Statistical Sampling, Part 1: The Demise of the “Clicker”


The Horn-Book: Wooden paddles with printed lessons!

The New York Times published on Sept. 15th “a graphic history of classroom technology, from the writing slate to the electronic tablet”.

The list included things such wonders of instructional innovation as the “Horn Book,” described as “Wooden Paddles with Printed Lessons” which were “popular through the colonial era.” If that wasn’t enough to – er, “inspire” learning in the classroom, there was the Ferule, developed during the mid-1800s to double as a pointer and corporal-punishment device.

(Note to self: Research retrofitting my laser pointer with some sort of zapping mechanism for those sleepy students. Is there an app for that?)

Classroom technology did move in a kinder-gentler direction, fortunately for the students, accelerating rapidly around the time of Sputnik with the race to keep up.

All histories are selective, and, for brevity’s sake, I’m sure some omissions had to be made in the Times piece. I remember the technological “bridge” from the typewriter to the laptop that I used in college to write research papers – the word processors with the small screens that would allow you to edit a few lines of text before it was permanently printed to paper.

But it is interesting to note that nowhere in The New York Times list is, for one, the document camera. Nor is there any mention of the cell phone. Even Liquid Paper earns a mention (bonus points if you can guess the date without Googling it of jumping to the end of the article).

This article is not intended to editorialize – I do not intend to beat the Times with my teacher Horn Book or Ferule – but rather to explore a variety of questions that surfaced as I digested such omissions and which pertain to the future and direction of instructional technology. Funding decisions that impact the cost of education are made based on such publicity, after all.

Ignoring the debate over whether The New York Times can be characterized as the ultimate authority on classroom technology, I don’t think it is disputable to state here that the cell phone, for example, has still not entered mainstream thinking as a classroom statistical sampling or engagement tool. There are pilot projects out there everywhere, even at the middle school and high school levels, many of which have been met with enthusiasm and measurable results.

And a Google search of “cell phones versus clickers” (clickers did turn up in the New York Times time line) turns up a healthy debate over which makes sense as the most efficient and (cost) effective statistical sampling/engagement tool in every learning environment from small classrooms to large lecture halls.

University IT departments spent thousands on the vaunted clicker systems – equipping huge lecture halls with clickers – only to see new technology quickly replace the old.

The Daily of the University of Washington published an article on April 10, 2008 entitled “Classroom Clickers Here to Stay.” On February 24, 2010, The Daily changed its tune:

A clicker, which is required for participation in large lecture classes, costs about $40 at the University Book Store. However, students now have the option to electronically register their phones for use as clickers. Students can save a substantial amount of money by using their existing technology instead of purchasing a clicker.

It’s pretty clear that clickers are on their way out, at least at the university level. After initially pushing clickers, the IT Department at Washington and Lee University recently secured a site license from (the subject of my next post) and is rolling it out to faculty to use with cell phones.

“The fact that every college student, at least, has a cell phone and sends about two hundred texts a day means that you take something that distracts and turn it into something that engages,” said John Blackburn, former Head, W & L Instructional Technology Group. “Students can take quizzes, ask questions of lecturers, make comments, respond to polls, etc. from their phones. It replaces the silly ‘clicker’ systems I’ve been promoting for years.”

In a presentation I gave at a recent EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative Forum, I argue that the modern language laboratory may be, like clickers, another looming anachronism. With students carrying around their own listening and recording devices (cell phones, iPods/Pads, etc.) and video-chat available on their Skype-equipped laptops, multimedia learning centers might be great for the prospective-student campus tour. They might also have turned out to be merely a very costly bridge to the next great thing.

The question is: what is the next great thing? Clickers are trying to improve their product and offer more statistical sampling features, but, ultimately, based on what has happened at the University of Washington and at Washington and Lee University, they may be headed the way of the SMART board.

In Part 2, I explore’s new features and how to make the most of this particular engagement and statistical sampling tool in a one-to-one learning environment.  Web-based tools and tablet apps make statistical sampling an engaging way to see what’s getting through and what needs more scaffolding, all without the need for yet another piece of hardware.


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