May 5, 2005 -- Educators across the country are buying into a new technology that finally allows professors to answer questions that sometimes drive them up the wall. With class sizes getting ever bigger, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, it's hard to keep in touch with the students. Thus the old haunting questions:
Is anybody out there listening? Is any of this sinking in? Is anybody awake?
The new technology isn't all that new, because it has been used for years in audience participation programs designed to evaluate entertainers and products and politicians and stuff like that, but it's pretty new to education. It allows teachers to pose questions and get immediate feedback from the entire class, and none of the students need to worry about exposing their ignorance.
The heart of the technology is a "clicker," very similar to the remotes we use to run our television sets, which sends student responses by infrared signals to a computer system that displays the results instantly.
"I display a question on the screen, and the students all start to click in," says psychologist Jeffrey Henriques of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "Within about a minute I've gotten responses from about 200 students."
Henriques is sold on the technology because now he can tell instantly if any of those 200 faces are backed by a brain that is engaged, or if any of the students are understanding his lectures.
Sometimes, he says, the instant result is "gratifying." Other times, it's deflating. But at least he knows now whether to go over material he covered before, because no one seemed to get it, or move on.
And the students, according to studies at universities across the country, are quick to buy into the technology because it makes them feel "more engaged," as one said, or "less likely to doze off," as another put it.
Seeking a Universal Clicker
Unfortunately "buy" is exactly what the students have to do on most campuses. The clickers cost around $25 each, and in most cases the students purchase them along with their books. But since there are several programs available, mostly offered by text book publishers, one clicker will not necessarily fit all.
So if a bunch of profs are using different programs, it may be necessary to buy several clickers, thus running the exploding education tab up for the folks back home.
But some universities, including Wisconsin, are moving toward hardwiring at least some departments, thus providing "universal access" to all students and professors within those departments. That eliminates the need for students to buy their own clickers.
It's not known exactly how widespread the technology has become, but campuses are being heavily lobbied by providers of the various programs, and in some cases the growth has been astronomical. The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the University of California, Davis, have both seen rapid growth in the use of the technology on their campuses.
Not surprisingly, science teachers seem to be at the front of the pack, probably because they are less intimidated by new technology.
In the beginning, Henriques says, he wasn't too excited because he feared it might just be "sort of a gimmick. But the feedback from the students has been very positive. They really like it, and they feel it makes them more engaged in the classroom."
The technology can be used in various ways: A quick question to the class to see if they understand; a full quiz of 20 or more questions; a sampling of opinion. Students simply push a button to send in their response. The results are presented in a graph on a monitor in front of the class so everybody can see.
In the program Henriques uses, the correct response is highlighted in green, so all the students can tell if they got it wrong, and how many others got it wrong, and thus how they stack up against the rest of the class.
It helps the students, but it also helps the professor.
"Sometimes it's very reassuring to see that they've gotten the message, and other times it's sobering to find out that they completely missed the point," Henriques says.
The "instant gratification," as he puts it, also underscores just how difficult it can be to overcome popularly held opinions that are just simply wrong.
Awhile back, Henriques gave a long lecture on schizophrenia, a buzz word that is often used in describing such things as a politician's ability to send very different messages to very different constituents.
A couple of days later he asked his students to define schizophrenia. Even though he had just stressed that it is not a multiple personality disorder, most of the students got it wrong.
"I was very deflated," he says.
The right answer?
"It is a split between one's thoughts, feelings and actions," he says.
The message was clear. Go back over it again.
Lee Dye's column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.