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.


Galit Shmueli said...

I used the system for the first time today at Indian School of Business -- all seemed to work nicely, except that the polls would not show up in my PPT. Perhaps b/c I loaded PPT 2007 instead of 2010. In any case, I quickly moved to my browser, where I could display the polls online.

Testing again in my office after class looks fine, so I will report back after the Thurs class.

Students seemed to like the system, and all figured out the online or SMS business after a few slides. In fact, some liked it so much that they kept entering more and more answers - I had to "Close Poll" to get back the attention.

One main difference from clickers is that everyone sees the answers as they come in, so later students can see what the earlier students selected... Herding effects?

Mike McCue said...

Regarding the "herding effect": I am intending on using polleverywhere for an elementary school. I believe that the students will be mesmerized by the constantly moving bars and will strive to manipulate the bars rather than provide their real answer. To combat this, I will freeze the projector screen as soon as I show the poll. Thus, I'll be able to see the results and will then unfreeze so they can see the results.

Since you've been using clickers for so long and have a better feel for this, do you think this method will work? Or am I solving a problem that won't really exist...

Galit Shmueli said...

Hi Mike,
There's an easier way to avoid the real-time updating of the bars in PE: Change the look to a table. The table does not show the answers, only the number of responses as responses come in. Then you hit "close poll" and switch to graph mode.