iPad only one technology, schools fall for good marketing

Tablet PC Episode XXIV
(Photo by Jim Henderson)
I recall MAD Magazine making fun of the endless Rocky sequels during the 1980s, Rocky fighting in his late 90s, Rocky XXIV screening in 2015, that sort of thing. We ended up with Rocky VI in 2006 but you get the idea.

Yet Apple seems to be challenging Rocky as the never-ending-sequel par excellence. It appears that no sooner is a new iPad released, that yet another new iPad is being released. How can we possibly keep up with all of these changes in a corporate environment?

Put simply, we can't, and we shouldn't.

BYO technology is the answer, where people use their own devices. But this means that corporate systems need to be revamped to cope with increased-capacity wireless services, faster corporate backbones with less software bottlenecks, and increased range of devices.

The savings for organisations are obvious: less expensive hardware, no need for corporate SOE "upgrades", no need for telephones, large screen projectors, lecture theatres and so on. Deakin University (my alma mater) is making this happen right now.

Interest in BYO technologies is growing fast, and this year at the University of Canberra we have been trialling  the use of BYO computer labs in my first-year undergrad unit. Following an upgrade to the network backbone over the last 12 months, things are all going swimmingly.

Ever since returning from Jordan, where I relied on Google translate to have half a clue what was going on around me in Arabic, I have taught all of my classes in computer labs. This has given my students immediate access to information. 

Don't understand something in English? Use Google translate, understand the word, now let's discover the concept. Don't know which war I am talking about when I say the post-war golden age? Look it up on the Net then straight back into the tutorial discussion.

Remember the "no looking at draft essays" policy? All gone - simply look at it online in the classroom. Until you have taught a non-tech uni subject with several hundred students in a tech environment, you haven't lived.

So when I hear about schools investing in one particular device, I shake my head in disbelief. But it is much easier when you can supplement your investment with government funding: West Moreton Anglican College recently purchased 640 iPads for year 7-12 students at a cost of $480,000 using government funding.

Governments can't pick winners, so what makes schools any different?

Good marketing, it seems. Apple, through its devoted evangelistic followers, even has a uni domain name: auc.edu.au

In the 1990s, while working as an accountant, the number of clients who purchased an Apple computer to do their own book-keeping would say to me: "The kids use Apple at school, so they must be easy to use". Even today I can't use simple things like flash video on my iPad, so you can imagine how upset my clients were when their work was not compatible with our Microsoft systems.

The short-term investment in iPads is not new -the University of Adelaide did this nearly two years ago. But this isn't anywhere near BYO technology.

For me, BYO technology is all about access to the Internet and the local network at super-fast speeds. Here at the University of Canberra we have been blessed with an IT team that is second to none and my trials are working out just fine.

But what bothers me is that the Digital Education Revolution is falling victim to some very good marketing from the key device manufacturers. I have argued elsewhere that Australian policy-makers focus too much on the device and not enough on the capability:
The Digital Education Revolution (DER) aims to contribute sustainable and meaningful change to teaching and learning in Australian schools that will prepare students for further education, training and to live and work in a digital world. 
If the DER is to move to sustainability, then buying a bunch of iPads for students is a clear waste of taxpayers money. I just hope that management at West Moreton Anglican College were savvy enough to purchase the iPad three so students enjoy the prime time of their new devices.

But in the meantime, there are the institutional arrangements, and, more importantly in an educational environment, the equity issues. Instead of buying a handful of iPads, why isn't the DER providing cheap loans to students to purchase their own devices? 

The "digital world" our students will inhabit will be a BYO technology world - taking away students' ability to choose for themselves is a bureaucrat's dream of the most "efficient and effective"single solution. The approach is misguided: there are multiple solutions and we all use modern communications technologies differently. 

If the digital education revolution is to be truly revolutionary, then we need to get away from good marketing and go back to basics: user choice. BYO technology will enable the DER, but bureaucrats need to stop looking at the marketing and start talking to the people who are actually in the trenches of the digital revolution.