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Education Has an Innovation Problem

By Benjamin Herold — January 08, 2019 7 min read
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Editor’s Note: Staff Writer Benjamin Herold covers education technology. This analysis is part of a special report exploring pressing trends in education. Read the full report: 10 Big Ideas in Education.

Innovation is sexy. Taking care of what we have is drudgery.

At least, that’s the narrative you might piece together if you follow the PR pitches and TED Talks coming out of the booming K-12 ed-tech industry, where purportedly new ways of “disrupting” public education stir the souls of venture capitalists and superintendents alike.

But in the quieter corners of public education, new ideas about the value of maintenance are quietly taking root. And as schools, like the rest of the country, are faced with shifting economic, environmental, and political pressures, there’s plenty of reason to believe that recalibrating the balance between innovation and maintenance in K-12 will pay dividends.

Take the tens of millions of mobile computing devices that have flooded into U.S. classrooms over the past decade.

Just giving every student a Chromebook might get you headlines. But schools are slowly learning that ongoing training, technical support, and network upkeep is what’s necessary to actually make the devices effective tools for learning.


How can education leaders build a maintenance mindset? Scroll down for three steps from Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell.

Furthermore, such maintenance work is also increasingly necessary to guard against calamity. Stories now abound about school districts getting hacked, phished, and held for cyber-ransom—sometimes by their own students. The marketplace is full of expensive, technology-driven cybersecurity solutions promising to help schools innovate their way out of the problem. But smart educators recognize that the foundation of preventing most attacks includes such basic steps as sound password management and regular patching of software.

And what about the long-term environmental and social impact of all those devices that are now in U.S. public schools?

In other sectors of society, growing attention is being paid to where our consumer electronics come from, and where they end up when their intentionally short lifespans come to an end.

Recently, groups like Restart, a small nonprofit based in the United Kingdom, have begun working with schools and students on those same issues.

In conjunction with schools such as the private Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City, for example, Restart has high schoolers examining the labor-supply chains involved in producing their mobile phones, calculating the carbon footprints of making their tablets, and learning the hands-on skills necessary to repair their laptops. They’re also becoming involved in the school’s procurement processes, pushing for longer lifecycles and less overpurchasing of electronic devices.

Teens not only learn to troubleshoot and solder, but to ask big questions and come up with out-of-the-box answers.

Restart’s approach represents the next level for the student-run tech support teams already popping up in schools across the country.

Why?

There are practical benefits for both schools and students, said Janet Gunter, the group’s co-founder and education lead.

For educators, framing technology work as a way to be creative, to fix things, and to take care of people and the planet brings more diverse students into the fold—an ongoing challenge in the STEM and computer science fields, where girls and students of color are woefully underrepresented.

And in an economy marked by increasing automation and the rise of artificial intelligence, Gunter said, there’s also an argument to be made that in 20 years, jobs in repair and maintenance will be more accessible than jobs in innovation. Students who start now developing the ability to see the big picture, identify problems, creatively solve them, and adapt to changing circumstances will stand a decent shot.

Indeed, that kind of systems thinking is a hallmark of a maintenance mindset.

It’s not anti-technology, or even anti-innovation.

It’s about rebalancing our relationship with what’s new and what’s now.

Consider, for example, one of this century’s most underappreciated public education success stories.

In 2013, just 30 percent of U.S. public schools had access to high-speed classroom internet. Today, that figure is 98 percent.

How’d it happen?

Inspired by the innovation they saw in other sectors, K-12 educators—from principals in rural schools, fighting for online distance-learning opportunities for their students, to teachers in big cities, pushing for software that might help them better reach diverse student bodies speaking hundreds of different languages—articulated the need.

The federal government and dozens of states stepped up, investing billions of dollars to dramatically upgrade the broadband infrastructure serving the country’s schools and libraries (just the kind of infrastructure investment that many experts say is needed to repair the country’s crumbling roads, bridges, and public school buildings, it should be noted).

The private sector played a major role, laying fiber-optic cable to all but the hardest-to-reach schools.

And outsiders like Evan Marwell—who previously founded a successful telecom, tech company, and hedge fund and is now the CEO of the school-broadband-advocacy group EducationSuperHighway—helped drive the process.

What larger lesson can be learned from that effort?

Schools must recognize that innovation and maintenance go hand-in-hand, Marwell said.

The work of keeping schools connected is never done. Regularly upgrading their internal WiFi connections will probably cost upwards of $5 billion every five years or so, he said, and it will take preserving the bipartisan support such efforts have now to make such maintenance feasible.

And sometimes, Marwell said, the most significant advances don’t look like what we’ve been conditioned to expect.

“Honestly, the biggest challenge in K-12 is not finding the next new innovation,” he said. “It’s about doing the fundamentals more effectively, including identifying the innovations that are already working and spreading them.”

PERSPECTIVE

How to Turn Maintenance Into a Mindset

By Lee Vinsel & Andrew Russell

A constant pursuit of innovation can lead us to neglect, defer, and ignore the essential work of maintaining what we already have. This is especially true in K-12 schools, where administrators, teachers, and others feel pressure to propose fresh initiatives, adopt cutting-edge technologies, and purchase new digital devices.

To give one bleak example, a report from The Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this year uncovered over 9,000 environmental hazards, including mold, asbestos, and flaking lead paint, in the city’s schools since September 2015. These dangerous conditions were the result of under-resourced and deferred building maintenance. And Philadelphia is not alone in its crumbling school infrastructure.

Although facing such tough problems can be disheartening to the point of catatonia, we advocate a proactive approach. Administrators and other education leaders should develop a maintenance mindset. In every aspect of school operations—digital devices, buildings and facilities, staffing, and more—maintenance is a key ingredient for long-term success. Here are three steps for putting maintenance front-and-center in management and planning:

• Come to grips with current needs. Leaders should take stock of existing assets and come up with plans for dealing with backlogs and deferred maintenance. This can involve difficult trade-offs, but it’s absolutely necessary for fulfilling the educational mission of K-12 schools. There are a variety of intuitive, inexpensive tools and digital-maintenance management systems available that can help make maintenance and planning more efficient.

• Plan ahead. Leaders should make maintenance and maintainability a central part of their planning for all new purchases. With some technologies, maintenance costs eventually equal—or even exceed—the initial investment. For instance, if a school district is investing in new digital tablets for students, administrators should be asking: What do we know about the maintainability of these devices? What known bugs and issues do they have? And who do we need to have around to keep them in good working order?

• Recognize the maintainers. The individuals and groups that keep our schools, workplaces, and society in good working order are central to a maintenance mindset. While innovators tend to be extraverts who draw attention to their visions, maintainers are often introverts who quietly plug away at their work. Leaders should hire and retain excellent maintainers, ensure that they are well compensated, and give their work the recognition it deserves.

Developing a maintenance mindset does not mean turning away from innovation; rather, it creates a more sustainable environment for school districts to thrive. Consider how we take it for granted that our transportation systems need regular maintenance. You wouldn’t be able to focus on the in-flight entertainment on an airplane if there was a good chance the plane could fall apart around you. School districts will only achieve their ultimate goal—providing top-notch education to the young people in their care—when they plan for lasting success.

Lee Vinsel is an assistant professor of science, technology, and society at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. Andrew Russell is a professor of history and the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica and Albany, N.Y.

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What big ideas matter to your classroom, school or district? We want to know. Tweet your comments to us at #K12BigIdeas.
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2019 edition of Education Week as The Innovation Trap

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