The Boring Side of EdTech: Excel

I've had some interesting jobs. I worked for Accenture as a consultant. I served in the Army National Guard as a Chemical Operations Specialist. I taught students science in Chicago and rural Oregon. Every single one of those jobs involved using technology. Each one of those jobs would look different today because of developments in technology.

At Accenture, I worked with databases and enterprise software. I bet if I went back to Accenture (which was a wonderful employer) there'd be some nifty apps for managing time reporting, expenses, training, reference materials, travel, online meetings and other in-house tasks but I'd still be using Excel, PowerPoint, Word, and whatever my code editor du jour happened to be (Notepad ++ has had a good run) along with the familiar interfaces of the big database providers.

In the military, the tech use was very specific and I have no doubt that nearly two decades of war have drastically changed the way my old job looks to new recruits. Obviously, non-tech options still must exist ("Sorry.. We can't decon your platoon until the iPad has recharged" won't cut it) but apps could drastically be helping with maintenance, reporting, and personnel tasks. But we'd still be drafting memos in Word, recording data in Excel, and delivering presentations with PowerPoint.

And in teaching, technology has changed the landscape. Management tools for teachers. New resources for student reference. Interesting tools to generate varied end-products. But my opinion on edtech is mixed: There's a whole lotta potential--but practical is just as important as engaging.

What do I mean by practical? Authentic. From my science classroom perspective, that means what would a scientist use? For example, my kids used video cameras and digital photos to gather evidence during labs. They could record the lab and verify timing, results, etc. after. They could take pictures through the microscope lens to make observations and measurements. And most importantly: They'd make tables and graphs and use embedded functions in Excel.

Spreadsheet software is not glamorous edtech but it's authentic. Students will not move on to jobs and keep all records by hands. Perhaps the records will go into a spreadsheet. Perhaps into a database (which is bascially just a bunch of spreadsheets). Perhaps they'll need to look for patterns and then Excel and the powerful pivot tables become essential. Maybe they just don't want to do lots of calculations by hand. Maybe some day they'll want to mail holiday cards or wedding invitations and when they download their contacts, in to an Excel Sheet, they'll know how to concatenate name fields then use mail merge to get everything on to a label. Who knows why but spreadsheet software is powerful, but often ignored, in the flashy world of edtech.

Maybe I've convinced you that Excel is "excel-lent" and spreadsheets should be incorporated more into your classes. You're not ashamed to embrace it even if all your colleagues are coming back from conferences with the latest on Google Classrooms and Kahoot and some nifty production software. So how to use it?

First, go online and find some tutorials for your version of Excel or Google Spreadsheets. Get some data, put it in the spreadsheet and practice making graphs. Need data? Go to a science teacher and ask to see what data students have been collecting recently. Pivot Table Example Or make up a data set you understand (like weight loss goals for a month, splits for a run, or a budget for spending and saving). Once you know how to make a variety of graphs, practice with formulas. Start with something simple like calculating an average - and avoid using the wizard until you understand how the formulas work at a fundamental level. Learn about "Ifs" in the functions (for conditional scenarios - like putty a "Y" in a field if saving was greater than spending). Then, go on to pivot tables. They are powerful and awesome for comparing data, especially data over time.

Once you have some comfort, get your students some real (and relevant) data to mess with and have them work on simple formulas and graphs. Use tutorials, write your own tutorials, or give them just enough information and then plenty of time to mess with things. Show them how to make a formula (in a cell, start with "=" then type in or use your mouse to slect inputs) but then let them mess with the types of formulas. Kids don't know algebra yet? No problem - formulas might actually help with that. Time. The students really need time to practice and explore simple cause and effect.

After they've had a good amount of time to mess with the data and see what's possible, expect that they use a spreadsheet for other work. In a science class, it can be for each lab. In English or Social Studies, maybe they make charts in it. You can create a spreadsheet that has all the inputs needed to generate a citation and ask students to create a formula that results in a completed citation. Or maybe they create a chart, chapter by chapter, that shows how often characters interact and the types of interaction (I'm not sure what this might be for). You can use a pivot table to take all that information and see trends. I'm not an expert in non-science instruction but I'm sure you can think of assignments were trends would be great to "see".

Anyway, Excel is my special little pet. What's yours? Think about your own content area and grade level. What are the actual tools you think your students need? Tweet to me (#realtech, @Project CRISS) or email me at With your permission, I’ll add comments here so others can learn.

Here are just a few articles I've read recently about this topic that continue to bounce around in my brain.