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When Technology (Publicly) Fails

IMG_DESCRIPTIONLast week I shared a story of classroom success, so it seems only fair that this week I share a story of failure. Hopefully that story will lead to a productive discussion about how to manage moments when technology fails, which often happens in public with embarrassing results.

We’ve written about WordPress quite a bit at ProfHacker: guest author David Parry argued that WordPress is a better CMS; Kathleen explained how to backup WordPress blogs, as well as how to move them; Julie explained WordPress plugins; Ethan helped us find good themes for academic WordPress installations; Brian helped us enable Zotero with WordPress; Jeffrey used WordPress to hack an alternative department site; and guest author Derek Bruff explained how he administers reading quizzes through WordPress. Indeed, as of yesterday, ProfHacker (and all the Chronicle blogs) are produced in WordPress. All of these articles convinced me to install WordPress 3.0 and set up separate blogs for all of my classes using its multisite feature, which would allow me to manage separate blogs for each of my classes through one administrative interface. On the first day of class I enthusiastically described my hopes for these blogs, and asked my students to register for accounts on the blogs for their individual classes. I added links to each course blog on the Moodle page for each class.

My students being students, most of them didn’t follow these links or attempt to register on the sites until the night before their first blog posts were due. And, unbeknownst to me, the “register” button on the individual blogs was sending students not to the registration page for their individual class blogs, but instead to the registration page of my main blog. Registering for accounts there did not give them access to the class blogs. I hadn’t realized that I would need to log in to the main administrative interface and set each of them up for the correct class blog individually. The next day, I woke up to a number of frustrated student emails, and I knew that, in a few hours, I would walk into classes full of justifiably frustrated students.

WordPress wasn’t at fault for this problem—I was. I should have tried registering for a student account before my students, to ensure that it would work as I expected. I’d used WordPress in class before (a single installation), and I relied too casually on that experience. My failure ended up costing me a day of class time. That morning before class I called the library and managed to schedule a computer lab for my class. I spent class helping students register for accounts on the correct blog, re-teaching them how to log in and post, and consulting with them as they wrote their first blog assignments in class. In short, I had to own up to my mistake and work with my students to resolve it. In the end the situation turned out well. My students got a peek into the backend of WordPress, and we had a healthy conversation about the benefits and potential problems that come with classroom technology.

This incident speaks to a larger issue that I know the ProfHacker community faces: how to manage moments when technology publicly fails. Sometimes that failure is the tech’s fault—internet access in a building drops away during a web-based presentation, for example. Other times it’s user error, as with my class blogs. Many observers, however, won’t distinguish between machine- and user-generated failures. Either way, then, these can be anxious moments for known Profs. Hacker—departmental techies who not only use lots of tech, but who lobby for greater use of technology in their departments, libraries, colleges, or universities.

Profs. Hacker often face resistance from colleagues, some who don’t understand the benefits technology might offer their research and teaching—and others who are vocal Luddites, worrying loudly and publicly that their students and junior colleagues have become the “tools of their tools.” Moments of dramatic tech failure seem to validate those opinions, to hoist the Prof. Hacker by his own iPetard. So my question for you is this: how do you manage those moments of public tech failure? Can these moments become pedagogical moments for our students and colleagues? Let me hear your thoughts in the comments.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user Justin Marty.]

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