Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Improving learning in lectures using keypad-response units

Peter E. Jones
Electrical and Electronic Engineering
The University of Western Australia
I propose to trial the use of radio keypad-response units in the lectures of a unit in BE (Information Technology) in 1999. My conjecture is that individual keypad-response units will encourage more active participation during lectures. It will provide both the students and myself with immediate feedback. The lecture remains our most cost-effective and widely used means of teaching, yet little has been done to support the lecture with technology. The conventional lecture has the lecturer as the focus. Students often become passive note takers. In the demonstration, I will use 16 radio keypad-response units to illustrate their potential. For example, during a lecture, questions can be asked (using a computer presentation) of the whole class. The responses can range from a yes/no through to a numeric answer. Students then choose an answer and the computer collects, by radio, these responses from the whole class. Once the class has had an opportunity to respond, everyone may then see, on the next slide, a histogram of the responses. I can then explain why a particular answer is right or wrong. Students are then able to compare their own response with this explanation. The result should be a move toward active learning.


Ramsden [1992] defines several important properties of good teaching in higher education. In addition to the lecturing skills is the need for valid assessment and the provision of quality feedback. I would add to that list that the feedback must be both timely and in the optimum setting for learning. Others [Dearn 1996] have said that universities require changing from the view that teaching consists of organising and transmitting content, and that learning is the accurate recall of factual information to one of promoting active learning. In Dearn's discussion, he finds that students end up as passive learners and miss out on developing lifelong learning skills. He further points out that active learning does not necessarily mean being involved in activities. One way is to make use of interactive techniques in the lecture. Of course, this does not necessarily mean using technology, a skilled lecturer can make use of many techniques to involve the students. However, the use of individual radio keypad-response units presents opportunities to make the lecture more interactive without appearing threatening.

The most common form of educational technology is the lecture. Much attention has been on the use of computer technology for delivering education on the desktop, but not much attention is paid to its use in the lecture. I wanted to address the issue of providing an effective learning environment for the student while attending a lecture. What may be an appropriate strategy that is effective in a small group, where interaction and clarification can occur is not applicable to the information dissemination of a lecture. How do you know at the end of a lecture whether everyone has understood the material?

In asking a class a question how many students hold back from answering? Or if they do answer, how is their response governed by fears of repercussions or embarrassment?

Obtaining responses from an audience might include direct methods such as questionnaires through to the simple one of asking for raised hands. Given a lecture that uses a computer for presentation of the visuals it is possible to use it to also control individual keypad-response units. This is a computer-supported system where the audience give responses to questions on hand-held keypads that transmit individual responses back to the computer. This can then analyse the data, and then can produce a display as a summary of the results for the audience to review. It can support general question & answers, demographic surveys, opinion polls, voting, elections, quizzes, tests, to group decision making, Short quizzes can test for formal knowledge. Before starting a new topic the levels of understanding can be assessed. It can also provide instant feedback, this could be for even trivial issues such as the timing of the next class. It can also be used before and after to gauge changes in understanding. Finally it can be used for audit purposes similar to the questionnaires already in use that take time in administering and the analysis is so late as to be not much use for the current cohort.

Keypad response systems

Voting and audience interaction systems have been in use for some time, using either wired or wireless technologies. A number of companies worldwide have products. For example in the USA, the Fleetwood Group [URL] are an Original Equipment Manufacturer for a number of other companies that value add software and computer interfaces. In Germany, Braehler ICS [URL] recently introduced the Digivote-2000 that is also marketed in the USA. Other systems have been developed for distance education, for instance One Touch Systems [URL] use both satellite and landline communication with its keypad systems. Finally, in the UK, are Xtol [URL] who have been designing voting systems for twelve years and is one of the leading conference specialists in Europe. With the provision of a University Initiative Fund grant this year I purchased a system with sixteen keypads from Xtol. Unfortunately they arrived too late for use this year, but this provides an opportunity to seek feedback from the participants at the Teaching and Learning Forum. Before this, in January, an opportunity arises for a brief trial at our annual engineering camp and the outcome reported in the demonstration session.

The Xtol system is not significantly different to most of the products on the market. Some of those that are used in audience interaction provide a form of continuous feedback by means of a slider, however the Xtol system is aimed more at voting in meetings. Figure 1 depicts a view of one keypad and its controlling computer system. You will notice that the top part includes a two-line LCD display (with 16 characters per line) for placing brief messages (such as the time remaining to answer the question) and the second line can be used to create soft labels for the three diamond-shaped buttons below the display. The three buttons could be labelled True/False/Don't-know or Yes/No/Don't-know. Below these are the digits 0-9 and two other keys. There is also a LED that will flash during a vote. Once a response has been entered it stops and remains on until the end of the vote.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Radio Keypad Response Unit

The numeric keypad allows answers to multiple choices and even multiple selections as well as a numeric answer. One of the other keys is the cancel key, which can be enabled to allow re-entering of responses rather than taking the first response.

Figure 2 shows a system overview. The PC communicates with the interface to the radio communications interface via the serial port. This in turn is connected to one or two transmitter/receivers, which transmit at 433MHz to the keypads. Commands from the PC are sent to each keypad and data received from each keypad. The interface collates the data and forwards it to the PC as each keypad is polled for its data. For 16 keypads this would take less than a second.

Figure 2

Figure 2: System overview

The software that comes with the Xtol system also provides a diagnostic system to check the operation of the system. For instance, Figure 3 shows the diagnostic for an individual keypad where the state of its battery can be seen and the number of error packets over the total transmitted is shown on the simulation of the two line display. The user of this keypad can also press any of the keys (except for the key labelled "Exit") and both the lecturer and the user can then verify the correct operation of the keypad.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Keypad diagnostic

Keypad Programming Language

The Xtol system is supplied with the Keypad Programming Language (KPL). This provides the instruction designer with a language to program the operation of the keypad system at a very high level. Figure 4 shows a screen snapshot of the design environment that runs under the Microsoft Windows operating system. This shows a simple sequence presented as a time-line. The icons are selected from the toolbar and then inserted at the cursor. The folder shows the question that will be asked of the audience "How many buttons are on a Series 8 keypad." There is then a transition (similar to that available in PowerPoint) and the question will appear on the presentation screen. The pause allows for the vote to be taken and allows for a selection of 1-4 from the multiple choices shown. It finally takes the collated responses from the keypads, forms a round-bar 3D histogram and shows it as a set of percentages on the display screen once the vote is completed.

Figure 4

Figure 4: KPL screenshot

Case studies

With the late arrival of the equipment there has been no opportunity for trialing the system in the second semester in 1998. Instead it will be used for the first time in the Engineering Camp that we run every year for school students about to enter year 11 and are considering engineering degrees. Xtol report several case studies on their web page. For example in the UK, it has been used at McDonald's Corporate Training through to more academic situations such as at the Postgraduate Medical School at the Freemans Group of Hospitals in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.


The Xtol system provides an off-the-shelf system with successful application mainly in the corporate arena. The keypad programming language and the integration with PowerPoint as well as export facilities provide adequate functionality to allow the experiment to be conducted to determine whether it can be used to make lectures the learning environment we all hope for.


Dearn, J. M. (1996). Enhancing the First Year Experience: Creating a Climate for Active Learning. The 2nd Pacific Rim Conference, First Year In Higher Education, Transition to Active Learning, The University of Melbourne, 3-5 July 1996. http://aerg.canberra.edu.au/pub/aerg/dearn/fye96p.html

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

URLs (All URLs were correct on the 11 January 1999)

Braehler ICS Konferenztechnik. http://www.brahler.com/www/Homepage.nsf

One Touch Systems, Inc. http://www.onetouch.com/

The Fleetwood Group, Inc. (Electronics Division). http://www.replysystems.com/

Xtol. http://www.xtol.co.uk/

Please cite as: Jones, P. E. (1999). Improving learning in lectures using keypad-response units. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 173-177. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/jones.html

[ TL Forum 1999 Proceedings Contents ] [ TL Forums Index ]
HTML: Roger Atkinson, Teaching and Learning Centre, Murdoch University [rjatkinson@bigpond.com]
This URL: http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/jones.html
Last revision: 26 Feb 2002. The University of Western Australia
Previous URL 11 Jan 1999 to 26 Feb 2002 http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf99/dj/jones.html