Confessions of an EdTech Guerrilla

By author profile photo Jeff Gerlach
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Using a computer in the dark

Recently I followed someone on Twitter who, within 10 minutes of my follow, tweeted this at me:

The “EdTech Guerrilla” thing is a bio line on my Twitter profile. At various points in my twitterings I’ve listed myself as a Ninja Turtle, an ice cream advocate and a failed Frankenstein. If you believe everything you read, I am truly the most interesting man in the world.

Playful Twitter bios are an institution, yet there is a real core of belief of mine behind the guerrilla moniker. I want to preface by saying that I have received nothing but encouragement to use technology in my classroom from administration. I never had a curmudgeon administrator tell me that I needed to use technology less. Yet, I’ve never felt like administrators fully understood why I was doing what I was doing. Because of this, I had a lot of “these go to 11” moments with IT and administrators. Except the conversations I had were in the spirit of this:

Me: Can you unblock this YouTube video on student accounts?
IT: Your teacher account should let you play YouTube videos.
Me: I know, but I want students to be able to watch them on their own.
IT: Is it blocked when you try to watch it on the smartboard?
Me: No, it’s fine there. I just would like my students to be able to play, pause and rewind on their own.
IT: Why don’t you just play it on the smartboard?

I came across roadblocks that needed to be sidestepped in order to do what was best for my students. Sometimes, I found it was easier to find workarounds rather than go through official channels. It wasn’t because administration and IT were evil, it’s just that their understanding of my pedagogical needs was limited. Even today I’m not willing to admit that this was wrong, but I wasn’t entirely in the right either. It was what it was. I found institutional change to be incredibly slow, too slow for my liking.

One belief I have is that technology should be in the space where students meet every day. Computer labs are lesson plan eaters. If you prepare students to meet in the lab the day before, you spend the first 10 minutes of class waiting for the students who got lost in the hallway. If you have students meet in the normal room and then go down to the lab together, you lose the same 10 minutes. You also feel that the students need to be using the computer 100% of the time in the lab to take full advantage of the resources. No thanks. I wanted technology to be used exactly when it was needed, even if this need wasn’t planned for, so I needed them to be in my room.

There were not a lot of mobile device labs at the high school that I taught at so I encouraged my students to bring their own devices. My class website at that time wasn’t yet the backbone of my instruction, so phone use was primarily for research. I wanted them to be able to do quick web searches while we were watching videos, exploring printed documents, having discussions and to just generally inform their curiosity. As mobile technology has exploded in use, so too has serendipitous research. I can no longer imagine having a conversation with someone, have a question arise and not have a means to search for that answer on the internet.

cootie catcher
 Is social media really all that different from the cootie catchers that students have made for decades? Photo by Alan Levine

But BYOD was kind of a no-no at the time. There was talk of implementing “safe” times and zones for personal technology use, but nothing had been implemented yet. Students were still getting sent to the office by teachers for using devices in classrooms and hallways. Students were being cut off from research tools because they had the potential to distract them from learning. Something that block dude, the Super S and cootie catchers have done for generations.

I once got into a heated argument with a colleague of mine over student phone use. At one point he screamed, “Tell me to Google something, Jeff! See if I do it! You can’t control what students do with phones!” To each his own. Distractions happen and I think many of us learn well with distractions as a palate cleanser. But … perhaps this is a tangent for another post.

I loved working at the middle school level because there were more mobile devices available than the high school had. The high schools in my district had more computer lab rooms, where the middle schools had more tablet and laptop carts. It was around this time that I built my first course in an LMS and started to really push learning online. I started to think of ways to get my students online for part of every class period. So I signed out one cart of laptops for an entire month.

This was not cool of me and I heard a lot of my colleagues grumbling through the grapevine because of it. So I explored writing grants to get my own devices, but they all fell through. I had a meeting with the director of technology of the district and my building principal, explained my need for the devices and she agreed to set aside some Title I funds for the next school year. Unfortunately, I was involuntarily transferred to a different building the next year. My new principal didn’t see my proposal to be a good use of funds and so that never happened.

Eventually, I had a “lemons into lemonade” moment. Many of the laptops that my school had available for checkout were in disrepair. Students (mostly my own) had pulled a lot of the keys off the keyboards. The compression component that sent the signal to make each character appear on the screen remained functional, but the alphanumeric caps were missing. This meant that the computers were less comfortable to use, yet could still be used.  There were enough complaints that my principal decided to have the media center specialists take all the “broken” laptops out of circulation.

So I asked if I could have them. She said yes.

To date, it’s the second greatest proposal I’ve made in my life (I love you, Julie!).

I would rather have the undesirable devices every day than the highly demanded devices intermittently. This is not intended to be a sales pitch for 1:1 classrooms. In fact, I had a two students to one computer ratio intentionally because I valued the collaboration that came from that configuration. I’m saying that blending your classroom could lead your school into uncharted territory. In retrospect, I regret stepping on toes but I don’t regret having the strength to push for the things I needed what my students needed.

I think I made a lot of personal growth but failed to initiate institutional change. I think I’m still working on how to do that. How do you do it? How are you working within the system and in what areas do you feel the need to work around it? I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

About the Author

Jeff Gerlach is passionate about helping teachers enhance learning for students by way of strategic technology integration. This fuels his work as an instructional design coach. Prior to his time at Michigan Virtual, Jeff was a social studies teacher for six school years and he earned a master’s degree from Michigan State University in educational technology. Away from the education world he enjoys spending time at the ice rink, at home with his young family and head nodding to hip-hop music.

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