OK, it's not a cure, but this slick web application is one way to get students engaged and using their laptops, handhelds, and cell phones in class for something other than updating their Facebook status during a lecture. After I blogged this morning about the "laptop wall" often encountered in universities, @efeldhusen sent me a link via Twitter to Poll Everywhere; it isn't perfect, but it's well worth a look (and certainly gives a hint of where we might be heading with interactive communication tools).
Poll Everywhere is a service that lets you create polls (no surprise there); collect responses via text message, the web, or Twitter; and display the results in real time on the web or in a downloadable PowerPoint slide show. The poll can be embedded in a web page (forgive the content of this poll; it was just a quick test to see how Poll Everywhere worked):
Similarly, the results can be embedded in a web page:
Imagine making a quick website to accompany a lecture with a series of questions to gauge understanding and ensure that students are paying attention? Students could access it on their laptops and it could also be projected during class. It's cheaper, more scalable, and more versatile than interactive response systems since instructors can easily set up polls outside of class as well.
Speaking of cheap, it's really cheap. Basic plans for K-12 and higher education are free. These allow individual teachers to create unlimited numbers of polls; they are limited to 32 responses, though, and don't have much in the way of reporting (e.g., capturing respondent names or moderating comments). These free accounts also don't have access to tech support.
Several other plans are available and are compared here; the takehome is that entire institutions can buy into this service, allowing it to be used by all teachers in a district or by all professors at a university.
I'm convinced that those laptops can be turned into learning tools; this just might be a start.