The silent majority vs the deafening minority

Angry Man

 There is an ever-present tension in the provision of technology in Education; who should we aim to please? The innovators and early adopters, who are the vocal minority? Or should we be seeking out the late majority and laggards, the silent majority?

Who is the silent majority?

By silent majority, I refer to those staff who you never hear from. There might be lots of reasons for that. They might be fine, they might be happy doing what they’re doing. They could be people who are not at all interested. They could be people who don’t see the point in engaging with you. Whatever their motives for silence, they are the people we desperately want to hear from. They are still the majority.

Who is the deafening minority?

The deafening minority, are those innovators and early adopters who have explored what is on offer and are looking for ways to enhance and extend beyond it. They are usually the same faces who come to user groups or provide feedback. They are the people who shout the loudest (sometimes because they are the only people you ever hear from). They are the groups that want to leap ahead whilst the silent majority are still far behind.

Update: My former learned colleague Marcus Elliott has rightly pointed out that:

The old senior management switcheroo

It is a sad fact of life in professional services that “he who shouts loudest gets what they want”. Also true is, “department that brings in the most money gets to do what it wants”. These situations usually follow a familiar pattern: make request, don’t receive the desired answer, stress importance of request, name drop important company partnerships or senior management, get other people to ask, department head contacts department head, escalate up management chain until senior enough manager is found to force the fulfillment of the request. I have seen this pattern too many times in my career. This is not a collegial or supportive approach. It does not engender a feeling of reciprocal respect or understanding. No’s are not bandied around lightly. There are a myriad of things taken into consideration

NEWSFLASH: University Professional Service Department has already got work to do BECAUSE OTHER PEOPLE EXIST.

Despite the rumours, we are not sat in our offices with our thumbs up our butts. You are one department of many and you all want something and it’s never the same thing!

Maintenance is a thing

I’ve seen this best articulated by Anne-Marie Scott from the University of Edinburgh in her blog post Some more thoughts on the NGDLE, for what it’s worth. NGDLE being the next generation learning environment. As she so eloquently puts it:

Managing the information flow, the release schedule, the updates to training and documentation when change happens – this stuff isn’t sexy innovation, but it’s over 50% of what any team will need to do just to keep the lights on, and it’s the work that is constantly being squeezed to free up more resource for “innovation”. July 2017 Anne-Marie Scott

I would love to do more “sexy innovation”. I’d love to turn on, develop and buy all the cool things people want. (I googled sexy innovation (IKR? Blowing raspberries at the user acceptance agreement) and found this Slideshare  How to: A sexy innovation team by Nick Demey). The sad fact is most of my time is concerned with updates, documentation, change management and just generally trying to get our ‘house in order’.

Updates are a necessary evil. Some are more time consuming than others but no update can be done without a lot of initial work. Finding a suitable time (never easy), submitting changes, working out what will change, testing, reviewing advice and guidance, doing it, fixing anything that broke, snagging, testing again and then finally you’re done. Oh and then you better start planning for the next one.

Then there’s just the things you have to do to keep everything ticking over. These are silent tasks people often don’t hear about.

Oh and every new thing means we have another thing to maintain. There’s a finite number of people and a finite number of hours in the day. We have to balance adding new things with being able to actually support them.

Here’s something I just made up for how we assess each request.

widespreadBenefit = PerceivedBenefit/StudentNumbers
impact = WidespreadBenefit
resource = Time + People + Cost + MaintenanceRequired + SupportNeeded
checkWorkloads = People/whatTheyAreAlreadyWorkingOn

if impact ≥ resource

then CheckWorkloads

if checkWorkloads < resource

then doTheThing and maintainTheThing

I could get into the long list of things doTheThing actually involves but let’s not. Essentially we have to look at the impact versus what it will take to actually do and maintain the thing. If the impact isn’t going to be great enough then we can’t always prioritise it over the day to day firefighting.

Trust me, I’d love to have 20 people who can jump on all these things but we don’t. We have to be sustainable. A service is better than no service at all.

Stuff breaks and we have to fix it

Fixing stuff is a thing. If we’re fixing something, we probably not able to do anything else. Oh and if we don’t want it to break again then we have to do some work on that too.

Support is a thing

Answering helpdesk incidents, enquiries and fulfilling service requests are a thing. Creating documentation is a thing. Developing and delivering training is a thing. Talking to you is a thing. Consultation is a thing. Emailing you back is a thing. These are all things we have to do and they take up time that can’t be dedicated to new stuff.

Boring is essential

I’d love to say working in learning technologies is all fighting off killer AI robots but the reality is it’s often just supporting people to do the basics. These basics, the boring stuff, is absolutely necessary. It’s what the silent majority needs. This stuff is valuable.

It might not be what the deafening majority see the value but it has to be done.

How do we appease the deafening majority whilst getting to the silent minority?

This is a question I constantly ask myself. I really want to get to the silent majority. I think that’s an important part of what we exist to achieve. However, I don’t like upsetting the deafening minority. They were willing to take risks, they’re all in and I don’t want them to be disenfranchised.

But I don’t see any way to avoid it. There’s too much to do to please everyone.

I am not your enemy

I am not your enemy. I’m the mug who has been thrown into the lion’s den covered in rump steak, to demonstrate the VLE. I don’t know what I’m walking in to. I do not make decisions. I do not create policy. Frankly, there are times I don’t care if you use the VLE. I’m just here to show you. I am not the enemy.

I should be clear that strong anger and hostility is rare.

VLEs are a bit disappointing

To be fair VLEs are a bit of a disappointment. Actually, let me qualify that. Technology is a bit of a disappointment. As David White says “if you go to technology to be the solution…everyone will be disappointed”.

I think we all hope that technology will just work with very little/no interference from human beings. At least sometimes that’s how I think academics hope it works. I may be being unfair here but there are times I see the “oh I have to do something with this to make it worthwhile” look in their eyes. Sadly the VLE does not know what you want to teach. It cannot absorb your teaching materials through osmosis and organize them correctly for you. It cannot create a quiz for you. It can’t facilitate a forum for you.  It can’t decide the best way to present your learning materials and activities to best aid student learning. Unfortunately, like all technology, it requires some human intervention. More importantly, it requires human intervention to make it meaningful. Technology on its own is meaningless.

Technology gives the impression that anything is possible. That’s true to an extent. Technology has opened up endless possibilities. In a way that is a blessing and a curse. Reality does not always live up to expectation. I hear “surely it can do this”, “surely they can do that” but the reality is there is a LOT of work behind even the simplest idea. You don’t see that, perhaps we ought to show you more?

VLEs are designed to do a job. You might be able to plug stuff into it. You might be able to adapt it but on the whole, it does what it does. Can they be better? Oh of course. But they serve a purpose and do that adequately. I hold out for something better but I can guarantee no matter what comes I’ll still be asked: “can it do this”.

Can it do…

Whenever I demo the VLE it get’s compared to other systems. Can it do x? Can it do y? Can students see z in here? I find myself saying no a lot in these situations. Usually because rather than looking at the VLE for what it is and what it can offer, it’s compared to existing systems, some wholly incomparable. I sometimes wish I had that device on Men in Black so I could remove their memories of whatever system they were using previously so they could look at the VLE with fresh unprejudiced eyes. I don’t have that.

I should add that I always want to hear these questions, as they feed into ongoing developments.

We’re doing everything we can…

Sometimes I feel like people assume the reason it can’t do something is that we can’t be bothered to make it do that. We can. We want to. But what they don’t see is the huge amount of thought and work that goes into every decision around the VLE. Even seemingly simple things like turning on plugins. Although sometimes the functionality just isn’t possible or doesn’t exist. We have to consider each request on its merits. It’s not like switching on a light switch. I wish it were quicker. I wish it were simpler but NOTHING about technology is simple (despite what the marketing people would have us believe).

I promise you it’s added to the list. We’re trying to get through the list but it only gets longer. That’s the problem with technology the work never stops. Everyone wants something, because “surely it can be done”.

Don’t shoot the messenger

Unfortunately, we often become the focus of anger for decisions that we have nothing to do with, made by people we have nothing to do with over which we have absolutely no power. Do I think you should use the VLE? Yes because it can do great things when used well and consistency is something students want and deserve. Do I care if you use it? Ultimately no, that’s your choice but you’re missing out on something. Or more accurately your students are.

I didn’t say you had to use the VLE. Someone else did. Sorry. I’m just here to show you. Am I really the person you should be angry with? Do you really think I can do anything about what’s happening to you? Do you think making me feel uncomfortable will help? Do you think talking down to me will help? Do you think it will help to make me feel small?

No. It won’t help.

Why are people still hostile?

The world of ed tech seems to believe that everyone wants to use technology. That it’s obvious that people should and those who don’t are Luddites and dullards. Often anyone who dares questions the use of technology in education is met with much belligerent, disapproving responses. They are an enemy of the state who must be indoctrinated.

The reality is there is still resistance. People do not believe in the use of technology without question. Unlike the majority in the Ed Tech world, they look at it with a critical mind.  There is legitimate criticism of the VLE (not that anyone can agree on the perfect alternative). They are bloated and feature heavy. They never quite work how people want them to. There’s always something missing. Put enough academics in a room and they will find a reason to dislike it. I believe there is legitimate criticism of the use of technology in education. In fact, I think we are obliged to consider every aspect of technology positive or negative.

I suppose we need to change our sales pitch from “you can do a quiz” to “you can scaffold student learning by creating a formative test each week and displaying feedback and content based on their results. The data can also be used as an indicator to show which concepts are proving difficult to understand and may need to be covered again the following week”. There’s a longer blog post in the “can do, should do vain”.

So what do we do?

We grit our teeth and we bear it. If there was universal acceptance they wouldn’t need people like us. Try to always be their champion. Listen, really listen. Respond when they ask you a question. Remind them that you’re here to support them, not get in their way. Smile. Respond kindly. Be patient. You don’t know what might be driving their behaviour, it could be wholly unconnected with you or what you’re there to talk to them about.

Always, always remember: