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April 20, 2017

Go back to the chalkboard

My first semester at the University of Massachusetts introduced me to the Interwrite Personal Response System, or PRS, for Chemistry 111. The PRS system has been adopted by 32 other courses. In these classes, students are required to buy the individual remote, which costs $39 used and $52 new from the the Textbook Annex.

The system is supposed to work like this: professor turns on the receiver, students join the system via the remote, the professor posts a question, and students punch in their answers. Of course, only on a good day does this actually happen.

Most days it wasn’t that simple, and it became a frenzy of button mashing and fiddling with the receiver. Some days it could be fixed, and other days my professor would say screw it and continue the lecture without it. Students had difficulty entering into the system a lot of the time.

At first, I assumed this was just working out bugs to a new system. But this year, I have two classes involving PRS, and the bugs still haven’t been worked out. In fact, last week, the system did not work at all for my chemistry class, and in biology it took more than a few minutes until the system was up and running properly.

So, does this spending of extra money and effort mean enhanced learning? The PRS is supposed to let professors see if their lecture has “stuck” with students, and if not, adjust accordingly. It also stimulates classroom participation, but listening and interacting is still in the hands of the students. With the introduction of PRS, the focus is shifted from actually understanding the material to making sure you get an answer into the system to get credit for the day.

I see how the PRS is effective in bringing people to class, but having to sit through an entire lecture just to press a button is a bit ridiculous. The PRS does not enhance my ability in the classroom, it just makes me resent having to lug around another piece of technology while wasting time to get it to work when the professors should just be teaching. I have a hard enough time getting my lazy self to go to class. I don’t need to have to remember to bring this random clicker.

Luckily, most professors drop about 10 PRS grades over the span of the entire semester. This amounts to a lot after one takes into account how many times the system collapses on itself and forces professors to give out free points.  Professors also find other ways to counteract the failings of PRS. In my biology class, the professor gave a survey for extra PRS points, and I expect other professors do the same. Professors try to accommodate with the faulty system, but it doesn’t always work.

“I use the PRS in my biology class. I feel pressure to get in my answers, and it concerns me if the system does not work,” said Khoa Chu, freshman biology major, “I definitely feel that instructors would do better if they were more familiar with the system.”

Professors, to their credit, are trying to become more familiar with the system. On the UMass website there is a PRS web page available for instructors and students to gain a better understanding of the system. The site even includes a blog about how to better use the PRS.

However, delving deeper into the blog, one quickly realizes that the PRS system isn’t “simple” as the aforementioned web page suggests.

Fred Zinn, Sr., designer of instructional technology at the Office of Informational Technology at UMass, described possible reasons behind trouble with PRS reception in series of blogs. Although very helpful, the blogs suggest that incorporating PRS into a course is a huge burden.

According to Zinn’s blogs, PRS could be adversely affected by its receivers being too close to laptops, low batteries in the remotes of the students, and more than 200 students using the same reciever. The blogs also report faculty losing data by minor mistakes when using the system.

The web page suggests that instructors having difficulty should set up a one-on-one consultation with the Instructional Media Lab. Professors already have enough on their hands, it isn’t necessary to bog them down with even more.

As class sizes continually get larger, devices like the PRS will become more prevalent, even though this contributes to their failures. The only method of teaching proven to be glitch-free is writing notes on the board and taking notes with a pen and paper, and that is what we should be doing.  

Bobby Hitt is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at rhitt@student.umass.edu.

Comments
4 Responses to “Go back to the chalkboard”
  1. ed says:

    Heaven forbid we let students answer PRS queries from their laptops…

    We would have to consider students to be human beings and we can’t do that!!!

  2. t says:

    It is funny that your article is called go back to the chalkboard when I’m assuming most profs are using PowerPoint in addition to PRS…

  3. Seems like the real people benefiting from the PRS units are whoever is getting that $32-$59 every semester from every student.

  4. gwen says:

    The only method of transportation proven to be glitch-free is walking, and that is what we should be doing.

    The only method of communication proven to be glitch-free is talking, and that is what we should be doing.

    Your conclusion is underwhelming.

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