by Kim Weber, LINC Transformation Agent

Throughout my work in schools as a LINC Coach, there is a concern consistently expressed by teachers; one that results in the biggest deterrent for those who are beginning to transform their teaching practice by leveraging technology: What do I do when students misuse or break the rules for technology?

Just about any teacher who is using technology has encountered this in one form or another. For those of us at the early stages of implementing blended learning, this can be the roadblock that stops us in our tracks. We spend hours (at home) finding and figuring out the perfect digital tool that will enhance students’ learning. We introduce it with so much gusto, it sounds like we’re about to announce the winner of the lottery. We are well-prepared: all devices are charged, apps loaded, logins created, and we even have an offline back-up plan. We get the kids up and running, and are all set to work with a small group on targeted instruction, and you hear it…the giggling. You see it…the repeated covert glances at you. And you immediately know, they’ve broken the trust and digital contract that you and the students thoughtfully created to be the foundation of this type of learning. Most likely they’ve gone to an inappropriate website, broken a cell phone rule, vandalized a classmates work on a shared document, or any other creative, disruptive shenanigans they’ve concocted. (Student innovation in this department is legendary.)

 What comes next varies, but it often goes like this:

  • Stop the entire class.
  • Lecture everyone about the rules that were broken.
  • Close and collect all devices.
  • Switch to that offline (probably traditional) activity you had planned but didn’t really want to use.
  • Divvy out appropriate punishment to those who committed the transgression.

It is no surprise that many teachers feel uncertain about how to address these types of issues. According to a recent ISTE article, New OECD Report Shows Major Gap in Preparing Teachers to Use Technology Effectively, “In the U.S., only 45% of teachers stated that they were ‘well prepared’ or ‘very well prepared’ for the use of information and communication technology for teaching, the lowest rating of all dimensions ranked.” 

I’ve developed some alternative approaches for addressing these difficult technology-related issues in our classrooms to help teachers feel more prepared:

First – View this as a teachable moment for the student(s) involved and the entire class. These are often the same kids who would find some other way to disrupt the learning in a traditional lesson. I once heard an educator explain it this way:

In the past, when a student would throw a pencil, a teacher would take the child aside and sternly explain that he/she could have poked someone’s eye out. Then, with the rise of a cautionary eyebrow, the teacher hands back the pencil back with a directive to get back to work. Conversely, our common reaction when students make poor choices with technology is to immediately confiscate the device and have the student “do something else.” Chances are that “something else” does not afford this student access to the same rich, personalized, engaging work you had planned. 

I suggest you consider alternatives to removing technology as it may not be the most effective response. These transgressions are moments that lend themselves to restorative practices and require patience, flexibility, and thoughtful actions on our part. At the heart of a restorative practice approach, the person who makes the mistake has the opportunity to be held accountable for their actions and repair the harm. By using restorative practices, you create a safe space for students to develop critical life skills and learn from their mistakes. This is often more productive than a response that is punitive in nature and stops the student from having access to learning.

Second – It’s never too late to revisit the contract and shared visioning work you did before you introduced technology into your lessons. If you didn’t start your digital instruction with these student onboarding lessons, then now is the perfect time to hit the stop button and do this essential mindset work with students. The key is to first help them understand “the why” of blended learning and second to co-create rules and expectations that help them view technology as a tool and not a toy. LINCspring, our online professional development platform for educators, provides ideas, resources and lesson plan templates that will help you structure this important work. This might also be a good time to show students the technology features that allow you, the teacher, to monitor behaviors such as revision history in Google Docs or how an LMS identifies user names on posts.

Third – In these moments of frustration, I suggest you remember our commitment to preparing students for the world they are entering. Why did we begin blended learning in the first place? Is it something that we can stop doing and still meet our students’ needs? From my observations and personal experiences as a teacher, I have seen blended learning work in ALL learning environments for ALL students. I’ve seen students who were grade levels behind catch up and students who were completely disengaged, engage. Changing the way we teach is challenging work, and the stakes feel higher with technology. It is easy to revert back to methods we are more comfortable with due to fear and loss of control. For inspiration through the rough spots, look to places like Twitter or follow podcasts such as “Cult of Pedagogy.”  Better yet, find someone in your school who can collaborate with you in this work. You can begin by creating PLCs to support one another. Just today, I was observing a blended learning classroom and another teacher walked in and proclaimed, “I want to do this too!”

If you have other strategies for addressing student mistakes with technology, please send me a note at kimweber@linc.education.

Kim Weber, LINC Transformation AgentKim Weber is a Transformation Agent for LINC, the Learning Innovation Catalyst. Before joining LINC, Kim worked for 20 years as a public and private school teacher in California and New York City. She is a presenter and coach for schools across the country who are embarking on school transformation projects that focus on creating classrooms that put students at the center of learning and help teachers become pedagogical problem solvers.