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Tech Flop: When NOT to Use Technology in the Classroom

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It seemed like a good lesson idea: A student-created interactive timeline to use as a study guide for their final test. On paper, it looked great. Students would have a chronological reference and have to identify and summarize significance in their own words showing deeper understanding. Adding images to the timeline would help students remember the information with a visual association. And the activity would integrate a new technology application. Yet, I have never received so many complaints about a project than I did with this one. Maybe it was the fact that it was the first final exam for freshman and they were unfamiliar with how to study for a cumulative exam. Maybe it was the fact that the students struggled with technology (yes, even in this day and age). The bottom line was—it flopped.

As I reflected on the lesson, I realized I didn’t follow my own rule of thumb for using technology in the classroom: technology is not meant to supplant, it’s meant to enhance. The interactive timeline didn’t enhance, it just supplanted the old school fill-in-the-blank study guide.

I first learned this lesson long ago when teaching 10th grade World History. I had used a Teacher’s Curriculum Institute cooperative learning activity where student groups created posters of the main people and events of the French Revolution. Students presented their posters, offering both verbal and visual chronology of the French Revolution as well addressing its causes and effects. In following years, students also created posters for the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution, which we placed on the walls around the classroom. Students constantly referred to the posters as we covered each revolution unit. In the culmination activity, students used the posters to document similarities and differences between the political revolutions of the 1600-1700’s. When we discussed the Revolutions of the 1800’s, we were also able to look at the back wall and see if the revolutions in Latin America or Central Europe had similarities to the revolutions we had already covered. The lesson was a “keeper.” But it didn’t work with technology.

When our school piloted iPads for some freshman classes, several of my colleagues tried having students use the storybook app to re-create the poster activity of the French Revolution. Doing the project on an application was just supplanting the analog activity with technology, not enhancing the learning. In fact, in this case, it did the opposite: it took away from the learning. Students weren’t in groups discussing the event and working together to visually represent it. While they could have worked on the app in groups, there were issues that made it difficult: the visual story was locked on only one student’s computer, visible only to them and their teacher. And even if the story was presented to the class, it couldn’t easily be referenced during the year like the posters on the wall.

However, the digital timeline assignment did work for Julia Gossard, Assistant Professor of History at Utah State University, who had her students in “Foundations of Western Civilization” create a digital timeline of the history of food. Dr. Gossard used the online timeline assignment to offer students a different lens to view history, analyzing the economy, politics, and society at the time through what and how people ate. The food timeline strengthened students’ research skills, asked them to work collaboratively in teams, and had them utilize technology to present the material.


So, when do you use technology in a lesson? When technology enhances the content, by

  • providing a different perspective.
  • increasing interaction with the content.
  • facilitating student collaboration.
  • bringing students into real world or the real world into the classroom.

I’ll share three examples of assignments that were successful in using technology.

  1. After teaching a Renaissance Art lecture and activity, I tasked my students to utilize their new art analysis skills to show how art reflects history during the Age of Realism by providing commentary through VoiceThread on images I had selected. Students could write their response or add a voice recording, and they could collaborate with their peers by responding to each others’ remarks. They could also circle and highlight different parts of the artwork to make their commentary more clear. VoiceThread immersed all students in learning, especially those who do not like to speak up in a larger class setting, and generated more collaboration through discussion.

  2. I used the application Doceri during my Demand and Supply unit while teaching Economics. With this app, I was able to draw graphs on a device and project them on our classroom screen for the whole class to see. While this may seem the same as drawing the graphs on the board, Doceri allowed me to take photos of student graphs and project those, as well. Students could explain their work to their peers, highlighting specific shifts in the graph through the app. Instead of a teacher-driven lecture, students were collaborating as part of the learning. In addition, I recorded the visuals and commentary on Doceri and posted it to the class website for students who were absent, and as extra review for students who needed reinforcement.
  3. Probably the greatest use of technology is virtually bringing students outside the classroom when they can’t do so physically. My niece’s 4th grade teacher had students create an interactive road trip to four geographical regions of California using Tour Builder. In Tour Builder, students added icons to the map, posted pictures, and wrote a description of why they wanted to visit that location and what they would do there. In addition, students were given a budget and had to calculate expenses. My niece was so excited to show me her trip and tell me all about the regions. She has now planned her “Dream Trip” to New York, Peru and Fiji. As a history educator, I loved that she had the opportunity to learn about other places and cultures, and have a virtual adventure into the world beyond her small town.


Sometimes I see a new technology app and get excited about using it in my classroom. But now I always take a step back and ask: Does the technology supplant or enhance?

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