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7 Ways to (Almost) Ruin Your Ed Tech Implementation

As higher education institutions turn to technology to meet the needs of teaching and learning in a post-pandemic world, knowing how to efficiently and effectively introduce new approaches — and learning how to recover from mistakes along the way — will be an increasingly valuable skill.

stressed woman sitting at laptop

While many colleges and universities cobbled together emergency solutions for remote classes during the 2020-2021 academic year, it was indisputably one of the most challenging times in higher education. Institutions struggled to repurpose off-the-shelf technology to recreate a vibrant classroom and to connect learners with various levels of computing power and internet bandwidth. Technology shortcomings led to a lack of engagement, feelings of isolation, and frustration among learners and educators, but as Educause noted in its "Top 10 IT Issues and Trends for 2022," this digital transformation is here to stay, and institutions must evolve or become extinct.

However, adopting a new technology comes with its own set of challenges. From failing to involve key stakeholders, depriving faculty members of proper training, or ignoring student feedback, academic institutions globally are making some common mistakes. One university that implemented smart decisions early and learned from its missteps is Coventry University in the United Kingdom. 

Starting in 2019, Coventry University adopted Design Thinking to guide its transformation process and steer it toward significant and long-lasting positive change. Early on, Coventry brought together faculty from across the university to define key aspects of learning and ask important questions such as: How do we think our learners will learn best? What types of experiences do we want our learners to have? How can we create engaging and accessible experiences for learners all over the world?

This concerted effort to make real change on a large scale to transform students' experiences and develop a student-centered education technology ecosystem meant shifting the university's focus onto students' needs and how to best support them with teaching, learning and engagement solutions – a full year before the pandemic. Coventry's willingness to take calculated risks and lead as part of that journey helped it set the pace when it comes to new approaches and allowed it to be in an enviable position as COVID-19 accelerated change in education.

Coventry's approach to digital teaching and learning is guided by four key principles: Learning should be active, with students actively taking part in teaching and learning activities rather than passively absorbing information; applied, with real-world problems applied to the classroom as a stimulus for deeper learning experiences; social, creating a space where students regularly interact with their educators and peers; and inclusive, designed to be accessible and welcoming to everyone. The pursuit of these tenets led the university to adopt Engageli, a learning platform focused on active and collaborative learning. But rolling out a brand-new teaching and learning tool is by no means easy. Offering an alternative perspective to the best practice guide, below are seven missteps Coventry made early in the process and how it overcame each.

1) Expect busy people to respond to you.

Academics are busy people. Over half of higher education professionals describe themselves as stressed, and around 40% think about leaving the field due to health pressures. Requests to try out a new digital tool can easily get lost in the mix. Members of the Coventry University IT team needed to find volunteers to try out the new tool but found it hard to break through the noise with outreach e-mails and instant messaging. Eventually, to make progress, the team had to go beyond e-mail inboxes and leverage personal relationships within the university to achieve the early buy-in and understand the needs of faculty to get the ball rolling.

2) Wait months before involving the right people.

As Harvard Business Professor John Kotter explained in his book Buy-In, "70% of all organizational change efforts fail, and one reason for this is executives simply don't get enough buy-in, from enough people, for their initiatives and ideas."

While Coventry did well to include contributions from academic developers, education technologists, learning designers and others in its early workshops, the initial core project team didn't include representation from these future stakeholders. This meant there was a disconnect between the expectations of the small working group and those who would later be responsible for implementing key decisions.

For example, the team quickly decided that there would be a full training package for educators learning the new platform, but the educational technologists who would be responsible for delivering the training itself weren't initially part of the weekly team meetings — and, therefore, couldn't offer tweaks and objections to the idea in real time. Coventry later incorporated a wider range of voices at the key decision-making forum as they learned the importance of dedicating meaningful time early in the project to ensure the right people are brought in at the right time.

3) Demand far too much effort from your users.

Due to an early incompatibility issue with another learning tool's interoperability (LTI) integration, Coventry needed to manually collect key information about every module to set up each online classroom on the Engageli platform. The team asked the educators to supply this information, but most requests were met with silence. Additionally, the balance of ever-changing pandemic restrictions and student requirements resulted in frequent timetable changes, so even where there was a willingness to respond, the detail was not necessarily known. As a result, the implementation team lost several weeks in getting everything ready for the first wave of early adopters.

To speed up the adoption process, Coventry learned they needed to dramatically reduce complexity by leaning on their internal team to do as much heavy lifting as possible. The result, in the end, was educators only needed to accept a meeting invite to get started.

4) Emphasize technology over pedagogy.

While it's easy to get carried away with the features offered by a new software product, it's important not to lose sight of what you're hoping to achieve. Coventry quickly discovered that without a strong grounding in the learning design for a cohesive and dedicated online teaching platform, educators were simply using the new tool in much the same way they were using existing videoconferencing solutions: to deliver lengthy, non-interactive lectures. The training team went back to the drawing board and ended up creating a new program that shifted the focus from explaining technology features to more emphasis on how to facilitate active and engaging learning experiences online.

5) Launch without supporting resources.

At the time of launch with early adopters, Coventry hadn't been able to finalize the planned package of pedagogical resources. Instead, educators with the team had to improvise their own Engageli-specific materials while still coming to grips with a new tool. 

After the initial launch, Coventry created a range of resources including lesson templates, an educator community and active learning ideas for online classrooms, but it recognized it would have been far better to offer these initially. The good news is that the team was able to incorporate early feedback and observations about what did and didn't work in the classes in order to make richer learning materials for the following cohort of educators. Supporting documentation should be dynamic and evolving, but don't be afraid to launch something simple that you can improve upon as you go.

6) Exclude your vendor from discussions about best practices.

Prior to launch, many internal conversations were held with Coventry colleagues about implementing Engageli. Unfortunately, these conversations didn't always include Engageli team members. For instance, many foundational decisions on the development of the training package were made before Engageli representatives joined the process — and as a result, there were some unfortunate blind spots in the initial program for educators.

An ed tech provider must be more than a vendor. They should be a true, value-added partner that leverages their expertise with the platform and their experience working with other institutions. Integrating them early in the process means institutions can better understand and address obstacles and quickly incorporate best practices from the beginning.

7) Avoid learner feedback.

Because of the short timeline, Coventry focused on its educators and how the new platform would change their teaching. Time was spent improving the educator experience without sufficient reference to learners, and as a result, Coventry acknowledged it was lacking a key contribution: the voice of students. No one objectively knew whether learners were enjoying and benefiting from the experience or even how they might offer improvements.

Successful implementation of a platform requires input from everyone at an early enough stage so new ideas can be incorporated. Working with mid-term student evaluation data, in-platform analytics and targeted surveys, Coventry was able to collect better information to improve its training offering to existing educators and better communicate Engageli's value to others. It also plans to run student focus groups to gain further insights as it continues to iterate on its supporting resources for educators.

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