My colleague Deborah Beck has a great rule. She incorporates new teaching tools one at a time. This is her very wise way of ensuring that her teaching stays fresh but that she doesn't go nuts trying to learn and juggle several new techniques or technologies at once. I have tried to follow her advice with the Rome class. A lot has changed, but those changes happened over the course of many months. In class, I have changed my mode of teaching from primarily lecture to entirely student-centered. Thus, what I put on my PowerPoint slides is very different: now, instead of names and dates, it is questions for them to answer, talk about to a peer, think about on their own. The technology hasn't changed, however, except in one notable way. I am now using i>clickers.
Faculty at UT have been using i>clickers for several years to take attendance, get student feedback, and to advance discussion during lecture. I had thought about using them in the Rome class, particularly in 2011, but opted not to. Last fall was about learning the Echo360 technology. When I redesigned the Rome class to make it discussion-based, I realized that I needed to have a. a quick way to take attendance; and b. a way to keep 400 students simultaneously engaged. The obvious solution was to incorporate i>clickers. More and more classes are using them, particularly in the natural sciences and math/engineering. They are relatively inexpensive ($40 for the 1st generation model I require) and students can borrow them from a friend who is not in the class.
UT's Center for Teaching and Learning offers excellent support for faculty who want to learn how to use i>clickers. I met with Mike Wallace a couple of times to talk about the kinds of questions that work best to stimulate thinking and discussion; and for advice on how to use polls and peer-discussion together. Mario Guerra walked me through the technical side of things and helped me get everything set up for my class. When I walked into the classroom on the first day, I felt confident that I had the necessary tools to start experimenting with i>clicker polls. Three weeks into the semester, I am a total convert. I>clickers are excellent tools for keeping a large class thinking and also for getting discussion going or pushing it in new directions. I especially enjoy using questions to start a discussion and then asking the same question after they have discussed their views with one another.
I have experimented with how much time to give them on questions. They need more time on the first question, because they have to get their clickers out of their bags. For short, factual questions, 30 seconds is usually sufficient. For most questions, 45 seconds is enough time for even the more deliberate thinkers. My goal is to give everyone enough time to read the question, think about it if need be, and answer; but to avoid 30 seconds of watching the seconds tick away. One thing I repeatedly forget to do: start the poll. I assume that this will become second-nature eventually, but I seem to forget at least once/class and am reminded when the students start rumbling.
Next semester I will be more clear about a few things: first, it is their responsibility to have a functioning i>clicker by the second class meeting. Unless their is an obvious technical malfunction, it is their problem. Second, I will include specific instructions about how to use it, what frequency for 2nd generation clickers, how to delete a clicker registration and register a new one, etc. By far the most student questions about the course up to this point have concerned the i>clickers. I suppose this is to be expected since i>clickers are a relatively new technology. Still, for all the hassles, I can't imagine teaching a student-centered large class without them (or something like them).
I can't quite imagine adopting a tool that requires them to have a web-enabled mobile device (like learningcatalytics.com) at the moment. I love the idea of being able to ask questions in forms other than multiple choice, but fear that the technology problems would outweigh the benefits--at least in a very large class and at least at this moment in time. My thought: if pressing a single button on a simple remote is so difficult for some of them, how would they manage a phone or tablet or laptop? I think I can require that they have such a device, but it will be some time before I feel like students can be counted on to operate those devices using interactive learning tools in a classroom setting. That said, I can't wait to try out the Learning Catalytics tools in a smaller class setting (e.g. a discussion-based seminar of 25-30 students, where tech problems are easier to manage). Perhaps, with some experience on my side, I will feel more comfortable introducing these more sophisticated, personal device-based tools in a larger class setting.