The Wi-fi’s not working? Or is it Facebook?

The other days outage of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram highlighted to me the complexity of internet services, and how they rely on various technologies, hardware, software, and companies to make things work.  This is the reality, yet the perception is that it is simply “Facebook” or “WhatsApp” a single simple service.

The same is true in schools in particular in relation to Wi-Fi.   How many times have I heard about issues with Wi-Fi?    I would suggest, too many, yet “the Wi-Fi isnt working” implies simplicity where it doesn’t exist.  The need to “fix” the Wi-Fi suggests a single point of failure, a single issue or technology to look at, where in reality the service relies on a number of different technologies and different companies to make work.

Some possible issues

Starting with the user device might be a useful place to start.   This can impact on Wi-Fi.   Recently my team came across a device where the DNS (Domain Name System) server was set to that of Google on the device rather than getting the DNS from the schools’ network.  For safeguarding reasons, we want to see the DNS requests so prevent the use of DNS servers other than our own so this student instantly had issues accessing internet services due to this.  I suspect they may have changed the DNS server for the purposes of bypassing home filtering such as that provided by the likes of Sky broadband.    Next there are students who may be using VPNs to bypass filtering.   Again, depending on the VPN used, this might impact their internet connection or the speed of their internet connection.    Updates which havent been installed on devices may also have an impact or possibly updates to the apps on device rather than the device itself.        

Moving beyond the device, the Wireless Access points may cause issues in terms of signal strength or in terms of their capacity to handle requests for different connected devices at the same time.   I will admit they also may occasionally fall over of their own accord.   It may also be that a “noisy” device is saturating the APs with requests leading to an impact on the service.   Or the issue could be to do with network switching or even the internet bandwidth available to serve all users.    Again a noisy device on the network could be impacting overall network performance.   Your DNS servers or DHCP servers, which provide devices the IP address they require, could also be at fault if they are not operating as they should.   And this is just scratching the surface of the potential causal or contributory factors.

And it doesn’t stop there; The issue might not even be within the school and could relate to issues with the service or site the students are trying to access.   It may be a reputable service which is simply having issues at a given moment in time, a bit like the recent Facebook issue, or it could be a less reputable site which simply isn’t trustworthy or reliable.  It could be that the site uses authentication from a third party, such as Facebook, and this is what is causing the issue, or that the site uses an Infrastructure as a Service (IAAS) vendor and it is they who are having problems.    It could even be a largescale internet routing issue.

Conclusion

This all makes me thing of the Arthur C. Clarke quote regarding advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic.   The challenge is Facebook and internet services in general appear to be simple, in we can all easily use them.   There is no magic there, and as such there can be no magic in their inner workings.    Or at least that is the user perception.  This however is untrue.    There is magic.    There is the magic of so many different technologies, hardware, software and companies working together in unison to deliver the services we come to expect, or at least doing so most of the time.    That is until something goes wrong somewhere in the chain leading to that familiar cry:   “The Wi-fis not working!”

Technology can solve all?

Sometimes there is a belief that technology can make all processes more streamlined and efficient.   I will admit that technology does have the potential to make some or maybe even most processes a bit more efficient through automation, validation of data, etc.   It can also allow us to reimage workflows and processes, however there are times when this isnt the case.

The issue I am getting at here is trying to use technology to solve a problem where the problem itself doesn’t exist in the technology domain.   This might be using technology to solve a human problem or using technology to solve a problem with a given process.

Consider a complex process involving lots of different people who provide approvals at different stages of the process.    This might be seen as a poor process as it may result in action not being taken due to a small number of people not responding or providing their approval.  If this is a manual email-based process it seems logical to use technology to make the process more automated and remove some of the manual processing from the equation.    We might be able to setup reminders, etc to stop people failing to respond.   The issue for me is that the problem may be the complexity of the process.   Does it need to be done this way?   Why do we do it this way?    Is it simply because we have always done it this way?   Does it need all of these approvals?    Could the process be simplified?  

For me, before we look at using technology, I think we need to examine the underlying processes, people, etc first with a critical eye.   We need to avoid trying to use technology as a blunt solution to solve process or people related problems, instead dealing with these problems first before then looking to technology.

This isnt necessarily easy.  In the past I have spent time with departments looking at and mapping their processes and then querying why each part of the process exists.   In some cases there has been a reluctance to accept any changes (“We’ve always done it this way”) therefore either necessitating a bespoke solution or a highly complex off the shelf setup.  Neither of these options work due to potential costs, both financial or resource, and dangers of fragility associated with complexity.  In these cases, I have had to walk away and indicate there may be dissatisfaction with current processes, but there is also a lack of willingness to make concessions and accept change as required of any new solution.   It’s a no deal situation.

I continue to want to support the greater use of technology generally, but I am equally concious that we need to use technology where it matters and where it has impact.    Sometimes technology might only present a marginally gain but at high cost.    We cannot simply look at an issue and expect technology to solve it.    It’s that old, famous phrase: “crap in, [technology enabled] crap out”.  

Devices for all students

I recently read with interest the plan for the Scottish government to issue “devices for 700,000 children”.   My first reaction was a positive one in the potential impact this could have on learning for the children concerned.   Taken as a simple headline, issuing a device to every pupil in Scotland seems like a good thing.    I suppose that’s part of the reason it works as a headline as it conveys a simple positive message, although as with most headlines it fails to encapsulate the complexity.   But then I started think a little more deeply and this raised concerns.

Infrastructure (in schools)

The article mentioned they would be “considering how to deliver consistent digital infrastructure” across schools.   This was my first concern.    Students might all have devices, but they wouldn’t necessarily have access to reliable infrastructure in schools to allow them to access online resources and services.   They also wouldn’t have access to allow them to keep the devices up to date with operating systems and other updates.     The article mentioned “an internet connection” where required, however without an internet connection I would see devices as limited and potentially a security risk. So limited use in the short term, and a sustainability issue in medium term.

Infrastructure (at home)

Even if school infrastructure is eventually supplied, devices will spend a significant amount of time at home and therefore ideally we would want students to be able to access resources and services while there.   This would also be critical in any situation where online learning is required, such as snow days or pandemics.    The challenge here is that not all students are likely to have internet access at home. Provision of internet at home didnt appear to be mentioned

IT Support

700,000 additional devices in Scottish schools;   This makes me wonder what additional resourcing will be put in place within IT teams to support all of these devices and the increased usage which school infrastructure and technology solutions will see should this project be successful.   It is also worth noting, as with the beginning of any new academic year, the introductory period will be the busiest, so if this project is to be successful there will likely be a massive need for IT support immediately following any rollout.

Pedagogy and confidence

Probably one of my biggest concerns is that this project feels like it may focus too much on devices and not enough on the support and training in relation to how devices and the apps they allow access to might be successfully used in teaching and learning.   We have already seen examples of a focus on devices without the training and support, and the resultant lack of impact when compared with cost;  The Interactive whiteboard is but one example.

Sustainability

There is also the issue of sustainability and the long term.   I experienced this years ago with the laptops for teachers scheme.  It is great for the government to fund or supply devices now, however will they commit to continuing the funding or supply of devices in the future, when the devices become worn or obsolete.    Assuming they will likely look at tablet or laptop devices, I would suggest this will be in around 3 or 4 years of use before needing replacement, although it might be possible to push this out to 5 years. After this additional funding will then be required to mount a renewal/replacement scheme.

A single solution

I am also concerned that this centrally driven approach will likely result in all schools getting the same device, albeit with some variation based on the ages of students catered to within the school.   This fails to take into account the local context of individual schools, staff interest, experience and skills, students viewpoints and preferences, parents, etc.   I increasingly believe the wider you try to deploy a singular solution the more likely it will be unsuccessful due to increasing variance in the context and people, students, staff and parents, involved. I think looking for solutions at a local level is more likely to work over trying to apply a single consistent solution.

Conclusion

It is important to acknowledge this is a good attempt at enabling technology in schools.   It needs to be lauded as such as at least there is clear evidence of an attempt being made by the Scottish government.   The same cant be said for other countries or regions. My concern is it seems to fall into the common trap of focussing on devices without considering the other factors which are needed for a successful educational technology project.    That said, I very much hope I am wrong.

IT Services and Admin

Sometimes the borders of responsibility to IT systems are a little blurred.   Take for example a complex HR and payroll system.   The IT team might know the technical requirements and how to get the software up and running.   They might know what integrations with other systems exist, including integration possibly with the schools Management Information System and with Active Directory for example.    But will they know how to solve a problem with an HR workflow which has been setup within the HR system?

This is where the lines blur.   As the HR and payroll system is an IT system, sometimes it is assumed that IT support teams will know the user interface and how it works.    Sadly, this is seldom the case and given the number of systems which a school might have, is it any wonder that IT teams can’t be expected to know how each system works and the user interface for each system.

Let’s just consider some of the systems a school might have:

Management Information, Payroll, Asset Management, Safeguarding, Trip Management, Room Booking, Parent Evening Booking, School Website, Parent payment gateway, Parent Communication Platform, Human Resources solution, Visitor Management, Cloud based productivity suite (e.g. Office 365), Timetabling solution….. and that doesn’t include the IT specific platforms and several other solutions which may be used in schools.

For me the key in deciding IT involvement relates to the need, or not, for domain specific knowledge.    The payroll systems for example will likely need some accounting and payroll understanding along with understanding of school payroll related processes.    It needs knowledge from the payroll domain, knowledge IT teams won’t necessarily have.   As such administration of this system should sit within Finance or Payroll, where the required domain knowledge exists.

Personally, I do however think there is a place for IT support teams to have some skill, experience and the ability to provide training in the schools’ core productivity solution, such as Office 365, including understanding how it can be used by teachers.  Productivity suites tend to be flexible for applications in different domains, however in their use within teaching and learning, this clearly would suggest need for knowledge from within the teaching domain.    For me though, as teaching and learning is the key aim of a school, there is therefore significant value in IT teams being able to support this aim.    

I think as we use more and more IT systems, the lines between what IT support or services teams can do in relation to IT systems and what they cannot continue to blur.   Also, as the IT systems we use in every day life become more and more user friendly I also think this increases the perception that trained IT staff can troubleshoot and support all IT systems, hiding the fact that role or process specific systems continue to be specialist and required specific domain knowledge.

If I was to sum up, lets use a medical analogy:  IT Support teams are like your GP.   We keep things generally running, are good for your general queries, but when it comes to brain surgery, or the payroll system, am not sure I would want them carrying out the operation. Equally am not sure a brain surgeon, or someone for payroll, would make a GP……. or an IT Technician.

IT Services: Week 1 of the new academic year

The first week of a new academic year is probably one of the busiest periods of the year for IT teams in schools and colleges across the UK and also the world.  Here we have seen a 10% increase in calls logged, when compared with last year and that excludes countless walk-ins and telephone calls where the resolution was quick and therefore never logged.   Comparing last week with the previous year average, last week is around twice the volume.    So why is it so busy?

Returning staff and students

The first week sees all your returning staff and students once again logging on and accessing school systems.   One of the challenges though is that it may have been 2 months ago or more that they last logged in.    This means there is always several forgotten passwords or queries about how to use a particular system or find a particular report.   For some reason printers and copiers in particular make frequent appearance on IT call logs at the start of term.

The need for Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) also throws some challenges in here, where staff have bought new phones, and where their old phone was setup for MFA.    This then requires support is provided to setup MFA on their new device.

System Changes

Although teaching staff may be on holiday over summer, a lot of the IT upgrade work occurs during this period.   This means that teaching staff may come back to slightly changes in the IT setup and processes.    You can never underestimate the impact even the slightest change will have on some users.    As such, the likely system changes conducted during summer contribute to a busy first week as staff need to adjust and build new habits.

And it isnt only schools which make changes; Some EdTech vendors will also take the opportunity to upgrade or update their platforms.  Again, this will cause some users difficulties leading to a “quick” call to IT.   Occasionally this can cause big issues where changes don’t go according to a vendors plan, resulting in service disruption.    Sadly, this is largely out of IT Services control however that won’t stop users directing their frustrations and annoyance towards the IT team.

New students and staff

I have already mentioned the challenge of returning users having forgotten how things work or how to do things, but then there are the new staff and students for whom the school’s setup, systems and processes are totally new.    Despite whatever training or support they have been provided, they are likely to need support; During their opening weeks they will likely need to learn so many new things, from school processes, staff names, their way around site, etc, and as such it won’t all stick, and where its an IT issue that doesn’t stick, it’s a likely call to the IT services or support team.

Last Minutes changes

We always hope things have been planned in advance, but each new academic year brings with it plans or ideas which were only agreed or decided upon recently just before the year begins, thereby requiring last minute actions.    This is often very frustrating, as despite some of these ideas and initiatives having value, the worst time from an IT point of view to make changes or try to implement new things in a hurry is the start of the new academic year when you are already under pressure. 

Conclusion

The start of the new academic year is always going to be busy.   I am not sure there is much we can do about this as most of the factors listed above are unavoidable.    I think the best we can do is to look to those areas which are avoidable and seek to do just that and avoid them.   We also need to carefully find ways to mitigate issues through providing JIT (Just-In-Time) training resources and directing users to these.   If you can empower users to solve their own issues as much as possible IT teams can then focus on the issues which need their support and where users cannot resolve themselves. Developing ways that teaching and support staff can share ideas, difficulties, etc, among themselves can be an important solution here.   We have an EdTech Mutual support team for example where staff can share questions or issues, with other staff then able to provide the solutions, workarounds, etc.   I will note this is also a good resource for IT teams as it gives insight into the issues and on occasions gives us solutions which we hadnt considered.    The need for prioritisation is also important, to focus on the jobs which have the biggest impact.  This requires users be understanding to the limited resources IT teams, no matter how big they are, will have.    

In conclusion, if I was to end with just one message it would be, be kind and considerate to your IT services and support teams at the start of the new academic year.    This is a very very busy time for them, much as it is for most school or college staff, however they may have also been busy throughout the summer.  

Well done to the IT people in schools and colleges around the world;  By the time you read this most of you will have survived the first week (and maybe the second) of yet another academic year!   Keep up the great work!

Create a PowerAutomate based on a Shared Form

Only recently found out how to do this however it makes a significant difference allowing me to now create PowerAutomate (previously Flow) automations but based on a Form created by someone else but shared with me.

To do this you need to first identify the FormID for the form.   To do this, just look at the sharing link for the form.  This is the link which someone looking to complete the form would fill out, not the link which may have been shared with you to edit the form.

The FormID is the characters following the ID= part of the URL, the section redacted below:

Now in Power Automate, create a new flow with a Form submission as a trigger.

Using the FormID combo list, you will see all of your forms but not those shared with you.   As such select the option at the bottom for Enter Custom Value.

Now paste the FormID characters from earlier into the FormID box.

You can now build the rest of your PowerAutomate as required, based on the responses to the Form which has been shared with you.

Eggs in one Microsoft/Google basket?

At the start of the week an issue arose which appeared to impact on a number of schools, in relation to syncing of OneNote on iPads or where using the Win 10 OneNote app.    This got me to thinking, should we be concerned where we are increasingly having all our technology eggs in one basket, being either the Microsoft Office 365 or Google Workspace for Education baskets.

Benefits

First, I think it’s important to acknowledge the benefits of having your eggs in one basket.    Taking Office 365, which is the solution my school uses, one of the key benefits is integration.    Each of the apps integrates well with the others, be this using Outlook to setup Teams meetings or setting up a Microsoft Form based quiz, as an assignment in Teams.   As each of the apps are part of the same wider platform, they generally play well together.   As soon as you start to look at number of different apps from different vendors, integration and interoperability very quickly become problems.

User interface is another significant benefit.   Each of the Office 365 apps, as part of the wider platform, has a reasonably common user interface.    This makes it that bit easier for users, both staff and students, to gain familiarity and confidence in using each app and the overall platform.   Again, as soon as we look to different vendors, we find ourselves with different user interfaces across different apps, and therefore an increased learning curve for staff and students.

Security is also worth remembering.   As a single unified platform, I consider it easier, but not necessarily easy, to secure Office 365 versus similarly securing a number of platforms from different vendors, with integrations and potentially third party integrators involved.

Drawbacks

The key draw back is the single point of failure.   When it doesn’t work the impact is huge.   Now in the recent case it was only OneNote which experienced an issue so staff and students could still make use of Teams, OneDrive, email, etc.   This is a lesser issue.   Had the issue related to the Office 365 platform as a whole then all apps within the platform would therefore be affected.    Thankfully, given the size of Microsoft, they have backups and resiliencies in place to reduce the likelihood of such an issue, however statistically over a longitudinal period the likelihood of such an incident eventually reaches 100%.    I would however suggest the exact same is the case where using multiple vendors to supply your solutions, however given the complexity of different systems and the resultant integrations required I would suggest the time period in this case before probability reaches 100% is much less, therefore representing a more significant risk.

It is also worth noting that where we are referring to SaaS (Software as a Service) there is also a risk that the vendor might choose to change the service such that it no longer meets our needs or may even discontinue the service.   In both these cases we find ourselves in the difficult situation of needing to find an alternative and needing to migrate potentially massive amounts of data. With Google and Microsofts productivity suites I would say the risk here is minor, however the possibility that an individual app within the wider platform may change or be discontinued is a more likely occurrence.

Conclusion

I don’t believe there is a perfect solution.   If you wanted to protect against a single point of failure, and having all your eggs in one basket, you would use more than one system, possibly using Microsoft as primary with Google as a secondary solution.    The issue here is that of resources and that of users.    Managing two platforms, keeping one ready to use if needed, and ensuring staff are ready to use the alternative platform will take at least twice as much in the way of IT support resources.   I would also suggest it is highly unlikely you could train users up to be able to be capable across two platforms. I think even trying to do this would impact on users confidence across both platforms. And this is without mentioning potential cost and financial implications.

Alternatively using different vendors for your video calls, emails, collaboration, etc and splitting up the functionality of your solutions is equally unlikely to work due to usability but also due to complexity and resultant fragility of combined systems, with each vendor focussed on their platform and not on others, or on the integrations you may have between platforms.

In Microsoft we trust

This brings me back to an acceptance that the benefits of having all my eggs in one basket, a Microsoft basket in this case, provides more benefits than risks.    It offers easier management, usability and security.

That said, it doesn’t hurt to have a little bit of insurance and to have the basics of Google in place just in case;  Yes it may not be ready to go, so may take some time to setup, but at least having it around means it is there should the worst ever happen.

UK GDPR: Showing compliance

One of the few things which I felt was different between the old Data Protection Act 1998 and GDPR when it was introduced, was the need to be able to evidence compliance as part of the compliance process.   So, to be compliant you have to be able to provide evidence of compliance. 

So how to show compliance?

As we start a new academic year, I think it is therefore important to give some consideration as to how you can provide compliance with UK GDPR so I thought I would list some of the key evidence you should have.   

Data Record Summaries

One of the key things about GDPR and personal data is knowing where the person data is stored and/or processes so one of the key methods of showing compliance is to have records of which data is where, along with appropriate classification of the data, who has access to it, its purpose and how it is processed.  Now I know from personal experience this can be a very arduous job, however it is important to understand it can be carried out at different levels of details, from full details down to the individual data fields, which is likely to be too details and time-consuming, to higher-level records focussing more on record types.   It is therefore important to decide what level of detail how need.   It may be acceptable to have a high-level central record which individual departments then may keep more detailed records at a more local, department level.

Retention periods

We also need to be able to show we have considered our retention period of different record types.   Now the Department for Education provide minimum retention periods for some record types however for others’ schools will need to make this decision for themselves.    As such the evidence of compliance is then the retention policy or process plus the fact the current data stored matches this.

Policies

We can also evidence our compliance by having the appropriate policies in place, although really, it is less the policies that matter, and more that the school follows and complies with their own policies.  So, this can include a privacy policy, data protection policy, acceptable usage policy, data retention policy and information security policy.    I think, also there needs to be evidence in the form of policies or documented processes in relation to incident management and in relation to managing subject access requests or other data issues.

Is Data Protection and GDPR discussed

This to me is the most important evidence.   We can create our policies and other documents as a one-off task however data protection and compliance with UK GDPR is an ongoing process, as processes and systems change, as additional data is gathered, as the operating environment changes, etc.    As such one of the key pieces of evidence is that data protection is often discussed.   This can easily be seen in minutes of meetings, briefing documents, emails, incident and near miss logs, etc.    Simply asking random staff some basic data protection questions, such as who they would report a suspected breach to, or what to look out for in phishing emails, will help you easily identify is data protection is taken seriously and therefore, how likely that UK GDPR is complied with.

Conclusion

The above is not meant to be exhaustive detail as the reality of UK GDPR is that your approach should be appropriate for your organisation and for the data you store and process, and the methods you use to process such data.    As such I suspect no two schools will ever be the same, although they will certainly have many similarities.

If I was to make one suggestion it would be to ensure that you can show that data protection is part of the normal day to day processes.   There should be evidence of its general and regular discussion as if this is the case, if it is regularly raised and discussed, it is likely you are already well on your way to compliance.

EdTech: Layer 3

I have previously shared a couple of post discussing an EdTech model I shared at the GESS conference back in 2013, now being up to the third of four layers within the model.   The third layer assumes you have already decided the key reasons why you want to invest in and use Technology in your school, this being layer 1. I note that Technology is my preferred term to EdTech.  Layer 3 also assumes you have put the relevant fundamental building blocks in place as part of layer 2.     So, what is the third layer about?

Layer 3

The third layer focusses on what I considered to be the three dimensions of technology use within a school, and the need for relevant training in these areas.   These areas being:

IT Skills

This is the basics of using IT and using tools so includes understanding file types, sizes, sharing files, using email, etc.   It is being able to log in, connect peripherals and change your password.   All staff need to have a basic understanding of the technology they are using, as without this it is unlikely, they will ever reach a point of confidence and then mastery of using technology in school.   I often described this as Teaching of IT as the focus is on developing IT Skills.   We need to ensure staff are supported in this area.  Thinking about it further, I believe this area would include cyber security and data protection although back in 2013 I am not sure I had included these areas.

IT for Management

There will also be some administrative work in teaching with IT generally being part of this, whether it is writing student reports, gathering performance data, following up on behaviour issues or many other issues.    Technology can allow us to streamline processes to make these tasks quicker or simpler.   I am often surprised how often staff don’t know about simply email rules in outlook or how they can use categories to help manage emails.  Note: I mention emails as so much of the administrative load seems to revolve around reading and responding to emails, or to messages now in Teams or other platforms.    At a more advanced level we can then move on to the use of solutions such a PowerAutomate to try to automate more and more of the administrative workflows however I will admit there is much more work that can be done in this area.

I also think we need to continue to examine the administrative side to teaching and identify where it adds value, for if a task doesn’t add value, I would suggest it isnt worth doing.   There is also an opportunity to make use of technology to do things differently such as replacing termly reports with more live, but automatically generated, performance data derived through the use of machine learning and AI based platforms.

IT for Teaching and Learning

This is the likely most important element in this layer, that of using technology in the classroom.   It is about ensuring teaching staff have the ability to use technology effectively in their classroom, their lessons and the learning activities they create.   I suppose on reflection this particular layer could be sub-divided further.  Thinking about the TPACK model, this section could include Technological Pedagogical Knowledge (TPK) and Technological Content Knowledge (TCK).     Looking at it a different way it could include teaching using technology, where technology enhances or redefines a learning activity or process, plus teaching through technology, where the technology is an essential vehicle for the learning.   Now I admit I find these two categories sometime difficult to separate however I will try to clarify.    Teaching using technology might be the use of OneNote to allow students to collaborate on a project so technology is just another tool in the learning experience, whereas teaching through technology might be using VR or Minecraft, in which case the technology becomes central to the learning experience.   Am hoping the above clarifies this however please forgive me if it does not.

Looking back, I would also suggest that my focus was very much the bricks and mortar school and classroom and I underplayed the potential for technology to allow for learning beyond the physical confines of a school and also beyond the confines of the curriculum.    The potential for online learning has certainly been highlighted over the last year and a half during the pandemic, something I don’t think I fully considered back in 2013.

Conclusion/Reflections

Looking back on the third layer I feel the balance implied by the three triangles of equal size suggested an equal value to the three strands I proposed.   This clearly isnt the case.   If anything, the teaching and learning section should likely be the largest, and further subdivided, while the IT for Management section should likely be the smallest, as we should be trying to reduce the administrative burden on teachers, to allow them to focus on teaching and learning.

That said, the final peak of my model, layer 4, was always about staff being confident enough to use technology or to be more exact, to experiment and try different tools and technology solutions.   Only through experimentation will teachers find the tools that work best for themselves and their students, and they will only do this if they feel safe and confident enough to do so.   For this confidence to occur we need the basic skills, the ability to do the management side of education using the technology tools provided, and most importantly the skills to use technology in teaching and learning itself.   So maybe this layer could be more nuanced, however at a basic level it may still be correct.

Invisible Success, Visible Failure

Do we see EdTech failures more easily than the corresponding successes?

In the past I have found it easy to quote some key EdTech failures.   Examples include the general deployment of Interactive Whiteboards without any training as to their use, a similar issue where iPads were broadly deployed across a district in the US and the limited funding for laptops for teachers in UK schools without plans for an eventual refresh cycle.    These and many other examples come quite easily to mind, yet similar stories of success don’t come as easily.   This introduces the availability bias as we start to perceive the events which come more readily to mind are therefore more likely to occur:  That technology implementations therefore are more likely to fail.

Given we are often looking for proof of the impact or value in EdTech the fact that successes don’t come easily to mind is of concern.   This makes me wonder about the potential for the availability bias to impact on technology decisions and in particularly in some reluctance to embrace technology use.   If it is the failures of technology implementations which come easy to mind, is it any wonder why there is reluctance in investing in technology solutions.   Combined with the overall cost of technology, which is generally one of the three most expensive items on a school budget, it seems predictable that, without an outside stimulus, technology adoption will be slow.   

Added to the above you also have the complexity of technology use in schools, requiring skills and understanding in relation to the technology itself, but also subject content and pedagogical knowledge, combined with the interrelationship between each.   This therefore requires a team of staff to be involved, which brings with it the usual social dilemmas associated with teamwork.   In turn this may increase the likelihood of failure or may at least encourage a sub-optimum solution to be accepted as team members each have to make compromises, finally arriving at an acceptable, but less than best, solution.

And where we do see successes, most often in a conference presentation or a case study, they seldom outline the difficulties which occurred during their relevant project lifespan.   I think any significant IT project which went perfectly as planned lacks credibility in my eyes.   I put the probability of such an occurrence within a busy operating school, where the project was significant enough to take months or years of work, to be low to nil.    This might help explain why the successes don’t come mind, as they lack the believability or the detail to make them memorable, whereas the failures each have a clear cause and effect.

This leaves us with limited options for the implementation of technology projects.   As I see it the options are the small pilot project, which is grown, a significant external stimulus or some heroic leadership forcing implementation.    The pandemic has certainly been an external stimulus however isnt something we would want to repeat.   For now, we simply need to try and use this stimulus to drive forward with appropriate technology projects, while the impetus still exists, for I don’t see this will continue for more than 6 to 12 months.    Heroic leadership as a solution, isnt something I would advocate given risk of going down a rabbit hole and/or negatively impacting on organisational culture.    As such the best option appears to be to continue with pilot projects and growing those which appear to have a positive impact, but the issue here is that this approach is slow and not particularly agile.

So what is the solution?   

I don’t think I have one, other than to be aware that what we perceive is likely influenced by bias.   As such, although we can learn, more often, from the failures, and only occasionally, from the successes of others, we might simply need to get on and try things, success or fail, then iterate from there.    We need to find our one solution, that which what works for our own school, its context, staff, students, parents and wider community.