Disclosure: my colleague, Georg Rieger, and I are currently in the process of securing post-doc funding to evaluate the effectiveness of Learning Catalytics and that position would be paid in part by Pearson, who owns Learning Catalytics.
I have been using Learning Catalytics, web-based “clickers on steroids” software, in a lecture course and a lab course since the start of September. In this post I want to focus on the logistical side of working with Learning Catalytics in comparison to clickers, and just touch briefly on the pedagogical benefits.
I will briefly summarize my overall pros and cons of with using Learning Catalytics before diving into the logistical details:
- Pro: Learning Catalytics enables a lot of types of questions that are not practical to implement using clickers. We have used word clouds, drawing questions (FBDs and directions mostly), numerical response, choose all that apply, and ranking questions. Although all of these question types, aside from the word clouds, are possible as multiple-choice if you have or are able to come up with good distractors, Learning Catalytics lets you collect their actual answers instead of having them give you best guess from a selection of answers that you give to them.
- Con: Learning Catalytics is clunky. The bulk of this post will discuss these issues, but Learning Catalytics has larger hardware requirements, relies heavily on good wifi and website performance, is more fiddly to run as an instructor, and is less time-efficient than just using clickers (in the same way that using clickers is less time-efficient than using coloured cards).
- Pro: The Learning Catalytics group tool engages reluctant participants in a way that no amount of buy-in or running around the classroom trying to get students to talk to each other seems to be able to do. When you do the group revote potion of Peer Instruction (the “turn to your neighbor” part), Learning Catalytics tells the students exactly who to talk to (talk to Jane Doe, sitting your your right) and matches them up with somebody that answered differently than them. Although this should not be any different than instructing them to “find somebody nearby that answered differently than you did and convince them that you are correct,” there ends up being a huge difference in practice in how quickly they start these discussions and what fraction of the room seems to engage in these discussions.
Honestly, the first two points make it so that I would favour clickers a bit, but the difference in the level of engagement thanks to the group tool is the thing that has sold me on Learning Catalytics. Onto the logistical details.
As you can see from the picture, I use a lot of devices when I teach with Learning Catalytics. You can get away with fewer devices, but this is the solution that meets my needs. I have tried some different iterations, and what I describe here is the one that I have settled on.
- In the middle you will find my laptop, which runs my main slide deck and is permanently projected on one of the two screens in the room. It has a bamboo writing tablet attached to it to mark up slides live and will likely be replaced by Surface Pro 3 in the very near future.
- At the bottom is my tablet (iPad), which I use to run the instructor version of Learning Catalytics. This is where I start and stop polls, choose when and how to display results to the students and other such instructorly tasks. The screen is never shared with the students and is analogous to the instructor remote with little receiver+display box that I use with iclickers. Since it accesses Learning Catalytics over wifi and is not projected anywhere, I can wander around the room with it in my hand and monitor the polls while talking to students. Very handy! I have also tried to do this from my smartphone when my tablet battery was dead, but the instructor UI is nowhere near as good for the smartphone as it is for larger tablets or regular web browsers.
- At the top is a built-in PC which I use to run the student version of Learning Catalytics. This displays the Learning Catalytics content that students are seeing on their devices at any moment. I want to have this projected for two reasons. First, I like to stomp around and point at things when I am teaching so I want the question currently being discussed or result currently being displayed to be something that I can point at and focus their attention on instead of it just being on the screens of their devices. Second, I need the feedback of what the students see at any moment to make sure that the question or result that I intended to push to their devices has actually been pushed to their devices. For the second point, it is reasonable to flip back and forth between instructor and student view on the device running Learning Catalytics (this is what one of my colleagues does successfully), but I find that a bit clunky and it still doesn’t meet my stomping around and pointing at stuff need. The instructor version of Learning Catalytics pops up a student view and this is what I use here (so technically I am logged in as an instructor on two devices at once). The student view that pops up with the instructor version makes better use of the projected screen real estate (e.g., results are shown along the side instead of at the bottom) than the student version that one gets when logging in using a student account.
The trade-off when going from clickers to Learning Catalytics is that you gain a bunch of additional functionality, but in order to do so you need to take on a somewhat clunky and less time-efficient system. There are additional issues that may not be obvious from just the hardware setup described above.
- I am using 3 computer-type devices instead of a computer and clicker base. Launching Learning Catalytics on a device takes only a bit longer than plugging in my iclicker base and starting the session, but this is still one or two more devices to get going (again, my choice and preference to have this student view). Given the small amount of of time that we typically have between gaining access to a room and the time at which we start a class, each extra step in this process introduces another possible delay in starting class on time. With 10 minutes, I find I am often cutting it very close and sometimes not ready quite on time. In two of approximately twelve lectures where I intended to use Learning Catalytics this term, there was a wifi or Learning Catalytics website problem. Once I just switched to clickers (they have them for their next course) and the other time the problem resolved quickly enough that it just cost us a bit of time. When I remember to do so, I can save myself a bit of time by starting the session on my tablet before I leave my office.
- The workflow of running a Learning Catalytics question is very similar to running a clicker question, but after six weeks of using Learning Catalytics, clickers feel like they have a decent-sized advantage in the “it just works” category. There are many more choices with the Learning Catalytics software, and with that a loss of simplicity. Since I did have the experience a few weeks ago of using clickers instead of Learning Catalytics, I can say that the “it just works” aspect of the clickers was reinforced.
- Overall, running a typical Learning Catalytics question feels less time-efficient than a clicker question. It takes slightly longer to start the question, for them to answer and then to display the results. This becomes amplified slightly because many of the questions we are using require the students to have more complicated interactions with the question than just picking one of five answers. All that being said, my lecture TA and I noted last week that it felt like we finally got to a point where running a multiple-choice question in Learning Catalytics felt very similar in time from beginning to end as with clickers. To get to this point, I have had to push the pace quite a bit with these questions, starting my “closing the poll” countdown when barely more than half of the answers are in. So I think I can run multiple choice questions with similar efficiency on both systems now, but I am having to actively force the timing in the case of Learning Catalytics. However, having to force the timing may be a characteristic of the students in the course more than the platform.
- Batteries! Use of Learning Catalytics demands that everybody has a sufficiently charged device or ability to plug their device in, including the instructor. This seems a bit problematic if students are taking multiple courses using the system in rooms where charging is not convenient.
- Preparing for class also has additional overhead. We have been preparing the lecture slides in the same way as usual and then porting any questions we are using from the slides into Learning Catalytics. This process is fairly quick, but still adds time to the course preparation process. Where it can become a bit annoying, is that sometimes the slide and Learning Catalytics versions of the question aren’t identical due to a typo or modification that was made on one platform, but accidentally not on the other There haven’t been a ton of these, but it is one more piece that makes using Learning Catalytics a bit clunky.
- In its current incarnation, it seems like one could use Learning Catalytics to deliver all the slides for a course, not just the questions. This would be non-ideal for me because I like to ink up my slides while I am teaching, but this would allow one to get rid of the need for a device that was projecting the normal slide deck.
An instructor needs to be willing to take on a lot of overhead, inside the class and out, if they want to use Learning Catalytics. For courses where many of the students are reluctant to engage enthusiastically with the peer discussion part of the Peer Instruction cycle, the group tool functionality can make a large improvement in that level of engagement. The additional question types are nice to have, but feel like they are not the make or break feature of the system.