Anyone standing in front of a crowd of student might be familiar with a mix of expectant and sleepy faces staring stoically ahead – their gaze occasionally brightened by the latest notification on their portable devices that life and imponderables, after all, take place elsewhere, with others. In an attempt to tap into the digital highway that connects students (and staff) with each other and the world, the Department of Economics here at Reading organized a live debate for and with Part 1 students. The ‘with’ component of this was aimed at those very same portable devices as a means of enabling communication between staff (debaters) and the student audience and thus facilitate students’ engagement with staff, the discipline and one of those imponderables – whether ‘Cuts in UK public expenditure are essential’. On a more self-interested note, this was also seen as a way responding to Pathfinder suggestions concerning a lack of student engagement, departmental identify and challenging our Part 1 students.
Poll Everywhere, in principle, offers a technology that enables interaction with students in a highly decentralized and democratic fashion. Students can communicate directly with the software responding to pre-determined questions or sending ordinary SMS messages. In both cases students employ fairly standard means of voting known from TV (e.g. ‘txt 59722 if your choice is … or txt …’) or send standard texts (network charges apply) with observations and questions. Both these options were employed in the Economics Debate. Students were asked to vote (both before and after the debate) for and against cuts and to text questions/observations to the debaters during the debate. The interface of the software can be displayed on any networked PC enabling communication between audience and staff. The duration of communication is determined by staff and moderator (not student users). If opting for a live version it is absolutely crucial that you have a very competent moderator. Luckily we did – Guy Pursey – who ensured that the debate did not wander into more pressing social matters (like the title of this blog) or an Adrian Mole like phallic competition exercise – though of course as economists we might be expected to rise to the occasion in matters of competition. Incidentally, both examples are from student-submitted texts and highlight the importance of a moderator.
A number of software options are available to regulate the speed of the information flow and indeed mode of display. The software worked very well in terms of what it is supposed to do and provides staff the opportunity to engage students outwith traditional modes of interaction. As long as the institution holds a Poll Everywhere license – Reading does – students can communicate from ‘everywhere’. It is engaging – the final vote on the cuts unfolded like a horse race, but engagement is not always of the kind one might be looking for and will not necessarily gratify students whose focus is on the subject matter itself – too many messages made it difficult for debaters to respond to all. This technology may not be the answer to all our self-interests, but it has upsides – and the downsides are manageable. In the end the horse race ended in a stalemate and the imponderables are … well, still considered elsewhere.
Andi Nygaard, Simon Burke and Guy Pursey