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Tech and the Teacher Time Economy

In my post about overcoming edtech inertia, I focused a lot on the opportunity cost of the adoption of any new system. When I choose whether or not to adopt a new system, I always consider it explicitly in terms of the Teacher Time Economy (TTE).

As teachers, our scarcest resource is time. And it is finite – as tempting as it might be, borrowing time from our personal lives to do schoolwork is not a healthy habit. We need time to mark, learn specifications, plan, develop effective strategies, create resources and manage administrative burdens – and balancing that workload is one of the greatest challenges of teaching. The ‘economy’ for teachers is based on time, not money, but the principles of sound financial planning still apply when it comes to investing in new systems. If you are going to invest money in a financial instrument, you need to be confident that the return on your investment is going to offset not only your initial investment and provide a return, but also compensate you for greater risk and opportunity cost (other things the investment capital could have been used for). Time investment for teachers can be thought of exactly the same way.

If I spend two hours developing a new assessment feedback system, that is equivalent to one set of year 10 books that will not be marked, or a week’s worth of old or half-assed lessons for one cohort. I may decide that the benefits of the new assessment feedback system will have such a positive effect on learner outcomes that it is worth the opportunity cost, and if so, will probably try to distribute that cost so that no single group of students soaks up the brunt of it. Here is the rule I use when I am deciding how to apportion my time as a teacher. If it doesn’t follow the rule, I will do it only under protest.

Time investment in any activity (but especially systems) must yield either:

  • A positive return for students that is commensurate with the amount of time you have invested (whizzy powerpoint nerds, I’m looking at you!) OR

  • A neutral net impact on students in exchange for an increase in teacher efficiency or productivity – again, commensurate with the amount of time you have invested.

You have to decide the definition of ‘commensurate’ before you evaluate an activity using this rule – what is your time worth?

After you consider time investment and opportunity cost, you need to consider risk. Implementing any new system, just like investing in a financial instrument, has risks associated with it. It may be impractical, too disruptive, unhelpful or even damaging to student outcomes. It may just never take off or it may rely on colleagues also adopting the new system in order to be effective (see my post on improving adoption of new tech). Eventually, you may even grow out of what was initially a useful system. For example, when I first started teaching, at the beginning of each term I would invest a few hours creating a sortable table of all of my lessons for the term to help me plan long term units and outcomes. As a new teacher, being able to walk cold into any lesson and know exactly what learning objective needed to be achieved helped me to learn to teach more spontaneously and reduced my reliance on the time suck of detailed lesson plans. Now that I’ve been doing it for a while, the initial time investment of planning this way no longer has the same payoff because I’ve built up a repository of resources over the years to allow me to achieve a similar result without fussing with excel. So, I’ve gradually stopped using it and other long term planning tools have taken its place.

When you decide whether or not to adopt a system, you need to be realistic about what kind of return on your time investment will make it worthwhile. What are the risks associated with the new system? What measures could you put in place to mitigate this risk?

Once you have established this risk/time investment profile, you can make a decision about whether or not to adopt a system. A system that could potentially deliver a very large boost in efficiency or student outcomes might be worth a larger investment of time, even if it is has a high risk profile. Similarly, if the initial investment or disruption is small, it may make even a very risky project look more attractive.

So when you ask yourself ‘Is this activity worth my time?’, make sure you weigh it up properly and don’t let idealism or competition with colleagues get in the way of your productivity.

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