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Be Prepared for 'What If?'

A Crucial System, One Often Taken for Granted, Suddenly Stops Working. What Do You Do?

No water in my house today. A combination of an unseasonal cold snap and a bad circuit breaker in our pump house has frozen the pipes.

While standing in the pump house cursing the guilty circuit breaker, I had an epiphany: So this is what it is like to be teaching when the internet goes down. A crucial system, one often taken for granted, suddenly stops working. What do you do? The first inclination is to define the problem. In my case, that took little effort: No water was coming out of any faucets. The next step is to find the culprit. I went to the pump house and quickly noticed that the heater was not on. I toggled the circuit breaker from on to off and saw that it was not functioning.

However, I didn’t have 30 seated students looking at me or at blank computer screens, getting antsy, waiting for a return to normalcy. A teacher might reboot the computer, check the network connection in the classroom, send a student to see if the connection next door was down, or ask a student to take a look and try to diagnose the problem and its source.

Fixing the problem is a whole other challenge. I don’t do electricity, so it was easy enough for me to just call a friend who does, one who doesn’t share my fear of being jolted into the next county and having his heart amped to 843 beats per minute. The friend fixed the faulty wiring at minimal cost: the promise of an adult beverage. A teacher’s fix of a downed internet connection is not so easy, and immune to a bribe. The solutions are typically far out of reach and might even reside in the telecommunications carrier’s system.

So if the fix is not apparent, what’s a teacher to do? Just as I’ve been taught to do living in earthquake territory, be prepared. Whereas I now have my stockpile of bottled water on hand in the event of a disaster, as an English teacher I always had writing prompts and activities squirreled away, as well as some problem-solving
activities. Granted, the arrival of the Digital Age has complicated things. While teachers cannot be expected every day to develop one lesson with the internet and one without, they do know some content or skills that their students always need help with. Knowing that a solid backup plan is in place if a device malfunctions provides a teacher with a lot more confidence in using the technology; the fear of it failing isn’t so daunting.

As technology leaders, we have a responsibility to make the use of technology in the classroom as easy as possible. We also need to remember to address technology as it affects classroom management. Often, we focus so much on how to use the technology effectively that we don’t take the next step and work through potential “what if” circumstances—as in, what if the network goes down, or what if the computer cart didn’t get recharged? We need to build possible responses to these scenarios into our professional development and training. Being prepared is more than a Boy Scout principle; it is the core of teaching with technology.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of THE Journal.