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Lucy Greco

  Accessibility in Education


To Click or Not to Click: Use of Clickers in Classrooms

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Several years ago clickers started hitting the scene in US secondary classes. This effective and innovative use of technology was very valuable to instructors and students alike. However, says Lucy Greco, these devices have accessibility issues and might need a different approach to integration in classrooms.
Post-secondary educational institutions have larger classes than any other educational environment. It is not unusual, for example, for a first-year Chemistry or History class to have 300 to 600 students enrolled. Several years ago clickers started hitting the scene in large classes. Originally, these devices were used for instructors to check in with students and evaluate how effective their content was. Instructors would ask multiple-choice or yes-no questions regarding materials just covered in the class, and students would respond by pushing the appropriate button on their clickers. Depending on the response, instructors could use the opportunity to try and communicate their ideas more effectively. This effective and innovative use of technology was very valuable to instructors and students alike. However, these devices have accessibility issues.

Image: Students in a classroom using clickers
Most clicker vendors quickly realized the limitations visually impaired users encountered trying to use clickers in the classroom 
Clickers are small handheld devices that can easily be oriented incorrectly, causing visually impaired or blind students to push the wrong button, thereby entering answers incorrectly. Vendors began developing special clickers that had tactile markings indicating proper orientation and allowing blind students to properly identify the different buttons. These special clickers also vibrate so that blind or visually impaired students know if their clickers are on and if their answers were received. However, these special models are still missing many key accessible features. In fact, there is no way for a visually impaired student to know if their clicker is running low on battery!

I am currently researching ways for students with physical disabilities to use clickers. Students with limited or no use of their hands may not be able to hold the device, let alone push the buttons. I am hopeful that the web versions of clickers will address these issues. At the time of writing this article, I have not seen any web interfaces, so I cannot speak to the accessibility or usefulness of the same.

The impact of clickers on students with learning disabilities is turning into a very complex debate. Students with learning disabilities often need more time to comprehend a question or even simply read a question that an instructor has posted. A very common accommodation for students with learning disabilities is to allow them more time on quizzes or exams.

However, clicker quizzes are short surveys of material requiring quick response times. Typically, an instructor will post a question then give students 30 seconds to respond. Newer clickers even allow for answers requiring the entry of words, numbers, and/or symbols. Students with reading disabilities may need more than 30 seconds to read through a question and process its content. Extended time for quizzes has been a well-recognized and effective accommodation. However, there is no technical way for an instructor to offer students with disabilities extra time in a clicker quiz.

This raises pedagogical questions such as:

  • Should an instructor increase the time for all the students in the class?
  • Should the students with learning disabilities who need extra time be allowed or required to take quizzes in a different location and/or at a different time than the rest of the class?
Neither of these solutions may be feasible. For example, instructors have a great deal of material to cover in class and extending the time for some students may just not be possible. If an instructor quizzes some students at a different time or location but the quiz is relevant to what is being discussed in the lecture at the moment, those students may not be able to relate their answers to the lecture material.

Now that I’ve introduced the problems with the technology itself, let’s take a look at the policy issues. When clickers were first introduced, they were viewed only as tools to enhance lectures for instructors. Today, however, more and more instructors are using clickers as tools to grade students and/or monitor student attendance. As we've already discussed, if students are unable to use the clicker correctly (effectively), they are penalized, not because they don’t know the right answer, but because they are not able to use the tool, and in turn, their grades are affected by their disability.

Another policy issue involves the availability of accessible clickers. Some vendors simply don’t offer them. When I asked our clicker vendor if our bookstore could carry a few of the accessible versions, I was told that they were only available through a direct special request from institutional staff. Instructors can also be unaware that accessible clickers exist. Even the support staff that assist instructors on how to use the technology often do not know that there are different versions of clickers, and those that do, are not sure how to obtain them. The bottom line is, separate access is not equal access.

Educational institutions should increase their scrutiny of the accessibility of academic technologies they are adopting. However, unless someone on the adoption team is aware of some of these issues, it is very easy to disregard the needs of students with disabilities when adopting devices that don’t have accessible features.

If your institution is considering adopting clickers, be certain that you address some of these problems in the adoption process. The more organizations challenge the lack of access, the more likely we are to have equal access in the future. Also, be certain that your faculty is aware of these issues, so they can make decisions in the classroom that will accommodate all their students. 
Lucy GrecoLucy Greco is a blind advocate for accessible technology. She is the user of various assistive technologies since the early 1980s. She is passionate about the ways technology makes the world more accessible to everyone but especially individuals with disabilities.