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Technology helping things click in the classroom

People in today’s technological world find themselves on either side of a digital divide. The geography is no different at The University of Iowa.

Professor holds clicker in classroom
Ken Brown, associate professor of management and organizations in the Tippie College of Business, holds a personal response system, or "clicker," during one of his classes. Students use the clickers to answer questions during lectures, and their responses are tabulated immediately and displayed as a graph. Photo by Tim Schoon.

Tech-savvy students are like “digital natives,” at home in the world of iPhones and Xboxes. Many instructors are more like “digital immigrants,” trying to get rid of their “old country” accents. Some “immigrants,” in trying to assimilate with the “natives,” are starting to use technology as pedagogical tools.

These tools include social networking sites; “clickers” or personal response systems; and wiki software, which allows multiple people to concurrently work on an online document such as Wikipedia.

Liz Pearce, communication studies lecturer in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, started using clickers—like those used to poll the audience in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?—in her class of about 240 this fall. The devices allow her to ask students multiple-choice questions to test their grasp of a concept. The results are tallied immediately by the class computer and shown as a graph that’s projected in front of the class.

Clickers have reduced the number of empty seats in Pearce’s lectures. “Attendance rarely dropped below 200 after I started using the clickers,” she says. “I will never teach another lecture class without them.”

Instructors can tailor their lessons based on the immediate feedback they receive, says Beth Ingram, professor of economics in the Tippie College of Business.

“It’s great, because I’m not always the best judge of figuring out what confuses students,” she says.

Over the past year, UI instructors continue to call Information Technology Services (ITS), expressing interest in clickers, says Maggie Jesse, manager of ITS–Instructional Services.


Thinking about technology?

Several UI instructors who have incorporated technology into their teaching offer suggestions on using technology in your courses.



More common ways of engaging students—telling stories, for example—are passive, says Ken Brown, associate professor of management and organizations in the Tippie College of Business. He started looking into ways to engage students in class when he took over a lecture of more than 300 students.

Brown, who has taught with clickers for three years, surveyed 475 students last spring about their experiences with the devices. Feedback about the clickers leaned toward the positive—a majority of students said the clickers were a helpful tool.

Other instructors are engaging students outside class, using wikis and more.

In spring 2006, Bob Boynton, professor of political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, incorporated a wiki into his Governing Feudal England course that the students used for research and writing a paper based on their research.

“The wiki was useful in making the research of the individual students available to the entire class,” Boynton says. “Once they had finished their individual analyses, they concluded the course by writing a summary paper based on the work of all the students in the class.”

Boynton embedded into his wiki an RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feed, which would send him an e-mail alert when something on the working document had been changed. Boynton could read what the students had written and make suggestions about how their work could be improved.

This incremental method of editing gave Boynton the opportunity to improve his students’ writing throughout the semester. This method, he says, is more effective than students writing a single paper that would only be graded at the end of the semester, when they’d have lost interest in rewriting papers.

This semester, Boynton is using another vehicle—a social networking site—to facilitate out-of-class collaboration. The site allows his class to form a virtual classroom where students can upload different forms of multimedia such as podcasts and videos on the topics they’re researching. Students will write papers that encapsulate the semester-long discussion at the end of the class.

“I think students learn better when they’re engaged and not listening to someone lecture,” Boynton says.

The evolution of user-friendly and affordable technology allowed Christopher Roy, professor of art history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, to produce high-definition DVDs of artists in the African country of Burkina Faso making and using the artwork they produced.

Roy says the carved wooden masks hanging on his office wall are more than decorative items—they are characters used in performances with music, costumes, and dance. He said he could try explaining the performance to his students but his efforts would only be a shadow of the real thing. That is why he started making films in 2001.

Giving students the opportunity to see the artwork in context allows for more complete comprehension, Roy says.

“If you see something attractive….it’s pretty, but you don’t understand it,” he says. “The object could’ve been used to kill someone.”

Roy shoots videos in Burkina Faso with digital video cameras and performs post-production edits cheaply at home in Iowa. He also supplies cameras to his Burkina Faso friends, who shoot raw footage for him.

Roy and other instructors have found that powering up a technological tool has affected their teaching styles.

Roy says using the DVDs allows him to focus on certain points instead of trying to cover many topics. Pearce and Ingram, based on feedback they get from students through clickers, spend more time on the topics that students are struggling with.

In August 2007, the University, realizing instructors are exploring new technological tools, launched a new Web site sponsored by the Classroom Advisory Committee ( to get faculty feedback on the types of technology to include in classrooms.

By Po Li Loo

Footnote: The concept of digital immigrants and digital natives was proposed by Marc Prensky in an article titled, “Digital Immigrant, Digital Natives,” published in On the Horizon 9(5), October 2001.

Office of University Relations. Copyright The University of Iowa 2006. All rights reserved.