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Lessons on EdTech Integration From the Boeing 737 MAX Disasters
By Matt Brady 03-Jan-20
Head: Before we get started, I want to add to today’s agenda. I read an article about systems thinking and learning organizations on the plane; please add “Become a learning organization.” Principal: Got it. So all, welcome back. First up today is a tech item. Coach? Coach: Hi everybody. Speaking of flights and articles, my bit is about the Boeing 737 MAX disasters and the takeaways for us as a leadership team. So I don’t know if any of you read the piece about what actually went wrong, but I immediately thought about tech integration—taking old systems (conventional education/737s), tacking on the latest tech (fancy devices & apps/huge new engines), taking as many shortcuts as possible to avoid additional time/training/costs, and then assuming everything will work just fine. Principal: Hmmm, I don’t get what you’re saying. Coach: The failed tech was software called MCAS. The people involved in testing and approving it did so under faulty assumptions/incomplete views of how the software worked. They assumed the system relied on multiple sensors and would rarely activate, and these false assumptions proved fatal. Head: Still not following you. Coach: Disaster happens when systems are driven by assumptions, not understanding. Boeing leadership didn’t know where the failures were. What I am saying is, we’re assuming that technology is being integrated effectively, but is it? We haven’t been interested in where failures are occurring in “tech integration” as long as teachers and students have seemed like they’re “using computers” and parent complaints are minimal. Coordinator: It sure seems like everyone understands how they work. Coach: Paradoxically, it’s the familiarity and ubiquity of tech that blinds people to the lack of substance behind it. There’s still an awful lot of signaling over substance, substitution over transformation. A decade ago, teachers walked kids to an IT lab with no responsibility for the technology. Now there are devices in every classroom and every year the number of systems and apps increases. Yet our orientations and PD only include a tiny fraction of the training teachers eventually piece together just to stay afloat, let alone innovate. Head: It’s important to realize our core assumptions still hold: errors and using things incorrectly are caused by students and teachers not following directions. Punishing behavior we don’t want eliminates these errors. Coach: I disagree. Pinning bad work on a person does not make progress; fixing inadequate systems does. Head (agitated): So you’re saying we need to provide staff with mindfulness training now? Coach: You’re making one of my core points for me: you can’t solve a problem you don’t understand. Instead of mindfulness, let’s call it cognitive overhead. Our tech integration process doesn’t scale because teachers don’t have enough spare capacity to think about themselves. Our integration planning process is utterly inconsistent and we as a leadership team don’t make time to talk about tech enough to actually know where it’s failing to fix it for them. Coordinator: But we know my curriculum meetings are happening fairly reliably and in between student data reviews, curriculum reviews, writers’ workshop, and high-yield learning strategies training. We try to work in integration support when we can, but of course trips and events and last-minute things do happen. Coach: Even when all the inputs of your curriculum planning process are happening 80–90 percent of the time reliably, the cumulative effect is that your end product can have an error rate in the 60–70 percent range! Secondly, have you ever thought about how all those things you mention as “support” actually introduce problems teachers never had before? Classroom management issues? New things for parents to question? New needs for lesson ideas? It’s more cognitive overhead. Principal: Yes, and since my middle school teachers have a lot on their plates already—it’s only their second year using Google Classroom and they’re working on getting their units into Atlas Rubicon—I am not going to calendar any tech training at all this year. Coach: Boeing took this kind of compartmentalized approach too. The chief technical pilot sent an email to Federal Aviation Administration officials asking if Boeing could just remove any mention of MCAS tech from the pilot’s manual, and the FAA let them do it. So this 737-MAX-disaster-creating view is that you can just keep everything compartmentalized. Rarely do we look at things holistically, examining the connections and gaps between these programs where the problems often arise. Coordinator: Absent a deus ex machina to improve my system for coordinating curriculum, specialists, and teaching teams, what do I do? Coach: We’ll all be better served by examining your curriculum planning process from first principles. For tech, I hope we’ll see that we should be treating technology as a source of value to be cultivated, not a cost center to be tacked on when we “can afford it.” Boeing leadership treated tech like a cost center when they outsourced the 737 MAX MCAS software to engineers being paid US$9/hour. It became yet another factor contributing to the disasters. Now that you know the story, are you curious about what we could do differently? Principal/Coordinator (in unison): No. (They laugh.) Head (shooting a look across the table): Yes. As a team, how do we start? Coach: We already have… by beginning to replace our limiting beliefs of what is possible. We can rethink our processes to be more sophisticated—it’s not “Tech,” it’s a digital ecosystem. And we need to look at the dynamic equilibrium, the edges, everything. It’s also important we step back from the hyperbolic “EdTech” echo chamber and make what we have work first, before talking about the big, new, and shiny. Head: Exactly as I said—we need to become a learning organization! Matt Brady is a consultant to international schools with expertise in digital ecosystem design, technology integration, and internal communication systems. He now blogs for TIE. mpbrady8.com
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