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What Happens When Technology Fails? 3 Work-Arounds


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Dec 13, 2023
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Has this happened to you? You spend hours rewriting an old lesson plan, incorporating rich, adventurous tools available on the internet. You test it several times just to be sure. It’s a fun lesson self-paced lesson plan with lots of activities and meandering paths students undoubtedly will adore. Technology enables it to differentiate authentically for the diverse group of learners that walk across your threshold.

Everyone who previewed it is wowed. You are ready.

Until the day of, the technology that is its foundation fails. Hours of preparation wasted because no one could get far enough to learn a d*** thing. You blame yourself–why didn’t you stick with what you’d always done? Now, everyone is disappointed.

Implosions like this happen every day, sometimes because the network can’t handle the increased traffic, or the website server goes upside down. Really, the reason doesn’t matter. All that matters is an effort to use technology to add rigor and excitement to a tired lesson plan fails, leaving the teacher more technophobic than ever. With the pride of place iPads and Chromebooks have in curriculum decisions, tech problems will be wide-ranging, everything from a student’s device not having required software to the classroom systems not hooking up to the school’s network or WiFi. Students will look to their teacher for solutions and the teacher will become best friends with a colleague in thick glasses and the pasty tan of someone rarely away from their computer, whose conversation includes words like gig, server, and modem.

Because to many, ‘tech problem’ equates to the mind-numbing, bone-chilling feeling of ‘I have no idea what to do’.

In a word:


Not a feeling veteran teachers like. As a culture, we eulogize those who go bravely through gates of fire, can think under pressure, are never beaten down, who can connect the dots even when they’re bouncing all over the landscape:

No problem can stand the assault of sustained thinking. (—Voltaire)

Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. (—Winston Churchill)

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat. (–Theodore Roosevelt)

I’ve learned you can tell a lot about a teacher by the way s/he handles three things: a rainy day, parents who drop in unexpectedly, and a lesson plan that explodes.

It doesn’t stop with the teacher, either. What about when we ask students to use one of the gazillion available internet tools to communicate-collaborate-share-publish–those exciting Common Core words that are code for ‘technology-rich’. Now, when students don’t turn in homework, and I attempt to unravel what happened with questions like ‘Where did you save it?’, I get the deer-in-the-headlights-look that says, How am I supposed to know the answer to THAT question?

Having said all this, I am willing to stipulate:

Tech failure is inevitable.

There are too many moving parts. Too many circuits and algorithms and scripts and wires shoved under a desk to expect it to go right all the time or even most of the time. Exorcise any thought of perfection in the same sentence as tech. But if fear of failure is a reason NOT to use technology, no one would ever cross that digital threshold. So let’s ignore the absolute inevitability of failure, and address the question:

What do I do when it happens?

I have three ideas:

Prepare for it

I’m not fatalistic. I’m realistic. Technology–be it phones, scanners, online report cards–fails often. It is human. Perfection is outside its programming.

Knowing that, bone up on the Law of Technology Failures:

The reliability of technology is directly proportional to your needs.

To decode that: Tech fails most often where it is needed most. Prevent failures by having back-ups–not just of data, but redundant devices, hardware, systems. For example, install three browsers on your computer so if Firefox won’t work, Chrome will. Build in time for system reboots (because that solves at least half the tech problems that plague a classroom). Pre-test relevant systems to become familiar with glitches.

Be a problem solver

Embrace problems. Own them. Here are three basics that will get you through many a stressful tech day:

  • Know the basics. My job requires tech every day so I’ve solved a lot of problems. There are only about twenty that account for 80% of downtime. The top two:
    • If the computer won’t start, check it’s plugged in.
    • If power isn’t the problem, reboot.

Those two solve about half of the tech traumas I face. There are eighteen more I’m equally prepared for. Track yours by writing each down as it happens. Soon, you’ll find it’s the same ones over and over. The tech version of Groundhog Day.​

  • Google the problem. Lest you think that’s too geeky and shouldn’t you call an expert first, it’s not and you shouldn’t. There will be an answer about 70% of the time. If you’re looking for general, narrative information, Chat GPT (or another generative AI source) could offer assistance.
  • Be a risk-taker. Sure we mouth that to our students and Common Core expects it in college- and career-ready students, but does that mean teachers too? Well, yes. Grin in the face of problems. Model solutions. As Edwin Cole famously said,

You don’t drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there.

Stand up and you may discover it’s only an inch deep.​

Build in alternatives

Let’s face it, life runs off Plan B.

  • Don’t expect technology to remain unchanged–Links die. A Linkody study says about 8.03% of all links break within the first 3 months, 44% after 7 years. The website you used last week can be 404–not working today. The favorite software you’ve used for years could be incompatible with system updates (i.e., Oregon Trail). Your new Win 11 computer might not run programs you use regularly. Prior to presenting, go through the tool you’re going to use or the process you’re teaching–see if it works as it used to.
  • Use failure as a teachable moment--show students how you handle stress, problems, frustration. It’s an opportunity to stretch that magnificent big brain and devise a solution. It’s a chance to ask students, What would you do?
  • Don’t apologize–save apologies for something you caused. Tech failures are caused by the Universe.

Tech is the third leg to the ‘inevitable experiences’ stool, along with death and taxes. Personally, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had a major tech failure. You know it’s coming. Control how you react to it.

What was your last tech failure and how did you handle it?

–image credit Deposit Photos

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“The content presented in this blog is the result of my creative imagination and not intended for use, reproduction, or incorporation into any artificial intelligence training or machine learning systems without prior written consent from the author.”

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-18 technology for 30 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K-12 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in tech ed, Master Teacher, webmaster for four blogs, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, contributor to NEA Today, and author of the tech thrillers, To Hunt a Sub and Twenty-four Days. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.
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