Monday, August 29, 2011

Active learning: going mobile in India

I've been using "clickers" since 2002 in all my courses. Clickers are polling devices that students use during class to answer multiple-choice questions that I include in my slides. They encourage students to participate (even the shy ones), they give the teacher immediate feedback about students' knowledge, and are a great ice-breaker for generating interesting discussions. Of course, clickers are also fun. Most students love this active learning technology (statistically speaking, around 90% love it and 10% don't).

Clicker technology has greatly evolved since 2002. Back then, my students would watch me (in astonishment) climbing on chairs before class to place receivers above the blackboard, to allow their infra-red, line-of-sight clickers (the size of TV remotes) to reach the receivers. The receivers were the size of a large matchbox. Slowly the clickers and receivers started shrinking in size and weight...

A few years later came the slick credit-card-size radio-frequency (RF) clickers that did not require line-of-sight. My receiver shrunk to the size of an obese USB stick.

I still love clickers, but am finding their price (hardware and software) unreasonable for education purposes. The high prices ($40/clicker in the USA) are also applicable in India, as I've discovered (a quote of over $4,000 for a set of 75 clickers and a receiver raised my eyebrows to my hairline). In addition, now that everyone carries around this gadget called a mobile phone, why burden my students with yet-more-hardware?

This brought me to research using mobiles for polling. I discovered, which offers a facility for creating polls via their website, then embedding the polls into slides (Power Point etc.). Students can respond with their mobile phones by sending an SMS, tweeting, or using the Internet. I am especially interested in the mobile option, to avoid needing wireless Internet connection, smartphones, or laptops in class.

So, how does this work in India?
The bad news: While in the USA and Canada the SMS option is cheap (local number), does not have a local number for India (you must text an Australian number).

The good news: Twitter! Students with Bharti Airtel plans can tweet to respond to a poll (that is, send an SMS to a local number in India). I just tested this from Bhutan, and tweeting works beautifully.

The even-better news: Those using other Indian carriers can still tweet using the cool workaround provided by This allows tweeting to a number in Bangalore.

The cost? A fraction to the university (around $700/year for 200 students using the system in parallel) and only local SMS cost to the students. How well will this system work in practice? I am planning to try it out in my upcoming course Business Intelligence Using Data Mining @ ISB, and will post about my experience.
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