One of the problems facing the education technology community is institutional memory loss. (I'm sure it affects every community, but my field of expertise is ed tech.) This occurs when an organisation's or a community's wisdom is lost over time.
The reason may be a sudden, and in my opinion ill-judged, decision by a new headteacher to get rid of older (aka more expensive) staff. Yes, money will be saved, which in an era of diminishing budgets is more important than ever, but 'hidden' information will be lost.
For instance, a member of staff who has been with the school for several years might be able to tell you that Freda behaves the way she does because her dad ended up in prison when she was five years old. That sort of information may not be put into the school's information management system, as you can imagine.
Along the same lines, a teacher who has been there for 20 years probably taught Freda's mother, so she knows the family background much better than the information management system does, for the reason given earlier.
When it comes to education technology, things change, and in my opinion it's important to document why certain decisions were made.
For example, a few years ago I was running a training day on assessment in Computing, and one of the delegates was the Head of Computing at the same school that I was Head of ICT at some 30 years previously. That was a school at which I'd set up a roomful of Atari ST computers, all stand-alone, not networked. It struck me that whoever took over from the person who took over from me might have wondered who the idiot was who put all those games computers in.
I had left no documentation to explain that, at the time, those Ataris were more fully-featured, faster and more reliable than the Windows 3 network in the computer rooms. The office suite worked, which was more than could be said for the network's one. It had a graphical user interface that loaded up straight away, as opposed to the network's Windows 3, which could take a good 10 minutes if a whole class was logging on at once. The programs were WYSIWYG, meaning that in order to print something in bold you just had to make it bold on the screen, not fiddle about inserting mark-up codes.
As for the 'games machine' label, some of the games were very educational, such as a text adventure game that I used in several areas of the curriculum.
Atari Basic was a good programming language with which to teach programming, easily on a par with BBC Basic in many respects.
They were also useful for children with special educational needs, because they were so easy to use, and because they simply didn't go wrong. Had I been at the school when the mainstream technology finally started to come up to the Atari's standard, I'd have offered the machines to the school's special needs department to use or distribute as they saw fit.
That's one example of where a document to explain why a particular decision had been taken would have been useful.
Another example, more current, would be documentation to show why a school had decided to assess pupils in Computing in a particular way. You may not be asked for this information by inspectors, but it would be useful to have just in case an inspector, or a new member of the senior leadership team, wants to know why you've done this when, in their opinion, there are better options available. Besides, if you don't document it in some way, you may even end up forgetting the rationale yourself.
Examples of how institutional memory loss in school
I decided to make sure that my department went 'green'. I brought in recycling sacks, and told the kids to put their unwanted print-outs in the sacks rather than in the waste paper baskets, so that they could be recycled. The amount of wastage soared, no doubt because the pupils thought it no longer mattered if they wasted paper, because it would all be recycled anyway. I took the sacks away, and the wastage returned to normal.
Without a note in my departmental documentation, one of my successors could easily repeat the same mistake.
In another school, a decision was taken to bring in a new way of dealing with technical support, including employing someone full time to work a help desk. Problems with ed tech were fixed in no time. The scheme worked brilliantly, until a new member of the senior leadership team, who didn't know or understand why certain decisions had been taken, got rid of it.
A whole country perspective
Institutional memory, or amnesia to be more accurate, also applies to whole nations. Why else would a decision to give thousands of pupils a BBC Micro:bit have been taken, given the experience of what I call the 'modems in cupboards scheme'? (This refers to the fact that, at one time, every time a new Head of ICT or Computing cleared out the cupboards, he or she would discover a brand new modem, still in its box. The government of the day, in its wisdom, had given every school a modem so that it could get connected to the internet. If the person in charge of ed tech at the school didn't know what it was for or how to use it, they just shoved it in the back of a cupboard.)
So how do you guard against institutional memory loss at your own school? Here are a few ideas:
- Maintain good documentation. This doesn't have to be like War and Peace or take hours and hours a week. It just means that when a decision is made, eg to buy a particular type of computer, there is a central record giving the location of where all the procurement process documents are filed.
- Keep a blog. There are many good reasons that teachers should keep a blog, and another one might be to articulate your decision-making in particular instances -- and decisions that, in retrospect, turned out to be mistaken.
- Record a podcast if you prefer not to write...
- Record videos if you prefer not to record podcasts.
I think ultimately you can't prevent institutional amnesia, but you can do your best to slow the rate of attrition as it were. You owe it to your own reputation, but also to others who follow after you. If they take decisions that you learnt were mistaken, because they don't know that, they may repeat them. At the end of the day, the real losers will be the kids.