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Tips from the Trenches

(Or How Not to Reinvent the Wheel)

By Ellen Ficklen and Carol Muscara

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by technology. And the more people tell you that technology is wonderful, the more you wonder what the catch is. Of course there is a catch. Technology isn't the answer to all of education's problems, and figuring out which problems technology is able to help with takes some work.

But—and here's some good news—teachers who were on the leading edge of technology use in the classroom have tried-and-true advice to offer. Their tips, which they learned the hard way, can make your life easier. Here are some of them, ranging from the philosophical to the nitty-gritty.

Technology is a tool.

Always remember, technology isn't a goal in and of itself. The key is to use technology to help you get where you want to go—and realize you won't be using it all the time. The other piece to this is that technology isn't a silver bullet; it's not "the answer" to anything. It's only a way to enhance teaching and learning. Technology provides tools to get you someplace fast; to give you comprehensive, accurate information; and to provide a range of pathways for students at varying levels. You use the tools; they don't use you. Or as Glenn Rustay, a fifth-grade teacher at Garden City Elementary Technology Magnet School in Fort Pierce, Fla., puts it, "Any teacher who can be replaced by technology ought to be."

Technology works with the curriculum; it doesn't replace curriculum.

This is a corollary to the previous point. Because technology is a tool, it can provide valuable enhancements to your curriculum. For example, not only is the World Wide Web (www) exciting, in many cases, it can bring experts directly into the classroom and create collaborative learning opportunities for students. And it gives kids a chance to learn much more about a topic than they could, even if they could go to a top-notch university library. But as the teacher, you need to make sure that what ends up in your classroom is tied to the curriculum. While the Internet offers unparalleled access to information and opinion from around the world, it's up to each teacher to select which Internet resources get used and when. The bottom line: Technology is there to enhance the curriculum, not drive it.

Let your students teach you—and other students.

It goes without saying that you should take full advantage of any professional development opportunities to increase your skill and confidence. But you may find that your best tech mentors are your own students. While it's not reassuring to feel as though you're the class dummy, making use of student expertise is a smart move. Build in time to have your in-class experts walk you through procedures that are new to you, and maybe ask your computer whiz kids to be part of a classroom team that solves computer problems that arise. You even can use these kids to help classmates learn the basics. "Don't underestimate students" is Florida teacher Rustay's advice. Rustay goes a step further, making sure that each of his fifth-grade students is an in-class expert and tutor in one particular area.

Even one computer is enough to get started.

If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. If low-level funding gives you one computer setup for an entire classroom, squeeze maximum use out of it. When now-consultant Carol Muscara found herself in just such a one-computer-to-a-classroom situation several years ago, she strapped the computer, printer, and monitor onto a rolling audiovisual cart so that the equipment could be moved to any part of her classroom. Having a mobile computer meant it was ready for any student or group anytime it was needed. It made the single computer a real tool for just-in-time analysis and learning.


Ellen Ficklen has been an education writer and editor for more than twenty years; she lives in Washington, D.C. Carol Muscara, who has over thirty-five years of experience in educational technology, has developed and helped carry out technology plans in school districts nationwide, most recently in San Francisco. She is currently working with the New Jersey State Systemic Initiative to develop technology resources correlated with the state mathematics and science standards. She lives in Gaithersburg, Md.