Technology in the Classroom: How to Reduce the Glitches
By: Jeff Grinvalds
Date: February 2007
Summary: Grinvalds shares six practices that help technology users deal with the glitches they inevitably experience as they enter the realm of classroom technology.
It was my second year of teaching at Ashland-Greenwood High School, and I was anxiously prowling for ways to exploit the technology of our school. I found my opportunity in our school’s talent contest.
The talent contest was simple in design. We had various acts performing on the stage and on a platform in front of the stage. Three judges chose the best acts. But I wanted to make it a spectacle to remember. I had been to a few concerts at outdoor arenas where giant screens displayed the stage so that we cheap-seaters could also enjoy the show. A fifty-foot-tall Bono pranced around in five different costumes at Iowa State. David Gilmour’s hands towered over Arrowhead Stadium as he played a solo from “Comfortably Numb.” Inspired by these presentations, I wanted the unfortunate folks relegated to the back row at our talent show to see Keri’s facial expressions as she sang her solo.
With each new piece of technology, there will be new and improved glitches.
I used our new Sony Digital8 video camera connected via hundreds of feet of coax cable to VCRs and projectors across the gym floor. The projectors, one on each side of the stage, displayed a 20-foot image of everything that the camera focused its electronic eye on. In addition, the camera was feeding live footage from a computer displaying digital slideshows and titles. It took me hours to prepare, and I still consider this setup a technical triumph.
However, there were the glitches. After the show was over and we went to watch the tape of the acts, I realized to my chagrin that I had not run an audio cable from the video camera to the VCR, so we had this wonderful footage with no audio.
Teachers who have been through experiences such as these are left with a nagging question: Is the technology worth the trouble? Most teachers born in the twentieth century will agree that a VCR and a television are worth it. It’s relatively easy to insert the cassette, turn on the television, and—after some struggle to find the right channel and mess with the volume—finally watch the movie or presentation. Some teachers are willing to contend with the technology to use PowerPoint (and other slideshows) as a regular part of their classroom presentations. And teachers will brave the computer labs to let their students perform research. But none of these even relatively elementary forays into technology are without their hazards.
So how can teachers overcome the glitches? Let me begin by saying that it is impossible to eliminate the glitches. No matter how prepared or practiced you are, there will be problems. Electrons are tiny little sentient spirits that dance around in ways that no one can predict, and their sole purpose in this world seems to be to torment human beings. Even if something worked last night, and you tested it and it was perfect, once you stand in front of an audience, electrons will do their best to draw attention to themselves. While glitches can most of the time be brought to an “acceptable level,” much like international terrorism, they cannot be completely eradicated.
Here is a list of ways to overcome the glitches that you will experience as you enter the realm of classroom technology. Keep in mind, however, that with each new piece of technology, there will be new and improved glitches. In my experience, the more impressive and complicated a piece of technology is, the bigger and more impressive the glitches will be.
Dealing with the Glitches
As a speech coach, I constantly preach to my students that preparation is the number one variable that will help them to achieve victory. I myself, however, tend to wing things much more frequently than I should. It’s all about my ego. I believe that I am technologically savvy. I think that I can quickly overcome any problem that I encounter, and I doubt that a simple computer or digital projector will outsmart me. But, as I’ve already suggested, electrons can be tricky little critters.
No matter how tech savvy you think you are, it’s amazing how an ounce of prevention will lead to fifteen minutes of not kicking a broken computer cart. Don’t just expect that when you bring your slideshow from home it will run on your computer at school. Don’t believe that just because you are plugging those color-coded cables into the right spots they will perform the way the manufacturer intended. Things can go wrong, and they will go wrong, but if you take the time to walk through the technology before you get in front of your audience, you will eliminate a large percentage of glitch potential.
2. Ask for Help
This is another ego issue with me. I know more than most people when it comes to technology in our school, and I would like to think that I can solve every issue either by fiddling with it or by checking online. I lived this nightmare when I finally got our Pinnacle DV card to work with our Compaq computer. It took me three months to find all the fixes and overcome all the bugs, but I did it. By the end, I was quite comfortable with asking for help.
In order to ask, you need to locate your sources. Here are four that you can usually find fairly close at hand.
The Tech Guy or Gal
Your school probably has a tech person. Some tech folks are really good at what they do, and they can and will help you in a pinch, but if they are really good, then they are also really busy, so there is a good chance you will need to look elsewhere.
Be wary of blank CDs that students give you to put in your computer.
As we all know, our students know more about this computer stuff than we do. They have grown up with it and have been messing with it for years. Many of my students can hook a PlayStation up to any sort of screen in less than thirty seconds, blindfolded. So look for the geekiest guy or girl in the room. You’ll know her because she is the one who talks about playing World of Warcraft all the time. She’s the one that had a LAN party in her garage; the one who carries an iPod, cell phone, and PDA and knows how to make them talk to one another. She will be your guide.
One pitfall of asking students for help is that you are admitting that you are helpless in the wake of technology. This can be a sign of weakness, and occasionally students will take advantage of this. Be wary of blank CDs that students give you to put in your computer. Don’t display images without carefully scrutinizing them first. Watch for strange cables leading from the staff bathroom to the student commons. But in my experience, most students will help without taking advantage. One other student to be wary of is the “know-it-all who really doesn’t know anything.” When push comes to shove, this “expert” knows how to create a document in Microsoft Works, and that’s about it.
Other teachers can also help. The advantage of finding a teacher who is tech savvy is that he loves to show off his tech savvies, and will even abandon his classroom, his personal life, and his wife and children to help you overcome your technological snags. You know a fellow teacher is tech savvy when you email him and receive a response instantaneously and before you can even read it, he is bustling into your room. He is plugged-in; he is online and ready to do your bidding. (I know because I am this guy.)
The only downside to the tech-savvy teacher is that once you find him, you can’t get rid of him. Pretty soon, he will visit your classroom and go through your computer eliminating useless applications, downloading spyware blockers, and helping you to coordinate all of your electronic equipment. He will latch onto you, and at some point you just need to cut the cord, go wireless, and say, “thanks but no thanks.” He’ll be hurt for awhile, but in the long run, it will be best for both of you, and in the glitch-filled world of technology, he’ll find someone else to help in no time.
Finding your tech answers online is another way to go. Sometimes it’s as simple as typing your particular problem into Google. You’ll need to know your exact product names and numbers so that you can search for the exact piece of equipment with mischievous electrons. Most of the time you’ll find that others have had the same glitches that you are having.
I also frequent online forums, which are fantastic resources. Most large companies have help forums nestled in their websites, where people share their stories of glitches and others offer solutions. The major drawback to forums is that you have to wait for an answer, but if the forum is highly trafficked, usually you’ll get some sort of response in a few hours. And once you find a trustworthy forum, you’ll find answers to questions you wouldn’t even have thought of asking.
The bottom line is to get to know as many people as you can, both in real life and online, who can offer you help with technology. Make your tech family as large and diverse as you possibly can so that when you do run into glitches, you will have support. Keep those Web pages bookmarked, those email addresses in your address book, and those telephone numbers close to your computer!
3. Stick with What You Know
I know that this sounds counterintuitive to the whole concept of technology and education, but until you have time to work through a new piece of technology and feel comfortable using it, you shouldn’t attempt to use it in front of an audience. I’ve been burned one too many times when I try to showcase a new piece of technology without fully exploring it. You may be familiar with the famous glitch when Bill Gates went to demonstrate XP and it crashed in front thousands of Microsoft faithful. He wanted to show off his new technology, and it came back to haunt him. New technology is great, but don’t expect anything to be “plug and play” out of the box, even if it says it is. Bet that something will go wrong the first time you plug in a new device. Remember, the electrons are just waiting for a chance to perform!
4. Double-Check All Peripherals
How often has the greatest technology presentation in the world been brought down by one faulty cable or the lack of an S-Video converter? Peripherals are the Achilles heel of utilizing technology. I have six composite cables in my room because I know that four of them don’t work reliably. And each time, it’s going to be a different cable that fails, so I always have a spare. If you are traveling somewhere to present, don’t trust the sponsors of the event to provide equipment for you. When possible bring your own, because you know that your peripherals work with your presentation.
5. Know What Is Compatible
Know exactly what software you are using down to the version number. Many problems can be solved or even avoided by paying attention to the details.
Don’t expect a presentation in PowerPoint 2004 to run on a computer running Office 2000. Don’t expect files made in XP to work on a computer running Millennium. Know exactly what you used to create your presentation, so when it comes time to present you have equipment that will run it. Know your resolutions, file sizes, and versions. Save all websites directly to your computer so that you don’t have to connect online and hope that the site will be the same as it was when you created your presentation.
6. Upgrade Regularly
If you don't have broadband, plan your updates at night.
The first thing I ask people who are having trouble with a computer program is, “What version are you running?” Sometimes these people don’t even know what I’m talking about, and then I know I’m in trouble. I was recently at my cousin’s house drooling over his G5 Macintosh running Tiger. He shared the fact that he had some problems burning a DVD, and when I checked his Software Update utility, I saw that he was lacking a dozen of the most recent and crucial upgrades. Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to Mac users. Remember, Microsoft licensees, you have an update button in your Start menu. Use it!
When upgrades are free, they should be downloaded as frequently as they become available. However, if you are faced with the painful choice of upgrading at a cost, then you must make a decision. Are these features you, in fact, need and will use?
You also need to ask if your computer runs the upgrade. Most software companies make the requirements of their software clear, but again, you have to know the numbers of your computer. I know that my computer cannot run Final Cut Pro 5 because my video card, an NVIDIA GeForce3 is not on the compatibility list and my processors are too slow.
If you don’t have broadband, plan your updates at night when you can leave your modem on to allow those electrons to flow into your computer. Then you won’t have to sit and watch the megabytes trickle onto your screen. If you do have broadband, then you have no excuse for not being up to date!
As teachers, we can’t be expected to solve every technology problem that we face, but we can’t admit defeat either. By working together and facing new challenges with a clear and focused plan, we shall overcome.