Emerging Technology

Unintended Consequences

Futurist Stephen Heppell emphasizes that we must be thoughtful about every detail of our student’s educational environment. He demonstrates this in his presentations by showing pictures of stair risers used to display foreign language phrases. And he describes the use of math to designate room numbers (the square root of 81 instead of room number 9). He believes that student toilets should be adjacent to the classroom for the health of the students. Like organizational theorist, Russ Ackoff, before him, he argues for the design and up-fit of educational facilities to be the result of a whole systems approach and not one of designing and installing isolated “improvements.”

To this end, perhaps we should be careful in adopting technology that might be beneficial to many, but may have an adverse effect on others by excluding them. In other words, we must be mindful of the full spectrum of consequences of what we do. Beth Hayes, ADA Coordinator for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, says that schools are able to do a great deal with student accommodations, even within the constraints of limited resources. But the systems and accommodations must be carefully and thoughtfully planned to avoid unintended consequences.

Take for example the fantastic array of digital signage used for everything from upcoming events to cafeteria menus. If we are fortunate enough to install some of these wonderful devices in our facilities, how will visually impaired students access the information? While the words can be heard at the push of a button, if the signage happens to be so equipped, the graphics and photos are simply not accessible. The case for adaptation to the visually impaired is presented by Dr. Eric Vasiliauskas, a physician and parent of two mainstreamed blind students. “While infants and toddlers are being exposed to iPads and iPhones (this is not an exaggeration; I see this in my office regularly), equivalent exposure for visually impaired children typically begins later, in elementary school and beyond. In fact, at our son’s high school orientation this week, the principal described how his elementary-school-age children, and even his five-year-old, have iPads and use them to access Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org) and Rocket Math (www.rocketmath.net). He gave examples of the way these programs have helped to boost his own young children’s academic performance. How many blind children have this type of access? If we believe in equal expectations, why don’t our students have equal access?”

Gary Slutzky, an architect/educational facility planner in Fayetteville, N.Y., reminds us that in facilities planning there are frequently unintended consequences. His long list includes many interesting examples. For instance, the New York State energy code requires use of occupancy sensors to control lighting and save on energy usage.

Occupants have grown so accustomed to not having to turn out the lights when they leave a room that as a result, lights stay on 10 to 20 minutes longer than if they had been turned off manually. Another issue with light sensors involves a problem “seeing” occupants in restroom stalls or detecting the movement of small children. Where were you when the lights went out?

Another item on his list is value engineering. It is clearly an excellent concept when it is understood and appropriately applied. But it is often misunderstood and misapplied, resulting in products selected on the basis of lower first cost and not value, a condition Gary calls “devalue engineering.”

All unintended consequences are not bad. Floor tile patterns are often used by teachers to direct student traffic. Many school districts find that academic performance improves once an older facility is renovated or replaced. And Clarke County Schools, in Nevada, found several years ago that providing an abundance of daylighting in their new facilities significantly reduced the number of staff and student absences related to illness.

The complexity of our job as educational facilities professionals has increased exponentially in just a few years. The design, construction and operations of school buildings is not a collection of unrelated elements, but a system whose “improvements” must be carefully evaluated based upon the potential consequences, whether intended or not.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Authors

Mike Raible is founder and CEO of The School Solutions Group in Charlotte, N.C., and the author of "Every Child, Every Day: Achieving Zero Dropouts Through Performance-Based Education"

Andrew LaRowe is president of EduCon Educational Consulting located in Winston Salem, N.C.

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