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 Volume 1 Issue 2

* Highly favoured technical term describing poor software design

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Cisco Live

Fronting up to Cisco Live was like a little like attending a huge rock concert, only imagine for a moment that the concert is being attended by 4000 proud pocket protector carrying geeks!  To be honest the opening was a little like a concert with lots of bright lights and movement, but this conference is aimed squarely at the network engineers, programmers and other IT professionals that keep the Internet running, with lots of new and interesting technology on show from more than 70 different exhibitors.

In his opening keynote, Wim Elfrink (Cisco Chief Globalisation Officer) presented Cisco’s vision called the Internet of Everything (IoE).  Basically the IoE is a new wave of Internet connectedness coming in the next 10 years that presents an opportunity for cost savings, increased productivity, new revenues and enhanced citizen experiences, especially in the public sector.
Consider the following predictions:
  • 9 billion people on planet Earth by 2050. 
  • 50 billion connected devices by 2020
  • This week there will be 30 million more new devices connected to the Internet.
  • Every two days the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. That’s something like five exabytes of data (That’s 5 x 1018 bytes, or one billion gigabytes).  Let me repeat that: we create as much information in two days now as we did from the dawn of man through to 2003 

These predictions have huge implications for the environment, feeding the population and providing health and education services.  In order for us all to access these services, we are going to have to leverage the internet and offer these services in a virtual environment.

Take for example the issue of energy.  Consider that 70% of our energy is used in our cities, and 70% of that energy is used in buildings.  We can dramatically lower operating costs by creating smart buildings to reduce energy consumption whilst making them more appealing places to be. 

Other applications and trends noted included:
It costs Rio Tinto $1million a year to pay a mining truck driver.  These trucks are now becoming computer controlled with GPS and achieving massive savings
Origin Energy are installing 10,000 networked cameras, one to monitor each gas well head to save a human having to spend weeks in remote locations physically checking on the well heads.
Westpac are seeing 50 times more logins than branch walk-ins, and more than half of those logins are on mobile devices like smart phones.
The network connected camera is also becoming the world’s most powerful sensor with smart computer programs that can collect data from moving images and enable city agencies to make decisions in real time on how to provide services that deliver a better experience for citizens.  Councils are now able to manipulate access to public transport to incentivise patrons to leave the car at home for large public events, hence improving traffic, parking and air quality, whilst maintaining budgeted revenue.

Chief Technology Officer for Cisco Australia Kevin Bloch also gave a great presentation on how the role of IT professionals is changing from the one who “buys” the computers to the one who advises the business on the next technology available to improve the business.  He talked about how the IT person can act as a service broker to the business and advise on the suitability of new technology offerings.  He also spoke about the value that IT professionals can add in terms of security to ensure the business is protected from external attack.  The workplace is also a key area that is changing and the examples of how CommBank and Lend Lease have completely changed the workplace into an open space that encourages collaboration and social interaction between employees as well as a way of retaining Gen Y employees.  For Kevin, the IoE is about connecting people, processes, things and data in order to produce a better outcome.  Did you know that GE now collects 1 terrabyte of aircraft performance data from an average flight from Sydney to Melbourne.  This data can then be analysed to achieve better efficiencies and lower costs for the airline.  In Finland, sensors in garbage cans send signal when pickup is needed, which has led to a 40% savings in waste collection.

City Councils are already implementing some of the following programs:
  • Gas monitoring reduces meter-reading costs and increases the accuracy of readings for citizens and municipal utility agencies.
  • Smart parking provides real-time visibility into the availability of parking spaces across a city. Residents can identify and reserve the closest available space, traffic wardens can identify non-compliant usage, and municipalities can introduce demand-based pricing.
  • Water management connects the household water meter over an IP network to provide remote information on use and status.
  • Road pricing implements automatic payments as vehicles enter busy zones of cities, improving traffic conditions and raising revenues.

 Measures like these have an estimated global value of $4.6 trillion over the next 10 years.

So I guess the really big question is, what does all this mean for Education? Or more to the point, what part can technology play to ensure our students achieve their goals and attain the best possible result in their HSC.  
If the saying “Iron sharpens Iron” is true, how could technology be used to foster greater collaborative behaviour amongst students?
Most schools already perform significant analysis of student performance to produce an HSC results “guide”.  Is it possible to take this one step further and collect data on daily student activities so as to develop an early warning system when a student needs to change their study patterns?
The students each have individual access to a personal computer and most have access to an internet capable handheld device like an iPhone.  How can we leverage these resources to create greater value for our students?
Something to think about and I’d really value your feedback on what IT could be doing to contribute to the success and well-being of our students.

Best Regards