Technology to make lectures and presentations interactive

PRS zapper

It’s not always easy to engage a large audience interactively in a learning session. Yet we know that active learning and engagement improves understanding, prompts reflection, provides feedback so that the tutor can tune the content of the session, and has many other positive effects on learning. Asking questions however, can mean only a few students get to respond. With more than a few students it isn’t possible to have an effective student-tutor dialogue. Small group work is not often practical in a lecture theatre or with large numbers and limited time (for example it’s very difficult to collate all the group results in a short time). It can seem as if there is little possible with large audiences but to fall back on pure delivery model with the student in a very passive mode.

Using a response technology, personal response system or audience participation system to get students or audience members to vote (or to comment) has many advantages and there are a number of feedback or voting or response technologies available. Many have the fun feel of the “Ask the audience” option of the TV programme “Who wants to be a Millionaire?” and certainly engages students, but for me, one of the most important outcomes of their use is the ability for the tutor to pinpoint exactly where gaps in student knowledge exist – where students are failing to learn – to be able to target these.

Typical uses of such a system may be:

  1. to diagnose initial understanding e.g., by using multiple choice questions or quiz solving
  2. during the session to check understanding of concepts just explained
  3. to provide “interactive windows”, providing a break from the passive delivery of the lecture by breaking it up into chunks
  4. to provide the group with choices e.g., of a revision topic
  5. to ask for relevant experience
  6. to switch what you do next: “contingent teaching” that is adapted on the spot to the group (as I mentioned above)
  7. to offer brain teasers to initiate discussion
  8. anonymous peer assessment of student presentations

A useful overview “Using Personal Response Systems (PRS) to introduce interactivity to your lectures and tutorials” with links to examples and case studies can be found at the University of Aberdeen while Steve Draper’s “Electronic Voting Systems and interactive lectures” web pages are also very helpful.

One such technology is an electronic voting system such as Activote (Promethean), TurningPoint – Interactive Response System or EduCue / Interwrite iPRS (Personal Response System). There are several similar products available. The handsets are often known as clickers or zappers.

  • Can be set up to be anonymous
  • Training for the lecturer is needed
  • Needs setting up technically (this often requires an IT technician)
  • Substantial investment typically £60-150 per handset
  • Allows systematic collection and analysis of feedback
  • Can instantly show result of vote – quantitative
  • Often very flexible in use
  • Relies on technical infrastructure & support

Using the students’ own mobile phone can also be an option, e.g., Swarmteams technology,, Mobile technology – proximity push and voting/polling on Android and, of course, as more and more students have internet-ready mobile phones and laptops in sessions, Twitter.

  • Not necessarily anonymous (depends on the software / method used to display results)
  • Not everyone has a mobile phone (but it’s likely most do)
  • Not everyone is quick with texting (best results with a younger audience)
  • Takes time for texts or tweets to come through
  • Can be used to get comments not just quantitative results
  • Costs the student or participant to text if SMS used
  • May have negligible investment cost
  • Requires initial set up of a system by a proficient technical expert
  • Works over the internet (relies on technical infrastructure, but an element that is less likely to fail these days)
  • Can easily feedback to the audience what they are saying

For a low-tech alternative, there are Stephen Bostock’s Communicubes: fold-up paper cubes which students rotate to show a different colour for every answer they could give (1 of 5 options)

  • simple & cheap
  • easy to explain how to use
  • can be used anywhere with no need for technology
  • partially anonymous
  • have to estimate results by eye
  • difficult to show results

See, e.g., “Communicubes: intermediate technology for interaction with student groups”, Stephen J. Bostock, Julie A. Hulme and Mark A. Davys, Keele University, UK

Whatever the system used, adding interactivity to a lecture or presentation to a large audience will mean that they won’t forget what you’re saying in a hurry, but it does require an investment in preparation and time to understand the pedagogy of personal response systems.