Postsecondary educational institutions have larger classes than in any other educational environment. It’s not unusual for a first-year chemistry class or history class to have 3 to 600 students enrolled. First-year classes required for all degrees are so impacted some schools are even taking to having three or four locations for one class including the web. I will talk about the impact of web classes in another post. Several years ago clickers started hitting the scene in these types of classrooms. Originally these devices were used for instructors to check in with the students and evaluate how effective their content was. Instructors would survey the class and if the students were responding incorrectly they would communicate ideas differently until more students than less were responding correctly. Needless to say these devices have accessibility issues.
Most of the vendors for clickers very quickly realize the limitation when it came to students with visual impairments. Clickers are small handheld devices that can easily be oriented incorrectly causing a visually impaired or blind student to enter the incorrect answer. The two models I’ve seen have addressed visual accessibility very similarly. The devices have some form of tactile markings to identify how to hold the device right way up and vibrate when turned on and when your answer has been received. Without the tactile markings students often entered incorrect answers just because they did not have the device oriented correctly.
I am currently researching ways for students with physical disabilities to use clickers. A student with limited or no use of their hands may not be able to hold the device and/or push the buttons. I’m hopeful that the web versions of clickers vendors are coming up with will simplify this problem for my students that are facing this challenge. At the writing of this article I have not yet seen the web interfaces so there accessibility or usefulness as a tool for a person with dexterity problems is unknown.
The impact of clickers on students with learning disabilities is turning out to be a very complex debate. Students with learning disabilities often need more time to comprehend the question or even simply read the question that the instructor has posted. A very common accommodation for students with learning disabilities is time and a half or some other variants of more time on quizzes or exams. Click or quizzes in the classroom are rapid short surveys of material requiring quick responsiveness. Typically an instructor will post the question and give students 30 seconds to respond to that question. Newer clickers even allow for answers in full words or numbers and symbols. The student with a reading disability may need more than these 30 seconds to read through the question and process what the question is asking. Extended time for quizzes has been a well-recognized and effective accommodation. There is no technical way for an instructor to offer some students more time. This brings up some pedagogical questions; does the instructor increase the time for all the students in the class? Should the students with learning disabilities who need extra time take the quiz in a different location and/or time than the rest of the class? Neither of these solutions is possible. Instructors have a great deal of material to cover in a class and extending the time for some students is not possible. If the instructor quizzes the students at a different time or location and the quiz is relevant to what is discussed in the lecture at the moment the student may not be able to relate the answers to the lecture material. Overall students with learning disabilities are constantly being challenged to answer these types of quizzes without changing the nature of the material.
Now that I discussed the problems with the technology itself I’d like to look at the policy issues. When clickers were first introduced it was only a tool that would enhance lectures for instructors. Today more and more instructors are using clickers to grade their students and/or monitor student attendance. As we’ve already discussed if some students are unable to use them effectively they may be penalized just because they are not able to use the clicker. Inevitably the student’s grade is affected by their disability. One of the other policy issues is availability of the accessible versions. The vendor my campus uses does not make these units available like all the other units. An able body student is able to go to the bookstore and purchase the clicker separately or bundled with their textbook. When I asked the vendor if our bookstore would be able to carry a few of the accessible clickers I was told that they were only available through special request. This leads to students not even being aware that they can’t use the clicker they have until the first day in class. Instructors are also not aware that the accessible versions exist. Even the support staff to assist instructors on how to use the technology often does not know that there are different versions and if they are they are not sure how to get them. It is often said within the accessibility world separate access is not equal access. If vendors have thought about the issues and problems why they have not integrated these accessibility features into the default unit. And why are they still releasing units today that are even more inaccessible than ever before?
Educational institutions all study the issue of these technologies closely when they decide if to adopt them or not. However unless somebody on the research team is aware of some of the problems above it is very easy to leave out students with disabilities by adopting these devices.
We must continue researching and investigating these types of technologies to feed the hungry minds of our students. But we must always consider that are student bodies include disabilities and factors that we might not be aware of.