21st Century Classroom

A Quicker Clicker

Virtual student response systems turn any computing device into a tool for on-the-spot formative assessment.

At the start of this school year, the Northwest Independent School District in Justin, TX, issued 3,300 netbooks to its high school students. Each of them also received his or her very own “clicker.” Yet, if you looked inside the students’ backpacks, you’d probably suspect that those 3,000-odd remote-control student response devices have either been lost, are out for repair, or were forgotten at home.

The reality, however, is virtual—in the form of eInstruction’s (einstruction.com) vClicker Mobile Edition virtual clickers, installed on each student’s netbook and available for use anytime and anywhere. When loaded with virtual clicker software, any device takes on the function of a student response system. Other than there not being an actual piece of hardware to hold, there is no difference in operating a virtual clicker, whose look mirrors that of the physical device but appears on the student’s screen. Instead of using their fingers to maneuver the handheld, students use a mouse or touch pad to choose an answer in response to any assessment question delivered by their teacher.

Karla Burkholder, director of instructional technology for Northwest ISD, saw the implementation of the 1-to-1 netbook program as an opening to upgrade her district’s set of eInstruction’s Classroom Performance System (CPS) handheld clickers to a virtual response system. Burkholder knew that doing so would increase the opportunities for formative student assessment and decrease the management needs that come along with maintaining hardware tools.

“Before, we had clicker sets for teachers to check out, and not every teacher had a set available to them every day,” she says. “Now, with the virtual clickers, they do. Every student has one every day; every teacher has access to them every day. We don’t have to worry about checking them out, keeping up with them, making sure that all the clickers make it back in the case at the end of the period. The management issue is gone. Battery power, inventory, maintenance—it’s a pretty big job keeping track of physical clickers.”

By comparison, switching over to virtual clickers was quite a small job. Many Northwest teachers already had CPS software on their laptops as a result of the district’s use of eInstruction’s handheld units. “We knew it would take a while for teachers to get their sea legs after we implemented the netbooks,” Burkholder explains. “Since many of them were already familiar with Classroom Performance System, it just made sense to continue with the base software. It made the learning curve for teachers very low.”

The virtual system also moves things along in the classroom. Teachers no longer need to assign clickers to each student in order to track the student’s data. Rather, every student uses a personal user name and password to log in to the system. Carolyn Flemming, a ninth-grade world geography teacher at the district’s Byron Nelson High School, explains that this saves time and also helps her predict her students’ success. “When we had the individual clickers,” she says, “I had to enter the students’ information every time into the [CPS] software and assign each student a number corresponding to his or her remote. Now all of that information is held on the vClicker database—race, gender, socioeconomic status.”

Now, anytime Flemming does a short assessment during the year, the test results come back to her grouped by those three categories. The data helps her check that all of her students understand the curriculum before they get too far behind, while also enabling her to pay close attention to students who are traditionally considered high-risk on state exams.

Another benefit afforded by the virtual system is that it enables Flemming to keep tabs on the progress of students who sometimes need to step outside the classroom for remedial help. “We have what we call our Learning Center, where special education students can go and get extra help,” she says. The building is on the opposite end of the school, but the Mobile Edition software is linked to a web-based server, so the students can participate in Flemming’s classroom assessments directly from the Learning Center.

“Instead of having to give them a completely different test and then not have the data on our at-risk student—which is whom you really need the data on most,” Flemming says, “we now have a system that’s accessible to them.”

In previous years, Flemming used the handheld clickers to take formative assessments of her students’ progress as often as possible, but it wasn’t always easy to get a read on all of the kids. “Those CPS remote systems were super-expensive, so we only had two or three per department,” she says, “whereas, on the netbooks, every single student has access to a clicker, every day. It’s just more accessible and user-friendly for both the teachers and the students.”

Flemming incorporates the virtual clickers into her curriculum two or three times a week. “I get instant feedback and I can see exactly where they’re struggling or excelling, and what I need to go back and review,” she says. “It might be a quick, five-question assessment to make sure they understood the information, or a test, or a Jeopardy! review game. I use it for pretty much anything that I can.”

Like Flemming, English teacher Colleen Ruggieri is grateful for the ease her virtual student response system brings to the task of performing formative assessments. “If you survey English teachers throughout the country on what is the most stressful aspect of their job, many of them would say grading papers,” says Ruggieri, who teaches at Canfield High School in Canfield, OH. “Now I can do pre- and post-assessments without grading papers.”

At Canfield, the computing tool of choice isn’t netbooks but iPod Touches (apple.com). The school recently purchased four portable storage/charging units, each containing 30 iPod Touches for its teachers to distribute to their students in class. The devices are loaded with Turning Technologies’ (turningtechnologies.com) ResponseWare student response software and thus can be used by students as they would remote-based clickers.

“I can create questions within the software, post them on the board, and have each student respond using the iPod Touch,” Ruggieri explains. The students see a set of answers on the device’s display and touch the screen to make their selection. “I get instant feedback on how many students are correct and how many students have missed it. Also, for pre-assessment, I can post a list of vocabulary words that go along with a story or play we’re about to read and find out which students already know them, so I don’t waste class time going over words they’re already familiar with.”

Ruggieri, however, doesn’t wait for assessments to make use of her virtual clickers. She typically starts her classes by projecting a list of the day’s activities on her interactive whiteboard and having her students vote on the day’s first exercise by tapping the screen of their iPod Touches. “I know what we need to get through the day, but I give them a choice of what they’d like to do first,” Ruggieri says. “A lot of teachers might feel a little freaked out by that, but I actually really enjoy it. The students have a say in what they’re going to do.”

Ruggieri says that the inclusion of the student response application on the iPod Touches allows her to move seamlessly between assessments and exercises on one piece of hardware rather than having to separate the lesson from the assessment, as she would have to with traditional clickers, which are assessors and nothing but. “I’ve designed entire units of instruction around these devices,” she says.

For one exercise Ruggieri has students create in iTunes a modern “soundtrack” for The Scarlet Letter and uploads it onto their iPod Touches. She will then post the songs on her whiteboard while creating related assessment questions. For example, she will ask the class to choose, through their virtual clickers, the best scene or chapter to which a given selection from the soundtrack should be played. “Or I might have students vote on the best character to associate with each of the tracks,” she says. “Based on the votes, I have a firm grip on which students are making the proper strides.”

Ruggieri says being able to use ResponseWare software to conduct instant formative assessment is a major benefit of using the iPod Touches, but it is only one of many. The devices provide her students with a wealth of educational technology at their fingertips, and she intends to seize all of it.

“ResponseWare is incredibly useful in getting feedback and determining if I should move forward based on students’ responses,” she says. “But if I don’t take advantage of the iPod Touches’ other functions, then they’re just glorified clickers. With all the other applications you can put on them and access through them, they then become a whole other tool for learning. You put these things in their hands and the students engage.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of THE Journal.

About the Author

Jennifer Demski is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY.