Clicking our Way through Race and Ethnic Relations

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The key word in the title of this blog is "our". Let me explain...

At the end of March, I attended the 2011 Symposium for Teaching and Learning with Technology at Penn State University. During one session, The New Clickers: A Panel about the Spring 2011 Clicker Pilot, I had the opportunity to hear current PSU faculty and lecturers discuss the use of the clicker tool in their own college classrooms. I had heard one of the presenters, Dr. Sam Richards, deliver a dynamic and engaging presentation on A Radical Experiment in Empathy at TEDxPSU, and I was interested in observing him in action (using clickers) during one of his classes. I approached him after the session, introduced myself, and set up a time to observe him. The rest of this entry presents a summary of my observation of Soc: 119 and a respectful critique of Dr. Richards' use of clickers in his classroom. 

Observation Date: Tues. March 29, 2011
Time: 4:15-5:30 p.m.
Course Title: Soc 119: Race and Ethnic Relations
Number of Students: approx. 500
Background on Clickers: Students were given iClickers at the beginning of the semester and asked to bring them to class for a minimum of 2/3 of the lectures. Participation in clicker questions during class counted as 5 points towards the final grade for the course.


When Dr. Richards asks a question, students respond using their clicker and the results are displayed. Dr. Richards interprets the results with the students and modifies his lecture on the spot in a teacher-centered manner. In effect, Dr. Richards is clicking his way through race and ethnic relations. His use of clickers in Soc: 119 is not much more than a replacement of asking students to raise their hands, with the added affordance of enabling students to be anonymous. In a classroom of this size, it is hard to argue with Dr. Richards' approach. His lecture works wonderfully and students stay engaged throughout. 

Although Dr. Richards is providing his students with an engaging lecture, there are opportunities he may be missing in regards to using clickers in the classroom. Dr. Richards could be more student-centered with his approach in his lectures. Even though the space is not built for it, he could ask students to interact in small groups with those closest to them, and allow the students to analyze the data from clicker responses on their own before he jumps in with his critique. For example, "Turn to your neighbor and ask them to describe what they see in the data, and once you have an agreement, compare your opinion with others around you," might provide just the student-centered collaboration that could transform Dr. Richards' lectures. This example is much more than a small change in Dr. Richards' lecture. It is a systemic change in how he teaches. He must change the learning environment and his teaching paradigm at the same time. Instead of using a teacher-centered approach based on the number of students and layout of the space, he could change everything by encouraging small groups in the space with student-led reflection and critique. 

With this change, Dr. Richards' will provide opportunities for his students to click their own (our) way through race and ethnic relations.

NOTE: The Story Behind the Image of Dr. Richards...
A little past the half-way mark of the lecture, Dr. Richards invited students to volunteer for what he calls "commercials." Students are given 2-5 minutes to plug an activity, organization, upcoming event, or just talk about something of interest. One student used the time to show a comic and ask his friend to be his girlfriend, all while wearing a red clown nose. Not only did this get some laughs and ooos and ahhs, but Dr. Richards asked for the nose and wore it during the final minutes of the lecture, showing the level of engagement of Dr. Richards with his students. 

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I enjoyed the article and I think a class of this size is probably one of the best places to use clickers. I can see how the inclusion of clickers in a class this huge allows more students to participate even those who may be shy. I am left wondering though about two things: 1)if the subject of race and ethnic relations can really be reduced to clickers and 2)if by giving students a way to be anonymous when talking about a subject that can be uncomfortable is doing harm. I like your idea of small group as away of introducing more student involvement.

Interesting post Mike. I've been involved with the clicker pilot during the semester, and have worked with Dr. Richards during the pilot. While I agree that the questions can be tweaked to be more student centered, I'm not so sure this would be the best approach for Dr. Richard's class. Outside of the lecture, students are meeting in small discussion groups, writing, etc.

You said yourself that the students are engaged in the lecture, do you think talking to their neighbor would dramatically improve this? And to be fair, in some of the classes I sat in on, Dr. Richards used this approach. I think it all comes down to teaching style, and the best balance for teacher and student. Student centered may not always be the best approach.

I'm really glad to see that you are taking a look at improving teaching practice. I see it as the most important thing I can do as an employee at Penn State. It's good to know others are looking at technology as the secondary element.

If you're interested in how other faculty are using Clickers in their lecture, take a look at the blog I created:

Thanks for the comment Tutaleni. I wanted to clarify that I did not mean to say that giving students a way to respond anonymously when discussing a topic that is uncomfortable to them is doing harm or even is wrong. Rather, I was saying that using clickers in this way does not provide an opportunity to make use of the many affordances of clickers (e.g. enabling students to see the data and make sense of it on their own). He is using the same methods, and changing the medium - raising hands to clickers.

Thanks for the comment Brian. The goal of talking to a neighbor about the data displayed from clicker responses is not to increase engagement during Dr. Richards' lecture. Rather, it can provide an opportunity for students to increase their critical thinking and enable them to understand the data. Although Dr. Richards' may do this at times, during the one session I visited, Dr. Richards provided his interpretation of the data and used that interpretation to steer the lecture. Turning that on its head could do wonders for student understanding.

Thanks for the information about the Clicker pilot. And, please join our conversations in the future around teaching practice.

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