Category Archives: Evolution

Education fails technology?

As I’ve been blogging about the development of a School Technology Strategy, I’ve also been reading a recently published book called The Learning Edge by Bain and Weston. It’s a stimulating read in this context because it positions education as failing technology rather than the traditional reverse. That might not immediately chime with readers but bear with me. A few days ago I also read an interesting blog post by Wes Miller in which he explored the concept of ‘Premature Innovation’ in the context of Microsoft. The combination of these two sources has got me thinking…

Bain & Weston take the reader back to the work of Benjamin Bloom, the famous Educational Psychologist who in 1984 published ‘The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring’. In short, Bloom argued that one-to-one tutoring was the most efficient paradigm for learning but that, at scale, it is not practical or economical. He went on to say that optimising a relatively small number of significant variables may in fact allow group instruction to approach the efficiency of one-to-one tutoring. In this context, of particular interest is whether technology might simulate one-to-one tutoring effects such as reinforcement, the feedback-corrective loop and collaborative learning.

The promise of technology in education to date has almost always exceeded delivery and the blame has usually been attributed to technology. But is it really all the fault of technology? Well, Bain & Weston make a very interesting point in the context of Bloom’s research: although Bloom gave us a very useful framework for educational reform, there has been little systematic change in classroom practice for decades. The didactic model is still the beating heart of most schools. The practical implementation of research-based enhancements to pedagogy and curricula in schools has been painfully slow. In a very real sense, technology is the gifted student, sitting at the front with a straight back and bright eyes, full of enthusiasm, and being studiously ignored by educators. Education is failing technology.

Is this the whole story? Well, I certainly think it’s impossible to divorce a school technology strategy from an educational strategy with associated pedagogical and curricular implications. They go hand in hand. For example, a 1:1 ratio of devices to students is not going to make much of dent in learning in a school if the underlying pedagogy is predominantly teacher-led (for example). Technology will only ever leverage the benefits of a sound educational strategy and its practical manifestation. The biggest challenge for school leaders is therefore to construct a rigorous educational strategy and drive the change required to manifest it using research and data to drive continuous improvement. I see limited evidence of this in most schools.

If I’ve convincingly shifted the blame away from technology, perhaps it’s time to balance the scales a little. When reading Bain & Weston’s book, I was struck by the fact that a lot of the research focused on technology that I think fundamentally fails education, regardless of the education strategy. I think bright eyed, bushy tailed technologists sometimes suffer from premature innovation. This is where a seemingly great idea isn’t adopted or fails to fulfil its promise. A startling example from Wes Miller’s blog is the tablet. Tablets have been around for quite a while with very limited adoption before Apple stepped into the market. They launched the iPad and now tablet numbers are burgeoning and 1:1 iPad models for schools seem to fill every other blog post I read. Why?

before_and_afterAs Steve Jobs was well aware, technology does not get used unless it does what it is designed to do really well and certainly better than a manual option. In a classroom, technology needs to work at the pace of the learner and/or the teacher. Even a 5 second delay can interrupt the pace and rhythm of a lesson. It also needs to be intuitive. It is just not fair to expect every teacher to be a technology expert and there isn’t time for endless training. Taking the iPad as an example, it’s hugely popular because a two year old can use it, it’s personal and mobile, wireless technology and the Internet are have matured sufficiently to fill it up with engaging content, and it is reliable. It’s turbo-charged book. The time is right.

Another example of a significant product failure in education due to premature innovation is the Virtual Learning Environment (or Managed Learning Environment or Learning Platform or Learning Management System). In the UK a Government agency called Bectawas responsible for creating a functional specification for this product category. They then used this specification to put in place a framework off which schools might procure. The problem was that Becta tried to create an all singing, all dancing specification and it was just far too detailed. The resulting software created by the market to meet the requirement was therefore horribly over-engineered. The outcome? A very significant number of VLE products languishing in schools, not being used because they’re too difficult. A very big waste of money.

Again, in the VLE space we’re beginning to see disaggregation of the functional components into bite-size and usable chunks rather than a monolith with all the agility of a supertanker. Platforms are beginning to emerge which re-aggregate these simple elements into a manageable whole, retaining and enhancing usability in the process. The result? I’m beginning to see some interesting products in the VLE space.

Let’s not ever lose sight of the fact that technology is a tool and that my School Technology Strategy blog posts are implicitly (and now hopefully explicitly) intended to sit within the context of an educational strategy that attacks the 2 Sigma challenge with energy and evidence. Without educational change, the impact of technology on learning will be a placebo effect [placebo in the sense that there’s nothing fundamentally changing but leaders feel better for ticking the technology box]. It is also the case that, even with a sound educational strategy, technology will only make a difference if it adheres to some very basic principles of usability and usefulness, a test that most technology in schools still fails.

Open or closed?

I’ve just finished listening to Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson (thank you to Audible). By the way, whilst I generally resist simpering plugs for individual companies, in this case I’m happy to send you there, or indeed anywhere that sells audio books, as gratitude for the transformation to my health. Up until recently Henry Ford had my vote saying, “Exercise is bunk. If you are healthy, you don’t need it: if you are sick you should not take it.” I now feel like exercise is not wasting my time. Whilst walking, cycling or otherwise self-powering myself about the place, I’ve been immersed in the drama of Steve’s life, feeding off his impressive energy to drive me up the next hill.

What did I learn? Well, Steve comes across in the book as an enormously forceful individual with an obsessive character and a passion for design. He believed that design should lead the user experience, not technology. His spiritual affiliation to Zen Buddhism in his early life was probably symptomatic, rather than causal, of his black and white view of life. Things were either “shit” or “amazing”. There was nothing in between. He strove compulsively for simplicity, both in design and in product focus. He used his “reality distortion field” to drive people where they didn’t want to, or didn’t think they could, go. Whilst he was definitely not known for being a ‘nice guy’, let’s be honest, it worked for him and for Apple.

Part of the book’s narrative is built around technology paradigms characterised as ‘open’ and ‘closed’. Steve passionately believed that Apple needed to own the end-to-end user experience, including hardware, in order to design in quality control – a closed approach. The likes of Google are proponents of a (more) open approach that invites consumer driven innovation to varying extents. There are those who feel Apple has betrayed its roots and become the Big Brother it once parodied but that’s a blog for another day. In reading Steve’s biography, I realised I was hoping for an answer to this question: which is better, open or closed?

I pulled myself up short. There’s rarely one right answer and certainly no happy ending in sight to the open versus closed narrative. Life isn’t black and white because people aren’t black and white. The unique Apple culture is a reflection of a unique individual with the passion and energy to drive the company where he thought it should go. Steve also quotes Henry Ford who supposedly said if he had asked his customers what they wanted before coming up with the Model T, they’d have asked for a faster horse. In other words, he didn’t listen to what his customers wanted, he worked out what they needed. To make this work, one needs to have an exceptional vision. Perhaps, in the last analysis, this was Steve’s greatest gift: to build a future that people wanted, even if they didn’t know it.

Without an exceptional visionary like Steve, what’s a company to do? This brings me to the open approach and consumer driven innovation. I was reading a blog post by Jason Dixon regarding Android in which he was celebrating the large number of Android app downloads (over 10 billion now) while lamenting their poor quality. I pondered this issue and came to the conclusion that this is in fact the sign of a very healthy ecosystem. Why so? Well, in the absence of a visionary like Steve Jobs, it is the sheer number-crunching power of the crowd that will micro-innovate us towards the future. It’s essentially natural selection at play in the technology ecosystem, relying – as does evolution – on a staggering number of mistakes to eventually ferret out success. The only way to generate the volume of failure required to create success is to expose technology to the crowd. An open approach. The problem with the open approach is that companies who start out that way become increasingly afraid of failure because they feel they have more to lose as they grow. Innovation is inversely proportional to the intolerance of failure (Dawson’s Law).

As a point of interest, that’s not exactly the basis of most education systems. The DNA of most education systems is success-focused with failure seen as, well, failure! I’m certainly not the first to point out this fact but perhaps this is where we find the genetic parent of the closed and the open technology paradigms. In different ways, they provide a strategy for managing risk and reward. In the case of Steve Jobs, he had the combination of personal qualities and the seniority required to bet the company on his instincts. Apple was agile and innovative because Steve had the sheer willpower to make it so. I mean, look at the iPad? Who’d have guessed, eh? The important question is: what happens to Apple without Steve at the helm?

For companies with an open culture who rely, partially or completely, on crowd-driven micro-innovation, risk and failure are happening thousands of times a day and slowly but effectively evolving their products. You only have to look to the natural world to see how well this approach can work. The challenge here is to find ways of curtailing the ascendancy of corporate risk aversion as the share price rises.

In this characterisation of the open and closed technology paradigms, I’m thinking the closed system will only really work with an exceptional leader at the helm. A rare breed. For the majority of companies, the open approach is more likely to deliver sustainable and consistent innovation because the risk attached to each micro-step is relatively low but the cumulative reward is potentially (and eventually) great. After all, this evolutionary approach is nature’s greatest achievement so we’d be fools to ignore it, wouldn’t we?