Monday, August 17, 2009

The Why, What, and How of Getting the Benefits of Student Response Systems without the Cost or Equipment

Student Response Polling OptionsMany innovative educators are familiar with student response systems (SRS) a.k.a. clickers. Common brands are eInstruction, Sentio, TurningPoint, Activote. The systems run about $2500 - $4000 (depending on various options selected) for a class set and allow educators to track student learning, engage an entire class as they collect real-time responses from students, and enables them to quickly assess understanding and achievement. While I believe these are valuable instructional tools, I’m not convinced they are the best tool to accomplish these goals in all situations.

Here’s why.
As an active participant using such devices I have witnessed that the distribution, collection, and maintenance of devices is a bit cumbersome. I have also observed that even tech-savvy, innovative educators have enlisted others to support their use. They've needed help from a specialist to engage in using the software to upload questions, maneuvering from one question to the next and sharing the answers.

I have also found when answering questions, typing on a phone-like keypad without a letter on each button makes submitting a response rather cumbersome. Most recently I was disappointed that my slowness in doing so resulted in my answer being omitted. Additionally, the clickers just don’t look like the technology I am used to using in my real life. They seem like artificial or manufactured constructs that I can’t imagine incorporating into everyday instruction. While I have been interested in this technology it has just seemed like an add on rather than a practice I would incorporate into my daily routine. There is also new software that has to be installed and requires a bit of a learning curve. While I am guessing there may be some innovative educators that have seamlessly incorporated these devices into the classroom, I have yet to see this for myself. In fact, sadly, I think I know of about a half dozen schools where a tech savvy teacher or coach has ordered these devices and they remain in an unopened or once opened box in a locked closet (shhh-don’t tell).

For mobile computing professional like me who want to present and operate mobiley the idea of traveling with 32 clickers is unappealing. So, while I love the functionality, the practicality of passing out clickers, configuring voting software, and lugging around bags full of difficult to use keypads has not seemed feasible. Fortunately, I have discovered ways to use everyday tools for free while still being able to harness the power these systems offer without needing either the equipment, software, or funding.

Here’s what they are.
I have found three tools that provide a similar function as student response systems and do so for free and with technologies many of us already have access to inside and/or outside of school. Furthermore they do not require downloading or learning how to use software. They are Google Spreadsheets and Forms, Twitter, and Poll Everywhere. All can be used with no cost, no software, and without the purchase of equipment for those with access to either cell phones or laptops.

Here is how to use them.


Twitter is perfect if you want to know what your audience is thinking, feeling, or seeing. No software to download and all your audience needs is a cell phone or laptop to contribute. Simply go to and set up an

account. You can Tweet from your phone by entering your number at When exploring a particular topic, you need to select a short tag (an approximately 6 letters or less searchable word or acronym) and then have your audience’s tweets include that tag (i.e. Marta Valle High School might be MVHS). They can contribute using a laptop or through text on their phone. You can capture the Tweets in any number of forms. The easiest is to do a simple Twitter search for the tag. You can click here to see what the Tweets from a recent conference look like. Of course one of the more famous tags that made Twitter popular was IranElection.

Google Spreadsheets

Do you want to poll your audience? Do you want to do a pre and post assessment? Google spreadsheets is your answer. Recently I used Google Spreadsheets to poll school leaders about what name we should select for our learning network. After they Tweeted their nominations from their laptops or cells, I placed their nominations on the Google spreadsheet and then placed their names across the top of the spreadsheet. They each had 5 votes to use to select their top choices. I set up the spreadsheet to record their choices and had their results captured in a chart on a separate tab so they could instantly see the results which I projected. You can see what it looked like here. This was done without any equipment beyond their laptops.

Of note is the fact that not every person voting needed their own polling device. Participants had 24 hours to vote. They could have voted any time they had access to a computer and accommodations were set up for those who could not vote in advance because they didn’t have access to the internet. We spent 10 minutes the next day where I projected results. A few participants were recorders who captured responses for those who had yet to vote or for those who wanted to change their vote.

Google forms is another free and effective option to capture responses from your audience. Not only does Google forms look nice, it also easily allows you to capture participant results without participants being able to see what other respondents have answered. Here is a sample of a form I used at the same conference to capture conference reflections. It can also be used effectively for assessment with students.

Poll Everywhere

Your audience votes with their cell phones by sending the option number to our number, 99503.Poll Everywhere is a great tool that can be used by anyone who knows someone with a laptop or a cell phone they can send a text message from. For educators in schools without laptops and where phones are banned, this can still be a powerful tool that students can use outside of school by students who have their own phone or laptop or have family, friends or a public facility with a phone or laptop they can use. Futhermore Poll Everywhere is free for people who need to collect 30 or fewer responses per poll, and for schools who have not made Adequate Yearly Progress.

To use poll everywhere the teacher sets up an account at which they’ll be assigned a number or url for participants to send their answers. Within the message students enter the code corresponding to their response. This looks similar to what you see on popular shows such as American Idol. Without any additional equipment or need to download software within seconds educators will have student responses. Another nice feature is that it doesn't matter what device your students are using as text message, web, and smartphone responses can be instantly combined.

If knowing what your students are thinking is important to you and you are not able to invest in student response systems Twitter, Google Spreadsheets and Forms, and Poll Everywhere are few alternatives well worth investigating.


  1. Just so you know, Poll Everywhere also allows people to respond via Twitter, not just via the Web and regular text messaging.

  2. I would like to respectfully disagree with some of the points made in this article. As an educator who consistently utilizes SRS’s, I am a huge proponent of this technology. I am a humble educator who has no affiliation with these companies so my wallet remains light and thin as I post this comment. As an educator, it is your obligation to learn this technology and become a leader in your school and district. These companies have tutorials and will walk you through any problems that arise.

  3. The distribution of these resources should be a practiced and modeled procedure within your classroom. Problems with handing out the technology are a behavior management issue and not a SRS issue. For example, my students pick these up each day as they enter the classroom and return them as they exit. Again, this procedure is modeled and practiced as the great Harry Wong recommends. The beauty of these systems is not relevance to technology that students will be using in the professional world. More importantly, your ability to formatively assess student learning in real time is its key benefit. When I use this form of assessment, my students know where they stand in terms of mastering my behavioral objectives. A central theme of educating the 21st century learner cannot be based on preparing them to use gadgets that are used in the professional world. In this era, these various forms of technology become obsolete in months, much less years. Since the essence of technology cannot be defined because it is rooted in the creative design of the next great young minds, we should use these to help improve student mastery of content and information. Most of these systems also allow you to breakdown student results by subgroups, ethnicity, etc. This becomes a very powerful reflective resource for educators. It is important in not only assessing students, but also in assessing your own effectiveness of instruction. Finally, it is our primary concern to do what is best for our students. Personally, I will carry an elephant around my school if I feel this will positively impact my children. On a positive note, I thought the other three options looked good. Humbly yours

  4. @Josh and @Josh, thank you for your contribution. I am not clear about which points you disagree. I too am an advocate and proponent of using SRS technology and believe in the value in doing so. I also am an advocate of being able to do so for free with tools the majority of teachers and students having access to already rather than purchasing additional equipment. While it is admirable that educators such as yourself would carry around an elephant and even spend thousands of dollars if it meant helping students, the point of this post is that there are technologies available that do not require such herculean feats. As far as the distribution and collection of devices, for those who invest in this or any equipment or manipulatives for use with students, I agree with you and Harry Wong. This has to be a practiced routine and procedure for students.

  5. Let me say up front i am an authorized consultant for eInstruction.

    I did want to point out some discrepancies and agree with the previous posters.

    First, of all, I can speak for the other products, but the prices quoted are not accurate in terms of the current pricing is. eInstruction continues to offer both IR and RF solutions and the price of an IR system is less that half of what was quoted. While RF pads certainly have advantage, teachers continue to acquire our IR pads because of their simplicity and affordability.

    As far as the logistics of managing the pads, ( clickers) again, good classroom managment skills are necessary to sucessfully do any activity and that applies to a Classsroom Polling System as well. One expedient several of my teacher have employed is to use wall bag for graphing calculaotors with clear pockets. They can see in a glance if all the pads have been deployed and if any are missing.

    However, the key aspect of this or any polling technology are

    1-Good content

    2-The Data you get, and what you can do with it.

    eInstructions products offer seamless integration with Examview test banks, which come with over 6,400 textbooks. That means there is LOTS of good content, avaiable to be imorted with a mouse click

    The classroom Performance System can also , with its fastgrade function, create an answer key for ANY printed quiz, so that means the old quizzes in the filing cabinet, as well as worksheets from workbooks, or the many on line resouces can be used with CPS. This is also a "green solution" because you can print 30 copies of a test and use it 5 times( if you teach the same class all day, for example).

    As far as reports go, while other systen rely on export to excel, The Classroom Performance System generates over 2 dozen reports, the kinds of reports teacher would need to be an Excel guru to create.

  6. @anonymous, thank you for the good ideas and really great suggestions. First,
    I will update the price in the post. Next, I agree with pretty much all your points, but I do believe that if students already have access to laptops or cells, I would go with that option instead as I believe it is powerful to empower students to make use of their own devices as instructional tools. If students don't have access to their own devices, which is the case in most schools, I think polling devices such as eInstruction are a great option, but schools really do need some professional development and push in support which should be bundled with the equipment cost.

    You also have some great suggestions. I love the wall bag management idea. I also really like the idea of the reusable assessment. That is terrific. A whole school could even take a particular assessment and instantly get the results. Very cool. Additionally, if it is just a quick assessment this could be even greener by just projecting the questions.

    You have definitely shared some innovative ways to use these devices effectively. Thank you.

  7. @Borden, welcome aboard and thank you for reading. I look forward to reading more comments from you about how you are using some of what is shared here to enhance teaching and learning.

  8. The link to the Google spreadsheet in the first paragraph of that section does not work for me. Did you publish that spreadsheet to the web?

  9. I teach 5th grade in a small community. Was is the cost of a cell phone plan? How much is a laptop with a net connection? I think responders would be much cheaper!


  10. Hello Lisa. I found my way here via the link you provided in the Classroom 2.0 discussion.

    Thank you for an excellent, and informational post. The strategies you've shared are excellent and your approach to finding a way to provide more specific feedback to our students is very practical!

    Have you seen the (Promethean sponsored) research published by Dr. Marzano on this topic recently? Training + IWB + SRS = Improved Learning. If you, or others, haven't seen it you can find it here:


  11. I would like to agree with Joe. If cost is the issue, then the clickers are actually cheaper than trying to provide every kid a laptop or cell phone with data package. A text might be quick, but I know with the clickers in my room that everyone has the tool they need when they walk in rather than "Did you bring your laptop today?" For the instant feedback, I'd say the clickers are superior also. (No affiliation with any companies that sell them.)