06 November 2009

From backchannel to blackboard

Back in March, I wrote:

Consider this scenario. An instructor is giving a talk. When the instructor wants a question answered, students Twitter their response instead of using clickers. Ideally, this would involve some software that could recognize some special symbol or code associated with a class, so that responses could be tallied and a graph could be generated on the fly. I’m guessing that such software isn't out of reach for good programmers. Conceptually, it seems actually pretty simple.

I’ve since learned that such technology does indeed exist, and reckoned I should report on my (tiny) experience with it.

I heard about Poll Everywhere over on Slide:ology. Basically, you can ask people to vote by phone, Twitter, or web, and it gets copiled and updated into a bar graph on the fly.

I used it to create polls (one shown at right) and make them into PowerPoint slides. Since my students don’t bring laptops to class, and apparently none of them have Twitter accounts (at least, nobody has admitted to it), I chose to set it up so that they could send a text message using their mobile phones.

It worked as advertised. Nobody had any problems sending the text messages, although the numbers they have to key in are arbitrary, so it’s not easy to do without carefully looking at the slide and double checking the digits. The animation of the bars when new information is coming in is nice and smooth. It was certainly not perfect. Importing the slide into a larger presentation was a little twitchy. And I consciously did not write that the graph updated in “real time,” because the updates were a trifle slow.

For comparison, I’ve been using a clicker system in my classes for several years now. The system is a bit more elaborate, in that it requires a dedicated clicker, receiver, and software. But if you’re doing a lot of in class questions, the difference between pushing a single button on a clicker and pushing about a dozen buttons on a mobile phone adds up. Combine that with the lag in the Poll Everywhere system, and the clicker system comes out feeling more natural and agile and less intrusive.

The clicker system does not compile results on the fly like Poll Everywhere does. Instead, it takes everyone’s answers, waits, then draws a graph. This is an important consideration in an education setting. You want people to have a chance to think on their own for a moment, and not be influenced by other people’s answers.

Poll Everywhere is great for instructors have the occasional one-off poll that they want to do in class. So far, I wouldn’t use it to replace a dedicated clicker system, but I could see how it could do so in the near future.

And, incidentally, in the little test poll shown? None of my students got the name of their own university right. It’s supposed to be the second from the bottom.

More backchannel and Twitter tools are given over at Olivia Mitchell’s blog. Watch for lots of clever ideas using these tools in the near future.


Jeff Vyduna said...

Hi - this is Jeff, one of the Cofounders of Poll Everywhere. Thanks for writing about us and seeing our potential!

I wanted to point out a few things that you might have missed if you only tried it briefly.

1) We too know the value of hiding the response graph until you wish to reveal the class' answers. Did you see and try the "Hide results (show table)" button in the lower left of the poll? It will remember your mode (table or answers)

2) Regarding response speed: text message, web, and smartphone (poll4.com) voting should NEVER take more than 4 seconds to arrive. Twitter responses can be delayed, depending on how slow their API is running that particular day.

3) We don't make our product messier by trying to jam too much "Hey did you know you can do X?" on all the pages, but it IS possible to use single digits instead of of those 5 or 6 digit auto-assigned codes. Take all the polls you'll be using in a class and group them. Click "Make this Group and Event", and you poll will get texting keywords like "1","2","3", etc.

If we can help this or anything else, don't hesitate to ask us!! questions@polleverywhere.com


Rebecca Woulfe said...

We have another tool that works great with PowerPoint and the web. Check out www.mclkonline.com

Zen Faulkes said...

Jeff: I wasn't aware of the "Hide results" tab; thanks. Regarding response speed, the main culprit was probably the time it took for students to key in all the numbers. And even shortening the answer code from 5 to 1, it's still quite a bit more typing than a dedicated system.

Rebecca: Thanks for the link. It's good to see people thinking about and working on these kinds of systems.

I'm not going to give up my dedicated clicker system next semester. But I might do the semester after that.