The idea of writing a book about classroom technology is a daunting one, given how quickly tech changes. So much information is readily available online, and it’s constantly updated to include the latest tools, tips, and tricks. Why bother to put it in a printed book that starts becoming obsolete before it’s even available to the public?
I don’t know author Doug Johnson’s reasoning, but personally, I do see a huge need for books about technology. There are many, many teachers who don’t yet have personal learning networks or other educators they can connect with online in order to keep their pulse on what’s happening with ed tech. They want to learn, but they aren’t comfortable finding the answers they need on the internet. Many of them want a handbook they can pull out and reference as needed without having to go online. That’s not to mention the countless number of principals and other school leaders who aren’t particularly tech-savvy, but want to support their teachers and students. There are many, many educators who are feeling overwhelmed by the volume of information out there and need help cutting through what’s extraneous and getting to the heart of what really matters for student learning.
The Classroom Teacher’s Technology Survival Guide is poised to fill that exact void for educators who are beginning tech users. Author Doug Johnson has over 30 years of experience in education, and has been the director of media and technology for the Mankato, Minnesota public schools since 1991. Though he’s written five other books, I know Doug best from The Blue Skunk Blog, where I’ve been following his writing since 2008. The blog is a great resource for educational technology, so it’s no surprise that Doug’s latest book is so helpful.
The book starts by covering all the basic technology questions that I frequently hear from teachers I coach, from how to manage files on multiple computers to how to make use of the cloud. I like that Doug always offers an explanation of various options and allows readers to decide for themselves which works for them. Although I personally think the best response to the question “What type of computer should I have?” is simply “Get a Mac” (Always! Don’t even think about getting a PC!), Doug’s tip is probably more useful:
Purchase the same kind of computer your most computer-savvy friend or relative owns. You will have built-in tech support. You might also consider purchasing a computer running the same operating system your computer at school uses so you can concentrate on learning one system well. (pg 29)
Doug alternates between explaining basic principles about technology and ed tech with catchy sections that put the explanations into context. I enjoyed “Seven Stupid Things Teachers Do With Technology” (not backing up data, treating a school computer like a home computer) and “Seven Brilliant Things Teachers Do With Technology” (making conferencing real time, using the kids’ own devices to teach them). The chapter on using technology for professional productivity offers a wonderful tip for teachers who are overwhelmed by the amount of tools out there:
Use only the technologies that personally empower you with your students. You can’t teach a language you don’t know; you shouldn’t share a book you don’t like; and you can’t teach in a way in which you are not a successful learner. It’s the same with technology. (pg 47)
The next chapter offers equally practical advice on choosing where to begin when integrating technology into instruction:
Start using technology upgrades with activities that don’t work very well: that poetry unit that nobody likes; the rocks and minerals unit that bores both you and your kids; the unit on converting fractions to decimals that leaves too many students confused. You have them–be honest. Even if things don’t go exactly as planned, you wont be destroying already-effective methods if you start by upgrading the least effective areas of our curriculum. (pg 86)
The book provides great tips on assessing the work students do with technology and includes a few very well done examples. Doug’s advice on helping students use technology safely and effectively includes a nice analogy I’ve never heard before for how the internet has changed the way students conduct research: “The role of the teacher has rapidly changed from one of a desert guide (helping learners locate scarce resources) to one of a jungle guide (helping learners evaluate, select, and use resources of value” (pg 104). The information jungle survival skills that Doug shares are terrific (Know where you are going and make sure they trip’s worthwhile, learn to stay on the main trail to avoid the quicksand of irrelevant information, and learn to tell the good berries from the bad berries) (pgs 107-109).
I held my breath a bit when I got to the chapter on teaching 21st century skills. There’s a thin line between making technology accessible to beginning technology users and pushing them beyond their comfort zones. There are many resources on the market that refuse to challenge educators and disrupt the status quo, and the technology use they advocate is so similar to traditional teaching methods that I have to wonder why a school would invest in thousands of dollars of equipment if the teacher’s just going to stand at the front of the room and lecture while students listen passively at their desks. This is a sharp contrast from the other end of the spectrum: resources that advocate such revolutionary ideas that the typical classroom teacher gets completely turned off (let’s be honest: an educator who is just learning to use email effectively is probably not going to encourage students to use their cell phones in class to run a backchannel discussion.)
But Doug’s advice in The Classroom Teacher’s Technology Survival Guide is the perfect balance: it’s relatable and comes across as totally do-able. He’s in touch with what’s happening in actual classrooms and doesn’t labor under the delusion that change comes quickly to schools. He presents 21st century learning concepts in a way that makes sense and gets the reader excited about them. His advice to “try to only ask students questions to which you don’t know the answer” was thought-provoking; the guidelines for “choosing activities and assignments that matter” are simple and easy to remember. Doug differentiates between truly engaging students with technology (holding their attention and inspiring them to participate) and simply entertaining them with it (providing amusement or diversion), and tells how you can make sure your classroom emphasizes the former.
Managing disruptive technologies in the classroom is a huge concern for teachers, and Doug devotes an entire chapter to it. He outlines the different strategies schools use (from banning tech altogether to enhancing educational practices) and explains the pros and cons of each. The five reasons he gives for allowing and even encouraging students to use tech to pursue personal and recreational interests (read: go off-task occasionally while online) are so compelling that even the most apprensive educator has to agree he’s got excellents points (pg 148.) Another excellent chapter is called “Practices for Safe and Ethical Technology Use.” Here Doug addresses not only ways we can train students to use technology responsibly, but also gives some solid advice for teachers, too.
The last section of the book talks about how educators can develop a long-term strategy and plan for the ever-changing future of educational technology. These might be my favorite chapters, because of both the practical advice and the inspirational, encouraging words about what’s to come and how we as educators can learn from and support one another:
As teachers, sometimes we feel that we cannot make a difference in solving ‘giant’ problems in education. But I would encourage you to carefully consider who in the long run can make the most improvements in education: politicians, departments of education, consultants, administrators–or every teacher making some small changes every year? (pg 207)
Doug Johnson and Jossey-Bass have not only provided me with a review copy of this book, but have also sent a second copy to offer as a giveaway here on the blog. You can enter through the Rafflecopter below. The contest closes at midnight EST on Thursday, January 17th. Good luck!