Edtech in the Time of Clickers

I will be the first to admit that I am completely dependent on the internet. It’s hard to find a facet of my life and work that aren’t entangled in “the cloud.” Most of my work happens inside a web browser. While various cloud services have the potential to greatly improve the classroom experience, I’m also keenly aware of how fragile those systems can be. When the internet went down at my previous institution, for example, everyone on my floor came out of our offices and looked around like turkeys in the rain.* We were stopped dead in our tracks. Most of the services we used were up and running out there on the internet, but one faulty power cord in a room across campus meant that we suddenly couldn’t access any of it. On an even grander scale, the sudden end of the learning management system at UC Davis has undoubtedly disrupted the core mission of the university.

We’ve always been dependent on classroom technology like this. Chalk would break and bulbs would inevitably burn out in overhead projectors. But an instructor could generally fix those issues themselves – go to the closet and grab more chalk or a new lightbulb. What happens when the problem is a broken line of code on a server far away? Who fixes that?

The answer, it seems, is a lot of people. Many people get involved whenever anything goes wrong with classroom technology. Take, for example, a recent experience I had helping a professor integrate ‘clickers’ into their course. This took an enormous number of person-hours to resolve and it went something like this:

  • 3 weeks to turn around a user agreement
  • 3 days to create a (broken) integration
  • 1 day for the vendor to admit they did it wrong and fix it
  • A few hours of the professor’s time trying to diagnose why it’s still not working
  • half a day for the vendor to get back to me to tell me their instructions are incorrect and send me updated install instructions that contradict their installation manual
  • half a day to fix their integration (again) after I told them it’s pointing to SW Oklahoma State instead of UMW’s single sign-on page
  • a few hours to diagnose why it’s still not working

All of those steps took a while because of the number of cooks in the kitchen. Everything we did seemed to involve another office: The vendor’s sales team, procurement, DTLT, the professor, the vendor’s integration team, the vendor’s help desk, the LMS help desk, etc. This one tool, which played a part in just one course for five students, ballooned into a giant project because of all the communication that needed to take place to coordinate its integration.

Now imagine this sort of endeavor at scale. How many teaching and learning technologies do we depend on at our institution? How do they talk to one another? How many people does it take to keep those systems working smoothly together or resolve a technical problem? And what about students? Do they go to our Help Desk, the professor, or the vendor when they have trouble? How many meetings will it take to hammer out that process?

Most of us no longer teach in a world where we can replace the chalk when it breaks. Instead, fixing something that breaks in the classroom now involves, at minimum, doing some Googling or emailing a support agent. So, what do we do with that information?

One way I start is to simply know what I’m working with. I tally up the different technologies I’m using in the course. Am I using a Learning Management System? A WordPress site? Another piece of software? Online material from a publisher? Does one depend on the other? What are the things that might go wrong?

Second, I have a backup plan. How will I teach if one of those systems doesn’t work as planned? As much as I love technology, I ask myself what the technology adds to the course. Does it actually enhance learning? Does it make the student’s experience better in some significant way? If it doesn’t, should my backup plan become my main plan.

Finally, I ask for advice, either from a colleague or someone in a role like mine at DTLT. One of my roles as an Online Learning & LMS Specialist is to help professors make informed choices and learn about the systems they use. My colleagues and I here in DTLT help faculty integrate these tools into their courses in meaningful ways, while avoiding the pitfalls.

Teaching in today’s classroom involves having a basic understanding of the tools teachers and students decide to use and what we can do when those tools don’t operate as expected. If you’re prepared for the occasional glitch, it becomes just that – a glitch – rather than a crisis.

*Turkeys have a reputation for not being the most intelligent of birds. Growing up, my grandparents always loved to tell me that, during a rainstorm, turkeys will stare up at the sky in confusion with their beaks hanging open, transfixed, until they drown.

[Photo 2222 by Thomas Hawk licensed CC BY-NC 2.0]