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The challenge of change

changeDoes your technology need updating? If you’re facing change – or just checking out your options – there’s way more to think about than simply swapping devices and downloading a few new apps, writes David Kinane.

In the not too distant past, ICT and computers in schools were platform based, the two tribes were Mac and Windows, with a smattering of Open Source schools running Ubuntu or Linux just to keep the mix interesting. In those heady dual-platform days, the life of the person responsible for purchasing or updating the equipment in school was comparatively easy. When money had to be spent on hardware upgrades or replacements, the focus for the purchaser was on the improved performance, better features, increased storage capability of the devices suited to their particular school platform.

However, in today’s world of e-learning, MLEs and BYOD the platform distinction is no longer valid. We have now entered the world of ‘ecosystems’. Ubiquitous Wi-Fi in schools and the increased use of mobile computing devices, on the face of it, give great flexibility to the end user. To paraphrase the psychologist Timothy Leary, today all a student has to do is to turn up, sign in and hopefully not drop out of the network!

Flexibility and complexity

The trouble with flexibility is that its obverse is complexity. Many years ago, the keyword in computing and computers was interoperability and, in a sense, in our SNUP-enabled classrooms and fledgling MLEs we do have interoperability, to the extent that all devices have to adhere to a set of specific protocols, 802.11 for example, in order to communicate. However, as the web has morphed away from its free-to-all origins and become ever more controlled by large corporations, we have witnessed the emergence of these distinct ‘ecosystems’ based around a service or access to a set of services offered for users. This is where it now starts to get really complex for the person in charge of e-learning in a school – ironically, more than the original decisions of what technology to adopt in the first place.

Upgrade options

For example, it would be fair to say that the iPad 2 made a huge impact in schools. It had everything that a teacher needed in 16GB: camera, microphone, the internet, ease of use, and access to an ever-expanding universe of cool apps. But fast forward a few years and I would suggest that many of those iPads are now running rapidly towards the performance cliff. They’re coming to the end of useful battery life and, in addition, are in all likelihood continually having to be managed with regard to space, thanks to so many apps, images and videos to use! So, what are the options available for the next upgrade?

The answer largely lies in the e-learning model that each school has individually developed over the last few years, with the added complexity of BYOD to lay over the top. Where a school has decided to implement a single technology solution, say iPads, Chromebooks or HP 360s, as the individual tools that they have invested in and they have also suggested these same devices for their BYOD programme, then the answer is already made, continue with the same.

Yet, clearly, the cost of a new iPad is a lot more expensive than the original iPad 2 that many schools have bought into. The realities of tightened budgets will mean that, for many schools, a simple like-for-like replacement of their existing iPad 2 stock will necessitate in a reduced number of devices in school, because of the price differential.

Consider alternatives

This financial reality alone has led many schools to consider alternatives, like Android devices. And whilst this switch may make a compelling financial argument – and there are now more apps available in the Andoid store – this is where the complexity of content creation and delivery can be a minefield for the unwary. It’s also where a lot of energy and time has been invested by those schools who have opted to run for a more generic BYOD option: how to ensure that all students and teachers using a range of devices, platforms and ecosystems can effectively collaborate and share data.

Services such as Google Docs and Office365 can offer a great platform for teachers and students to work on. However, prior to either introducing a new platform to a school or offering a broader set of BYOD options, it’s important to test if the functionality that is required can actually be delivered by all devices. This applies for all the apps and services that the existing BYOD/e-learning infrastructure of an individual school has been built upon. It is the exceptions, in all cases, that cause the most headaches and it is these that should be sought out prior to making a switch between device brand or ecosystem. The devil, as they say, is in the detail.

Make an audit

Prior to making any kind of upgrade or switch, I would strongly suggest that an audit be made of the ‘must-have tools’ that all teachers will have in their e-learning armoury. It’s these tools that they rely on and, trust me, they will howl the loudest about if they do not work on the new platform, post switch.

It is important to know whether the same app or service works on the alternate device, or whether there’s an equivalent that delivers a similar functionality in the other ecosystem.

So, for those of you who may be contemplating swapping devices, making an ecosystem switch, upgrading technology – maybe moving from interactive whiteboards to large touchscreens – or are developing a more generic BYOD strategy, the focus for you is still around performance, features and storage. But this focus should not stop at not the device. You must consider whether your decisions will impact on the performance of the teachers and students, whether the features they want can be delivered on your choice of ecosystem, and whether they can share and collaborate effectively in the manner they have become used to.  

David Kinane is a specialist ICT education consultant and writes for INTERFACE Magazine.

Check out our website for more advice on change: ‘Going through a visioning process’, by ACTIVboard’s Murray Thoms, and ‘There is no one-size-fits-all’, by Cyclone’s Leigh Gibbard.

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