The Best and Worst Decisions Teachers Make with Technology


Johnson_DougDoug Johnson is the Director of Technology for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage (MN) Public Schools. He is the author of nine books on educational technology.

In this excerpt from his recent book, The Classroom Teacher’s Technology Survival GuideDoug reveals the seven best and worst decisions teachers make when it comes to classroom technology. For more info on this and related topics, be sure to check out Doug’s Blue Skunk Blog.

Seven Stupid Mistakes Teachers Make with Technology

Stupid is as stupid does.
—Forrest Gump

Stupid is not my favorite word. It sounds mean, harsh, and ugly. But after reading in Newsweek that 25 percent of employees visit porn sites from work and that the adult video industry claims hits on porn sites are highest during the workday, it was truly the only term that seemed to fit this sort of human behavior.

I use the term stupid under fairly constrained conditions. To me, a stupid act has a degree of willfulness about it and is serious. Making an error once is ignorance; making the same mistake multiple times is stupidity. Unfortunately, I see stupid acts and beliefs related to technology in schools way too often.

These would be my nominees for the most stupid things a teacher can do related to technology:

  1. Not backing up data. ‘‘You mean having two copies of my files on the hard
    drive doesn’t count as a backup?’’ The first time a teacher loses his or her precious data, my heart breaks. The second time, well, stupidity ought to cause some suffering.

    Survival tip: Many operating systems come with an automated backup system to be used with an external hard drive. Ask your technician to help set up such a system for you. That $100 you spend on the extra drive will seem cheap if (or should I say when) your computer crashes.
  2. Treating a school computer like a home computer. Teachers who use a school computer to run a business, edit their kid’s wedding videos, or send tasteless jokes to half ofNorth America (including that fundamentalist math teacher down the hall) are being stupid. Teachers who take their computers home and let their kids hack on them are being stupid. Teachers who don’t own a personal computer for personal business deserve to get into trouble.

  3. Not supervising computer-using students. It is really stupid to believe Internet filters will keep kids out of trouble on the Internet. Even the kids who can’t get around the school’s filter can still exploit that 10 percent of porn sites the filter won’t catch if they choose to do so. They can still send cyberbullying e-mail messages—maybe even using your e-mail address. Or they can just plain waste time.

  4. Thinking online communication is ever private. Eventually everyone sends an embarrassing personal message to an electronic mailing list. I’ve heard of some tech directors who get their jollies reading salacious interstaff e-mail. Your school e-mail messages can be requested and must be produced if germane to any federal lawsuits. Even e-mail deleted from your computer still sits on servers somewhere—often for a very loooong time. Think you wiped out your browsing history? Don’t bet that that is the only set of tracks you’ve left that show where you’ve been surfing. Your Facebook page will be looked at by the school board chair; your superintendent and principal know who the author of that ‘‘anonymous’’ blog is. Not assuming others can see what you send and do online is stupid.

  5. Believing that one’s teaching style need not change to take full advantage of technology. Using technology to simply add sounds and pictures to lectures is stupid. Smart technology use is about changing the roles of both teacher and student. The computer-using student can now be the content expert; the teacher becomes the process expert, asking such questions as ‘‘Where did you get that information?’’ ‘‘How do you know it’s accurate?’’ ‘Why is it important?’’ ‘‘How can you let others know what you discovered?’’ and ‘‘How can you tell if you did a good job?’’ The world has changed, and it is stupid not to recognize it and change as well.

  6. Ignoring the intrinsic interest in tech use among today’s kids. Kids like technology. Not using it as a hook to motivate and interest them in their education is stupid.

  7. Thinking technology in schools will go away.The expectation that ‘‘this too shall pass’’ has worked for a lot of educational practices and theories. Madeline Hunter, outcomes-based education, whole-language reading instruction, and (soon) NCLB all had their day in the sun before being pushed aside. But it is stupid to think technology will go away in education. It isn’t going away in banking, medicine, business, science, and agriculture—anywhere else in society. Anticipating that ‘‘this too shall pass’’ about technology is pretty stupid.

Seven Brilliant Things Teachers Do with Technology

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are
powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
—Marianne Williamson, 1996, p. 190

I just listed seven stupid mistakes teachers make with technology. Easy marks, you teachers.

But, to be fair, I see just as many or even more brilliant teacher uses of technology. Here are some practices that just make me marvel and feel proud to be a part of the profession:

  1. Empowering kids with technology. Technology is an amplifier of natural abilities. By helping their students harness technology, brilliant teachers see that good writers become better writers, good debaters become better debaters, good French speakers become better French speakers, good mathematical problem solvers become better mathematical problem solvers, and so on. They see technology not as a crutch but as a propellant. Brilliant teachers have themselves experienced the empowering effect of technology. Brilliant teachers use good assessment strategies to rigorously determine the quality of technology-enhanced projects.

  2. Creatively finding and using resources. I can’t believe the technologie found in some of our district’s classrooms that were neither provided by our department nor stolen (I don’t think). Through personal purchase, through parent-teacher groups, through grants, through business partnerships, through parental contacts, through fundraising, and through classroom supply budgets, brilliant teachers amazingly amass digital cameras and clickers and sensors and classroom computer labs. One of our brilliant teachers MacGyver-ed his own document camera out of an old camcorder, plastic pipe, and duct tape.

  3. Making conferencing real-time. Brilliant teachers don’t wait until scheduled parent conferences to communicate with homes. Through e-mail, Web sites, online grade books, blogs, wikis, and, yes, even telephone calls, technology gives teachers the ability to help make parents partners who assist them in ensuring students’ timely completion of quality work. These teachers post newsletters, spelling lists, assessment tools, assignments, grades, calendars, discussion lists, and tips. They read and respond to parent e-mail messages. Most parents want to be involved, but they need to know how.

  4. Putting kids in touch with the world. The classrooms of brilliant teachers (hokey metaphor alert) have no walls. These teachers ‘‘get’’ the ‘‘flat world’’ challenge, understanding that tomorrow’s citizens and workers will have an advantage if they can work successfully with other cultures. From ‘‘keypals’’ from back in the day to Vicki Davis’s Flat Classroom Project today, brilliant teachers give even the most remote students a glimpse and a dream of the bigger world—and help them both communicate and empathize with those in it.

  5. Accepting the role of colearner. One of the best signs of intelligent people is that they tend to willingly admit when they don’t know something. Brilliant teachers not only accept the dismal fact that they will never know all there is to know about technology but also turn the condition into a classroom advantage by having their brilliant children teach them how to do something techie now and then.

    Survival tip: Always consider yourself a colearner with your students on any project that involves technology. Students learn by teaching, not just by being taught.
  6. Using the kids’ own devices to teach them. Brilliant teachers understand this old Arab proverb: ‘‘It’s easier to steer the camel in the direction it is already heading.’’ Students are increasingly and unstoppably bringing in personal communication devices—cell phones, cameras, game devices, iPods and MP3 players, netbooks, laptops, and PDAs. Brilliant teachers know how to use cell phones to poll their classes; create podcasts of lectures for later review; use games to teach difficult concepts; and make ‘‘Google jockeys’’ of student wireless laptop users.

  7. Delighting in the discovery, the newness, and the fun technology holds. It’s not about technology. It’s about finding out about and doing ‘‘cool’’ things. We knew that ourselves as kids. Brilliant tech-using teachers have never lost the thrill of doing something new and interesting with these electronic Tinkertoys. They are pleased with their tech-using students and pleased with themselves. Brilliant teachers use technology’s engagement (not entertainment) power. Technology is not ‘‘just one more thing’’ but a vital experience that brings discovery, excitement, and even fun to the classroom.

Technology won’t make a poor teacher a good one. But it can make a good teacher even better. And it can help make great teachers whose students remember them for the rest of their lives.

What brilliant uses will you make of technology?

Photo credit:


Book Cover Image for The Classroom Teacher's Technology Survival GuideA comprehensive guide for integrating educational technology in the K-12 classroom.

This is a must-have resource for all K-12 teachers and administrators who want to Buy Nowreally make the best use of available technologies. Written by Doug Johnson, an expert in educational technology, The Classroom Teacher’s Technology Survival Guide is replete with practical tips teachers can easily use to engage their students and make their classrooms places where both students and teachers will enjoy learning.

“Few educators can offer more practical advice on navigating the challenges and embracing the opportunities of the world of technology we live and learn in today. And even fewer deliver that advice in such an engaging, witty style. This is an important, enjoyable book for anyone interested in improving classrooms and schools for our kids.”

Will Richardson, author of Blogs, Wikis, and Podcasts

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