Thinking outside the ‘tech’ box

Technology in the classroom: Would you say we are using too much ...

The Trouble with Technology

I rely heavily on my social network for resources to communicate my assessment philosophy and education pedagogy.  During this crisis, I find myself inundated with so much information that I find it a daunting task to weed out the unnecessary, trolls, and funnies to get to important information for my PLN (professional learning network).  It’s both captivating and excruciating.

If we spend the time, though, there is a swarm of fantastic resources and suggestions for teachers set to embark on “learning from home” during the Covid 19 crisis that has shut down schools. It brings me to tears considering how willing teachers are to collaborate and share under these circumstances.

First and foremost, I think it’s important that we remember that we haven’t shifted to online learning or distance education, but “learning from home.” In fact, I’m missing words here. It’s more like “learning from home during a major, stressful, frightening, devastating, isolating crisis.” That’s better. This is our reality. This is our students’ reality.

Coronavirus pandemic quotescapture news of historic story

I also appreciate that there are so many online and virtual learning suggestions that are appealing to many teachers right now.  Every day, as I scroll through Twitter and Facebook, there is a new page, group, or resource that claim to be “user friendly,” “free,” and “available for all learners.”  And so, every day, I see some of the following comments from revved up teachers:

  • “Oh, I was planning to do that novel and now kids can listen to or read it on the ___ website. Great!”
  • “…and I’m going to have the usual daily conferences or circle time using Zoom.  It’s gong to be so awesome!”
  • “Hey, I found this virtual museum. The kids can go online and…”

If you know for a fact that every student in your class has access to unfailing, unwavering technology, plus daily support at home, stop reading and continue your journey. You have the perfect set up and the know how to develop your virtual classroom. I cannot wait to hear about it. And I’m really jealous.

For the rest of us, and I would venture a guess to say that that it is most teachers, I worry that online learning is giving us a false sense of security that we can replicate our classrooms online.  I think some of these resources are and will be important elements to the tech teacher and equally tech savvy student.  I, for one, will rely on Freshgrade to relay most of my students’ learning opportunities. But just like those school days when the projector glitched, someone double booked a lab, a kid pulled the fire alarm, or you misplaced your DVD, we need to prepare for the “no tech/low tech, no internet, no support at home” student. In fact, when learning finally begins, we need to put them at the top of our list.

If we rely too much on tech, we’re sure to be impressed when it works and want to crawl into bed and hide under the covers when it fails.  So, make it an option but don’t rely on it as the only means of teaching and learning. If you have a few students who don’t have access to technology, and you to do elaborate video lessons, for example, you better be prepared to call that student and explain what they missed orally. Then, be prepared to explain it a second time for a student who only has parent help once a week because that parents works 10 hour shifts, six days a week. Finally, be prepared for minimal contact with the student altogether. Oy! If you cannot replicate what you put into the video option, or replicating it irritates you and seems like a heck of a lot of work, then go further back and think about how you can minimize what you put into the tech in the first place, so that you have less work when things fall short. In other words, before you start videotaping yourself for online lessons, stop and think about the kid in your class who has no access to tech. You could, very well, be creating more work for yourself than is necessary.

If we set up “at home learning” with the frame of mind that kids don’t have tech, but make tech an option for those who do, we’ll have more success in the long term. (We’ll also have fewer meltdowns and fewer calls to tech support.) This means that we must think about our lessons in a simpler way from the start. By giving some voice and choice as to how students communicate their learning, we’re teaching them how to take control of their learning at a time when they don’t feel like they have much control at all.

Presenting voice and choice at the start means being up front with options instead of putting out fires as they are lit.   

Inspired by Shelley Moore

It’s a similar philosophy to Shelley Moore’s inclusive education one. By examining our curriculum through backwards design we can give opportunities for all our learners from the start of learning, instead of aiming a one size fits all model at the masses, and then desperately trying to backtrack and tailor lessons to those who are suddenly struggling, have been absent or need a different means to communicate their learning. Aiming for all learners as if they don’t have tech, but giving the choice to use tech, means that every single child in your classroom will access learning but not feel that they are losing out because they don’t have access to the same resources.

It's out! And The Five Moore Minutes... - 5 Moore Minutes with ...

I think, sometimes, we worry too much about how we are going to teach and not enough about how students will learn. That mindset needs to shift before we embark on this new journey.  We need to focus on the question, How will students show me that they know ___? instead of How am I going to explain ___ to them? Examining how students learn through an inclusive lens, means putting students first.  

I like using Shelley’s framework for learning maps with my students. Learning maps (or progressions) offer entry points for all learners. It’s like a pathway of learning. Students start at need, move on to what they must do, and then have opportunities to can, could, and try to.  This framework, which works well in the classroom, is integral to our journey right now, because most teachers know that what students will actually complete between now and June is a fraction of what we wanted to do in the classroom. If we examine the learning goals of need and must, we should envision the skills students need to have and must have to move on to the next grade level. That’s the new goal. But that doesn’t mean we cannot offer stretches in the form of can, could, and try to for those students who want or need them. But the pressure is eased off kids who cannot make those stretches. We need to be transparent with kids that the goal is need and must.   We must be careful not to provide exclusively tech-related stretches in can, could, and try to.

English 11 New Media Learning Map by Shannon Schinkel

The word “show” is critical here (using it in place of “identify” with the help of Bloom’s Taxonomy). The way a student “shows” what they know puts students in a powerful position. Students could write a paragraph, draw a picture, or videotape their explanation. There is no one way a student can show their learning, and, most importantly, there isn’t a technological barrier to showing their learning. They can rely on prior knowledge or examine television commercials. If they have access to Netflix, they could watch Miss Representation. But it’s important to note that students can access all levels without access to technology. It’s also important to note that students can access all levels with access to television or a computer.

Inspired by Trevor Mackenzie

When thinking about giving students voice and choice, we should look to Trevor Mackenzie’s philosophy on utilizing student voice to amplify learning. When we give students voice and choice, we give them control over their learning trajectory.  It can be as simple as giving kids the option to show their learning by explaining it over the phone, uploading a video to Freshgrade, or texting their drawing of a comic. It can be as complex as having students generate a question of inquiry based on what they are seeing right now in the world or perhaps, the opposite, something they envision for the future after this nightmare is over. 

It’s about thinking about learning opportunities for students, not learning setbacks. In the past, we tended to look at only one-way learning can be presented (like by a test or whole class poster project), but if we examine our students’ environments as opportunities, we’ll have more success. This philosophy also ties into the key social-emotional aspect that we need to focus on right now. If students feel as if their environment is a positive one, as an environment with possibility, as opposed to a limiting condition, it will boost their self esteem and they will be more likely to want to learn.

For example, instead of suggesting that all students must watch a video lesson, documentary, or access digital supports, why not have them look to their kitchens and bedrooms to write poetry, find volume, or learn how to do something new?  It would be more difficult to insist that all my Humanities students read a novel online and then write reflections, but easier to ask them to reflect on why they keep fighting with their little brother or how they are coping in crisis. Same skills, different environment.  Instead of posting Math queries online, a teacher can ask students to find an object in their house and find the surface area of it. Same skills, different environment.  Instead of reading digital passages from their history textbook, Social Studies students could ask students to look at current events to examine perspective. Same skills, different environment.  Look at the possibilities. Consider their environment.

We need to present options for students, but imagining all possible environments and coming up with options is difficult. It makes for a much richer experience if we turn the spotlight on the student and give them the opportunity to ask the questions, hypothesize conclusions, and find a means to showcase their learning. In fairness to those teachers concerned that students won’t hand in their own work or that work will be a collective effort between siblings and student, or student and parent, I won’t deny that work turned in might not be work done solely by the student. But I wonder, is that a bad thing? I think there is great potential for students to work on their collaborative skills with parents and siblings. I would even go so far as to encourage it. These kids are already limited from meeting up with friends, hugging their grandparents, and hanging out at the park with pals. Why would we discourage familial collaboration? Of course, if these students have access to technology, embrace it. Zoom, Facetime, and video chats could bridge the collaborative gap between students in the same class. For those isolated students without a parent or guardian or sibling to support them, we will need to embrace those students in a way that makes them feel loved and supported. We don’t want these students to feel like they are missing out. And, if they have no or low tech, we will have to pull out all the stops to show they can be successful. We may have to go to their house and talk to them from a distance or discuss ideas with them on the phone. We have to think outside the box.

Human connection is vital for mental wellness. If we embrace learning opportunities through Mackenzie’s inquiry philosophy, we will help support students in ways beyond just the refinement of skills. We will show them that we believe in them beyond the classroom.

Inspired by Katie White

Further, after creating inclusive opportunities for our students and considering the multiple needs of our students, we should also be compassionate assessors of learning.  When learning becomes a conversation between student and teacher, rather than a hand in/hand out transaction of information, we change the view of school to a more positive place with a growth mindset approach.  When we consider the needs of our students when we assess them, we could, as Katie White puts it, soften the edges and show compassion for them.

Just because learning will be done at home, doesn’t mean we should avoid assessing altogether or simply give 100% credit for work turned in. We need to be compassionate, not ridiculous. Additionally, if we expect students to complete the same quantity of work and the same quality of work as we did before this pandemic, we are kidding ourselves. But if we consider curricular competencies as targets not limited by technology or environment, we will, ultimately, make it easier on them and us to meet a target.

I cannot remember where I saw it on Twitter, but someone posted that in this crisis, we should consider giving ½ the work we originally intend and expect students to take twice as long to do it. In other words, don’t expect the same layers of passion as we would expect in our classroom because students are struggling with their emotions, this crisis and a learning environment in isolation. It goes without saying, that we can still set reasonable goals but should ease up, really easy up, on due dates.  Tackling one competency or goal at a time is simply good practice whether we’re in a “learning from home” pandemic or not.  The difference is, we cannot see our students every day so communication should change our expectations even further.  

Students won’t get through the curriculum, now, at the same rate.  We need to continue to authentically assess, preferably in a gradeless way, providing descriptive feedback.  We need to give students opportunities for growth but shift our expectation from the number of opportunities to one opportunity at a time.  It means resisting the urge to ding students who don’t get as far into the curriculum as others. It’s not about the number of boxes a student can tick off, but to what degree of success they can show with each opportunity under these new circumstances. It aligns with my suggestion to not assume students have access to technology. If technology becomes the sticking point for success, it is akin to giving a higher evaluation to a project with more glitter glue and expensive paper.  The opportunities to be successful must be equal! When we give all students the same opportunities and assess them without prejudice, we soften the edges. 


I’m not anti-technology. I just think we need to make sure our focus is on the well-being of students and when it comes time to start teaching and learning, we must consider the needs of our students and not inadvertently limit them because we are hell bent on using technology. We need to be careful that we don’t offer better opportunities to those students who have access to technology and just excuse those students who don’t have access. We need to consider technology as an option to access learning, but not one that will be considered better than more old school or traditional means. We need to consider all these what if’s before we promote our assignments and lessons.

Learning needs to be inclusive for all or I won’t do it. Believe me! I’ve been there, putting out fires that I created because I put my glorious teaching prospects before my students’ learning. So, I’m not going to plan a whole class Zoom conference knowing that I’m missing five students because they cannot access tech. I won’t do it. I’m not depriving those who do not have tech. I might use Zoom for a one on one or small group conversation if the students in question agree that is the best means to discuss at topic. It really depends on the situation as it arises. The important thing is I’m going consider all the fires that could pop up to avoid starting them.

I would suggest that before we all get carried away spending all of next week learning how to use a new piece of technology that we consider the needs of all our students first. We should communicate with students on a personal level, touching base with them and making sure they are physically and mentally well. That is, after all, the most important part of our job and the #1 goal set out by the collaborative efforts of the BCTF and Ministry of Education. Once students are ready to start learning (not when teachers are ready to start teaching), think about what there is in the curriculum that is left to learn, choose one thing, work backwards and think about how students can minimally meet the target within their means and in their own way. Do everything to make that learning meaningful and consider the stress they are under. Consider the stress YOU are under and don’t force yourself into a technological stressful journey if you are not ready.

When teaching and “learning from home” does begin, let’s work on it from a more organic place, putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard to plan the most appropriate pathways for all students. Let’s cradle the ideas of Shelley Moore, listen to the wisdom of Trevor McKenzie, embrace the knowledge of Katie White, and put students first. Take is slow. But let’s all remember to allow ourselves some grace and permission to fail on this journey. I know I will stumble and fall many times in the next few weeks. I will try my best.

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