Prospecting for Digital Riches
by Jamie McKenzie
MultiMedia Schools  • January/February 2002 
Not so long ago, it was fashionable to speak about students surfing the Net. Schools rushed to connect classrooms to the Internet as if mere connectivity might work wonders. Many proponents of new technologies promised revolutionary shifts in the kinds of learning that would occur if schools bought the right equipment. The proponents also predicted impressive gains in student performance—claims rarely substantiated by credible research findings.

But then the Internet and the dot-com bubbles burst. Many ventures proved unworthy. Others turned into dot-compost. Some schools awoke with empty hands and bankrupt business partners. Some digital emperors even paraded without clothes. At about this same time, the rush to wire classrooms was criticized by The Alliance for Children as a rush for "fool's gold."

For a response to these charges, take a look at MultiMedia Schools editor Ferdi Serim's article, "Gold into Straw: Alliance Report Misses Mark" at http://www.cosn.org/resources/113000.htm. Ferdi writes, "Fool's Gold is the perfect snooze alarm for people who have yet to wake up to the idea that educational improvement requires change. And change is about more than velocity; it is also about direction. The debate today is about more than technology or school choice; it centers on whether your model for learning is based on transmission or construction of knowledge."
 

Riding the Curl of Innovation
Given this recent history of speculation followed by skepticism, criticism, and doubt, schools now face a menu of apparent opportunities seemingly laced with risks.

How can schools maximize a return on technology investments, backing mostly winners while avoiding losers? How can schools ride the curl of innovation without tumbling into heavy surf? How can they escape failure and a vicious undertow?

I'd like to present in this article a strategic approach to the selection of innovative educational practices and tools, an approach designed to protect staff and students from "toolishness"—a fondness for tools that transcends purpose and utility. (See the article in the September 2001 issue of my educational technology journal From Now On at http://fno.org/sept01/toolishness.html.) The goal is to improve schools without falling prey to bandwagons or train wrecks.
 

A Dozen Strategies for Making Discerning Choices

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Macbeth,
by William Shakespeare
How can we avoid what Shakespeare warned about some 500 years ago?

"Discernment" is the answer. We approach the adoption of new tools and practices with discernment.

discernment
1. The act or process of exhibiting keen insight and good judgment.
2. Keenness of insight and judgment.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.


Teachers and administrators may select from a dozen strategies to help make discerning use of new technologies (see Figure 1 below). These strategies make it possible to sort through the noise of conflicting marketing claims to focus upon value, reliability, and authenticity.
 
FIGURE 1
1. Prospecting Looking for the right combination of promising program elements and indicators.
2. Focusing Keeping an eye on major philosophical commitments and program purposes.
3. Challenging Demanding evidence, data, results, and substantive theoretical underpinnings. Considering the risks, the costs, and the dangers.
4. Testing Setting up small, low-risk pilot programs and reviewing the results of others' pilot tests.
5. Investigating Looking past the surface claims to find out what really happens when the tools and practices are installed and implemented. Finding prior innovators to learn the "true story" of what happened.
6. Comparing Examining the full range of choices (vendors and models, for example) within a category along with alternatives that are substantially different.
7. Remembering Reviewing past experiences with innovations (and vendors) that promised similar results and changes.
8. Triangulating Developing multiple, independent, potentially conflicting sources to support the evaluation process.
9. Debunking Stripping off the hype, the marketing claims, the myths, and all excessive promises to consider the prospects for success rationally and analytically.
10. Deconstructing Breaking the innovation into its component parts to see how well they fit together, how they are meant to work, and where the vulnerabilities may lie.
11. Inventing and 
Evaluating Locally
Engaging local staff members in the development and testing of innovations so they have first-hand knowledge of what works and what does not work, thereby reducing dependence on and vulnerability to outside promoters.
12. Delaying Slowing down the purchase and installation process so that schools can learn from the mistakes of others—avoiding the bleeding edge of change.

Classic Prospecting for Oil—Convergence
We all have television-inspired images of aging prospectors with long beards who crisscrossed the desert with pack horses and little success. They may not have known enough science or applied enough strategy to the challenge. Effective prospecting is a blend of art, science, and skill, not simply a matter of wandering around with a divining rod in your hands hoping to find the gold, water, or oil below the surface.

Chevron offers the following information on its Web site [http://www.chevroncars.com/know/primer] describing the search for oil:

People have used petroleum products for nearly 5,000 years. The Babylonians caulked their ships with asphalt, and the ancient Chinese lit their imperial palaces with natural gas. For these early users, finding petroleum was a matter of guesswork and good luck. People simply looked for oil seeps and hoped the source was nearby.

Today, petroleum prospecting is considerably less random.

The goal is to find a convergence of the geologic elements necessary to form an oil or gas field. These elements include (1) a source rock to generate hydrocarbons, (2) a porous reservoir rock to hold them, and (3) a structural trap to prevent fluids and gas from leaking away. Traps tend to exist in predictable places—for example, along faults and folds caused by movement of the Earth's crust or near subsurface salt domes.

from "The Prospector's Primer"
Convergence and the Search for Value in the Technology Marketplace
Schools may also employ convergence in scanning the extensive menu of new tools and practices currently being offered by eager vendors. The goal is to find convincing evidence of each of the following elements associated with value.

1) Designed for Learning? Is this innovation solidly grounded in sound learning principles?

Those who sell tools and programs to schools do not always understand how classrooms, schools, and learning take place. Rather than bother with what we know about effective learning practices, they skip the discussion by underlining how different the high-technology classroom will be. This kind of sales approach is usually a danger signal. The wise school checks to make sure that the inventors of the new program understand the psychology and philosophy of learning in a way that matches the values of the school. Part of this checking is a review of the credentials and experience of the invention team responsible for the creation of the product. Does the team possess a strong track record of success within the educational workplace or are the members outsiders with little knowledge of what works or doesn't work? Are they inclined to invent hybrids rather than focus on solid value?

2) Tested and Refined? Has this innovation been shaped and refined by careful field-testing and data collection?

In all too many cases, the product is rushed to market without much field-testing or refinement based on actual usage. When a school asks for data to guide decision-making, this request may be met with a blank stare or statements about leading-edge technologies, vanguards, and pioneers. This is another danger signal. Product development should include careful testing and the collection of data. If the innovation has been field-tested without data and the vendors present nothing but glowing testimonials from heavily invested administrators, place somecalls to find out how the rank and file feel about the innovation. Reliance upon testimonials rather than data should set off an alarm.

3) Comfortable and Friendly? Is this innovation user-friendly, inviting, and familiar to the rank and file?

If we seek broad-based acceptance of an innovation, we would hope that someone had taken the time to make it a comfortable rather than a threatening experience. Unfortunately, sometimes the designers of an innovation are out of touch with rank-and-file teachers and do their designing with a focus on the styles and preferences of early adopters. Look for evidence that someone has considered the needs and preferences of reluctant users and late adopters as well as champions and early adopters. If the innovation is unfriendly in design, it will be hard for the majority to swallow and unlikely to thrive within the school.

4) Effective in Winning Results? Is this innovation capable of creating improvements in student performance?

The bottom line for schools is student performance and the likely impact of the innovation on the daily practice of the school. Schools should avoid doing technology for technology's sake and should only adopt innovations that have considerable promise to improve the reading, writing, and reasoning of students. There is little to be gained by bringing into schools more toys and tools that promote such things as powerpointlessness or cut-and-paste plagiarism. Does the vendor have hard evidence of gains validated by research conducted with some degree of reliability and validity?
 

Prospecting as Rigorous Questioning
The innovation prospector must dig below the surface, strip away the advertising claims, and figure out if there is gold in those hills. Schools that wish to make wise technology and program choices will heed the list by Roget's Thesaurus of verbs associated with prospecting and searching:

Inquiry: search (verb)
search, seek, look for
conduct a search, rummage, ransack, comb
scrabble, forage, fossick, root around
scour, clean out, turn over, rake over, pick over, turn out, turn inside out, rake through, rifle through, go through, search through, look into every nook and cranny
look or search high and low
search high heaven
sift through, winnow, explore every inch, go over with a fine-tooth comb
pry into, peer into, peep into, peek into
prospect, dowse, treasure-hunt, embark on a treasure hunt
from the 1996 Microsoft Bookshelf version of Roget's Thesaurus.


References

"Exploring for Oils" Schoolscience.Co.uk [http://www.schoolscience.co.uk/content/4/chemistry/findoils/index.html].

"Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood." The Alliance for Childhood. October, 2000 [http://www.allianceforchildhood.net/projects/computers/computers_reports.htm].

"Foolishness Is Toolishness." From Now On—The Educational Technology Journal, September, 2001 [http://fno.org/sept01/toolishness.html].

"The Prospector's Primer from Chevron" [http://www.chevroncars.com/know/primer/].


© 2002 by Jamie McKenzie. Communications to the author may be addressed to Jamie McKenzie, Editor of From Now On—The Educational Technology Journal, 500 15th Street, Bellingham, WA 98225; e-mail: mckenzie@nfo.org.

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