The 7-second Edtech Sound Bites that Scream “Disaster in the Making”

For years, I have traveled across North America and globally, trying to guide school leaders from the smallest of districts to large ministries about the importance of sound goal-setting, planning and change management when it comes to adopting a digital learning initiative. As part of that process, I often refer to the well-regarded research of Project RED, and its 1,500 step process for adopting technology. While many school officials feel the process can be too long for them, especially in this day and age where the McDonaldization of society demands immediate gratification, I find that I can spot a failing or a soon-to-fail technology initiative in as little as 7 seconds….even when local officials believe they have delivered, or are in the process of creating a legacy for their tenure.

School leaders sometimes reveal their “tells” – simple statements that accentuate their naivety of technology, a lack of educational technology, or simply their own egos that get in the way of sound decision making and thoughtful planning

Yes….7 seconds. Almost like in a game of poker, during the course of meetings, or in reviewing press releases and public presentations, school leaders sometimes reveal their “tells” – simple statements that accentuate their naivety of technology, a lack of educational technology, or simply their own egos that get in the way of sound decision making and thoughtful planning.

The goals are simple...the process is challenging. Any technology initiative must be academically effective, producing meaningful and measurable outcomes in student learning. The initiative must also be financially sustainable, and able to scale within existing budgets as you accommodate all students. Yet, the majority of projects derails very quickly. “Results” are defined merely as “more engaged students” and anecdotal examples, but always lacks quantifiable data. Financial sustainability is often a shell game, relying on bonds or special tax levies, as school systems fail to witness the across-the-board savings a digital learning environment can provide once properly implemented.

By no means is this an exhaustive list, but it is meant to serve as a starting point and an early warning detection system. Listen for these, or similar, statements and recognize that you may already be leading down the path to failure before even the first device has reached a student’s hands, or if your program has been ongoing for a decade.

So here is my tribute to some of the most outlandish 7-second statements I have heard from school leaders over the past few years:

These devices will last 10 years
I have heard this one repeatedly, referring to tablets and even Chromebooks. There are still many educators who slip back to the age of Commodore PET computer, believing today devices can sit in a classroom for 10+ years….these are the same school leaders that barely get their cell phones to last 2 years. 

We know kids will learn more just buying these devices
I vividly remember sitting around a room of assistant superintendents and directors in this district, all trying to adopt the superintendent’s vision of giving out devices to every child. I brought in a neighboring district official, who warned them of the experiences she faced having to clean up a similar fiasco in her district when her predecessors did the same thing years before.  No curriculum plan…..no PD budget or plan…..no change management plan. While other vendors were quick to quote pricing for devices and early delivery dates, I simply said “I’m sorry but I’m not comfortable quoting prices here. There’s too much at stake here, and several of you around this table risk your careers – and the students’ futures – on an ill-conceived plan” The statement shocked them, but in the end the district did not move ahead with their large purchase. 

I am too busy to take time to create a plan
In just the past year, hearing this one come from a superintendent was very painful. Take the analogy of a math class. If you intend to pass the class and walk away knowing math, you need to do your homework and put the time into your studies. To adopt a technology initiative, you have to do your homework and create a viable plan. You also have to put your time in to support the change management (training, adoption, curriculum, leadership, etc). When faced with weeks or months needed to create a plan, this superintendent wanted their tutor to create a cheat sheet….one size fits all plan that their district could just start using immediately. It’s personally painful that despite the great investment in technology, and the passion many of the faculty and administration had for the program, the immense potential will be lost because the superintendent refused to do their homework.

I know our program is successful; ABC company did a case study about us
Many case studies I read do not report any meaningful academic, financial or technology outcomes. Instead, they feed into the egos of some school officials, and why they picked Company ABC or picked a certain product. Case studies, by their very nature, are more customer testimonials. If your program was making important strides towards success, or had meaningful outcomes to share, you would be featured in national publications….that’s just how rare they are. 

My school board wants to do this because the neighboring district just bought a bunch
Fear of being overtaken by the Jones next store has prompted many knee-jerk reactionary projects launched in school systems. While there’s nothing wrong with using a neighboring school system as a catalyst for starting down the path to digital learning, why rush? Implementing a “me too” model only portrays your administrative team as followers, rather than leaders. Why not take the time to select the best aspects of many programs, or identify key gaps that, when addressed, will make your program shine above all others. Being first should not be as important as being the most effective.

The superintendent is looking to use this to springboard his/her career
This is more of a back-channel message we often hear from the CIO or other staff. It’s a warning flag that the school is likely going to pursue the glitz and press aspects of launching a 1:1 program. In essence their focus is the early sprint….not the long term marathon. For them, the motives behind the program also represent its demise. A digital learning initiative is a process, not an event. By turning it into an event, the professional development, change management, financial sustainability all take a back seat, usually left for the next superintendent to fix on their watch.

Security isn’t a big concern to me; hackers have much bigger targets to go after
Yes, and I can probably assume your online banking password is connected to a birthday, anniversary, kid or pet name. To a teenage hacker, what greater thrill is there than to hack into the district’s network to change grades or announce a fake snow day on your school web site.

I’m sure many of you have heard similar statements from school officials, or even vendors while we’re on the subject…in fact I encourage you to share them in the comments (please don’t attribute the statements to any district, company or individual).


Elliott Levine is Chief Academic Officer for Hewlett Packard Americas Education. There he works with schools and universities to support major educational technology initiatives and was co-inventor of the HP Personal Learning Engine (US PTO PCT/US2013/062777), an effort that has him featured as one of three employees at www.hp.com/go/jobs. A former K-12 official and regular public speaker, he has worked for and launched startups in the education and marketing industries. You can learn more about him at www.linkedin.com/in/elliottlevine/.   

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