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Saturday
Dec172005

Learning From Our Failures

If you get a moment, read Meredith’s blog entry, Technology Failures: My Brilliant Failures on her Information Wants to be Free blog.  (Meredith is the Distance Learning Librarian at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont). A couple of her “failures” center around employing Web 2.0 technologies, anticipating that her staff would be as excited about them as she was.

Believe it or not, I had started an article back in May 2004 along a similar vein – examining some projects that just didn’t work in our district and why. If one could identify common elements of failed technology implantations, perhaps one could use them to predict whether future implementations will be successful or plan strategies that will minimize the likelihood of failure. Leaving the door open, of course, for new and more inventive ways to muck things up.

From my earlier draft...

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While the Mankato Schools’ tech department has a long string of technology “wins,” there are three notable “losses” that have occurred while I have been the director: the purchase and use of an early digital video editing system, the implementation of interactive television, and the attempt at creating a data-mining resource. While none of these projects was either financially or educationally catastrophic (I AM still employed), each cost the district and our department many hours of professional and technician time and decreased our credibility.

So what the hell went wrong?

Digital Video Editing (1996) At this time we had a young and ambitious video tech on staff who wanted in the worst way to replace our analog editing equipment with the latest in digital editing software. I think we laid out about $13K for a system that just never did work quite right. The tech became so frustrated (and probably tired of my questions) that she quit and the equipment sat unused. iMovie made an appearance not long after, and the rest is history. Lessons learned?

  • Don’t buy a technology that is so complicated only a single person can run it. Or cross train if you do.
  • Don’t try to fix it if it isn’t broken. Our analog system couldn’t make someone disappear in a shower of sparkles from a scene, but for about everything else it worked fine.
  • Wait for the technology to mature.

Interactive Television (1999) At the cost of about $20K (from a grant, not local dollars), we installed an interactive television hook-up in our district staff development room. Other than one university course, an after school advanced math class, and a few meetings, the equipment did not get used and we removed it after two years. We now use other ITV facilities in town for meetings when needed. Lessons learned?

  • Don’t build it and hope they will come. They won’t come. We might have had better success had we placed the set-up in a high school rather than in our annex to a high school.
  • Don’t assume that just because others use a technology, you need it too. Our smaller neighboring districts use ITV for offering classes that the single small district alone can’t provide. They use it to give high school students the chance to take college courses. Mankato doesn’t really have low incident classes because of the size of our high schools and we have several colleges within easy driving distance for kids wanting classes at that level.
  • Don’t forget to take entrenched interests into account. Offering Japanese sounds like a wonderful idea until your current world language teachers see it as competition to their own class offerings (and job security).
  • Wait for the technology to mature. Of course, I’ve been waiting for quality, easy-to-use, and reliable ITV connectivity for 15 years. It just hasn’t happened.

Data-mining (2001) We contracted with a regional tech center in Minneapolis to develop a data ware-housing, data-mining solution. About six months into the project, the tech center closed. We found another developer. He bailed after deciding his company would rather focus on online testing. Total lose of funds was about $20K and countless staff hours of planning. We have since joined with a group of schools who all use a commercial data-mining product, Sagebrush Analytics, that is supported by the (solvent, I hope) regional tech center that also supports our student information system. It’s still been a struggle, but it works to a degree. Lessons learned?

  • Don’t go it alone. Our project, while important to us, was small potatoes to the developers. We did not get priority service. If there are not many schools asking for changes or fixes, you won’t get much attention.
  • Don’t buy a product without thinking of the service and support component. Duh!
  • Figure out ways to grow a big system. We started trying to capture every test score, every intervention and every piece of student demographic data. Better to get a subset of things working well than everything badly.
  • The new project is really the assessment department's baby, not ours. We provide technical support and implementation, but not leadership.
  • Wait for the technology to mature. Even after 3 years of using the commercial Sagebrush product, we are still only part way to having a fully functioning solution.

Of course, one can’t guard against the arbitrary. Businesses fail, people quit and products are discontinued. But mabye better planning can help minimize these potential catastrophes.

In general, my rules are now:

  1. Don’t do it unless there is a genuine task that needs doing or a real problem that needs solving.
  2. Go with the tried and true and in a group.
  3. Make support as high a priority as functionality.

The older I get, the happier I am to let others be on the “bleeding” edge of technology implementation. Does this mean it’s time for me to step aside and let a braver soul lead? I think about this often.

Other things you may have learned from failed tech implementations?

Friday
Dec162005

Friday Odds and Ends

A number of folks use their blogs as a sort of scrapbook for keeping snippets of information. Not a bad use, I suspect, and I do it myself. Here are a few patches I’m not sure exactly what to do with except store them here for later use. Most were gathered, I suspect, from other blogs. Attribution where I remembered.

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A billion minds unleashed from Macleans,Ca by Steve Maich

"Imagine a billion educated minds, and what they might be capable of. Now imagine those minds belonging to people whose desire for discovery is matched only by their hunger for prosperity -- the kind of hunger that can only be born out of grinding poverty. Picture all those minds growing up and learning in Asia, eastern Europe, South America and Africa. Think about just how different the world will be when those minds turn their attention from the lessons of the past to the possibilities of the future.
"Now stop imagining, because that's the world we'll be living in within 30 years."

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More on e-paper (My e-book is getting closer and closer!)

hres_image1_thumb.jpg E Ink Imaging Film is an electrophoretic display material that looks like printed ink-on-paper and has been designed for use in paper-like electronic displays. Like paper, the material can be flexed and rolled. The film only consumes battery power while the image is updated.

Thanks to John Dyer for this one.

 
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A "new" Wiki for librarians: Library Success: A Best Practices Wiki. And a link to the its creator. Thanks to Shonda Brisco for sharing this one on LM_Net.

Also check out the The Collaborative Guide to Digital Information Technology in K-12 Schools wiki. Thanks to ISTE President Kurt Steinhaus for this one.) 

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A few must read articles:
Horton, "Boys are People too: boys and reading, truth and misconceptions." Teacher-Librarian, December, 2005. (Not online as far as I can tell.)

The entire issue of Educational Leadership, Dec/Jan 2005-06 on "Learning in the Digital Age." Articles by Marc Prensky, Lowell Monke, Will Richardson, and Joyce Valenza ought to be shared widely with teachers and administrators in your district. Nice to see technology and library writers preaching to the sinners rather than the choir by publishing with ASCD. (Online access to members of ASCD.)

If you haven’t seen them, ASCD also released two online special reports on educational technology worth looking at

This ASCD SmartBrief special report on educational technology includes a wealth of useful information on using technology to improve teaching and learning. Part I  takes a look at curriculum strategies and leadership development, while Part II  examines public policy and emerging technologies. 
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Wikipedia fans take heart. After nasty press for the fake biography of John Seigenthaler Sr, Nature Magazine releases the report “Internet encyclopaedias go head to head” in which a team of experts examine science topics from Brittanica Online and Wikipedia, with Wikipedia looking pretty good.

Firestorm on library listservs ensues.

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Minnesota goes high-tech. (Thanks to Nancy Steele’s SMILE Newsletter for these.)

A very cool project for history fans: Minnesota Reflections

Minnesota Reflections brings you more than 5,000 images shared by more than fifty cultural heritage organizations from across the state. This site offers a broad view of Minnesota's history for researchers, educators, students, and the public.


Minnesota eFolio Project

The State of Minnesota has purchased a perpetual license to use Avenet software and makes this available to all Minnesota residents.  This is the largest portfolio program in the world.  What can this do for you?  Teachers in all levels can use it to teach  technology in many ways.  It is especially useful with distance learning.  One of the general uses is to keep a resume up to date and readily accessible.  It can also be used for a class or personal on-line journal that shows development and progress over time.  Since the state provides a perpetual  license it will not go away over time  
http://AtomicLearning.com has tutorials.

 

Oh, and Dr. Don Descy's Mankato MN (spoof) site has a permanent home at: http://city-mankato.us The website that put Mankato on the map!

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CoSN’s Essential Leadership Skills Series added two new short articles:

Measuring Success: How Will We Know When We Get There? (PDF)
Comprehensive monograph (backgrounder book) that will help you get the most out of your assessment efforts.
Technology Planning Linked to Educational Goals (PDF)
Comprehensive monograph (backgrounder book) that will help you figure out how to demonstrate the value, in teaching and learning terms, of your technology investment.
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Bad Sex award (in books, that is)
The annual Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Sort of a Bulwer-Lytton contest for sex scenes. But these are unintentional by mainstream writers, unlike the Bulwer-Lytton contest. Be sure to click the “Read all the longlisted passages here” link. (Caution – graphic, but badly drawn.)

Thanks to Ivan Chew, The Rambling Librarian in Singapore for this link (I think).

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And finally for you World is Flat fans…

Christmas.JPG

http://www.comics.com/comics/grandave/

Thursday
Dec152005

Professional organizations and professional respect

I get a chuckle out of reading Jenny Levin’s The Shifted Librarian blog. One of her more recent entries was a vent about having to pay a full day of conference fees in order to be a part of a conference panel when her non-ALA counterpart did not. (Why I'm Not Joining ALA Right Now After All) She writes:

“… I recently received an email from PLA noting that I have to register in order to speak at their conference, and I’m pretty angry about it. I don’t have any money left in my budget to pay a registration fee (for half a day, no less!) for the privilege of accepting an invitation to speak at their conference. So I pursed this with the person who put my program together, and today I was told that I have to pay a full day’s fee if I’m a member of ALA. If I’m not a member of ALA, I get a complimentary day pass instead.”
She vows:
“I will never accept another invitation to speak at an ALA-related conference until they reverse this ludicrous policy of CHARGING THEIR SPEAKERS TO SPEAK. It’s insane, absurd, surreal, and unethical. You don’t have a conference without your speakers. I understand they can’t reimburse speakers for travel expenses, but the very least they can do is comp their speakers’ conference registration fees. And the whole conference, too, not just a day. You either value your own professionals or you don’t, and the current policy tells me you don’t.”
This one hit home since I have always vociferously advocated for complimentary registration for lead presenters at our state MEMO conferences. Our organization has been divided about doing so in the past, and I believe this decision is now left at the discretion of the conference committee. (I don’t remember one recently that hasn’t.) For our district librarians, this is a real incentive to put in a session proposal. It greatly increases the likelihood of being able to attend the annual conference if our librarians can say, “Gee I am presenting and I don’t have to pay the registration fee.” Gets new blood into the spotlight too. And it says, "Thanks for working on behalf of MEMO."

One problem of course is that conferences tend to be major revenue generators for professional organizations. Sara Johns, in a recent AASLForum listserv posting, states that ALA would lose $100,000 in revenues if it were to comp registrations for session presenters. (At $200 per day registration fees, that would be comping 500! presenters?) IMHO, ALA would be better off diverting some funds from high profile, very expensive keynote speakers who have nothing to teach us about library service or education, and use at least some of these funds to forgive conference fees. It’s a lovely way for an often impersonal organization to say “we value our members expertise and contributions.”  (I may be moved or motivated for an hour by the keynoters, but the things I learn I can put to use come from practitioners’ sessions.

On a side note, I deeply respect and admire the seeming 5-10% of any organization’s members who actually DO  necessary volunteer organizatio work for nothing more than jewels in their crowns. Volunteer organizations exist only because of these folks.

My question is: Why does it seem such a small percentage of people in any organization actually does more than just pay dues? (Oh, and offer “suggestions for improvement?”) This seems to be the rule for Kiwanis, ISTE, AASL, MEMO, the German-Jefferson Lakes Association,  – well, every organization to which I belong. I’ll give people with small children a pass, but everyone else has the same 24 hours in their day that I have. Does Jenny’s complaint suggest a reason?