Dell project collapse offers learning opportunity to Saint Paul


On Friday, we got the news that the Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS) has canceled a contract with Dell for the creation of a personalized learning system. The good news is that Dell is refunding most of the referendum money the district paid, giving back $665,000 of $715,000. The bad news is that much of this could have been avoided.

The decision to pursue the personalized learning system with Dell was not uncontested. It was a case of chasing the shiny new thing without adequately involving teachers, students, families, and other stakeholders. The Saint Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) registered their disagreement before the district adopted the contract, an effort I was part of when I worked at SPFT.

Among other concerns about Dell as a company (including court rulings on fraud and deceptive marketing, a class action lawsuit for discrimination against female employees over 40, lobbying against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, sourcing products from the Foxconn sweatshop in China), I was worried that the district was moving too fast and hadn’t done enough to include relevant stakeholders in the process. For example, the group that picked Dell for the platform project had seven administrators and only one teacher. While nominally for the benefit of teachers, students, and families, the project did not do much to treat these important people as partners or even sources of informed counsel.

The Dell project’s collapse combines two recurring themes from our work here. The first is the technology story: Don’t chase the shiny. Focus on substance with the people who need to use the technology everyday. (By the way, even with 15 new media specialists included as part of the recent bargaining process, SPPS will still be well short of having a full-time licensed media specialist in every school.) Be reasonable in your expectations for speed of adoption. The second theme is to be wary of outsourcing. Building internal capacity is important, and often provides higher quality outputs at lower costs. The district got a decent deal in its refund from Dell, but many outsourced failures aren’t so easily remedied.

In Saint Paul’s case, the technology problem and the outsourcing problem share common roots. These include ignoring important stakeholders and rushing the process. In the future, SPPS and other districts should slow down and be more inclusive in their deliberations, especially for big projects. Unfortunately, I’m not so sure Saint Paul’s current plan to push iPads onto everyone fits that description.

Related story: NEWS DAY | Tools in schools (Mary Turck, June 2014)