Posted by: | September 9, 2008 | 7 Comments

As many of you might know, UBC has been working for a while to try to find a method of getting lectures to be more interactive. The advent of things like PRS and iClickers has made it possible for professors to ask students questions in class in order to gauge their understanding of covered material, or at least to encourage student participation (or get students to attend class, which I think is generally a good thing). However, as much as I like these goals, and as much as I support involvement and interaction in lectures, there are certain problems with the way UBC is going about dealing with the issue.

The PRS system was first adapted a while ago, and since then students were required to buy PRS clickers ($45 at your friendly UBC bookstore- although I believe it was less 5 or so years ago) for certain classes. The idea was that they would be needed in several classes, and that they could be reused each year, or else you could sell them back to the bookstore for 50% of the current market price. Classes were also set up with antennas, which, according to my research, cost about $200 each. Professors were trained how to use the clickers. The problems came when they were actually being used, however- professors often had difficulty with the program used to run the clickers, some students found them to be a waste of class time, etc. So as a solution, UBC decided to adapt iClicker technology instead.

Now, there are several advantages to the iClicker, and this system addressed some of the issues that both profs and students were having with PRS. Namely, they are less expensive (only about $30), they’re easier to use in that they don’t require that you log into the class, and the technology is generally easier to learn. So far, so good.

So what’s the kerfuffle? Well, first of all, it seems like UBC has actually overlooked students in their decisions. Students who purchased PRS clickers are now forced to pay more for a new clicker(or lose marks in class, for instance)- even those who managed to sell back their old clicker have to spend some money to buy their new one. But the issue seems to be multifold. First of all, the UBC Bookstore has imposed a ‘quota’ on how many PRS clickers they’re buying back. This seems largely unfair- to state that you will be buying back clickers, and then to say that you’ve bought back enough and have reached some sort of ‘quota’ (that students didn’t even know about) doesn’t is dishonest to students who have been told that they can sell back what is now a useless piece of technology. It’s not even so much the fact of having a quota- it’s that they didn’t inform students explicitly of it! It also means that some students have ended up having to pay $75 for technology that they have used in one or two of their classes last year, and might be using in one class this year. Despite what students end up paying in total for iClickers (be it $10 after the buyback, or $30 on top of what they paid for PRS last year), the issue is also that when students are regularly spending $700 for per term for textbooks, $10 still counts ($10 can pay for a meal, in fact!). And students aren’t just spending money- they’re also spending time lining up for 40 minutes at a time in the bookstore when purchasing these clickers. Furthermore, UBC has already invested in PRS technology- I don’t know if the PRS antennas can be used for iClickers, but if not, then that’s thousands of dollars spent on technology that is now obsolete. And where does some of that money come from?

The bigger issue, however, at least from my perspective, is that these new iClickers don’t actually solve the problems of PRS. Sure, they may be easier to learn to use, or they might avoid the annoying problem of having to log into your class, but from my experience, the biggest problem with PRS was that it took up too much class time. Not because there were oodles of technological difficulties, not because professors couldn’t use the program, not because it took ages to join/access a class- but because the use of the technology wasn’t efficient, and was organized properly. My typical experience with PRS was a professor giving us a question, taking a while to explain it, giving students what I thought was too much time to actually solve the problem, and then giving us some more time because some students hadn’t answered the question yet. I did see some effective use of PRS (in my chem 233 class, for instance). But face it- the new iClicker won’t solve these issues. It was competely possible to use PRS effectively, to not let it guzzle up class time, to ensure that the answers were encoded properly. And the students who hated it despite all that will hate iClickers probably just as much, because lots of the problems associated with it were ones that were simply associated with trying to generate class discussion and participation.

I don’t deny that there were technological problems with PRS- I certainly experienced frustration with the system. I’m also not saying that iClickers aren’t a better technology- they certainly seem to address some of the student concerns about price, and professors’ concerns about ease of learning. And on the whole, I love the idea of getting students to engage in the material covered in class, and I like the notion of student participation, and profs being able to see if students actually understand the material, or if they need to spend a bit more time on a concept. For first and possibly second year students who didn’t have to get a clicker until this year, this issue may be largely irrelevant. All I’m saying is that I saw the system work quite well, and it’s possible for the system to work well. I just don’t think that the solution to the inability to properly operate technology that you’ve invested thousands of dollars in warrants the introduction of new technology that won’t solve the actual problems, but that won’t do so at students’ expense. So what’s the solution? I think that the Bookstore should buy back all of the PRS clickers, and ensure that next time, the policy on buybacks and ‘quotas’ is clearer.


7 Comments so far

  1. lucia_engel on September 9, 2008 7:04 am

    I treat the clicker the same as a textbook; there’s always a chance they’ll change edition next term. It’s why I try my best to get used text/clickers. I have several old ed texts still on my shelf; buyback is never guaranteed. I’ve had experience with the bookstore stating online they’ll buyback a certain textbook only to find out they have a quota after I lined up. Well, that’s life…sold it to the Discount bookstore for dirt cheap.
    As much as UBC like to advertise the clicker as something we’ll keep using for many years, I wouldn’t bet on it. I just count myself lucky I don’t need them for upper level classes.

  2. Alfie on September 9, 2008 7:05 am

    Bravo, on posting up the article! Gosh, I still find it ironic that the OLT (office of learning technology) was saying today in the booth right in front of the bookstore that they want to increase their profile and enhance communication.

    Where’s the communication when you need it the most?UBC just has its own way to do things without ever consulting with students…

  3. Alfie on September 9, 2008 7:17 am

    wow, really, they have a quota and that means many more students cannot sell back their clickers….
    Also, some misinformation from Alex’s post on the Facebook group, UBC did pay for the antenna, not that the distributor provided the infrastructure to UBC for free.So changing to a new system is quite a double loss to students and the already strained university finance.
    By the way, cheaper by 10 bucks may not be such a big improvement after all. Remember in our first year, the whole Physics textbook came with its “mandatory” Mastering Physics (which everybody loathes and constitute another interesting topic) and a 15 dollar coupon to the PRS clicker.(45-15=30 dollar actual cost)

    So if this year, none of the textbook pkg on sale come with a rebate coupon, then the iClicker will end up being even more expensive than the PRS clicker for many students.

  4. Blake Frederick on September 9, 2008 7:21 am

    You should have named this post “The Carl Wieman Legacy”.

  5. Laura Rodgers on September 9, 2008 5:27 pm

    Blake, you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    By the way, I’m pretty sure the best way to teach introductory physics is to teach simple concepts, then immediately apply them to the most complicated system possible. You may be simplifying things to the point that all of your solutions are useless, but hey, that’s the price of being socially conscious!

  6. Alfie on September 9, 2008 6:10 pm

    I heard a grad student has done an experimental PHYS 100 last year and it was well-received as the course relates current events and real world application to the content.

    I think this is the kind of innovative teaching that will actually revoluntionize and get students to learn “how to think” instead of some stupid clicker questions, which are questions directly taken out of a midterm or previous final. All it does is to waste class time to force the students together collectively go through a pratice final, instead of really teaching the “critical thinking”.

    Man, I am quite tired of the “Clicker” argument. If it is going to be used in the current format, it serves a waste of grant money, effort and class time and for most of us, time and tuition money.

  7. Alex Lougheed on October 1, 2008 5:44 pm

    Though this is dead, I thought I would share this link to those who dissent against clicker use:

    If you have guts, I also recommend forwarding that link on to profs who misuse clickers.

    When used effectively, they greatly improve the quality of teaching. The problem is getting the professoriate to use them correctly. This is an institutional problem, as currently professors are not held accountable to their teaching practices, and ultimately have no strong incentive to do the teaching side of their job well. This is something both the AMS and the university upper administration are taking very seriously (through initiatives such as Student Evaluations of Teaching).

    Also, Alfie, my ‘misinformation’ comes directly from the director of OLT (whom I contacted because of your original claim). Her statement is backed up by the fact that AMS council is getting our receiver for free, paid by the distributor. I would like to know where you got contradicting evidence.

    … and the bookstore is buying back more used clickers term 2 (they ship them up to UBC-O).

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