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Limited Devices, Unlimited Possibilities

Don't Ditch That Tech

Let’s face it– classroom tech over the last decade has gone B.A.D. — that is, Bring A Device. I think a lot of outside observers, casually peering into their child’s classroom, might assume that classrooms are now filled with technology from floor to ceiling with iPads, Chromebooks, cellphones, Macbooks, and everything in between.

Certainly, there’s an element of truth to this. Just like the world outside, educators and students have more apps, gadgets, and connectivity at their hands than ever before. 

However, access to these new tools is far from ubiquitous. The first school that I taught in as a special education inclusion teacher wasn’t 1:1–we had the good old computer lab that we couldn’t put too much faith in having regular access to or reliably working for us.

A couple of years later, I met Matt Miller of the Ditch That Textbook fame and we partnered up with my mom–Dr. Angelia Ridgway, a professor of education–to write a book about our experiences with classroom tech. A few months later, and Don’t Ditch That Tech: Differentiation in a Digital World was the result. 

A significant part of our book dealt with that limited tech situation that I and my co-authors had experienced in our educational careers. I thought I’d share some of our best tips, tricks, and apps from it; things that will make a difference if you find yourself in a classroom with limited devices, a tech cart, or computer lab. As you’ll soon find out, limited devices can still mean unlimited possibilities.

“We have the opportunity to harness the power of all technology in our classrooms—whether school-issued or not. If we find ways that can support learning, we can help students use smartphones, mobile devices, and other technology in useful, educational ways.”
— Don’t Ditch That Tech: Differentiation in a Digital World

Laying the Foundation:

I’ve always believed that the best tech-using teachers–limited devices or not–stick to a couple of common “threads”:

1. They tailor their use of technology to their lesson objectives, not vice-versa. 

The theme of “technology is a tool, not a lesson plan” is really important in all classrooms, but it’s especially good to remember on those awesome days where you do get your hands on some iPads or Chromebooks. Your entire lesson doesn’t need to be teched out, nor should it. Yes, there might be that one really cool app you want to try, but if it doesn’t fit your lesson, there’s no point. In fact, I’d push you to think about another word instead of “app”– applicability. It’s always a solid idea to ask, “Is this the appropriate time to use this piece of tech here? Why?”, or, “How will it affect my students’ learning?”

2. The best tech-using teachers attempt to tie up any loose ends by critically thinking about their use of tech in the classroom. They try to be proactive problem-expecters instead of reactive problem-solvers.

“Tying up loose ends” happens before students even get the devices in their hands. There’s “hardware” to consider: internet outages, apps updates, low devices batteries, etc; but there’s also “software” those “soft skills” that students need to successfully share those few devices. Critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication are just as important as the devices themselves, and they need to be “charged up” too.

Before your tech-enabled lesson begins, I recommend establishing and teaching tech-specific expectations and procedures. Every teachers’ is different, but mine looks like this:

Of course, expectations aren’t everything (a well-designed and engaging lesson is always the best behavior management strategy in my book), but it’s a crucial part of incorporating any amount of tech into your classroom. A full disclaimer: No behavior plan–no matter how engaging–is foolproof. Occasionally, students will break those expectations or struggle to master learning-related skills. However, instead of simply punishing the student, seize the opportunity to help them grow and learn.

Planning Your Lesson:

With your foundations set, it’s time to plan your lesson and use that tech you’ve got on hand to make your it even better. No matter what age or subject area you’re teaching, I recommend following a few “CUES”. 

Create a Home Base

The name of the game with limited tech is efficiency: you only have these devices for a limited amount of time, so the more you can reduce barriers and open up access to learning, the better. We’ll talk more in a follow up blog post about how HyperDocs & Hyperslides can make a limited-device classroom function much more fluidly.

Use Web-Based Apps

When using tech in the classroom, nothing feels worse than the moment when things go wrong. To help reduce problems, eliminate—as much as possible—the need for your students to use apps that are only accessible on lab devices. Although there’s definitely something to be said about the quality of software vs. online applications, the ultimate barrier to learning here is access. A classic example of this is Google Earth vs. Google Maps, both of which are amazing mapping tools. Google Earth demands high-end internet bandwidth & device graphic capabilities; Google Maps is easy to use and doesn’t require any kind of downloadable software. Which would students find easier to use and have access to?

Establish Expectations and Procedures for Online Work

Once your lesson has concluded in the lab or students have returned their devices, what do you need to do to make sure homework can be completed? You can either choose to:

  • Not assign homework on days when a Cart/Lab was used.
  • Adapt online work to be completed on paper as well as at a later time. 

Let’s say you do decide on option two. Unfortunately, you still face a slew of issues:

  • First, can the homework assignment replicate the same skills that students were utilizing digitally?
  • If yes, will the assignment ensure students are appropriately and equally supported outside of school?
  • What if students only partially completed their assignment? Can they possibly transfer that work to paper?
  • What if they need to turn in both digital and physical work?

Stick to Apps that Are Easy to Use

With your students possibly on a different device every time they visit the lab or when you get ahold of a cart, it’s especially important to minimize access issues in order to maximize learning time.

When possible, avoid apps with lots of barriers for students to overcome in order to use them, such as:

  • creating accounts
  • logging in with usernames or passwords
  • updating computer software, such as Adobe Flash Player
  • downloading large or multiple files

Keep the theme “less is best” in mind. Try sticking to a few apps until both you and your students get the swing of the technology. 

Take a look at the sample classrooms below and the difference between using two different apps, Classtime and Verso, for the same warm-up. Assuming this is the first time the apps are used, notice the list of steps that students in Ms. Cheyenne’s room must execute compared to her colleague, Mr. Keegan.

Ms. Cheyenne’s Room

Steps for App Used: Classtime

  1. Student clicks on the posted and distributed HyperDoc link.
  2. Student enters name.
  3. Student begins work on his or her warm-up and submits it.

Mr. Keegan’s Room

Steps for App Used: Verso

  1. Student clicks on the posted and distributed link.
  2. Student clicks “Sign Up.”
  3. Student clicks “Student” for this or her account.
  4. Student creates a username.
  5. Student creates a password.
  6. Student enters class code provided by teacher.
  7. Student enters first and last name.
  8. Student clicks the warm-up.
  9. Student begins work on his or her warm-up and submits it.

This is not to say that Classtime is an inherently better app than Verso. When operating in the context of a limited-device teacher, however, Classtime makes more sense to use due to its relatively simple logistics.

So, in conclusion, limited device teachers have to be proactive problem-expecters focused on access, ease, & efficiency. Set a strong foundation, and the rest of your lesson will follow. In the next blog post, we’ll be exploring my two favorite apps, Classtime and HyperDocs/HyperSlides, that I’ve used in limited-device classrooms.

Stay tuned for the next entry in Nate’s OnCUE blog series – coming soon!


Nate is a tech-loving history teacher in Indianapolis, Indiana and a co-author of Don’t Ditch That Tech: Differentiation in a Digital World. He specializes in lesson design and also is licensed in Special Education Mild Interventions. He’s taught in both middle school and high school settings, but currently is enjoying teaching World History & Dual Credit U.S. History. He is currently finishing a Masters degree in History at the University of Indianapolis.

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Nate Ridgway

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