Clicker Culture: Absentee Students or Absentee Professors?

While reading The Chronicle of Higher Education online, I ran across this article discussing the prevalence of cheating associated with electronic “clickers”–the personal response systems that allow professors to take attendance and grade students’ answers to questions in class. I was shocked by the tone of the article that implied both the amount of money that colleges and universities have diverted into glorified remote controls (technology for technology’s sake) and the lengths to which institutions have allowed these devices to take the place of providing a real education.

Victory of the Spirits of Cynicism and Laziness

It would seem that the cynicism that argues students can’t be made to participate in their own learning–without electronic overseers–has mingled with intellectual laziness that fuels prefab lectures vomited out through Powerpoint. Further, these all-pervading spirits have obscured the common sense critique of clicker culture that should be obvious: Students don’t miss classes that have significance and students can’t cheat when questions are worth answering.

Classes have to matter.  That is, time spent in the classroom has to pay dividends–an investment of time should receive a reward.  At the most basic level,  a course should prepare a student to pass their exams, write their papers, and finish their projects.  At the highest level, classroom time should go beyond its own the learning goals and point toward larger questions and areas of research.  Whether motivated by the stick of a failed course or the carrot of new horizons, time in class should both require investment and pay dividends.  If seat time isn’t contributing to a student’s education, then attendance at lectures isn’t a goal worth pursuing.

Cheating is only possible when the questions are trivial.  Short of full-fledged copy and paste exam plagiarism or custom term papers, a student can’t cheat on a properly constructed question.  Questions that demand higher order thinking skills like analysis and problem solving are far more difficult to cheat on–and the cheating is far more easily recognized.  However, the clickers are only really valuable with regard to lower order thinking skill questions like true/false or objective multiple choice.  My guess is that most profs who employ personal response systems for grades are using them merely to ascertain whether students are doing their assigned reading–something that shouldn’t even be an educational goal.  After all, if a student can converse intelligently, write a paper about, and answer exam questions thoroughly without doing the course reading then there is no reason for the student to waste their time.  If they can’t converse, write a paper, or answer exam questions then those are the evaluations that matter–not true/false or multiple choice questions on a Smartboard.

Yeah, but what about…

I am certain that some professors would argue that if they were to make classes matter–going beyond the readings, pushing past the bare-bones course objectives–then a certain percentage of students raised in social passing and pragmatic cultures would fail and feel dissatisfied.  These students would then complain to administrators or transfer to less rigorous institutions endangering those professor’s (non-tenured) job security.  Furthermore, others would argue that higher-level questions cater to only the academically advanced and ignore the plight of academically struggling students.  To these objections I say “Good.”  The goal of education is to make every student academically advanced and disincentivizing hard work and diligent study is counterproductive to that goal.  If a struggling student gets lost in the classroom discussion and loses a few minutes of the lecture getting caught up that is preferable, in my opinion, than for the advanced students to lose the entire class period as it reviews the assigned readings.  The struggling student can halt the discussion by asking a question, the student stifled by a rehearsal of the readings can’t push the discussion forward by asking the professor to get on with it.

Coming from a small, private college with somewhat limited resources I had only used these kinds of personal response systems for occasional in class polls that earned no credit–either for attendance or for homework.  When clickers were pulled into the classroom situation it was only so that students could get a sense of how their answers compared with their peers.  That is, personal response systems only made sense within the dialogue that the professor had already facilitated between individual students.  Ideally, such a system should be used to encourage students who grasp the concept to explain it another way to their classmates–as is suggested at the end of this article.  When a clicker becomes a tool for a student to earn a grade outside of furthering a conversation it is pure laziness on the part of a professor unwilling to take the time to evaluate that student properly.  When the standard of education falls to mere attendance, the goals of education have been subverted to a lowest common denominator.  The triumph of clicker culture as witnessed by the tunnel vision of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s article seems to suggest that it is not truant students, but absentee professors and institutions that threaten the future of higher education.


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