Sep 19 2014

Why ‘The Next Big Thing’ Often Leads to Frustration

Implementing the latest tools often requires systemic change that isn’t always comfortable.

Have you heard? The Next Big Thing in education technology is here! It will change everything for all students!

Of course, hearing this should be the first warning sign of trouble ahead. The truth is, a great teacher is the only silver bullet in the classroom. But for the sake of my point, I will continue.

Technology departments are operating over capacity. But whether for the students’ benefit or because of pressure from educators citing curriculum and instruction needs, IT makes an exception. Many times, a few corners are cut during the implementation process due to a lack of time or an unwillingness of most schools to strategically abandon other programs that are impacting resources. Perhaps product documentation is not adequate, service-desk processes are not established or overall learning continuity is ignored. Perhaps we decide not to pay for professional development or to allocate time for it because this new silver bullet is not in the current technology plan.

Over time, teachers become frustrated with the lack of performance. In some cases, because of Wi-Fi network capacity, a perfectly fine device is deemed too slow, so teachers simply stop using it. Other times, a device may not be compatible or integrated with other critical district systems, forcing teachers to go to a variety of places for information and making their already demanding job even more difficult. All of a sudden, the Next Big Thing, which could well be great, has a perception problem. Use of the new tool drops; eventually, nobody is using it. In some cases schools continue to pay for it. Then, a few months later, someone suggests the next Next Big Thing, and we repeat the process all over again.

Essentially, the school has caused itself complexity problems on several fronts by failing to look at the new tool through a lens that takes into account systemic, supportable and sustainable change.

Systemic Change

When a new tool is introduced into a school or a district, we must first look at where it fits in the system.

Is it interoperable with existing tools, or is it another layer of complexity that teachers or IT staff must deal with? What structures within the environment will allow this new tool to have maximum impact on educational outcomes? In order to maximize the investment in this tool, should we abandon some current programs that have similar functionality or perhaps delay our implementation?

These are questions leaders should ask themselves.

Systemic change is hard. It takes planning, strategy and an understanding of the complex dynamics of your organization. However, failure to take existing systems into consideration can derail a project before it even gets off the ground.

Supportable Change

The support of new educational tools is a consideration that’s often ignored. This includes support not only for technology but also for teachers.

Consider the fact that professional development is an investment in maximizing your return on education. It is critical to success that “teaching the teachers” is part of your plan. If you aren’t investing in professional learning for your staff, consider buying fewer devices and dedicating the savings to professional development.

The measure of a new education-technology tool should be quality, not quantity. It doesn’t matter how many apps a certain platform has; what matters is that those apps are aligned with your educational goals. Having 10 quality apps rooted in pedagogy and aligned with district scope and sequence would be preferable to 100 that are misaligned with your educational goals. Similarly, it doesn’t matter how many edtech widgets you have if they are all collecting dust because teachers were never trained to use them.

If you find gaps in your technology department’s ability to support a new tool or provide training, you have two options: You can either abandon something that is not working, or you can factor additional support into the cost of the project. Hoping nobody will need technology support or professional development is not an option.

Sustainable Change

If the solution you are looking at passes the systemic and supportable tests, you can then look to sustainability.

Sustainability may come down to finances or to a school's capacity to support a new tool or program by providing professional development. Of course, this could be a financial decision if it means adding personnel. However, if you don’t need extra personnel throughout the year, you may be able to supplement training by reaching out to partners for help.

The financial decisions can be complex, but I believe schools that want to sustain a technology (especially hardware) for the long term must look at these items as operational expenditures instead of as one-time capital expenditures. Failure to put a long-term plan for sustainability in place can’t be allowed to decrease a school’s learning continuity.

Theoretically, consider every purchase to have an amount of professional development attached to it. For example, each device would have a cost associated with full implementation at your school — say, $10 per device for professional development. This thinking pays big dividends for your students down the road.

Be proactive and invest in your staff before a program fails. The amount of time students have in our school system is finite, and they don’t get those years back. For them, time when technologies aren’t implemented properly is time lost.

“Learning continuity” and “strategic abandonment” may be new terms to you. If that is the case, I am glad to discuss them in greater detail here in the comments or online @k12cto, but also look for a future post here at #ConnectIT that goes deeper into each of those topics.

[title]Connect IT: Bridging the Gap Between Education and Technology

This article is part of the Connect IT: Bridging the Gap Between Education and Technology series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #ConnectIT hashtag.

Gelner Tivadar/ThinkStock

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