Important Ed Tech Book Reviews

 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 11|No 6|March|2002

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Prospecting for Digital Riches

by Jamie McKenzie
About the Author

This article first appeared in the January/February issue of Multimedia Schools. An application for copyright registration has been filed. Unauthorized abridgements are prohibited.

It is now a chapter in McKenzie's new book, Just in Time Technology: Doing Better with Fewer.

How can schools maximize a return on technology investments, backing mostly winners while avoiding losers?  How can schools ride the curl of innovation without tumbling into heavy surf?  How can they escape failure and a vicious undertow?

© 2002, J. McKenzie.

Riding the Curl
of Innovation

Not so long ago, it was fashionable to speak about students surfing the Net.  Schools rushed to connect classrooms to the Internet as if mere connectivity might work wonders.  Many proponents of new technologies promised revolutionary shifts in the kinds of learning that would occur if schools bought the right equipment.   They also predicted impressive gains in student performance - claims rarely substantiated by credible research findings.

But then the Internet and the dotcom bubbles burst.  Many ventures proved unworthy.  Others turned into dotcompost.  Some schools awoke with empty hands and bankrupt business partners.  Some digital emperors even paraded without clothes.  At about this same time, the rush to wire classrooms was criticized by The Alliance for Children as a rush for "Fools Gold."  

For a response to their charges, enjoy Ferdi Serim's article, "Gold into Straw: Alliance Report Misses Mark"


“Fool’s Gold” is the perfect snooze alarm for people who have yet to wake up to the idea that educational improvement requires change. And change is about more than velocity; it is also about direction. The debate today is about more than technology or school choice; it centers on whether your model for learning is based on transmission or construction of knowledge.

Given this recent history of speculation followed by skepticism, criticism and doubt, schools now face a menu of apparent opportunities seemingly laced with risks. 

How can schools maximize a return on technology investments, backing mostly winners while avoiding losers?  How can schools ride the curl of innovation without tumbling into heavy surf?  How can they escape failure and a vicious undertow?

This article considers a strategic approach to the selection of innovative educational practices and tools - an approach designed to protect staff and students from "toolishness" - a fondness for tools that transcends purpose and utility.  (From Now On - September, 2001 -  The goal is to improve schools without falling prey to bandwagons or train wrecks.

A Dozen Strategies for Making Discerning Choices

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

                                                 Macbeth, by William Shakespeare

How can we avoid what Shakespeare warned about some 500 years ago?

Discernment is the answer.  We approach the adoption of new tools and practices with discernment. 


1.    The act or process of exhibiting keen insight and good judgment.
2.    Keenness of insight and judgment.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the
English Language: Fourth Edition.  2000.

Teachers and administrators may select from a dozen strategies to help make discerning use of new technologies.  These strategies make it possible to sort through the noise of conflicting marketing claims to focus upon value, reliability and authenticity.

1. Prospecting

Looking for the right combination of promising program elements and indicators.

2. Focusing 

Keeping an eye on major philosophical commitments and program purposes.

3. Challenging

Demanding evidence, data, results and substantive theoretical underpinnings.  Considering the risks, the costs and the dangers.

4. Testing

Setting up small, low risk pilot programs and reviewing the results of others' pilot tests.

5. Investigating

Looking past the surface claims to find out what really happens when the tools and practices are installed and implemented.  Finding prior innovators to learn the "true story" of what happened.

6. Comparing

Examining the full range of choices (vendors and models, for example) within a category along with alternatives that are substantially different.

7. Remembering

Reviewing past experiences with innovations (and vendors) that promised similar results and changes.

8. Triangulating

Developing multiple, independent, potentially conflicting sources to support the evaluation process.

9. Debunking

Stripping off the hype, the marketing claims, the myths and all excessive promises to consider the prospects for success rationally and analytically.

10. Deconstructing

Breaking the innovation into its component parts to see how well they fit together, how they are meant to work and where the vulnerabilities may lie.

11. Inventing and Evaluating Locally

Engaging local staff members in the development and testing of innovations so they have first hand knowledge of what works and what does not work, thereby reducing dependence on and vulnerability to outside promoters

12. Delaying

Slowing down the purchase and installation process so that schools can learn from the mistakes of others - avoiding the bleeding edge of change.

This article explores prospecting in depth.  For those wishing to learn all 12 strategies, they will be presented online at in May of 2002 and were published in the March/April issue of Multimedia Schools.

Classic Prospecting for Oil - Convergence

We all have television inspired images of aging prospectors with long beards who crisscrossed the desert with pack horses and little success.  They may not have known enough science or applied enough strategy to the challenge.

For a photograph of a prospector see the History of the American West, 1860-1920: Photographs from the Collection of the Denver Public Library.

Effective prospecting is a blend of art, science and skill, not simply a matter of wandering around with a divining rod in your two hands hoping to find the gold, water or oil below the surface.

Chevron shares the following information on its Web site ( describing the search for oil.

"The Prospector's Primer from Chevron"

People have used petroleum products for nearly 5,000 years. The Babylonians caulked their ships with asphalt, and the ancient Chinese lit their imperial palaces with natural gas. For these early users, finding petroleum was a matter of guesswork and good luck. People simply looked for oil seeps and hoped the source was nearby.

Today, petroleum prospecting is considerably less random.

The goal is to find a convergence of the geologic elements necessary to form an oil or gas field. These elements include (1) a source rock to generate hydrocarbons, (2) a porous reservoir rock to hold them and (3) a structural trap to prevent fluids and gas from leaking away. Traps tend to exist in predictable places - for example, along faults and folds caused by movement of the Earth's crust or near subsurface salt domes.

Convergence and the Search for Value in the Technology Marketplace

Schools may also employ convergence as they scan the extensive menu of new tools and practices currently being offered by eager vendors.  The goal is to find convincing evidence of each of the following elements associated with value:

Element One - Designed for Learning?

Is this innovation solidly grounded in sound learning principles? 

Those who sell tools and programs to school do not always understand how classrooms, schools and learning take place.  Rather than bother with what we know about effective learning practices, they skip the discussion by underlining how different the high technology classroom will be.  This kind of sales approach is usually a danger signal.  The wise school checks to make sure that the inventors of the new program understand the psychology and philosophy of learning in a way that matches the values of the school.  Part of this checking is a review of the credentials and experience of the invention team responsible for the creation of the product.  Does the team possess a strong track record of success within the educational workplace or are they outsiders with little knowledge of what works or doesn't work?  Are they inclined to invent hybrids rather than focus on solid value?

Element Two - Tested and Refined?

Has this innovation been shaped and refined by careful field-testing and data collection? 

In all too many cases, the product is rushed to market without much field-testing or refinement based on actual usage.  When a school asks for data to guide decision-making, this request may be met with a blank stare or statements about leading edge technologies, vanguards and pioneers.  This is another danger signal.  Product development should include careful testing and the collection of data.  If the innovation has been field tested without data and the vendors present nothing but glowing testimonials from heavily invested administrators, place some calls to find out how the rank and file feel about the innovation.  Reliance upon testimonials rather than data should set off an alarm.

Element Three - Comfortable and Friendly?

Is this innovation user-friendly, inviting and familiar to the rank and file? 

If we seek broad-based acceptance of an innovation, we would hope that someone had taken the time to make it a comfortable rather than a threatening experience.  Unfortunately, sometimes the designers of an innovation are out of touch with rank and file teachers and do their designing with a focus on the styles and preferences of early adopters.  Look for evidence that someone has considered the needs and preferences of reluctants and late adopters as well as champions and early adopters.  If the innovation is unfriendly in design, it will be hard for the majority  to swallow and unlikely to thrive within the school.

Element Four - Effective in Winning Results?

Is this innovation capable of creating improvements in student performance? 

The bottom line for schools is student performance and the likely impact of the innovation on the daily practice of the school.  Schools should avoid doing technology for technology's sake and should only adopt innovations that have considerable promise to improve the reading, writing and reasoning of students.  There is little to be gained by bringing more toys and tools into schools that promote such things as powerpointlessness or cut-and-paste plagiarism.  Does the vendor have hard evidence of gains validated by research conducted with some degree of reliability and validity?

Prospecting as Rigorous Questioning

The innovation prospector must dig below the surface, strip away the advertising claims and figure out if there is gold in those hills.  Schools that wish to make wise technology and program choices will heed the list of verbs associated with prospecting and searching by Roget's Thesaurus:

Inquiry: search (verb)

search, seek, look for

conduct a search, rummage, ransack, comb
scrabble, forage, fossick, root around
scour, clean out, turn over, rake over, pick over, turn out, turn inside out, rake through, rifle through, go through, search through, look into every nook and cranny
look or search high and low
search high heaven
sift through, winnow, explore every inch, go over with a fine-tooth comb
pry into, peer into, peep into, peek into
prospect, dowse, treasure-hunt, embark on a treasure hunt

from the 1996 Microsoft Bookshelf version of Roget's Thesaurus of English words and Copyright © 1962, 1982


"Exploring for Oils"

"Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood."  The Alliance for Childhood.  October, 2000.

"Foolishness is Toolishness."  From Now On - The Educational Technology Journal, September, 2001.

Ferdi Serim's article, "Gold into Straw: Alliance Report Misses Mark" at

"The Prospector's Primer from Chevron"

Back to March Cover

Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.

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