Monday, November 10, 2014

5 Drivers to Enable Technology in Education

As one who has spent pretty much his whole life working with computers and electronics, I am continually amazed at how computer technology design continues to evolve in the present day.  In fact it seems the speed of innovation and improvement is also on an exponential upward curve.  Just as data growth continues to follow Moore's Law, so to it seems the level of sophistication of devices and programs is expanding before our eyes.

My first computer, purchased in 1987 was the infamous IBM XT PC with the 8086 architecture. It had 20MB of hard disk space, 16kB of memory and ran at a dizzying clock speed of 4.077MHz.  And this computer, purchased off the shelf, had more than double the computing power of the Apollo Guidance Computer that put man on the moon and brought him safely back to Earth just 10 years earlier. What's interesting is that I purchased this computer as the primary tool for me to carry out much of my early university studies.

It is easy to marvel at the advancements in hardware design, because it's easy to quantify the changes.  One comparison is the Apple eMac compared to today's iPhone.  The eMac weighed in at about 15kg, had 30GB of storage, 128MB RAM and a 500MHz CPU.  Today's iPhone weighs 137g, has more than double the computing power and costs about 1/3 of what the eMac did (and that's not adjusted for inflation).  Amazing!

I also remember when the first "Smartphones" came out like the Blackberry's and O2's and Palm Pilots.  Yes they were amazing in what they could do, but we all wondered when the time would come when everything you needed could be accessed from the one device and then came the iPhone.  This I believe is where the real advances are coming; in software design.  The ability for non-technical people to develop their own web sites and apps is getting easier by the day; this is where the real innovation is taking place.  This revolution is being driven by 5 major drivers and these drivers are having profound effects in education.

1.) Simplicity of integration
More than any other profession, education relies on simple methods to communicate and share new ideas.  Part of this simplicity relies on integration between services.  At this point in time we are still reliant on usernames and passwords.  That too will pass, but be it a username and password or facial recognition, it is fairly easy now to create one identity that can access all your stuff.  That’s integration.  No one wants to remember (or has the ability) to remember 100 or more passwords, and much less keep it secure.  With the integration of services, all one has to remember is one unique and secure username and password combination.  Combine that with two factor authentication and some of the other measures that cloud providers are incorporating and it’s getting a lot simpler to access all your stuff through a “Single Sign On”

2.) Mobility
There has been alot written about "Mobility", and in the Corporate world, the value of mobility is perhaps better boiled down to the ability to reach the CEO anytime anywhere, or more to the point, the CEO can reach you anywhere anytime!  But in education it is far more important than that.  It's about having a device that is virtually bullet proof, that can take the rough and tumble of the school yard, day in day out and that applies equally to teachers and students.  Long before corporate land took on "hot-desking" and open plan workspaces, teachers and students were literally moving their workspace between 6 - 10 times every day.  This movement often involved traversing an ocean of humanity in crowded corridors from one heritage listed building to the next all within a 5 minute timeout.  there were challenges in terms of accessing resources, not just what you needed for the next class, but throw a laptop into the mix and power, connectivity and sheer weight become that demand answers and frankly, it's been a long time coming.  Finally we are beginning to see devices that DONT require huge biceps to lug from class to class, the DO have the battery capacity to last all day and that are built to handle thousands upon thousands on mechanical operations.  Once known as The Golden Triangle, we were told you could only have two out three.  You can’t have long battery life, a lightweight machine that is robust.  Well now you can and this is enabling a massive take up rate in the use of technology in the classroom.

3.) Intuitive user interfaces
If a program is not getting the sort of take up you had hoped for, often the first cry from those who are meant to use it is "But we haven't been trained!”  In corporate land you find the best way to do something and often this involves attending training either externally or from someone internally who has done it all before.  But in schools this often isn’t possible.  Teachers are extremely protective of the resources they have developed themselves usually because it took them a huge amount of their own personal time to develop.  Isn’t it funny how the plumber always has a leaking tap at home? Well for teachers, they are so busy teaching they don’t have time to learn something new, unless they are given dedicated time off within school hours to attend formal professional development which rarely ever happens.  The one exception to all this is really well written intuitive software that does a one thing really well and doesn’t try to do too much.  The plethora of apps appearing on the educational market today, particularly in the Learning Management side of things is astonishing, and the ones being adopted all have one thing in common.  A teacher or a student can start the application and start using it within 5 mins of opening it.  It should be that easy to use.  No PD and no training required.

4.) Access your stuff anywhere
Be it EverNote, Office 365, Google Drive, iCloud, DropBox they all have their place in education.  Take your pick, but knowing that your files really are accessible anywhere, anytime on virtually any device provides a level of flexibility that we only ever dreamed about.  Of course this makes a reliable fast ubiquitous wireless network critical, but this too is gradually becoming the norm for educational institutions.  More importantly for education, these applications enable a level of real collaboration in real time and it really works all from your browser of choice.  Setting up research groups, having multiple authors for articles, surveys, online forms are all easy to use and readily available on most cloud productivity suites.

5.) The removal of the impediment of backup and storage limits
I still look back and think about the many near misses we had when it came to storing and backing up data.  I honestly don’t know how we got by with just our own in house storage.  Well, I do know how; the IT department had a bunch a rules about what you could and couldn’t store in your personal home drive, and if you filled up your allotted space, it was just too bad, time for a cull.  Today with a little bit of forethought, storage limits for most cloud services are at a point where you would have to be cutting some pretty massive video files every week to run out of space.  And the idea of backing up is atleast a little less stressful.  Yes we still need to make our own personal backups to external drives, but knowing your data that resides in the cloud is backed up by the cloud provider certainly provides a level of comfort never seen before.

Education has been slow to respond to technological change.  Why is that?
Oh yes we have heard the cries of teachers are time poor, teachers don’t get the training they need, etc. etc., teachers aren’t paid enough, there is not enough money to make this work.  The medical industry is the same and they probably cry the same foul.  But these aren’t the why's they are the symptoms of something far greater

In actual fact what these two industries have in common is a core focus on the wellbeing and development of people.  In the corporate world, it's OK to spend time persisting with a solution that is a little cumbersome, or a little clunky*.  The worst that can happen is you lose some money and maybe go bankrupt.  So what happens? You move on and start up another business hopefully having gained a little wisdom along the way.

But in education and medicine, it is so much more critical than that.  The success of your methods impacts on the very lives of your customers.  In medicine, you get it wrong and someone could die, in education you get it wrong and a student’s life path could be forever altered.  That's why it has to work and it has to be simple and efficient.  In education you often only get one chance to get it right.

So yes education has been slow to take up technology, but when technology and education come together, the results can be outstanding.

This article was first written for http://www.facultymagazine.com.au/ Volume 1 Issue 2

* Highly favoured technical term describing poor software design