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Friday, November 5, 2010

Texting in responses to open-ended questions

I've been using clickers for several semesters now and I can't imagine teaching without them. But one drawback has always been that I can only ask multiple-choice questions. When I teach 500 students, I don't see any other option (at least for things where students' answers will count toward their grade in some way). But this semester, I have had a few application exercises in the data class where I wanted groups to come up with short responses to open-ended questions. I have thirteen teams in one section and ten in the other so grading their responses is not a big deal but I had to figure out how to collect them. One of the tenets of TBL applications is that teams should report simultaneously - easy enough with responses to multiple-choice questions (either with clickers or cards) but more difficult with longer responses.

I ended up using Poll Everywhere, a very cool site that allows anyone to create a multiple-choice or open-ended poll and people can respond via text, Twitter or website. I had asked students at the beginning of the semester whether they had laptops and/or smartphones that they were willing and able to bring to class so I know that each team has at least one person capable of submitting a response, at least via the website; it turns out every team texted in their responses. I asked for one-sentence responses and then showed those on the computer screen as they came in. It's not quite simultaneous (some teams were a bit slow in getting their responses in) but close. The free version of Poll Eveywhere allows 30 responses per poll so that works for teams, though I couldn't use it for individual responses (but premium versions allow for unlimited responses, as well as registering students so you know who responded with what).

In both sections, I did a trial-run before using it for anything that 'counted'; that is, my first poll question was "What is your team number?", just to make sure everyone understood how it worked, and there were no problems. I was using the free version so I couldn't identify who submitted which answer but I just told the teams to put their team number at the end of their responses. Since I was showing the responses on the projector, I did have one incident where someone tried to be funny (someone sent in a response that said, "Hey girl, this is cool"). I laughed and then gave my "I expect you to act like adults but if you aren't able to do that, I can certainly treat you like children" speech.

Personally, I don't have issues with students using cell phones in class. I give them the same "I will treat you like adults until you prove me wrong" speech at the beginning of the semester and they know that if I hear a ringing phone, I will stop everything until it is answered, and I almost never have phones go off. I'm not sure if I would use something like Poll Everywhere in a summative assessment situation like a test (that might be too much temptation for students to resist cheating) but given the way I typically use clickers, it could work for almost everything else.

However, one of my big concerns with using something like Poll Everywhere in place of clickers entirely is that it does require students to have either a cell phone with a texting plan, or a smartphone. What I've been seeing this semester is that almost every student has a phone with texting; it's certainly not an issue when I'm asking for one response per team of five or six students. But since I'm considering whether to use Poll Everywhere more extensively in the future, perhaps for individual-response questions, I specifically asked my students about their texting capabilities, using a clicker question. In one section, 29 out of 38 (76%) said they have a cell phone with unlimited texting; that was 25 out of 30 (83%) in the other section. 8 of 38 (21%) and 5 of 30 (17%) said they have limited texting (free up to X texts per month); only 1 student, in either section, said they have a phone with a fee per text; and NO students said they do not have a phone with texting capabilities.The question was right at the beginning of class on a day with unusually poor attendance but my guess is that the sample is still pretty representative, at least of my typical econ students.

So it seems like having students use a service where they text in their answers would be costless, on the margin, for the vast majority of students (for the students who have limited texting, if the texts they send for my class crowd out texts they send to their friends, well, I'm not going to worry about those costs). For the students with a fee per text, let's assume that's $0.10 per text and they have to send maybe 75 texts over the semester (roughly 25 class meetings where I use clickers, average of three questions per meeting). So that's only $7.50 (plus tax?), which is way cheaper than buying a clicker (for those who don't already have one). Even if were double that, it's way cheaper than most of the 'lab fees' students pay for many other classes. I should also add that student reaction to Poll Everywhere seemed pretty positive. A number of students asked me about the site itself ('Can just anyone use this?' 'Are you paying for that?'), and they liked that they could give open answers instead of all multiple-choice.


  1. Though I have used Poll Everywhere before, I never considered using it for team reporting. I think that is a great implementation. Thanks for sharing it.

    I used Poll Everywhere to simply quiz students at the start of class (without using the "Peer Instruction" pedagogy I learned about later). Polleverywhere worked well for the most part. The only real issue I had was the application's tracking and managing of individual student response data. I found compared to clicker software, the Poll Everywhere application had a lot less functionality and took a lot more of my time to use. Perhaps they've upgraded the application. I was using one of the "paid" versions in early Spring of this year.

  2. Yes, one of my concerns about using Poll Everywhere in place of clickers is that I anticipate it will be more administrative work for me. The website makes it sound like I can get a spreadsheet with all the student responses but I assume I'll have to ask the students to be sure to register with their student ID number or something like that, to make it easier to integrate with Blackboard. It's definitely less functional than our current clicker system but I'm curious to explore just how much less. Thanks for your thoughts!


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