How to Troubleshoot Technology — Effectively!

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.)

“Hole in the Wall”: A Student-Driven Experiment

A while ago, one of my colleagues shared this inspiring and creative TED Talk with me by educational scientist Dr. Sugata Mitra, called The Child-Driven Education. Dr. Mitra is known for his “Hole in the Wall” experiments where he placed computers in public areas in poor slums, gathering places, and rural towns in India, South Africa, and Cambodia. Have a look at what happened:

My take-aways from Dr. Mitra’s experiments are:

  • Learning is a collaborative effort, no matter how you approach it. Collaboration happens in many ways–face to face, online, while you are researching a topic, and whenever you make cognitive connections while engaging in some other activity. Teachers and students need to engage each other in open and flowing conversations, including those that go down seemingly irrelevant paths, or those that are filled with divergence and differing opinions. It is through this engagement that we develop deep understanding, reflect on our learning, and solidify it in our brains. For this reason, using technology for research and learning works best when students share computer resources, instead of allotting one per student.
  • Searching for answers to questions that you do not understand (whether in a different language or otherwise), requires problem-solving, collaboration, analysis, synthesis, and many other skills that all students should learn. For those who consider Dr. Mitra’s challenges to students as knowledge questions (limited to regurgitation), I argue that the point is not what was asked, but how the students approached the questions, and where they could go next to delve deeply into the topics presented. Typing a question into Google does not include analyzing the results to check for accuracy, nor does it lead to more learning about related topics as you follow links to other sites. It does not point out key words or help you with analysis, synthesis, or conclusions about the topic. These are the deeper effects of such learning.
  • Education must no longer be about regurgitating information. If it is available anytime, anywhere, to anyone, then our goals should be to teach students to ask questions, develop mental models for thinking, systems for problem solving, patience, collaborative skills, and how to find, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and draw conclusions.
  • Learning to use technology as a tool to answer a question or solve a problem is a learned skill, just as learning to use a hammer as a tool for a specific task is a learned skill. People can learn to use a hammer without the help of others, but it is a lot easier when you have a guide (parent, teacher, friend, or colleague) to model, encourage, support, and help you. People can learn to use technology, no matter who they are, what they know, or how they live.
  • Technology tools and the vast amount of information available on the Internet allows us to be more curious than we have ever been before. Students should be encouraged to follow their curiosities and passions instead of memorizing concepts from a rigid and over-stuffed curriculum. After all, it is time and patience spent focused on a passion that results in the most effective results.
  • Self-organizing systems (structures that develop without explicit intervention) take time and patience to develop. We should use the power of student engagement to set self-organizing systems into motion around challenging curricular objectives. And beyond the classroom, self-organizing systems can draw students together to make a difference in their communities and become leaders.
  • Emergent phenomena (systems that develop into something that they were not originally meant to do) are what makes inquiry, real-world application, theme-based, and problem-based learning so effective. Allowing students to delve completely into a subject results in rich, deep learning.

What are your thoughts on Dr. Mitra’s experiments? Have you witnessed the creation of self-organizing systems in students and adults? What makes them effective?

Findings: High School Teacher Tech Integration Study

During the 2009-2010 school year, I completed a year-long action research project titled, Experiences of High School Teachers in their use of Educational Technology. In it, I followed four high school teachers and 125 students as they integrated various technologies into their teaching and learning. I worked with the teachers to try new tools and develop lessons, and then carry out projects with their students throughout the year. The teachers used a variety of tools, including SMART Boards, PowerPoint, SMART Notebook, Desire2Learn, Audacity, Photo Story, Photoshop, Windows Movie Maker, iPod Touch, and a number of Web 2.0 tools in their classes. I interviewed each of the teachers for about two hours at the end of the year, and collected student surveys after each project.

I wanted share a number of findings regarding the teachers in my project. Some of the findings are predictable, and some are surprising. Perhaps you can add your ideas, thoughts, and comments to the discussion.

  • Traditional roles. The teachers agreed that high school teachers still teach in a traditional way, assuming that it is their responsibility to answer student questions and know more than the students 90% of the time.
  • Limited ways of learning in secondary classrooms. The teachers acknowledged that secondary education remains focused on reading and writing as the primary ways in which students learn and demonstrate their understanding.
  • Teacher motivation is key. The most imortant factor in successful technology implementation by teachers is personal motivation. The teachers in the study said that their willingness to use technology is fuelled by personal interest, an acknowledgement that students respond well to technology use, accountabilty through collaboration with other teachers and specialists, and the fundamental motivation to become a better teacher.
  • Technology is learned, not innate. The teachers said that they should not assume that students know how to use every aspect of technology, just because they have more experience with one or two areas. The teachers agreed also, that they should not be intimidated if they don’t have all of the answers. They pointed out that students often lack skill and understanding in ethical decision-making, problem-solving/troubleshooting, evaluating sources, and research, organization, and information synthesis.
  • Technology helps to differentiate learning. The teachers all believed that technology helps to differentiate and personalize learning for students. It sometimes gave students who were weak in reading and writing confidence and freedom to demonstrate understaning in different ways.
  • Know ‘why’. The teachers needed to understand the purpose of technology in the classroom before they could implement it successfully. They wanted to know: What are the learning outcomes? How can this help fulfill student needs? What is the best tool (or tools) to achieve these outcomes?
  • Time, relationships, and support. Predictably, all of the teachers said that they needed quality time, relationships, and support to develop comfort and understanding of technology applications in the classroom. They needed personalized, easily-accessible (just-in-time) professional development provided by people that they trust.
  • Career and transferrable skills. All of the teachers acknowledged that using technology helped students learn career and life skills that they will need in the future.
  • Independence vs. Reliance on support. The teachers said that as they become more confident using technology, they could be more independent, but that ‘just in time’ face-to-face support was vital to their learning. They offered no firm formula for building full teacher independence. Furthermore, there is a tough balance between complete independence and having the supports necessary to take bigger risks in using technology.
  • Teacher collaboration is difficult. All of the teachers had difficulty sharing and learning with other teachers, mostly because of barriers in the school culture. There were no mandated technology goals for the entire school or specific subject departments. A lack of time to collaborate was also a barrier. Furthermore, getting quick answers from a technology specialist saved teachers time and energy in their busy schedules so they preferred that type of support over trying to figure things out by themselves or with non-technology specialists.
  • Technology outcomes are separate. The teachers in the study considered technology learning outcomes to be separate from subject-specific curricular outcomes. They had yet to develop a direct, logical link between using technology tools and learning. I like to think of logical links as a natural extension of learning. Just as you would have gone straight to the library to find books for a research project in 1983, it should now be logical for people to use technology tools to learn every day. I hope that eventually, it will be natural to use technology in the classroom and that we no longer treat it as an ‘add-on’.

What do you think of the findings above? Can you add some notes, comments, or strategies to the mix?

(Image: Fuga dei cervelli, by Sinistra Ecologia Liberta. 2009. Available under a Creative Commons License.)