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When Systems Beat Technology: Why Smart Boards Become Expensive Chalkboards

Charlie Anastasi
March 5, 2024
4 mins

“Education is not just complicated but complex. It is an interlocking system of learners, educators, technologies, and broader social contexts, with all kinds of invisible linkages…the most promising way of passing through these thickets is to prioritize systems change alongside technology adoptions.

The above quote is from Failure to Disrupt, one of the first books I read when joining Rize. Written by Dr. Justin Reich, the book was a compelling reminder that innovative technologies fail to reach their potential without a deep understanding of the systems they are being deployed into. Technologies are often perfected in a controlled environment and then released into a messy reality. 

Take this example from my high school experience. “Smart Boards” were hailed as a groundbreaking technological development. The dusty chalkboard was being replaced by a digital, interactive, and engaging new future. 

In reality, most teachers used the Smart Board exactly like the old chalkboard. Nothing changed. A few hour-long training sessions can’t unwind decades of repetition. 

To make it clear that I’m not singling out instructors, let me give a personal example. I downloaded ChatGPT many months ago and have barely opened it since. I even tested paying for the premium subscription to force myself to experiment. Despite knowing that many people are successfully using this technology in miraculous ways, I still haven’t integrated it into my workflow. 

The raw potential is tremendous, but the actual impact is limited. Without clear responsibilities, training and ongoing support, new technologies get “domesticated”, or even forgotten, by the existing system.

Why Course Sharing Wasn’t Enough for Rize

I was reminded of this wisdom while visiting a few colleges recently. Small colleges are filled with people wearing multiple hats. Their teams are tasked with striving toward new frontiers while still carrying the current world on their shoulders. 

This creates a conundrum for small colleges: new technologies can have disproportionate potential impact, but the actual impact is constrained by existing teams and systems that are overwhelmed.

This conundrum was actually one of the first challenges we faced at Rize. In our first few years, the potential of using course sharing to launch new programs was transformational, but the actual impact was falling short on some campuses. New programs would make their way into the catalog, but admissions counselors didn’t understand them, advisors didn’t trust them, and students weren’t aware of them. 

We had a Smart Board working like a chalkboard.

We realized that improving the value of Rize wasn’t a technology solution, it was a systems solution. We didn’t need better course-sharing technology - we needed to develop a suite of services, powered by a group of people and processes, that could sit on top of the course-sharing technology. 

Selecting programs needed to be guided by market, personnel & budget analyses. Admissions teams needed to be trained on new programs and provided content & strategies. Advisors needed to be advised. Students needed to experience reliable quality and support. 

By building the service teams that could better guide the integration of our new technology, we’ve been able to:

  • Increase registrations 5x
  • Increase economic return for partners
  • Increase quality scores from colleges, instructors and students.

Advice for Buyers and Sellers

The punchline here is more than just a self-congratulatory pat on the back for Rize (we still think we are scratching the surface with our services!).

I’m a firm believer that technology products and tech-enabled partnership services will continue to proliferate in higher ed. And I think there are lessons for both buyers and sellers of these products.

  • When buying new technologies, start by ensuring you will receive the implementation support you need to successfully integrate. Second, remember that the best buyers don’t solely rely on the vendor. Few solutions are truly turnkey, so the best buyers also identify people to implement solutions alongside the seller.
  • When selling new technologies (including to a group of students!), invest into implementation! Understanding the people and the processes that will drive the systems change you need will be as important as the technology itself.

Technology adoption plus systems change? That’s a partnership duet worth singing about.

Technology adoption without systems change? Sounds like nails on a chalkboard.

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