Your Ed Tech Implementation Will Fail!

My title may be overdramatic, but it upsets me that we continue to see so many 1:1 programs fail when many of the issues that lead to the failure can be avoided.  Examples of successful 1:1 programs are starting to emerge. Mooresville Graded School District is the most famous, but there are others, like our Project RED Signature districts Richland School District Two and Huntsville City Schools that are seeing transformation and improvements in student achievement. Unfortunately, there are still too many high profile examples of failure, and many, many more districts that haven’t seen anything really change. Before I discuss why I think this is happening, and what we might do about it, let’s first take a look at some of the most publicized failures.

Miami Dade

In November of 2013 Miami Dade County, one of the country’s largest districts, decided to put their 1:1 program on hold. They had concerns about their implementation after seeing what happened in Los Angeles Unified, and Guilford County. The district lists some of their biggest concerns as:

  1. Confusion about responsibilities and (parental) liability

(According to the work of Dr. Mary Lippitt (change leadership chart), confusion happens when a shared vision is missing. The district also had obvious communication challenges, which added to the confusion throughout the community.

  1. Rising cost projections

The district attributes this to poor planning, and a lack of understanding about what it really takes to make a 1:1 functional.

  1. Students bypassing security filters

This is partially a technical issue, and partially a cultural issue. We often see in districts with strict top down structures of control that students may act inappropriately when given freedom they are not prepared for. A district can do a great job of filtering, etc., but until a culture of mutual respect, and student ownership is developed, these type of issues will continue.

  1. Readiness/quality of digital curricular content

Unfortunately, in many large districts the pre-packaged content purchased by the district becomes the curriculum, rather than integrating purchased content into teacher-created lessons and district designed curriculum. Although digital content is improving, there are very few providers that have even the basic elements needed to allow students to drive their own learning, authentic opportunities for collaboration, ongoing formative assessments, and ways to engage students in deep levels of thinking.

  1. Adequate teacher training

It is still shocking that districts spend millions on technology, and are reluctant to spend even as little as 1% of their investment to ensure that everyone knows how to use it effectively, or to examine the fidelity of their implementation.

Fort Bend, TX

The 70,000 student iAchieve program was halted after it was determined the program was not achieving its mission. You start to notice a pattern in the issues that lead to their decision.

  1. Unrealistic goals

This is usually due to a lack of a shared vision, and a lack of awareness, or understanding of the research in the field.

  1. Insufficient planning and project management
  2. Lack of consistency with existing FBISD curriculum development standards
  3. Poor contract management practices

Contract management is another piece of the overall project management that has failed in this case.

Guilford County

Guilford County had a false start, due in part to technical issues that were not their fault. The district identified, however, other fundamental issues that lead the district to halt the program. First, and foremost, was the lack of a shared vision. District administrators actually are quoted as saying “We want to do it in a way that’s not going to result in a whole lot of challenges for kids and teachers,” and “It’s not that we don’t want to give kids the tools they need to be successful, but we want to do it in a way that is not going to be disruptive.”

Statements like these are counter to the whole idea of digital transformation, and the benefits of disruption that Clayton Christensen clearly defined in his book. Even if the technology is worked properly, it is highly unlikely that a district is going to see significant improvements in learning and student outcomes by making sure nobody is challenged or disrupted.

Los Angeles Unified School District

Finally, there is the most famous ed tech failure of our generation. In the American Institute for Research’s year 2 evaluation of LAUSD’s Instructional Technology Initiative they state that there are “Ongoing challenges and areas where less progress occurred included: deploying devices in a timely manner, communicating with schools, coordinating efforts with other instructional initiatives, and clarifying a vision for technology use in instruction.”

Again, we see those common themes, including a lack of vision, poor communications, and poor planning and project management. There are plenty of other examples I could cite, but I think the pattern is clear. Too many districts are not aware, or are not using the well documented research and best practices to guide their implementation. Even the most basic factors identified in our Project RED work, factors such as change leadership, vision and project management seem to have been ignored (or misunderstood) in all of the examples.

When I compared what I found in these failed 1:1 districts with other education innovations that have failed I started to see some higher level themes emerge. I think basically all education innovations and programs that have not made a substantial impact, are not scalable, or are not sustainable struggle because they are not aligned with one (or more) of three underlying tenets, namely:

  1. Understanding how the brain learns, and creating environments and experiences that maximize learning potential
  2. Understanding human motivation and creating environments, governance structures, assessments, content, etc. that enable and empower all level of learner
  3. Understanding how to develop structures of continuous improvement that also take #1 and #2 into account

There are plenty of researchers and organizations that are contributing to our understanding of what works, and what doesn’t in education. Part of One-to-One Institute’s non-profit mission is to be a clearinghouse for the latest ed tech research and insights, so many of the publications can be found on our website. I’m not naïve enough to think our Project RED research is a panacea. We build on the backs of giants, and we hope that others will build on our work and take it in directions we can’t begin to imagine. What I can confidently say is that implementing ubiquitous technology is a highly complicated endeavor, and if you try to go it alone, or do so without the research guiding your actions, you will definitely fail.

But you don’t have to go it alone, and you definitely should not reinvent the wheel. Begin a dialog with districts that have done this work, and learn from them. Do your due diligence and study the research. Look for support from organizations that understand the research, and are interested in building your sustainability, and not just interested in selling you their silver bullet. Our work with districts, for example, is not quick, and it is not easy. It embeds systems theory, and research in cognition, motivation, environment, change leadership and our Project RED work. It also includes working with the district’s administration to help them develop processes of continuous improvement in a number of key areas that will lead to steady academic improvement and sustainability. If your top administration is not this level of engagement, don’t do it. If your district is not ready to make the transformation of learning and teaching through technology a top priority, then don’t do it. And if you are not ready to challenge your entire education community to walk this path with you, than do yourself a favor, and don’t do it. You will fail, and then we will have another mountain to move out of the way before we can get people to see there is another path…the path to success. Walk with us.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.

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