I was recently involved in a conversation with a group of digital friends who were experiencing the kinds of frustrating experiences that can drive teachers away from digital tools.
Their district firewalls were blocking every service that they wanted to use, their tech contacts were no where to be found, and their access to critical resources was insufficient to meet the demands of their digital efforts.
It did to me because it’s a frustration that I’ve shared as well! As a digitally driven teacher who recognizes the importance of meeting kids where they are, I’ve worked to make digital tools a regular part of my instruction—largely because I recognize that digital tools can “grease the wheels” of learning.
But the “transaction costs” for teachers interested in using digital tools in the classroom are sometimes incredibly high. Firewalls and district access policies are real—and they pose real headaches to teachers who are working with digital tools for the first time. I’ve invested countless hours into perfecting classroom applications for particular tools only to have those tools blocked as soon as I get a project off the ground.
So how do I deal with digital frustration?
1. I’ve worked to develop a positive working relationship with anyone and everyone who might have influence over what kind of technology is available to me in the classroom:
This was a bit of advice from digital colleague and friend Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach that rubbed me the wrong way the first time that I heard it because I feel strongly that those kinds of decision makers should be serving me. To turn that equation around bothers me because it puts teachers in a subservient role—-a place that I’m uncomfortable being in.
But I’ve also realized that positive working relationships with decision makers often give me more power than I ever had to begin with. I’m starting to build a network of connections in the Central Office that I can call on when I see websites or services blocked.
These people trust my voice on digital tools and know that I’m a reasonable guy only because we’ve shared a dozen different interactions. So when I go to bat for a tool, I’ve got a greater chance of seeing it unblocked than anyone else.
Does this influence work all the time?
But each positive interaction that I have with people—and each connection that I develop in different departments at the district level—-strengthens my position as a credible voice that should be heard. Maybe it’s Guerrilla Leadership—-It can be tiring, but it’s all I’ve got right now!
2. I never get too attached to any one service:
This is another @snbeach suggestion that has worked for me. Web 2.0 tools are pretty remarkable because there are literally thousands to choose from. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t learn about something new that might be worth checking out. (Here’s one from this morning: http://www.utterz.com/).
While one advantage of the prolific nature of digital services is choice (It would be difficult NOT to find a tool that can enhance the work you’re already doing with students), another advantage is that there are always other services to choose from when something is blocked by the big bad firewall—-or when your favorite service goes out of business!
I know what you’re thinking: If you spend hundreds of hours learning to use a service that gets blocked, there ain’t no way you’re going to spend the same amount of time learning about a new service, right?
The good news is you won’t have to. Services that fall within the same category (tools for creation, tools for communication, tools for collaboration, tools for information management) typically all work in much the same way. While there are likely to be a few stylistic differences, once you master a particular tool type, you’ll be able to fluidly translate the skills that you’ve learned to a new service with little hassle.
Working with Web 2.0 tools takes a certain amount of flexibility and a high tolerance for ambiguity. You never know when you’ll be forced to change directions. Refusing to become too loyal to any one product can help make these transitions less professionally painful.
3. I constantly write about the successes that I’m having with digital tools:
The sad reality in many organizations is that few people have seen concrete examples of how digital tools are changing teaching and learning for the better. Instead, they’re bombarded by stories about kids being kidnapped by criminals and inappropriate content being posted on YouTube.
When they do poke around content being created by kids, they stumble across junk! They see blogs with thousands of spelling errors, wikis with inaccurate content, or videos that don’t seem to meet any meaningful curricular objectives.
These constant negative messages about digital tools taint decision makers and educators alike. It’s hard to believe that investing time and dollars into 21st Century learning is worthwhile when there are so few examples of high quality outcomes to explore.
Pair that with the inexperience that most decision makers and educators have with using digital tools in their own lives. How many people do you know–away from the electronic forums that you participate in–who are active bloggers? How many create movies to express messages? How many have feed readers? How many text or instant message? How many use social networking services to build a community of like minded learners?
If you’re anything like me, the answer is probably only a handful!
Combining inexperience with a never-ending barrage of negative messages about digital content and tools is a recipe for the kinds of restrictive learning environments that give us nightmares—where students and teachers alike have to fight at every turn to gain access to tools that might just make learning more meaningful.
The solution for me has been to constantly write about the work that I’m doing with kids, primarily because we’re creating content that is nothing short of remarkable. When people can look at a wiki that my kids create and see evidence of shared exploration of content and collaboration around their studies, they get it.
When they can see an RSS feed reader being used to give students a collection of resources around a particular topic of study, they get it. When they can see how social bookmarking sites or tools for asynchronous conversations can spark thinking long after the school day is done, they get it.
Publicizing these successes helps to counteract the negative messages that drag down digital efforts.
Does all of this work take time?
Sure—but not as much as you might think. Building relationships happens best in chance interactions. It’s not a structured part of my day. Experimenting with new tools is a lot less time consuming the more that you do it. I’m pretty confident that I could pick up any tool in less than ten minutes, and writing for me is really nothing more than a forum for the professional reflection that I’ve always done.
What’s even better is that the amount of time and energy decreases over time—-and the value added to your classroom instruction and your own professional growth is certainly greater than you can possibly imagine.
Any thoughts? Additions to my “Surviving Digital Frustration” to-do list?