THE BLOG
08/25/2014 11:18 am ET Updated Oct 14, 2014
IMPACT X

How A Small Wireless Handset Transformed My Classroom

Teach For All

There is a school of thought that opposes technology in the classroom. This is rooted in the belief that it hinders or completely replaces human interaction.

But in my classroom in Latvia, I have been using a learner response system with wireless handsets for almost a year now. To tell you the truth, it's hard to imagine myself teaching -- and my students learning -- without it. Thanks to this one piece of technology, I've realized several key teaching and learning objectives, and my students have a greater understanding of the material they're studying. My students and I came to realize that in the right circumstances, technology really can create a better school experience -- one that involves truly meaningful interactions between teacher and students.

Evaluate to learn

The wireless handset is like an electronic test sheet; its main function is to evaluate students' performance and progress. Every student in the class has a handset and can do various exercises either by choosing a multiple-choice answer or typing in the answer. The system we use, called ActivExpression, helps students learn by offering immediate feedback as they learn new material. For example: After I explain a new grammar rule in my English class, the students do exercises in their workbooks and then write their answers in the wireless handsets. In a matter of minutes, it's clear to me who has understood the new rule and who is struggling. My students receive immediate feedback regarding their work, so there is no waiting for the teacher to come by and check. The students can either move on to the next task or return to the previous one to work on their mistakes. They can still use their textbooks, workbooks or any other printed or digital materials; the only difference is that they write their answers in the handset.

The fact that our handsets integrate with available classroom materials means that as a teacher I don't have to prepare completely new exercises or assessments to use the technology. What's more, the polling function allows me to ask questions and create activities on the spot when the need arises. This enables me to engage everyone in the class at once rather than the one or two outgoing students who raise their hand to answer orally or complete the task on the blackboard.

To hear and to listen (and be near)

There are, on average, 15 to 27 students in each class in our school. Large classes in particular make it challenging for a teacher to address each student's needs and wants throughout a 40-minute lesson. It becomes especially challenging with primary school students as there are always at least 10 kids competing to answer a question. Using the learner response system, there's no need to call on just one student -- they're all given an equal opportunity to answer and to be heard, all within a single minute. Even the shy and less confident students can demonstrate their understanding (or confusion) without having to speak out loud in front of their classmates. On the flipside, the technology also encourages the kids who tend to avoid participating or joining discussions to express their opinions.

The learner response system organizes my students' answers right away and can display them in a graph or as percentages. It is possible to see not only who said what and how much time they needed but also each student's progress according to their level of knowledge or skill. As a result, my students and I know during the lesson whether we can move on or if we have more work to do on the same material to achieve our goals for the day.

Rather than replacing personal communication in our classroom, the technology gives me more time for interacting with my students. I have time to answer all of their questions, explain content in more detail, evaluate progress after each activity and make suggestions. Meanwhile, the system sends questions to the students' handheld devices (instead of me printing, copying, distributing and collecting worksheets), summarizes the results and presents them in easy-to-read graphs or tables. It's equally important that my students receive updates on their progress on their handheld devices and are able to share their thoughts with me by commenting on their results on the device. As they work, students have the opportunity to develop independent learning skills as they interact with their handheld devices.

To motivate, include and adapt

Although my students have been using the learner response system in my classes for many months, they continue to be more motivated to work and more open to the study process if they know that an assignment or a lesson involves the learner response system. Additionally, I've found that my low-achieving students and students who have trouble concentrating in particular achieve better results when they use the devices. They take more time with their assignments; on average, their scores are 10 percent higher on handheld assignments than on written work.

Here are the main reasons why:

  1. It's easier for them to focus--the handhelds have to be taken out and turned on before each task, which requires them to pay attention.
  2. Students know that they will receive an evaluation for their work right away. Because they're notified by the device instead of publicly informed (and embarrassed) by the teacher, they're more motivated to try again.
  3. Each student can work according to his or her own speed and abilities. The software enables me to create tasks of different knowledge and skill levels and send customized assignments to individual students. This means less time wasted waiting for those who need more time to finish, and it reduces the need to figure out what to do with the students who solved the task quickly and with ease. The system gives a teacher the opportunity to see the progress of every student in the class and to respond to them individually as needed.

When describing the impact using a learner response system has had on my classroom, I like to compare it to a washing machine. I could do laundry by hand as it was done for hundreds of years, but why spend the time and effort when a washing machine is more efficient and gets my clothes cleaner? Learner response technology offers similar benefits to teachers. Integrating the system into my classroom has enabled me to spend more time focusing on my students' engagement, progress and understanding - and less time doing busywork like printing, copying, collecting, checking and correcting. And not only do my students enjoy working with their handhelds -- which is crucial for any learner -- my assessments have shown that their scores have increased by at least 5 to 10 percent. More importantly, it's clear to me from the comments and questions that my students enter into their devices that their engagement and comprehension have improved. What better argument for technology in the classroom could there be?

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