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Memoir Monday: If I Had a Hammer

Posted on Monday August 5, 2013 by Michael Keathley

Danielle Miller is an online educator with a passion for educational technology. In this guest post, she shares how she overcame initial frustrations with edtech and how she helps her virtual students succeed.
edtech and teaching online
“At this point in the interview, I would like to offer you a teaching position – online.” The words I longed to hear and that filled me with elation now also fill me with trepidation. A new online teaching gig means quick cramming to learn new delivery systems well enough to effectively present information to students. Overcoming this feeling of anxiousness involves many steps. The main one is realizing that chances are I, most likely, will not break the school’s e-platform; I have learned to look at e-teaching as e-exploring. Each term I learn new ways to reach my students. With one new piece of technology learned each term, a great e-tool box can be created. My toolbox, however, used to look quite different and was quite heavier.

Speaking to large groups of people has never been a problem for me. I started teaching “school” in my garage at the ripe age of seven. After a full day of public school, the neighborhood kids would come to the School de Danielle to read great works, discuss plots, settings, and characters. At the end of each month, we worked feverishly writing plays that were performed on our makeshift stage: under the swing set, with a sheet as the curtain and a flashlight as the spot light. My main teaching tools were books, paper, pencils, crayons, chalk, and a huge stand-alone chalkboard.

My beloved teaching tools (mainly the chalk) began to be thrown aside during graduate school when I had a teaching assistantship. Simpkins Hall (built in the late 1930s) was my beautifully designed, architecturally amazing home away from home. My old friend, the chalkboard, offered me comfort when I walked into the classroom. There was no fussing or mussing with anything that needed to be plugged in or charged. I simply wrote key phrases/notes/assignments on the board. There was no concern about students cheating electronically. I didn’t have to contend with Facebook, instant messaging, or students taking pictures of exam pages. Much to my chagrin, Simpkins Hall did, however, have computer labs.

The teaching assistants were required to conduct every other class meeting in the labs. The labs had giant, outdated computers, with dot matrix printers that seldom worked. Frustration and anger ran rampant in the labs during the first few meetings. (This was pre-WWW, by the way, and neither teachers computers nor projectors were available.)

Trying to simultaneously teach a lesson to all students while they were sitting in front of a computer that worked at its own speed, if it worked at all, was not conducive to effective learning. I had to figure out a way to make productive use of the lab time. Time management became key. Verbal and written instructions needed to be brief and specific. Examples of successfully finished assignments became available. Meandering through the classroom allowed me to prevent brick walls from popping up during the learning process. Often times, it seemed as though each student had a different question ranging from “How do I turn this thing on?” to, “How should I finish the essay?” By mid-semester I felt fairly competent teaching in the lab – that is until the day of reckoning – the day I was observed by the dean.

Of course, the day of my observation fell on computer lab day, and 90% of the computers were not working; the printer had gremlins inside of it. Certainly, I thought, I would be reprimanded for the gazillion snafus that happened that day. Instead, I was given a glowing critique mainly because of how I put out each fire as it arose. My faith in teaching with electronics was restored! Despite the malfunctioning physical tools used to teach, a positive learning experience was created. Many moons and many face-to-face classes later, I find myself trying to daily recreate those positive learning experiences in the e-platform.

Although I often struggle (and say a few – or sometimes many choice words) when I can’t quite figure out the latest application, use a multimedia tool, or learn a whole new platform, I am confident that my classroom management skills will get the students through the technological vortex and my learning curve. My number one goal of using technology as the teaching platform is to make the students feel comfortable using the platform so that technology does not inhibit learning. To attain this goal, I have learned to manage technological issues with flexibility and grace; offer students how to examples; prepare a back up plan for all synchronous learning; validate students’ conflicts with completing schoolwork, and share positive attitudes despite platform problems, changes, or operator error.

Technology is only a barrier in the classroom if it is allowed to be; it is not always consistent or dependable. I try to manage what can be controlled: avoid classroom expressions of anger and frustration when the glitches occur; share positive learning opportunities so students strive to excel, and ensure communications are timely, effective, and positive. Rather than lug around armfuls of books and chalk, now my virtual toolbox is left open so new skills can be tossed in (many given to me by students) without having to unhook the latches.

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