Embrace the Beta

One of the most interesting reactions I get when speaking to teachers who wish to integrate technology in the classroom is when I ask them if they intend to run a beta program. There usually follows a short silence followed by an “A-HA!” moment which is then followed by a look of bafflement. “I can do that?” comes the query and “YES of course!” is always the answer.

Pilot Projects are All Around

It seems that the entire technological world has given itself license to run everything in beta. Some software applications seem to remain forever in beta, absolving the developers from any horrible mishaps that may happen along the way. Good developers will release their software in beta to a small group to observe, measure and determine next steps, so why can’t teachers do the same? While the rest of the world tends to call these experiments pilot projects or tests, those in the tech sector have created a new zone of operation I happily call the ‘safe error zone’ – sound familiar? It should – we as teachers call it, ‘Growth Mindset’ and it is this philosophy in education that creates a safe place to make mistakes.

Bite Off What You Can Chew

Whenever we decide to change a practice in our classroom we as teachers tend to make assumptions that we need to go in whole hog, when in fact we can take a page from the tech sector around beta testing and take small incremental steps. For example,  if you’re interested in a new note-taking procedure, or going paperless, or incorporating Google Cardboard, there is always the hidden, yet very real option of trying it with a few students first. Set a timeline that’s no more than a month to two months in which you engage a small group of students to try it. If you wish to include all of the students, then create groupings and cycle through each grouping throughout the course of the year. Remember to keep in mind that beta testing informs next year and the year after – not this year.

Above all else, beta testing in the classroom engages our professional judgement as to whether or not the change is worth it! Just because it’s new, it certainly doesn’t mean it’s useful. How else will we be able to judge unless we try it in a controlled environment first?

Even Mad Scientists Keep Notes

The most crucial element of beta testing in the classroom is keeping notes about implementing a new idea. There are just so many variables to consider, so when the Wi-Fi goes down, or it’s indoor recess the entire day, we can accurately recall valid reasons for failed attempts. Planning for a virtual field trip to the Savannah looks wonderful on paper but fails in the real world if someone forgot to charge the devices!  Notes regarding the students’ engagement in the new task are crucial because they inform your activity design and whether or not it needs tweaking for future students.

Scaling Out – The Holy Grail of Pilots

The reality is that a high percentage of pilot projects never see the light of day because they simply could not adapt to a larger audience. Testing may go on for years, but unless the beta yields information and results that can be replicated on a large scale, that beta fails. We are fortunate that we can dictate the size of our beta within the class and generally have a goal of scaling to a full classroom contingent. As you test you must always ask the question, will this activity work with 10, 20 or 30 students? The only way to anticipate those answers are to acutely observe the challenges and successes of the beta test. If you can achieve full class implementation of an idea over the course of 2 years, then you have achieved what so few have been able to – successful scalability. And this is all because of your willingness to beta test first.

Teachers have always known that it is far better to go a mile deep than an inch wide, but we rarely afford ourselves the time and patience to do so. The next time you are enticed by the notion of trying something new in your classroom, afford yourself the same mindset we afford our students: Go beta first.