I was invited to give a talk recently, and one of the questions I was asked to address was: what are the characteristics of a good ICT activity? This is one of the questions which, at first glance, seems really easy to answer – until you get down to thinking about it. Because what the question is really asking, I think, is what makes a good ICT activity good in a unique way: that is, unique to ICT.
You cannot avoid risk, so you have to manage it. Whether you’re considering installing a new computer system, or trying out a new teaching approach, how can you manage the risk sensibly and effectively?
The way to do so is to carry out a risk assessment. That sounds like it could be a lot of work, but it need not be. Or at least, it can be turned into an enjoyable professional development exercise. That way, not only do you assess the risk, you also (hopefully) bring your colleagues along with you and, into the bargain, have some mind-stretching discussions as part of the process.
The reason for that is simple: risk assessment tends to be fairly subjective. You can make it less so by doing some research and obtaining a range of facts and figures, but ultimately you have to take a decision, and that will involve a degree of conjecture.
Risk assessment involves considering, and assigning values to, three criteria:
- What can happen as a result of this course of action?
- What is the likelihood of each outcome happening?
- How bad will be the consequences of each thing happening?
Now, in some scenarios the value assigned to the last one is so great that it crowds out any other consideration. For example, what is the likelihood of your child being abducted if you allow her to go out on her own? The answer, despite what you may think from keeping up with the daily news, is quite low in the UK. However, the consequences of that happening would be so awful as to render the low likelihood irrelevant.
Thankfully, when it comes to trying out innovative teaching methods we tend not to have to countenance such extreme situations. So, let’s work through an example:
Question: What might happen if I introduce the use of social networking into my lessons?
You might set out a grid like this:
Likelihood of occurring
Severity of consequences
|Students will fail course||Low||High|
|Parents will complain||Medium||Medium|
|Students will come across unsavoury people||High||High|
Now, you can start to manage all this. For example, taking the last one, you can prepare the students by teaching them about keeping safe online, and you can further protect them by having an invitation-only social network. That won’t completely protect them (if only because some of the students may themselves be unsavoury characters), but it will certainly go a long way towards reducing the risks.
But the important thing to bear in mind about risk is that once you have identified an activity as potentially ‘risky’, the solution is not necessarily to simply abandon the idea. After all, keeping to ‘tried and true’ teaching methods also carries a risk.
An earlier version of this article was published on 11th June 2009.