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Technology in the Classroom: What Happens When It Fails?

Jacqui Murray

Has this happened to you? You spend hours rewriting an old lesson plan, incorporating rich, adventurous tools available on the Internet. You test it the evening before, several times, just to be sure. It's a fun, self-paced lesson with lots of activities and meandering paths that students undoubtedly will adore. Technology in the classroom enables it to differentiate authentically for the diverse group of learners that walk across your threshold daily.  Everyone who previewed it is wowed. You are ready.

Until the day of—the technology in the classroom that you rely upon fails. Hours of preparation wasted because no one could get far enough to learn a thing. You blame yourself—why didn't you stick with what you've always done?  Now, everyone is disappointed.

Implosions like this happen every day in tech-centric classrooms. Sometimes it's because the network can't handle the increased traffic, students can't log in due to a glitch, or the website server goes upside down—really, the reason doesn't matter. All that matters is your effort to modernize a tired lesson plan fails, leaving you more technophobic than ever. With the pride of place iPads and Chromebooks and 1:1 programs are getting in curriculum decisions, tech problems will be common, varied, and ultimately frustrating. They will be also be wide-ranging—everything from a student's device not having required software to the classroom systems not connecting to the school's wi-fi. As a result, teachers will get to know a less common colleague quite well—their thick-rimmed glasses, vampire skin tone, and computer-derived speak being 40-foot giveaways for their IT designation.

Stereotypes aside, the IT department will become a great friend. Because to many, a “tech problem” equates to the mind-numbing, bone-chilling feeling of “I have no idea what to do.”

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In short, this feels like failure—not a feeling a teacher of any vintage likes. And to be honest, neither do our students. Sometimes they, too, get that deer-in-headlights look when we ask them to use one of the gazillion available internet tools to communicate, collaborate, share, publish—those exciting Common Core words that are code for “technology-rich.” The inevitable tech catastrophe is worsened by our culture’s vantage point—we eulogize those who go bravely through gates of fire, can think under pressure, are never beaten down, who can connect the dots even when they're bouncing all over the landscape:

No problem can stand the assault of sustained thinking. (Voltaire)

Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. (Winston Churchill)

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat. (Theodore Roosevelt)

But having said all this, it’s very difficult to overcome some of the struggles at the digital threshold. There are too many moving parts. Too many circuits and algorithms and scripts and wires shoved under a desk to expect it to go right all the time (or even most of the time). But instead of cowering away from technology in fear of failure, the better course of action is to ask yourself: What do I do when it happens?

Failure of Technology in the Classroom: Prepare for it

I'm not fatalistic. I'm realistic. Technology—be it phones, scanners, your house's water meter, your child's online report cards, the Smart TV you just purchased—fails often and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. In that way, it is very human. Perfection is well outside of its programming.

Knowing that, bone up on the Law of Technology Failures: The reliability of technology is directly proportional to your needs. To decode that: Tech fails most often where it is needed most. Prevent failures by having backups—not just of data, but devices, hardware, systems. For example, if you're trying to get to Disneyland from Arkansas with three friends, each with Google Maps on their phones (or my new favorite, Waze), said devices will never run out of battery power. Ever. Redundancy. Install three browsers on your computer so if Firefox won't work, Chrome will. Build in time for system reboots (because that solves at least half the tech problems that plague a classroom) and pre-test relevant systems to become familiar with any glitches. Sure, tech will still fail, but not catastrophically in areas in which you are prepared.

Having said that, keep in mind the corollary to the Law of Technology Failures: The better technology works, the safer you'll feel with it, the less redundancy you will activate.

Be a problem solver

Dylan Thomas said this as well as anyone in history: Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Embrace problems. Own them.

Here are three basics that will get you through many a stressful tech day:

  1. Know the basics. I've found there are only about 20 problems that account for 80 percent of the downtime. The top two: If the computer won't start, check to see if it's plugged in. If power isn't the problem, reboot. Those two solve about half of the tech traumas I face in the classroom. There are 18 more I'm equally prepared to handle. Track yours by writing each down as it happens. Soon, you'll find it's the same ones over and over—the tech version of Groundhog Day.
  2. Google the problem. Lest you think that's too geeky (it's not). But I understand your fear. It's so common that it has its own website called LMGTFY.com. That's an acronym for Let Me Google That For You. Before you become that LMGTFY person, grab your keyboard, slam those words into the Google search bar, and see if there's a solution. There will be about 70 percent of the time.
  3. Be a risk-taker. We preach this to our students, but does that mean teachers too? Well, yes. Make that who you are. Grin in the face of problems. Model solutions. As Edwin Cole famously said, “You don't drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there.” Don't drown. Don't stay there. Stand up and you may discover it's only an inch deep.

Build in Alternatives

Many times this year during the nation's premier tech-in-ed conference—ISTE—the Internet didn't work and hence, presenters couldn’t access their presentations. Most handled this with aplomb either with screenshots or animated descriptions of what might have been. No one quit and walked off the stage.

Let's face it, if you're over the age of 10, you know your life runs off of Plan B.

What else can you do?

  • Don't expect technology to remain unchanged. Links die, by some counts, about 4 percent a year. The website you bookmarked last week can be 404, your favorite software for years may be incompatible with system updates, and your new computer (probably) won't run a handful of the programs you use regularly. Prior to presenting, go through the tool you're going to use or the process you're teaching—see if it actually works as it should.
  • Use it as a teachable moment. Show students how you handle stress, problems, and frustration. It's a learning experience and an opportunity to stretch that magnificent big brain to devise a solution. It's also a chance to ask students, What would you do?
  • Don't apologize. Save apologies for something you caused.

I've learned you can tell a lot about a teacher by the way s/he handles three things: A rainy day, parents who drop in unexpectedly, and a lesson plan that explodes. Fortunately, with these tips you’ll have far less explosions on the tech side of your classroom. Remember, tech is the third leg to the “inevitable experiences” stool, along with death and taxes. You know it's coming. The only thing you can control is how you react to it.

What was your last tech failure and how did you handle it?

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Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of dozens of technology training books that integrate technology into education. She is webmaster for six blogs, CSG Master Teacher, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, a tech ed columnist for Examiner.com, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out next summer.