Technology FAIL: Embracing tech when it doesn’t work

tech fail

At least you've never had THIS happen.

I think the #1 reason why some teachers resist integrating new technology in their classrooms isn’t that they’re scared of it. It’s not because they don’t have time to learn it and plan for it (although that might be reason #2).

Many teachers don’t want to use technology because technology doesn’t work.

The computers in many schools still have floppy disk drives. The machines don’t have the firmware to handle the latest programs so kids are stuck doing activities about as sophisticated as The Oregon Trail. And those uber-expensive, brand new interactive whiteboards? They get uncallibrated, or the LCD projector’s bulb burns out and the school doesn’t have money to replace it. Even when the technology IS working, the blocks and filters put in place by the school district make it difficult if not impossible to do something as simple as showing a 3 minute video or having students comment on a blog.

Every additional piece of technology you integrate into a lesson is another opportunity for something to go wrong. And most educators are too busy playing Whack-A-Mole with the other problems in the classroom to dredge up the energy to add another variable to the mix.

The same thing happens to me as an instructional technology coach. I used to get embarrassed when doing professional development and something would invariably go wrong. I’d apologize for not knowing how to work a finicky laptop or having the wifi drop in the middle of a session, assuming everyone thought I was an idiot who had no business advising other people on how to use technology when clearly I couldn’t even get a Promethean board to display properly. Then I realized teachers didn’t think it was ME wasting their time; they thought it was the technology itself. They had given up on trying to make it work, and my failure just reconfirmed their perception that technology is a pain in the arse and not worth using.

That’s when I switched my approach.

I embrace the tech failure. Expect it. Plan for it. Take away its power to catch me off guard.

Nothing works right 100% of the time. If you allow yourself to get irritated over technology mishaps, you’re either going to 1) be frustrated all the time, or 2) stop using it. Number two would be a tragedy, because once you get past the learning curve or tech glitch, the stuff that happens is powerful. Technology can connect students with people, ideas, and information all over the world in mind-boggling ways. It can deepen their understanding of important concepts and give them authentic opportunities to practice skills that we can’t possible replicate otherwise within our four walls. It is ubiquitous and cannot be ignored. Remind yourself of the power of technology so you’ll be able to summon the energy to give it another shot.

Have a back-up plan, and make it a good one so you’re not so annoyed about having to drop your lesson. You can prepare a couple of general activities that can be used anytime throughout the school year when your regular lesson is cut short. Assign a few tech-savvy kids to be your in-classroom IT support; they can help troubleshoot the machines and research solutions. Use your tech problems to model problem solving for the kids and be an example of how to respond when life doesn’t go your way–you’ll be equipping them to handle their own tech problems and respond with resiliency and determination in the face of setbacks.

When our students encounter something that is difficult or frustrating, we encourage them to push through it. We tell them keep practicing, keep problem-solving, and eventually their efforts will be worth it. It’s much more fun for us to play the role of “expert” in the classroom and not place ourselves in a position where we, too, have to keep working on something that’s hard for us. Technology mishaps keep us humble; they force us to stay in the position of learner. And THAT, if nothing else about the situation, is a good thing.

What was YOUR greatest tech fail moment? SMARTBoard crashing during an observation? Setting up a website for students that none of them were able to access? Commiserate in the comments! 

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Subscribe via email for blog updates, exclusive tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 John T. Spencer February 6, 2012 at 9:48 am

In our district, the big technology fail is the wireless internet. We have fancy new computers on the slowest system imaginable. It’s like saying, “Here’s a Ferrari. Now you can only drive it in the school zone. Have fun!”

I think the key is the back-up plan that you mention. It has to be specific and yet flexible. For many teachers, that simply isn’t worth it.

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2 Angela Watson February 6, 2012 at 9:23 pm

Well said, John. Love the analogy. :-)

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3 Tom Panarese February 6, 2012 at 8:36 pm

It’s got to be the number of times I have to press Function-F8 to get the LCD projector to communicate with my laptop.

I’m big on the backup plan, too. My students’ annoyance is palpable when they see that something being screwed up with tech hasn’t scuttled the entire period and that I’m able to roll with it.

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4 Angela Watson February 6, 2012 at 9:25 pm

Hah, that’s great, Tom! I remember feeling that way as a student too…”Please don’t let the VCR work, please don’t let the VCR work…yay, we had to start the movie 10 minutes late–10 less minutes of work today, woo hoo!”

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5 Christin February 6, 2012 at 11:11 pm

Biggest fail: setting up “wallwisher” pages for my kids for a literature unit just thrilled them! But one or two posted inappropriate comments and so I shut it down. Bummer.

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6 Michelle Horst February 7, 2012 at 1:17 pm

Biggest fail: SMARTboard crashed my laptop [drive] 2 minutes before my first practicum observation in a Grade 1 classroom.

Biggest lesson: Be FLEXIBLE! Technology is a great tool, however, the curriculum and your students learning needs always come first!

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7 Matt February 7, 2012 at 6:48 pm

Ugh. In my district, almost ALL of the technology money goes to the middle and high schools. At the primary school, we get less than $1 per student. It’s a joke and quite frustrating.

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8 Marjorie Sample February 7, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Last year, our school got SMART boards and then the trees grew too tall between the Elemeentary and High School so we didn’t have internet for 3 months! It was impossible to take attendance, check out library books, or enter lunch numbers. So we basically had to forget any of the “extra” stuff during that time frame. It was very frustrating.

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