Sunday, 30 May 2010

Using SMART response system in class - hmm, still not sure..

Our school bought a class set of SMART response units recently and they've been gathering dust in a cupboard so I thought I'd give them a go and see how useful they were as a teaching tool. 

These units look a little bit like remote controls and they can be issued to each of the students. They can then communicate with the interactive whiteboard through a special transmitter to allow students to answer certain kinds of questions shown on the board - basically, true or false, yes or no, or various kinds of multiple choice questions. Here is a video demonstrating it much better than I can explain it. It's a promotional one so it works a hell of a lot slicker there than in reality.

First thing I noticed is that setting it up is quite a pain, making sure all the software is installed, checking for compatibility, adding students to a class so that their names are displayed on the remote units. None of it is particularly intuitive and I imagine any teacher with even the slightest technophobia would be put off fairly early on, even before actually getting to use it in class. I consider myself pretty tech-savvy, but I had to go online and use Google and You Tube to try and work out how to do some pretty basic stuff on there.

And actually creating the questions is quite a long-winded affair.  Each question has to be created separately and typed into boxes. It took me about 70-80 mins to create a 30 question review quiz for my students. It's also quite limiting in that you can only create certain kinds of standardised test/quiz questions, such as True/False or Multiple Choice. You can ask open-ended questions, but there's no way (at least as far as I could see) of them being able to input the answer on the remote control. Which kind of defeats the purpose since the big selling point of the system is that it can analyse all the responses and give you stats based on them. On the plus side though, these quizzes be saved and used again with other groups. 

Anyhow, we're near the end of term with one of my groups so I decided to do this review quiz with them. I think in many schools they actually administer real tests with them, but this was just an informal review quiz. Although each student had their own remote control, I got them to work in small groups to discuss the answers to the questions. 

The students took to it very quickly and you could see they had no problems navigating the buttons and choosing the answers. Just the novelty aspect of it I think kept them engaged throughout. They seemed to like the fact that on a side panel on the whiteboard the names of the students who hadn't answered yet were listed, so they could playfully tease each other to get on with it! One thing I found quite useful at the end was the bar chart display of all the questions and the number of students who got it right and wrong, and how long it took each student to answer. This was quite helpful in identifying which questions were more difficult and we could then go back over those and check them in detail. 

But the whole thing felt a little forced, particularly in such a small class (there are only 12 students) and it's clear that this system is much better suited to large classes or lectures where you don't have such direct contact with the students and having a system of checking their knowledge/understanding might be quite useful. Also, the limitations on the types of questions was quite frustrating at times. As I was designing the quiz, I kept wanting to create open-ended questions and then realised I couldn't. In the end, there are much better ways to create review activities than this. When I talked to one of my colleagues about trying this with my class, she just said: 'well, why can't they just put their hands up and tell you the answer?'. Good point, well made. And throughout my time trialling this, I could always think of a quicker, easier, more interactive way of doing the activity WITHOUT the response system than with it. 

There's also the issue of cost. Buying large numbers of these handsets is very expensive and for the amount you are going to use them I'm not sure it's worth it. But again, it does depend on the kinds of classes you teach and this might suit some of them. For example, it might work well in exam preparation classes where you can regularly check their ability to answer certain kinds of questions. 

One thing that might offset this cost is the option for students to use their mobile phones rather than handsets. This also seems a lot more practical. The company who design the system have a beta trial available for teachers and I might sign up to see if this changes the experience at all. It would certainly make it easier to create ad hoc questions if you knew you could rely on the students' own phones to get the responses. from.  

Interesting experiment nonetheless. At the end of the lesson I left five minutes to get some feedback from the students about them. There general response was that it was interesting and novel but that they wouldn't want to do it very often. They felt the novelty would wear off very quickly. Another student noted that it took the teacher out of the picture, everything was between the whiteboard, the students and the handsets. Many people would say that was a good thing, the teacher being the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage, but it clearly wasn't for this student. He felt he needed more direct interaction with the teacher and he missed it when working with this system. This does raise questions about the role of the teacher when it comes to technology, but I think I'll leave that for another time.


  1. A simple question set of 30 questions should not take nearly as long as 70 minutes, as long as you know what questions you will be asking(even if you are adding graphics and diagrams). I found alot of help at the manufacturer website and and LOTS of help and suggestions from the reseller we bought our set from. It is a value add in my class.

  2. Yeah, it probably shouldn't have taken me so long, I didn't know the questions in advance and this was the first time using it. Still, the whole process of entering text still feels a little bit clunky to me. I think there must be ways of speeding it up.

    Thanks for the link to their website, you are right it is very helpful.

  3. Thanks for these very interesting reflections on the class, David. Although I haven't had a chance to use this kind of response system myself, it strikes me as a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Also, the fact that questions are closed seems quite limiting to me. My immediate thought would be to use something that students already had access to via their handheld devices, or netbooks - like the poll option in Twitter, or in Edmodo if you use that. I like the idea of a tool like Edmodo which allows you to do all sorts of things through just the one account - including polls. Overall the response system strikes me as an expensive technological toy that has a very limited application... but hey, that might just be me :-)

  4. hi Nicky, yeah, I agree it does seem a lot of tech to conduct very low-tech activities. I agree that some way to connect phones to the whiteboard would make much more sense, though obviously this is difficult when students have different handsets/data plans. It would be great if someone came up with a application that would utilize bluetooth to connect students phone to the computer/whiteboard since virtually all phones have that function nowadays, but noone seems to have done that. Would be great as BT use doesn't cost anything

    I read that a program called BluePhoneElite can do that for the Mac (their site is down for the mo so I can't check) though I think it's not actually designed for that purpose. It would be great if some company came up with a dedicated app that would connect via bluetooth to the PC so students could add answers/responses to questions.