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On campuses, handhelds replacing raised hands

AMHERST -- Hoping to make large classes more interactive, a growing number of professors on large campuses are requiring students to buy wireless, handheld transmitters that give teachers instant feedback on whether they understand the lesson -- or whether they're even there.

Use of the $36 device has exploded this fall at the University of Massachusetts, where faculty say class sizes are creeping up following $80 million in systemwide budget cuts. Close to 6,000 of the 17,500 undergraduates on the Amherst campus are required to have transmitters in classes this fall, compared with fewer than 500 two years ago, said Richard Rogers, an economics professor and adviser to the provost on the classroom experience.

To connect with students in vast auditoriums, professors sprinkle multiple-choice questions through their lectures. Students point and click their transmitters to answer, pushing blue buttons numbered 1 through 9 on their keypads. A bar graph appears on the professor's laptop, showing the number of right and wrong answers; teachers can slow down or backtrack when there are too many wrong answers. Each device is registered and assigned a number, so professors can check who is present, and reach out after class to those who give wrong answers frequently.

"We would all like to make our classes small, but that's not going to happen," said Professor Thomas Whelan, whose chemistry students must buy transmitters this semester, along with safety glasses. "Any technique that engages students and makes the class feel a little smaller is going to help."

But the built-in attendance-checking feature is an annoyance for some students, who have been known to use the anonymity of large lectures as a shield for occasional absences. Students don't like the added cost, either. The lightweight, gray plastic transmitters cost $36 new, or $27.25 used, and can be sold back to the UMass bookstore.

"If you didn't come to class, you didn't get credit," said Ryan Flaherty, a sophomore from Plymouth who has used transmitters in psychology and economics classes. The transmitter "keeps you in class, so I guess that's kind of a good thing."

When Professor Randall Phillis enthusiastically introduced the transmitter to several hundred students in Biology 100 this month, some freshmen looked confused.

"Do we have to buy one?" one student asked. (Yes, you do.)

Students have already started asking friends to carry their transmitters to class for them so they can skip. Professors, in turn, have learned to guard against double-clickers by doing a head count and figuring out whether there are "extra" answers.

First developed five years ago, wireless transmitters are most common on large public campuses, where classes of hundreds of students have long been standard fare. They are used in physics at Rutgers University in New Jersey, calculus at North Dakota State, and computer architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. They have also popped up at Dartmouth and in introductory physics classes at Harvard.

David Seiffert, a partner in New York-based EduCue, the firm that distributes the transmitters, said business is "booming." Also known by the acronym PRS, for personal response system, the transmitter is powered by two AAA batteries and relies on an infrared signal to send information -- the same simple technology as a TV remote control. A starter kit with 50 transmitters, receivers, and software sells for $1,950.

At UMass-Amherst, physics professors were the first to supply a few classes with transmitters, but the trend picked up momentum when an economics professor, Norman Aitken, won a $460,000 grant from the Davis Educational Foundation two years ago to study the impact of the technology. His team is analyzing data collected in a dozen large courses last spring, to see whether clicker-using students learn better.

One specialist in educational technology is eager to see the results. Roger Blumberg, a visiting professor of computer science at Brown University, said the risk is that something will be lost as faculty adjust their teaching to the transmitters.

"If it energizes teachers about teaching large classes, that's valuable, and if students feel part of something, that's valuable too, but it's a trade-off, because when you reorganize material to accommodate technology, you have to make sure it makes sense pedagogically," he said.

Thanks to the study grant, about a dozen large UMass classrooms are wired to host transmitters now, said Rogers, and the university is beginning to convert smaller, 50-seat rooms. Few humanities courses have embraced the system because their questions tend to be more open-ended, but the technology has spread from the sciences and economics to psychology, statistics, legal studies, and accounting, and an art history class even participated in last year's study.

Jessica Sugal, a UMass-Amherst junior from Swansea, used a transmitter in two large classes last semester, molecular biology and astronomy, and said she was less likely to skip because her professors would know she was missing.

Because the questions she answered in class closely resembled those that showed up on exams, the daily transmitter exercise made her more confident, Sugal said. And even when she wasn't sure of the answer, she was still willing to try, knowing her success or failure would be private.

"It works better than the professor saying `Raise your hand,' because people don't want to go against the person sitting next to them," she said.

The system isn't cheat-proof, said Kerry Sullivan, a sophomore from Canton, who has seen some of her economics classmates look around and punch in the same answer as their neighbors. Occasional technology failures have frustrated some users; in one class, dozens of answers routinely failed to show up. The tool also adds some work for professors, who must write the multiple-choice questions and manage the incoming data. Still, most of those interviewed agreed that the effort is worth it.

"If you have to teach 340 people and you want to actively involve them, we have the technology to do that," said Bernard Morzuch, a resource economics professor. "I don't like the idea of teaching 340, but that's my job, and I owe it to the kids to give them their money's worth."

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

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