“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.
- Oops, I Did It Again! (seattleducation2010.wordpress.com)
- Oops…Johnson & Johnson Recalls Another 9 Million Tylenol Bottles (seekingalpha.com)