EdTech and a Broken Nest Thermostat

Balancing the benefits of new campus technologies with the demands of institutional resilience.

November 26, 2017

This Thanksgiving weekend our Nest thermostat stopped working. For some reason known only to the Nest, or maybe Google (owner of Nest), our internet connected thermostat suddenly refused to speak with the internet. No matter what I did, the Nest would not find or connect to our home network.

The timing of the technology failure, like most technology failures, was perfect. A full Thanksgiving house during a cool November weekend is not one of those times that you want any part of your home heating system breaking down. Yet, here we are.

The good news is that Google is shipping us a new Nest. More good news is that we can still control the heat, just not adjust the schedule or do anything from the app. So it could have been worse. Still, a good part of my Thanksgiving weekend was spent trying to troubleshoot the Nest and chatting with Nest support. This is not how I planned to spend my holiday.

There is some lesson in my Thanksgiving Nest experience for those of us who work in higher education technology. Given that my salary depends on higher ed technology, I’m not sure that I’m the right person to figure out what this lesson might be.

A smart thermostat is great. The ability to turn up the heat on the way back from a trip, and arrive at a warm house, is wonderful. I like that I can look at the data of my home heating usage. The temperature scheduling function from the app is convenient. The fact that the Nest comes with sensors that can be set to turn down the temperature if nobody is home is great for saving money.

When the Nest is working right, most everything about this smart thermostat is great.

The thing is, sometimes the Nest does not work right. An old fashioned dumb thermostat can’t do most of the things that a Nest can do. But it always works.

To the extent that we inject technology into education we are also introducing some element fragility.

I’ve spent my career working on and evangelizing for online, low-residency, and blended learning programs. I am a strong believer in the power of technology to improve educational quality and access. Every school, even the most traditional of residential institutions, should (I believe) be leveraging technology to improve learning.

However, my Nest experience over Thanksgiving weekend has me wondering if we are adequately tallying the costs - as well as the benefits - of digital learning.

Has the move towards relying on digitally enabled platforms at every level of higher education, from administrative functions to instruction, made our schools more or less resilient?

What are we trading in institutional brittleness to gain the advantages of moving our campuses from analog to digital?

How often do our core enabling campus technologies, the equivalents of edtech thermostats, end up not working?

When was the last time a technology failure at your school made life challenging?

Have you installed smart thermostats in your home?



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