In my job as an embedded tech integration specialist, teachers continuously ask me where to find help learning or troubleshooting the hardware and software that they integrate into their classrooms. In my experience, ‘just in time’ or embedded PD in the form of a real person (like me) is very effective, especially if the support person is readily available and has a personality that builds trust with teachers. The advantage of effective specialist support is that I can get to know ‘where teachers are at’ and push them to re-think their practice and move toward a long-term objective of integrating technology as an effective and purposeful learning tool. I believe strongly that regular face-to-face discussion, conversation, and reflection with a colleague or specialist is the key element to developing practice.

However, when immediate face-to-face support is unavailable, or when teachers need or want to learn or troubleshoot technology independently, there are many non-face-to-face supports available. I find that teachers are most frustrated when they run into technology challenges or problems. We all agree that problem-solving is a learned skill that is highly useful to our students, so why don’t we learn it better ourselves? We need to train ourselves to have the commitment and skills to troubleshoot. And as much as we assume that students have innate tech skills, my experience tells me that our students need to be taught how to troubleshoot more often than we think.

Learning how to troubleshoot independently is liberating, giving you a sense of control over your own learning. I believe that working face-to-face with a specialist is an effective way to learn how to apply technology to a specific circumstance, classroom, and subject area because of the conversations involved, but when a teacher feels that she can troubleshoot by herself, then she can take her classroom forward without relying on anyone else. This is the stage where a teacher’s intrinsic motivation and confidence in using technology truly shines. Here is what I suggest to teachers as they learn to use online or software-embedded support:

  1. Remember that you are not alone. Sometimes we assume that we are the only ones experiencing a software/hardware issue. This of course, is completely untrue. If you have an issue, then someone else has had it too. If you have a question, then someone else has also asked it and what’s more–someone somewhere has answered it! So don’t feel discouraged or like you must explain it to a real person before you can solve the problem. Take it into your own hands and find the solution. I bet you will be able to 99.9% of the time.
  2. Always ask your Help Menu first. Many people forget about the built-in help features that come with every single piece of software. Help menus have improved significantly in the last few years. For example, all Microsoft Office applications have quick step-by-step instructions with images and videos, as well as formal tutorials at all levels. You can access these via the Help Menu or on their support site online. If searching Help still doesn’t give you an answer, the menu will also direct you to discussion boards where both Microsoft employees and users can answer your questions. Most software/hardware provides help in their menu as well as online so try the manufacturer’s site first.
  3. Use the terms in the software. The key to using software/hardware-embedded help is to know the key terms for what you need help with. For example, if you are searching for help formatting a page, you should know that the key terms that you might find useful are ‘paragraph’, ‘margin’, ‘page set-up’, ‘format’, and the like. If you aren’t sure which terms to search for, look at the menu bars in the software for the commands that are related to the actions that you are trying to carry out. You can also ask the question a few different ways via Google. This may bring up answers or suggestions that contain the specific terms that you should use.
  4. Be specific and to the point. I recommend being as un-wordy as possible when using Help. So instead of typing “how do I change the margins in a document?” in your help menu, simply type “change margin” to reveal more search options. Wordiness usually reduces the help topics that appear.
  5. Trust discussion boards. If you can’t find a solution in the built-in Help menu or on the manufacturer’s website, then you might try to Google your question. If you use Google, remember to include the name of the software that you are using, the version, and a few key terms (for example, “format page margin in Word 2010”). Often you will find similar questions asked on a discussion board. I know that discussion boards can be tough to read, filled with distracting ads, or have strands that are way off topic. However, trying a few boards will more often than not get you the answer that you are looking for. Furthermore, when people conduct effective discussions, you might learn more than you came for, including special tips and tricks that people have tried successfully. You may have to read more than one discussion board so be patient. If you can, try the specific manufacturer’s discussion board first. And, like always, try to word your question in a few different ways using different terms if you come up short the first time.

I hope that the notes above come in handy. Feel free to share more ways in which you troubleshoot or learn to use technology. This is one of the most important factors that I have found in moving teaching and learning forward in terms of tech integration!

(Image: Help!, by Dimitri N. 2008. Available under a Creative Commons License.)
How to Troubleshoot Technology — Effectively!
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