When Technology Fails

When technology fails

Picture from http://www.flickr.com/photos/ethanhein/3008074991/

What do we do when the technology, that is supposed to make our lives easier, fails? If we are not adequately prepared it can make us feel incredible vulnerable. Last year the computer in one of my classrooms would not turn on and I was left to lecture on the board. While I had read through the material ahead of time and spent several hours preparing my PowerPoint slides, I was not mentally prepared to lecture in that format. It was my first time teaching an intro biology course and of course the technical glitch occurred when I was teaching the unit on evolution. I’m a microbiologist/molecular biologist and had not touched the subject of evolution since undergraduate school. I had not yet reached my stride with the material. I completely floundered. My poor students. We made it through, but it wasn’t pretty.

Lesson #1- Don’t use technology as a crutch or to make up for your shortfalls. Be as familiar as you can with the material before lecturing. No you do not need to know everything, but you do need to know the material that you are covering in class like the back of your hand. Now that I’ve taught this course three times I am very comfortable with the material and with the way one idea flows into the next. The PowerPoint slides augment my lecture instead of guiding it.

This week I had another issue with technology. We are three weeks into the fall semester and my microbiology class is using a new edition of the textbook. I have discovered that the website provided by the textbook publisher for electronic homework assignments is full of flaws and errors. There are mislabeled figures, unclear exercises and answers that are outright wrong. I used this same site last year with no problems, but I think the change to the new edition has not gone smoothly for them. Needless to say, this has given me more than one headache and I’ve had to be careful about managing my temper.

Lesson #2- Turn failure into a teachable moment. This statement has broad applications throughout many avenues of life. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade right? Instead of completely pulling the current assignment, I’ve challenged my students to find the questions that are marked incorrectly. The first ones to find them will be rewarded with a little bit of extra credit. This has been useful for two reasons. One is that my students seem to be more engaged in the material as they race to find the errors. The other is that many have identified the same few questions that they think are wrong, but are really correct. It is showing me that they don’t truly understand this particular concept and I need to revisit it at my next lecture.

Technology provides us many useful tools in the classroom, but do you do when technology fails? What are some other ways that it makes us vulnerable? I would love to hear your ideas or experiences!

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