Clicking into Place
The idea for this common classroom tool arose from a University of Arkansas professor’s quest to increase student engagement
Most college students have used a “clicker” in class to register attendance and respond to questions. These small devices transmit signals directly to a professor’s digital gradebook, making it much easier to track attendance and gauge student participation. Clicker technology has transformed teaching and learning, especially in large lecture classes where students could easily fall through the cracks without the accountability this tool provides. And it was invented right here at the University of Arkansas, almost twenty years ago.
In the late 90’s, physics professor Paul Thibado was looking for a better way reach his students. He was teaching a physics class of more than 200 undergraduates in a large lecture hall. “Attendance was poor and very few students were passing exams,” he said. “I needed a way to encourage students to attend, stay current on the material and remain engaged during class.”
Thibado found a device similar to a TV remote control which could transmit information over infrared signals, associate clicks with unique ID’s, and display responses in the classroom.
Thibado and Vince LaBella, his post-doctoral researcher at the time, improved on this technology, creating their own device and writing sophisticated software code that could collect, encrypt, store, and grade radio frequency signals. The researchers used the technology in Thibado’s large lecture class, and found that the use of his system improved attendance by 130 percent, class participation by 1,700 percent, homework completion by 650 percent, and average grades by 70 percent. They published their findings in the journal Physics Teacher.
The first and second generation of the H-ITT clickers.
John Stokes, director of research and sponsored programs at the time, encouraged them to form a company. With family members as investors, Thibado and LaBella founded a company, Hyper-Interactive Teaching Technology, or H-ITT, to produce the clickers, receivers, and software. As university faculty and staff learned of the clicker’s success, Thibado was invited to demonstrate its use at many institutions. Initial skepticism became enthusiasm as teachers realized the clickers’ potential for greatly increasing student engagement and accountability in a cost-effective manner.
Thibado and LaBella hold two patents on the software for the devices, and Thibado has two additional patents on designs for the clickers and receivers. Ultimately, the technology was licensed by a company in Florida, which continues to produce and sell the systems. To date, over a million H-ITT clickers have been sold and are in use at hundreds of universities across the globe. Thibado cites the entrepreneurial spirit encouraged and celebrated at the University of Arkansas as the reason this groundbreaking technology started here.
Thibado says he finds it very satisfying to see clickers (those manufactured by H-ITT and numerous competing companies) routinely required by large lecture courses here on campus, in the US, and worldwide. He also notes that while clickers improve student learning, instructors benefit as well, with insight gained through real-time student feedback allowing them to teach more effectively.