Managing Expectations When Teaching with Technology

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After recently working with a couple of faculty grappling with tech issues early in a course, I found myself repeating some basic advice for “next time.”  Maybe these can be of help to others.

Whenever you introduce technology that is new to students, it helps to plan ahead for how to handle the inevitable questions and confusion.

  1. Write clear, simple, directions.  Obvious but essential.  Explain what you expect them to do.  Highlight key ideas or steps in large, bold, colored fonts, or highlights. Keep it brief so the important stuff isn’t lost in extraneous details.  
  2. Keep instructions (mostly) general.  There are exceptions but it’s usually not a good idea to walk students through step-by-step “click-this-button” directions.  In simply following such specific directions students don’t necessarily learn the “why’s” or principles behind what they are doing. This results in their being lost when anything goes awry and deviates from the step-by-step instructions. In addition, overly-detailed directions will become outdated the moment the technology changes in the least.
  3. Prepare for problems.  There will be problems; that’s the nature of technology.  Be upfront and tell this to students ahead of time so it doesn’t come as a surprise to them and so you don’t feel the unrealistic pressure to run a perfectly smooth course.  They are less likely to freak out when problems arise and you are less likely to feel frantic in response.
  4. Acknowledge your limitations.  Faculty often feel the need to be the “expert” with all the answers. Not fully understanding the technology they are working with can be very unsettling.  As an alternative, I’d suggest being upfront about your limitations. Tell students, “I’m not a tech expert. We’ll be experimenting and learning some of this together.”  Again, don’t create unrealistic pressure for yourself. Best of all, by doing this you’re modelling  for your students how to be a life-long learner.
  5. Test the system before it matters.  Plan ahead and try out as much as you can in advance of the course.  Then create an early low/no stakes assignment that uses the technology in question.  This gives everyone a chance to troubleshoot problems in a low-pressure situation.
  6. Use a public venue for answering questions.  Have a mechanism in place to answer questions and share tips that is visible to all students. Answer a question once and other students are less likely to ask it. What you don’t want is 50 personal emails asking you essentially the same thing.  The public venue for answering questions might be a discussion forum with a tech-question thread, an announcements page on a course website, a Twitter hashtag for the course, a shared tech-issues Google Doc, a few minutes set aside in a face-to-face class, or anything that makes responses visible to all students.  If a student emails you a question, answer it in public and steer the student to the response to insist on this approach.
  7. Encourage students to help each other.  When a student tries and fails to do something with technology, they probably have classmates who were successful in their attempt to do the exact same thing.  These students are now experts and can explain what they did from a student’s perspective, diffusing some of the frustration.  Tap into that expertise; you don’t need to answer everything.  Set the expectation that students will help each other using the public venue you’ve set up.  Applaud students who help.  It’s a win-win-win.
  8. Point to support resources.  Make sure students have easy access to appropriate documentation regarding the technology you’re using (usually just a link to support pages and forums) as well as to any technology support resources on your campus (an IT help desk, for example).  Encourage them to use these.
  9. Suggest limits on your time.  While you need to check in on students regularly, you can’t be online 24-7.  Having a loose routine can help manage student expectations and create some limits for your time. For example, you might check in on an online forums first thing in the morning to respond to any issues from students who often work late at night.  Or you might indicate that Sunday or the weekend are “off” times when you won’t be available. Let students know about your general work pattern so they can adjust expectations.
  10. Encourage self-reliance.  Many of these tips relate to developing students’ self-reliance.  It can be useful to make this explicit.  Remind them that a key part of being educated is learning how to learn. This is especially relevant for quickly-changing technology. Encourage the practice of looking for answers on their own before asking others.  Have them check the support resources you’ve flagged, ask other students, or just Google their questions.  Developing these skills will serve them well long after your course is over.

We’d all like technology to work flawlessly with no hassles.  Not gonna happen.  But with a little planning you can minimize hassles and focus on the benefits you wanted to get from the tech in the first place.

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