Creating self-sufficient digital learners

Ed Tech

Ed Tech | Thursday, January 16, 2014

Creating self-sufficient digital learners

Creating self-sufficient digital learners

As the digital world evolves, students must be ready. We need to help students know how to handle themselves whether we’re there or not. (photoXpress / dinostock)

It never fails.

In my classroom, which has a desktop computer for every student, the questions come up almost every day.

“Mr. Miller, my computer won’t turn on.”

“Mr. Miller, my mouse won’t work.”

“Mr. Miller, my computer is frozen.”

And almost every day, my instruction grinds to a halt as I troubleshoot a student’s technology issue. Hopefully, instruction doesn’t grind to a halt because the students are working on something independently. Many times, though, it does suck valuable minutes out of my class period.

And almost every time, I think, “Why didn’t they try to fix this themselves?”

This common thought of mine often makes me come back to an even bigger and more important thought.

What are my students going to do without me?

It goes much deeper than getting their glitchy keyboards to work:

  • How are they going to pick the right digital tool to do what they want to do?
  • How will they know how to handle themselves in their digital spaces?
  • How will they learn new skills as technology — and the world in general — continue to adapt?

The last thing I want is for my students to become so dependent on me that they can’t think, act and learn for themselves.

I don’t want to become a crutch.

What we need more of — and what I need more of — are self-sufficient digital learners. We need learners that:

  • can decide whether a website is fake or real.
  • know how to use media in a way that respects its authors and copyright laws.
  • can choose the right website or app from an arsenal of options at his/her disposal.
  • know where the cutting edge of technology is so they can be there.

And we need learners that know how to learn in today’s digital age, where the one constant is that it’s going to change — quickly.

I want my students to know where to go if they have computer problems, whether they’re at home or at school or out on their own.

I want my students to be able to find multiple choices for those digital tools and be able to choose the best one.

I want my students to learn how to learn. Because I don’t have all the answers and because the world is constantly changing and I want them to be ready for it.

John Dewey once said, “If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our students of tomorrow.”

That’s never been more true than it is today.

I resolve to lean less on “Here’s how you fix your problem” and more on “How do you think you can solve that problem?”

What are my students going to do without me?

If I have it my way, they’ll thrive.

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  • N. Radtke says:


    I will say that the struggles with student independence and initiative stem from a culture of compliance that we have created at the early grades. Students are taught that they need to ask before doing anything. By the time they get to me (8th grade) they are almost afraid to do anything without the teacher saying it is ok. I am doing my best to break that in my class. I will give them challenges that they need to solve, but I don’t give them a specific place to go to solve it. It drives them crazy that I won’t just “tell them what to do.” They just want a list they can check off to do “what I want.” They always ask me “is this ok?” My response is, “If it meets the challenge, then it is ok.” I am trying to create a culture that makes learning the material for THEM (the student) and not for ME (the teacher).

  • Hi Matt,
    I teach in a computer lab (elementary students) and student dependance continues to be an issue for me. I decided that this year I would focus on “asking a neighbor” for help if you are stuck. The helping neighbor can not touch the keyboard/mouse of the student she is helping. I dedicated a bulletin board in the classroom “We are a community of learners” and if I observed “helping” those students go to fill in a “helper” badge.

    Next I am going to have a “I am a problem solving” badge and will be on the lookout for problem solvers. I am stressing very basic things, check you login credentials, quit and relaunch a problematic application, restart computer, look around menus for help.

    I often also ask “What do you think you should do?” And if a student I’ve had for several years asks me how to print or save, I say “I’m not going to answer that question,” or “I’m going to let you figure it out – I know you can.” Of course many times they do figure it out and they are very pleased with themselves.”

    Also if a students wants to ask a question, they should formulate a questions and not just say “this doesn’t work.” It is an ongoing process.

    • Matt Miller says:

      Patricia: These are great ideas. When we fix all of their problems, it robs students of the opportunity to solve them and get the sense of accomplishment — and own the solution as something they figured out that they’ll remember. I LOVE the idea of rewarding students for being self-sufficient with badges! That also identifies those students to others who need help so they’re not always asking you their questions. Fantastic stuff. Thanks for sharing it!

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