Review: Polls by Blackboard (beta)

Blackboard have been showing off their new Polls by Blackboard service, which is available as a publicly usable beta.

Billed as an alternative to a dedicated hardware audience response/clicker system, it uses participants’ own tablets and mobile devices (either via a browser or a dedicated app) to allow them to take part in votes as part of face to face teaching sessions in a similar way to services like Socrative, Poll Everywhere and Responseware.

Leaving aside the awkward question of whether it’s appropriate to require students to bring their own devices to take part in lectures given the current tuition fees regime, and the regularly rehearsed argument from certain lecturers that if students have their phone in their hands they’ll be tempted to mess about on Facebook rather than listen to the lecture, Polls by Blackboard doesn’t seem to be the way forward.

The first issue is that a pie chart showing other participants’ answers is displayed, updating in real time, after participants vote.  Students are likely to see this on other students’ devices (particularly in a tiered lecture theatre) and could be influenced in how they vote.  This negates a major point of voting systems in giving less confident students a voice, as it gives the ability to just vote with the majority.  It would be an easy improvement to only show the result after voting has been closed.  It’s also unsuitable for Peer Instruction because students can see the results of the individual first vote before they turn to their neighbour for a group discussion.

The second issue was neatly demonstrated at Blackboard’s Education on Tour event in Salford yesterday, when the Wifi network appeared to be unable to handle the number of simultaneous users in the same room.  This issue would defeat all internet based voting systems rather than being specific to Polls by Blackboard, but I have to wonder whether each device regularly refreshing the latest aggregate scores from the server led to a performance hit overall.

The third issue is that the instructor needs to authenticate using a Facebook account (which requests access to your friends list – apparently because that’s required by the Facebook API) which will be  a dealbreaker for many colleagues.  The same can be said of the fact that polls can’t be embedded inside a PowerPoint presentation, necessitating an alt-tab to switch to a browser.

All in all, I’m a bit underwhelmed.  I know it’s a beta, but all of these issues seem to me to be fundamental limitations of a design which doesn’t really fit with the way that educators use response systems in practice.  It’s going to take a lot more than this to tempt me away from dedicated clickers.

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Filed under reviews, Voting Systems

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