Monday, September 8, 2008


As many of you might know, UBC has been working for a while to try to find a method of getting lectures to be more interactive. The advent of things like PRS and iClickers has made it possible for professors to ask students questions in class in order to gauge their understanding of covered material, or at least to encourage student participation (or get students to attend class, which I think is generally a good thing). However, as much as I like these goals, and as much as I support involvement and interaction in lectures, there are certain problems with the way UBC is going about dealing with the issue.

The PRS system was first adapted a while ago, and since then students were required to buy PRS clickers ($45 at your friendly UBC bookstore- although I believe it was less 5 or so years ago) for certain classes. The idea was that they would be needed in several classes, and that they could be reused each year, or else you could sell them back to the bookstore for 50% of the current market price. Classes were also set up with antennas, which, according to my research, cost about $200 each. Professors were trained how to use the clickers. The problems came when they were actually being used, however- professors often had difficulty with the program used to run the clickers, some students found them to be a waste of class time, etc. So as a solution, UBC decided to adapt iClicker technology instead.

Now, there are several advantages to the iClicker, and this system addressed some of the issues that both profs and students were having with PRS. Namely, they are less expensive (only about $30), they're easier to use in that they don't require that you log into the class, and the technology is generally easier to learn. So far, so good.

So what's the kerfuffle? Well, first of all, it seems like UBC has actually overlooked students in their decisions. Students who purchased PRS clickers are now forced to pay more for a new clicker(or lose marks in class, for instance)- even those who managed to sell back their old clicker have to spend some money to buy their new one. But the issue seems to be multifold. First of all, the UBC Bookstore has imposed a 'quota' on how many PRS clickers they're buying back. This seems largely unfair- to state that you will be buying back clickers, and then to say that you've bought back enough and have reached some sort of 'quota' (that students didn't even know about) doesn't is dishonest to students who have been told that they can sell back what is now a useless piece of technology. It's not even so much the fact of having a quota- it's that they didn't inform students explicitly of it! It also means that some students have ended up having to pay $75 for technology that they have used in one or two of their classes last year, and might be using in one class this year. Despite what students end up paying in total for iClickers (be it $10 after the buyback, or $30 on top of what they paid for PRS last year), the issue is also that when students are regularly spending $700 for per term for textbooks, $10 still counts ($10 can pay for a meal, in fact!). And students aren't just spending money- they're also spending time lining up for 40 minutes at a time in the bookstore when purchasing these clickers. Furthermore, UBC has already invested in PRS technology- I don't know if the PRS antennas can be used for iClickers, but if not, then that's thousands of dollars spent on technology that is now obsolete. And where does some of that money come from?

The bigger issue, however, at least from my perspective, is that these new iClickers don't actually solve the problems of PRS. Sure, they may be easier to learn to use, or they might avoid the annoying problem of having to log into your class, but from my experience, the biggest problem with PRS was that it took up too much class time. Not because there were oodles of technological difficulties, not because professors couldn't use the program, not because it took ages to join/access a class- but because the use of the technology wasn't efficient, and was organized properly. My typical experience with PRS was a professor giving us a question, taking a while to explain it, giving students what I thought was too much time to actually solve the problem, and then giving us some more time because some students hadn't answered the question yet. I did see some effective use of PRS (in my chem 233 class, for instance). But face it- the new iClicker won't solve these issues. It was competely possible to use PRS effectively, to not let it guzzle up class time, to ensure that the answers were encoded properly. And the students who hated it despite all that will hate iClickers probably just as much, because lots of the problems associated with it were ones that were simply associated with trying to generate class discussion and participation.

I don't deny that there were technological problems with PRS- I certainly experienced frustration with the system. I'm also not saying that iClickers aren't a better technology- they certainly seem to address some of the student concerns about price, and professors' concerns about ease of learning. And on the whole, I love the idea of getting students to engage in the material covered in class, and I like the notion of student participation, and profs being able to see if students actually understand the material, or if they need to spend a bit more time on a concept. For first and possibly second year students who didn't have to get a clicker until this year, this issue may be largely irrelevant. All I'm saying is that I saw the system work quite well, and it's possible for the system to work well. I just don't think that the solution to the inability to properly operate technology that you've invested thousands of dollars in warrants the introduction of new technology that won't solve the actual problems, but that won't do so at students' expense. So what's the solution? I think that the Bookstore should buy back all of the PRS clickers, and ensure that next time, the policy on buybacks and 'quotas' is clearer.