sinking stop sign with rising waters
PHOTO: Kelly Sikkema

Take a look at just about any LinkedIn or Twitter stream in the midst of this coronavirus nightmare, and you will encounter countless remote working, collaboration and distance learning breakthrough stories. You will also encounter the somewhat annoying complementary press releases pitching solutions, because what everyone wants to do in the middle of a pandemic is roll out a brand new enterprise software package to thousands of employees ....

We’re going to learn a lot in the next few months about remote working. Some of it will be exactly what consultants and analysts like me hypothesize. But I have a feeling the really important lessons will be ones we don’t anticipate. Serendipitous rather than planned innovation.

And a lot of the learning will come from experiences that are … how shall I put it? ... disasters.

A Collaboration Disaster in My Own Backyard

We have one right here where I live in Fairfax County, Virginia.

The Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) System is the 10th largest school system in the country. It has 187,830 students spread out over 222 FCPS schools, guided by over 12,000 teachers and 17,000 staff. FCPS has an annual budget of $3 billion, and Fairfax County is the second wealthiest county in the country.

Unlike many other school systems, Fairfax County didn't have to scramble at the last minute to come up with a collaborative solution. It had a long-standing relationship with Blackboard.com. In January 2019, Blackboard announced the relocation of its global headquarters to Fairfax County. The Washington Post notes that in 2020, FCPS had a $2.6 million contract with Blackboard, which included an extra $150,000 per month it agreed to pay the firm during the shutdown.

So Fairfax County must have one heck of a distance learning solution, right?

Everything seemed ready for launch on Tuesday, April 14.

Things didn’t exactly go according to plan.

The Washington Post offered this perspective in "Failed tech, missed warnings: How Fairfax schools’ online learning debut went sideways" (sidenote: not much cryptic about that headline!):

Fairfax County Public Schools, in Northern Virginia, waited four weeks, including a week of spring break, before launching virtual school for its 189,000 students. It finally started on Tuesday, when teachers and children sat before screens to embark on a plan the superintendent promised would allow students “to continue learning ... while being mindful of their health and wellness.”

The trouble started immediately, as many students and teachers found it impossible to log on. For some who could get online, things only got worse: Classes were hijacked by racist, homophobic and obscene language. Students appeared on screen naked or flashed weapons.

And this …

One AP Environmental Science class group chat filled with messages such as, “F--- you, yiu smell like gay.” Users joined a German class populated with usernames including “I LOVE ADOLF HITLER” and “OVEN SURVIVOR #2.”

Adams, of the Fairfax Education Association, said she heard reports of users exposing their genitals and students forming private group chats to bully peers.

One 10th-grade teacher recounted a typical fiasco: Fifteen minutes in, someone entered his virtual classroom with a username including the n-word. The teacher removed the user, but the person kept rejoining.

The teacher tried to keep the lesson going but lost hope when the user began blaring loud music with obscene lyrics.

Embarrassed responsibility shifting ensued.

And then online school was cancelled for a week to retool.

Finally on April 20, Superintendent of Schools Scott Brabrand threw in the towel in a message to parents: “We recognize that our students and teachers need a reliable system for virtual learning; therefore, we are going to move away from Blackboard Learn 24-7 as a tool for face to face instruction.”

Emotions obviously are running high. A quick glance at the Twitter hashtag #FCPS will give you a quick idea. Or local headlines like this:

Related Article: Dealing With the 'Soft' Challenges of Remote Work

What Can We Learn From Fairfax County?

What can we salvage from this distance learning mess that is useful when thinking about other enterprise systems? Here are some thoughts:

  1. Updates suck, but you have to do them. FCPS apparently missed seven Blackboard system updates over the past few years. Both parties blame the other for this. They especially suck when they are of the big bang variety rather than done iteratively, in the background and in small doses.
  2. Training and change management matters. Again a lot of mutual finger pointing is going on, but change management cannot be done on the fly or as an afterthought. Teachers waited and waited and waited for guidance after schools closed in March. Many filled in the gaps with consumer-grade one-off solutions. Guess what the reaction was when they were told they needed to revert to the solution approved by IT? And how they felt when it failed — and were told they were at least in part to blame? 
  3. Digital disruption raises uncomfortable expectations. Most parents are seamlessly connecting with colleagues and friends and churches and book groups and just about anything you can think of for free on Zoom (putting aside security concerns that have surfaced about the platform). Compare that with $2.6 million and endless hours waiting for a log-on.
  4. Open access is complicated. FCPS reported all sorts of horrendous abuses — by the kids themselves — because they could log-in with guest credentials. And surprise! Some teenagers acted horrendously when they could escape responsibility.
  5. Privacy is complicated. Privacy in the abstract is an easy concept to understand. In the real world, it’s complicated. Teachers were instructed to record their lessons. Sounds good. But in doing so, the recording revealed the identities of their students, a violation of privacy policies. Oops. Hard to put that genie back in the bottle in real-time while everyone is watching.
  6. Scale matters — and it’s difficult. As Zoom is discovering, 10 million users is one thing, but 200 million is an entirely different matter. Neither Blackboard or FCPS apparently thought to load-test the system with hundreds of thousands of concurrent users before they went live. Oops.

It’s going to take a lot to get everyone back on board in Fairfax County with online learning, but hopefully we can all take some hard-earned lessons from this disaster.

Related Article: The Remote Working Pendulum Swings Again: 9 Lessons Learned