I-clickers help teachers engage larger classes

By Kali Bhandari

On a warm Wednesday afternoon, Assistant Professor Jeffrey Schmidt walks into his Principles of Marketing lecture hall. He walks up to the table in front of the hall, loads up the slides for the day and, after teaching for while, decides to check attendance. He tells the class to press “A” on their I-Clickers to tell the receiver up front that they’re present. Each student presses A, and the class continues. Schmidt gets the total students present up front on his receiver – “231.” Taking attendance is now as easy as clicking a button – literally.

At least this is the scenario Schmidt hoped to achieve when he gave out more than 200 prototype I-Clickers on Sept. 1 to his 4:30 p.m. section of Business Administration 320. However, a faulty part on the receiver prevented a speedy log in process. This meant that students spent part of the hour and 20 minute long class waving their remote-control-like I-Clickers in the air to “try and catch the signal,” as well as comparing with neighbors whether their “vote received” signals had turned a solid or a blinking green.

The I-Clickers are a new project that three University professors and one graduate student invented as a way to engage students in larger classes.

“We first had the idea five years ago,” said Physics Professor Tim Stelzer. “We wired one of the Physics classrooms and had students plug in their calculators. The only problem was that students had to log in using their NetIDs and passwords, which is kind of difficult to do on a calculator.”

Stelzer said there were other products floating around, but they only offered one-way communication. Thus, Stelzer, Gary Gladding, Mats Selen and Benny Brown, who form Interactive Learning Technologies, worked with radio frequency to get a two-way clicker. Gladding is the associate head for undergraduate programs for the department of physics, Selen is a Physics professor and Brown is a graduate student.

“The advantage of that was that I could send something back to the I-Clicker,” Stelzer said. “Another advantage is its simplicity – other systems have very sophisticated controls. With this one you can just click and you are done.”

The I-Clicker’s uses go beyond attendance checks.

“The first day of class, I used this to get students to answer questions such as what college they’re from, what year they were in,” said Professor Cleo D’Arcy. “I could show them the diversity in the class.”

D’Arcy, who teaches Plant Pathogens 200, also used it in game show style. She asked her students a question about Illinois’ two main crops. Then, without revealing the answer, she showed the class that 80 percent said it was “soybeans and corn.” She asked the question again and this time, 100 percent of the class gave the right answer.

“I think it enhances student-to-student learning as well,” D’Arcy said.

Professor Gerald Nelson said he will use the I-Clickers to ask students a question about his agriculture and consumer economics class material.

“This way, students who get the answer wrong can discuss it in small groups afterwards,” he said. “I have 185 students in my class. It’s tough to get that many students to answer a question – and it’s something to do besides listening to me or taking notes.”

With the I-Clickers being tested in eight classes across campus, Associate Provost Ruth Watkins said the I-Clickers were being tested in all kinds of environments, class sizes and in different disciplines.

“We wanted different people, different classes, not just science and tech folks,” Watkins said.

Watkins attended a demonstration of the I-Clickers last spring, and the idea seemed like it had “a lot of potential.” With that, the Office of the Provost purchased about 1,400 of them and gave them out for testing through the Teaching Advancement Board and EdTech from Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services.

As with all prototypes, there are problems beyond the receiver malfunctions in Schmidt’s class.

“The batteries don’t last” was one common complaint from Schmidt, Nelson and D’Arcy. But Nelson said he was going to purchase “a thousand batteries” to give out to his students over the course of this semester. He also added that another problem he had was that students kept forgetting their I-Clickers.

Eventually, if the product becomes popular enough, I-Clickers will be sold in bookstores. But next semester, teachers will give them out to students, who will have to pay $40 if they lose them. Schmidt said the $40 price tag could be expensive for students.

“If you could sell it back, I would feel better about it,” Schmidt said.

Stelzer said that not only would the Spring 2005 version of the I-Clicker have an auto power off function, but also the mechanical switch used to power on the I-Clicker would be changed to a button switch. He said that the new version would also draw less power and that Interactive Learning Technologies was looking at ways to reduce the cost per unit.

“It’s a pilot test,” Watkins said. “We will see how students react to the technology and whether it is particularly relevant in certain classes. There’s an evaluation component – we’re testing how effective this is. And the results of that affects what happens next.”

Tad Sligar, senior in engineering, received an I-Clicker in Schmidt’s class Wednesday. He said that while they had not actually used it much yet, “I think it’d be cool once we actually get it working.”

Kurt Fenner, sophomore in business, thinks the I-Clicker will be cool.

“It doesn’t really look that great right now, but it’s a prototype,” Fenner said.

As for next class, Schmidt said he is looking forward to using the I-Clickers again.

“(The clicker is) cool; it should work out quite well.”