In a classroom of 400 college students, it can be difficult to lead an intimate conversation.

And it can feel like an impossible challenge when you are trying to teach an introductory course about human sexuality, in a classroom of students who are majoring in everything from engineering to women’s studies.

Preliminary research shows that students in these settings are likely to say they feel comfortable taking part in these conversations anonymously with the help of digital devices. In other words, rather than raise a hand to share a personal experience, students can weigh in with a few taps on their smartphones. It makes all the difference when trying to persuade several hundred undergraduate students to have a conversation about sex, said Matthew Numer, an assistant professor at the School of Health and Human Performance at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

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The idea of live polling in classrooms has been around for a long time. The “clicker,” for instance, is a remote control-type device that can be used to answer multiple-choice questions in the classroom. But what Numer uses is different.

The technology lets students use their own smartphones, rather than a university-provided clicker. A special app that students download in class allows them to weigh in with open-form responses. And this can solve another smartphone problem: Competing for attention. Using the phones in class, rather than confiscating them, prevents them being used for less scholarly reasons (like Snapchatting or watching funny cat videos).

“It does get a discussion going,” Numer said. “What I think is more important is, they are more honest with their answers.”

Many of Numer’s students said they enjoyed using the app and that it made them more likely to participate in class, according to research by Numer that was published in the Journal of Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics. It’s hard to say, however, if any of this actually improves how much students learn. The preliminary study revealed the students’ perception that they were more apt to be engaged, but did not show whether they learned more or better by using the app, which is called Top Hat, in class on their smartphones.

Related: New York City schools ask students to ‘Bring your own devices’

In the dynamic field of education technology it’s often difficult to say what’s working – or not. Ideas might sound good on paper, or be popular with students, but without evidence of success there’s a weaker case for saying this digital push is an improvement.

High-quality research on education technology is expensive and time-consuming. Some say the biggest hurdle is the time. Technology in every aspect of our lives evolves quickly, as companies churn out newer, faster and better versions of programs. As a result, education technology is often changing while researchers are in the midst of studying it, which can make results of that analysis antiquated – and not as useful – by the time it is published. The U.S. Department of Education has acknowledged the problem. The federal agency awarded a more than $3.6 million contract to figure out how to make testing more effective and efficient.

In the meantime, educators continue to innovate and experiment. Much of that work is exciting, and some research suggests that mixing in-person and computer-based instruction can improve teaching and learning. But technology just for the sake of technology could be an expensive experiment. Research will help us ensure it’s doing more than just making people feel they are performing better.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Nichole Dobo writes about blended learning. Most of her 10-year career as a reporter has focused on education. She has also covered stories about government, courts, business and religion. She was a staff writer at The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., The York Daily Record/Sunday News in York, Pa., The Times-Tribune in Scranton, Pa. and The Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. and has been published in The Atlantic's online edition. She won first prize and best of show for education writing in 2011 from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. She earned a B.A. in journalism at the Pennsylvania State University.