Excellent Idea of the Day: Cheap Classroom Polls

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Students in India use qCards with their individual IDs on the front. The card’s orientation indicates their answer to a multiple-choice question.
Microsoft Research India

How many students actually understand what the teacher is explaining? Instead of the dreaded show of hands or expensive classroom clickers, teachers could get an instant read with a new low-cost polling technique being developed in India.

The system, which was created by Andrew Cross, Ed Cutrell and Bill Thies at Microsoft Research India, got its start when the group began working with a nonprofit specializing in distance education where urban teachers give lectures to remote classrooms via webcam.

"Some of these classrooms in India are 50, 60 students," Thies said. "It's hard to feel the temperature of the class, whether kids are following along."

So they came up with a system around simple black-and-white printouts called “qCards,” which have unique student IDs resembling quick response codes on the front. On the back, each side is labeled with a tiny A, B, C and D. When the teacher asks a multiple-choice question, each student holds up a card with the answer oriented to the top. The answer orientations are randomized on the qCards so students’ responses remain hidden from classmates.

A webcam connected to a computer reads all the cards and then special software pulls up all the responses. Trials in Bangalore with classes of 25 schoolchildren showed results within 10 seconds and demonstrated 99.8 percent recognition accuracy; one mistake came from a student who switched answers after raising the qCard.

Although it’s being tested in India, the system could also be used in cash-strapped American schools. Thies compared the setup to classroom clickers, which cost $30 per handset, plus a fixed receiver. That’s about $1,000 for one class. The qCards, however, work with a $60 webcam and standard paper.

The researchers recently demonstrated their system for 250 attendees at the Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology in Cambridge, Mass. During the demo, the researchers did a live poll about the direction the conference should take. Within seconds, a graph of results appeared on the projector, Thies said.

"The chairs of the conference requested our results so they could take it to a board meeting," he said.