German noun: an attempted improvement that results in making things worse


Very few – if any – technology developers are actively setting-out to cause harm or extenuate problems in society. Yet, the fact remains that the design, development and implementation of new technologies often seems to complicate and constrain people’s ability to do things. Moreover, even the neatest technological ‘solution’ can bump up against already established ways of doing things in ways that can often be unhelpful and unproductive. To be blunt, the implementation of new technology often seems to make things worse rather than better.

This is reflected in the growing popularity of the German word ‘Verschlimmbesserung’ in English language accounts of technology. In broad terms, verschlimmbesserung can be defined as an attempted improvement that results in making things worse. This is a compound word that brings together the verb verschlimmern (‘to worsen)’ and the verb verbessern (‘to improve’) to describe a sense of ‘dis-improvement’. In these sense, verschlimmbesserung has become an increasingly popular work for non-German speakers to apply to their everyday experiences as technology consumers. Indeed, the term has entered English-speaking lexicon during the 2010s (following in the wake of other crossover words such as ‘schadenfreude’), driven in part by online discussions of unwelcome software updates and hardware upgrades by the likes of Apple, Google and various popular games and platform developers.

It is worthwhile, therefore, to reflect on instances of verschlimmbesserung that relate to technology and education, and why this might have occurred. For example, our own research has found the introduction of centralised online reporting systems in school to result in teachers feeling the need to enter the same data in two or three different forms – keeping their own records on paper and/or a personal spreadsheet that they know they can access, and then entering an additional ‘official’ version of the data into the new official system. Elsewhere, the recent uptake of online exam proctoring software by universities keen to continue assessing students during lockdown periods has prompted a flood of complaints over the problems, inconveniences and harms that these systems cause for students forced to take online examinations at home.

These are technology ‘improvements’ that might make sense from the point of view of a technology designer or education manager with little actual experience of teaching in a classroom or being a student. However, from the point of view of the actual ‘end user’ then these technical impositions might not fit at all smoothly into the realities of their own technological routines and set-ups and/or the social contexts that they are using these technologies within. In this sense, a new technology might make the work of an educational administrator or manager easier, but might also result in a heap of additional time, stress and ‘work arounds’ for others.