Support for tablets in schools: can we learn from the early days of PCs?

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.
In each case, the pattern is identical to the early days of PCs. So how did this play out? Some examples include:
  • 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.
What is the risk we face now?
 If large numbers of tablets are deployed into schools, and become important to learning, it is no more likely that the support issues will sort themselves out than they did with PCs. Given the similarity of the situation, it seems quite possible that organisations will seek to throw the support and management task over the wall into the domain of the IT department. By this stage the issue is likely to be big enough for IT departments to justify additional staff, just as they did with PCs.
We can already see software for managing large numbers of tablets developing rapidly, so centralised management is starting to become possible. But what choices will an IT department in this situation make?
It is very likely that the same strategy will be adopted as with 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.
Unfortunately, though, the devices, if this happens, are now much less attractive to users. Given the rate of progress in the market, the locked-down, ageing school tablets could start to look very out of date by comparison with user-owned devices. In the meantime, these have become more and more powerful, and cheaper.
In that situation, perhaps what will matter most is a good-quality network for “Bring Your Own Device” use?