Layers of Educational Technology

This comes from Technology in Schools: Its Not Like this in Business, the book I recently released under a Creative Commons license.

When looking at information technology in schools, we can break it into five levels (see table 1). As one proceeds from “IT Systems” to “Students and Teachers Using IT for Teaching Tasks,” each level introduces more uncertainty into to the design process as each introduces more variables which are outside the control of designers and that are unknowable to the designers.

IT professionals are generally comfortable with layers one, two, and three. “IT Systems” through “Users Complete Tasks with IT” are amenable to planning. Organizational leaders can clearly identify the tasks they need to complete, they can identify and train the users, and the system requirements can be clearly defined. These can be used to define goals, and strategies for achieving them can be implemented, and the degree to which they are accomplished can be measured objectively. When the task becomes teaching and it is done with students and teachers, there are uncomfortable levels of uncertainty for many IT professionals.

IT Systems

Information technology systems are foundation of the work that is the focus of this book. The end user devices; the Ethernet cables or access points to which they connect; the routers and switches that send packets to and from network nodes; the servers that assign network addresses; and the gateways, firewalls, and other devices that control access to the Internet can be considered in isolation from the purpose to which they are applied.

When networks are planned and installed, the system requirements are clearly defined, and skilled network architects can design and install them to meet the requirements. The task of creating these systems does require very skilled technicians and engineers, but it is an engineering process. Known procedures and used to configure the devices and engineers can test its operation before it is deployed. We can tell our IT systems are functioning by pinging devices (that really is the name of the task of sending signals around networks to confirm networks connectivity).

IT Systems for a Task

In the real world, no IT systems are designed without a task in mind. Those tasks inform the systems requirements that architects must meet. In some business situations, the tasks are very specific, and the system is designed for that task alone. The computing capacity built into the internet of things is an example of very specific tasks; your internet-connected video doorbell serves its function, but it is not useful for analyzing your household budget.

The IT systems created in schools tend to be general purpose computing devices. Rather than being designed for a single purpose, the computers and devices are used for many purposes, some of which are known prior to the system requirements being defined, but some are unknown. In some cases, the decisions made when planning and deploying the systems limit what can be done later. In organizations in which future tasks are not known, it is uncertain if the current system requirements will meet the future requirements, so architects commonly add as much extra capacity that the budget will allow when planning new systems or upgrades. Minimizing the need to build and maintain unused capacity is one of the reasons schools (and other organizations) are adopting cloud-based infrastructure.

Rather than passing random data to confirm connectivity and capacity, designing IT for tasks requires IT professionals support software, error correction, and other protocols to produce meaningful, accurate, and secure data. These additional requirements specify the operations and functions that affect the selection and configuration of the IT systems.

Users Perform Tasks with IT Systems

Technology systems are designed for unknown users, and the assumptions designers make about users can have important implications for how effective it is. Todd Rose begins his 2015 book The End of Average with the story of fighter pilots in the 1940’s who were unable to control their planes because the cockpits were designed for the “average” body. Once cockpits were designed to adjust to the actual bodies of pilots, they found pilots more able to control them, and fewer planes crashed, and fewer pilots died.

While the consequences of designing IT systems in businesses and schools are not as dangerous as the inability of a pilot to fly their plane, the principle is the same. Once users begin interacting with IT systems, additional variables are introduced based on users’ capacity and preferences, and those variables cannot be controlled by the designers. When there is a disparity between users’ capacity and preferences, but the system has passed the IT professional’s tests can lead to the user being blamed for the poor functioning. In many cases, this blame is misplaced as deeper situational awareness leads architects to design better functioning systems.

IT Used for Teaching Tasks

The tasks that teachers accomplish using IT systems can be differentiated into two categories. First, are the highly predictable tasks that resemble those performed by business users. IT professionals can plan and test for functionality. These tasks include many of the data management tasks such as recording attendance and grades for which teachers are responsible. It also includes those instructional tools in which the goals and the practices are like workforce training. Designing systems to meet these needs are familiar to many IT professionals as the needs like the those in many other organizations.

Second, there are the teaching tasks that are associated with what are commonly called authentic learning environments. These can be unpredictable as they are driven by students’ interests and rely on diverse source of information, and the products of students’ learning emerge as the projects progress. When teaching with these methods, teachers question their practices, explore new options, and experiment with new tools and technologies. These individuals will seek to use the IT systems for purposes never conceived when the system requirements were first defined. Obviously, this introduces even more variables and greater uncertainty into the design and configuration of IT systems.

Students and Teachers Using IT for Teaching and Learning

One of the most distressing realizations one makes when they become a teacher is that the best plans one makes for the classroom are just guesses. While teachers apply their knowledge of the curriculum and their familiarity with the students or with similar students when planning, each classroom is different and a lesson that one group finds engaging and meaningful is dull and boring to another. Students with their varying skills, different motivations and perspectives, and clever insights (none of which can be known when planning) can lead teachers to revise their thinking and update their lessons and what they do with IT.

So they can respond in a timely manner to the necessary revisors they identify, teachers often ask for permission to change systems. IT professionals know that is not a good idea; at least it is not a good idea if you want secure, reliable, and robust systems. This is the situation that can cause conflict schools between educators and IT professionals and resolving that conflict requires seeing the problem form the other perspective.