Thursday, 21 April 2011

Backwards edtech

At PD this week we were working with arts teachers, many of whom were technically disinterested if not outright techno-phobic. Watching them work with our frustratingly slow network while trying to show them basic Google tools only amplified their distrust. One asked me, "why would I wait around to see if this works? Why not just TALK to the students?"

EDTECH TRUTH: poor network delivery weakens all aspects of online educational support.
  • It's frustrating to see all of that good stuff, stuff I can use fluently and easily at home, grind to a stop while on the board internet.
  • It makes teaching others how to use it almost impossible
  • It makes doing elearning at school agonizing (for teachers and students)
  • It makes edtech seem like a giant time-sink, when it's supposed to be an efficiency booster.
  • It calls into question the competency of the people trying to show the material in the minds of new tech learners (when it won't load, it looks like we don't know what we're doing)
The problem is that we still think IT delivery in education revolves around access to machines (still mainly focused on desktop computers). The vast majority of students have their own technology to access the internet. Cheap smart phones, netbooks and tablets have de-centralized online access, but we still spend all our time and money on maintaining easily (and often) vandalized desktop labs. These time and energy sinks should be kicked to the curb.

When I think about the labs in my school, I think only the CAD/design and media arts labs needs full desktops (they need the CPU horsepower and big screens). Every other lab would work better as a mobile netbook lab or mobile tablet lab. The cost of a desktop lab of 24 machines? About $45,000. The cost of a mobile lab of 30 ipads? About $18,000 (and that includes a teacher macbook, charging cart, the works! Isn't that cool?), a better than 2 to 1 price advantage. Imagine swapping out all of your labs at a 2 to 1 ratio and replacing them with ipads, or netbooks (which are actually cheaper - under $10,000 for a 30 laptop lab). I won't even get into the energy savings (mobile devices use way less electricity, create less heat and lower A/C costs too).

Edtech is staggering in this direction, years behind where business is. In 2002-3 when I was working as an IT technician, my offices were all being converted to laptops. Those same offices are now a mix of smart phones, tablets and laptops, depending on what the employee needs access for. I think the servers are the only thing left that look desktoppy. The office runs multiple overlapping wireless networks that automatically switch traffic depending on load through two IPs. They also shape traffic based on values; you can access facebook and youtube, but those packets are deprioritized over machine to machine and other internet packets (I've asked our board to do this and they say they can't). They've had no downtime in two years thanks to built in redundancy; no single points of failure.

After becoming a teacher I was flabberghasted to see the labs still modeled on 80's tech, and they're still here. My first year teaching I told our librarian about wifi, he'd never heard of it before. He was excited about trying it out because so many students were bringing their laptops in and couldn't access the internet. The computer club I founded got a wireless router and plugged it in behind a book case. For less than a hundred bucks dozens of students were able to get online. Some careful setup allowed them only onto the internet and not the board network. It took board IT a year to notice it and demand that it be removed, though not a single problem had occurred while it was running for that year, and the library became the place to go to get your research done; obviously not what should be happening in a library.

Here I am, seven years later. Wifi is now available school wide, but it typically takes 10 seconds to load a single page and has the most asinine security I've ever seen (open network with a pointless login that makes mobile devices go crazy). Our board has spent big money to create a fibre optic school to board office network, with a single internet connection to feed all schools through the board, and now it's overloaded.

I wonder when they'll catch up to my office from 2003.