Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Take on complexity so teachers don't have to

For the first few years at my job, after I had learned the ropes, I didn't make any major changes to the status quo: Teachers were expected to do all editing on their classroom websites. We could talk them through it on the phone, but we wanted them to do all the actual button-pushing themselves. The idea seemed to be that the teachers would gradually learn how to do all these neat, complex web editing techniques.

I started to notice that some teachers would ask me the same question about once a year. Something like "how do I change the title of one of my web pages?" At first, I thought that maybe they just weren't techno-savvy, but that didn't sit well for long. I didn't like the idea of noticing this pattern of once-a-year calls, calling it an unsolvable problem, and ignoring the situation altogether.

At around the same time, I started to feel really weird about teachers calling me during their conference time to fix little bits of their website. I mean, they could call at any time, but that's the only time they realistically had in their day for talking with me on the phone. I had learned from the Fed Up With Lunch blog that each minute a teacher has with no students in their room is infinitely precious planning, decompressing, eating, and restrooming time.

Eventually, I realized that I could split the changes that teachers made on their website into two categories:

  • easy changes teachers did often enough to learn
  • trickier changes that teachers did not do often enough to learn
And then, I took a really radical step, never before attempted in any school district ever. I lightened the load of teachers.  I started to do the second category of changes for them.

It didn't make sense for teachers to make the changes in the second category. For example, it wasn't vitally important that each and every teacher see how to change the name of their webpages, because most of them only ever do it once. It also felt really, really right to let teachers report the problem, get back to their work, and read my "Problem Solved!" email at their own convenience.

The cost, though, was more effort from me. I had to spend more time thinking about the solutions, looking at teachers' websites, and guessing at the best one. It took more of my time to write the email back, because I also included instructions of what I had done, in case they wanted to know.

Was it worth my extra effort? Gerry McGovern absolutely nailed this topic a few weeks ago:
"The Web dictates that you put the customer first. That means taking on more complexity yourself." from The price of doing business on the web (March 14, 2011)
That's the whole point, isn't it? My job is to find the situations where a little extra effort on my part will let teachers do more of the real work: education.

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