In the first part of our interview with Peter Westcott, we talked about technology-enhanced learning. In the second part, we’ll dive deep into his experience as an Education Technology Consultant and all the nitty-gritty details about EdTech projects.
When starting a project, which are the steps you take and what people are involved?
That depends on the scale of the project. Sometimes with a small project, you’ll work with one business owner, one project manager, and one business analyst. These projects are usually done in an agile delivery setting. Agile delivery is a very good match for contexts like the above because it has a good capacity to respond to the “that’s not what I meant” situation.
The larger the project, the more people are involved, and we usually have a combination of waterfall planning and agile delivery processes. Frustratingly, project budgeting and management haven’t evolved with the technology and customer needs, it’s still of the belief that delivering the project solves the problem. Whereas, with the way technology and teaching are evolving, delivering the project is only the start of solving problems. With technology release cycles now in weeks rather than yearly halves or quarters, traditional project methodology and budgeting can’t cope. There are three main stakeholder groups: one is the education one (teachers, educators), and second one is technological (IT and Operations). The projects are usually initiated from a demand queue by IT program managers and program directors, and the doers also come out of IT. The product owners typically come from the educational side, and the education side will provide all the requirements. We also include technology vendors, as they’re an essential part of the successful project – for example, experts from Barco help with implementation and suggestions.
Now, I haven’t mentioned the third main stakeholder group, the students! They are great sources of requirements and are essential review panelists for each delivery that comes out from the scrum team. Giving feedback about project deliverables is very important because they will be the ones using it, or having it used on them. Deep student engagement is relatively new, but it’s going to be essential, as the experience of the learning journey is the key to success. Always try to involve students into the design of the platform, giving them the role of active collaborators! New generations demand to give feedback, they are more active and more willing to share their views and opinions.
What are the risks? What makes a project successful? What is the average length of a project?
A major platform project can last for three years or, for smaller enhancements, three to six months. Probably the most common cause of failure is the inability to define your expectations adequately. Quite often, stakeholders can’t properly articulate what they exactly want. Stakeholders must focus on the benefits they expect from a project rather than just the ‘what it is’ and ‘what it does.’ Let’s take a doorway as metaphor. It has a frame, a door, and a handle/lock, and it swings on hinges to provide an opening. That’s what it is and what it does. The benefit it provides is intangible: security, privacy, access or socialization. If we look at the Barco collaboration product and its benefits as inclusion, socialization and feeling valued as an individual, we see clearly how these things lead to better design and build learning outcomes.
I think the biggest risk to project success (success is more than just delivery, it also includes utility and usage) is the funding models typically imposed by the unimaginative. It’s typically 100% build from the project budget, maybe with some rectification under warranty, and then BAU (business as usual) is funded from operating expense. This doesn’t allow for accommodating any changes or enhancements that might become apparent (the project manager then typically says “you should have put it in your requirements” but often the users won’t know what’s possible) during the build or user acceptance testing. It’s especially evident when it comes to data analysis, where typically the project will deliver a single data extract that can’t be easily enhanced or changed without significant cost. I hear many educators complaining they can’t get the data that they know are there. My view is that 70-80% of a project budget is for build and the balance to meet the needs of BAU - ‘Business as Unusual’.
New generations demand to give feedback, so include them as active collaborators when creating a platform
You did a big trip around Europe and attended ICERI. What are the main learnings you can share?
I focus mainly on learning analytics and AI, and that is only at the beginning of the journey of the disruption. A lot of institutions are not adequately prepared for AI the tidal wave that’s on the horizon and I don’t believe a lot of institutions are ready enough for profound digital transformation. Technology should always be ready to serve teaching, but it can also inform teaching by demonstrating what’s possible. On the other hand, if teaching methods aren't able to leverage the technology, then nothing will work. In the end, the education method is also essential – you can have the most advanced technology, but if that is not adequately supported by advanced, engaging ways of teaching and learning, the technology can’t help you much. It has to be a symbiotic relationship.
It would be beneficial to have unified resources around all these technological processes and settings. There must be a better way for collaboration between the universities. For example, SURF.nl unites more than 100 education and research institutions in the Netherlands that work together in the SURF cooperative to fully utilize the opportunities of digitization and economies and synergies of scale.
At ICERI, I observed a lot of clusters of similarities in research. The risk here is that research becomes too granular as a pursuit of an individual researcher’s interests. This is good, and we get lots of useful insights, but the more granular research becomes, the less valuable it is in making decisions about platform investments. What this means for the platforms, though, is that there needs to be a lot of ‘capability elasticity’ (my term) built-in. There is a lot of potential for developing and recombination of different ideas – Barco is a fantastic platform, but it can also be expanded with AI and learning analytics to make more out of it.
As far for learning analytics in education, that is still in a relatively primitive state when compared to consumer marketing analytics. Education has a lot to learn but is still focused on deeply researching and inventing its own wheel.
What advice do you give people who want to start with real-time virtual training and technology-enhanced learning?
- Technology should always support but can also inform pedagogy: they are symbiotic.
- The role of the product owner is probably the most crucial role behind delivering a successful project: technology needs to have purpose, effect and deliver value.
- It’s essential to involve tech vendors as early as possible because they can bring a lot of their excellent examples as best practices.
- The price tag is no guarantee of quality!
- Resist falling into the ‘analysis paralysis’ that’s prevalent in education.
- To paraphrase a well-known quote: the best you can hope for is to satisfy the needs of all of the stakeholders some of the time, and some of the stakeholders all of the time.
- We still haven’t even begun to grasp what is possible with machine learning: there are so many possibilities - don’t be afraid to try - because by trying (and failing) we have the best chance of influencing ethical practice.
Read part 1 of our interview here.
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