Plicker the Punk Rock Clicker : Quant into Qualt won’t go?

Yesterday was the last seminar of this year’s Post-Punk Britain course that I teach with Chris Warne in the third year of our History degree. It is a funny sort of course; it is not really about Punk, and quite a lot of people might think it is not really about History either.  It is about what we can do with punk.  We do some history of subcultures stuff, but really it is about thinking of punk as a methodology, as an ethos and as a form of dissidence or resistance.  In practice that means it’s an ongoing pedagogical experiment. Each of the three years we’ve run the course has been totally different. This is partly because the students collaboratively set the agenda and choose what directions they want to go. It is partly because we’ve been funded through Technology Enhanced Learning and Excellence in Teaching to run a set of student led projects;  DIY Digital and DIT Digital.  These projects are scavenger history.  Students create open access educational resources inspired by the course using apps, social networks, and websites that were often designed with other purposes in mind.  Like a DIY zine, it is a way of taking what we can find and making it our own.

When I attended Sussex’s Annual and Teaching conference I was introduced to the idea of using Plickers (paper clickers) in teaching I knew this was something we could play with.

Sussex TEL produced an easy one page guide to using Plicker and included it in their A_Z of apps .  In the spirit of the exercise I hadn’t practiced much before, just set up an account and downloaded the app and watched a couple of youtube films of people using it.  Each student has a different readable image on a piece of paper which they orientate to ‘vote’ on up to four answers.  The maximum available is 40, and students can be specifically allocated an image so you can track an individual’s answer or, as in PPB, you can just allocate them an identifier number. Then you literally scan the room like your students really are just a bar code unit.

We had already made paper zines with artist Rachael House which we had then digitally overlayed with feedback videos as augmented realities using Aurasma. The way that Plicker combined black and white bits of paper with an android phone scanner had a reverse resonance with our zine workshop and couldn’t have summed up our course better if it had been designed just for us.


Plicker is based on a voting system on ‘true and false’, or multiple choice questioning.  I’d just spent three years teaching these students that I wasn’t there to give them knowledge which they would then passively consume.  I was there to invite them into a historical conversation and provide them with the skills and intellectual framework to facilitate that knowledge.  History is not a narrative of what happened. So teaching is not checking that someone has that narrative in place. In short there are no right or wrong answers and I’m not interested in how many facts or dates historians know.  I am interested in what historians want to do with them.

There are lots of different types of digital response tools designed for teaching from hand held clickers to mobile phone or twitter based apps.  I’d experimented with them before, but never very successfully. I couldn’t find a way of using them that didn’t just reinforce the idea that I know all the stuff, and my job is to test whether students have learnt enough stuff yet. Furthermore, digital response systems were often aimed at big group or lecture activity.  They can provide a performance of interactivity that masks the absence of  analytical interaction.  Learning is more than responding to an impetus; it is about being in the conversation.  Learning is not just about responding to the stuff a lecturer tells you; it is about having the skills to set an agenda.

Furthermore, I’m wary of the use of digital teaching to replace face to face teaching, or scale up class sizes. In fact the motivation behind my experimentation with student led digital teaching is to challenge that agenda.  Digital teaching can extend and add to the teaching experience, rather than be used to deliver knowledge to ever increasing units of consumers.  That’s why being in the room matters so much.

The last seminar or two of any Special Subject course is spent thinking about conclusions, and for students more importantly thinking about exam revision for the unseen exam that makes up a considerable amount of their mark for the course.  (Their dissertation marks count as a separate course).  If there is ever a challenge to the idea that undergraduate teaching is not just about passing on a list of facts and quotes to students, it is the expectations and assumptions around unseen exams.  However hard we try, it is really hard to get across the idea that we do not have a perfect answer in mind when we set an exam question.  I’m working through the limits of punkademic research and punk pedagogy in the current league table neo-liberal university in a forthcoming article with Chris Warne.  After all it is all very well to be collaborative, scavenging student led punkademics, but in the end someone is going to mark that exam and someone is going to mark that dissertation against a set of marking criteria.

The tension between the quantifiable knowledge of the clicker system and the expectations around exam delivery were a match; rhetoric clashing with experienced reality,  form and content, production and content and reception, all rolled up in one.  So I did the punk rock thing.  I took Plicker, applied it to the concept of revising an approach rather than knowledge and handed it all over the PPB students.

What we did

Well obviously

do we want to

Then we used Plicker to set an agenda in terms of task and in terms of theme.


(Thanks to my history sister Hester Barron for sharing some of her revision activities with me)

We’d already decided on what priorities we had for the last seminar.  Four gaps were identified: Memory, Street Style, Queer History and Zines.  So students decided which of these they felt most confident to teach the rest of the group and fill in the gaps in the room.  (We merged Zines and Queer History)  The goal was to develop a learning activity on that theme, that met the priorities set and then work out if it could be delivered digitally.

fill the gaps

As well as prioritising the revision coverage they needed this task was also based on the principle that we learn by doing.  Teaching other people is the best way to learn.

The PPB students came up with three different uses for Plicker.

  • Street Style

The Street Style group used Plicker as a way to think about the structures needed to answer a question.  They invited the other students to identify concept, school of thought, case study and type of evidence.  It reminded me of the choose your adventure books with a predefined set of options, but a complexity of how they might each fit together.  Students could choose to work with the most popular selection for each question, or could pick and mix.


This group also used Plicker as part of their own decision making process when they couldn’t quite agree which way to go.

  • Queer History

The group working on queer history used Plicker to break down the subject and invite the other students to direct the structure of the exercise.  They worked as a group to reiterate the idea that there is no right answer. They identified the four dominant approaches in the literature on queer history.  Each individual team member proposed a potential answer and prepared a short presentation bringing together secondary literature and primary evidence based on areas they had covered in their coursework or in their dissertation.  The other students chose which approach they would develop in an exam answer.

queer history

Their use of Plicker set up the exercise to emphasise the feeling  of being in a conversation, with different schools of thought to lean on or push against in your own individual work.

  • Memory

The group working on memory used Plicker to challenge the division between different key concepts.  They used their Plicker question to talk through each concept and how they related to each other. In many ways their Plicker task acted as a summary or revision aid to a much more complex discussion.  It was a way of capturing their conversation.


Some practical thoughts

It would have helped if I had worked out how to have multiple editors before hand so students could add their questions to a shared library.  I should have thought about that because it was the biggest shared issue for both DIT and DIY digital.

It would also have been useful if I’d thought about the reports system a  bit more too.  I’m sure that there must be a way to use the reports section productively alongside the approach that the Street Style group took.  I’m imagining a way that the choices of concepts, literature, case study and evidence could then be transposed into some sort of essay structure.  But I’ll need to think about that more.

In terms of where I can see it being really useful is in the agenda setting and temperature testing activities. It can take a long time for a group of students to feel confident enough to say what it is that they want to do, and you can waste precious teaching time getting students into groups to work on different tasks, or prioritise what they want to do in the seminar.  Plickers cut down what can be a slow and frustrating part of the seminar to a couple of minutes.

Our concluding discussion

The resistance that students felt between the tool they were using, and the process they wanted to facilitate was the most illuminating part of the discussion for me. It helped students define their understanding of history against a form of absolute knowledge.  One of the group explained that for her ‘the nature of history is a discussion, and the whole point is that you don’t put your whole weight behind any one bit’.  Another explained that that didn’t mean that the exercise was irrelevant.  In fact “the disparity [between Plicker’s expectation and PPB’ agenda] says a lot”.

Students weren’t sure if Plicker was something that would work if we used it all the time.  It might feel pointless, or formulaic.  The seminar was, after all, the last one of the course and the playful nature of the app fitted well.  (A number of students had also had their third year presentations that morning and I had feeling some of them might have started celebrating a bit before the seminar).  Our seminar had  been about exploring the process of using something like Plicker.  Like my students, I’m not sure if it would work at that level if we used it regularly.

In terms of thinking about Plicker as a revision aid, it did work well to bridge the agendas in the room.  There was some familiar comfort to be found in the quantifiable parts of the task.  Whatever I say students do need to know some stuff.  They need to understand the field, understand their sources, and understand the context in which they were produced and received. They know that better than anyone and a collaborative teaching model has to take that seriously.  Reflecting on the relationship between knowledge and argument, one student summed up the value of Plicker as a revision tool.  Each part of a question or answer was a way of demonstrating, to herself, that she has got the knowledge she needs.  She has got some of the ‘little bits’ that make up the whole.  Then another one of the students said something that felt like a mike drop. “History is about compassion”.  And how do you measure compassion with a clicker, paper or not?  Thinking about these two last point together made me think.  Its all about the quant and qualt, the argument and the evidence. Response to student anxiety about exams should be met with compassion.  Sometimes we  just need to know that we know stuff.

And yes, there really is no wrong answer just badly delivered (or unfinished) ones.


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