All you have to lose are your clickers

Every year, students are asked to fill out surveys about their university experience. Without fail, quality of education ratings at the University of Calgary are among the lowest. While universities across the country struggle to find a way of dealing with student dissatisfaction, many are turning to new technology as a solution. Professors are adopting clickers, small infrared devices that allow students to vote in answers, to increase class participation and their quality of teaching.

The University of Calgary participates in the National Survey of Student Engagement and Canadian University Survey Consortium every year, although the most recent results hosted on the university’s website are from 2008 and seem to have broken links. NSSE has changed the structure of questioning so quality of education is no longer a single question, but broken into sections about fostering “student success” and “active and collaborative learning.” Yet these pieces added together don’t equate to education quality. If your university actively promotes group work, that does not mean you are learning more than you would without it. CUSC, on the other hand, directly questioned students on their level of satisfaction about the quality of teaching. In Calgary, 16 per cent of students strongly agreed that they were satisfied in 2010. The U of C came in second to last.

Obviously something must be done to improve the quality of teaching, but are clickers the best option? Clickers are typically small, handheld, battery-powered, multiple-choice voting machines. Professors ask a question and students ‘click’ their favourite answer. According to avid believers, the benefits are endless.

For classes of 200 or 300 students, any sort of meaningful in-class communication with a professor is impractical if not impossible. However, this reflects the problem with class size more than a lack of technology. Professors can’t be blamed for trying to juggle teaching so many students, yet spending four minutes a week on a multiple choice question is not on par with having the ability to discuss any given topic as thoroughly as you would in a room with even 40 people. Professors often use the device to keep attendance or give marks for class participation. Beyond the argument of whether attendance should be taken in university, clickers are not the best method to do so. Make a friend, pass clickers back and forth, problem solved. Sit next to that smart kid from your lab and gain an extra five per cent. One of the upsides of a 300 person class is that no professor could notice.

While the sciences seem to have standardized their clicker, other faculties often turn to a different model. Ranging from $30 to $50, students should not have to pay for yet another gadget (or two) for little gain. For textbooks, those with tight finances can go to the library or split costs with a classmate if prices are especially extravagant, which they often are. Professors and students alike often complain about the high cost of post-secondary education, and while $30 may not seem like much on top of the thousands of dollars one pays for tuition, every little bit counts.

Professors that make the extra effort to see if students understand the topic under consideration should be commended. This is perhaps the single best use for these annoying chunks of plastic. But if this is the concern, students should not be afraid to simply raise their hands if something is unclear. Clickers for classes that don’t keep attendance or mark for participation are like recommended readings — it’s tough to find a student that cares.

Professors, either pressured by their departments or cleverly formatted textbooks (thank you Mr. Publisher), have turned to clickers for a wide variety of reasons. These people do care about educating students and want their classes to be engaging as well as informative. No professor would go out of their way to burden students with extra costs or time consuming activities without belief that it was for the best. Yet clickers are not successful at increasing the quality of education. They are merely an expensive, ineffective distraction.

. . Gauntlet Editorial Board

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