Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Managing Change – Some of the lessons learned

A number of the posts on this blog are rather positive. Anyone who has managed a large project, let alone in a school, knows that projects are never 100% positive. Where were the rough spots? First, I direct you to the comments. Comments are unfiltered in this blog (aside from profanity) so here is where you will see frustrations present themselves. We want to make sure you are seeing as complete a picture as we can present on a blog. Also, in this post, I will discuss one of our greatest challenges thus far, managing change. In a later post, I will discuss the role of the laptops in classroom management. Though this is related to change and will be discussed in this post, it is significant and deserving of a post in and of itself.

Upon initial roll-out, the biggest challenge we faced was managing change. Change presented itself in two primary ways, one foreseen and one unforeseen. The negative impacts of both could have been minimized with proper planning. I will discuss the two biggest negative impacts associated with change as well as the growth we can derive from each.

The negative impact of change presented itself before laptops were even handed out to the students. We asked too much of our teachers. Eager to solve perceived problems with roll-out, we pushed too much on our teachers at once. The first had nothing to do with a laptop program. The student information system we use required an update in order to synchronize with our business and finance software. This upgrade forced a grade book change. Because the grade book offered improvements, we thought it would be well received and included it in the August training days. Though teachers have been generally pleased with the grade book, it didn't work as well as promised by the manufacturer on day one (big surprise!). Even though we got through the bumps, teachers felt the stress of learning something new and with an application that is critically important to the day to day lives of teachers. Lesson #1: Every little stress adds up.

We added insult to injury, of course by rolling out laptops. However, not only did we roll out laptops, we rolled out laptops with Linux. A few of our new teachers had never even heard of Linux and the returning teachers had only heard of it at the end of the school year before they left. We thought we had managed that by offering dual boot computers (boot to Windows or Linux) and giving them an orientation on the Linux environment. The problem here, Lesson #1. Because every little stress adds up, few teachers were interested in the Linux aspects of the orientation. They were already mentally preparing themselves for the school year and seeking to minimize the information overload they were experiencing. They quickly satisfied their needs by accepting that they could boot into Windows and the kids can use Windows through Citrix. Most teachers opted to review earlier sections about Citrix or prepare their classrooms for the beginning of the year, rather than spend time with the exercises regarding Linux programs. Anyone who has ever taught will see this as a very reasonable response. Lesson #2: Avoid information overload. Lesson # 3: Help teachers understand the threshold of information they will need and help them to understand the consequences if they don't.

Lesson #2 could have been dealt with, Lesson #3 is harder because we didn't really expect the threshold of information they would need. This leads me to the unforeseen negative impact presented by our program. Kids and teachers can't communicate well when they are not speaking a common language. Now, that platitude is a no-brainer. However, we didn't anticipate the kids and teachers would be in different environments. I mentioned in an earlier post (or at least one of the presentations/links listed at the side) that we didn't anticipate that our kids would spend 60% of their time in the Linux environment. We assumed kids, familiar with Windows, would use Linux to boot up and would almost immediately connect to Linux. We planned on Linux providing us the benefit of reduced spyware and viruses. We were wrong. Students found that Linux met more of their needs and either did not feel the need to connect to Windows through Citrix or preferred to have everything on their computer rather than have to worry about being connected to the Internet for their needs. Lesson #4: Students will always surprise you.

Now, Lesson #4 caused some problems. Teachers were choosing to boot into Windows and students were choosing to stay in Linux. Teachers were teaching in MS Word and students were working in Open Office. Students presenting question regarding Open Office were met with frustration from teachers who had never experienced it before. Now, with time and conversation, this ironed itself out. Teachers became more comfortable with requesting students work in Windows if they wanted the support and/or explaining to students that the level of support available would be lower with Open Office due to the simple reality that teachers had less experience with the program. This also became less and less an issue because students preferring Open Office became more familiar with the program and had fewer questions. However, remember Lesson #1: Every little stress adds up. This was not a pleasant experience for teachers. Lesson #5: Get people comfortable in the same environment.

Now, despite all of these, the biggest impact of change regarding this program has nothing to do with neither Linux nor Citrix; it is the impact 1:1 computing has on classroom dynamics. This will be discussed in a separate post. However, 1:1 computing in a classroom has a transformative impact on the classroom, shifting power from a single locus of control, the teacher, to one of many loci, the students and the teacher. Information goes from being primarily unidirectional, from teacher to student, to multidirectional, among students and teachers in rapidly changing groups. The Internet adds the interaction of resources from outside the classroom as well. This has a dramatic influence on classroom dynamics and is singularly large enough of a change to be the only thing a school takes on in a given year.

If I could do this year over again, what would I change? I would have provided single boot Linux laptops to teachers a year before students would receive their laptops. I would have provided pilot teachers with a classroom set of laptops with the single boot Linux image and planned for at least 4 professional development opportunities for those pilot teachers to present to the whole faculty on their experience. Lastly, I would have found a way to put off every possible advancement requiring user change in order to allow teachers the time to wrap their minds around as much of this as possible.

Live and learn!

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