Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Turning Technologies User Conference, Dublin 2013

On Monday 4th November, I headed up to Dublin to attend the Turning Technologies User Conference at Trinity College Dublin. Although we are not a customer of Turning Technologies, we do have some significant experience with the use of Personal Response Systems, or clickers, which I've blogged about before. We have a large number of clickers made by eInstruction, which was recently bought over by Turning Technologies, so I was interested to see where the technology is heading.

Opening Keynote: Eric Mazur

The conference also gave me the opportunity to hear Eric Mazur speak. I've been aware of Mazur's work with clickers and peer learning for some time; his YouTube video Confessions of a Converted Lecturer is a joy to watch. His polished performance yesterday was an excellent demonstration of the techniques he promotes.

Although he was speaking to the converted (he didn't need to convince anybody of the need for more active forms of learning), Mazur kept us engaged and really eager to find out the solution to the thermal expansion problem he set.

Some of the main points I noted:
  • A clicker is not just a polling tool, it's an engagement tool. Mazur does not recommend using it for tracking attendance or giving marks for the right answers. This might have the effect of getting the students into the classroom physically, but what you really want is their minds.
  • We learn by practicing; we teach by telling. Why are we surprised that this is a problem?
  • Lectures focus on information transfer. When lecturing, we tend to focus on what is being taught, not how we are teaching. We tend to simply replicate how we were taught.
  • In the average lecture, there is hardly any interaction. What, therefore, do we lose by simply recording the best performers and putting it on the web? In fact, there is much to gain, because the student can hit the pause button, and have time to think.
  • Education has to be more than information transfer. To have the ability to transfer what you know from one context to another, is the real essence of education.
Mazur then went on to describe and demonstrate how he uses clickers to support peer instruction. He described the curse of knowledge - the more expert you are in a subject, the harder it is to explain to a learner. Peer discussion works because the students are explaining a concept they have only just understood, and they know the possible misconceptions.With peer discussion, students become emotionally involved in the process (of working out a problem) and not just the right answer.

Keynote: Mark Taylor

The second keynote was from Mark Taylor, President of Taylor Programs. Dr Taylor is from Arkansas and, as he reminded us during his keynote, is an expert, speaker and consultant on the topic of Generation NeXt. During the next hour, he gave us a condensed version of what is usually a half day workshop on the topic of today's digital learners.

Initially, I wasn't sure if MarkTaylor was for real, or if he was a parody of a motivational speaker. In fact, he turned out to be completely genuine, and an engaging speaker. Some of his arguments were a little over-simplified, but this could be down to the fact that he was trying to get through a lot of material in a short space of time. From initial astonishment, I warmed to his techniques (including his bell of absolute silence).

Dr Taylor's starting point is that "traditional academic practice don't work like it used to", although I'm not sure that the traditional lecture ever did work. Colleges and Universities are getting blamed (by employers) because "we had them last"!

Today's students are from Generation NeXt: the era of the wanted, precious, protected child, who has grown up in a child-centric household. The child who gets trophies for "just showing up". As described in Time magazine, these are the Twixters, children who can't or won't (or aren't let) grow up; the Me Me Me Generation, who are responsibility averse.

And, apparently, this is all down to Reactionary Parenting - parenting in reaction to the way we were parented. Because of our parenting style, today's students have no respect for authority; they have a strong sense of consumerism and entitlement; effort is seen as indicating a lack of talent; they overrate their own skills and are given record high grades for decreasing effort. Because we offer options and choices, our children are less likely to persist, resulting in retention problems.

To be completely honest, I don't think I was the only person in the room who recognised some of these traits in myself, as a parent. And it did make me feel quite uncomfortable.

But, there was a positive message, ultimately.

Using the example of Minecraft, Mark Taylor pointed out that children from Generation NeXt frequently watch YouTube videos while playing the game, thus learning new techniques and skills. They are actively seeking out learning on their own. We need to learn from this more about how to engage and motivate our students.

At this point, unfortunately, Dr Taylor ran out of time. But he did finish with the advice: Don't talk to the student, talk to the professional you want them to become.

Parallel Sessions

After lunch, I sat in on three sessions given by practitioners.

David Robinson, from Queens University Belfast, described the evolution of clicker use at QUB. From an initial successful pilot with 108 clickers and 2 receivers in 2005, they now have over 200 trained users, with popularity increasing. Schools have bought their own systems, for purposes ranging from interactivity/engagement to module evaluation. Particular issues David discussed include staff training, which they got right, and distribution models, which they initially got very wrong.

Will Moindrot, from Manchester University, spoke about his experience using ResponseWare, an over-web solution allowing students use their own mobile devices to vote. These can be used in tandem with clickers, as a hybrid solution. He found that students liked using their own devices, and ResponseWare was easier to support than clickers, but wifi needs to be ubiquitous and reliable.

The last session I attended was given by Javier Horta, from the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Javier described his use of the NXT device for high stakes exams in large classes, as an alternative to bubble sheets.
The advantage of using the NXT device is that it allows more question types than MCQs - multiple answer questions, numerical answers, true/false questions and short text answers.  Students are given a paper question sheet and they submit their answers using the device, which they have to sign-in to. The grading happens immediately, and there is no need for large computer labs. The small size of the screen minimises a student's ability to observe a neighbour's entries.

Javier gave some good examples and advice on creating suitable exams. My impression is that the technology isn't quite there yet - for text answers, for example, there is a bit of manual manipulation of results to account for common mis-spellings. But I can see this approach being very useful for certain groups of students.

Final thoughts

With lots of other work going on here in Galway in the last year, I haven't had my head in the clicker space for a while, so it was good to revisit and find out about new developments. It is interesting to see the different groups looking at mobile apps for clickers, and I'm also watching Blackboard Labs' Polls tool, which is available for free in a beta version at (see Steve Bentley's recent review).

As a user conference, I felt that there wasn't much opportunity to meet the user community on the day. There were plenty of scheduled talks, and room for questions, but very little time for chatting with other attendees. There was no list of participants available, which makes it difficult to follow up with people afterwards. I recognised very few people at the conference, which is unusual for an ed tech event in Ireland. So, I'm wondering who all the attendees were.

Following from this, I was surprised that there were no speakers from Irish higher education at all. There was one speaker from QUB, and four from other UK institutions. Why were none of the Irish champions included in the speaker list? Any why, out of 12 speakers, was there only one female?

The tweets from the event, using the hashtag #ttucdublin, have been collected together in this storify.

Related Posts

The clicker experience at NUIG: student feedback
The clicker experience at NUIG: Issues and concerns for staff


Sue Johnston said...

Hello Sharon, this is a great description of the conference -- I'm interested in learning more about the use of student engagement tools at NUI Galway. We use TurningPoint clickers at my institution, University of Maryland, and I presented at the recent Turning Technologies conference here in the states. (We also had Eric Mazur and Mark Taylor as keynotes -- I think they are on the regular speaking tour of Turning Tech!)

Anyway, I found your comments about the conference itself interesting, and would love to maybe connect with you and discuss further the use of clickers in higher education setting.



Sharon Flynn said...

Hi Sue, thanks so much for your comment. I'd love to connect and find out about what you are doing.

You might be interested in a presentation we gave, a couple of years ago, about our initiative here at NUI Galway. You can find it on slideshare: Clickers for Large Class Teaching


Sue Johnston said...

Hi Sharon, thanks for sharing that presentation. It's always interesting to me how many common issues and findings there are between very different institutions. SO many of your Conclusions about clicker use also apply to our experience at UMD.

For example, students overwhelmingly like it, and like to get points for participation. But, they don't want it used for attendance.

Faculty also need help with the technical side, but also with writing good questions. I have found that sharing video of best practices has been very helpful in this regard.

We have a clickers website at, as well as my own personal blog. We officially support TurningPoint, but I have faculty who are interested in other response systems as well, and am always trying to be ahead of the curve on this technology!


Sharon Flynn said...

Thanks for that link Sue. Your site looks really clean and helpful for both staff and students.

Would love to follow up with you about this. I'm just back from holidays and need to get myself sorted first, though.