Be Fearless When Teaching Digital Skills to Students

Jacqui Murray’s advice to teachers facing the daunting task of teaching digital skills to today’s students? Be fearless.

Being fearless is much easier said than done, especially when in front of a class of stirring students who’ve used technology their entire lives. But if there is one person who can make you feel empowered to integrate technology and aspire to use it to change how students learn and think, it’s Jacqui.

In her thirty years as an educator, Jacqui has taught kindergarten to grade 18, so some of the youngest students up to aspiring teachers in grad school. She is the editor and author of over a hundred tech education resources, adjunct professor, webmaster for four tech blogs, CSTA presentation reviewer, published author, and both a freelance journalist and writer on tech integration topics.

Her passion for teaching technology and digital skills permeates all aspects of her work, seeking to elevate student learning with digital skills.

As with any subject area, tech education and curriculum center on teachers’ relationships with students. In our conversation, Jacqui mentioned a student who confided in her when she was bullied, a teacher who praised Jacqui for managing her difficult child, and a student returning from the Air Force Academy to thank her.

Teachers change the lives of students, and in the quest to enhance their experience as 21st century citizens, tech integration will only grow this.

On Being Fearless

To enable students to leverage technology, Jacqui focuses on first enabling teachers to confidently develop these skills in students. In our discussion, I asked what advice she would give to a teacher undertaking the task of tech integration with digital native students, and her response is thoughtful and encouraging:

“The big secret kids don’t tell adults is that they’re not really good at technology. What they’re good at is being fearless. Most teachers would use a different term to describe themselves – Intimidated comes to mind.

To teach digital natives, we must stop shaking long enough to own their world. When faced with new apps, unknown programs, or confounding tech problems, as Nike says, Just do it. Remember the first time you stood in front of a class of second graders? That’s frightening and you were fearless. Channel that experience.

Once you conquer fear, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Show kids that you won’t crumble, giggle, call the experts, or fiddle with your hair when technology fails you. Be their model for problem-solving technology.”

Tech Integration Then and Now

As a champion for teachers, I’m curious to know when your first foray into tech education happened.

I’ve always been a geek. I remember programming DOS (pre-Windows) to play Christmas music when my husband turned on his computer – much to his dismay! So, when my local private school was looking for a tech teacher, I applied. I didn’t have my teacher credential then, but I loved kids, technology, and lifelong learners. I was their gal!

Flash forward thirty years, there is a major push right now to teach digital skills to students. As educators attempt to do so, how can they ensure that they are creating real value for students?

That’s so much easier to do than it sounds: Make it valuable. Make it authentic and useful. Tie it into what students want to do – their goals and dreams. Kids never have trouble learning their parent’s smartphone or the online game they want to play. That enthusiasm drives their learning. We just need to harness it.

One of the trickier aspects of teaching digital skills is that tools are constantly changing. To maintain relevance, how do you stay up to date on the latest tech integration trends, as well as tech trends more generally?

I subscribe to dozens of forums and websites. I devote time daily and weekly to reading. When I see a trend (like gamifying education), I try it out. I attend a lot of webinars and talk to lots of people, often to get their opinions and sometimes to test best practices. Am I current? There’s always something new in the pipeline for tech education, but I never quit trying.

Learning to Teach Digital Skills

Stepping into the classroom, you work with a lot of teachers integrating technology. Is there a certain approach to teaching these skills that you see as most successful?

I teach a lot of grad school classes. I am clear about my expectations but flexible in how students get there. I explain the Big Idea, but I want students to be part of how we get there. For example, when I ask students to explain how they would blend technology into learning, I want them to communicate the answer in whatever way best suits them – a podcast, a video, a slideshow, a digital story, a comic, a song they wrote, a drawing, or something I haven’t thought of. Be creative but fulfill the goals in the same way we differentiate for students when I ask them to share their knowledge. It’s not about following rules. It’s about finding the best way to learn.

On the quest to create these authentic learning opportunities, where do you find teaching inspiration and ideas for tech education like lessons or learning activities?

I am blessed with a creative mind. I have no problem coming up with lesson plans and teaching ideas. If I had to quantify what I do, here are some of the steps:

  • Talk to other grade-level teachers. What are they teaching? How can I tie into their lessons? What do they need help reinforcing?
  • Talk to supervisors about what the grade-level goals are. How can I facilitate those and reinforce what other teachers are doing?
  • Talk to the high school administration (where my students will eventually go). What digital skills do they expect students to enter high school knowing? Where are students from my school lacking?
  • Talk to students. What do they like doing with technology (like Minecraft)? Can I use that passion to reinforce any of the above?

As with any effort, it’s important to track the effectiveness of different approaches to teaching technology. Rather than using a set it and forget it model, how can teachers actively measure the efficacy of their approach so they can continue to optimize it?

When I started teaching technology, my school had no curriculum. They had no expectations of what I’d accomplish, no scope and sequence, nothing. I developed a year-long, evidence-based curriculum and then adapted it as I saw the need.

For example, pretty early on, I switched from task-based to project-based learning, realizing digital skills are more easily taught when they have a purpose. When parents told me that they couldn’t believe how much their children knew, I figured I was doing something right. When teachers told me that students were using technology for class projects – without the teacher telling them how to do it – I smiled. Isn’t that what we want? For students to incorporate the skills into their world (not one-and-done or set-it-and-forget-it) in a way that enhances their life experience?

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