When Students Know More About Technology Than Their Teachers

High school students in Coral Gables, Fla., work together on a tablet during a history class.
High school students in Coral Gables, Fla., work together on a tablet during a history class.
—Josh Richie for Education Week
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It's a daily classroom reality that students often know more about technology than teachers do. This is the kind of scenario that used to terrify me. When I didn't know all the details of the technology I wanted to use, shadowy what-ifs would flit around in my brain. For someone trained in an era when teachers were lucky to have a single Apple IIe computer to share with another teacher, today's high-tech era of cloud computing, virtual reality, and 3-D printing is a little bit overwhelming at times.

Overcoming these fears hasn't been easy, but I've learned to change my thinking about technology in three ways:

1. Many technology tools aren't really as scary or intimidating as they might have seemed originally. Consider, for example, the number of websites and apps that allow kids to develop visuals electronically, from Google Draw to Pablo. I used to be intimidated by the sheer number of available resources. But even if I want to provide several options for my students, I don't have to master them all at once. I can offer two options initially, and add additional tools to the list when needed.

A couple of years ago, I created an independent project for a 6th grade student, with the goal of developing an animation that would teach 2nd graders what they needed to know to take care of a new dog. His project included learning to use Scratch, a coding website developed by MIT. Initially, I was concerned about what I would do when he asked me questions I couldn't answer. I encouraged him to look at the tutorials so he could develop a basic understanding of how Scratch worked. He ignored this suggestion, which amplified my worries.

As it turns out, he didn't ask me any questions. Instead, when his animation didn't work, the student used problem-solving techniques to identify a solution through finding a relevant tutorial, searching for an answer in the program, or testing variations of code.

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All of my students are willing to troubleshoot and problem solve when something doesn't work as planned. A few weeks ago, my class needed to respond to a question using Padlet, a web-based bulletin board that allows students to share information with each other. However, Padlet wasn't working, and the substitute teacher in my classroom didn't have access to my Padlet account to troubleshoot. Rather than messaging me and asking what to do, they set up a Google Doc for their responses and continued on with the lesson.

This impressed me for two reasons. First, they didn't allow themselves to get hung up on the idea that responses had to be on Padlet. They simply knew they needed some kind of platform to share their responses. Secondly, they solved the problem on their own. Without hesitating, they took action and made it work. When I complimented the class on their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, they were surprised. To them, their actions were second nature.

2. It's not possible to know how to use every single resource available. The kids won't, either, though sometimes it might feel that way. I'm learning to be OK with that. One of my colleagues takes time in her science classes to invite students to explore technology tools and teach them to each other—and to her. It's an activity that benefits everyone.

For the past three years, my students and I have embarked on "20-Time," in which they design and execute their own projects during about 20 percent of our class time. A number of my students have decided to learn computer coding, and their go-to source for troubleshooting assistance is their classmates who are working on coding or have worked on it in the past. When face-to-face support doesn't work, they'll turn to resources like YouTube tutorials.

What fascinates me about this is that while I've seen students hesitate to ask questions about language arts, when it comes to technology issues they have no hesitation. There is no stigma associated with asking questions about a technology tool because ever since my students first started using a computer, tablet, or smartphone, they have been asking questions in order to solve problems on those devices.

This willingness to ask questions and learn from each other isn't limited to coding-based activities. I have several students working to learn a foreign language, and they often go to each other for recommendations of useful apps and websites. Other students are learning to cook, and they too ask classmates what websites are favorites for recipes or tutorials. As adults, we often rely on recommendations from family and friends for new restaurants, movies, and yes, even the devices we plan to purchase. Our students view technology tools, whether apps or websites, in the same way.

3. Technology tools are going to come and go. That's why it's important to keep them in perspective. Last year I learned about a great tool that allowed me to take video and add questions to it. This allowed my students to engage more directly, and I could see how they were thinking and processing the information. This summer, however, I learned the company that developed the tool was being absorbed by another company—and my beloved video tool wouldn't be available.

In this instance, EdPuzzle offered an easy way to transition my work into their tools. But that doesn't always happen. When I develop lessons or activities using a tool, I try to keep in mind that it may not exist forever. This helps me temper how much time and emphasis I place on that tool.

My students seem to be less flustered by changes in programs, apps, and devices than I am. For example, I have a class that has used three learning management systems with me in three years. They haven't complained or resisted during any of the transitions. Instead, they have taken each change in stride, adapted their work, and given me feedback about the benefits and difficulties of each system.

Learning to let go of my need to be the "technology guru" for my students is an ongoing process. I'll admit that sometimes I still hesitate to try a new tool because I haven't yet explored all the details. But in those moments, I try to remember that our students today are growing up in a world filled with websites, programs, apps, and tools that are readily available to them, and they are willing to learn by doing. It's a true example of hands-on learning, and it's working for them. Who am I to stand in their way?

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