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I recently attended a lecture where the speaker used piece of software to add interactive results to poll audience. As a presenter and/or audience - what is your opinion on added value of such exercise? Worth the hassle?

What are the benefits? What problems can it get you into?

In my particular case for example - you could answer via smartphone (app or website) or laptop (website), both of these had to of course be connected to Internet. So automatically - the poll excluded all those who didn't have this option.

  • The impression I get is that when we see this kind of thing these days, it's a watered down descendant of Eric Mazur's "peer instruction" method: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peer_instruction . Peer Instruction (PI) was a radically different, student-centered mode of instruction that was shown empirically to do better than traditional lecturing. Mazur did it with low-tech cardboard rather than cell phones or expensive clickers, and that's how I still do it when I use the technique. Clickers took over because they were profitable, and many people now use them to give a veneer of interactivity. – Ben Crowell Nov 28 '14 at 22:24
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When you say "lecture", I'm not sure whether you're talking about a one-shot talk (e.g., a conference presentation, an invited seminar), or about an ongoing series in a class.

While I personally have not taught this way, I know that there has been a lot of experimentation with having students answer questions during lectures with software in the way that you describe. There, the idea is to have the students actually working problem as part of the lecture---essentially, a hybrid between normal and flipped classroom. In at least some cases, this seems to work very well.

For a one-shot talk, on the other hand, I have a hard time coming up with non-contrived scenarios where I think this would be worth it. Why would anybody be willing to install some random app for just one talk, and won't you lose time to getting them set up with it? What could you gain from an online poll that you couldn't get through a quick show of hands? Once people have switched their attention from you to their screens, aren't you just encouraging them to check out and read their email / browse the web? To me at least, the negatives seem to far outweigh the benefits.

  • Thanks for your input. Sorry for not being clear enough - in my case it was one-off invited seminar (which I believe, as a speaker you could reuse if necessary?). The question was a yes-no type and refereed to the main topic (and title) of the talk.. App was not requirement and you could simply open a webpage with a short link to answer the question. – radek Nov 28 '14 at 14:15
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    @radek Even without the app, what does it gain beyond a show of hands, and why would you want to encourage people to pay attention to their screens? – jakebeal Nov 28 '14 at 14:21
  • I didn't think about the distinction between series of talks and one-off lecture - that indeed might offer better return on investment.. Also - very much like the comment about distracting the audience right at the beginning of your talk and encouraging email browsing while pretending to be answering! ;) – radek Nov 28 '14 at 14:22
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I agree with jakebeal that it matters a lot whether you're doing this for one isolated lecture or as part of a class.

As I see it, the main advantage of this is as a pedagogical tool. It's most useful when you're teaching a class, because then you can give small "quiz" questions as interactive polls, and from the pattern of student responses you can get an idea of whether they're understanding the material. I used this technique in a class I taught and found it quite useful. If most of the class was quickly getting the right answer, I knew I could move ahead speedily; if many students got the answer wrong, I could slow down to go over stuff more slowly.

I think these advantages are much reduced in a single-lecture situation. For one thing, at least in my experience, the proportion of standalone lectures that are pedagogical in nature is fairly small. Second, for pedagogical standalone lectures, you typically have a preplanned talk that you're going to give, with little room to adjust the pace based on audience responses. For a class, you can use results from a poll one day to plan and adjust what you talk about at the next class session, but there's no way to do that if the entire thing is just one lecture. Finally, to get at your main question, I just don't think it's worth the hassle for a single lecture. People have to install an app or go to a website. If technical difficulties prevent them from doing so, you have to either use up precious time from your single lecture, or ignore the problems, which makes the poll results less representative. For a class, it can make sense to spend the time resolving technical issues because the polling mechanism can be used again and again over a period of weeks; for a single lecture, any time spent dealing with that is just cutting into the substance of the talk.

If the talk is not pedagogical, I think there's little point to these polls. You don't really need audience feedback (at least not until after the talk) if you're not trying to teach them something and make sure they understand it as you go along.

I personally used the iClicker device and software, because that was provided by the institution where I was teaching. This is nice because it doesn't require anyone to install anything or look at a screen; they just use the device, which is like a remote control, to respond to polls you show in your slides. Again, though, in a single-lecture setting, it's unlikely to be worth it to pass out iClickers for everyone and then collect them at the end. The only way I could see this being practical is if your talk, although standalone, was one of many such talks at a conference or something, and the conference provided the iClicker or other poll infrastructure. Then the economies of scale could make sense, because people could participate in polls across many talks. For this to be worth it, though, you'd have to have substantial interest from the speakers, or else they might not bother to include polls in their talks.

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