Why do some school and local authority initiatives, not to mention government initiatives, fail, especially when they concern education technology. In my experience, the cause can usually be found in one or more of the following. The next time you read about a 1:1 project turning into a nightmare, or a fantastic opportunity being wasted, it is almost certainly going to be because of one or some of the following (one problem almost invariably leads to or implies another).
Unclear reasons for doing it
You would think this is a no-brainer: if you are going to spend a lot of time and money on a project, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to know why. But often the reason is not very clear – “I think it seems like a good thing to do” – or not an educational reason as such:
“We have to be competitive with our neighbouring schools”
“Having this new technology initiative will raise our grades”
“Parents expect us to”
None of these are sound educational reasons.
Lack of accountability
There needs to be some form of accountability in place, such as an expectation that, for example, the recipient of a substantial sum of money will be able to report on what that money was spent on and why, and whether or not the project was a success, and why or why not.
I know of at least one national initiative that didn't put such an expectation in place. The predictable result was that it was impossible to say afterwards whether the money had been well spent or what knowledge had been gained from the initiative, because there were no criteria in place by which to measure such things.
Lack of SMART targets
Every project should, as far as possible, have SMART targets attached to it, ie Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-related. If not, the project is bound to slip in one way or another. Even if it is not entirely possible to be SMART, one should at least make the attempt.
If it is not known what the hoped-for end result is, you can still set SMART targets. Suppose the idea is that you will spend £1000 on each of 5 things, in order to find out which one is best, then the SMART target becomes focused on evaluating the projects taken as a whole, and also the process, ie how was the money spent in each case, what are the criteria of success/failure and so on.
Too rigid adherence to smart targets
Sometimes there can be too rigid an adherence to targets. In his evidence to the Public Accounts Committee about some huge health IT project that had gone pear-shaped, someone said:
"In those early days it was like being in a juggernaut lorry going up the M1 and it did not really matter where you went as long as you arrived somewhere on time." (From The Blunders of Our Governments, by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe)
Lack of infrastructure
This is the standard problem of 1:1 initiatives. The school purchases 1000 tablets and gives them out to the kids, only to find that their wi-fi set-up is unable to cope. This is one aspect of not asking the right people (see below).
Lack of technical support
Even if something is billed as easy as pie to use, you should still have technical support in place, or know where you can get it. Every school is different, and every product is different, even those from the same batch. If something goes wrong you need a fall-back position. In any case, teachers should teach and managers should manage. It's ridiculous to spend time doing something that is patently not within your job remit when there is (or should be) someone on hand who can do it better and faster than you.
Lack of training
This is probably one of the single biggest causes of a project failing. If teachers haven't had the time to learn how to use something, or practice using it, you may get a few people trying it out but most people will avoid it for as long as possible and as much as possible. I've seen exactly this kind of thing when a new learning platform is implemented.
Lack of Headteacher support
It's sad but true: if the Headteacher or principal doesn't support an initiative, it won't get taken up or prioritised. I am not completely sure why that is the case, though I could hazard a guess: it's probably because people won't invest time and energy in something that will not earn them kudos. If the boss doesn't like or "get" something, where's the kudos in that?
Lack of other SLT support
It's good to have the support of other members of the senior leadership team, especially if the Headteacher isn't supportive.
Lack of peer support
I have found it hard to implement something if my colleagues don't see the point. You may well have to do a bit of marketing, which includes finding out what they would like to see (see below). Just because you think it's the best idea since sliced bread doesn't mean everyone else, or even anyone else, will too.
Lack of pupil support
If the pupils don't see the point, it won't succeed. If, for example, you give over 15 minutes of every lesson for privately reading blog posts without explaining why, the pupils are bound to think Computing is a rubbish subject.
Lack of parent support
If parents think their kids aren't be taught properly (see preceding point), they will most likely complain to the Headteacher. Both of these points really come down to...
Lack of information
If you want to introduce a new way of doing things, or a new piece of technology, or whatever, please explain to people the reason why. And make sure it's an educationally valid reason.
Lack of time
Projects take time to embed. That could be years. If something hasn't worked after 6 weeks, don't just abandon it, but try to find out why not.
Lack of money
Sometimes projects need a further injection of money to keep things going, eg for maintenance or buying more software, or for allowing a teacher out of school to attend a conference about it.
Too much money
This may sound like an odd thing to suggest, but I have come across several instances where inappropriate software was bought because the people spending the money were in defensive mode. Buying a big name product rather than installing a free open source one is often done because of the logic inherent in the old IT adage, "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM".
Lack of focus
This is an aspect of SMART targeting really. It's best to know what you are trying to achieve, and then get on with trying to achieve it, rather than flitting from one new thing to another.
I was once involved in a project that was appallingly managed. The money came from a government organisation, and was being managed through a local organisation. The national project manager bombarded the local project manager with emails every day. Rather than filtering those emails, the local project manager just forwarded them on to the schools involved.
It is hard enough coping with a barrage of emails when you're trying to get something done, but what made it even worse was that the emails were being sent as soon as the national project manager had a new idea.
Worst of all, the instructions and ideas changed so much that it made more sense to do nothing and wait for the final one than to do anything. A good example of this was when we were asked to set up individual blogs. After spending some time researching different platforms, starting a blog and then writing a couple of articles for it, we received an email telling us we no longer had to do anything because a blog platform had been set up on our behalf, and we were to use that.
Unfit for purpose
Something may be the most wonderful technology or idea in the world, but if it doesn't do what you want it to do, there's no point. Put simply, every initiative should be the answer to a problem. If it answers a different problem, one that you don't have, then as far as your school is concerned it's useless.
Lack of compatibility
I've come across instances of the Headteacher (usually) ordering hundreds of Apple Macs because he saw them at a conference, only to be told that they won't work with the school's present network set-up.
Not asking the right people
Quite a few of these issues are about asking the right people. I went somewhere once where there had been a major refurbishment of the library. I asked an IT lecturer what he thought of the new cutting edge area, and he reeled off three issues that were not very good. In fact, as far as I can gather, none of the staff or students who use the library were consulted. Presumably, the school contracted some award-winning (no doubt) company to design the new build without bothering to talk to the people who actually use it day in and day out. If that's not a disaster waiting to happen, I don't know what is.
What do all of the above have in common? They could all be very easily avoided. That makes the tragedy of failure even worse. So, if you find yourself in the fortunate position of being given money and time to invest in a new education technology initiative, I suggest you use these points as a checklist to help ensure the project’s success.
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