Monday, March 22, 2010

It isn't really a technical work-around

Three teachers emailed me today about various work-arounds they have been trying when technology doesn't work. As I was helping them with their technical issues, I was thinking about the practice of working around and what it does. These are all hard-working caring teachers who have just become so frustrated with technical problems and systemic barriers that they have given up. I understand why, I have days where I am with them, but I think you need keep saying when things aren't working for you and your students.

First of all, some common language. I am fine with avoiding conflict over difference of perception or different ways of doing things. Likewise, if it isn't about something important, I say let it go. When I' m talking work-arounds, I mean a situation where there is a problem and the problem is significant. You are working-around because you think you don't have the power, knowledge or skills to fix it. Here is my case for why working around technical or systemic problems in education in a mistake, regardless of the tools you have to fix the issue:

1. When you work around the problem, it is still there. Sometimes you even make it bigger.
My brother-in-law has a pet rat (pause for collective shudder of revulsion) who, like many domesticated rats, has developed cancer. The rat has a large tumour near its leg that it has learned to work around, even though its leg doesn't work the way a leg should. The rat is able to function, but only for now, because the tumour is still there, and it is growing. In education, we frequently have problems that are systemic or technical, and individuals just work around them. However, doing this actually collectively shapes our practice in a cancerous direction.
Let's say our filtering doesn't allow to access YouTube (common in many school divisions, although not ours). People start sharing how to access blocked sites, students teach teachers how to use a proxy server and teachers turn a blind eye, and technicians see the illicit access and do nothing. Because the filtering wasn't updated, it becomes institutional practice to ignore division policy, and a cancerous view of policy in general is spread.

2. Not all people can work around the problem.
Especially where technical problems are concerned, only a select few understand how to solve the problem. If the average person doesn't know the difference between their computer hard drive and their personal network drive, they don't understand how why just saving to "my documents" means they can't find the document when they log in from home or at a different computer. If we try to teach people work-arounds rather than addressing the problem, we turn less comfortable users into non-users, because it just doesn't work - that darn computer lost their files again.

3. Working around prevents reporting and solving.
If you try to work around a problem rather than telling others it is a problem, then it looks like the problem is just yours. If it is a systemic problem and no one reports it, the system has no way of knowing it needs to be addressed. Teachers I work with are always telling me there is no point in reporting something because it often doesn't get fixed. I respond that if people never report it, it is 100% guaranteed not to be fixed.
In some ways it is like civil disobedience - it needs to be publicly said that something is wrong by a lot of people to get a system to change. People who just work-around are saying that they want the system to stay the same.

4. Working around grows a culture of accepting "being broken."
We want our students to work at learning how to solve a math problem until they can do it. The worst math class to teach is one full of students who are convinced they can't do math. Their low potency means that they become nearly impossible to teach because have failed before the learning even begins. We are the same way with computers. When we say "That dumb thing never works" but then do nothing, we are committing not to come to the table to solve it, and we make it okay to not learn, grow and change. That is never okay in a learning environment like a school division, a classroom or a technical department. Accepting it just doesn't work and not finding something that does is making non-functional just fine.

I know that sometimes we really do have no power to change something, and repeatedly pointing it out just irritates others. It gets me in trouble all the time. On the other hand, irritations are itchy, and an organization inevitable scratches them, creating the opportunity for change. If something really isn't working for you and your learners, you need to report it, encourage others to report it and point out when it still isn't solved. If it is technical, call your help desk or help portals and stay on it until in changes. That's what we do with our students, specific descriptive feedback about how close we are to the destination until we actually get there. As Jay would say - it isn't about criticism, it is about getting better. Now that's a growth mindset.


  1. Well and fine... if you have an investment in making sure the system gets better. But, perhaps you think technology is just a distraction and you've already spent an hour trouble shooting and complaining, you may start to think that the time would be better spent on marking exams or getting your report-cards in by Monday morning.

    Certainly there must be a point at which it is no longer worth the effort. Unless you're Ghandi and are willing to spend your entire life trying to emancipate the print-job masses from their oppressive cues.

  2. Workarounds are not religated to technological barriers... we seem to "workaround" many issues that affect us classroom to classroom and building to building. As educators we need to discuss and problem solve central issues and perceived barriers to effective learning and yet this often rarely makes the meeting agenda or top items at a staff meeting because it is perceived as complaining. Thus, we go back to our boxes and stick to our old routines with the occassional new trick for "getting around".