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Terms for EVS

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

There are various terms or names used to refer to the equipment in question:

I don't like them. On the other hand, some others do. I've debated this most with Michael McCabe. Here are my views (with which he disagrees quite strongly) on what the names should say, and what is wrong with the ones being used.

Kay reports finding (in 2008) 26 terms in the literature.

The main points

[Electronic, digital vs. group, audience, classroom, ...]
A problem with the terms ARS, PRS, GRS etc. is that they fail to express the main meaning. Putting your hand up in class, shouting, a mob lynching someone are all "group responses" but that isn't what people who use these phrases mean. They are almost entirely interested in new electronic systems, so the phrase fails to express what is, to the speaker and to their intended audience, the key defining feature. So the name should say "electronic" or "digital" to mark this, except for those who really are discussing the use of raised hands etc., and not just new technology.

[System vs. equipment, technology]
Saying "system" to refer to a small bit of equipment which is not a system that stands alone (without human operators it does nothing), but a wholly dependent adjunct on the real system of, say, teacher, students and discussion is inaccurate and self-inflating: "equipment" might be more exact. The real "system" using EVS in, say, education is something like the plan for the whole lecture or session. There are a number of quite different alternatives that do use EVS (e.g. Mazur's "Peer instruction", or contingent teaching); and also still others (e.g. MacManaway's use of "lecture scripts") that do not, but are equally revolutionary and promising.

[voting, polling vs. texting vs. other shared data types]
The equipment I'm usually referring to is for giving one of a small number of pre-determined alternative choices i.e. responding only to MCQs (multiple choice questions): hence the direct term would be "voting" or "polling". This also contrasts it to some other technologies that support free-text open-ended input from the audience (like mobile phone SMS texting). Note, however, that although this too certainly could be useful in some ways, many types of meeting cannot handle this: imagine a hundred people all sending in text responses: no-one (neither audience nor presenter) can scan a hundred different text messages and summarise or cluster them usefully. A feature of voting (i.e. of MCQs) is that summarising is easy: just count the votes for each alternative and present these five or so numbers. This is a fundamental advantage for large groups of more than about six people (say). So voting is a feature not a limitation for such groups. Of course other kinds of interaction are organised round free-text: email, blogs, discussion fora, etc. So we need a term for these that contrasts with voting, but covers all the free-text group electronic communication systems -- perhaps "texting". A third alternative is passing around other material e.g. software, as in a classroom or lab with networked computers.

Further points

[Synchronous vs. asynchronous]
Part of what I usually mean is the use as part of a synchronous meeting, whether face to face or online; as opposed to asynchronous like email, or phone (text message) polls done for TV over a day or a week. And in fact response time really does matter here. A class often wants to move on quickly from a vote to another topic or to explanations and discussion of the disagreement, and a response time of minutes, and preferably of seconds, is needed. In contrast even in a small area like the UK, parliamentary elections take more than a day to decide and broadcast the results, and SMS texting may take hours depending on the network state. Remember "synchronous" doesn't mean instantaneous but it does mean the recipient is sitting waiting for the result before they can do anything else.

[1 vs. 2 way]
To technologists, a huge difference is equipment that offers 1-way vs. 2-way communication (e.g. feedback lights or a little screen on each handset). However to users, this is about as unimportant as whether the person you are talking to says "yes" (2-way) or nods (1-way for a sonic technologist, but 2-way in terms of human communication). All the equipment relies on fast feedback, but some do this by projecting information on a big screen for all to read together.

[Decision support vs. establishing mutual knowledge of the spread of opinions]
Furthermore the applications are less about making group decisions (at least with the voting technology) and more about coordinating group thinking and understanding by giving everyone an overview of what and how strong the consensus or disagreement is. These distinguish it from formal voting for political candidates or in shareholder meetings: more synchronous than asynchronous; more about establishing mutual knowledge of the varieties of opinion than reaching a final decision.

[personal vs. subgroup voting]
Another issue is whether every audience member has their own handset and vote, or whether they agree a group vote i.e. one vote per small group.

[Face to face vs. online, "virtual"]
The main application I'm interested in is face to face, but actually it could perfectly well be done online (but synchronously) (though the equipment might be different). And one of the areas we are exploring at Glasgow is moving MCQs and associated discussion between the web out of class, and EVS in class as seamlessly as possible.

[Education vs. other applications]
The applications I am interested in are educational, but many sets of the same technology are sold to business for meetings for planning, brain-storming etc. That's what is wrong for some audiences in saying "classroom EVS". "Group decision support system" is a term sometimes used for the business, not educational, applications.

Technological distinctions that can matter are:


What is generally meant here is an electric or electronic technology, used for polling in groups of size 10-1000 (not millions, as in serious national electronic voting), as part of a synchronous interaction (could be face to face or online), usually to share thinking and disagreements more than to come to decisions. What is most important really is that the human interaction supported by the equipment is real time (i.e. synchronous), and always interactive (even if one direction is optical and only one is electronic).

I've started to standardise on the term "EVS", although perhaps "synchronous electronic polling equipment (SEPE)" would really be even more exact.

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