Three tips for using technology in the classroom


The plan
We’ve all had days when we came to class unprepared. In most likelihood, the “lesson” we delivered on that day neatly reflected our lack of preparation. I am not an overly-organized teacher by nature. I enjoy following tangents and finding teachable moments. I often stray from my original plan. However, if  I don’t have a plan to begin with, I’m just wandering around in the dark. To stray from the plan with some sense of integrity and grace, the plan must be in place to start. And so it is with technology. Here are the things I do before I use technology with my students:

The hardware
I make sure I have the equipment and that the equipment works. This includes checking the wireless signal, testing if the student laptops are functioning and have battery power, and making sure that the site or software I’m about to use is accessible on the student laptops.

The software
I test it. If using software with students, sign in as a student or set up a dummy student account and get familiar with what the students are going to see. Often the student interface is different than the teacher interface when using a particular program, especially in blogging platforms.

I develop an FAQ for students before letting the students use the program. You know your students. Anticipate their questions ahead of time. Once your lesson is in full swing, it becomes counterproductive to spend your time fielding such infamous queries as “It doesn’t work” and “Mister B. mine won’t go.”

I have in the past handed out a list of things for students to try before coming to me for help. For example, connectivity is often an issue. Give your students a list that includes suggestions for how to test and reconnect to the Internet: shut down the computer and turn it back on; turn the wireless off and on a few times; try a different browser – some browsers don’t work well with certain programs, etc.

I also give students a set of guidelines to help them manage their time. Doing an iMovie presentation? Let them know you frown upon spending 90% of the class period fiddling with iMovie Sound Effects and where you expect them to focus their attention. For example: I often tell students they cannot add pictures or sound to a multimedia presentation until they have written all of the content first.  In this way, the seductive parts are left as carrots.


Allow for mess
Using technology, especially in the early stages, is necessarily messy for the teacher. For the K-12 teacher, this is especially true. It is an unwieldy endeavor. Getting 20 or 30 or 40 students to log on and use any piece of software can seem like herding cats. Inevitably, students will be operating at different paces, in part due to technological processes, in part due to the natural differentiation of style and ability found among the students. “Where do I click?” “I don’t see where to go.” “Mine doesn’t look like that.” These kinds of comments can come in flurries or storms once a project is underway.

One thing at a time
Be Zen about it. Take one question at a time. Enforce classroom guidelines like “Three and then me” where students are directed to ask three classmates to help troubleshoot a problem before asking the teacher. Assign some particularly tech savvy students to be captains and help with troubleshooting. Have your FAQ and Checklist on hand for the students to access so they can develop their own problem-solving skills. Ride the wave. Stay calm. Embrace the chaos. Part of using technology is agreeing to enter a non-linear field. You are the glue that holds that field together. Be Zen. More importantly, remind yourself that you are going to be Zen about things before the lesson starts.


Control what you can control
Because learning curves vary and technological glitches occur and students find ways to mismanage their time on computers, it is quite challenging to gauge how long a project should take. Because of this, you must start with what is controllable: your intended outcome.

A few years back I wanted my students to make an iMovie commercial. They were to invent their own product and then cast and shoot a 60 second commercial, using sound effects, voiceover, images, and live action. At the time I congratulated myself on having the foresight to restrict the project to a 60 second commercial. Well, cut to five class days later and a 70% incompletion rate, and I was left doing some heavy reflecting.  When I attempted the same project with another class, I was armed with storyboard handouts, strict checklists about how many sounds and images could be used, and the new goal was to create two 5-second slides with a caption, voice over, and one sound effect. We were able to complete the project. In two days. Yes, two days for a 10-second commercial.

In future posts I will talk about how to balance learning, engagement, and media literacy while trying to decide if each of your projects is a cost-effective use of class time.

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