Friday, September 26, 2008

tt4t_056 Google Forms, a free alternative to clickers in the classroom?

It’s Friday, September 26th, 2008 and welcome to episode 56 of TechTalk4Teachers, I’m Tom Grissom. The incredible fast pace of technological change continues and I am still on my quest to find affordable technologies that the average school can implement easily. I keep finding myself returning to tools that I have used before and finding new methods for their use. At the beginning of this semester I setup a Google Form to collect some information from my students about their technological abilities that I had typically used as a paper form in the past.

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Although I have used traditional clickers in the past to collect this information the clicker technology is still not as convenient as paper. There is still a bit of a hassle factor in setting up the clicker questions and getting them to work in the classroom. The paper method of collecting this information has worked great for me in the past as I have had a small number of students in each class. The data from the completed paper forms can be entered into a spreadsheet with just a little effort. Yes, it is a pain to enter the data but if the numbers are small it is easily doable. If the numbers are larger then you might want to go the clicker route. The biggest advantage of the paper method of collecting this information is that it is 100 percent reliable and easy to do, something that technological solutions sometimes have a problem with.

So at what point do the advantages of using technologies trump the old-fashioned tried and true methods? That is a question every teacher must answer for themselves. The end result is what is important and there are often many paths to get there, however, some are more efficient than others. The average teacher will not select a technological solution unless there is a high degree of probability of success AND the technology must be readily available AND easy to use AND only if there are advantages to the technological solution. All four conditions must be met before the technology solution becomes common practice, otherwise why bother?

I was recently watching a Common Craft video called, Twitter in Plain English, that reminded me of a story that illustrates this point. Way back when dinosaurs ruled the earth I was teaching a high school class and was developing a newsletter for Thanksgiving. If I am not mistaken I think I was using a program called Print Shop from Broderbund to create this newsletter and believe it or not this program is still around after all these years. I was limited with the tool of choice but was determined to use it. I was looking for a graphic image of a turkey and the graphical selections at the time for 8-bit graphics were pretty poor. I should have found a nice line drawing of a turkey and used the copy machine to make a copy and then used scissors to cut it out to glue it on my newsletter the old-fashioned way but I did not.

At the time I created this newsletter getting out the scissors and glue actually did cross my mind but I elected to go the all technology route and used one of the included images that came with Print Shop, even if the 8-bit turkey graphic looked like a square blob. It really did not look that good but I was using technology in the classroom even if the technological result was not up to par with the real world. I was proud that I created a newsletter and that I used a computer to do it. The irony was that I ended up and used the copier anyway to make copies from my computer generated newsletter.

Back then desktop publishing on a Personal Computer was new and exciting for the average teacher. Using a desktop publishing system freed us from the previous technological limitations at the time, in this case an IBM Selectric Typewriter. Suddenly we could change the font type and size, add graphics, and produce materials just like newspapers and magazines did even if the finished results were not completely up to professional standards. It was new and fun. Over time the technology evolved and today we do not even give a second thought about desktop publishing because it is so common place.

Now back to the Common Craft Plain English series of videos that started this reminiscence. A trademark of the Common Craft series is that they use hand-drawn cut-outs to tell a story using video. The Plain English series does not lose sight of the end result for the purpose of the video which is to explain a complicated concept in a clear and concise way. They do so very effectively by combining old-fashioned cut and paste (and I literally mean cut and paste) with You Tube style video productions that have been viewed by millions of people. Lee LeFever and the gang at Common Craft can do this on a popcorn budget yet use the technology components to their advantage. Too often we educators try to kill flies with sledge hammers in trying to solve a problem. The Common Craft videos offer a simple and elegant solution that meet the end objective effectively and efficiently.

Which brings me to the use of Google Forms as a substitute for clickers in the classroom. First let’s begin with the end in mind. The purpose of clicker technology is to collect information from students quickly and easily. What you do with the information collected varies depending upon the learning objectives. Clickers do excel in collecting multiple-choice type data and are efficient in displaying aggregate data. Individual results can also be analyzed if the teacher decides to do so.

Google Forms can also be used to collect information from students as an alternative to clickers. Two means to an end, so which should you choose? The answer of course depends upon the end result you want to achieve. In many cases having students simply raise their hand to questions will suffice but there are also advantages to technological solutions. The advantages of the technological solutions will never be grasped by the teacher unless they know about and consider them.

There are many good companies making clickers for classroom use but there is a cost associated with using clicker technology. You have the initial cost of the clickers themselves, you typically have to install client software, teachers often need training in how to use the software, and there is also a technology staff component that adds to support costs. All of this adds up to time, money, and energy to implement.

Clickers do make a lot of sense when you are trying to provide a low-cost device for each student to “vote” in real-time. The other advantage to clickers is that they can be assigned to individual students and the clicker results to questions can be analyzed for each student, often in real-time. Many clicker manufacturers offer the ability to project an aggregate response chart immediately after individual “voting”. This aggregate data can often surprise even the most seasoned teacher and offer the sobering reality that the students do not “get it” when used as a check for understanding is used after teaching a concept. This aggregate data can also offer some valuable data for classroom discussions but pedagogical choices are often the most important component in directing these discussions, something that is often over-looked even when using clickers. So be sure to match pedagogy with the technology, the technology does not substitute for the pedagogy.

Some clicker systems do have the ability to enter text information but most are simple keypads that offer the student a choice of A, B, C, or D for multiple-choice style questions. When used in this synchronous mode all students are doing the same thing at the same time. Some clicker manufacturers offer a clicker unit that allows the student to take the clicker home and enter their choices for homework assignments but most are designed to be used in real-time. Many clicker systems also allow you the ability to give a quiz and have it automatically graded. If the teacher chooses to tie a clicker identification number to a particular student this could be used for attendance tracking as well as automatically grading quizzes.

So let’s take a look at how Google Forms can help a teacher with similar needs for gathering information from students. I have used Google Forms in a synchronous mode but I admit that I have had the luxury of teaching in a computer lab that has Internet access and this has worked well for me so far. You could also use a laptop from a wireless mobile computer cart if your school is lucky enough to have access to one that can be checked out like the ITC has available here at EIU.

I have also used Google Forms asynchronously with great success. Instead of having students all respond to the same question at the same time why not assign a homework assignment and have students complete a Google Form on their own time? This stretches the walls of the classroom and the teacher still has the benefit of collecting the data and having it automatically entered into a spreadsheet through Google Forms for later analysis. This asynchronous ability is a major benefit over most of the products from many clicker manufacturers today.

Here are two other advantages that I have found with Google Forms as a clicker substitute so far. First, currently the people you are sending the form to do not have to have a gmail account to participate. I can email my students, many of which do not have gmail accounts, using their existing EIU email accounts so they can participate, all I do is share the URL for the appropriate Google Form in the email I send them. Secondly, Google Forms supports text fields so this frees you to collect information beyond the standard A, B, C, and D multiple-choice type questions that most clicker systems use. Once the person you sent the form to answers all the questions and presses the Submit button their information is automatically entered into a Google spreadsheet with all the information along with a date and timestamp entry. Google Forms make it easy to create multiple-choice questions by using a pull-down menu system so you can have the best of both worlds, oh and did I mention all of this is free from Google Forms!

For the audience participation part of this show I have provided an embedded Google Form in this episodes show notes, episode 56, so you can see an example Google Form in action. Please feel free to answer the questions to the TechTalk4Teachers Poll. Note that this will most likely be temporary and will probably be deactivated in the future so give it a try now. This example gives you multiple-choice, pull-down menus, and a free text box for entering data. You will not see the data as this embedded form is just for data collection, but if the creator of the Google Form chooses to they can share the completed spreadsheet with others once “voting” is over. Actually if you share the spreadsheet data you can do so in real-time and others can see up-to-the-minute results as people complete the form. So sharing the results is possible but this is a choice for the creator of the form.

In addition to Google Forms there are other choices that can be substituted for traditional clicker systems. Poll Everywhere is a Web 2.0 service that can take advantage of the texting capabilities of cell phones. Checkout the Technology Pick of the Week for episode 44 of TechTalk4Teachers if you are interested in using your cell phones texting capability as a substitute for clickers. A link is in the show notes for more info about Polleverywhere.

Poll Everywhere

The only caveat, as with all Web 2.0 tools, is that you follow the Terms of Service and administrative policies and rules for your organization when using these types of technologies. Sometimes Web 2.0 services may be blocked at school and you will need administrative approval and possibly help from your technology department to implement once approved.

Tom’s Technology Pick of the Week

For my Technology Pick of the Week this week I have selected the Common Craft Plain English series of videos as my Technology Pick of the week. I have used selected videos in the past in the TechTalk4Teachers blog and Lee and Sachi LeFever do a great job in explaining complicated technology concepts in a clear and concise way using their own easily identifiable presentation style. A link is provided in the show notes to the Common Craft website as this weeks Technology Pick of the Week.

Common Craft Videos

I have also provided an embedded video of Twitter in Plain English in the TechTalk4Teachers blog if you would like to get an overview of Twitter. Since I have mentioned Twitter several times in recent episodes be sure to check it out and see what all the hype is about. If you so choose to create a Twitter account be sure to follow me at

As a bonus Technology Pick of the Week I would like to mention a brand new product now in beta testing. Google released a beta version of a new tool this week that is related to our clicker topic today and offers another method for teachers and others needing a way for people to “vote” on a question. This may have more administrative applications right now but I also foresee educational uses. The name of the application is called Google Moderator and a link is provided in the show notes.

Google Moderator Beta

Google Blog article on Moderator

I have just begun to explore this tool and the one thing I do not like so far is that it appears that you must have a Google account to use this tool. This is not a problem if everyone in your organization has a Google account but most do not. Beyond that restriction Google Moderator looks like it will be a hit for users wanting a quick way to tally votes on a question accessible from anywhere in the world.

That wraps it up for episode 56 of TechTalk4Teachers. Show notes for this episode and archived episodes are available on the web at the EIU Instructional Technology Center website at just click on the Techtalk4Teachers Podcast link. To leave a comment or suggestion please send an email to or leave a comment on the TechTalk4Teachers blog. Until next time, this is Tom Grissom, keep on learning.

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