Tag Archives: Software

Ecosystems and Widgets


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.


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.

Software in a Suitcase vs The Learner Profile


By Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

The Problem

Curriculum in a Suitcase, this is a common term and point of discussion in international schools. For anyone not familiar with the reference, it addresses the common practice of teachers arriving at a new school and bringing with them a curriculum they are comfortable delivering.

The current practice around curriculum planning and mapping is to avoid this practice. A school should have a curriculum that students and families can depend on, regardless of the staffing.

In Educational Technology there is similar practice known as Software in a Suitcase. Using the word software is being simplistic. Software, subscriptions, services, and even computer brands and operating systems are included.When teachers move from one school to another, they often try to avoid the new school’s technology plan, and attempt to implement an ad-hoc technology plan they are familiar with.

Technology plans can be flexible, but if a school is a Windows 10 Tablet school, or if they are using PowerSchool, those core structural pieces are not flexible. In fact, they are required from the first day. Usage is not negotiable.

Unfortunately, publishing a list of resources before new teachers arrive is not very helpful. They are counting on a miracle, because the motivating force is being comfortable and confident in what they are using. I cannot fault anyone for wanting to use tools that work or tools they have mastered. Nor can I blame a teacher for making a persuasive argument for trying to acquire a resource that has proven track record improving learning for their students.

The fact remains, limitations are limitations. Long term multi-year technology plans create a structure, but they also form boundaries and budgets. Creating niche technology projects around a large campus, without a planned budget, is impossible to support and sustain.

The Solution

The IB Learner Profile and ISTE Teacher Standards hold the solution to the problem of software in a suitcase. If schools want students to embody the ideals of the IB Learner Profile, then teachers and administrators need to model those ideals. Technology is the perfect medium to demonstrate communication, risk-taking, inquiry, and subject knowledge.

Being dependent on a set method and set of resources does not achieve the outcomes expected of IB students, nor does it meet the ISTE criteria for teachers to Model digital age work and learning and Engage in professional growth and leadership. 

Every year when new teachers are completing orientation, these core concepts should be part of every discussion around curriculum, assessment, and technology. Pushing people to see themselves in the light of the IB and/or the ITSE standards actually creates the middle ground needed to move beyond the problem. The challenge to be an adaptable problem solver, as a model to students, is one every teacher should accept. Adapting to a new technology structure should be seamlessly integrated into adapting to a new curriculum structure.

The trap with technology is discussing brands. People will often say, “I need XYZ software.” Replying, “Well we have WTY software.”, is not going to resolve the situation. This dialogue only creates a partisan debate.

The best way to approach issues related to technology is simply to ask, “What are you trying to accomplish?” The focus should always be on the why first, or the outcome. From there, people can brainstorm the how.  Sometimes, the why is not even inline or aligned to the curriculum. Reiterating the technology plan is also not very useful. The core problem stems from an emotional reaction to change not a misunderstanding of a written plan.

Here is a common dialogue I have with new teachers coming to China:
Teacher: I just came from a Google School, and I need to use Google Drive even though I know it is not accessible in China.
Me: Ok. What do you use it for? (Avoiding the name immediately)
Teacher: I use it to store files and share files with students.
Me: Ok. So you need to have a solution to store files and collaborate with students.
Teacher: Yes.
Me: We have that. Can I show you? I can even help you move your resources quickly.

In most cases, there is a solution. Often, the solution is just time. Time to adjust. Time to privately realise the influence a brand is having on decisions. Time to see other options.
Support cannot be forced. People have to be ready to change. Creating the middle ground and bringing a person back to the core ideals they are working towards with students is definitely the best path to positive outcomes. In an IB school, that is The Learner Profile. The ISTE Standards, those are just for an extra shot of professionalism.