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The end of the road for e-voting handsets … or is it? A look at Top Hat Monocle #edtech #uoltech

April 20, 2012

Well, if you listen to some of the new companies on the market, you would be excused for thinking that that’s pretty much it for all clickers out there. Long gone are the days when it was acceptable to think that e-voting handsets (aka “clickers”) could be used successfully to create opportunities for interaction, discussion, and deeper learning in a classroom. Now if you’re not in the Cloud, there may be something wrong with you 😉

Picture of a tombstone with a clicker on it

These days it’s all about the learners’ personal handsets (I guess nothing beats them for personalised learning, right)? Well, although I am also looking for ways to have the fewest possible numbers of things to carry around, I take great (perhaps too much so) pleasure in looking at the new companies’ arguments.

After a (brilliant, I must say) webinar from one of the newest companies offering web-based alternatives to clickers [Top Hat Monocle – who, in my personal experience, are one of the most active (read “pushiest”) companies out there], a friend prompted me to compare what I’ve seen with my experience with clickers (we mainly use the eInstruction clickers at Leeds in the UK), as well as other web-based systems (last year I took an interested look at PollEverywhere and then spoke about it at ALT-C 2011), or alternatives such as Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro (which is not strictly an e-voting tool – it’s rather a very capable online coferencing tool with MCQ (multiple choice questions) and MRQ (multiple response questions) functionality).

In short: why should you throw away your clickers (some say)?

  • they’re expensive (from about £25, but prices do vary depending on how capable the clickers are and how badly a company wants to get you, so definitely shop around and look to buy in the quiet periods – March/April; definitely not August-October)
  • they’re heavy and breakable
  • the batteries run out when you least expect it
  • students prefer to use their phones
  • students would more likely cheat passing clickers around than give their phones to their friends
  • the software running behind the clickers is not very capable of tracking student performance

So why should you look towards web-based alternatives?

  • because they’re perfect in every single way 🙂

Seriously now, let me try and put together some sort of comparison. I’ll list seven categories below and what I think of each one of the tools I have seen.

Overall ease of use

I would say that traditional clickers win this category – in particular eInstruction, whose software has a PowerPoint add-in which turns a slide with text/images/whatever into an interactive question in just a couple of clicks.

Other clicker tools, such as TurningPoint and Quizdom have separate applications or rather cumbersome add-ins which create new slides for your questions. What that means effectively is that, if you deliver your PowerPoint deck somewhere else where they don’t have the voting software installed, unless you hide that question slide, your presentation will suffer from the rather ugly inactive ‘interactive’ slides. What you get with eInstruction if you use their Response software is a little green “i” icon at the bottom left of your slide – won’t bother many people.

Next in line I would put PollEverywhere because its limited question types [MCQ, Open-ended questions, or (pledge-to-help-me) Goal questions] are easy to author and equally easy to embed into websites, PowerPoint, Keynote, or Prezi shows – yep, you heard that right; pretty cool.

Following that, and because, on the one hand, you’d need to spend a little bit of time getting your head around the online conferencing functionalities, and on the other hand, the fact that not all PPT 2010 objects are well-supported (but there are ways around it, of course) I would put Adobe Connect. It only supports MCQ and MRQ through its Poll functionality, and the other features it comes with are excellent for face-to-face and remote interaction.

Finally, Top Hat Monocle is a capable tool with lots of functionalities. Unfortunately, the PowerPoint integration is not amazing (although I do like their widget that floats and can capture whatever you have on your screen and turn it into an interactive question, with the possibility of retrospectively setting what the correct answer should have been to a question you’ve just created on the fly). Top Hat is for me a dual-screen solution: you can have so much information coming in from your students through it (responses to questions, how they’re feeling about the pace of your delivery, full-text answers to questions; new questions) that you either need a wingperson to keep an eye on that data while you’re lecturing and give you signals in appropriate places (yep, I know, how feasible is that?), or you need to have the mother of distributive attentions… (I know I don’t, but it’s a skill I guess…). For me Top Hat is a powerful revision tool both for lecturers (how did I and my students do in the session?) and students, but not a very polished face-to-face interactive tool yet.

Data protection

Now that’s a tricky one… or not, depending on how much you care about such policies (I really hope you do if you’re an educator … I’ll share my view on this in a future post in the near future).

With web-based services such as Top Hat Monocle or Poll Everywhere, your students’ data is on the companies’ servers. I may be a bit paranoid, but knowing that the mobile phone numbers of 30,000 students are going to be on a third-party server (some of them are not even within the EU) together with their names, e-mail addresses and other personal details concerns me a lot. So basically, you have to trade that for pretty impressive functionality if you want (if you really, really want 🙂 ).

Having said that, the pricing model of Poll Everywhere is different, allowing you to pay for a number of anonymous users and get on using it, while Top Hat want your students to create accounts before they can access the service.

Working with clickers is tons safer, as all the data lives on the machine / network you are using, and because students use separate devices to interact, there is little personal data to be stored and potentially lost. However, in the case of using clickers for attendance monitoring or some more meaningful data monitoring, you will (at the very least) need to link clicker IDs to students IDs, so you’ll need to safeguard that.

The same applies to Adobe Connect. You can run a truly anonymous sessions where everyone who has the web address of your room can just join, or you could integrate it with your VLE/LMS, students’ accounts would be copied across and, through wizardry of your own (as Adobe don’t support any VLE/LMS integration yet), you could gather and display meaningful data on your students.

So I’d say clickers win this one again despite the significant manual work involved in linking clickers to student IDs, with Adobe Connect a very close second.

Statistics tracking

… which leads us nicely to this category. Right off the bat, from what I’ve seen so far, Top Hat Monocle was excellent! A mini-VLE or mini-LMS if you like, with opportunities for students to go back over interactive sessions, see how they’ve done, what the correct answers were, what questions they could work on in their own time (and even upload homework files). Although I’ve seen Poll Everywhere capable of pretty impressive statistics tracking and report generation, I would have to say that Top Hat was top drawer in this category.

In the case of clickers, while you can export session raw data, you’d have to have some clever folks around to create ways of visualising that in similar ways (some universities in the UK have gone down that route of writing their own code to interpret raw e-voting data and it’s working well, but it’s not quite like the out-of-the-box Top Hat extravaganza).

Finally, a similar principle could apply to Adobe Connect: the raw data is there, but you need some magic to tame the API into showing you only what you need. Not impossible by any means and there are already companies that will be very happy to take your money and help you out 🙂


I would personally give this category to Adobe Connect and also to my recollection of the eInstruction e-clicker. The reason for bringing Adobe Connect in is that you can display both questions and results on tablets and mobiles. You can also zoom into slides displayed, but you cannot zoom into the question text and results.

I remember (and will have confirmation soon, so there will be another post coming) that you could do the same with the eInstruction clicker, with the added benefit of being able to zoom into questions if they were delivered through the Response software rather than through PowerPoint.

With normal clickers, you need to have reasonably strong fingers to press the buttons (have only had one or two complaints so far regarding the small size and difficulty to press the eInstruction clicker buttons, but they’re worth knowing about). Moreover, I wouldn’t consider the LCD screens some of them come with anything worth writing home about… but that’s just me…

With Poll Everywhere, unless you are using the web interface to vote, which, just like Top Hat Monocle, can’t be pinched and zoomed into, you rely on how accessible your phone is to text or tweet the correct answer. The results can be viewed from another web link which actually looks ok on a tablet but, again, can’t be pinched and zoomed into.

Flexibility and reliability

Well, there’s not a lot to say here: you use the clickers and the results appear in a graph pretty much instantly and reliably if you are using radio-frequency clickers and a bit less reliably if you are using infrared clickers. The e-voting software is a lot more reliable these days, although you may want to watch out for reported conflicts between SMART Podiums (who also have their own e-voting clickers to sell) and certain versions of other e-voting software (such as Response 6.7) which can’t make its way to the comms ports because SMART is hogging them (this is supposed to be fixed in a new release of SMART firmware if it hasn’t already happened… I’m under the impression it hasn’t).

Regarding  Adobe Connect, provided your WiFi doesn’t crash an die, voting is a doddle.

Web-based services like Top Hat Monocle and Poll Everywhere are generally impressively fast, but can also suffer glitches, as you’re texting or Tweeting specific numbers / users, the SMS is processed by an SMS gateway, and then that is interpreted and sent back over the web to your graph. Most of the time it works fine, but expect to have the odd surprise when the Internet decides to pull over for a coffee, and have a plan B with something interesting to do while you’re waiting for the graph to become animated by your students’ votes.

Additional Features

I know e-voting is meant to be just that, but more and more solutions allow you to do other things, too. In terms of interaction, Top Hat Monocle would come top with their homework, file upload, and revision functionalities among other things. Student progress tracking functionalities also looked interesting. Top Hat also had the most question types.

The latest clickers also come with homework mode, which could come in handy if your students didn’t have access to computers and the Internet outside your institution. In terms of question types, you’ll have to check what each clicker model can handle as we’ve often found some could only handle MCQ / Survey and True/False, and couldn’t do Numeric/Order/Short answer.

Poll Everywhere was a nice surprise in that it was the first (to my knowledge) solution to allow web, SMS and Twitter voting at the same time. Good reporting functionalities, but shame about only offering three question types.

Adobe Connect, with its native online conferencing functionalities, is still very close to my heart, though: having one environment where you can record a session, with live Q&A through chat, mobile and tablet apps, screen sharing, webcam and audio, polls and whiteboards is quite a cool thing from my point of view.

What’s the slickest option? (yes, I know – how vain can I be?)

I would say that Adobe Connect is the slickest thing among the four. Its mobile apps look great and do an adequate job (more functionality for the presenter and SWF support would be highly appreciated, but that’s another story). It has potential for both anonymous and named voting, and it has lots more interactive features that don’t overwhelm you too much.

Image of Adobe Connect on a tablet

Poll Everywhere is also very shiny and the possibility for synchronous Twitter, SMS, and web input – not to mention the Prezi integration – are brill. Again, shame about there are only three (out of which two actually usable in day-to-day education) question types available.

Clickers can be fashionable (like the TurningPoint design), or rather more bulky (like most of the others), but with e-voting apps also available, the experience can be as slick as your phone.

Top Hat Monocle is a very competent beast with lots of very cool features, but at the moment there’s something that stops me from recommending it as the tidiest of beasts. You will surely recognise lots of options when you start working with it, as well as spot a few original ones, but I’d personally say it’s quite a lot to get to grips with if you’re still weary about bringing technology into your sessions.

Customer Service

Top Hat Monocle pride themselves with 20-minute response times to customer queries. The bloke who did the webinar for us got up at 4am US to be able to talk to us in the soft light of the UK morning, and did so very knowledgeably, so I’d take my top hat off for that.

Adobe, on the other hand, are a bit more difficult to get answers from, although it all depends on the relationships you’re building. On Twitter, they are lively. There is also an Adobe Connect LinkedIn community which is brilliant, and they have also fairly recently set up a UK education team, so things are looking up.

However, we have also developed a really good relationship with the UK suppliers of our clickers, Banxia, who have often gone out of their way (including writing original code for us) to help us out if we were having problems.

Finally, PollEverywhere also seem to be a lovely, helpful, responsive and, what’s very valuable for me, non-pushy company with a good product. Worth keeping an eye on them just in case you need to go somewhere and can’t carry a bunch of clickers with you.


After spending some time in the industry, this is what one of my friends starts with. I sometimes do that, too, but I have also learnt that there is no such thing as a free lunch. You will have to trade off some functionality / maybe sell your soul in the process. You’ll also need to look at how user-friendly and intuitive the chosen solution is: getting kit at half the price of something else, but needing support for every single person using it because of poor solution design is one of the biggest false economies you can make.

From what I know, clickers start at around £25 and can go up quite a bit. The software tends to be free, and the only other things you’ll need are the receiver, batteries and carry cases. The e-voting apps, much more convenient, are not much cheaper at the moment, unless your institution enters some kind of site-wide license agreement, which is when you can start negotiating significantly. Some institutions (Huddersfield in the UK among them if I’m not mistaken) have staff working on free e-voting apps – worth keeping an eye on conferences such as ALT-C if you’re in the UK, where one tends to see such things; if you live elsewhere, there are some mouth-watering e-learning and mobile learning conferences out there… don’t get me started, but do share what you find 😉

Top Hat Monocle is priced per student, at $20/semester or $30/5 years. Naturally, the more students you have, the lower the price. They encourage students to sign up rather than the institution signing up on behalf of the students.

Poll Everywhere has the opposite approach: a lecturer signs up and chooses to pay for a number of concurrent participants in his/her interactive sessions. It is free for up to 40 participants if you want to test-drive the system, then it’s a yearly charge which, if memory serves me right, starts at $750/200 or 250 students voting at the same time on individual polls (it doesn’t matter which students, they don’t have to be the same ones, and you can create an unlimited number of questions). Anyway, get in touch with them, and they’ll also be able to talk to you about the discounts you get if you sign up for several years.

What would I go for?

A bit of a tough question and I’ll definitely keep an aye on them all and others in order to be able to recommend the appropriate tool when working with my colleagues in the different faculties and services.

Right now, however, I’d like to revisit the e-voting apps that the clicker companies have produced, and I’d also like to get my hands on the Adobe Connect development roadmap to see what else can be expected soon.

All are possible contenders, but at the end of the day, for reasons listed above and others which I’ve kept to myself (curious? watch this space), I’d say we’ll still see clickers around us for some time yet.

What’s your view on this, though? Have you gone down a different road and never looked back? That’s what the Comments box below is for if you could spare a few minutes. Thanks! 🙂

  1. Thanks for summarising all of the pros and cons. We have just invested in a set of handsets for all in-coming first years in September. The data protection issues for Top Hat Monocle are my biggest concern if students have to create an account to participate in lectures using their app. The clicker apps look the best option because students can choose to use their phone and create an account, or use a handset.

    • That’s what I was thinking, too, Helen. Top Hat is an interesting product, but for institutions that have already got a large amount of kit, there are ways to get some of the functionality that web-based systems pride themselves with through other methods. Introducing a completely new system will not only carry the cost of the new kit/subscriptions, but also of scrapping old kit, re-training users, implementing new workflows… At the end of the day, the biggest problems may not necessarily be related to missing functionality, but to getting all staff on board with the advantages of running interactive sessions (and considering the ridiculous amount of stuff lecturers and researchers need to do nowadays in addition to teaching and inspiring their students, let’s just say that I sometimes sympathise with the more … cautious ones ;)).

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