Misuse of clickers raises questions about technology

by Parker Richards | 11/12/14 8:24pm

On Oct. 30, religion professor Randall Balmer discovered that 43 students who had seemingly answered in-class quiz questions using hand-held clickers had not been present in his course, “Sports, Ethics and Religion.”

Roughly a dozen Dartmouth courses use these clickers, which are registered to individual students, instructional designer Adrienne Gauthier said. Students use the clickers — small, hand-held devices that must be used within a range of 250 to 500 feet — to answer in-class questions and confirm attendance.

Tina Rooks, chief instructional officer at Turning Technologies, which manufactures the clickers used by the College, said the clickers allow professors to involve students without requiring them to spend too much time collecting or analyzing responses. She said the technology cannot be blamed for cheating.

“The solution to cheating is never to blame the modality,” she said. “The solution is to put consequences in place.”

Provost Carolyn Dever said she hopes the incident will spark conversations about Dartmouth’s academic honor principle.

“Technology facilitates teaching and learning in some ways that we never anticipated before,” she said. “We can’t lose that out of a fear that students will misuse it.”

Biology professor Thomas Jack said he used clickers in his “Science of Life” course from 2006 to 2013, then switched to using LectureTools — an online platform allowing students to answer in-class questions on computers or phones.

He said that while he never checked, as Balmer did, to see if students were giving classmates clickers to feign attendance, he did not notice large portions of a class missing or a visible over-reporting of attendance.

Jack said he initially only used clickers to administer in-class questions, but later began using them to gauge attendance after noticing the number of responses to in-class questions dropped as low as half by the middle of the term. He said the response rate rebounded after he instituted an attendance policy.

Dartmouth is not the first to see an incident with clickers misuse. In 2011, students at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln allegedly used the same technique as Balmer’s students to feign attendance.

Brad Buffum, a professor at the University of Nebraska’s Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film who uses clickers for classes of about 250 students, said he “always assumed” that students were using the devices to cheat. Policing clicker use, he said, is not worth the amount of energy it would take.

“People cheat no matter what you do,” he said.

Most Dartmouth courses that use clickers are in science, technology, math and engineering fields, Gauthier said, although some large humanities and social sciences courses also use them.

Typically, clickers are employed as part of a “think, pair, share” curriculum, she said.

Senior instructional technologist Barbara Knauff said that, in “the ideal pedagogical scenario,” a professor would pose a challenging question to students, who would then answer using their clickers, discuss the question with peers, then submit a final answer.

A clicker typically costs $30 at the computer store, sales assistant Carleen van Gulden said. She said the store will buy clickers back from students for $10 if they are returned in working order.

Gauthier said that this is the first cheating case she has heard of involving clickers in her two years at Dartmouth.

“The cheating issue is not really a technology issue,” Knauff said. “It’s individuals making a choice to not behave ethically, and that could happen using clickers, using pen and paper, using your voice.”

Earth sciences professor Xiahong Feng, who uses LectureTools in her “Elementary Oceanography” course, said she believes students can take advantage of the system, but does not find the problem to be substantial.

“I’ve heard that people answer questions while not coming to class, but I don’t think that there are a lot of them,” she said. “Occasionally I feel that there are more answers than there are students in class, but mostly it’s okay.”

The LectureTools system is also used in other earth sciences courses, Feng said, and students have responded positively to it on surveys she has used to gauge approval of her various teaching methods.

Feng said the larger issue is students’ use of computers, which can often prove distracting during class.

While clickers cannot prevent all cheating, time-stamping and location restrictions provide a level of protection against misuse, Rooks said.

Each response is time-stamped, allowing professors to see both how long questions take students to answer and whether some students’ answers are more delayed, which could indicate that their devices were given to a friend who first used his or her own clicker to respond to the question, she said.

Students are inclined to cheat in various ways, from writing notes on their arms to using advanced digital techniques, and blaming the technology involved is not usually effective, she said.

“If you’re cheating by writing on your arm, you would never cut the arm off the student,” Rooks said.

Using technology like clickers or LectureTools is up to each professor, Gauthier said.

Cheating will always be a part of academic life, Dever said. To address it, Dartmouth policies must be understandable and the honor principle visible, she said.

“I’m concerned about technology, but we have to trust each other,” she said.

Taylor Malmsheimer and Sasha Dudding contributed reporting.

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