Professor Ross Cheit put it to the students in his Ethics and Public Policy class at Brown University: Are you morally obliged to report cheating if you know about it? The room began to hum, but no one so much as raised a hand.

Still, within 90 seconds, Cheit had roughly 150 student responses displayed on an overhead screen, plotted as a multicolored bar graph — 64 percent said yes, 35 percent, no.

Several times each class, Cheit’s students answer his questions using handheld wireless devices that resemble television remote controls. The devices, which the students call “clickers,” are being used on hundreds of college campuses and are even finding their way into grade schools.

They alter classroom dynamics, engaging students in large, impersonal lecture halls with the power of mass feedback. Clickers ease fears of giving a wrong answer in front of peers, or of expressing unpopular opinions.

“I use it to take their pulse,” Cheit said. “I’ve often found in that setting, you find yourself thinking, ‘Well, what are they thinking?'”

In hard science classes, the clickers — most of which allow several possible responses — are often used to gauge student comprehension of course material. Cheit tends to use them to solicit students’ opinions.

The clickers are an effective tool for spurring conversation, for getting a feel for what other students think, said Megan Schmidt, a freshman from New York City.

“It forces you to be active in the discussion because you are forced to make a decision right off the bat,” said Jonathan Magaziner, a sophomore in Cheit’s class.

Cheit prepares most questions in advance but can add questions on the fly if need be. His setup processes student responses through infrared receivers that are connected to a laptop computer.

Clickers increased class participation and improved attendance after Stephen Bradforth, a professor at the University of Southern California, introduced them to an honors chemistry class there last fall, he said.

Bradforth uses the clickers to get a sense of whether students are grasping the material and finds that they compel professors to think about their lesson plans differently. He says it’s too early to say whether students who used the clickers are doing better on standardized tests.

Eric Mazur, a Harvard University physics professor and proponent of interactive teaching, says clickers aren’t essential but they are more efficient and make participation easier for shy students.

Many colleges already use technology that allows teachers and students to interact more easily outside the classroom. For example, professors can now post lecture notes, quizzes and reading lists online. Several companies market software, such as Blackboard and Web CT, that provide ready-made course web pages and other course management tools.

Mazur envisions students someday using their laptops, cell phones or other internet-ready devices for more interactivity than clickers offer. At least one company, Option Technologies Interactive, based in Orlando, Florida, markets software that allows any student with a handheld wireless device or laptop to log onto a website and answer questions, just as they would with a clicker.

For now, the clicker systems appear to be selling. Two companies that make the systems say each of their technologies are in use on more than 600 university campuses worldwide. Some textbook publishers are even writing questions designed to be answered by clicker, and packaging the devices with their books.

Versions of clickers have been available since the 1980s, but in the past six years several more have entered the market and advances in technology have made them both cheaper and more sophisticated. Most universities that use clickers require students to buy them, although at Brown they’re loaned through the library.

Made by companies including GTCO CalComp of Maryland, eInstruction Corp. out of Texas and Hyper Interactive Teaching Technology from Arkansas, the devices cost about $30.

The clickers communicate with receivers by infrared or radio signals, which feed the results to the teacher’s computer. Software allows the students’ responses to be recorded, analyzed and graphed. While each company offers slightly different features, the systems typically allow instructors to display the class’s results as a whole, or to record each student’s individual response.

The clickers themselves vary among companies but generally allow students to respond to multiple choice questions or key in a numeric answer. The clickers can also be used to give quizzes that can be graded automatically and entered in a computerized gradebook, saving professors time. But several professors said they have avoided that so students will see the handheld devices as positive, rather than punitive.

At the college level, the devices originally took hold in science classes, but they are finding their way into the social sciences and humanities, where the anonymity they offer may be an advantage. Cheit said that’s especially true when it comes to sensitive topics, such as affirmative action.

“People that are against it will click,” Cheit said, “But they might not raise their hand and say it.”

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