Teaching has long been a magnet for new ideas and new technology. And why shouldn't it be? From flash cards to flash drives, tools that bring learning to life and engage students are welcome additions to any classroom.
Now joining that wish list are classroom response systems (CRS) -- also known as classroom performance systems -- with names like EduGame!, einstruction, Interwrite Learning, Qwizdom, and Smartroom.
The goal is to transform abstract learning into a hands-on experience through the use of remote-control-like clicker devices. The clickers -- which usually come in two varieties, radio frequency or infrared -- allow each student to individually answer questions projected onto an overhead screen. As the lesson proceeds, a receiving device and software installed on a classroom laptop tabulate and aggregate the answers. The teacher can then display the results as graphs for all to see. (For tips on using a CRS, download this document from the Columbia University Medical Center's Center for Education Research and Evaluation.)
David Collier, a science teacher at Terra Linda High School, in San Rafael, California, and a self-acknowledged early adopter, has become a true believer since first using an Einstruction system at his previous high school, in California's Lake County.
"I liked the idea of interactive technology because it gave students a chance to get more involved in their own learning," Collier says. "The software was very easy to install, and the company had online tutorials and answered questions over the phone."
Putting CRS to the Test
"When I started using it to teach earth sciences to my ninth graders, I could tell by their excitement that it was working," Collier notes. "They really liked the embedded visuals that came with the questions. And we could play Jeopardy-like games. Even the kids with attention deficit disorder and other problems really responded well."
Collier also touts an unexpected bonus. "I lucked out because our textbooks came with an exam CD that interfaced with the company's software," he explains. "I could generate a test in five minutes. "
But the best news came at the end of the year, when the school received its state test results. Collier says, "Our school went from last to first in the county in one year."
With so much to like, Collier singles out a particular feature of CRS as his favorite: the instant feedback. "Even when I give the students a printed multiple-choice test, I have them answer with their clickers instead of filling in the typical bubble-dot scan form," he says. "Not only does that save me about $1,000 per year in paper costs, I can also use the CRS's management mode on my computer to follow each student's answers on my screen as they move through the test. That helps me to become a better teacher."
Nicole Miller, a former middle school technology coordinator in the Los Angeles Unified School District, endorses CRS for a similar reason. "A lot of teachers lecture without really knowing if the students are learning," Miller points out. "These systems can help verify and validate on the spot." Plus, she notes, the systems offer some students a welcome anonymity: "The teacher knows your answers, but the other students don't. Privacy allows students to be smart."
Other features, from designing questions and tracking a student's yearly progress to generating reports and instantly grading assignments, have won teachers over across the country. In addition, to sweeten the appeal, most companies now offer prepackaged content that, as Collier can confirm, is tailored to state testing requirements and sometimes to specific textbooks.
The prices of these systems vary, as do patterns of use. Depending on the subject, teachers might use the CRS several times per week or just occasionally for quizzes and tests. In general, teachers should expect to budget between $2,500 and $4,000, which includes the purchase of an LCD projector.
And although Collier's experience has been uniformly positive, some teachers report they needed startup technical support. Be mindful, too, that each company's software is proprietary and incompatible with hardware sold by other CRS businesses.
Not every school principal is jumping on the CRS bandwagon -- at least not yet. But as more and more education majors have become familiar with these systems, which have become standard at colleges and universities across the country, they could spearhead the wider adoption of more sophisticated next-generation click-and-learn products in K-12 classrooms.
The Question Cycle
Indeed, Ian D. Beatty, a researcher at Scientific Reasoning Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, sees these systems as a Trojan horse to get needed technology into the classroom. "They represent guerrilla reform," says Beatty, lead investigator on a five-year project funded by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. His goal is to evaluate a technique called technology-enhanced formative assessment.
The TEFA project hopes to merge CRS with special training for secondary school math and science instructors in three Massachusetts schools to create an engaging pedagogical style based on what Beatty calls the "question cycle."
Beatty, who has been using and studying CRS products for more than a decade, acknowledges that the language and purpose of the question cycle, which he says is "to form habits of mind and find the limits of knowledge," sound more ivory tower than AP Bio, but he contrasts the current norm -- the quick and shallow recall of facts required of American high school science and math students -- with his larger objective: renouncing the myth of coverage, the idea that what a teacher covers in class matters. "Only what students learn matters," Beatty insists, "and formative assessment is the only way to measure and optimize that."
Even without the research, Collier is convinced that interactivity is the best way to reach today's students. "These kids embrace and engage with technology. It makes sense that teaching should, too." Beatty concurs, saying, "Enhanced communication is a deep idea, and it is here to stay."
Jeff Miller is a science and health writer, a former editor for Hearst magazines, and a longtime communications and creative director for the University of California.