Schools are getting quite excited about how the latest computers might help improve education. But could this excitement blind us to lessons from the past?
The devices have suddenly become much more intuitive and fun to use, which is attracting people who have never used them before. They’re getting cheaper, so schools can afford to buy them from their own budgets, without relying on corporate IT funding. They offer new forms of interaction which are much more intuitive than those we’ve had up till now. Their displays, too, are much more attractive and capable of showing us the world in new, more engaging, ways. We don’t need technicians to make them do what we want; adding new functionality is something almost anyone can do.
The scenario I’m describing, though it describes what’s happening now with tablet computers, is from about 20 years ago. It describes what happened when the first personal computers, with their text-based monochrome displays, gave way to the first Windows PCs. Their intuitive new interface used windows, icons, menus and pointers to reach new levels of usability; today tablets offer touch user interfaces and haptic feedback.
But tablets are completely new, innovative technology; how can experience from 20 years ago be relevant?
The reason it’s relevant is that the same patterns of organisational behaviour are emerging. And if we notice that, we can identify a significant risk and start to think about how we might manage it.
What are these patterns? Here are some examples:
- The user enthusiasm is partly driven by the ability to customise the device, just as with early versions of Windows which permitted end-users to install programs. (PCs at this stage were generative devices.)
- There is a sense of tension developing between end-users and IT departments. Hard-pressed IT departments don’t have the resources to start managing thousands of devices that were built for consumer use. Yet they worry they’ll be held to account for the licensing of the software installed on them, and know that end-users don’t read licence terms. Similarly, they worry that once the devices start to age and need repairs and software upgrades, they’ll be expected to get involved – but can’t see any likelihood of having the resources to do so.
- The staff deploying the devices are responding to end-user demand and simply hoping that the long term support issues will sort themselves out. End-user departments don’t have the desire, technical skills, or resources to get involved.
- Organisations had to engage more staff to support PCs, and costs started to rise.
- The PCs became essential, and organisations became less tolerant of failures.
- The job of managing them was given to IT departments, who asserted control of purchases.
- IT departments bought PCs in bulk, leading to avoidance of premium consumer models.
- Software vendors responded to that change by marketing to IT departments, adding more and more refined lock-down capabilities to make their lives easier.
- IT departments learned that they could minimise support costs by locking down the PCs to the maximum extent. IT departments used software licensing and software conflict risks to justify preventing users installing software.
- Over time, remote management systems were developed which enabled central management of thousands of PCs; but these took a long time to mature and required highly skilled IT staff to manage.
- Eventually, end-users became frustrated and bored by their locked-down PCs.
- User installation of apps is likely to be prevented for support and licensing reasons.
- A standard build will be preferred to simplify licensing and enable swap-out support.
- Updates of operating system software will be centrally managed, and will often lag behind current versions.
- The devices will be used for as long as economically practicable before refresh.