GUEST POST: Learning from disaster – by Gerald Haigh

The following is a guest post by Gerald Haigh.


I suppose like many people, I often revisit books I enjoyed long ago, and so I’ve just been re-reading a book I reviewed for the TES in June 1997. It’s called ‘Crash. Ten Easy Ways to avoid a Computer Disaster’, by IT journalists Tony Collins and David Bicknell.

Crash  - 10 easy ways to avoid disaster

The authors dissect a number of big IT projects in business and the public sector which at that time went spectacularly and expensively wrong. It’s a good read (the book’s a cheap second hand buy) that appeals to the Schadenfreude tendency within us all. The real value of the examples, though, lies in the lessons to be drawn from them, as pertinent today as they were nearly twenty years ago. So, although they mostly describe massive corporate misjudgements, the authors make their point at the start by telling us of the small firm that was seduced by a demonstration into buying a computer and an accounts system. The hope was that their two-person accounts team could be reduced by fifty percent – ie, down to one person. What really happened was that after the innovation, they needed three people in accounts – one to enter the data, one to manage the system itself and one to make sense of the torrent of information coming out, much of which was irrelevant to the firm’s needs. Then the technical problems started, and, inevitably, as time went on, management shifted their attention away from the business they were running and became preoccupied with the new computer system. So, writes the author – and see if you recognise this –

‘Since then I have seen similar things happen on a much grander scale in other companies: people become so absorbed in the technology that they lose sight or even interest in the benefits to the business.’

It’s that danger of becoming fascinated with technology for its own sake which is the book’s key message. We are told of good money thrown after bad, reputable software inappropriately applied, chief executives failing to see what was plainly before them, runaway projects with no-one clearly in charge, and a fatal reluctance on the part of anyone to cry ‘enough’ and turn off the money tap.

None of the examples are drawn from education, but in 1997 I knew enough about educational technology to see the parallels, and identified two nuggets of the authors’ wisdom which I thought worth the attention of teachers and school leaders. So, in my review I wrote:

‘Just two quotes will ring bells in many schools - "No matter how well it is planned, something unexpectedly menacing will leap out of the dark on the day it goes live," and, perhaps most important, "New technology should be installed only for a specific reason, for a specific purpose and to give a specific tangible advantage."

Both quotations resonate down the years and I could see them sitting perfectly well in any recent or future BETT presentation.

‘Something unexpectedly menacing’ is what today we still call, ‘Challenges around implementation’. And as for ensuring that technology is used for a focussed purpose, I guess we could all think of education projects and initiatives that forgot about that one.

Surely, though, there’s now more awareness of the need to keep learning at the heart of technological innovation in schools. ‘Learning first’ has become a consistent message from Microsoft, frequently reiterated from the top of the organisation, particularly by Anthony Salcito, Vice President of Education for Microsoft Corporation’s Worldwide Public Sector.

Anthony Salcito

Exhortation from the top, though, is not enough, and as Anthony Salcito fully recognises, particularly in his ‘Daily Edventures’ stories, the vision really comes to life in the ideas and actions of Microsoft’s community of teachers and schools and their students. So, for example, Tom Rees, head of Microsoft Showcase School Simon de Senlis, speaking at BETT 2015 of his school’s his school’s ICT strategy, explained the guiding principle in words clearly foreshadowed by those of Collins and Bicknell.

‘Is technology going to make the learning better? If not, let’s not do it.’Simon de SenlisTom and his colleagues including MIEE teacher Charlotte Coade are extensive users of Microsoft technologies, particularly Office 365, but it’s always in direct support of learning. I have seen – and blogged here about – how their children collaborate and support each other using Surface devices, Windows 8, Office 365 and, most recently ‘Sway’.

Further reading:
Simon de Senlis – A Microsoft showcase school using Office 365 to engage each and every student
Simon de Senlis Primary School – transforming collaboration with OneNote and Yammer

Another Showcase School leader, Andrew Howard at Sandymoor, promotes the same message. In February we highlighted his article and presentation ‘Building a school from the ground up’, in which he says:

‘Technology will not transform learning, but without it learning will not be transformed.”

sandymoor new

These school leaders and teachers, together with their peers and students across the world are surely the best hope and assurance that technology can be a transformational force for education. There may still be computer disasters; innovation grows from mistakes -- after all both steam and jet engines had explosive beginnings. We can reasonably expect, though, that we know enough to ensure that mistakes can be contained, controlled and, above all, learned from.

Finally, Tom Rees draws our attention to the work of Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy and particularly to the paper , ‘Towards a New End, New Pedagogies for Deep Learning’ [DOWNLOAD LINK]. From it, Tom draws this paragraph which could well stand as a mission statement for the Microsoft community of teachers and schools.

‘In much of the language and thinking on technology and education, there has been a quest for a “holy grail” that would transform education through technology. By now, it is clear that no holy grail exists; rather, technologies used to enable and accelerate specific processes can dramatically improve learning, but its impact depends on how it is used.’

What was it again that Collins and Bicknell wrote all those years ago?

"New technology should be installed only for a specific reason, for a specific purpose and to give a specific tangible advantage."


‘Crash. Ten Easy Ways to avoid a Computer Disaster’, Simon and Schuster, 1997 is available from second hand book outlets including Amazon.

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