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What to Do When Technology in the Classroom Fails

Jacqui Murray

All tech teachers have experienced a day when the computers are down. You jiggle the mouse and nothing. You reboot and the screens remain dark.

You know how to tapdance when the Internet won't connect (use software instead) or a particular program refuses to load (go to your Symbaloo page of alternatives). But what happens when the computers themselves are down--a systemic virus, or a site-wide upgrade that went bad? What do you do with the eager faces who tumble across your threshold ready for their once-a-week technology in the classroom time?

You need some ideas that tie into technology in the classroom without actually using it. Here are some ideas.

Discuss Digital Citizenship

This is a topic that needs to be discussed every year, repetitively. When I teach digital citizenship, it always includes lots of back-and-forth conversation and surprised faces. Students have no idea that the right to use online resources includes responsibilities. In getting that point across, I end up answering endless questions, many that revolve around, “But no one knows who I am!” and “But how can I be caught?”

Use technology in the classroom downtime to delve into this topic. Gather in a circle and talk about concepts like digital footprints, plagiarism, and digital privacy.

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Common Sense has a great poster that covers these through a discussion on when to put photos online. You can print it out or display it on the Smartscreen. Take your time. Solicit lots of input from students – get their experiences with yberbullies, Instagram, what happens with their online-enabled Wii platforms. It can be their personal experience or siblings.

Note: The poster says it's for middle and high school, but I use it with students as young as third grade by scaffolding and backfilling the discussion

Build a Digital Citizen

If your Smartscreen still works, open a drawing canvas. You can use Paint, Photoshop, TuxPaint or KidPix. You can even use an online whiteboard like Scriblink or A Web Whiteboard. If the Smartscreen -- or your personal computer -- doesn't work, grab a marker and go old school using a big sheet of paper or the whiteboard.

Sketch out a generic child. Ask students what digital devices they use on a daily or weekly basis and draw those with arrows connecting the device to the child. This might include:

  • iPad
  • Smartphone
  • Earbuds
  • Watch
  • Nintendo

Discuss the result with students.

Computer Hardware

Discuss the parts of the computer and how each is connected. Use your own system as an example, but also include other digital devices. For example, if you use PCs at your school, discuss how the parts are the different or the same as on Macs, Chromebooks, and iPads.

Many students will have experience with other devices and will be happy to share. Include monitor, screen, tower, keyboard, mouse, peripherals, headphones, webcam, as well as mouse parts (buttons and mouse wheel) and keyboard parts (F row and homerow).

Then, discuss hardware problem solving--i.e., if the volume doesn't work, what do you do (check headphones, mute, volume)? Most hardware has easy-to-solve problems that students as young as kindergarten are capable of solving independent of adult intervention--if they know the solutions.

While you're on the subject of problem solving, poll students on how they solve problems. Do they ask a friend, an adult? Do they Google the answer? Experiment? What works and what doesn't? Write down their answers on the Smartscreen and compare it to this rephrased list from Common Core problem solving strategies (click link and scroll to the Problem Solving visual organizer):

Blank Keyboard Assessments

There are two blank keyboard assessments I give every grading period. These are part of the keyboarding curriculum and help students get comfortable with key placement. Each takes about ten minutes, but even that is difficult to scratch out of a busy schedule. When the computers are down is a perfect time to take care of these. Cover all the keyboards in the classroom and pass out paper copies of one or both of the blank keyboard assessments. Give students 10 to 15 minutes working with a partner to fill in the keys. Students will be surprised how challenging this is. From then on, they'll notice where keys are as they type.

Tech Challenge

Play a team challenge on tech skills. Take 10 to15 minutes to collect questions from students on software, hardware, shortkeys, problem solving, online tools, vocabulary--everything they've covered so far this year. It can range from “How do you put a picture in a word processing program?” to “Which tool would you use to write a report?” As they come up with questions, type them into a document which is displayed on the Smartscreen.

Once the list is complete, break students into groups and give them five minutes to strategize on how their team will compete. For example, only one voice can answer for the team so they must select a spokesperson. This avoids the confusion of two team members calling out different answers. While they organize, sort questions into topics, such as MS Word, Google Apps, Vocabulary, Problem solving, Internet.

Ready? Team #1 selects a category. Ask a question within that category. Give the team 5 seconds to answer. If they can’t, proceed to Team #2, but don’t repeat the question. If they can't answer, move to Team #3 and then Team #4.  Team #2 selects the next question. As you proceed, Teams must select from a category that hasn't been used before. Score one point per correct answer. Students love this game. If I had time, I’d play it every grading period.


Have available a Jeopardy!-style assessment you have prepared for exactly these sort of days. It can include the same sort of questions you collected for the Team Challenge. Here are links to several Jeopardy! templates:

What do you do when you push power and nothing happens in your computer lab? Any great ideas for us?

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 author/editor 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, CAEP reviewer, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, a tech ed columnist for, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB.

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