Students use iPods, iPhones to grade Obama’s address

Abilene Christian students answered about 50 questions on their iPhones and iPods during President Obama's address.
Abilene Christian students answered 50 questions on their iPhones and iPods during Obama's address.

It’s the stuff that makes political pollsters salivate: 30 Abilene Christian University students used iPhones and iPod Touches to respond to President Obama’s Jan. 27 State of the Union address in real time, and a campus technology official said the exercise offered insight into boosting student participation in class.

Abilene Christian was among the country’s first campuses to bring iPhones to students when the school gave the devices to incoming freshmen last school year. Freshmen and sophomores now have university-issued iPhones or iPod Touches, and professors from the political science and journalism programs assembled 30 students to gauge reaction during Obama’s first State of the Union speech.

“It was a helpful exercise because … we were able to see if an interactive environment helped students engage in politics differently,” said Dennis Marquardt, Abilene Christian’s educational technology manager, who helped oversee the project. “It helped us understand where students were coming from a little bit more.”

The students responded to questions posed every few minutes using ResponseWare software, made by Turning Technologies. College faculty typically use ResponseWare to have students answer summary questions during a lecture, showing professors what concepts students understand and which topics need to be reviewed before the next quiz or exam.

The anonymous student responses encouraged nearly complete participation throughout the barrage of questions posed to students on their Apple devices, Marquardt said. As faculty who teach online classes have reported, student participation is consistently higher in a virtual environment than it is in pressure-packed face-to-face classrooms.

“It gave us an indication that a lot of students don’t want to get into the debate, but they want people to know how they feel about a certain subject,” Marquardt said, adding that participation “exceeded” university officials’ expectations: “There’s definitely an element of conflict in there.”

David Pillen, a sophomore electronic media major who participated in the State of the Union ResponseWare project, said students’ familiarity with the iPhone and iPod Touch made “the communication process easier” when responding to questions during last Wednesday’s address to a joint session of Congress.

When the university first issued the devices, Marquardt said, students who had trouble using the iPod and iPhone to answer in-class questions usually sought help from students who owned the products. Within a few minutes, he said, most students got the hang of it.

“There was very little training,” he said. “Students get this stuff. It’s very intuitive to them.”

Some of the questions that appeared on students’ iPhones early in Obama’s speech were, “Are you interested in what the president has to say?” Eighty-five percent answered “yes.”