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.

Field of Dreams and other EdTech fallacies

This was the presentation I did, alongside fellow learning techs Rosie Hare and Marcus Elliott, at the Association of Learning Technologists (ALT) conference 2017. The full title was Kevin Costner is a liar: Field of Dreams and other EdTech fallacies. The session culminated in a discussion around the question: Is limited innovation, impact and staff engagement our fault?

The abstractslides, video, Padlet and Storify are all available online. Fill your boots.

What the hell was it about?

Obviously, you can go and read the abstract if you want, but in short, we wanted to ask a difficult question. We wanted to irritate people by making provocative statements and then make them talk about it. We could have been academically rigorous and presented a balanced argument but who’d want to watch that? Also, we’d have done all the work for the audience.

I’ve been to a lot of conferences recently, ALT is a particularly fine example, where people show all the clever shiny things they’ve done and we all pat each other on the backs for a job well done. Then follows the inevitable question, “how did you get academics to engage”, or even worse the inevitable comment, “my academics won’t do that/aren’t interested”. This presentation was an attempt to challenge some of that thinking. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are often inclined to blame/complain about our academic colleagues.

If we were doing it right, would we still be asking these questions? Something to consider.

That title though?

The title is a good hook to get people to come to the session. We could have called it “Exploring the attitudes and assumptions of learning technologists and their effect on engagement, innovation, and impact”. I got bored writing that. So we decided to base it on something fun and the theme really made the session. It also was an excellent basis on which to begin our fallacies.

Check out Marcus’s excellent intro:

Fallacy 1: If you build it, HE will come.

The brilliant but often misquoted line from the movie Field of Dreams is “If you build it, he will come”.  We decided to misappropriate that line and say “if you build it, Higher Education (HE) will come” (snarf). This is the idea that if you plug something in, people will immediately want to use it. But wait, no one really thinks that do they? In an ideal world no, but the reality is, there are some out there who do. IT departments are a good example. They seem to think they can replace the email system without providing any help.

In my experience people have lots of motivations for using or not using technology.  There are very few academics who will use something just because it’s there and fewer still who have the knowledge and confidence to use something new effectively.

We can plug stuff in, but there’s a lot more work to be done to get people to use it.

Fallacy 2: Technology will solve everything.

I think, those of you reading this, will already know that this is not the case. However, there are still those who think it can. I’m referring to the Government, senior management, and even some learning technologists. It is seen as a panacea to fix all ills. “If it’s broke, throw some tech at it”. To quote David White and Donna Lanclos:

“We go to technology to be the solution and everyone is disappointed” Lanclos, D. and White, D. 2016.

Fallacy 3: We don’t need evidence.

This relates to a couple of my earlier blog posts The Criticism of Criticism and In defence of technology . The idea that we don’t need to provide evidence to staff about the benefits of educational technologies. James Clay suggested:

“the problem is not the lack of evidence, but one of resistance to change, fear, culture, rhetoric and motivation.” James Clay 2017.

This is endemic of the blame culture that I really can’t stand. People’s reasons for not using technology are far too complex to be summed up in a sentence. I have no doubt there is some truth to what James said but I felt it removed any responsibility from us to ‘up our game’ to get them on board. To prove the worth of what we ask them to do.

I thought the line was defensive. It reduced skepticism to mere hysterics. Not the expression of genuine concern.

It implies THEY don’t get it.

Fallacy 4: They don’t get it.

I love this quote from Audrey Watters:

“many, I’d argue, misconstrue what the Luddites in the early nineteenth century were actually so angry about when they took to smashing looms.” Audrey Watters 2014.

We behave as though our academics are missing something. That they just don’t see what we know to be true, technology is awesome and they should use it. How often do we really bother to find out why they feel as they do? How often do we take the time to understand their motivations?

Matt Cornock put it best:

Should I decree a particular approach without discussion or justification, this would unduly elevate my position beyond that of the discipline being taught. Matt Cornock 2017

I don’t know what’s best for their subject. I don’t know what’s best for them. To assume is arrogant and lazy.

Fallacy 5: They’re not interested.

Maybe they’re not? Maybe we haven’t done a great job getting them interested. They only see us when we’ve plugged something in. Or when they have to seek us out. Or when we want to flog the latest thing. Or when we are enforcing the latest institutional mandate.

Are we surprised they’re not rushing to work with us?

Is limited innovation, impact and staff engagement our fault?

Unsurprisingly, the feeling was that it’s a far more complex issue than a yes/no. Obviously, we were deliberately black and white to get some discussion going. The Padlet gives a good idea of the debate and what people thought.

It is a joint responsibility. But we can always do better. Try harder. Talk to them. Listen to them. Be human.

Links

Clay, J. 2017. Show me the evidence… 13 February. e-Learning Stuff.
http://elearningstuff.net/2017/02/13/show-me-the-evidence/

Cornock, M. 2017. Don’t be an authority on meta-meta learning. https://mattcornock.co.uk/technology-enhanced-learning/dont-be-an-authority-on-meta-meta-learning/ 

Lanclos, D. and White, D. 2016. Keynote: Donna Lanclos and David White – Being Human is Your Problem #altc. https://youtu.be/OUw0RKDiWHE 

Watters, A. 2014. The Monsters of Education Technology. https://s3.amazonaws.com/audreywatters/the-monsters-of-education-technology.pdf