Skip to main content

I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone else who uses a spreadsheet as a calendar. For me, it works, though. I have the date, the day, the task or event, the type of task and the location. For recurring events, I simply write “every week” or “every day.” Then, I use the sort function to see what I need to do each day or to see the timeline of a particular project (sorting by category).  I like being able to ask, “When is Galileo testing?” and simply sorting it with one click. Calendars don’t allow me to do that.

I’m not suggesting everyone should use a spreadsheet for a calendar. I’m odd. I get that. I like every event in one place and I find the calendar to be inefficient. But it has me thinking about technology and customization. It has me thinking that maybe acceptable use should be broadened to also mean, “Use the tools in the way they weren’t intended to be used.”

Too often, students learn a rigid definition of how a particular technology tool should be used. PowerPoint and Google Presentations are meant for presenting new information. Spreadsheets are for crunching numbers. Twitter is for telling people what you’re doing. Blogging is for short writing entries. Google Docs should be used for writing only.

I want students to be hackers.

The following are some examples of using tools in ways they weren’t originally intended to be used:

  • Vocabulary Blogs: Blogs allow students to create and to curate. They can write the vocabulary word, do a sample sentence, tag it with a synonym, tag it by subject, and add multimedia. They can then sort it by tags, by topics, by search or chronologically. They can re-blog one another’s vocabulary words.
  • Sequencing with Google Presentations: Sometimes students who struggle with sequencing do better when it is organized top-down rather than left-right. I don’t know why this is the case, but I’ve found it to be true. So, I have students maneuver events with Google Presentations in order to practice sequencing.
  • Google Forms for Choose Your Own Adventure Books: David Wees is a genius. He figured out how Google Forms could be used to a multi-option choose-your-own adventure book.
  • Google Docs for Literary Circles: Most often, people use Google Docs for writing. However, they also work well in having students annotate and discuss writing.
  • Blog as a Wiki: Everybody participates, creates, organizes, changes the blog in a way that they typically would with a wiki. The advantage with the blog is that they can subscribe to it, leave comments and see it chronologically as well as topically.
Those are just a few examples and many people would say, “Well, why don’t you just use ______ instead?” However, that’s the point. Wikis might work better than blogs for a group project. Twitter might be a better back-channel than adding ideas to a shared concept map. Taking a camera snapshot of the board and then listening might work better for a student than Evernote would. That’s a good thing. We should all have the permission to choose different tools to accomplish similar tasks.
Here are a few thoughts on how teachers can encourage students to get into the hacking mindset:
  1. Permission: Teachers can create options for students as they work on projects and assignments. It might be as simple as saying, “This might work in iMovie, Garage band or Keynote. Choose your method and then explain why you chose that particular tool.”
  2. Examples:  Teachers can show examples of tools being used in ways they originally weren’t intended.
  3. Model the Process: It might be as simple as saying, “I’m wanting to highlight text and add comments to this article. What kinds of tools would enable me to do that?” Students need to see that the learning drives the task and the task drives the selection of technology.
  4. Understanding of Tools: If students use blogs but they never know what it is exactly that makes a blog a blog, they aren’t as likely to use blogs in divergent ways. Let them know what tagging is and how to organize pages or the power in commenting and reaching a larger audience.

Looking for more? Check this out.

Join my email list and get the weekly tips, tools, and insights all geared toward making innovation a reality in your classroom.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit
John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Anon says:

    I cringed when our latest computer re-image locked all the settings. It's not right to say "nobody can change their settings from these, because this is how I use my computer."

    Tech Departments should strive to leave the options open, and let us live with and learn from the consequences.

  • Anonymous says:

    Wow. Just wow. Not only do you seem to misunderstand instructional design, but you also have a really low understanding of how technology works. Using it the wrong way is why technology people have to fix things so often. This is really bad advice.

    • I'm not suggesting we pull a MacGeyver and rip the machines apart, duct tape them back together and then use them to detonate a bomb. I'm thinking we let kids do vocabulary on Tumblr. That's pretty different.

    • Dorian Love says:

      Anonymous! You have got it horribly wrong!

      John's not suggesting using the application in a poor way – he's talking about subverting the function of the application! What this does is liberate new ways of looking at things, new ways of understanding things. That's learning! I use spreadsheets to do school time-tables, for example. My students often use PowerPoint to make movies, because you can save the slides as jpegs so it allows you to put text and images and speech bubbles into the movie without fancy editing software!

      I totally agree. Let students use any package they choose for a task. As long as they can justify it.

    • Eric says:

      Anon sounds like one of those central-office tech department flunkies who is more concerned with show-boating some gimmick (like wi-fi equipped activity busses) to County Commissioners and Communities In Schools reps than he/she is in helping teachers facilitate new and inventive ways of using technology to help student learning.

  • Fantastic advice – Love this line, "Students need to see that the learning drives the task and the task drives the selection of technology." Too often I see teachers pick the tech first and fill in the rest. Design the task and allowing students to pick the tech.

    • Thanks for the kind words. I think it begins with a solid understanding of teaching followed by a strong understanding of the functions of tech. Both matter, but educational practice is still the most critical element.

  • LK says:

    I'm unclear as to how a little bricolage will cause the tech people at Tumblr, Google Docs, Google Forms or one of the wiki sites to put in hours of overtime. Those are the examples being discussed.

    I too would be concerned if the advice included projecting flames on the smart board while using the heat from the projector lamp to melt marshmallows to make S'mores. Tech guys might get overtime then.

  • Anonymous says:

    I love this idea. I don't see why tech departments woudl be against it, either. You won't break anything. Besides, students learning how to use tools in different ways will actually lead to a better understanding of the tools they use.

  • paul bogush says:

    Wow. Just wow. Not only do you seem to understand instructional design, but you also have a really great understanding of how technology works. Using it the right way is what technology people with no classroom experience want you to do so they don't lose control. This is really great advice.

    • Malyn says:

      glad you addressed the anonymous comment so well. however, i still disagree on one point: technology people who really understand technology know it's a tool and keenly observe how it's used inappropriately for insight on how it can be improved….or highlight a need.

      I came across the idea of desire paths via @timbuckteeth's (Steve Wheeler) post on Learning Pathways. I find that those who use technology in unexpected ways have devised such paths. It makes sense to listen to these people (like me thinking now whether or not spreadsheets as calendar may be the way to go … maybe). Where before I used to insist on a better tool or more efficient way, I now listen a little and see if I can learn something new or appreciate that it's not always about efficiency and productivity.

    • Paul: You rock. I love that response.

      Malyn: Thanks for the link. I think you're right about being mindful of when it's not being used right. I love the pathways concept.

  • JMitchinson says:

    This is wonderful for getting students to think about the purpose behind using the technology. You may even end up with a few students who go on to create the next big educational app after discovering the golden uses from a variety of sources.

    Three years ago, my students used Google Maps to re-create a transmedia storytelling of "War of the Worlds". They used Bitstrip comics and Photoshop for creating still photos, Google sketch-up models of the tripods, embedded sounds from the movie, created video news reports, and wrote parts of the story in the placemarkers. They learned some coding language while developing tons of different media skills and exploring various audiences while experimenting with narrative. Along the way they learned how to re-purpose tech-a valuable 21st century skill!

  • Interesting. I'm in a master class with John Hunter this week so I'm focusing on the idea of creativity. It seems to me this might be a good exercise to do with students to get them thinking creatively. What if we asked them questions like, "How many ways might you use Prezi other than as a presentation tool?" Then, we let them brainstorm the possibilities. You've got me thinking this morning, John.

  • patmatt says:

    Scott Ziegler's comment about choosing the learning task and matching the tech is what I hold on to as I imagine the creativity that drives most students. While some of our students are very tech savvy, too many are knowledgeable with a narrow set of tools. Here is the chance to group students with their tech peer to explore how they will present or represent their learning.

  • Nice article. I agree with every you've written except using a Spreadsheet as a Calendar. Do you mean using a Spreadsheet instead of a paper calendar? I use Google Calendar and it is fantastic, easy-to-use, syncs with my Android phone, etc. I can't imagine using a spreadsheet to find out what I have to do Today…especially if there are recurring events.

    • I know what you mean, but I tried Google Calendar for a solid year and there were things I hated. First, it took way too long to enter events. Second, I didn't like how it look when I had multiple events going at the same time. Third, I didn't like the fact that I could not sort through events and see it like a to-do list or the fact that I could not make recurring tasks. I also don't like the way it looks when the time breaks in odd moments (which happens with my schedule).

      So, I have the following:

      1. For events that are more task-related (projects, larger events) I have a spreadsheet like the one I describe above. It works really well for me, because I can sort it all out if necessary and there is no distinction between project deadlines and events.
      2. I have a day-to-day template with everything scheduled out. I keep this on a Google Doc.

      Once a week, I do a date-sort of everything I have to do that week on the spreadsheet and then I modify it on my Google Doc. So, I end up avoiding the traditional calendar altogether. Like I said, it works really well for me. I'm not suggesting it would work well for everyone, but it works well for me.

  • Justin Vail says:

    Fantastic advice, I would like to add PowerPoint as an image editor. Remove background, add text, layer, fix blemishes–it's a poor man's photo shop and my kids have become experts! Love you posts. Love to have your thoughts on mine sometime

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.