5 rules for making tech work in class

classroom picture


Do any of these sound familiar: You plan for a lesson using the internet and that’s the day your school loses its connection. You plan to take the students to the computer room to do some writing, but you forget to book it and someone else is in there. You plan on students using a website on their mobile phones but discover that it doesn’t work on mobile devices or the students need some special login and you’ve got no idea how to give it to them. Technology is supposed to make the lesson more engaging but seems better at finding more ways to embarrass you and make you look incompetent in front of your students. No surprise we fall back on what we know and what’s safe.

In the good old analogue days, things were simple but even then, the small amount of technology there was could still derail a lesson. You’d accidentally press the wrong button on the tape recorder and lose the place in the listening and then the increasing panic as you couldn’t find it in front of the students. Or the video player wouldn’t because someone had messed around with the cables in the back. Even the photocopier would play up some days and you couldn’t get any worksheets or handouts prepared for your class.

So, sometimes it seems so much easier just to ignore it, and carry on using the old ways, paper and pen and, if pushed, a CD or DVD player.

But we know we can’t really, at least not all the time. Technology is out of the box, it’s a huge part of our students’ lives and so it’s not realistic to run our classrooms like it’s 1986. But we also need to feel the confidence to go in there and get started with technology and not feel like a fool. Here are some general tips and advice to make the experience slightly less painful and to prevent things from going wrong. These have all been learnt from hard (and sometimes bitter) experiences.

“that wasn’t there the last time I looked”

Technology updates fast. Real fast. And websites and services update even faster as there’s nothing physical that needs to change, just code. This means your favourite website might suddenly change its design and layout, it might add new tools, withdraw others, move from a free model to a paid model. Hell, it might close down altogether. Don’t assume because something worked a particular way last week, that’s how it will work this week. Google have particularly screwed up my life on multiple occasions with this as they seem singularly incapable of letting their web services remain the same for more than about a week.

So, the advice here is: check your tech. If you’re planning on using a website, make sure you’ve gone through it thoroughly at the earliest a few days before the lesson. Check if anything’s changed since the last time you used it. If you created any online materials using any of these tools, check that it still works the same way and nothing has been removed.

“I’m not seeing that on my screen”

Many web tools have both a student and a teacher version. The teacher version typically has more features as you can create quizzes etc while the student version only allows you to actually take the quiz. Socrative is a good example of this. Or the teacher version might have additional functions, like the ability to create classes or add students. The point is, what you are seeing is likely to be very different to what the student sees. And this can be confusing in class when you think they have access to something they don’t and you suddenly realise this by looking over their shoulder.

So, a useful tip is to make sure you’ve registered both as a student and a teacher on a site and ideally added yourself to the class so you can see how it interacts. You may need two different emails to register (e.g. home and work) but it’s worth it. Use two browsers Alternatively, ask a colleague at work or a husband/wife/son/daughter to act as your guinea pig student on their computer so you can see what your students are going to see.

“they want me to register”

Nothing can slow down a class more than when you have to wait for 20 students to go through a multi-page registration process and then log onto their email to get the activation link (which of course doesn’t arrive, so they go back and do it again).

Check in advance what kind of registration is needed of students, it’s better if there’s none at all – as with sites like Socrative or Padlet – but if there is, see if you can get them to do it in advance, either for homework or at the end of a previous lesson. Another useful thing is to take screenshots of each stage of the registration process and put them on a powerpoint so you can go through it together with them in class step by step. Again, signing up as a student means you’ll get a much clearer idea of the process and how long it takes.

“Why have you got three computers in front of you?”

So, you create a lovely lesson based around the BBC iplayer, you’ve booked the computer room, all the headphones are ready, you’ve got your questions to send out via email to the students. And then the internet stops working. Your perfect, pristine lesson now lies in tatters. What are you going to do?

Shouldn’t really need saying, but you’ve got to have a back up plan, or at least an inkling of what you can do if the tech goes south. Can you download the video ahead of time (some catch-up services let you do this)? Can the students watch on their mobile phones? They might have access to an internet connection while you don’t. If your questions are online, can you have a paper copy backup just in case? If only some of them can, group them in twos/threes so they can watch together (should be cosy at least!). As teachers we often have back-up ideas for analogue lessons (do another page of the book, get ’em doing another activity)

“You’re probably using internet explorer”

We can’t always second guess what technology our students will have in front of them. We may have an Android phone, but some of our students might have iPhones or – much less likely – a Blackberry or Windows phone. We may use Firefox or Chrome, but our students might prefer Internet Explorer. Things work differently on different devices or browsers. If possible, make sure you can test things out on them to see how well they work. Install different browsers on your computer and just try that web tool in all of them to see if there’s any difference. If your husband/wife/partner/son/daughter has an iPhone and you don’t, send the link to them to see how well it works on their phone. This is not something you want to do deal with in the middle of a lesson.

Now, I know that this seems like a lot of work, and at first it probably is if you don’t use technology that much in your teaching. But over time – like with most things in teaching – they become unconcious habits we adopt and they become part of our repertoire, just like making sure we’ve made enough photocopies or looking up difficult words we need to explain in the dictionary before we go into class. You may wonder if it’s worth the effort, I can’t really answer that for you, but if you feel like you want to use technology in the classroom and that your students would like it, then it probably is.

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About David Read

I work at the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield as the Director of TEL (technology-enhanced learning). I've been an EFL/EAP teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years and have worked in 14 different countries. Settling down is clearly an issue for me.

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