Seven Tips for Technological Late-Bloomers

from Educators' eZine

Feel like the technology bandwagon is more like a bullet train and it's passing you by at breakneck speeds? Many educators are interested in using technology to enhance their teaching but feel they're behind the curve or are overwhelmed by the number of choices and don't know where to begin. But even if words like pod and sprite sound more to you like they belong in your garden than your computer, you can take some small simple steps to begin to integrate technology in your teaching by employing the same reflection you do when teaching without technology. These tips below may help you get started.

1. Assess your own level of skill and apprehension toward using technology. Be honest with yourself about what you can already do and how much time and effort you're willing to invest in gaining new skills. In a grant funded team project I directed, we discovered that the greatest challenge to implementing technology in classes was different team members' level of ability and the anxiety and frustration some felt in acquiring new skills. A simple and sincere self-assessment is an essential first step to your journey to incorporate technology in your teaching.

2. Find what learning resources are available. No matter what your level of ability you can always learn more. Does your institution have a technology learning center that offers hands-on training workshops? Do they have a help desk available in case you get stuck once the training is over? A professional development and support system, even if it's a skilled colleague at work that can offer a lifeline at a time of need, is an important asset. For the independent minded, many software companies, like Microsoft, have web-based modules that offer training on their programs. Also, users of particular programs often interact on listservs to offer tips, strategies and solutions to problems.

3. Plan ahead. Even when you're receiving the proper training and support, learning new skills takes time. Give yourself enough time to process the skills you're practicing. Adding the pressure of a short deadline only increases the probability of making mistakes and getting frustrated. Make sure you give yourself an ample margin of error in the beginning; strive for quality, but not flawlessness. By and large, you shouldn't expect all of the details to fall into place the first time you try out a new presentation format or technique; both you and your students will need time to adjust to new practices.

4. Start small. In your planning, you may have very ambitious goals you'd like to accomplish. Make sure you break your complex plans into small, sequential, manageable bits. Think first about what you can do to simplify the administrative aspects of your life like putting your syllabus, grade book and daily calendar online prior to exploring more advanced techniques. You might also consider working in a group and dividing up tasks. In the project described above, each team member was assigned two content areas around which to design a web-based learning module that included a topic overview, content, links, and a quiz. Dividing up the responsibilities allowed us to center our attention on specific tasks. Working as a team allowed us to generate more materials than we could individually as well as keep quality and consistency in check.

5. Consider your audience. As you're building your skills and planning the tools you're going to use, think about how your students are going to access the material. Do they need to have special software or an upgraded version of a common program to view the files you put up for them? Saving simple documents in easily accessible formats such as rtf, html, or pdf are your safest bet, but you may also include a link to software (such as Adobe Reader) that will provide the means by which students an access the material just in case they don't have specific software on their computer. Size also matters. Files that are too big (often complex or high quality images and sound are the culprits) may take a long time to load, particularly if your students have only dial-up access to your materials.

6. Have a backup plan. Don't count on technology being your only means of delivering necessary information. Servers go down. Files delay in loading or take too long to load altogether. Meticulously acquired images appear as a red X. Students have compatibility issues with browsers. To deal with unexpected problems, make sure you have more traditional means of providing students with the information contained in the files whether it be paper copies, transparencies, CDs, etc. as you work to resolve the issues.

7. Have a way to measure your success. Don't make the mistake of claiming victory simply by reflecting on the personal challenges you overcame in incorporating technology. Think about the reasons you wanted to use the particular technological format you chose in the first place and formulate a plan to get feedback on it. Are the students actually accessing the information? Is the information easy for them to assimilate? Is the presentation format useful, aesthetically pleasant, and intuitively arranged? Is the students' access to the information improving their learning outcomes? Such reflection can help guide revisions to the current material or inspire future additions. They can also give you an honest assessment of the value of your investment of time and effort. In the project described above, we discovered that a lack of technology skills on the part of the instructor did not directly translate to diminished learner outcomes. Rather, we confirmed that quality teachers know how to effectively work their craft regardless of whether or not they used technology, so don't expect students' gains in learning to precisely parallel your own increases in technological knowledge.

The speed with which new technologies emerge can be intimidating, but should neither deter you from trying new teaching tools nor make you feel you have to do it all at once. Like adopting any other new methodology, the use of technology in the classroom is simply a means of enhancing the material to promote interactions between students and the content, students and teacher and amongst students themselves. It has the potential to add to but doesn't take the place of quality teaching practices. A conscientious, measured approach to implementing technology in the classroom can provide students additional means of access to course material and boost your own skill and comfort level with new techniques.

Dr. Patricia MacGregor-Mendoza is an Associate Professor of Spanish and Linguistics at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, NM.