Students respond via a keypad similar to a television remote control. A receiver installed in the classroom obtains the electronic signals via either infrared or radio frequencies from these handheld devices. The receiver is linked to an instructor workstation that has the software necessary to gather data from these remotes and organize the data into graphic form and provide a summary of students’ responses. From these summaries (typically in the form or graphs, histograms, or tables), the instructor can make immediate judgments about students’ understanding of the lecture material. The ability to graphically display the results of a question using ARS in real-time allows students to see the aggregate responses of the class, including knowledge of their own anonymously submitted answers. This allows students to determine the accuracy of each question asked. In addition, the graphic representation of aggregate responses allows for immediate and corrective feedback for instructors. This feedback, therefore, enables the instructor to alter the pace or direction of the lecture or classroom discussion to better facilitate student understanding. Therefore, ARS has the capacity to create a sustainable feedback loop between student and teacher in order to facilitate the learning process. In addition, there may be increased discussions in the classroom and, subsequently, increased student engagement.

     This use of audience responses systems appears to be of significant benefit to the current generation of students in our classes as we have entered the twenty-first century. This group of individuals is known by such terms as “Millennials,” “Generation Media,” and “EchoBoomers.” These individuals were born somewhere between the early 1980s and the middle of the 1990s and are the children who have grown up during the early part of the twenty-first century. These individuals appear to be quite different from the generations that preceded them. One predominant characteristic relates to their use of technology. They not only utilize technology, they embrace it. This is the first generation to own a personal computer, as well as the integration of internet access in the home. Therefore, these individuals have been “plugged in” for the majority of their lives and have a greater comfort level using technology. Due to their technological background, they are more likely to experience greater comfort with classroom technology.

     Despite some of the potential benefits of ARS in the classroom, there are still some factors that may need to be addressed. A possible down side to ARS is that the instructor is somewhat constrained related to the types of questions that can be asked. Due to the remote control aspect of the response pads, true/false and multiple-choice questions are the primary method of choice. However, more sophisticated versions of the technology allows for text-based responses from the students. The use of this technology in the classroom may also be perceived as just another attention-getter on the part of the instructor. Therefore, caution should be exercised to incorporate the use of ARS, instead of just randomly adding it as a novelty item to the curriculum. I have personally found the use of this technology to be of great benefit, specifically when reflecting on the course evaluations submitted by my students and my own ability to alter the flow of my lectures based on the ability to better gauge the level of my students’ understanding.

Scott Hollenback

Psi Beta’s Midwestern Vice-President

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