Friday, May 4, 2012

Integrating Technology: Avoid Being Derailed by the Details

As my regular Teach-Geek and Tech-Geek readers know, I spend a lot of my time ranting about the big issues of technology and education today. However, in a change of pace (and to keep up with @40ishoracle who just killed it with her shiny-pretty post today), today i want to talk about the little things.

[Interlude - Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on?]

Anyone who has worked the level one helpdesk in tech has had the experience where one simple thing has caused so much frustration (In fact, the phrase "did you turn it off and turn it back on" made famous by The IT Crowd is a result of the tendency for restarts to wipe out a lot of user faux pas).

An example:
A relatively tech saavy user comes into the office clearly frustrated. "I usually keep my laptop plugged into the network because someone told me it was faster."

[this line is usually said in a complex tone that implies a) they are dubious that this is true and b) in saying this, they want to convey a level of tech knowledge that says "don't you dare laugh at me"]

"Now I am unplugged and my laptop wont connect at all!"

A quick glance at the screen shows that the wireless card was disabled and a quicker look around the computer locates the swtich on the front of the machine. Click-and-done (wish all tech problems were this easy). The user thanks the tech in that way that says a) I am grateful, b) why is technology so annoying, and c) if you tell anyone about this, I will end you.

And at the risk of suffering that ending at the hands of a vengeful user, I think that this issue, common to hardware techs, lies at the heart of a large issue in Educational Technology today: Being Derailed by the Little Things.

This user was stuck. There would be no surfing, no collaborating in Google docs, no lolCats. And yet the problem had a very easy fix if you knew where to look.

[End Interlude]

For the last 6 months, as we have been rolling out the BYOT program at Brebeuf Jesuit (a two year preparation), I have been struck by the lack of push back. I wasn't expecting the IT-stuffies to be burned Wizards-and-Glass Style around a Charyou Tree, but I figured there would be more than we got.

There wasn't. With one notable and respected exception, most people went with the flow. They got the major concept and idea behind BYOT.

But there were lots of little questions. -- And answering those little questions might be the key to any successful #edtech implementation.

[Interlude - The Kindle Question]

One of our top-tech users was in our Teacher Resource Room the other day (we use the wafting smell of coffee to draw them in). She was completely enthused about the BYOT model and had plans for student note-taking, cloud based podcasting, and, of course, writing papers. But she was hesitant about eTextbooks -- very hesitant.

The number one issue? how will i get them on the same page when we are discussing? Without page numbers, it will be chaos. For those of you who have been looking at or implementing eTexts, you know the stock answer:

  1. most eTexts preserve the page numbers in some way, even if the text is reflowed for the screen size.
  2. most students can quickly click a search bar and type in three words to get to the exact page.

"Students, I want to start the discussion on chapter 5. keyword 'exquisite little creature'" (no-prize if you name the book in the comments section)
[End Interlude]

It was a relatively minor concern that had an easy answer. But it was a roadblock to this user adopting technology or even letting that technology be used regularly in the classroom. These little questions become mental firewalls that can shutdown being open to possibilities. Even worse, unlike big issues (how are you going to pay for this? do you have the infrastructure ready?), you will often not know these issues exist in anyone's mind until they tell you.

5 Tips to avoid being derailed by the little things:

Create an Environment where it is acceptable and encouraged to ask questions

Self-selected Titles: a new trend
Nobody wants to feel like their questions are unimportant and no one likes to be dismissed out of hand. The IT Crowd is funny because it takes an amazing "Relationship Manager" to teach the geeks to talk to the norms (incidentally, @40ishoracle has a nameplate on her desk that says "Relationship Manager" -- and she's a redhead...and named Jen).

A person's legitimate concern, whether it is how to integrate a piece of student-technology into the classflow or how to reconnect wireless is a real and troubling to them until it is resolved. One of the first presentations we created was "Bridging the gap between Tech-Geek and Teach-Geek." One of the main points: make the users feel comfortable to ask questions. This is even more important when integrating technology.

Know the Context of the User: The 20-60-20 Rule

We follow a general rule called 20-60-20. Twenty percent of the people are on-board with you as soon as you announce. They may have questions but are actively ready for the solution.

Twenty percent of the people will not be convinced by you. For them, the questions are asked to poke holes in the proposal and either force you to give up or to convince others its a bad idea. These are some of the best people to talk to, because if you can address their concerns, you will have just about everything covered. But just because you have the answer, does NOT mean you will convince them in particular. They will come on board eventually, but not due to your charisma or encyclopedic knowledge.

The other 60% are waiting to see if you have answers and what other people will think. They want to be treated with respect, have their questions answered, and know that there will be support for them when they need it. 

A tip about FAQs: Frequently Asked Questions are great. They keep us from forgetting the answers that we have already come up with and give us a resource to reference. When answering a question, ANSWER THE QUESTION and follow up with the FAQ. Do not lead with "have your read the FAQ?" -- I've been bitten by that one.

Be Honest When You Don't Have the Answer:
Copyright 2006 by Sidney Harris

Because we are talking about the little things, it is likely that someone will stump you. That isn't the end of the world. Legitimately saying that you do not have the answer isn't failure. It is an invitation to converse. Clearly describe the problem or question back. Brainstorm together what some solutions will be. Find someone to be a test case. Get feedback. The person who sees you at your most vulnerable and helps solve the problem is your ally for life.

All Answers are New Answers to People Who Haven't Heard Them:

I have answered the "what if student's run out of power/forget their device/break it/lose it" question in the triple digits -- from students, teachers, and administrators. It has been asked in a panic. It has been asked with a "I have got you now" kind of snark. It has been asked in a box. It has been asked with a fox.

(The answer? multiple chromebooks in each department center for grab-and-go productivity. Short term loan-out backstock for students who need replacement or repair time -- about 10% of student population)

But each time a person asks the question, it is new-to-them. Respect it. Answer it. Move on.

Believe in the Silent Majority

There are days when I have been answering questions for the umpteenth time and feel despondent. It takes someone to remind me that, when considering the population of our school, we have received less than one-tenth of one percent negative feedback. And our "I have a question" rate is below 5%. The majority of people are positive (or apathetic). -- They just aren't the ones dressing you down in the parking lot. :)

In education technology, the devil is absolutely in the details. Those details are real and important. They are mystical and frustrating for users who do not spend their life immersed in code the is sensitive to misplaced semi-colons. Our job is to have answers at the ready and have an environment that can invite and work on those answers when they aren't within reach of our FAQ. As with all great classroom movements, its about the environment, the relationships, and the little things.

May the Fourth be with you. Happy #starwars day!


  1. I very much enjoyed reading your post! It is all so true and you reminded me of some things. Thanks for taking the time and adding the humor. I will be sharing your post with others. I hope your week does well, Questions and all!

    1. Michelle, thank you so much for your comment. Always nice to know people are reading. If you have any other tips for dealing with the little things, would love to hear. And thanks for the Reshare :)