The Offstage Technologist

If you are any good with technology you will certainly be asked at some point in your career to assist with a presentation problem. The speaker is having trouble getting his or her presentation to work. Maybe it is their first time using PowerPoint (yes there are those few out there)…. Maybe it is a need to switch between video and slides… Whatever it is, without your assistance, the show will not go on. So what can you do…

First, anticipate the need for your super hero skills. You see, Superman always wore his suit anticipating the need to save the world. So if you are attending a conference and you know the speaker, be ready to fly in and save the day. If you know the speaker is inexperienced, be ready to leap tall buildings.

Next, have a workable solution. For me, I love wireless. I have both a wireless keyboard and mouse for these types of situations. When I’m asked to assist, I “bring the rain”. I roll up with a wireless mouse and keyboard. If I anticipate a need, I just grab my wireless mouse from my computer bag.

Sitting a couple rows from the stage is normally safe but if needed I’ll work from behind the stage. Whatever it takes, I’ll be connected to step in and assist. So which is better… mouse or keyboard or both. That depends on what you plan to do for the speaker. If it is volume and jumping between screens, the keyboard with volume controls is best or a super mouse with shortcut buttons on the sides. If you are just moving slides or taking care of the occasional popup window, a mouse is fine. A mouse is also helpful if the screen saver keeps popping up. You can move the mouse and reset the timer without anyone knowing.

All in all this solution is great. I’ve used it for many years. I’ve made a lot of friends in high places with my magic super powers. Remember, it is only through anticipation of the need that you can solve people’s technology problems from a distance.

Participant Response Systems

I was recently asked about purchasing a participant response system to increase engagement with students during lectures and discussions. The client works in one of my facilities and was directed to me to assist… not for the educational technology part but the money part. I guess I’m the “show me the money” guy.

I took on the project with the following specs:

Client: Physician Educator

General DescriptionPurchase a PRS to use during student review and exam prep sessions.


End user: resident physicians who are tech savvy and all of which have smart phones.

Deadline: “ASAP”

A PRS is designed to give the facilitator immediate feedback from the learners. This can be as a survey or quiz questions and can be open ended so the participant can ask a detailed question of the speaker. Some systems will collect the participant’s identify and others will keep the responses anonymous. There are many different features available in some devices while others are a simple A-B-C and 1-2-3 response.

I’ve both used systems like this before and I’ve created my own solutions to collect feedback from students. A few years ago I employed (for free) QuizSocket with my 50 students in a university class. The system required me to log in, display the QR code and website for them to log in with their phones or computers and I displayed a slide show using PowerPoint. This was probably the easiest system to deploy. No cost, no add-ons, no special steps for PowerPoint. The downside was that the system did not display responses to the crowd. Often times that is desired. For me, I did not want to influence the response by letting the students see how others responded before they entered their own answer. The students loved the system. After the first day where I gave them instructions on how to log in, they were set. However… the system is no longer available and I have not been able to find another like it.

Another solution I used was my Google Voice number. I gave it to all of my students (this time about 30 in the class) and asked them to text me their answer. I displayed the question using PowerPoint and I reviewed the stream of responses on my second laptop or phone. It was pretty quick and I could go back to the person missing the questions or not responding if I wanted to. It was free as well but lacked the summary features of other solutions. I still use this from time to time, depending on the setting and need.

Most recently I started using PollEveryWhere. I really like it and will probably use it as my “go to system” for these types of requests, given time to make the need installation and PowerPoint adjustments. The system has a PowerPoint or Google Presentation add-on which embeds a log-in and interface with the PollEveryWhere website. When the user creates a question/survey slide, the user can select from the library on his/her account, or let the add-on build a question from the previously built question slide. Pretty easy and easy to teach other less tech savvy. There are limits to the system. The free membership is limited to 40 responses per question. So, if you are in a class of students that never exceeds 40, you are good. Create all the questions you want and deploy without worry. If your needs exceed 40 you can get a membership for about $20 a month which increases your response levels and adds more features. All in all I think this is the system I will use from now on.

OMG… I almost forgot (I had to go back and add this in)… PollEveryWhere sends the question to the user’s phone if they are using a smart phone. So you can run the poll without a projector or computer. Also, if the user does not have a smart phone (they can’t see the question pop up) but they can text the answer in and the system will accept it. Too cool….

So for my current client asked for a “clicker”. I did some investigating and found that the system he is interested in has a price tag of $3500 (red flag from the start), requires a USB dongle to collect responses (another headache), specialized software to retrieve responses and display on the screen (not a big deal, pretty standard but could turn out to be a problem), and by nature of being a “clicker system” requires the user to obtain a clicker and return it when done (another concern).

First red flag – price. We have already demonstrated that the need can be met for free. If that is the case why continue unless the system offers much easier use and more features.

Second concern – USB Dongle. I currently use a system in one of my locations which requires a USB antenna to capture the responses. The responses are A-B-C and 1-2-3. This was purchased before my tenure and has been a headache for me for a couple of years now. The reason is that the leader believes he will get more accurate responses if he does not have the participant use their phone to enter their response. I get it but when the system does not collect personal data then the data is anonymous. Also, I’m the only person willing to take the time to install the special software on my PC, maintain the software on our presentation PC, maintain the clickers, and the USB. Yes, this system has moved me from consultant to technician. Oh… yes, we started with 50 clickers and we are down a few. People just don’t return them.

Third concern specialized software. Some organizations require administrative rights to install new software on their systems. That makes sense. But what if I get moved from one room to another, now I need to reinstall the software in order to proceed with my meeting. If the OS is updated, then the software must be reinstalled too and they “always tell us when they do updates” right?!?!?

Finally, I already mentioned that I have lost a couple of clickers. They are used by people and wear down. They must be replaced, batteries changed, wiped down from germs, etc. Someone must collect and carry these things from spot to spot. Again, I move from Educational Technologist to technician.

If you don’t get it so far, I don’t like “clickers”.

So how will we deal with this current request… especially since the client wants clickers. Well we started by prototyping or testing the PollEveryWhere system with our end users. They loved them. The older faculty liked them too which was a surprise. The client was not present for the test so I did not make any headway with him. When I shared my findings with him, he was still against the online system. His only reason was that he had a bad experience in the past with online systems… and I can respect that.

Solution, ask that we try the online system a couple of times and collect the negative feedback. From there we take it to the people with the money and request the clicker system be reconsidered. I told him I’m not against the clickers but just feel the online system is better. Deep down I don’t like them but if they work then great… however, I will expect the final solution to be self-sufficient meaning the presenter (this physician) will manage his own technology. I will not be a technician in the final solution.

Key Points

Consider the unintended consequences or costs of using a given technology solution. Who will manage it, and what happens if they leave? What other processes will need to happen to get this solution up and running? Is it really worth it?

Consider past experiences in their context. Technology has changed. Things that may not have worked in the past may work better in the present or near future. Don’t tie yourself to an expensive solution which will be obsolete in the next month or so. Notice, my aversion to clickers is not due to the technology but the systems and processes needed to use the technology – security of installing software, USB dongles, physical clicker care, etc.

Consider the preparation put on the developer before deploying the technology. How much time will it take the presenter to adjust his or her slides to use this technology? Run it in a test setting to see before you cough up the money.

Consider the backup plan if the system goes down. If you use the clicker, it is down. If you use a phone, and the WiFi goes down, people can switch to the 4G and keep on going. If the projector stops working, smart devices can see the question and keep on clicking… cool pun.

Next week or next time we will pick up on automating your class rosters when teaching one day classes like CPR.


PS… I am not employed by or receive any financial gain from the companies mentioned above. However, if you know someone in those companies wishing to give me a reason to change this statement…. have them call me, LOL.