Ecosystems and Widgets

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By Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

The term ecosystem is normally used in reference to biological communities. When people think about ecosystems they often visualize the different organisms and activities that coexist to maintain a balance of sustainable life.

As human beings, we model from what we know. When creating new things, humans often start with a single widget[1], and then expand until there is a system of widgets all interacting.

Thus, the cycle of widgets evolves. Some last for many years, others have a short-term existence. Popularity often determines the life span of a technology widget.

Awareness

Schools using technology have an ecosystem of widgets. Very few people in a school seem to have a complete understanding of how all these widgets come together to form the web communication and processing which is essential for the day-to-day success of school life.

Unlike the biological complexity in a square meter of a rice paddy, the edtech ecosystem is a knowable system. It is a system everyone can learn, can discuss, and can protect.

[1] https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Widget

Map it Out

Most technology ecosystems have a common characteristic; they require people to be identifiable. Being anonymous is not good practice. When a person is part of the system, the system should know who they are.

Because of this characteristic, it is simple to draw the center of the ecosystem map. The center represents what technology(s) are employed that allow people to sign into computers and the Internet (network).

Next, the most logical thing is to illustrate all the ways people communicate after they join the system. Do not over think this. List out or draw things like email, forums, support tickets, online forms, etc. If there is a widget that facilitates communication, find it, and define it.

Moving through the web of protocols, sharing would be the next concept. How do people share files? How do they collaborate with/without-downloading files? Who can own things? Who can delete things? Who can see everything? How are parents and groups outside the normal community of practice allowed to interact?

These questions can be answered in bullet points, mind maps, or paragraphs. They are knowable and discoverable.

As the journey continues more and more questions will arise. The final foundational pieces to connect are related to data. Where does school data live? This is business data, academic data, curriculum data, etc. These systems normally connected back through the sharing, communication, and authentication (or at least they should).

This is not simple, but nor is it as complicated as school accreditation. If a leadership team can work through accreditation, they can be fully informed about the edtech ecosystem within the school.

Invasive Species

There are many case studies concerning feral animals being introduced into non-native environments. These animals are known as invasive species. Invasive species can destroy the balance and harmony in an ecosystem.

As with a biological system, invasive systems can wreak havoc on a school’s edtech ecosystem. Within a school, people often ask to introduce new services and software. A new tools can cause a negative impact on the existing system.

For example, switching everyone to a new email so they can access a widget, while also requiring him or her to use another email for official communication, can literally bring communication to a halt.

Consider the impact of subscribing to a video streaming service without having enough bandwidth to allow the majority of users to stream during class-time. This would negate that service’s usefulness as a teaching tool.

Within school and edtech leadership, spotting invasive tools is not difficult if people have taken the time to map and understand how various pieces of the ecosystem are connected.

Widget Reasoning

There is a temptation to communicate with branding and jargon. Early in my academic career while studying speech communication, I read studies concerning people being separated from knowledge by the constant use of jargon. I make a point to avoid jargon unless I am certain the group clearly understands it.

People seem to have a tendency to use brands to group things together. American’s often refer to tissue as Kleenex®. Kleenex is a brand. Searching on the Internet is termed Googling by many people.

Filtering brand names allows for everyone to focus on function and purpose. Including brand names can alienate people who either do not know the brand or simply do not like the brand.

I choose to use generic terms when discussing technology. I also tend to focus on function and outcome, instead of creating action words from brand names. I suggest this communication strategy as a norm when groups of non-tech-savvy people are mingling with those who feel at home with tech jargon.

About Tony DePrato

Tony DePrato has a Master’s Degree in Educational Technology from Pepperdine University and has been working as a Director of Educational Technology since 2009. Currently, he works for Episcopal High School in in Houston Texas, USA. He has worked in the United Arab Emirates, China, South Korea, and Japan. In 2013, Tony DePrato released The BYOD Playbook a free guide for schools looking to discuss or plan a Bring Your Own Device program. Tony is originally from the US, and worked in multimedia, website development, and freelance video production. Tony is married to Kendra Perkins, who is a librarian.
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