The Techy Teacher / Five Tips for Avoiding Technology Overload - ASCD
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May 1, 2016

The Techy Teacher / Five Tips for Avoiding Technology Overload

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A teacher's work isn't over when the school day ends. I carry my students' work everywhere. If I'm going to the carwash or a doctor's appointment, I bring my grading. In the evenings, I plan lessons and prepare materials after my own children have gone to bed. I've skipped soccer games and trips to the park on weekends to review students' essays and projects. And despite all the time I spend focused on work while I'm at home, there's always more I could be doing.

Most teachers find it difficult to achieve a balance between their work lives and their personal lives. Today, technology and our increasing connectivity make maintaining this delicate balance more challenging than ever. I no longer carry a bag bulging with papers; instead, I carry my laptop. Not only do I have access to my students' written assignments, blog posts, and online annotations everywhere I go, but thanks to my personal hotspot, they also have access to me. They frequently send me e-mails or text messages when they have questions or need support.

Because learning is no longer limited to a certain time or place, connected educators face an interesting dilemma: When, and how often, should we unplug? Here are five tips to help you maintain the benefits of connectivity while setting clear boundaries for the work you do.

1. Establish Virtual Office Hours

College professors set office hours outside of class time to answer questions and work directly with students. This practice provides students with a clear and consistent time and space to access their professors while limiting the time the professors are expected to be accessible, thus emphasizing the value of each person's time.

Of course, elementary and secondary students have opportunities during the school day to seek out their teachers if they need additional support. But as students complete more of their work outside school, they will encounter hurdles and questions. During large-scale projects and writing assignments, I offer "virtual office hours" that give students specific times and spaces to ask for my help outside school.

At the start of each year, I create a Google Calendar and share it with my students. The shared calendar has our reading schedule, important due dates, and my virtual office hour dates and times. Students can clearly see which days and times I'll be online to Google chat with them, dive into a document to lend support, or jump on a Google Hangout if we need to screen share.

Teachers must consider the amount of time they'll make themselves available outside class, as well as how they will be willing to engage with their students online. I know several teachers who tell their students that they're available through e-mail on school days between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m., and that all e-mails sent after that time will be answered the following day. Defining office hours can help teachers feel better about unplugging.

2. Choose One Communication Channel

It's best to limit the number of channels students can use to communicate with you. Some teachers opt for e-mail; others prefer quick text messages using a service like Remind.com. Some teachers encourage students to post questions to a class blog or tweet them out with the class hashtag. With so many options, it can be overwhelming and exhausting to maintain multiple channels of communication. Simply choosing one channel can make the task of responding to student questions more manageable.

I encourage my students to e-mail me with questions that are not urgent. However, they know they can send me a text message if they have a time-sensitive question. This combination has worked well. Most students are grateful that I respond to messages outside class, and they don't abuse the privilege.

3. Make Information Available Online

One of the best ways to avoid being inundated with messages outside class is to create a place online where students can access information and resources. I used Blogger, Google's blogging tool, to create our multimedia class website organized with the following pages: Agenda & Homework, Web Tools & Online Resources, Writing Videos, Vocabulary Videos, Grammar Videos, and Mastery-Based Grading Explained.

Our class blog is my students' (and their parents') one-stop shop for information. Each day I take a picture of the board with our agenda and embed it into the post for the day. I follow that picture with a detailed explanation of their homework assignment, complete with links to resources, video tutorials, and assignment descriptions. Proactively posting information online is incredibly helpful to both students and parents—and it means that you'll receive significantly fewer questions about homework assignments and directions.

4. Set Up a Space Where Students Can Connect Online

Too often, students fire off an e-mail to a teacher asking a question before they've consulted a classmate. I've created a private Google+ community where my students can connect outside class to share information, ask questions, and support one another.

I encourage my students to post questions to our Google+ community before they e-mail me. More often than not, they can answer one another's questions without me by troubleshooting and problem-solving together. This practice encourages them to be more independent. I don't want my students to ask me the minute they have a question—I want them to learn how to be learners and to turn to their peers as a valuable resource. We cannot expect this to happen if we don't set up a virtual space for them to connect.

5. Protect Unplugged Time at Home

Although I'm an enthusiastic advocate of using technology, I'm also fiercely protective of my time with my family. I have two small children who deserve my time, attention, and energy in the evenings. I don't want them to feel they're competing with devices for my attention.

So I've made a habit of unplugging from the time I get home to the time my kids are in bed. On weekday evenings between 5:00 and 8:30, I close my computer and put my phone down with the volume off. I don't check social media, e-mail, or text messages during that window. It's too easy to get sucked in. Instead, I make dinner, help my kids with their homework, read with them on the couch, and listen to their stories about school. It's a relief to take a break from technology.

The Power of Unplugging

Technology overload is a real consequence of living in an increasingly connected world. Even teachers like myself, who love using technology, can benefit from unplugging and creating more time for themselves. As teachers, there's always more we could do. But we'll be better teachers if we find time to rest and recharge every day.

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