Published Online: October 24, 2012

Tips for Tech-Cautious Teachers

District and school administrators have pushed our faculty to incorporate more technology tools in our classrooms. In particular, at the high school level, we’ve been encouraged to take part in a new bring-your-own-technology initiative to engage students.

This has created frustration for some teachers. After choosing to experiment with Google Forms as an alternative to analyzing scantron tests, for example, a colleague of mine spent hours creating the questions and learning the tool only to be stymied by some problems when using it in the classroom. Irritated, he asked, “So why did I do all this work when I could have just asked my students to raise their hands to get the same data?”

Whoa. Great question. Why? Why should my colleague bother to learn a technology tool that could potentially depersonalize the classroom? Why spend time setting up and using the tool, when he could quickly gather the information without technology and move on to more discussion or content?

Some of you techie teachers may be itching to answer, but from one tech-tool junkie to another, let’s hold off on judging. This is actually a fantastic conversation starter.

Many teachers are overloaded with learning whatever tool is the "flavor of the month." As soon as they build their classroom in Moodle, Edmodo swoops in. As soon as they learn those darn voting eggs, Socrative shows up all seductively, with its ease of access and multi-platform charm. "New and improved" tools get my blood pumping—but I can see why, for others, the path to technology integration feels like an insane hamster wheel.

So here are some tips and examples I’ve gathered from my classroom and my work as a one-day-a-week tech coach at my school to help teachers better understand and negotiate the digital push in schools.

Give Yourself the Time to Learn

Recently, a tech-cautious colleague was trying to use Edmodo to convert a paper calendar to a digital one, and she was frustrated when she couldn’t color-code easily and when her students didn’t bother to check in with the cool new format.

Sometimes, to understand the potential of a tool to enhance your classroom, you have to dive in and experiment, giving yourself permission to learn and play before you fully commit. It’s kind of like driving a manual car for the first time in a parking lot. You are establishing your confidence and comfort before throwing yourself into hectic traffic with a thousand unknown variables. Occasionally, we teachers need to let ourselves experience discomfort and uncertainty, just as we expect our students to do.

Put on Some Blinders

In the world of a million apps, the trick to staying sane may just be to "put on some blinders." In my experience, technology professional development often involves an overwhelming buffet of options presented with little depth, development, or discussion. Many teachers leave glassy-eyed and overwhelmed, not understanding that they can say "no" to many of the options as long as they say "yes" to trying one or two.

After asking good questions and doing some reconnaissance on tools and apps that your colleagues love, choose a few. Let yourself dabble with the tools. Become comfortable with their interfaces, and give yourself time to understand their purpose and fit (or lack thereof) for your classroom habits and curriculum. At the same time, allow yourself time to say "no" to other flashy new gadgets and tools while you are exploring.

Put Away Your Preconceptions

You may come to a tool with some expectations about what role it could play in your instruction. But, again, give yourself some time. Learn what the tool can do before being definitive about how you will use it.

You will have effectively integrated technology when you’ve used it to provide an opportunity for learning that your students (or yourself) would not have had otherwise. It isn’t just a matter of replacing "old' tools with new—it’s about teaching differently.

Let’s return to the situation with Google Forms. My colleague might find that, yes, when all he needs to know is how many students chose “B” for number three, a show of hands may be sufficient.

But he could discover ways for the tool to expand his previous practice, rather than replacing it. For example, the Google Forms tool could offer an efficient way for students to provide feedback about a reading or concept before they return to class the next day. A quick glance at that data could allow the teacher to adjust his plans, addressing concepts with which his students are struggling.

Evaluate Potential Usefulness

Ask these questions as you evaluate the usefulness of a tool:

• Has this tool been recommended by colleagues or student I respect, or is someone else willing to try this tool with me?

• Does this tool allow me to expand my classroom beyond its physical space or time constraints?

• Does this tool save time for me or my students so that we can focus on more valuable tasks?

• Does this tool encourage my students to use higher-order thinking skills: evaluating, analyzing, or creating something to demonstrate their learning?

• Does this tool solve a persistent problem for me or my students?

• Do I have a way of accomplishing my purpose without this tool? Does the tool save or waste time? Frustrate or engage my students?

In the end, you may have to make a tough call: Perhaps this tool just isn't the best choice for you and your students and you need to move on.

Practice What You Preach

In other words, model what you want your students to do: Use technology as a tool for learning.

Recently an English-teacher colleague of mine pointed out that our faculty has been using technology tools to enhance our instruction, but that we were not viewing technology as a way to increase our own learning or collaboration with each other. If we want to understand the potential of technology to enhance our students’ learning, shouldn’t we first understand how it enhances our own learning?

For instance, before you ask your students to blog, find some blogs on topics that interest you and set up a Google Reader account or download the Flipboard app. Using one of these tools will enhance your life (either as a professional educator or as an amateur cook, decorator, gardener, etc.) and will offer insight into what your students will experience when working with blogs.

Similarly, if you want to use Twitter in your classroom to prompt discussions, first participate in a Twitter chat with fellow teachers around a topic of interest. (The #teaching2030 chats run by the Center for Teaching Quality are a great example of this). Using Twitter will help you better understand its power and limitations for discussion.

We cannot ask our students to be lifelong learners if we are not willing to be continuous learners ourselves. Just as we want to make our classrooms more dynamic and global learning environments for students, we should be seeking to use technology to expand our own learning horizons.

That said, teachers cannot just jump at every new tool that has some potential. At the often-overwhelming intersection of technology and education, we ought to use the same tried-and-true learning methods we teach our students. We must take risks, ask good questions, know our limitations, stretch ourselves, and embrace failure as an opportunity to learn.

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