Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Voting won't solve your problems

Voting handset You may not like VLEs, but in my opinion student voting systems are surely the most technodeterminist piece of educational technology around.

I'm not entirely a true believer in student voting systems (variously called SRS for student response system, or PRS - personal response system), because in my experience the technology often overwhelms any potential pedagogic benefit. While I believe Eric Maizur is a very fine and inspirational teacher, I'm less than impressed with claims for voting systems revolutionizing the classroom. I found his talk at altc2012 less than convincing, and other people share this opinion. But you can judge for yourself in this video:

For these reasons, I was interested in this recent paper in Research in Learning Technology:

Abstract: In this article, we describe and discuss the most significant teacher-centric aspects of student response systems (SRS) that we have found to negatively affect students’ experience of using SRS in lecture settings. By doing so, we hope to increase teachers’ awareness of how they use SRS and how seemingly trivial choices or aspects when using SRS can have a significant negative impact on students’ experiences, especially when these aspects are often repeated. We cover areas such as consistency when using SRS, time usage, preparation, the experience level of the teachers with regard to SRS, teacher commitment and attitudes, teacher explanations, and how students fear that voting results can mislead the teacher. The data are based on 3 years of experience in developing and using an online SRS in classroom lectures, and they consist of focused (semistructured) student group interviews, student surveys and personal observations.

This is a careful multiyear study with a reasonable sample size, which, as I suspect is usually the case, fails to demonstrate any positive educational outcomes from classroom use of student voting. Voting was very popular with students. I suspect that as in the Eric Maizur example, this is because students are reflecting on positive experiences gained with high quality teachers rather than any direct outcome from the technology. Voting systems won't solve your problems with poor quality teaching and student engagement, they make them worse, so it's fairly clear where the effort should be expended. To the authors credit, they do a good job of looking for the 10% in voting systems.

Pedagogy, not technology. Or as I am wont to say these days:

The wise man points at the moon; the fool looks at his finger.


  1. The wise man may point at the moon, but without technology he wont get there.

    Clickers are a tool, they wont make a bad teaching experience good particularly if bad use is made of them.
    However if you have a well planned lesson that involves student discussion and answering of questions, then clickers can help you achieve a successful outcome.
    It seems unfair but while they wont make a bad lesson better, a good teacher can use them to make a good lesson better

    1. Unfortunately the technodeterminism around most educational technology suggests that it is a magic bullet which will turn bad teachers into good teachers.

  2. I've been meaning to write a blog post about Mazur's lecture... he starts off my showing 'brain activity' in a lecture. But what is being measured is activity of the autonomic nervous system. Not quite the same thing.
    We're going to trial poll everywhere this year so will update you on progress.

    1. Thanks, please blog your results :-)