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5 Classroom Technology Fears and How You Can Conquer Them

Worst case scenario: You’re not totally comfortable with your classroom technology. You’re standing in front of an impatient, adolescent audience during the last period of the day, pressing Play on a hilarious video you’ve selected to demonstrate the law of gravity. But nothing is happening. Let’s add another fear factor: your administrator is in the room for an evaluation. Maybe it’s better to play it safe and rely on the pictures in the textbook or your trusty egg demonstration.

Fear and anxiety are major drivers in our world. In fact, they are affecting our students in larger proportions than ever before. Recent studies show that about 25 percent of teenagers have suffered from anxiety at some point. Acknowledging and conquering our fears have become all the more important. Overcome your fear of technology in the classroom and you can be a role model for your students as you show them how to accept imperfection and face reasonable risk.

Fear often arises from the unfamiliar, and technology is evolving so quickly it can be hard to stay fluent. Let’s tackle some big fear-based objections to incorporating technology from an educator’s point-of-view, with a special lens on how they may be addressed in the classroom and with your students’ help.

FEAR 1: It’s Just Too Complicated

 Basis for Fear

A recent search for “educational technology tools” turned up over 72 million results, and a link on the first page boasted a list of 321 free technology tools for educators. With such a volume of options available, it’s no wonder that educators with any hesitation may be turned off. With mysterious names like Voki, Smilebox, and 19Pencils, each tool comes with its own flavor of quirks — some require registration or access on your school network may be blocked, or they may be incompatible with something your district is already using. That’s a lot to digest.

Overcoming the Hurdle

Get recommendations from trusted sources:
A great place to go for recommendations on technological tools might be right next door or down the hall. Your colleagues certainly have their favorites, and they’ve probably already undertaken the effort of figuring out what works well with the special limitations you may face at your site. You can also turn to your virtual PLNs. Almost every virtual community has discussion boards and messaging functions, so find your tribe according to subject, interest, or comfort level with technology.

Work with students:
Your students likely have a set of go-to apps and are used to selecting tools for the best features and user experience. Have them apply their research and analytical skills to a review of tools for a particular instructional strategy. For instance, if you want to choose a tool for collaborative annotation, ask a student or committee to research and recommend the best one. They’ll become experts in the room and can help you use the selected technology at the appropriate time. Be sure to be explicit about the skills that are required for these tasks (e.g., compare/contrast, cost-benefit analysis, synthesis, presentation/communication) – it will help them identify their own strengths and extrapolate them to other work.

FEAR 2: I Don’t Trust It to Work When I Need It

Basis for Fear

Time is tight, you need to teach bell-to-bell, and one glitch in the plan can throw off an entire period. Plus, it can be rattling to experience technical problems in the moment when you’re supposed to be teaching, which can make it harder to problem-solve effectively.

Overcoming the Hurdle

Plan to fail:
Run a troubleshooting session before using a new tool during a class activity. Think about what could go wrong to derail the momentum. What if the screen is blank? Identify and secure connections ahead of time. What if the accessories don’t work? Make sure clickers and remotes have fresh batteries and are stored properly. What if buffering is unbearable? Download media you’ll be using in class, whenever possible, and delete it when the lesson is complete.

Work with students:
Students will value being able to help you troubleshoot technical problems in class, so take a deep breath, admit defeat, and let your students be the lesson’s heroes. It is important for them to see you have a problem, identify it, and allow someone to help you fix it.

FEAR 3: The Students Will Be Out of Control or Surfing Constantly

Basis for Fear

If students are using all the technological tools available to them, there’s a good chance they’re looking at different content on different screens. The days of all eyes on the board are over. Especially if they’re on personal devices, students may click over to their social accounts, stream movies, or play games. (Lots of adults would be tempted to do the same in a meeting.)

Overcoming the Hurdle

Incorporate structures that keep students on task and accountable:
Encouraging students to use technology does not have to mean setting them loose. Use intentional strategies that include checkpoints to keep students moving through relevant content and assignments without having too much time to wander online. Strategies that require students to break for pair-share, rotate through stations, or respond to prompts keep students focused as they work.

Work with students:
Discuss your concerns with students before you begin using devices, whether that’s at the beginning of the year or somewhere in the middle. Be respectful and realistic about how difficult the request to stay on task may be for some students. Have them help you define the expectations.

FEAR 4: My School Doesn’t Have Enough — Support, Equipment, Bandwidth, etc.

Basis for Fear

Most educators are short on time and resources. It can seem like too much to invest time and energy in learning about new technologies just to be disappointed when they are impossible to implement with your school’s limitations. If something is great, it may require registration, a subscription, individual tablets/clickers, or more bandwidth. If something is free, it may be blocked or have tiered plans that limit the functionality.

Overcoming the Hurdle

Take advantage of what you have:
You probably have access to staff that would appreciate the opportunity to help you select tools for your instructional needs. Your media librarian, technology director, or instructional coach are great resources. You may also have access to services to which your district has subscribed, and those services should run smoothly within your district and classroom (and have customer service numbers where you can usually find enthusiastic support).

Work with students:
Students may not have much power to help in this area immediately but, as you look to the future, it may make sense to advocate for a student technology representative or committee at your school or in your district. Some schools even have a tech team based in an elective course where students earn credit helping with technology throughout the school.

FEAR 5: It’s Not Rigorous Enough

Basis for Fear

We want students to be able to perform well on tests and meet standards. It can seem like learning and assessment in a digital environment are less rigorous than the paper and pencil assessment we’re more used to. Can a digital assessment really demonstrate the same learning as an essay, a written unit test, or a lab report? The answer to this question lies in the assessment design. If the questions and prompts within the digital assessment are thoughtful and the demonstration of learning is rich, then a digital assessment can be just as – if not more – rigorous than a paper-based assessment. Among its many benefits, a digital assessment can be customized, include student-created materials and performance recordings, and provide faster feedback during the learning process.

Overcoming the Hurdle

Match the technology to the learning:
Trying to retrofit a cool new tool to your instructional and assessment needs is a tough road. Instead, if you start with the understanding (e.g., standard, concept, skill) you are asking your students to investigate or demonstrate, you’ll likely find a digital tool that supports the learning rather than showcases students’ technological savvy.

Work with students:
Make sure you provide clear learning targets and a detailed rubric, so students can put emphasis on the relevant information and requirements.

There are so many technological tools to choose from today for almost anything you want to do better. But “with technology” does not automatically mean better.

In the classroom, aim to incorporate tools that positively impact learning, make assessment more accurate, and make everyone’s day more engaging. And take advantage of the opportunity to be fallible, afraid, and human in front of – and for the benefit of – your students. Let them see you struggle, learn, accept help, and conquer your fear of technology. It will serve them in class tomorrow and maybe even for the rest of their lives.

Jeanette Edelstein is an educator dedicated to making learning more engaging for students of all ages. She has been a classroom teacher, curriculum designer, and program developer. She was a founding teacher and the gifted and talented coordinator at Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts. Her curriculum projects include Hive Alive!, a collection of teaching resources about honey bees, Animal Planet Rescue, a disaster relief and educational vehicle that rescued over 1,000 animals, and CapsinSchool, an elementary curriculum based on the math and science of hockey.

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How Schools Are Bridging the Coding Gender Gap

Turning girls onto computers and coding requires strong leadership, said Superintendent Dr. Kristine Gilmore of the D.C. Everest School District in Wisconsin.

Computer science classes have long been the domain of boys. While girls and boys are now equally represented in advanced science and math classes, girls still are not flocking to classes like Programming in JAVA or Mobile App Development. With the growing need for computer scientists in the workforce, school leaders are trying to convince girls that these classes aren’t just boys’ clubs.

As superintendent of D.C. Everest Schools in Wisconsin, Dr. Kristine Gilmore has led a vibrant campaign to conquer the gender gap in STEAM courses at her schools.

“Things don’t happen by chance,” said Gilmore. “You have to ask, ‘Do all kids have opportunities?’ As a superintendent, my job is to remove barriers for kids.”

Girls only made up about one-fifth of all AP students in computer science in 2013, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project, even though girls are equally likely to take the science and math AP exam. This gender gap continues into college. In 2015, only 18 percent of all computer science college degrees in the country went to women.

This gap puts girls at a distinct workforce disadvantage in an industry on track to explode with opportunities. According to ComputerScience.org, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects growth of 15-20 percent in computer science jobs between 2012 and 2022. By 2020, there will be only 400,000 students. With those real-world opportunities, it is important to open more students — both boys and girls — to the pathways that coding skills could provide.

Why Girls Don’t Feel They Belong in Coding

It is somewhat puzzling that girls are comfortable calculating derivatives in calculus classes or studying harmonic motion in physics, but tend to balk when confronted with rows of computer terminals. A variety of factors are behind the computer science gender gap, according to a 2010 report by the American Association of University Women, including the geeky-guy stereotype, which is reinforced through popular media. Teenage girls think that computer classes are filled with skinny guys with bad social skills, like the characters on the television show “The Big Bang Theory”, and don’t feel comfortable stepping into that environment.

Researchers from the University of Washington found that simply redecorating the classroom might bust through that stereotype barrier. Allison Master, Sapna Cheryan, and Andrew N. Meltzoff reported in the Journal of Educational Psychology in 2015 that girls were three times more likely to say that they would sign up for a computer science class in rooms that were decorated with nature posters, lamps, and plants, rather than rooms that contained Star Trek posters and science fiction books.

“When girls felt that they belonged in the environment, they became more interested in taking the course,” according to the article.

Learning from female computer teachers, particularly during the middle school years when interest in computers peaks for many girls, may also hold the key to increasing gender equity, according to research by Accenture and Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organization that runs summer immersion programs for girls across the country. Developing a positive “experience of computing in their junior high years means that girls are 18% more likely to show interest in computing throughout their high school and college years,” according to the Accenture research.

Shaping Coding Experiences for Girls

Getting girls in the classroom is a focus for several tech-forward school districts across the country. Dr. Michael Lubelfeld, the superintendent of Deerfield Public Schools in Illinois, and a member of AASA’s Digital Consortium, has acquired a reputation as a technology innovator. And this is a topic he is passionate about. Lubelfeld has successfully increased the number of girls in computer science, garnering a lot of attention for his school district.

Superintendent Dr. Mike Lubelfeld believes heightened community engagement, school board support, an more female mentors could help resolve the gender gap challenge.

He’s found that a combination of community involvement, the presence of female mentors, and support from the school board are critical to changing mindsets. He also believes that immersing both boys and girls in computer science at an early age, in all subjects, is extremely important to overcome the gender gap. His district is even discovering new ways of bringing coding into English classes.

He also pointed to the success of a lunchtime learning experience, “STEM for Girls,” which was run by mothers from the community with careers in computer science and engineering. Over 100 elementary school girls learned how to build robots, performed basic coding, and completed hands-on, creative experiments using electricity and magnetism.

Beyond pulling girls into STEM, the program also served as a catalyst for a community-funded, $1.5 million STEM program in the school district’s libraries and as a factor in the selection of an elementary and middle school named Blue Ribbon Schools in 2016.

Like Lubelfeld, Superintendent Gilmore said that her district worked to bring girls into computer science by starting young and teaching computers across the curriculum.

“We’ve tried to think about it across more than one course,” she said. “We are trying to make it embedded in what we do, rather than being a separate pull out.”

D.C. Everest’s students are exposed to coding experiences even as early as kindergarten, using programs such as Scratch, and in unique learning environments like Maker Spaces, enrichment summer school programs, and during after-school activities like Lego Robotics clubs.

She wants girls to recognize that game design doesn’t just have to be for boys. Her district isn’t putting together clubs or classes that are exclusively for girls, because they want their programs to be open to all students, including students who are English  Language learners in her district.

“Girls play video games, too. Look at the success of Minecraft and Candy Crush Saga. We don’t have to create barriers,” said Gilmore.

“I don’t want to just destigmatize computer science for girls. I want to destigmatize STEAM for all kids.”

Tina Plummer, an assistant superintendent at the Mehlville School District in St. Louis, has worked to improve the computer science gender gap. Plummer and her district partnered with Discovery Education to reach girls when they were young, advocating to form connections with the community, and provide girls with role models.

“Start young, and give them opportunity,” said Plummer.

Mehlville’s schools also reached girls by offering them a girls-only event, “Breakfast with the Experts,” to showcase their various STEM courses and to introduce them to women in the community with careers in engineering, neurobiology, and computer programming.

There are signs of progress. More girls took the AP computer science exam in 2016 than ever before. In 2015, 22 percent of all test takers were girls; in 2016, 23 percent were girls. The College Board also reported that eight states had fewer than ten girls who took the test.

Clearly, more work is needed to get girls coding. Innovations from tech-forward districts like Deerfield, D.C. Everest, and Mehlville can help guide other school districts in their efforts to shift stereotypes.

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