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A Nascent Vision of Technology: You can do this. We can help.

January 25, 2011

Recently I’ve had the occasion to dream and think about how technology should be used in the school to enhance student learning. This post represents my early efforts to think out a few ideas.

First I’ll start with a couple of vignettes that illustrate my vision:

The best teacher led workshop I’ve ever seen

Before I go much further, let me describe how most professional development sessions go at national conferences. Even at the most technologically savvy physics conferences I’ve been to, conferences where professors talk about the latest discoveries at the Large Hadron Collider, professors still place a big stack of handouts in the back of the room, or tell attendees to email them if they would like more information (Dan Meyer can attest that this isn’t a phenomenon localized physicists). After years of this, my expectations is been suitably reduced to the point where I’m excited to see PowerPoint presentation that makes some nodding acknowledgement to the world of design. As much as I might like otherwise, most teachers and professors do not consider themselves designers, nor do they seem get much enjoyment from all the little touches that make a presentation really zing.

At the beginning of the semester, we had a professional development day where faculty from around the school offered workshops on topics of their choosing related to 21st-century learning. Two my colleagues, J and B, offered a workshop on the synergy8 course I previously blogged about. having observed the course, I knew that this would be a good presentation pages had no idea that it be a totally transformative presentation.

It started the night before with the following email from J and B:

Dear All:

If J and I have the roster correct, you are signed-up for the Synergy 8 session this afternoon (session #3) at 1:15-2:30 p.m. We are excited to work with you this afternoon, and we appreciate your interest and/or curiosity about Synergy 8! We will start promptly at 1:15 p.m. in JHS #234.

Part of our time together will be spent engaged in collaborative station work to explore and discover what Synergy 8 has been doing. We will use this link:

See you soon! J and B

“Whoa”, I though, realizing that in 1 email they’d leapt ahead of nobel prize winners and all sorts of other presenters I’ve seen. “This is going to be good,” I thought. But like most lazy readers, I didn’t bother to click on the link, and had no real idea just how good it would be.

So when we arrived in class, B had the wonderful Zoe Keating, quantum cellist and technology muse playing in the background. Once every one arrived, B started his presentation, by bringing up a poll from poll everywhere. “How familiar are you with synergy 8?” it asked, and then offered options to text, tweet, or enter your response on a webpage.

I looked around my 20 or so colleagues, and saw number puzzled faces, puzzled both from the fact that we are being asked to interact in this presentation, and that somehow our interaction was required via cell phone or web form. The puzzlement quickly turned to amazement as answers began streaming in and were updated live on the screen. Right there, J and B had drawn in the whole audience, from a wide ranging background technology understanding, and shown them that this workshop was going to be very different.

Next, J asked, “has anyone heard of a backchannel?” I looked around to see mostly blank faces, and felt a little bit like the nerd sitting in the front of the classroom. I raised my hand, and described what I’d read about them, since I’d never actually participated in one, and always thought they’re kind of useless. Secretly in my mind I wondered if it ever be possible to get everyone in the room working on a back channel when many of the faculty are unfamiliar with Twitter, and some were struggling just to get their laptops to start up. J and B were unfazed until this that we be using a back channel to discuss this workshop in real-time.

Next we were asked to explore the link sent previously in email. This link lead to four collections on of videos, journals, assignments and surveys that students created as part of the projects they studied in the course. J and B, with iPads in hand, floated around the room answering questions like master teachers, and within a minute or two, the back channel was alive with questions and comments. Colleagues having trouble with their computers quickly from help from another teacher, and suddenly most of the school’s internet traffic seem to be directed to room 234, as faculty explored a multimedia smorgasbord of snippets from synergy 8.

Despite my previously mentioned low expectations of most professional development presentations, I’m not easily impressed. I consider myself a bit of a technology fiend and usually can’t avoid deconstructing the technology behind a presentation in my head. But this presentation was different. It was different in two ways, first, it went right out to the to the cutting edge of technology integration (poll everywhere, backchannels,, and two, it did this in a way that seemed totally seamless. There wasn’t a bunch of futzing around with computers, waiting for the smart board to connect, or running around on J and B’s part to make sure everyone was on task.

Even more impressively, this was accomplished with an audience not of technology wizards, but a typical cross section of faculty you’re likely to find at any school, ranging from those that still find email a bit of a mystery and surf the web comfortably with IE 6, to those who know how to make their own youtube videos and keep a class wiki. Even though no one in the class had ever used the technology that was presented, the expectation was clear: You can figure this out. We will help you. Never once did even the most techno-phobic faculty member retreat into his shell, and start mumbling about how “technology hates him” or “I just don’t get it,” which is something I’ve seen almost every time you mix unfamiliar technology, large crowds and only a couple of teachers to lead the group.

I’ve been to TEDxNYED, and I watch and admire Steve Jobs’s Keynotes every year for their polish and seeming efforlessness, but I can say that in terms of interactivity and moving your audience along the technology spectrum, they have nothing on the synergy 8 workshop in room 234. I came away with a number of ideas for things to try in my own classes, and was able to put them to use right away, using poll everywhere in my METIC, and using a back channel to connect with my students over snowcation.

A Twitter Tidal Wave

You should know that my colleague J, is pretty unstoppable. But I never fully appreciated this until she got going with twitter. My thinking about twitter has followed this sort of thinking:

  • 3 years ago: Who would ever use this? I guess I’ll create an account since it’s free
  • #crickets
  • 1 year ago: people are talking about this more—maybe I should check it out. Wow, there are some great people here.
  • 6 months ago: holy cow—I’m meeting some awesome teachers here, and coming up with so many ideas. This is awesome! What did I do before twitter?
  • Yesterday: I wish somehow I could get my 3 mo old on twitter, so I could know when she needs a diaper change.

But all of this had taken place without much interaction with my colleagues at school, until recently. I had my twitter colleagues I got ideas from at night and on weekends, and my school colleagues I talked to face to face. I mean I just thought twitter teachers were meant to be spaced apart, 1 at every school—since if there were too many of us at one school, there might be some sort of chain reaction.

I was right, and it started with an email from from J, describing her desire to use twitter as a form of formative assessment and a window into what each of us is doing in our classrooms. I was game for trying this experiment, but I did not have high hopes for twitter making an impact at my school.

I again am happy to say that I was completely, totally wrong. J’s experiment is transforming my school. She has singlehandedly increased the number of faculty who are tweeting 500% or more, and these tweets are really helping faculty to establish connections between science and math, to see questions students are asking in other disciplines, and to hear how students are working to synthesize their learning. It’s awesome. No amount of class visits, or teacher team meetings could have accomplished as much as quickly as this social media project. And it’s done it for zero dollars, and in many cases, netted some time savings for teachers in terms of understanding and retention.

Now, mind you, I still think that nearly every person who hasn’t tried twitter thinks it is pointless, dumb, and just one more annoying bleep or notification for you to be bothered by on your computer. So how does J do it? How does she take the most technology phobic of our colleagues, and bring into her fold of tweeps? I think it comes down to the same message that was so clear in the synergy8 workshop. You can do this. We will help.

So how do you scale this? Can we just wait for J to bring every teacher to twitter? I’m sure she and her students could model this with spreadsheets, and at our present rate of twitter growth, this might even happen by the end of the year quarter.

Obstacles to a technology vision

But I want to talk about a few obstacles we face, and how you overcome them. To do that, I need to tell one more (imagined) vignette:

Today I met a very impressive man, B, who is a doctor, and was the former Chief Information Officer responsible for making a major hospital in the southeast implement electronic records a number of years ago. Now, that hospital is completely paperless.

For a moment, I want to play pretend, and imagine B trying to convince a wizened, highly trained cardiac thoracic surgeon (let’s call her scalpel) to make the switch to electronic records and all the other gizmos that IT people tell us will transform medical care. Scapel is a wonderful doctor—people travel across the globe for her care, she developed many of the life-saving procedures students read about in medical textbooks today, students revere her, and her care for patients and bedside manner are simply astounding. But Scapel is old school—she keeps her notes and charts on paper, she hates dictation, and worries about all the ways unreliable technology is encroaching on her OR.

B: so let’s talk about your office switching over to electronic medical records.
S: I told you, I’m not going to do it.
B: Study after study shows us that these new EMR programs reduce medical errors and save lives.
S: and what happens when the computer goes down just when I’m trying to read a chart to plan out an emergency surgery? Lives depend on my work, and my ability to be able to access my files.
B: But this EMR program will save the hospital millions of dollars.
S: I don’t care! I care about saving lives, and I can’t save lives if this computer crashes in the middle of surgery. Why can’t this be like the OR I had back when I was just starting out?
B: I thought you’d say that, and you know, you and I have been here a long time, we started at this hospital together. I can tell you that we’ve got fail-safes. I’ve tried using these things in my OR, and here are three stories of how the computer was actually able to catch a drug interaction that we’d missed!
S: Really?
B: Yes. And we’ve got a team of experts here that are willing to watch you and how you do things, to make sure that the EMR system is enacted just the way you need it so that it helps your practice, not hurts it. They’re going to watch what you do, and make sure that you know how to do the same things in the computer, in less time, with a better standard of care.
S: Seriously?
B: Yes.
S: (Grudgingly) I suppose I can give it a try.

Interestingly, Electronic Medical Records seem to have some real limits that frustrate doctors, and draw a lot of conversation from the hacker community.

What does this have to do with teaching? Everything. Replace Scapel with a wizened, veteran teacher, and you can see the same story playing out in classrooms all across America. Veteran teachers who see little or no need for technology, who already teach lessons that transport students to far off lands through the power of imagination and story, and who have been burned before by countless technology “fads”, even though it may very well be that this time it isn’t a fad—this may be the tool that saves lives. The veteran still doesn’t want to take that risk.

And if you’ve ever been in front of a room of twenty 15 year-olds, in that moment when the projector won’t start up and you start to realize that your entire day’s lesson might just be going down the drain, you start to think that lives are at stake and can sympathize with this veteran. If your computer can only be relied upon 90% of the time, or takes 10 minutes to start up, you start to realize that fully integrating it into your class just isn’t an option unless you want to give up 10% of your teaching time to computer crashes and waiting for your computer to restart.

This is where I think having B lead the effort to integrate technology in a hospital was genius. He was a doctor. He knew about all the pitfalls, and he had all the respect in the world from his colleagues. He wasn’t the young kid who loves his palm pilot trying to convince doctors to learn graffiti to start writing perscriptions, he was a colleague, who knows that you can be burned by technology, but also knows how to recover from these moments. He understands how doctors think and knows how to put pressure on the programmers to make the software work first for the doctors, and second for the programmers.

Can you imagine how powerful it would be for a 36 year veteran at one of our schools to get up and talk about how twitter has changed his classroom? I don’t have to, since I’ve seen it.

The phrase that brings everything to a halt

Despite all this amazingness, there’s one thing phrase that can usually bring progress to a halt:

I can’t do this. Technology hates me. I can’t even program the clock on my digital camera/cell phone/VCR

I’ve heard this statement from just as many students as adults. Plenty of my students look like wizards of technology on Facebook, but when you set them down in front of a empty programming shell, and ask them to write a program, they shut down.

This phrase is a killer because it’s the fixed mindset at work. It belies a world view that some people are tech-people, and other people aren’t, and it’s poisonous to progress. Without a belief that you can improve your understanding of windows just like you can improve your golf swing and math ability, you’re stuck and defensive, and instead of working to overcome your weakness, you hide it away, making it harder and harder to ask for, or receive, help.

Take away

So how do you do it? How do you create a school filled with faculty like J, B, and F? And how do we beat back the “I can’t do this—technology hates me” mindset?

Here are few ideas:

  1. Teach algorithmic and computational thinking to students and faculty. It isn’t enough to get technology in the classroom, and teach students how to use basic applications. We want students to invent new uses for technology, we want them to understand how the technology works, and we want them to understand that a computer can’t hate you—it’s a tool that does exactly what you tell it. If you put the effort into learning how to tell it to do things, it will amaze you. Students need to take things apart, see how they work, and then need to learn, from the earliest grades when a computer is useful for solving a problem, and when it isn’t. And do this from the youngest possible age.

    And these lessons shouldn’t be taught just to students. Faculty need to learn them too. How does your projector connect to your computer? How can you build a database of team members for your cross country team? Imagine a school where every single faculty member, and every single staff member thinks—could I use a computer to simplify this? What would happen if a secretary decided to replace the paper car registration system with a google form, and suddenly all the records for the school become searchable in seconds?

  2. Teach everyone to experiment and plan for failure. No one taught J and B about polleverywhere, todaysmeet, or; they found them by exploring. They probably also found two dozen other technologies that were dead ends for their classroom and presentation. Getting faculty and students to explore is a mindset thing—we have to teach them, that there is almost nothing you can do to a computer sitting at a keyboard that will permanently harm it. So go ahead, peek under that menu you’ve never checked before. Download and try that new browser. It can always be uninstalled, or your computer can always be re-imaged.

    And it’s just as important to be ready for failure. What is your backup plan when the projector doesn’t work, or the internet goes down? Have you checked to see that the cool web app works not just when you use it, but that it works when 20 people try to use it simultaneously? You do have a backup to all your files, right? Have you heard of dropbox?

    Just like we remind our students, teach them that learning technology isn’t about memorizing a step by step recipe, the best cooks learn to improvise and experiment with ingredients, thinking about the purpose of each ingredient as they cook, rather than the next step in the procedure.

  3. Don’t always be led by the vanguard. As much as I might try, there are some people who will never be comfortable learning technology from me, starting with my Dad. There will be steps I will I leave out by accident, things I just can’t explain. It is far more powerful to have many voices, at all levels of experience with technology serving as advocates. And it is critical that those voices include battle tested faculty who have been in the trenches—who taught hundreds of students, using the crappiest projector in the brightest room, and survived to tell the tale, and can compare it to back in the 80’s when the filmstrip projector blew out, and they had to finish the show by candlelight. These stories subtly tell us things will work out, and we can do it.
  4. Make sure you work to support the teacher in the classroom. Before we ask teachers to try something new, we need to spend time watching everything they do (just like Scalpel) , and start by looking for things we, as technology facilitators, can do to help them do what they are doing more easily/faster/better. This is a rare skill—someone with an understanding of both technology teaching and interpersonal relationships to be able to connect with a faculty member over a long time, and at just the right moment, offer the little bit of help that ease their burden and make them sing technology’s praises.

    And, when given a choice between making life easier for faculty, or easer for IT/administration, go with easier for faculty every time. Let the faculty have admin rights on their laptops. Sure, it’s a pain when their kid decides to install World of Warcraft on it and screws it all up, but it can be re-imaged, and it’s a bigger pain when a faculty member feels that they can’t use their laptop to do the things they need to do because of all the restrictions, and the computer becomes a glorified web surfing machine. Likewise, as much as possible make sure faculty are working with machines that and tools that are as unencumbered as possible. Make it a goal for faculty laptops to start up instantly, and connect to projectors seamlessly (even wirelessly).

    The goal is to get technology to the point where it feels like a utility: reliable, always on, able to do amazing things you never thought possible, but invisible most of the time. Technology should not be flashing gizmos lighting up classrooms all the time.

  5. Most importantly, support everyone with the simple ethos of You can do this.We can help, where “we” isn’t just the IT office or the wonderful people at the help desk, it’s everyone.
14 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2011 7:49 am

    Thanks for another great post. I really liked how you described J and B simply making the assumption that the technology would be used and that it would work, even if they have to provide a little help here and there.

    I feel I interact with a slightly different audience. They’re like the surgeon in that they’re dubious about the reliability of the technology but they’re also quite certain that their ways of doing things are superior to the technological solutions. It’s not so much that they’re worried about trying something new, it’s that they see it as a reduction of their teaching effectiveness. I suppose it’s very much how you describe non-twitter people when talking about twitter. Of course we’ve all seen people come around on twitter but I feel like I’ve made very little headway with other technological solutions with my colleagues.

    • January 25, 2011 7:58 am

      Thanks for the reply. Of course, I’ve never actually seen it in practice, but I like to imagine if an IT department were willing to make the investment to put a staff member in one of your professor’s classroom for an extended period of time, a week or two, and that IT person were talented not just in the ways of technology, but also in forming connections with people, I would like to think they would be able to make considerable progress in bringing that faculty member to using some innovative technology. “Have you thought of filming your lecture so that students who are sick could see this? I takes almost no work, let me help you.” This is probably fairly naive, especially in the college world, but I’d like to think that if someone will Bill Gates’ knowledge of technology (relatively speaking) and Steve Jobs’s ability to connect and sell were willing to work with you one-on-one for a week or two, you’d come around and see that computers are good for something.

  2. January 25, 2011 8:56 am

    A terrific description and method of teaching… set high expectations and scaffold the learners to reach those expectations without even considering the possibility of failure (even if they don’t realize it). Works for kids, works for teachers.

    One of my biggest challenges comes in working with our IT department. It seems as though each year I’m able to incorporate a bit more technology and collaboration in the classroom, yet at the same time each year our IT department places more restrictions and pulls more capability from the classroom. It’s an ongoing challenge to teach students responsibility and appropriate use of technology in the classroom when I’m trying to hit a moving target of “blocked” technologies, while continuing to work constructively with our IT department. They are sympathetic and willing to look at the educational value of what we’re doing, but in supporting an entire district with low manpower it’s much more efficient for them to enact district-wide restrictions and policies that reduce their workload (when in doubt — block).

    On the flipside, it makes much more work for us teachers. Students cannot access USB drives on school computers to bring their work to/from school (so they line up at the teacher computer to have me download files from their USB drives to their in-school folders), WiFi is restricted, and even with a special “teacher” password to get in, I have to spend 60 seconds re-logging in every time I want to access the Internet –> doesn’t sound like much, but when trying to show a seamless integration of technology in front of an entire class, a consistent 60s pause is ample time to lose focus… and then even teacher Internet is restricted from quite a few sites which can be useful: Youtube, Twitter and other social media/networking sites, the school firewall even regularly blocks students from editing their physics blogs on the website I built and control.

    It’s an ongoing challenge that I know we all continue to work through — integrating technology in a meaningful and productive way that enhances instruction, while simultaneously working to find solutions that our IT departments can support. I’d love to see us form a technology committee that works with our IT department to discuss educational needs and how they can best be integrated and supported within the means and policies of our district.

    • January 25, 2011 12:07 pm

      Dan these are great points. I think having a faculty tech committee that has representation from IT is one of the most important ways to foster stronger bonds between faculty and IT. I also would love to see IT departments have a requirement that staff members must spend a set amount of hours each year visiting classrooms, simply as observers to see how sometimes the smallest steps—a login to use the internet on the every computer, can become huge impediments to change.

      Somehow I think part of the solution lies in enabling more faculty to serve as their own personal technology help resource person for their department or colleagues, and empowering those faculty with the tools they need to be effective.

  3. Dan Carroll permalink
    January 25, 2011 10:48 am

    I’m about to transition from a classroom teacher to the “Tech guy” for a few middle schools, and this post is one I’m planning on returning to every month. Thanks for describing what amazing PD looks like!

    • January 25, 2011 12:02 pm

      Thanks so much! Good luck with the transition. In my experience, it is the full time classroom teachers who know the classroom really well, and can really empathize with the teacher who has a million other things to do and just wants everything to “work” that are super effective at helping faculty progress in their understanding of technology.

  4. January 25, 2011 12:23 pm

    I think that the medical record analogy is flawed. Electronic medical records correspond to electronic gradebooks. Some teachers resist them because the user-interfaces suck and they take up even more time that could be better spent on other things, but no one really feels passionate about their gradebooks (ok, maybe some teachers do—but I haven’t me them).

    Using technology in the classroom is more akin to tell a surgeon to throw away their scalpel and do only laproscopic surgery. Yes, the results in good hands are better, but it is not appropriate for all types of surgery and it requires complete retraining to do.

    • January 27, 2011 12:39 am

      Interesting point. In my view, there’s a spectrum of technology in education (from electronic gradebooks to virtual classrooms, I suppose) just like there is in medicine (from electronic records to robotic surgery). And two things are happening, one, more and more possibilities are being added to the far end of each of these spectra, and everything else is becoming easier to use/do. For the hospital that’s implemented electronic records, the next step is integrating all the various programs and records into one unified interface. My thought is to get the skilled surgeon in at whatever level he/she is comfortable. In time, I expect given appropriate freedom, and guidance/coaching form IT, she/he will begin to see problems with her/his present level of technological understanding. “this interface is bad” or “why do i have to enter in patient names in 3 different places.” These complaints can actually be used to improve the implementation, which I think will draw that surgeon even further into the conversation, since she/he isn’t just being told what to do, his/her opinion is a valuable part of the design.

      And at the same time, with technology getting easier and easier to use (think about how much simpler it has become to make and post to a blog, for instance, with tools like posterous), I’m not so sure that you need as much retraining as we may think to implement more cutting edge technology, if we’ve got a faculty trained to explore, and teach one another.

  5. January 25, 2011 3:51 pm

    I really enjoyed this post. The points about reliability and trusting teachers with admin rights especially hit home. It seems to me that many teachers (myself included) only feel confident and motivated to take the plunge with a given technology when they see other teachers using it to teach successfully or to work more efficiently, so letting teachers explore moves a school along much faster than a more restricted and organized approach.

    By the way, what’s the difference between Dropbox and I’ve just started using Dropbox and love it.

    • January 25, 2011 10:09 pm

      I think empowering teachers to explore technology on their own is one of the most powerful things you can do to increase technology use/understanding at a school. Culver Academies recently lost its tech integration specialist, and so the faculty decided to form their own technology support committee to explore and present new technology to faculty at monthly meetings, and on a blog. Seems to be making great progress.

      As I understand it, Dropbox is more of a syncing/backup tool. It keeps files backed up on cloud and as many computers as you want. You can also share folders of your choosing with people. It’s awesome. seems more like a place to put packages and folders of documents you want others to see. It seems to have more fine-grained control of who gets access to documents. It doesn’t seem to have the same backup/sync functionality, nor the versioning of Dropbox.

  6. Anna Moore permalink
    January 25, 2011 8:24 pm

    Great post. So, let me continue the chain reaction here. I left J & B’s workshop totally fired up. I ran back to my class and wrote a quiz I could use to do a quick pre-assessment with my students. 5 questions. multiple-choice. tweet or text responses. the kids LOVED it. really got into it. I was able to see where my I needed to readdress some key points and where I could skate by quickly b/c students really had it down. Pause: I’ve never let kids have phones out in class before. And, I’m not proud of this, but I’ve never done a preassessment before. So, there were two major firsts here. Both ended up being really important to me. A colleague from down the hall happened to pop in as I had the poll up. She was fascinated. “what’s that?” We spent about 30 minutes talking about how I’d just used this technology (and used todaysmeet the week before for a backchannel) and she left ready to go try it in her class. It was really fun. We both felt excited and energized. And, the circle grows!

    • January 25, 2011 10:10 pm

      This is awesome. Empower faculty to explore and report back on their discoveries. This is the key to learning.

  7. January 28, 2011 6:06 am


    Not only is this post flattering, full of warm feedback, but it is a tremendous contribution to the framework of how to move a faculty. For we do have to move. We should be like version software. In fact, I intend to start referring to my school as JH 2.10 or JH 2.11 just to reinforce that we are not static, we are required to innovate, improve, enhance, and learn to do things better. We must model the mindset that we want to see develop in our students.

    Another thought…I think it is Ken Robinson that beckons us to be less hierarchical and more organic. If faculties are like cells, then we need a nucleus. Thanks for being a part of the guiding coalition, the nucleus, to spread the ideas worth spreading!



  1. A vision of technology part II: PD and the twitter revolution « Quantum Progress

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