What Happens When Technology Doesn’t Work

Recently, I asked you, the readers of this site, and my colleagues and friends on Twitter to give me some feedback on an idea I have for a book. You can read about it and participate here if you missed it. The feedback was both encouraging, enlightening, helpful, and warning about certain issues, such as the rate of change in technology. Now, since I would like the book (if it actually comes to fruition) to make a positive impact, it has to be accessible to teachers who are not comfortable using technology in the classroom. Talking only to those who are comfortable would be to miss the point; they might learn about a technique or a tool, but it would not really help them to improve their teaching in a fundamental way.

One person who filled out the Google Form mentioned including anecdotes. I really like this idea as I do not want to make the mistake of separating theory from practice. However, I believe that both we and others can learn from our failure. Over the last several years, I have learned that is it good to appear human in front of your students and peers. It makes them feel more comfortable with you and to learn to trust you. I would like to ask help of you one more time. Can you recount in the comments a time when technology did not work properly for you, how you recovered or wish you had recovered, and what you took from that lesson. Please specify whether or not you would mind if I included it in the book. It can either be done anonymously or with full attribution to you (Book will be released for free, so I am not promising any financial compensation.).

To start, I have always been competent with technology. I rarely encounter a problem that I cannot solve. Unfortunately, I have not always been competent as a teacher. My first year teaching, I planned a fun poetry wiki project. This required the Internet because the students would create their own pages on the wiki and post their own original works.

Unfortunately, the ethernet port that you plug the computers into to get to the Internet broke off inside the wall. After spending 10 minutes handing out laptops and another 5 giving instructions, I realized the students could not get online. The students chatted pleasantly while I tried to figure out the issue. After I realized the problem, I thought I could solve it. I spent at least 20 minutes trying to fish the port out of the wall with paper clips and scotch tape. I tried to use my screwdriver to break the cover off, but a student thankfully informed that it wouldn’t be a very good idea. As this was going on, the students chatter grew louder and less pleasant. At this point, at least 40 minutes had gone by. Defeated and frustrated, I had the students put the laptops away and the next 10 minutes was a wasted teaching opportunity.

I was too inexperienced to understand how to react properly. In this instance, I did not teach my students to adapt. I wish that I once I had realized it was not an easily fixable problem, that I had the students come up with ideas for their poems, start writing drafts, and depending on how far they got, collaborate and peer edit. The technology made sharing easier, but in this instance, the lesson could still have worked well without it. If I really thought the wiki was essential, I could have just pushed it back a day or two until after the students were done writing. This was a simple mistake, but it had a lasting impression on me as it taught me to always have a plan b. Now, no matter what, I always have at least an idea, if not a full plan, of what to do it the technology does not work. Technology can greatly benefit teaching, but teaching can still happen without it. That was an important moment in my first year.

Now, if you don’t think that I am a terrible teacher (and if you’re still reading, hopefully you don’t), please share a story of your own. It doesn’t have to be included in the book if you do not want it to, but I feel that it can make teachers feel more comfortable using technology and more comfortable with the fact that they won’t always succeed if they see that the pioneers and models (Hint: if you are reading a teaching and technology blog, you are probably a pioneer and leader in your school, even if you don’t realize it.) have been in the same place that they may feel they are.

8 comments to What Happens When Technology Doesn’t Work

  • laura rieben

    I was trying to show the live penguin cam from the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. It worked easily at home but when I got to school, the Apple computers needed a plug in. I teach Kindergarten and had to download the plug in and keep 22 kindergarteners entertained (we sang a song or two in the darkened classroom). Next day, I wanted to show the groundhog coming out of the den. YouTube is blocked at school and most of the videos seemed to be on that. I found one that wasn’t, previewed it before the kids came. Got the kids all excited about seeing the groundhog, started the video and realized I needed the speakers to be connected. Plugged in the speakers and then, the connection to the projector didn’t work. Sigh. Still haven’t figured that one out (unplugged, replugged, turned off and on, checked the connections). I had small groups come see the video at the computer while the others sat on the carpet. Not ideal and took 5 times as long.
    I love your idea of the book. My team has all differing levels of comfort with technology. The school keeps giving us more and it is getting more complex. I believe the best way to get teachers comfortable is to have someone come in and teach with them side by side for a week or two with a gradual release of responsibility. The problems with the technology not functioning as planned, though, is another problem. It takes a different mindset to be willing to try lots of solutions and some people are afraid of making the problem worse (breaking it). (Some of my co-teachers are afraid to delete anything, even when multiple copies exist, do not understand why email is everywhere on all the computers, and want to write down everything I tell them!). Good luck with the book!

  • Jason Bedell
    Twitter: jasontbedell

    Thanks for the story Laura. I would love a job where I could work with a teacher for an extended time, teaching then letting them take over with support. It is frustrating when simple things don’t work right. I like doing a tech lesson with a teacher where I do most of the work 1st period and gradually move towards them taking over by the end of the day.

  • Debra Gottsleben
    Twitter: gottsled

    Jason I love your idea of working with a teacher and then letting them take on more and more of the tech aspect of the project. I have some teachers that need more handholding.
    Laura I laughed reading your story. Similar things have happened to me. I am in a high school and sometimes with bigger kids come bigger problems!
    My worst tech glitch came when I was doing a huge presentation for our district. I wanted to show martinlutherking.org to them. The site was down! Later on in my presentation I showed how to find an older version of a site by using the wayback machine. When the MLK site was down I just didn’t think of the wayback machine. I explained the site; not anywhere near as good as showing and it wasn’t until later that the lightbulb went off and I said I could have used a tool that I was modeling later on! Oh well! The presentation went well despite starting off nearly disastrously!
    I also had a twitter malfunction when I did a presentation. Didn’t realize that twitter would block people from signing up when they received multiple requests from same IP address. Here I’m trying to walk people through the process of joining twitter and no one can sign on! Well we learn from or mistakes!

  • Jason Bedell
    Twitter: jasontbedell

    That is a perfect site for teaching evaluating websites. I actually had the same problem except that the site is blocked here, understandably. Now, I save a copy at home so I can demo it in school. We actually had the Twitter problem too; Twitter was blocked, so we did an in-service without getting new accounts. It went well, but not nearly as well as it could have.

  • Hadley Ferguson
    Twitter: hadleyjf

    My worst moments with technology have come when I found a great tool, that in my head totally supported what I was doing in the class, only to find as I employed it that the time required for the students to use the tool to show their learning was far beyond the time the lesson needed. The worst example of this was when I thought it would be fun for the class to create a movie showing the causes of the Revolutionary War. It is a great time to highlight cause and effect, as the Americans and the English act and react to each other, an important lesson in history.

    So I divided them into groups and had each group choose 4 key events that led to the war. They then wrote and script and planned for their shooting. At this point, it seemed like a brilliant plan. They were talking about all sorts of history ideas, debating significance and making clear choices about what to include and what to leave out.

    Then it was time for the filming, and each group had 4 major events to portray. The back of the classroom was piled high with costumes and props that they had created. And the filming began. Each group disappeared off, around the school, to get the best backdrops for their scenes. After the first day, a slight portion of one scene had been finished. After the second day, a bit more. So it went for over a week, by which point, I was beginning to wonder if there was any history being learned in the midst of the mad dashes for costume changes and grabbing of props.

    They were having a great time, one that I let go on for almost two weeks, when I finally pulled the plug. At that point, the students didn’t even protest, a sure sign that the activity had gone past its time of value. It was a good idea, but one that needed to be focused better. I had given each group far more than they could accomplish while still in the learning phase, one that used the technology to supported the growth of the students’ understanding of the topic.

    When I do it again, I would still have them make a movie, but I would assign one event to each group and then create a class movie. That would engage the students in creating the movie, but make the task one that could be done in an appropriate amount of time.

    Feel free to use any or all. Good Luck! Hadley

  • Jason Bedell
    Twitter: jasontbedell


    Thanks for the great comment. I had a similar experience last year. I was teaching about the lives of American revolutionary authors and had the students make video recreations of their lives. It took quite a bit longer than I had hoped or expected. I think I’ll try to incorporate this into my introductory chapter. I’ll try to have that up by the end of the weekend. I appreciate the help.


  • I saw you post this through twitter a few days ago. Sorry I am just getting around to it, but I got 2 good ones…

    I am a first year teacher, and thankfully I have not encountered too many since I have been teaching. However, I encountered 2 very interesting problems during my reign as a student teacher. I too consider myself to be competent in most technologies. I am a digital native – born into the world of facebook and YouTube.

    I actually taught for a very long time during my student teaching – 12 weeks when you are only required to do 6, but I enjoyed it so I did not want to give the classroom back. I used my macbook pro all the time when I was teaching and still do…it is what I comfort with (easiest for me to troubleshoot when something goes wrong).

    I was doing an online journaling project using penzu (every student in my school had a laptop) on what it was like to be a slave coming to America during the 1800s. I had the students chronicle their lives as slaves coming to America and what their life was like from the moment they were forced to America to the end when they lived their life out as a slave. I used somewhat staged prompts each day they wrote to guide their writing initially, but other than that, the students had free reign.

    As the students were writing, I played music for them to write. I tried very hard to create playlists in iTunes that worked well with the prompt for the day. First day of music went great. Second day of music went great. Third day was terrible. Whenever I played the playlist I wanted to, the music would skip to another song or to another playlist or go mute or skip through the song or change volume. To troubleshoot, I allowed the students to continue writing and just unplugged the speakers until I figured it out. I would quit iTunes and restart the program and play the music. Then plug the speakers back in for the class to hear and it would work flawlessly. Then 20 seconds would go by, and the problem would reoccur. Once I again, I troubleshooted the same way. This happened maybe 3 or 4 times. The students could see me getting frustrated. The music was not even necessary, but I wanted/needed it to “set the mood.” I knew how important it was to set the right atmosphere. It took me almost the entire writing time to figure out a student had brought in one of the iTunes remote controllers that comes with most macbooks. He was controlling my computer from his desk. INGENIOUS, but so frustrating for me. I have to tip my hat to that student, but I learned 2 very important lessons that day. One – When the fluff does not work around your lesson plan, let it go or it will completely defeat the purpose of the lesson if the students see your frustration. They share your frustration and confusion and will stop engaging themselves even in a self-guided activity such as online journaling. Two – always troubleshoot even the dumbest of ideas when it comes to technology. It could be as easy finding the remote control. I know, as a technology literate teacher, I feel the easy problems can never be my problem, but it is always good to start with square one even if I know there is no way it can be that problem.

    I too had another problem similar to Hadley Ferguson, but I will actually spare you the details as I just read her post. It involved online debating through voicethread as opposed to normal debate style. Great idea, but proved to be too difficult technology wise and the point of the lesson was lost in the work.

  • Jason Bedell
    Twitter: jasontbedell

    Thanks for the story. I think the kids are often smarter than we give them credit for. I had a student last year named Carl. He showed me his PSP. He had modified it by installing a variant of Linux into extra hard-drive space and one of the added features was a universal remote. He started controlling my DVD player and my projector. (He also did some custom soldering work for me.) The interesting thing, though, is that once he saw I valued his intelligence, he never tried to mess with me and he started to do better in English. I’m sure he messed with his other teachers, but he didn’t see relevance in most of his classes outside of construction.
    I haven’t tried Penzu yet, but it looks promising. I just added it to my Diigo account.

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