How Do You Eat an Elephant?

How Do You Eat an Elephant?

One bite at a time, right?  Old joke, but good advice.  Educational software development usually feels more like eating a blue whale - there are so many useful ideas that I could fill my word count today simply listing them.  And if I were a pundit, I'd do that and call it a day.  But the trick about building is that at some point you need to pause, package what you have, and release.  The new feature train never stops, but occasionally it needs to pull into the station to let new passengers on.

As we talk to more and more people in education, it's clear that everyone has their wish list, their pain points and their bright ideas.  Everyone is thinking about what tool, what feature they want to make the classroom experience better.  Almost none of them are bad.  Many of them have been on my own wish list, sometimes for years.  But the overlap across the board is not strong, and some groups are asking for features that other groups don't care about, or emphatically do not want.  And with the number of requests on offer, it's inevitable that we need to say "not yet" to some, and "never" to others.  No matter how big the software gets, how big the company gets, it's never possible to do everything.  If it was, Microsoft would have done it.

So how do we choose?  What goes to the top of the list?  For that, I use my One Piece of Advice - the thing that governs everything Thumbprint does, as well as most of what I do in the rest of my life:

Find the biggest problem you can solve, and solve it.  Repeat this step until you run out of time.

Let's unpack that.  "Biggest problem" is usually pretty easy - it's the thing you're thinking about instead of sleeping.  "Biggest problem you can solve" is harder.  There are plenty of big problems that either have no solution or are beyond your ability to fix.  In software, it's usually about features designed to curb negative human traits.  "How do we keep kids from doing (bad thing)?"  I don't want them to do the bad thing either, but if caring parents and teachers can't solve the problem, I'm not confident that an app can.  Technology is great, but it's not magic.  I try to be realistic about what it can do, and to be honest about the problems that it can't solve, and I don't spend a lot of time designing stuff unless I think it will actually solve the problem.

The core case in education is student engagement.  Are the students engaged with the material?  That's the first and most important question.  Everything else we talk about, from pedagogy to attendance is either about increasing engagement or working around the fact that they're not engaged.  If students are passionate and excited about what they're learning, most other issues, from attendance to behaviour to grades, simply vanish.  So it seems to me that student engagement should be the main litmus test for what gets worked on, because it has the potential to reduce or solve so many other problems.  Whenever we have to weigh two potential features against each other, the one that increases student engagement the most wins almost every time, which is as it should be.

This still leaves us with plenty to eat, just maybe not a whole elephant.  I dunno.  Maybe a hippo.