5 things I do when technology inevitably fails

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At my former institution I was the writing programs Director of Instructional Technology, charged with promoting pedagogical uses of technology. The first lesson I learned—and hence the first I taught to others—is that technology will always, inevitably, fail. What do you do when that happens? Here are some strategies I use:1. Identify student expertsI know a lot about computers, but I don’t know everything. And, I can only be in one place at any given moment in a computer classroom which means I can only help one student at a time solve a problem. In order to provide more help in the lab and in order to empower students, I ask for expert volunteers at the start of the semester. Students self-identify as experts in different aspects of computing or software—so I might have PowerPoint experts, Photoshop wizzes, or Office gurus. I give the class a list of who knows what so that students can turn to each other for help. Not only does this tactic reduce the tech support load on me, but students also enjoy being local experts while the practice as a whole reinforced the value of peer input.2. Teachable momentsSomething will always go wrong in a computer classroom and when it does I and my students often feel stupid, disempowered, and somehow to blame. I try to turn these disasters into teachable moments by pausing class to reflect on the assumptions built into technology. Sometimes this discussion can be tied into issues of audience: what audience did the software or website designers imagine? How are we included in or excluded from that audience? Why does it matter? When technology fails it’s no longer transparent; it is instead all too opaque. But that gives us a chance to finally see it and to consider what role it does, can, or should play in our culture and our lives.3. Multi backupsThere’s nothing more frustrating than losing work, so saving it often in many ways and places is the only rule of thumb. Most students have USB flash drives these days, but also encourage your students to email their work to themselves, using your institution’s webmail interface if that’s available. Your school might also provide web storage space or a network drive. Have your students research all the options for saving work in order to create a handout for everyone in the class to use. You might also have groups create tutorials on using the various storage methods.4. Local lab loreI’ve found that all computers have their own personality quirks, not unlike Hal in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. With many computers in a single classroom, those quirks multiply into a culture unique to that lab. During the course of the semester, have students track the particular tips and tricks for your computer classroom: “Close Word before starting any web browser on computer 19 or the whole thing will freeze,” for example. The finished document can be passed on to the next teacher or class to use that space, creating a shared memory of the local lab lore.5. CMS emergency backup plans Course Management Systems (CMS) such as Blackboard are vulnerable to their own set of problems, such as the server suddenly going down and usually just when you or your students need it most. Prepare for these contingencies by working with your students to develop emergency backup plans for CMS problems. For example, if the server is down when a paper is due for posting, work with your students to determine what to do—email you the paper instead? Have a student email everyone about the problem to document when it happens, when they reported it to tech support, and when it’s solved? Provide a backup due date? Thinking ahead can make your semester go much more smoothly. And how do you handle tech failures? Is that a reason to reject computers in composition?
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.