Technological failure and a "teachable moment"

I haven’t had a chance to write here lately, in part because I’ve been busy with school, and in part because I’ve been spending what free-time I have playing “The Sims 2,” golfing, gardening, etc. I do think all of these activities are winding down for the school year though, only to return in the spring.

Anyway, I thought I’d share what I found to be a profoundly “teachable moment” on Thursday. For my graduate course, Computers and Writing, Theory and Practice, we just started reading the Pamela Takayoshi and Brian Huot’s book, Teaching Writing with Computers: An Introduction. A couple of the essays in the first part of that book repeat the classic bit of wisdom that teaching with technology requires teachers to have a “plan B.”

Earlier in the day, in my undergraduate class called Writing, Style, and Technology, I experienced such a moment. I was planning on showing students how to work with basic HTML with the help of a paper hand-out and a web site I’ve created to teach this sort of thing, Krause’s How To HTML Site. The only problem was that the server that hosts this page and the server available for students, faculty, and staff at EMU to hosts pages, people.emich.edu, was down. In fact, it seemed to go down about a half-hour before my class started. I was in immediate need of a plan B.

Luckily, I had several alternatives. I have an older version of the site up and running on a different server, so we used that instead. Plus I had created a hard-copy of the instructions for that day’s class, which didn’t require students to upload files to the server (that’s Tuesday’s class). And also, luckily for me, this was about the 100th time I had done this sort of thing, which gave me the comfort and confidence to go to a plan B. I have to wonder if things would have gone well in that class (which they did, even though the server didn’t come back online until about a half-hour after class) if I hadn’t had a lot of previous experience teaching with technology in general and HTML in particular. How far would a plan B gotten me if I was overly stressed out about the server failure and disruption of my “plan A?”

Anyway, I used this as “teachable moment” in my grad class Thursday evening, talking a bit about how I had just that day had to go to an alternative to what I had planned to do with technology in my teaching. I’m not sure the extent to which my grad students recognized the importance of having an alternative in the face of technological failure, though. Perhaps it’s one of those things like the advice about backing up your files in case you have some kind of problem with your computer. The only people I know who back stuff up on their computers are people who have actually lost important files on their computers in the past. Maybe it’s that kind of experience you need in teaching before you get serious about plan B, too.

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