Goodbye Chalk, Hello iPhone

Advances in technology have led to multiple types of distractions; texting while driving or difficulties staying focused on college homework. Yet, the latest classroom technology is perhaps changing that course by requiring students to be more responsive during lectures while using handheld devices.

McNeese State University (MSU) in Lake Charles, LA, uses an interactive multimedia product called ActivClassroom. The platform includes whiteboards, projectors, handheld slates, palm-size polling devices, and electronic pens.

Wayne Fetter, dean of the Burton College of Education at the University, said the technology — created by the interactive learning company Promethean — allows faculty to gauge their students’ attention and understanding of the subjects being taught by taking polls and producing graphs.

“It gives you a much better opportunity to really see who is getting it as far as the curriculum and who is having difficulty understanding something because you’re getting that instantaneous response right at the time the lesson is being taught. So it allows you to go into some more depth in the content,” said Fetter.

Traditionally, instructors would ask questions and get a few verbal responses from students around the room. Today, Fetter said using a product like ActivExpression allows students to answer questions using a handheld device. At a push of a button, professors can generate instant results on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom.

Additionally, compatible software gives teachers the option of creating pre-designed flipcharts with question techniques embedded in the program. Response data can be saved and reused later, unlike a traditional chalkboard that needs to be erased. Flipchart information can also be highlighted or notes can be added, unlike PowerPoint presentations.

“This adds to the visual approach to learning. And again you can craft responses right within the program,” said Fetter. A resource library helps teachers quickly prepare for their lessons and reduces repetitive work.

What’s more, student behavior is changing.

“If you’re going to be required to respond and provide input basically anytime, which is what ActivExpression allows, then as a student you really don’t have that down time where you can’t be paying attention,” said Fetter.

These tools blend with the education department’s mission of training future and current teachers to use technology in their classrooms. So it’s second nature for MSU to test the latest teaching technology.

“We have eight faculty members who are in fact trained as trainers by Promethean in the use of the technology. They not only provide additional assistance and professional development to our faculty, but they also have a lead role in helping to infuse the use of technology in the curriculum,” said Fetter.

Small Class Sizes
The limitation of the ActivClassroom host of products is that they work best in small classrooms — 25 to 35 students — as opposed to classes with 50 or more.

“Out of 26 classrooms we have outfitted, we only have two classrooms that normally have classes in them that are more than 35 or 40 students. We’re in pretty good shape. But if you were to go to Louisiana State University or Florida State — one of those bigger schools — there are a significant number of classes in which the class size is prohibitive for using ActivExpression,” said Fetter.

Additionally, technology is only as good as the instructor’s knowledge of how to use it. Colleges need to be committed to regularly training their faculty in order to realize success.

Early in 2006, when MSU first signed up with Promethean, they guaranteed training for the faculty. Despite the promise, some faculty felt the time commitment was too demanding. As a result, about two-thirds of the education faculty is well trained, while others continue to use traditional forms of teaching.

“Our view is that once they see more of their peers utilizing the ActivClassroom in productive ways, they will start to pick up on it,” said Fetter.

iPhone Invasion
Travel about 500 miles northwest of MSU to the Texas town of Abilene, and you’ll arrive at a small university that is using iPhones and iPods to keep students engaged in learning.

At Abilene Christian University (ACU), students are using a product called ResponseWare that allows professors to integrate questions into their PowerPoint presentations and automatically triggers a polling system that assembles the Web-based questions.

Students then have the flexibility of responding in real time using either Wi-Fi or a data connection. They can either be in the class or in the field responding to the questions.

Dennis Marquardt, educational technology project manager at ACU, said one of the many benefits of the Turning Technologies product is that it allows faculty to graph responses and project them on a screen and/or on each mobile device within five to 10 seconds.

“More mobile technology is being used pervasively in business, especially global business. So part of it is preparing students to have this device with them at all times because they’re going to need it to interact with people in a different way,” said Marquardt.

Most students like the mobile polling, Marquardt said, because it keeps them engaged. In a study conducted by ACU last fall, 64 percent of the 280 students polled said using their handheld device with ResponseWare kept them more engaged in the class; 16 percent said it allows them to participate more; while 12 percent responded that it either distracted them or had no effect.

Earlier this year, during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech before Congress, ACU used ResponseWare to poll students about their reaction to the address. Students voted by keying into their iPod touches or iPhones, while the results appeared on a whiteboard, giving them the chance to see what others were thinking.

Fifty-six percent thought the president’s bank bailout hadn’t helped the country; 70 percent thought an energy bill was need for West Texas; 56 percent said health insurance was the most important health care issue to fix; but 86 percent said they would not pay higher taxes to pay for more health insurance coverage.

The latest technology requiring the use of mobile devices appears to be keeping today’s students occupied and invigorated. Professors are getting immediate data on how lessons are being perceived, and have the ability to adjust their instruction on the fly. Meanwhile, students are furiously tapping their favorite communication devices at all hours of the day and night and, apparently, are learning.

Rhonda Morin is a writer based in Oregon. She’s the former editor-in-chief of Oregon Health News, a public policy publication. She has also served as an editor for Thomas Magazine, and associate editor for a national computer trade publication. Rhonda can be contacted at 503/912-1975 or

Share this Page

Subscribe to CP&M E-News

College Planning & Management's free email newsletter keeping you up-to-date and informed.

I agree to this sites Privacy Policy.