Saturday, August 28, 2010

If it ain't broke, re-envision it

I've been reconsidering my If I had a hammer post this week because of some discussions I've been having about the redesign of our "broken" web site.  I've tried to steer folks away from terms like "broken" and "fix" when dealing with changing requirements, but the average person isn't so concerned about the semantical differences. I found myself having to be much clearer in my reasoning than I was in the blog post.

Now I don't really care to engage in pointless arguments over semantics if I don't have to, but our words do matter a great deal.  The language we use drives our thinking and, consequently, drives our behavior.  When you say something is broken, you are inherently saying that the system in question - whether a simple appliance or a large social institution - is fundamentally sound and still capable of producing the outcome you desire, if you can fix the one malfunctioning part.

Saying that a system is broken puts you into troubleshooting mode. Think about troubleshooting for a moment. If a user says "my computer won't work", what's the first thing that comes to mind?  Does it involve the electrical outlet or perhaps you want clarification on the current status.  Either way, in troubleshooting mode you immediately move to the beginning of the process and work forward asking a series of yes/no questions looking for components that aren't functioning or are not functioning to standard.  That's how we are trained.

What if, instead, that user said "I have all these new job tasks and I can't find the tools to help me get them done. This computer won't work for me."? Your attention is immediately focused toward the end of the process and the outcomes. Your questions are open-ended and probing for understanding. You are in requirements mode. Imagine the look you would get if your first response to this second question was "Is the computer plugged in?".

In a recent post, "Who's Asking", Will Richardson advises leaders in educational reform that they must some how satisfy the complaints of the school-is-broken crowd without losing sight of real need, which is a re-envisioned education system focused on 21st century outcomes.  In my mind, however, there is only so much that reformers can do until the question is rephrased from "what's wrong" to "what should we do". This is pretty much the same thing I said in this rant 2 years ago in response to a Scott McLeod post about building community backing for 21st century skills.

I think IT leadership is (still) uniquely positioned to help educational reformers, but not until we are clear in our own minds that we must first redefine the goals of education before we change the structure and funding of education. Let me recommend this post on Redesigning Education in Fast Company Design as a starting point.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tag, you're it

This week I was investigating QR Codes and Microsoft Tags when I came across this article from EDUCAUSE . As a quick background, QR Codes and Tags are types of matrix or 2 dimensional barcodes that contain information that a reader on a smartphone (using the built in camera) can use to route users to a website, add contact information to an address book or make a phone call.

For instance, the image you see here is a Microsoft Tag with the web address of the Advisory Bored blog embedded. If you had a smartphone with the free tag reader you could point your smartphone camera at the image and it would launch the browser and navigate to the Advisory Bored blog. Now imagine if the image were on a business card, placed in a newspaper ad or printed on the side of a bus. (I was researching the idea of printing a Tag on those big white land use signs that go up whenever there is a new building development or a zoning code change.)

It was not, however, the use of QR Codes in particular that most interested me in the EDUCAUSE article; it was the cross-discipline student project highlighted on the first page.  The project has at least four major aspects.  First, there is the biology, compiling the information about the plants.  Second, the team members had to deal with technological issues like information access and user education/training. Third, there was the information management challenge to make sure the content presentation was sensitive to different technologies (phones vs PCs).  Finally, there was a myriad of logistical issues from coordinating with the docents to printing the QR Codes to staffing the guest booth.

More and more, work is characterized by this type of team project in which different people from different areas of the organization (and across organizations) must collaborate to accomplish a goal.  It is my sense, however, that educational assessment, particularly in secondary schools, is still focused on individual performance.  On more than one occasion I have heard from teachers that group projects present significant challenges for student assessment.  That's unfortunate, because those are precisely the skills the workforce of today and tomorrow need.  

An example that's a little closer to home is the Western Washington University V45 project team for the Progressive X Prize competition, a $10 million dollar challenge to build production-capable cars getting 100 MPGe.  Look down that participant list.  You've got business students, materials sciences students and vehicle design students all working toward that prize.  (The V45 was eventually eliminated, but did an outstanding job getting to the finals.)

So what's the take-away?  I'll toss out four, just to get us started:

  1. project management and collaboration skills are essential and should be fostered even at the high school level
  2. projects that cross areas of study and extend out beyond the campus are far more interesting and potentially more educational
  3. teachers will need to develop curriculum that is team-based and be prepared to address all the issues that teams present (such as the ability for teams to "fire" members who aren't participating)
  4. advisory boards need to be clear and indicate if they think a program should emphasize "team project work" or "individual project work"