Harder Than You Think

Kate Nowak:

So using the devices for something that I would like to take 5 minutes usually takes 15-20, with the associated distractions of attention and loss of momentum. It seems like with all the preparation in the world, I can’t get these interludes to take less than 15 minutes, and I can’t ever, hardly ever, get it so every single student can participate. And mind you, I am not a noob at this stuff. At the risk of sounding hubristic, I’m probably one of the more experienced classroom-tech-deploying teachers you are likely to meet. And everytime I’m like, “Oooh, we need a device for this part,” I’m also like, “Crap. Is there any way I can avoid this?”

This is a huge problem and if you’re a technology coordinator, this is your huge problem.

The difficulty of setting up and configuring these devices for a teacher’s own, personal learning is dwarfed by the difficulty of doing the same at classroom scale. It’s so difficult that highly competent educators like Kate would rather find another solution. That’s before you even look at the bottom 99% of computer-using educators.

At the very least, I hope anecdotes like Kate’s will put to rest specious comparisons to cash registers for grocers, CAD software for architects, and Bloomberg terminals for stock analysts. They aren’t even in the same universe of access and usability.

Featured Comments:

David Wees:

I’ve been basically leaning toward tools which can either be installed on every kids computer easily, or which get shared via a link. Nothing else. The time from sharing the tool to using the tool is minimal in both cases, which helps reduce associated problems with task transfer.


Here follows an example of one of the problems with classroom tech. I am the guy in my school that is supposed to make the tech work. We purchased 60 iPads (not my idea). The administrator had planned that the teaching strategy would involve an app called AirServer which allowed iPads to project through a PC. AirServer was very non-cooperative so of course the usage plan took a digger. The teachers would not make teaching plans with tech that was not reliable. I now have a lot of unused iPads. Proper field testing would have solved a lot of time and money. But iPads in education are the cool thing so away we went. No testing, no significant teacher training and no curriculum writing or planning. From my reading this scenario does not appear to be uncommon.


It is my huge problem.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. a different Dave

    December 7, 2012 - 8:01 am -

    All true. My first stab at improvement: school-wide tablets.

    More frequent use and access keeps students from feeling as compelled to play/explore every time they are used. I used to side heavily towards netbooks/laptops, but tablets can be “always-on” with basically immediate start up.

  2. I have written this many times: We are not ready for classroom use of computers yet. I am hoping for Windows 8 tablets, but they will take a lot more time to mature.

    Even with tablets, you need an infrastructure which everyone can access immediately. The only choice right now is the web. But you need non-static content in the web. My choice was Java. But Java was killed by Apple. So we have JavaScript now since only very recent time. There are projects to provide math in the net using JavaScript, and they are progressing. With a bit of programming every teacher can get some math running. But we need more content for languages, geography, biology etc. too.

    So we neither have tablets that are ready for rough classroom use, nor the content.

    It will take time. But every effort is an investment into the future.

  3. I have more personal tech experience than 99% of everyone out there. I have good classroom management. I am at least average as a teacher.

    That 200% overhead keeps me from going after technology in my lessons. At some point, it’ll happen, I’m sure, but I need to be able to leverage appropriate technology related behavior, and that just hasn’t been developed as part of our educational process yet.

  4. I’ve written some design principles for technology that I think, if implemented, would help alleviate some of these problems. See http://davidwees.com/content/design-principles-digital-age

    Unfortunately, this is an issue, and it is the technology person’s job to try and fix it (and the person who designs said technology), which I have been working on at my school. As a math person AND a technology person, I know personally the various pitfalls that can occur. It is frustrating to have to plan two lessons, just in case that snazzy tool you want to use doesn’t work today, or your local network crashes.

    I’ve been basically leaning toward tools which can either be installed on every kids computer easily, or which get shared via a link. Nothing else. The time from sharing the tool to using the tool is minimal in both cases, which helps reduce associated problems with task transfer.

    Of course, these difficulties have always existed. I do notice them a lot less at my current school though. It seems to me that part of what makes this faster is our approach to technical problems – I try and make sure that every time I solve a technical problem for a teacher or a student, I make an effort to explain what I’ve done in language they understand. This has led to teachers and students being able to trouble-shoot some of the more common issues that come up themselves.

  5. Here follows an example of one of the problems with classroom tech. I am the guy in my school that is supposed to make the tech work. We purchased 60 iPads (not my idea). The administrator had planned that the teaching strategy would involve an app called AirServer which allowed iPads to project through a PC. AirServer was very non-cooperative so of course the usage plan took a digger. The teachers would not make teaching plans with tech that was not reliable. I now have a lot of unused iPads. Proper field testing would have solved a lot of time and money. But iPads in education are the cool thing so away we went. No testing, no significant teacher training and no curriculum writing or planning. From my reading this scenario does not appear to be uncommon.

  6. I will be the lone voice in the dark and say I’ve had little issue getting effective use cases out of my iPads. It was not easy, but I hit a point I like. Though, I’m the only teacher at my school who can pull this off because of the infrastructure needed.

    What we’re given: low-end Dell laptop, 4 iPads, 4 netbooks

    What I use: personal MacBook Pro, my 4 iPads, my next door neighbors 4 iPads, teacher down the hall’s 2 iPads, 3 personal iPads for a total of 13; accessories: iPad VGA adapter, AirServer

    I booted one of the netbooks just for kicks, couldn’t get to log on, and gave up.

    On each iPad I sign them to the same Apple ID. Each can have a copy of all my purchased apps. This, in turn, ties them all to the same iCloud account.

    What does iCloud let me do? Create PDFs out of Keynote slides, bring it into PDFPen on my master iPad and find the notes dutifully waiting on all 12 of the other ones. Have a kid take a picture with his iPad, view it on mine within 2 seconds of him taking the picture. Have a kid create a data table on his iPad version of Numbers, open it on my desktop version of Numbers as soon as he’s done.

    We used the cameras to make videos:

    We used the cameras to find and annotate right triangles:

    We used them to do self-teaching:

    I have done the self-teaching more than once and it went well both times (even just the other day, 2 kids per iPad). Recently in Pre-Cal I gave kids problems framed simply as a picture and they used the iPads to research missing information and display the results (in my to-do pile of things to write up).

    I have learned a few things:

    -having kids e-mail you things is clunky and time consuming
    -anything requiring a login is clunky and time consuming
    -I don’t use a single “math app” at all
    -I use them to draw, research, read, or take pictures
    -I don’t use them as a replacement for paper (though some kids want to do this)
    -I don’t use them to fiddle around on math websites (like MangaHigh or whatever)
    -I don’t use Edmodo or any other website for distribution, this is clunky and time consuming

    Knowing the ins and outs of iCloud is really the secret sauce. Words don’t describe it well, you just need to see it work.

    But again, my scenario is NOT mass marketable and this is a problem. The personal investment is ridiculous to expect out of the average teacher, and the learning curve is SO HIGH. Anytime I show people things I do with my iPads they look at me with absolute bewilderment because they have no idea where they would start to replicate this.

    I run AirServer on my Mac and rarely have issues (though I need to password protect the thing, random music has been known to play if I have it running but not in use). In fact, out of curiosity I tapped my iPhone into it and had a remote camera going. It was an insane “this is not your father’s classroom” moment.

  7. For me, the biggest problem is device distribution. We have carts of laptops, and even an iPad cart I just set up. But, they are expensive, so I am told to collect student IDs in exchange for the technology. Therefore just distributing the stuff takes 5 min right there.

  8. I was just told that I am going to be receiving 15 iPads for my classroom ( with 30-33 kids per class). I know that the java things I like to currently use will then be useless. I know of no way to effectively monitor what the kids are doing on the iPads without standing behind and personally visually monitoring them. I know of few apps which would prove especially good for education. ( websites aside)…

    And we’ve been let know that our ability to effectively use the technology will be evaluated…..

    And when I asked for the money to be spent instead on 30 android based tablets I was told no….

    Got any worthwhile words of wisdom?

  9. Throwing computers, be they tablet or otherwise, exposes a great deal about education. There is now a massive skill gap for teachers who wish for full control over the experience in the way that they had before. Photocopiers made worksheets easy, IWBs/Powerpoint made that particular ‘brand’ of teaching easy. I don’t see any teacher training courses incorporating video production and pretty high-end programming chops.

    At the moment, ‘bricolage’ seems the way to go with tablets. Taking a little bit of app x, with a little bit of app y, tied together by service z. I can’t say I like this, however it can be effective–but, it requires a certain kind of teacher (not necessarily better or worse than any other) to pull it off.

    For all the beauty of an all-in, fully integrated solution, you just know there would be something missing or ‘different’ that would ruin it for you as a teacher. I honestly don’t think people want an iMathPad (I used to joke with a colleague about opening a VTech lab which seems oddly apt). They just want to find an way that bends the technology to the approach they want to take in class. This is brilliant, but right now, it is bringing only frustration due to the skill gap. Instead they patch things together which ultimately also frustrates them.

  10. We have a cart of (20) MacBooks with guest sign-ins and a cart of (20) iPads shared between 11 teachers (all disciplines). This year my largest class has 19 so students do not have to share devices. I do use Moodle for one course, expecting those Seniors to access it from home. Students have created paper-slide video explaining ideas.
    I have a couple of sections of Juniors/Seniors in a math credit factory course. I’m heading them towards a linear programming unit. Getting them understanding linear systems of inequalities and all the prerequisite skills has been taking some time. This week using https://www.desmos.com/ on the iPads, students had a lot of success. This was a very smooth, painless and beneficial use of tech.

    One trouble with the iPads and log in to websites activities is getting students to remember to log out so the next person to use the device doesn’t have access to mail etc.

    The most important quality a teacher needs to have to successfully use tech is flexibility and to make sure to have a couple of tricks in the bag so when the tech doesn’t work, you have back up plans.

    I attended this iPad seminar last Monday. I recommend it.


  11. @Scott

    There are no magic apps, you have to distance yourself from this idea. Don’t think of an iPad as a way for kids to sit there and flick their way through textbook pages.

    2 kids per iPad works fine. Distance yourself from being extremely controlling about how they use the devices. This is a classroom management issue. If you have set expectations that when given an assignment of any type that they need to do it, you will have success implementing iPads. Kids will attempt to goof off no matter what you put it front of them. It’s what kids do.

    I do have some kids that will goof around with the camera, but as long as they complete the task at hand, I do not scold them for this. If you really are scared about this sort of thing, it is possible to set restrictions on the device that disables the camera, and even Safari if you don’t want them on the internet. Though I have not tried it, iOS 6 allows you to set an iPad to be in “single app” mode where the user is unable to leave whatever app you’ve put them in.

    Go look at some of the things I’ve done with them. The iPad is not a new form of textbook, it’s a new form of creation. Twice I have prepared notes from some Algebra kids to work through and while “traditional” it worked fine. In Pre-Calculus we have used the cameras to make videos, we used the cameras to find examples of right triangles that we could study, and I’ve used them to research information they would need to solve a problem (Ex: picture of an airplane taking off, determine the takeoff angle. That’s all they were given, they had to research the length of the plane, make approximations about the height off the ground, etc).

    There are viable solutions. It is so incredibly easy to get 15 iPads to think together via iCloud.

    Don’t be like the teachers at my school who wanted to complain about new initiatives being forced on them. Educate yourself and be open minded about it. Please contact me if you want more information, I am more than happy to help you.

  12. @Jonathan,

    I agree about e-mail. I tried it, I hate it. Things get so cluttered so fast, it’s not a good way to collect things.

    And while I agree about log-ins being clunky, I make two exceptions – Google Docs and Schoology. I’m a social studies teacher, so maybe Docs is more valuable for me than for a math teacher. But I find Schoology to be a great way to distribute and organize information, plus it has the benefits of collecting and organizing student work (much better than e-mail) and handling grades.

    And this gets back to the OP’s problem. It’s important to build a routine and an infrastructure. The first couple times you do something, it will be clunky, as the tech savvy kids get it and the non-savvy ones don’t. I remember being baffled at the fact that it took some kids five minutes to type a goo.gl shortlink into their browser.

    But the more often you use the infrastructure and the more consistent you are with the things you do, the better kids get at it. Break down barriers and reinforce routines.

  13. a different eric

    December 8, 2012 - 7:59 am -

    @jonathan – That’s good stuff… you’ve given me hope about technology. I have been in Kate’s corner in regards to technology for a long time. It’s simply too much of headache. I have to use my own MacBook Pro just to show 3Act math problems because the $200 toy laptops the district gave me would lock up and audio would be off with the video because the processor was probably made in 1953. I use Powerpoint more than anything and you would think I’m a computer genius at my school… when all I really know how to do is create presentations with videos and animations. I tried having my kids create their own 3Act math problems last year on the school laptops and I probably spent half that time uploading videos to a server, teaching kids how to email from a school email address they’ve had for years, and how to create a slideshow. With iCloud and AirDrop… I think I could do some pretty awesome stuff!

    Now… I just need 15 iPads and I’ll be set. :)

  14. I am a 5th grade teacher, and the one borrowing everyone’s laptops – We don’t have iPads in our building. I think the secret for me has not been using them to replace the regular teaching activities that I have been perfecting for years, rather using them to do a different kind of teaching. I use Google for almost everything, and they work on documents, presentations, forms, drawing, everything. Having all this in the cloud they can work on it anywhere, share it with anyone, collaborate with each other, and they share it with me. I have an website where I link resources, upload the documents they need for projects, and share their work.
    The kids aren’t afraid of the technology and I expect them to problem solve their own tech issues, and usually they can. I never do for them what they can do for themselves, even if I have to talk them through it.
    Finally, it’s not about the specific apps or hardware. These change constantly, and there isn’t time to constantly reinvent everything. Find what works for you, and use it.

  15. Dan, when you are talking about “specious comparisons to cash registers for grocers, CAD software for architects, and Bloomberg terminals for stock analysts,” I think you may miss the point of the analogy.

    I think you are underestimating the amount of training it takes to learn to use a modern cash register. I see lots of cashiers struggling with them even after training. Many would prefer older technology that is not so fussy, where they just ring up the prices from labels–but the management has eliminated price labels (so they can jack up prices without the consumers knowing), and so the cashiers have to deal with temperamental databases, scanners that don’t work, and failing phone connections.

    Similarly, most architects still do all their sketching by hand, only moving to CAD once they have to produce final models and drawings.

    (I don’t know anything about how stock analysts work.)

  16. We have a full class set of iPads for the math teachers (we share them and have to book them ahead of time). Our classrooms are right next to each other and they are stored in my room in a locked cabinet, so distribution has not been a problem.

    They are also numbered, and each students is assigned a number and they must take “their” iPad. This allows a very quick check after class of which apps were open that shouldn’t have been (most of the students doing things they shouldn’t don’t think about shutting down the apps completely). This works mostly, but we are looking into systems for controlling or monitoring in real time what they are doing.

    When we first got the iPads I spent a lot of time looking for “cool and fun” free math apps. I found a lot that sounded great and we loaded them up.

    In the end there are only two things we have used them for, and mostly only one.

    The only consistent good thing we have used them for is using the site “Socrative” as an instant response system. This way when we pose a question to the class we can immediately see how many students understand and adjust accordingly. This slows down the teaching, but makes it more effective. The students are more involved this way as well. Of course, we have the usual issues of entering math symbols in a limited text field (exponents and square roots being extra annoying).

    The only other use we have had of them that has been productive is some geogebra exercises as a support for visualizing a problem, such as the “how many squares does the diagonal of a rectangle pass through” or some of the activities by David Cox with linear functions. Unfortunately, these are extremely unstable right now on the iPad and many of them don’t work at all. We are eagerly awaiting the long promised Geogebra app for the iPad.

  17. Using iPads in my classroom would be great… if the building’s wifi could penetrate the cement block construction of my room. No wifi = no intercommunication, wirelessly. 21st century learning in a 19th century environment doesn’t work so well.

  18. Our school district went one-to-one with iPads, starting last year at the high school level. This year we have expanded this initiative to include every student from grades 8 through 12. Perhaps my glasses are rosey, but I can’t say enough positive things about this move.

    Don’t get me wrong – I have encountered some difficulties with our network, as well as a HUGE learning curve and shift in thinking/planning, but with nearly a semester under my belt, and experiences with some amazing apps, I’m loving it, and so are my students.

    Socrative and Nearpod have helped immensely with formative and summative assessment. I feel like I know my students in real-time in ways I have not thus far. Sure, Socrative lacks math symbols, but having to use “^” or “sqrt” is a small inconvenience when compared to the immediate, color-coded data that appears in my inbox instantaneously, and helps direct my teaching… not tomorrow, but today.

    Though my objective has never to be “paperless” in a mathematics classroom, we have used apps like DocAS to annotate PDFs when it made sense to do so. I’m also using the HMH Fuse Algebra I Common Core app as a textbook – content is nearly identical to the physical books my students already had, but interactive features with immediate feedback have elevated the experience a bit. And again… when students work a problem using the “scratchpad” feature, or take one of the “Ready to Go On?” quizzes within the app, the data comes to me. For me, having iPads has impacted formative assessment in a very big way.

    If you’d like to see more about how we’re using iPads, check out my blog: mathycathy.com/blog

  19. Count me in as one of the tech-savvy teachers who looks for alternatives instead of using tech. Our network is slow, the devices need troubleshooting about a third of the time, and even when students are using their own device on the school WiFi, many of the sites I planned on using are blocked, because teachers and students have different access rights. Bring out the books and the overhead projector :) .

  20. Is it possible that those teachers that are putting the tech on the shelf because it is interrupting their content teaching are going the wrong way? Is it possible that teaching content with tech more important than teaching content? Educational heresy!

  21. @Garth
    Education is a flame to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled ~ Socrates

    I teach 9 and 10-year old kids, but I find that whatever I let them do using technology gets them motivated, and thinking. And they are fearless about trying new things. It’s a matter of time, both for the kids and for me. But they go home and keep working on what we were doing in school, and often teach me new ways to do things. Maybe with older kids, there are so many demands on everyone that you don’t have the luxury of time, and I’m not using iPads or specific apps that they might not have access to at home.

    I don’t have a solution to all the tech issues that people have, but I would have to say it is so worthwhile to keep trying. Find people that are making it work in your district, ask for help from your tech support staff, bug your administrators to get you the resources you need, and, probably most importantly, listen to the kids.

  22. @Brian

    Initially I shied away from Google Docs because the iPad experience was quite terrible. It seems they’ve done an overall and thrown their weight behind a native Google Drive interface. It’s not as pretty as Numbers but offers simultaneous editing, something iCloud freaks out about. Though I only used a spreadsheet for two activities this year and keeping the records by hand would’ve been just as easy. Promising for the English/Social Studies crowd though.


    Thanks, this is all a work in progress. I was one of many who thought our approach was doomed, and I’m upset that I’ve had to go to such crazy lengths to get it working. I would’ve much preferred two additoanl iPads over the 4 netbooks. The shortcomings of my supplied laptop got to be too much years ago. And unfortunately not everyone has the option to ditch it, so that’s holding people back as well. iCloud isn’t quite as rosy to deal with on Windows. Rumors of 13″ MBAs are floating around, but that won’t change anything about the giant hurdles most staff have to overcome. In fact initially it will probably be worse.

    Despite how all this tech stuff is going, my happiest days in the classroom are when they work with pencil, paper, and marker to make posters.

  23. The featured comments from David Wees, Garth, and Tom eclipsed the length of the post. Thanks, team.

    Also, my hat is off to Jonathan’s persistence in the face of technology that is doing its best to destroy him. Cobbling a technology solution together out of shoe polish, braided twigs, and WebDAV connections might work on a hyper-local level but this post is interested specifically in national calls for more technology integration when, in fact, it’s much harder than they think.

  24. I can definitely relate to Kate’s gut instinct to avoid using tech tools whenever possible — the time-suck that usually occurs directly affects the amount of time I can put into quality literacy instruction. When my kids are dealing with a downed server or lagging video or whatever else the issue is, they are not reading or writing–they are just muddling through computer issues.

    Because of this, I try to keep usage of our classroom netbooks to times when they are absolutely necessary. As a result of this approach, my students tend to show greater gains in reading and writing by trimester’s end.

  25. I teach in a very cash-strapped school in the Watts district of Los Angeles. If I had 15 ipads I would probably cry tears of joy. Also, all of the airserver stuff is garbage. Apple TV airplay has improved to the point that I can use it everyday. I use my ipad as an overhead projector on penultimate, as a portable document camera, as an interactive unit circle, and as an acces point to my Logger pro suite. All of my presentations are run from my ipad or iphone 4s. When students share solutions or graphs with the class, I either hand them one of my devices or they log in to apple tv and use the doc cam or a graphing program. Apple has eliminated a lot of the connectivity issues. Having more than one ipad for every 4 students probably represents some point of diminishing returns. If I had one for every four kids that would be great, but generally the abundance of other ios airplay devices makes the system work.