Interactive response systems – a craze or an effective classroom resource?

Senteo school058 smallEditorial copywright 2009 SMART Technologies Inc.

Major technological inventions have been heavily adopted in schools over the years. Initially it was the computer, followed by the projector and then the interactive whiteboard. Today over six and a half million interactive response handsets are forecast to be sold in 2009, and over eight million handsets are forecast to be sold in 2010 (Futuresource). Tyrone Chou, product line manager, SMART Technologies, manufacturers of the SMART Board™ interactive whiteboard and SMART Response interactive response system shares his experience and views on interactive response systems, whether they are just another craze or if they are here to stay.
Technological crazes have come and gone like the wind. In 1985, the much anticipated ski brake was invented, but the lightweight waterproof fabric stretched between ski poles never took off. More famously, Sony’s Betamax video cassette recording format was introduced, only to backfire when JVC developed their own VHS technology at a lower cost. Recently, as a result of significant investment in ICT in education, enormous technological developments have emerged in schools, many of which have produced vast improvements in ICT provision. Interactive response systems are the most recent craze – so is this just another new technology that will soon fade into our memories? Or do they have the potential of delivering real learning benefits?
What we have learnt from historical inventions that came and went, is that the market needs to take time to decide the required optimum format and functionality of the product.
The government has long recognised the growing importance of ‘personalised learning’ and they have made clear their desire to ‘put the learner at the heart of the education system.’ The opportunities that technology offers to support this positive change in education practice are also appreciated.
The Standards and Effectiveness Unit (SEU) within DfES (DCSF) has identified five elements of personalised learning, one of which is ‘The use of assessment for learning.’
However, as reported in the Times Newspaper, last year stated that; ‘English children…are the most tested in the world.’ The report that compared school standards in 22 countries stated that ‘English children are tested longer, harder and younger than anywhere else in the world.’
To engage and motivate children in their learning schools need to find a balance to assess each child and tailor their personalised learning pathway. And finally, we must accept that to deliver learning activities that are truly tailored to each individual child’s requirements the support of ICT is unavoidable.
Since the arrival of learning response systems in the market, we have watched the product category evolve, researched the changing requirements and adapted our system accordingly. Usually new products designed for the education sector start their life in the UK and Europe with adoption in the US, however with interactive response systems, or voting systems as they are also known, the reverse has been true. They have now been used in US schools for some time, with the UK and Europe following. With any new product category the question for schools is, whether this is just another new classroom technology or whether these products really do improve teaching and learning outcomes.
The first area of consideration was the assessment itself. Schools will be asking the question ‘do interactive response systems support the correct type of assessment for which they are designed’?
During the majority of learning activities involving interactive response systems the assessment activity constitutes a learning experience in its own right. Although each child’s response can remain invisible from their peers, it encourages participation and discussion as they can see the ‘correct/favoured’ response. This formative assessment is not often included in formal assessment however it certainly has its place in identifying learning needs.
In contrast, summative assessment is usually undertaken at the end of a period of learning to generate a score that reflects the student’s performance. It is not traditionally regarded as having any intrinsic learning value. However, when we reflect on the need for a certain level of formal assessment without the associated pressure of written tests, interactive response systems certainly support summative assessment.
The answer therefore is that interactive response systems, when used in the correct way, support both formative and summative assessment.
However two important points are raised from this differentiation. Firstly, there is no reason why an assessment based lesson activity involving interactive response systems has to be either summative or formative. It is perfectly appropriate to have elements of both as part, or even all, of the assessment activity. The second point is that there may not be a distinction between formative and summative assessment. Whilst some elements of assessment may generate a greater formative learning experience than others, it can be demonstrated that all forms of assessment have some formative element.
We researched the use of interactive response systems in learning, and recognised that a family of products is needed to support different learning levels. This is taking into consideration the features of interactive response systems that were beneficial and some that needed enhancing to add advantage. These feature enhancements can be broken down into four categories. Ease of use, hardware design, question types, and reporting. However above all of these is ease of use.
Ease of Use
Common to all learning resources, the success of the activity depends on its effortless set up, delivery and ease of use. Ideally they should also be a part of an integrated system. We concluded that interactive response systems do have a place in learning and can, if used correctly add to the learning outcomes.
Hardware Design
Due to the nature of the classroom learning environment the handsets must be robust and ‘bounce proof’. They must also be ergonomically designed to fit all students’ hands, from early years to adult learners with the response keys spaced for large or small fingers. Having an LCD display screen provides the added advantage that students can scroll through the questions and check the answer that they sent. The presence of icons on this handset display allows students to monitor the battery power and network status of their remote.
Interactive response systems either use infra red connectivity or radio frequency. The disadvantage of handsets that use infra red connectivity is that they do require line of sight with the receiver. In a class of 30 plus students this can cause problems and can easily disengage children. Radio frequency remotes make it easier to transmit questions and answers, up to 30 metres away because the broadcast is stable and remotes do not require a line of sight with the receiver.
Question Types
The breadth of response formats available has a direct correlation on the value that the resource has on learning outcomes. Where children were limited to yes/no responses not only is their attention span restricted but more importantly single format responses restrict the teacher’s understanding of each child’s specific developmental requirements. Teachers should be able to use a variety of question types, including true or false, multiple choice, numeric response and more-than-one-right-answer. Decimals, fractions and negative numbers can also be incorporated into questions and answers. In return the responses provide the teacher with a deep understanding of the necessary next step in each child’s learning pathway.

The key feature of interactive response systems in delivering effective assessment is its reporting. Feedback should not simply be a list of scores. To give teachers an easy to see image of where the class is in their understanding of a concept the results should be able to be displayed graphically in a bar graph or pie chart that statistically summarises the student responses. Teachers should then be able to see the responses from individual students to help personalise learning. A history of each child’s learning pathway should be kept and broader learning trends tracked.
The core benefit of interactive response systems is assessment. Teachers need to be able to understand each child’s individual place in their developmental path to tailoring the learning to their specific requirements. 
Looking beyond formative and summative assessment, interactive response systems offer additional learning support. During observations in schools it was clear that, particularly in secondary education, children are more easily distracted and keeping them engaged is becoming increasingly hard. There is often a missing element to connect children to the learning activity. In primary education the children more frequently come out to the front of the class to touch the interactive whiteboard. In secondary education it is more common for teacher to engage with the technology. Interactive response systems offered an additional way of re-connecting with the students. Dominic English, advanced skills teacher and ICT coordinator at Kenmore Park Middle School, Harrow, explains how he uses their interactive response system. “Since installation, I have been trialling new ways in which to apply this technology to my classes, including techniques to help develop teamwork and confidence. Although I still use our interactive response system in its traditional application, that is, a handset per student for individual answering and response, I have found the pairing of students a way to get more students talking, collaborating and thinking concepts through together. Another added advantage of pairing students together is that it creates an opportunity for two students who may not normally work or play together to develop a relationship, while developing their understanding in the process.”
Experience shows that children do love using interactive response systems. They provide quieter and more reluctant students with a tool to voice their opinions and become more involved in the lessons. With the amount of formal testing that has to be carried out, they provide a wonderful way of gaining the appropriate assessment data within a fun learning environment. In my view interactive response systems, when used correctly, are here to stay.

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