Monday, 2 May 2011

Mobilizing Technology Access in Schools

I've long been a fan of mobile technology. My first 486 (and colour screen) was an Acer laptop, and I've owned a steady stream of laptops and even one of those LCD word processor only writing machines. The idea of mobile computing has always felt like the future of technology; if computing is ultimately an extension of ourselves and our abilities, then it should obviously not be chained to a desk. A human/machine future of cyborg coolness isn't going to happen if we have to orient ourselves to a desk.

In education, we are still very much in a 20th Century mindset about technology access. Expensive, breakable desktops in shared labs with little over sight and high breakage rates. In a way, we're training students to be office workers by sitting them in these areas modeled on cubical land. In addition, these labs use a lot of electricity (more when most teachers walk out of them without requiring students to turn them off - often over a weekend, or a March break) and generate a significant amount of heat that we deal with by turning up the air conditioning.

Mobile tech offers us a low energy consumption, agile access that can be grafted to specific teachers and departments (giving us that needed oversight of the equipment). Mobile tech tends to be tougher by nature, having been designed for movement and use in multiple environments; it's not nearly as fragile as its desktop alternative.

My future school would leave full desktop labs only where actually needed (CAD design lab, media arts lab, that's pretty much it). The other labs get re-made into general purpose learning spaces and the massive budget that went into creating them goes towards creating department responsible mobile labs and improving poor school network bandwidth. These charge carts are under the eye of specific people and can be lent out within departments as needed. The end result is tougher tech with better oversight.

This isn't all about tablets either. In some instances (research, light text work on the web, media viewing and generation) something like the ipad excels. But as a long form text entry device it does not. These mobile labs would consist of ipad class sets, netbook class sets. At 6 to 1 (ipad) or 7 to 1 (netbook) cost ratios to full desktop systems, this means roughly a three to one ratio (counting in charge carts and wireless printers etc - it's a new infrastructure needed to get away from the holes in the wall and the world of desks).

Coming to think of it, I'd love desks on rollers, completely mobile spaces, that encourage changes in formation and function. If the technology can do it, why not the furniture?

A quick fact sheet to end it:

ipads cost about $250 a piece, 60 ipads (almost 3 class sets?) cost about $34,000 (including charge carts etc).
desktop PCs cost about $1800 a seat. A typical lab of 24 pcs costs about $45,000. We average about $300 a week in repairs to these shared labs.
each one of those desktops uses 15x more electricity than an ipad, and the ipads can charge at off peak times, further lowering electrical overhead and stress on the grid.
because of the lower voltages, heat generation is much less of a problem, so you don't need to air condition over it
at end of life, an ipad results in 600 grams of waste, and Apple goes to great lengths to reduce toxic materials in their products. A typical PC results in 1-3 kilograms of electronic waste (6-10 times as much).