From free iPods for first years to individual hand-held 'clickers' for lecture halls, US universities' use of interactive technology is booming, discovers Stephen Phillips
University of Colorado physics professor and 2001 Nobel laureate Carl Wieman regards himself as an attentive instructor. He is under no illusions about the fact that students sometimes take in very little information during lectures, particularly in introductory undergraduate courses. But discovering precisely how little they understand still came as a shock. "It's pretty revealing when you lecture on something and only 10 per cent (of the students) absorb what you're saying," Wieman says.
The cold truth came courtesy of a piece of technology that Wieman and a growing cadre of US academics now consider an essential teaching prop.
To pinpoint whether something has sailed over students' heads, he peppers his lectures with impromptu quizzes. Like game-show contestants, students brandish consoles with alphanumeric keyboards, pointing them at receivers around the lecture hall to register their answers to multiple-choice questions.
Knowledge is power, and Wieman uses feedback to determine whether he needs to review material with the class. He has been using the gadgets for three years and now cannot imagine teaching without them. It would be like flying blind, he says. "I'd feel out of touch."
He is not the only one. Across America, so-called "clickers" - or, as they are more grandly titled, classroom management systems or student feedback devices - have become a must-have lecture hall accessory. Last year, 1.1 million handsets were sold in America, the "vast majority" to education institutions - and sales are projected to rise to 8 million in 2008, according to Decision Tree Consulting, which tracks technology trends.
Campuses embracing the technology include Harvard University, the universities of California, Massachusetts and Wisconsin, and Ohio State.
Texas-based eInstruction, a leading manufacturer, says its products are used by more than 700 campuses, up from three in 2002.
It is far from rocket science. Most such devices are little more than a modification of the couch potato's best friend - the humble television remote control.
What they do is hardly earth shattering either. Applications are confined to taking attendance and administering tests. The technology itself is not a magic bullet. "It's just a facilitator for interaction and critiquing ideas," Wieman says. "To be effective, you've got to follow up. If students get (questions) wrong, you need to go into detail on what's right."
Used properly, the technology's impact can be profound, he maintains. It is a way to actively interrogate students' grasp of material. The technology comes into its own in large impersonal entry-level lectures, keeping students who might otherwise slack off in the anonymous setting on their toes, says eInstruction CEO Darrell Ward.
Still, the gadgets may strike some as a gimmick. What happened to a good old-fashioned show of hands?
"The key difference is that clickers allow students' answers to remain anonymous to their peers," Wieman says. "Otherwise they spend more time thinking about what people around them are going to think. These are college students, after all."
Wieman credits the devices with promoting wider class participation. "You get substantive questions from a broader distribution of students. In a normal lecture, three to four students ask 80 per cent of the questions."
Typically, software tabulates students' responses into graphics on the lecturer's laptop that can be beamed on to projection screens, so that the distribution of answers can be viewed at a glance.
It is one thing to learn that your answer is incorrect, and quite another to discover you are in a minority of a handful among hundreds, says Ed Evans, the director of learning spaces at Indiana's Purdue University, who recently sat in on a chemistry class in which clickers were used.
"Some 350 students answered A and only three incorrectly answered B. It sent a powerful message," he recounts. But implementation at his institution has not been glitch-free. Ad hoc adoption and a proliferation of incompatible systems has left some students requiring multiple clickers for different classes, while older-generation infrared systems get unwieldy with larger class sizes and multiple receivers are required, Evans says.
Purdue is one of a growing vanguard of campuses investing in unitary university-wide radio-frequency systems requiring just one credit-card-sized receiver per 1,000 clickers. Meanwhile, a bulk-buying deal with eInstruction has allowed Purdue to waive its termly $15 (£8.40) activation fee for the clickers and charge students a one-time $15 hardware fee instead.
Ultimately, however, shelling out for a dedicated device may be unnecessary, suggests Evans, who sees clickers as a "transitional technology" in a progression towards laptops featuring the same functionality.
Harnessing existing consumer technology as a learning tool was the premise of Duke University's much-publicised $500,000 Apple iPod giveaway in 2004.
Hoping to spark ideas for exciting new educational uses for the ubiquitous digital music players, the North Carolina campus dished them out free to incoming first-year students.
A year older and wiser, campus authorities have scaled the programme back to students studying languages, music and computer science where the devices came in useful for taking recordings (when fitted with a microphone) and transferring files.
"Student feedback was positive, (but) some felt there wasn't enough academic use of the iPods," reports Yvonne Belanger, the programme evaluator at Duke's Center for Instructional Technology. "We've gone in a different direction this year."
Three quarters of students reported using the iPods for educational purposes, according to Duke's own study of the scheme. A sampling of student testimonials, however, gave mixed reviews.
"I loved being able to (record and) listen to lectures at my convenience while working out or running errands," purred one respondent. Meanwhile, another stormed: "This encourages students to sleep through class. It gives the message that paying attention is not important because everything will be available online later."