Admitting Mistakes in Applying Technology in Schools: The Virtue of Saying Oops!

Bill Gates at CES 2007

Image by Domain Barnyard via Flickr

“I absolutely think we learn from failure, but getting people to talk about it honestly is not so easy,” said an organizer of FailFaire held last summer in New York.

Bringing together World Bank specialists and nonprofit groups advocating technology to improve the lives of the poor, FailFaire thinks the way to build success is to talk openly about what went belly up, crashed–pick your metaphor for going kaput. The prize for the rendering of the worst case of failure: “a garish green-and-white child’s computer nicknamed the O.L.P.C.–for One Laptop Per Child,” a program regarded by some as a failure to achieve the changes promised by its promoters.

Technologies that crashed are well known. Time magazine in 2009 listed the top ten failures of the decade. Others might have their favorites: video phones, Apple’s NeXT Cube in 1989, Segway in 2002, and Microsoft’s VISTA in 2007. Criteria varied in judging failures. Whether there were technical glitches of enormous proportions that designers failed to catch and users rebelled against or simply a fine product that consumers were unready for, or other criteria, it matters little. In the marketplace, sales reign.

With public schools, however, rushing to buy popular first-generation hardware and software because of media hype and the next district’s recent purchases is a recipe for disaster.  “Disaster” because designers of first-generation technology care little about the convenience, reliability, and value that users demand. New products contain enough bugs to discourage teachers and students from using the equipment. I recall universities and pace-setting districts buying first generation video cameras in the early-1970s to capture real-time teaching and learning. Within three years, the video equipment was stored in closets. Readers may have their own favorite stories of school officials who signed off on high-tech purchases that teachers seldom used. Rarely did anyone say Oops!

Why are public stated Oops! important? We live in a market-driven society where embellished claims are made constantly for product effectiveness. Listen to those radio and TV ads for anti-depressants, erectile dysfunction drugs, and arthritis and then try to catch all of the side-effects listed in machine-gun rapidity by the voice-over announcer. Evaluating product claims is left to the consumer. So we have come to depend upon word-of-mouth, consumer protection agencies, magazines, Yelp, and other sources of information to make purchases. Sure, federal and state agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission, Federal Drug Administration, and non-profit organizations monitor ads but the lag time between a cease-and-desist order from a federal agency and its appearance in stores is often years.

Monitoring truth in advertising also exists in the world of schooling as well. At the University of Colorado,Boulder, for example, there is the Commercialism in Education, “Think Twice” Think Tank Review, and other units that examine research claims and reports about effective practices and policies. Other non-profit and independent groups also exist. Again, the time lag between publication of the reports and the inspection of the claims is measured in months and years.

After sufficient evidence about the worth of a new technology had appeared were public officials and philanthropic promoters to say clearly and publicly that they erred, such honesty would be refreshing and courageous.

Consider what occurred in 1982 when media reported that extra-strength Tylenol was responsible for the deaths of seven people in Chicago. Johnson & Johnson top executives  pointed out that tampering with the product had occurred–cyanide had been put into the bottles–after the pills had been placed on drugstore shelves. Nonetheless, the company recalled all of the pills and immediately stopped all ads and accepted full responsibility. Their directness and acceptance of responsibility helped restore the company’s reputation, public trust, and, ultimately profits.

The Tylenol crisis is a dramatic example of a company asserting its obligation to the public to be honest about what happened and what they will do to correct the error. That  acceptance of responsibility did not destroy the product or company and, in time, restored consumer confidence in Tylenol.

Much less dramatic is the constant stream of claims for this or that new technology–now iPads–that will revolutionize urban schools or transform classroom teaching. It is here that honesty and courage from our elected officials and foundation executives are needed.

Maybe there is hope. In an interview over an initiative to promote online education in higher education, Bill Gates told the reporter that the benefits of technology rise as students get older. However, Gates said that for children ages five to 10 in school “the idea that you stick them in front of a computer is ludicrous.” Now, were Bill Gates to say that in front of parents, teachers, or superintendents gathered at annual conferences or were he to expand publicly on why he believes young children should not be spending much time facing a computer screen, that would be a refreshing Oops.


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

5 responses to “Admitting Mistakes in Applying Technology in Schools: The Virtue of Saying Oops!

  1. I must take issue with applying “failure” to OLPC. I am familiar with several versions of the OLPC story, and only one is correct. The other versions belong to a type of Internet reporter/expert that is more often wrong than right. Remembering the times they are right is easy because it happens so seldom. Ignoring mistakes is their stock-in-trade and outing them is useless as their readers seldom care to look into authoritative sources.

    A major point to consider belongs to the evolution of laptop component affordability that is intertwined in the story of OLPC. The target market for OLPC belongs to an underserved population. My opinion is that the naysayers really don’t want those children to get a hand up, but that’s just me. OLPC isn’t over by a long shot because it is an education experiment that today can be done with ANY technology because the XO dragged the marketplace to a certain place. The location of an OLPC community depends on the local infrastructure’s ability to support the mesh without gaps. There are signs that convergence will bring a compatible open infrastructure to many places in the world and we should not put ourselves in the straightjacket of thinking our way is best.

    One more thing. Buying the latest from Apple has never to my knowledge caused a support problem that approaches the most modest of PC disasters. It often costs twice as much to provision with Apple, but our school has an aging cohort of ten year old apple desktops in daily use with cloud applications.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Bob, there are many evaluations of OLPC, depending on the country, and they do vary. Pundits aside, it is hard to figure out “success” and what the word means in different contexts. The FailureFaire folks dreamed up the prize of an OLPC.

  2. Yes, technology in education is riddled with mistakes … but we often don’t want to admit them. Over the past 10 years we have been running the Khanya project in the Western Cape, South Africa. As ICT projects go, this one was a great success, but the expectation that it would revolotionize education in the province did not materialize. An interesting observation is that we had pockets of success – eg a cluster of schools having dramatic increases in senior mathematics results; or literacy and numeracy figures of individual primary schools improving impressively. However, we did not experience a general improvement in education results. If we have pockets of success, why did we not succeed in general? My conclusion is that our failures have nothing to do with technology or its potential in education. Rather, they are owing to factors such as poor management in schools (no interventions have an effect in such schools, not only technology ones); also teachers who, although receiving training, do not understand how to integrate the use of technology with normal classroom teaching. It is important that we learn from our mistakes and work at overcoming it – I still believe that technology has enormous potential in education.

    • While it is possible technology (support, training, whatever else) is to blame, I would look at culture.

      If you try to see the successful pockets as separate cultures and use an ethnographer (a la boyd or Ito) to analyze them, it is possible you will find some of the contributing factors. Here’s a link to a recent article:
      The study confounds parental/subject effects which I find of more interest than the rest of the study. I suspect there is much to be done in this area that will be very useful for education.

      As educators, our job is to cajole the young of our species to adopt the culture of academia. But our own culture is undergoing rapid cultural shifts and our home culture is mirroring it in some ways and not in others. k-12 education traditionally lags reality from 5 to as much as twenty years.

      I hope this was helpful and not restating the obvious for you. If so, I apologise.

  3. The social interaction of students with teachers and with each other is a good portion of adoption to technologic change. If we divide students into 3 tech adoption types and teachers into roughly the same, we can predict that results should be different with differing combinations. Analysis of both populations and their interaction is, I think, important.

    This roughly parallels the findings on how fast low performing students progress in an environment where they comprise more than about 25% of the population if the general population is normal or above normal performance. That’s student-student effect, not student-teacher which is what we examine most often.

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