PollEverywhere: Student Engagement through Cellular Phones
Get out your cell phones!
Imagine the looks I got from my freshmen composition students as I started class with these words: fear, surprise, confusion. Is he going to take them away? Is he testing to see who will take out their phones in class? Is this a trick? Countless memories of teachers proclaiming their classroom a “no cell phone zone” must have flooded their brains as their faces quickly became painted with thick apprehension. As the students dug through their bags and pockets, I presented a website over the previous night’s reading onto the projection screen—a poll created on the website PollEverywhere.com.
“I want everyone to text in their answer.”
PollEverywhere is a real-time polling website that allows users to anonymously participate in surveys and polls online. As users text in their answers, the poll updates instantly, allowing immediate audience feedback, which can serve as a source for data—or—in my classroom, a foundation for discussion. The best part—PollEverywhere is a free service for educators as long as the class size is 30 or under. The site also offers reasonable membership plans (as low as $15/month). Of course, membership is accompanied by more services: the capability to include more participants, technical support, etc. One major benefit to this service is it, essentially, eliminates the cost and hassle that expensive [wikipop search=”Classroom Performance Systems”]Student Response Systems[/wikipop] (SRS) create. These systems can cost from $25-$45 per student for a semester rental. To purchase an entire system, the cost can be as much as $2000 for a class of 30, and much higher when operating in large lecture halls.
For my students, the poll served as a vehicle for conversation and worked surprisingly well. Students, initially impressed by the real-time fluctuating charts, got to witness what the class community, their community, thought about a particular topic. However, beyond just verbally polling the class, PollEverywhere generates a breathing visual that represents the holistic classroom opinion. With this data so clearly displayed before them, students are more likely to become engrossed in interpreting and analyzing the information. In my class, students who voted one way were shocked to see other students vote another way because the information was clearly presented.
“Woah, why would anyone think the writer was trying to beg for sympathy?” These words emitted from a student who, unless called upon, doesn’t speak much in my class. Not only was he actively contributing (even initiating) class discussion, he was provoking interaction with his peers by asking a communal question. For me, these are the moments where student engagement and interaction thrive because students are interacting with each other directly instead of merely reacting to my moderation of the discussion. Another student, who voted differently, felt obligated to defend her choice. A conversation was born. On other days, when hands seem to be acting more as pillows and support beams for tired heads, I noticed arms shooting up into the air. Engagement became a reaction to the technology and allowed students to not just participate, but create the knowledge.
Recently in The New York Times, Steve Lohr mentioned that if “technology is well designed…it can help tailor the learning experience to individual students, facilitate student-teacher collaboration, and assist teachers in monitoring student performance each day and in quickly fine-tuning lessons.” His article, “In Higher Education, A Focus on Technology,” the movement to engage learners through technology-based pedagogy may help halt increasing attrition rates in colleges1 . Additionally, through proper facilitation and implementation, this approach to learning can also help students make sense of content through student-student and student-teacher interaction, foster a community of learners, and create an environment that is fun.
The first time I used PollEverywhere in class, the students laughed, partially due to the novelty of using their phone in class—something that is vehemently looked down upon in academia. One student said he never thought he would be using his cell phone in class “for good.” Another said it “just didn’t feel right,” and refused to think of the experience as positive. These are expectations shaped by a pervasively negative educational atmosphere; an environment that values praise and blame as an educational standard (where blame usually trumps praise). However, I wonder what kind of progress could be fostered if students were able to learn meaningful and practical applications of technology in their learning? If teachers can squash the negativity that so often comes along with integrating technology into the classroom, will students be, by default, more willing and interested in learning?
By embracing technology and finding innovative ways to incorporate it in the classroom, educators can allow their students to learn while participating in a culture that has become overtly digital. Furthermore, this digital culture is one that most of our students have been living within their entire lives. Like [wikipop]Marc Prensky[/wikipop]’s notion of the “digital natives,” these students are fully immersed in digital culture from the day they are born2. The resistance against technology by some educators only reinforces a gap between them and their students. It is there that the great tug-of-war begins: teachers attempt to coax students out of their own culture and into “academic” culture. Accordingly, students have a tendency to resist this pull, and sometimes can’t operate under more traditional means. Therefore, it is our job, as educators, to meet these students halfway. This means utilizing technology in a way that models good learning habits. Allowing students to thrive in the culture they exist within in meaningful ways creates a sense of responsibility that can be transferred out of the classroom and into their daily lives. Shaping new expectations about how technology is used can have a lasting effect.
After my class activity with PollEverywhere, the cynic in me was waiting for the walls to come crumbling down. I kept looking around the room, watching to see if students were texting friends, checking their [wikipop]Facebook[/wikipop], or seeing what calls they missed. This didn’t happen. The phones were put away and the class continued. Anarchy was avoided—the revolution that seems to haunt the dreams of teachers didn’t occur. In fact, I didn’t see another phone until the next class, when I utilized PollEverywhere again.
- Steve Lohr, In Higher Education: A Focus on Technology, New York Times, October 10, 2010 [↩]
- Marc Prensky, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf [↩]
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