Many changes in modern schools are driven by the imperative to introduce new technologies. However, not all improvements are made by adding. What does change look like when we consider the subtraction of technology from a school? One of the most thoughtful organizational changes I have read about recently was an article by Ross Parker (2020) regarding the evolving technology policy at International College Hong Kong (ICHK). In “Can We Stop Software From Eating School?,” Parker expresses a growing concern over device use in schools, and the decision to reclaim “some of the quiet space commandeered by digital technology” (para. 14). His article builds a narrative of why ICHK decided to restrict the use of devices on campus, and how leading this scale of change took careful consideration and planning.
Subtracting technology from modern schools is not an easy change, and it “swims upstream” from the prevailing trend. At ICHK, leadership “asked [them]selves how [they] could orchestrate a sea change, without coming across as a bunch of old, irrelevant reactionary Luddites” (Parker, 2020, para. 13). Applying Al-Haddad and Kotnour’s (2015) taxonomy, the change in technology policy at ICHK represents a large-scale long-term change, which required internal alignment of the change type and change methods employed. Although it’s not apparent if a specific change method was used, it is evident that this change was made through a holistic approach. Leadership spent “9 months of intense discussion, drafting, consultation, introspection and iterative improvement” (Parker, 2020, para. 13), which is congruent with Kotter’s focus on Leading Change through a shared vision and strategy (Kotter, 1996, as cited in Al-Haddad & Kotnour, 2015). The result was a conscientious cultural change in the school that focused on subtraction.
Organizations that see change as addition without subtraction may end up with a soup of educational technology, seasoned with policies and chunky add-ons. This soup is the is the exact situation that many digital learning platforms end up in. Feldstein (2017) shares a cautionary narrative of adding, adding, and adding features to educational apps. Particularly adding features that are redundant and overlap with other systems. He terms this effect “Feldstein’s Law: Any educational app that is actively developed for long enough and has a large enough user base will become indistinguishable from a badly designed LMS” (para. 19). As a software developer working with educational technology, I have seen this runaway addition of features in several projects. Faced with a “a sense of urgency as emerging technical practices … challenge the traditional academic processes” (Udas, 2008, para. 2) the response is often to continue adding one new idea to the next.
Change is not just addition. It can—and vitally, should—include subtraction. The direction of a change should be considered along side Al-Haddad and Kotnour’s (2015) change types of scale and duration. Leaders looking to make change in their organizations can make equally powerful impacts by subtracting rather than adding: perhaps phasing out a technology, scaling back on an initiative, or pruning an unwieldy policy.
Al-Haddad, S., & Kotnour, T. (2015). Integrating the organizational change literature: A model for successful change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 28(2), 234–262. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOCM-11-2013-0215
Feldstein, M. (2017). A flexible, interoperable digital learning platform: Are we there yet? [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://eliterate.us/flexible-interoperable-digital-learning-platform-yet
Parker, R. (February 10, 2020). Can we stop software from eating school? [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@rossdotparker/can-we-stop-software-from-eating-school-640a0e05ec4c
Udas, K. (June 30, 2018). Distributed learning environments and OER: The change management challenge. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20160309200155
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