Why some technology (or maker!) projects succeed and others don’t

Why some technology (or maker!) projects succeed and others don’t

Today I want to talk about technology implementations and why they succeed (or not), because let’s face it–we’ve all read those articles about makerspaces in schools, and we’ve all drooled over the really cool-looking spaces with their laser cutters and 3d printers that the teachers seem to have fully integrated into the curriculum. And then, if you’re anything like me, you’ve come back to earth and said something like, “But it would never work at my school.”

To be clear from the start: I’m not going to propose a silver bullet that will fix all your problems. (If you know of such a solution, please let me know in the comments!) What I am going to do is share a little bit about an article I read that really does a great job defining the problems characteristics of technology projects that are likely or unlikely to succeed. So many maker projects include technological aspects that I think this is an important topic for us to address. I’m a big believer in the fact that you have a much better chance of solving a problem if you fully understand that problem and can break it down into its component parts.

Without further ado: If you have the time, check out Zhao, Y., Pugh, K., Sheldon, S., & Byers, J.L. (2002). Conditions for Classroom Technology Innovations. Teachers College Record, 104(3), p. 482-515.  The authors studied recipients of a technology grant to see whose projects succeeded, whose failed, whose were somewhere in the middle, and why. The article’s conclusions crystallize how we can think about technology-based projects to realistically determine our chances of success.  I don’t have the space here to cover more than a small fraction of what they say, so again, I encourage you to read the original.

My very favorite part of the article is two tables the authors draw near the end. The first of the tables is


Dependence on others
Distance from school culture and existing practiceHighleast likely to succeedmight succeed, with extra effort/knowledge
Lowmight succeed, with extra effort/knowledgemost likely to succeed


What the authors found is that the projects most likely to succeed are the ones that are similar to things already happening in the school (low distance from culture / existing practice) and that don’t rely heavily on anyone else to make them work. Projects that rely strongly on people other than the teacher to make the tech work, and that are a big departure from how things currently work, are much less likely to succeed.  Projects that are low in one dimension and high in the other fall somewhere in the middle–they sometimes succeeded, but required more skill and persistence on the part of the teacher in charge of the project.

Similarly, there’s this table:


Dependence on tech
Distance from existing tech.Highleast likely to succeedmight succeed, with extra effort/knowledge
Lowmight succeed, with extra effort/knowledgemost likely to succeed


If the technology necessary for what you’re doing is not a huge departure from what your school or library already has, and if your project relies less on technology, your project is most likely to succeed. To make this concrete and simplify it to the point where it seems obvious: If you want to cut out maps of the US, you are most likely to succeed if your school already has a laser cutter and also you have an Exacto knife handy in case the laser cutter is unavailable. You are least likely to succeed if the only possible way to do this is using a laser cutter, and you’re relying on your school district to purchase one and make it available to you.

It sounds absurdly obvious when I put it that way, but how many of us actually remember to break things down this way when we’re proposing new ideas or projects?

My big takeaway from this is that if we want to succeed in getting making into our schools, libraries, and curricula, we’re going to need to take things one small step at a time. Is the project as you proposed it a huge change for your institution’s culture *and* its technology?  Consider finding a way to implement and get used to the technology within the confines of your current culture–or flip things around, and consider finding a way to ease your culture in the direction you want before suggesting the purchase of the technology.

A makerspace in your school is probably a radical departure in terms of technology and how things are done. As such, for most of us, undertaking that as a project would be likely to fail. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take small steps, hooking our colleagues on a new pedagogical best practice here and a bit of technology there, until we slowly bring our schools and libraries around to the point where more and bigger projects have increased odds of success!

Does anyone have any small successes to share? Put them in the comments, or tweet them to @makerbridge!


Image Credit: “Young Girl using Laptop” by Flickr user PictureYouth

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