One of the best ways to check student understanding of your topic is using some type of interactive knowledge check.  In the past this was done using specialized “clicker”* technology, which required dedicated hardware, cost money and had to be set up in advance.  As a result, I’ve never done it.

For this semester, however, I’ve come across not one but TWO different ways to do this without dedicated hardware.

Poll Everywhere: You create the poll and students can text, twitter and web.  You can then display the real-time results in your powerpoint presentation.  Questions can be either multiple choice or open text entry.  The product is simple to use, easy to set up, and has a free version for educators with class-sizes up to 32 students.

There are a number of options that can be set up for a question, including things like how many times a given device can answer the poll and which of the response channels can be used.  You also can moderate the text for open-answer questions in order to make sure that they are relevant.

This company is more established and the web-site more polished.  They already have a pricing model and have been used for some exceptionally large projects, so the system is likely to be dependable.  However I see a couple of problems.

First, texts can cost students money and telling them to get out their phone and send me a text means their phones are out and they could spend the rest of class texting everyone else.  I could work around this by having them use the web interface instead and NOT use the text interface.

Second, to really get the power of this one you need to add the poll to your slides, which means you need to know exactly when and where the question will be in the presentation.  That will require some thought and planning on my part.

Having said that, poll everywhere is flexible about a number of things.  A simple example is multiple choice questions – the instructor can specify the number of response categories to be used (starting with as few as 2) making the process look sleeker.  Also, by putting the question and answer choices on the screen it is much easier to follow what was going on if you review the polls later.

Socrative:  Socrative is a newer product (still in Alpha according to their site).  It has a couple more options for the type of question you ask as well as a couple of pre-defined quizzes (such as the exit ticket that asks students what they learned today and what they need to learn next time).  Students enter their results through a web page and the results are displayed to the teacher’s web page.

You could debate whether this is a good or bad thing, but with socrative the teacher just chooses the TYPE of question and asks the question verbally.  The students then answer using either the web or their mobile device.  That allows for a more ad-hoc style of interaction with the students.

There is also a 2nd layer of voting available for short answer questions.  If you ask students a short answer question (which, in the case of my stats class, would be the answer to a problem), you can then ask the class to VOTE on the answers received as opposed to just displaying them.  This, to me, has potential for helping students learn by forcing discussions of what went wrong.

Having said that, socrative lacks a number of features present in poll everywhere.  If you create a multiple choice item, for example, it has 5 answers *period*, and you have to give them to the students verbally.  There aren’t any customization options right now.

You also have to go to the web site to display the results.  That can mean switching out of your presentation to a browser and then back again.

One of the interesting differences between the two products is that socrative is being developed by educators, while poll everywhere is really driven by a polling model.  That doesn’t mean it won’t work for education, but that isn’t their only or even primary audience.  That will impact the direction they take their development.

UPDATE: Both companies have educators at their core and in the highest levels of management.  Poll Everywhere has done a good job of spreading their technology into other audience response situations, but per their representative in the comments they are still devoted to their educational users.

The good news is that, at the scale I am currently at, both are free.  I plan to test both this semester and try to figure out which is likely to work better for my students.

Regardless, either one offers a way for students who are either intimidated speaking up or who are afraid of embarrassing themselves by getting the answer wrong to participate, and for me to get a feel for how well the students are understanding the material.  This is useful.

* I always giggle a little at the idea of using clickers with students, since in my mind a clicker is what you use to train your dog.  While there are some similarities, they aren’t nearly as strong as you might think.