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ISTE NETS*S Part 6: Technology Operations and Concepts

This is my sixth article in a series of six about ISTE’s NETS*S (National Educational Technology Standards for Students).  The sixth standard is “Technology Operations and Concepts.”

Technology Operations and Concepts

Students demonstrate a sound understanding of technology concepts, systems, and operations. Students:            

  1. understand and use technology systems.
  2. select and use applications effectively and productively.
  3. troubleshoot systems and applications.
  4. transfer current knowledge to learning of new technologies.

(excerpted from

Okay, I know, this one might seem like a no-brainer.  If kids are doing all those other things covered by the previous five standards, they MUST be fluent in the basic workings of a computer, right?  Not necessarily!

Students use computers in a labChildren may know how to use a number of software applications, but they often struggle with basic terminology.  For example, we do not turn off our energy-saving monitors.  When I tell the students to turn on the computers at the start of a week, but not to touch the power buttons on the monitors, some of them give me a look of utter confusion.  I know they’re thinking, “How can I turn the computer on if you won’t let me touch the power button.”  Or recently, when we began replacing monitors in one lab with larger, nicer, newer ones (which we received as a donation), the kids kept asking, “Did we get new computers? Are these better? Are they different?”  When I explained that the computers, keyboards, and mice had not changed, but only the monitor or screen was different, I got that look again.

And then there’s knowing what will be the right tool for the job.  In my position, I have a commitment to using each application in a grade level for at least one project each year.  So I am the one who dictates which software we use.  But there are times, especially with my middle school students, when I give them as little direction as possible.  I tell them what the outcomes must be, in terms of what information must be covered, but I allow them to choose the tools they will use.  They don’t like that.  In fact, they don’t just want me to tell them what tools to use, but also where to look for information, which information to use, and how to cite it.  They’ve already done all these tasks before.  And they’re clever enough to do it themselves.  They just don’t trust their own abilities or judgment.

So, as often as possible, I give students opportunities to be independent thinkers when it comes to using technology.  Because I have many standards to meet and specific goals to accomplish, this is not always easy.  Before I begin a project, I refer back to programs we have used before.  With my youngest students, who may be using a program for the first time or who may not remember using it the year before, I have a long introduction in which I explain what the program does.  But even then, I get them involved as much as possible in helping me explain it.  For example, when we begin using Microsoft Excel in first and second grade, I ask questions to elicit responses from the students.  What do we put on the bed before we put the blankets on?  We spread a sheet on the mattress.  What is the tiniest part of our bodies? It’s also the name for a little room a prisoner lives in.  That’s a cell.  Young kids need mental pictures to help them remember the names for things.  And then I repeatedly use the correct terminology as I teach.  Well, sometimes I use nicknames too, but always in conjunction with the correct term.  Since my pointer is named Mr. Pointy, I often give similar names to other things in my lab.  The cursor on the screen is Mr. Blinky.  But I always refer to him as “my cursor, Mr. Blinky” so they hear the term cursor over and over.

Children use a library computerBut the most important skill we need to give students, when it comes to using technology, is permission to learn by trial and error.  I’ve written before about how today’s student is conditioned to fear failure.  I constantly remind my students that Thomas Edison had hundreds or even thousands of failed attempts for every successful patent.  We learn more from our mistakes than we do from our victories.  Want to know how to do something? Start clicking on stuff and see what happens.  Ctrl-Z (the undo function) is your friend.  Kids don’t think twice about exhibiting this very behavior with games consoles or the TV remote, but when they’re getting a grade for their results, they suddenly default back to wanting to be taken step-by-step through a process.

When I start my students in Google Apps, I tell them that the functions are more or less the same as Microsoft Office, but they may look different or be found in different menus.  Now, go find out how to do what it is you want to do!  When they ask me “how?” I ask them “what have you tried?”  If we want our students to truly be able to transfer learning from one experience to another, we need to let them learn in schools the way they learn at home: it’s called the “mess with stuff” model.  Okay, I made that up.  But it’s true.  When kids know they won’t get in trouble for clicking and trying and hunting and guessing, they will be free to really get past learning how to use the software and making it just a tool to accomplish their true goals.

Don’t believe me?  Hand a kid a brand-new cell phone she has never seen before, and have her text you.  Make it a race.  She’ll figure out the new phone and have that text sent before you remember how to type the first word of your text message.

Image of students in computer lab from Flickr user Extra Ketchup, some rights reserved, Creative Commons.
Image of children using a computer at my local library from Flickr user San Jose Library, some rights reserved, Creative Commons.


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