Audience Response Systems (ARS) are various technological means for audiences (or more specifically students) to respond to questions or pose questions during class. You may have heard of “clickers” which are hand-held remotes used to convey student responses to faculty questions. Since most clicker systems usually required a classroom to be wired for them to work, some web-based alternatives have emerged that let students use their laptops, tablets, or phones.

keypadI’ve been intrigued by these systems since their effectiveness at increasing student engagement was first demonstrated to me at a teaching seminar at the University of Colorado. With an ARS, a professor can do a quick poll, and in less than a minute find out how many students comprehend the material just discussed. If they get it, move on. If not, go over it again or have the students break up into groups and teach each other. Students definitely engage and learn more. And instructors have a much better idea of how much students understand during class.

Every year I consider using a web-based ARS (as I’ve never been in a wired classroom). But every year I come up against the same questions: (1) Will every student have access to a device; (2) can I justify adding costs to the students for this interactive feature; and (3) will allowing the use of laptops, tablets, and phones end up distracting students more than helping them? I’m curious about your thoughts.

Many students do have a laptop, tablet, or smart phone. But not all do. Some ARS (like Top Hat) also allow students to text in their responses. Yet, I worry that even then not every student will have a device with which to respond. In that case, how can you make responses mandatory (as part of their participation grade)? What do you say to the student who comes to you privately and says that he or she can’t afford a cell phone? Or even worse, what if they say nothing all semester and receive no credit on their grade?

A related concern is that most ARSs require students (or the faculty) to pay for the service. (NB: There are free ones like QuestionPress and PollEverywhere, but the first and third worries still apply to them.) Top Hat, for instance, costs students an extra $20. I’m reticent to add an additional costs to them beyond the already expensive books. They need the books. An ARS doesn’t seem like a necessity.

The biggest concern I have with using a web-based ARS, however, is that allowing students to use their devices will end up proving more of a distraction. In a recent article, Fana et al. (2012) did two studies in which they found that use of laptops in the classroom distracted students and led to lower grades. Not only did the student using the laptop perform worse on a quiz due to distraction, nearby students were also distracted and scored even worse. On the other hand, other studies have shown a positive correlation between laptop use and grades, but primarily when the use of the laptops was intentionally and meaningfully integrated into the learning experience by the instructor (c.f. Wurst et al. 2008). That said, as the University of Michigan notes, there seem to be more studies finding negative rather than positive correlations. Students often end up doing more non-course related actives with their laptops. So, while an ARS might get them to respond and lessen the distraction, it might be that an instructor would have to regularly pepper students with questions to respond throughout the class. One to three questions in 50 minutes (or even in 75-80 minutes) wouldn’t be enough.

But what do you think? Has anyone felt they successfully used an ARS before? If so, which one and how’d you use it? If tried with poor results, what happened? If you’ve never used one on principle, why?