What Worked: When Teaching Turns to Tech Support

Teacher: Glenn Morgan

School: La Jolla High School (California)

Grade: 11th Grade American Literature

This week, I introduced the Peer Mark assignment, a service offered through turnitin.com, the anti-plagiarism (or, in their parlance, “unoriginal writing prevention) website. We’ve been working with various genres of media writing in my 11th grade Honors American Literature class, and I asked students to upload an editorial piece to turnitin.com and then review two of their peers’ editorials (anonymously) through Peer Mark.

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They had the weekend to upload and review editorials, and just over two-thirds of students were able to complete both parts of the assignment. This surprised me, since La Jolla High is considered a relatively affluent school and the kids have access to technology at home, which wasn’t always the case when I taught at an urban high school. They’d already submitted several essays over the course of the semester, so I felt they were fairly confident with turnitin.com. This weekend was a reminder of instances when a new technology is introduced to the classroom, there is usually a hidden labor cost to the teacher. I got emails on everything from plaintive IT requests (“I don’t know why it’s not showing I uploaded it by the deadline, but I did, Mr. Morgan) to deadpan directives (“I’m not sure what happened. Please explain.”) to panicky pleas of last resort over minutiae in the upload or online peer review process. Many of these problems struck me as typical, like failure to read the directions posted on the website on how to upload or engage in the online peer review process.
Why couldn’t these kids problem-solve their way around tech issues that, with a little persistence, seemed easily conquered? I knew images-3from these past two years teaching Honors and AP sections that these emails came from a place of wanting to get it right; however, after my phone blew up Sunday afternoon with student queries, I started to wonder my entrancement with technology. What if, in the many years I taught at an urban school (which had iPads and Macs in every classroom), I had screened students out of the learning process by not asking the questions my more self-starting students were asking now? Should I let them struggle and fail with technology, or had I condemned myself to be the perpetual IT guy to call when something in the assignment upload process didn’t go right?
Then it struck me. While my students are comfortable with technology, comfort does not necessarily denote competence, or even confidence. Confidence comes from struggle and eventual success with some support, but not by being rescued. To what extent should I make myself less accessible? Struggling to learn and master technology in the English classroom is very much like how it’s going to be college and career. How many new technologies was I, an English major, asked to independently learn, master, and apply from when I started teaching in 2000 until now, over a decade later? Was I doing students a disservice by bailing them out by answering those emails and “rescuing them” from the technology? What was the real purpose of the editorial assignment anyway, to write persuasively or to struggle with technology? Since students will shortly be uploading and peer reviewing a major term paper, I have decided that the assignment was worth the headache because it exposed some glaring gaps in my students’ tech savvy, which otherwise would have gone unspoken.

Say what you will about technology, there is an assumption in academics which may not hold water: those students who cannot be persistent and problem-solve issues with technology independently and learn how to attack a problem from multiple angles (like uploading from Google docs or a Cloud drive instead of from a drive on the computer) will fail. If failure is to be treated like data-gathering, and not a mark of shame, then that’s what my job as a teacher is to do: organize and facilitate opportunities for my students to fail, but then be prepared to guide them through the metacognitive process, so they will want to try again independently.