Wicked Problems

“Why does the wifi go down every day?”

I was caught off-guard. The wifi doesn’t go down every day. The wifi doesn’t really ever go down. Occasionally, we’ll have a problem with an access point, but one of the other ones just picks up the slack automatically until the problem is fixed.

I checked the logs. The wifi is fine.

“It must be the Internet, then. Why does the Internet go down all the time?”

Our Internet connection has gone down three times this year. On the first day of school, our ISP experienced a DDOS attack and we were down for a while. A couple weeks ago, our cloud-based web filter had a server outage, and it affected our students’ ability to get online. Then, this week, a fiber cut caused one of our ISP’s upstream providers to lose connectivity, affecting our connection for about an hour.

Image source: Not sure

Admittedly, that’s not great reliability. On 5% of school days this year, we’ve experienced some sort of disruption that has resulted in Internet connectivity problems. But it’s certainly not “all the time.”

“When are the students getting new devices? These iPads are too old and slow.”

What’s really going on? I think we’re skipping some steps here. I short-circuited the communication chain (which is apparently teacher to union rep to school board member to superintendent to public relations director to me) and went to see the teacher.

She’s frustrated. Students do often have trouble getting online in her class. She says other teachers are seeing the same problems. I looked at some basic stuff. Wifi in her room is great. There aren’t too many devices connected. The network backbone isn’t anywhere near capacity. Internet access looks great. Those aren’t the real problems, and continuing to focus on them isn’t going to get us anywhere.

This is the point at which we have to gather more data. Does the problem only occur with student devices? Is it only happening in some classrooms? Does the time of day matter? Does the problem exist both in school and at home? Is it related to a specific web site or app? What are the things that make it worse? What are the things that make it better? When you have a problem, how do you work around it?

I’m trying to put together a tool for collecting more information about this problem without overwhelming teachers, and without letting them jump to conclusions about what is wrong. When I answer the questions they ask — why is wifi down? — the answer doesn’t help, because wifi isn’t actually the problem. So I have to ask very specific questions that will help us find patterns. Once we find the patterns, we can investigate the sources of the frustration and work to alleviate them.

Dave (who has a habit of crawling into my head and staying there) calls this a “wicked problem.” Wicked problems are problems that you work on rather than problems that you solve. “I can’t print.” That’s a problem we can solve. Reinstall the print driver. Make sure the printer is online and configured correctly. Now you can print. Problem solved. Move on with your life.

Compare that to “the Internet is slow.” That’s a problem we work on. We look at different variables in this complex challenge and try to alleviate the frustration. It’s not a problem that ever gets solved. It’s just a problem that we work on to try to improve.

Most of our problems are like that. At least, most of the problems we spend time worrying about are like that. Student engagement is a wicked problem. Social/emotional care and support is a wicked problem. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is a wicked problem. We work hard to identify ways to improve all of these things, but we never really check them off the list as “fixed.”

This is where it’s important to set goals and focus priorities. There are too many wicked problems for us to work on all of them all of the time. This year, my work goals are to improve the web site, address long term network infrastructure needs, and develop a plan for classroom technology equity in our classrooms. Those are the most important things this year. I’ll focus on improving them, knowing that they’re never really going to be solved. Then, we’ll re-evaluate the priorities for next year’s wicked problems and work on them.