A new electronic voting system in lectures is making a real difference

Andy Sharman looks at a gadget that pushes the right buttons

Universities always talk about getting bums on seats. But once you've got the students into the lecture halls, how do you ensure that what they're being taught is actually sinking in? A new technology is set to change the way students learn. Electronic voting systems – "clickers" for short – were first used in the UK 10 years ago by Strathclyde professor Jim Boyle, who employed them successfully to improve drop-out rates. Now they're everywhere and could soon be coming to a lecture hall near you.

The hand-held devices, which allow students to answer questions during lectures in an "ask the audience" fashion, have recently come down in price, making them a viable option for more institutions. Clickers are being used in schools and even in nurseries. This seems to be education technology that actually makes a difference.

"It makes something that's kind-of working – the lecture – work better," says Dr Steve Draper, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Glasgow. His research interest is educational technology in higher education and he has created a website devoted to electronic voting systems (www.psy.gla.ac.uk/ilig). "In most cases, the use of this technology adds a small amount of value, but this could benefit every department; a small advantage for a large number of students." This contrasts clickers with many technological developments in education which can achieve real benefits but only in a limited subject area.

Initially, lecturers presumed the advantage of clickers for students would be that they would make lectures an interactive, rather than passive, experience. But there have been unforeseen advantages for the lecturers themselves, says Draper. "Tutors say they are much more in touch with their students than they have ever been before."

The Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh have both begun to use clickers in lectures – Edinburgh now has 2,400 devices across its first- and second-year science and engineering lectures. "Its advantage is that it's anonymous," says Dr Nick Hulton, dean of learning and teaching in the college of science and engineering at Edinburgh. "If the students get the answer wrong, they won't be embarrassed, they can't be influenced, and the lecturer can immediately summarise what they thought – the students get an immediate response."

Clickers are not just getting students communicating with lecturers; they're getting students talking to each other. Hulton says some lecturers have been taking a poll, presenting the results to students and then getting them to talk to their neighbour about what they put and why. "Students learn well from each other and respond well to discussing a problem," he says. "It means they establish a rapport with each other and value someone else's knowledge – other than the lecturer. It also gives them the confidence that they can work through an answer and articulate their knowledge." This particular aspect means that clickers could also be used on arts and humanities courses, rather than just science and engineering, where they are most common.

Another benefit of clickers, which are generally being used only on first- and second-year undergraduate courses, is that they allow academics to pitch their lectures at the right level. Students at some universities, such as Wolverhampton, are being surveyed at an introductory lecture, to see just how much they know at the beginning of the course. "The real impact of the technology is being able to see lecturers adapt their learning style to the students," says Andrew Hutchinson, learning and technologies adviser at the Midlands Learning Centre, part of the University of Wolverhampton.

Perhaps most important, the students are lapping it up. "It gets you thinking about the lecture," says Nicholas Wright, 22, a third-year astrophysicist at Edinburgh. He used clickers in his first year, and says they helped when it came to revision. "You were thinking about the lecture at the same time as it was going on, rather than just writing the notes and forgetting about it."

Although clickers are useful for holding the lecturers accountable and making sure they're doing a good job, he questions whether they would be suitable beyond the early years of a degree. "Third-year questions have a lot of derivations and take time to work through," he says. "But other universities should give them a try to see if they suit their learning styles."

So is this the future of higher education? Most experts believe clickers are a good thing. "I think the lecture has its place, but we all feel that lectures work best when you can provide an interactive experience, says Hulton. "It's about finding effective ways to engage."

Gordon Campbell, professor of Renaissance studies at the University of Leicester, who lectures without notes, agrees. "My general view of lectures is that their purpose isn't obvious if it's just someone reading from a manuscript. This is something that can make a lecture more than just recitation, and anything that can keep the students awake is a good thing."

There is even talk of using clickers to take feedback from students at the end of a course. It would mean instant judgement for the lecturer at the front of the room – something that doesn't scare Campbell. "I would welcome it because it means you can control what's being said: you don't get remarks such as, 'Why does he wear odd socks?' When you ask constructive questions such as, 'Were you bored at any point?' or 'Did you follow this?' the feedback you get is tremendous."

But it won't just be traditional lecturing skills that come under scrutiny. Just knowing how to operate the clickers will require retraining for many academics. "Educators using this tool should be trained, or at least guided, in making it effective," says Dr Stephen Jones of King's College London, who recently questioned the value of the traditional lecture in the Journal of Higher Education, organ of the University and College Union. "They should be able to comment intelligently on the outcomes rather than just saying, 'That's interesting'."

Andrew Hutchinson also feels that, while clickers have the potential to revolutionise, and personalise, education in British universities, they must be used properly. "There is a caveat: the technology only works under certain conditions. If the teacher has been trained properly it can be very successful. But you can't just bring it in en masse."

How clickers work

Clickers are hand-held devices that can be given to students in a lecture, seminar or classroom.

The lecturer can then ask the audience simple, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?-style multiple-choice questions.

Students respond by clicking the relevant button on the device.

The students' answers are then communicated to the lecturer's computer by infra-red transmitter, or radio frequency.

The results are then able to be displayed on the lecturer's projection screen at the front of the lecture hall.

They can be used as an instant poll for debate, as a way of checking how much of the lecture the students are understanding and even to rate the professor.