In 1997, physics professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign developed our dear iClickers — the “i” denoting Illinois. It was an instructional triumph, engaging large lecture halls and providing immediate feedback on student comprehension.
However, today — 22 years since the iClicker’s conception — the collegiate classroom looks vastly different due to the almost ubiquitous ownership of mobile devices. For reasons financial and pedagogical, Cornell should phase out iClickers in favor of integrated web-based polling apps, namely Poll Everywhere, that come at no cost to students if funded by the University.
Students spend up to $50 per new iClicker device at the Cornell Store and a considerable price of around $35 for used ones. The cost of iClickers unnecessarily and disproportionately burdens low-income students, forcing students to choose between a portion of their grade and the price of an iClicker.
The Cornell Lending Library, a student-led organization that provides free, semester-long loans of textbooks, has responded to this need and has stocked 94 iClickers this semester alone. This mass stock of iClickers only further exemplifies the significant burden that the price of iClickers imposes across the student body.
Given the distributional burden of iClickers, Cornell lecture halls should seek a poll-taking system that exists on our already-owned devices: our phones and our laptops. The Bring Your Own Device system has made ownership of laptops practically ubiquitous among students, and when inaccessible for students, funding programs like the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives and the Lending Library can provide laptops for those in need.
Rarely do we as students personally pay for our grading mechanisms. Just as we do not fund Blackboard, Qualtrics Survey software or even blue books for exam-taking, iClickers should fall on the burden of the University.
We urge Cornell to transition to the use of Poll Everywhere, a web-based polling app that is integrated with the grade book. The app can be financed in a classroom package for up to 400 students for $350 or financed in a university-wide package for a custom price. Even if Cornell chose not to finance the app themselves, Poll Everywhere would still be drastically less expensive than iClickers: $13.99 for an annual subscription per individual student.
If the unnecessary expense of iClickers isn’t enough, web-based polling apps such as Poll Everywhere harness a much vaster array of capabilities than the iClicker. While the iClicker only allows for simple multiple choice answer responses, Poll Everywhere has manifold functions: open-ended questions, rank choice, image interaction, question submission and peer voting.
The greater survey functions of Poll Everywhere allow for better data collection, feedback for instructors, reflection by students, identification of concepts and peer-to-peer instruction. These functions open the door to greater creative and critical thinking, promoting student engagement to a further degree. Moreover, Poll Everywhere provides each student with a comprehensive response history bank with the correct answer choices whereas the iClicker offers none. This feature allows students to return to their responses at any point and to utilize in-class quizzes or participation as another tool for review before exams.
These benefits are echoed by Prof. Mark Sarvary Ph.D. ’06, director of the investigative biology teaching laboratories and instructor of the popular course BIOG 1500: Investigative Biology Laboratory, and communication consultant Kathleen Gifford in their article in The Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education: “Rapid technological developments, especially the increase of computing power, opened up new opportunities, moving these systems from a clicker device onto cellphones and laptops.”
Courses in large lecture halls with several hundred students can pose several challenges in student engagement and effective instruction. Thus, the adoption of Poll Everywhere can serve as a mitigating remedy. Poll Everywhere turns lectures into dialogues, singular comments into group discussions; Poll Everywhere allows for formative check-ins, immediate student-professor communication and the ability to engage the whole classroom simultaneously rather than calling on one student at a time.
“[Poll Everywhere] did exactly what iClickers did, but it was free and on our phones or computers. We didn’t have to worry about forgetting the iClicker, or replacing the batteries or the thing breaking. It was extremely convenient and I could never find any downsides with the service or the implementation,” said former investigative biology student James Abert ’20.
Sarvary, who teaches courses with about 400 students, compared his usage of iClickers from 2009 to 2011 and Poll Everywhere from 2012 to 2016 and concluded that “the benefits of web-based response systems outweigh the challenges, and this form of digital pedagogy can help create a rich dialogue with the audience in large classrooms.”
There is one notable cost: distracted mobile phone or laptop use. While some professors have adopted a no-laptop policy in their courses, those who do not should transition to the use of Poll Everywhere. Especially in courses that both already permit laptop usage and rely upon iClickers for participation, these professors should favor of Poll Everywhere. Poll questions can be designed to require active engagement through strategies like factoring the correctness of answers for a grade.
Considering the financial burden of iClickers and the superior instructional capabilities of web-based polling apps, the transition from iClicker to iPhone — or any other personal device — should not be one we need to go to the polls for.
Laura DeMassa and Canaan Delgado are sophomores at Cornell University. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Double Take appears every other Tuesday.