From the Editor’s Desk: Stop the hardware purchasing world. I want to get off!

This past summer I assembled a new computer workstation at home. I designed it to leverage Windows 8’s touch-screen capabilities, so I purchased a good touch-screen monitor. I love the system so much, I decided to put a 2nd monitor on my Christmas wish list for my wife, Dee. My desire for some hardware and appearance symmetry compelled me to search for a source for the same make/model.
And, of course, that make/model of monitor had been discontinued for months. Even the models that ostensibly replaced it have gone.
I’ve also been watching the world of tablets, 2-in-1’s, and ultrabooks. Specs seem to live about 2 weeks, and even school/district suppliers refuse to stay put.
Stop The World!      I’m reminded of a little-known, quirky London West End musical (it did make it to Broadway, but not for long) titled “Stop the World-  I Want To Get Off.” The musical chronicles a lead character whose life is complicated and often painful, but who discovers its true meaning at the moment of death. The title of the musical makes reference to the fact that the lead character will, periodical, freeze the action with “Stop the World!” at which point he turns and addresses the audience directly, editorializing on the events in which he finds himself.
Of course, that’s exactly the sort of thing one might hope blog posting like this might be – a way of just taking a snapshot of the world as it is right now, in hopes of making sense of it in at that moment. But it’s getting increasingly hard to do that.
It’s especially hard for a school looking at technology purchases to provide or approach digital instruction/flipped classroom/1-1 computing. The answer to “What should I buy?” is either met with “This (but hurry, they’re end-of-life next week)” or “Wait, ‘cause the world is about to change.” Neither are particularly satisfying, and both put pressure on (or postpone) a difficult decision-making process.
So what to do?

  • Should I stick with iPads? After all, they’ve been around for a long time. (Only these days would a device exactly 4 years old be considered “…around for a long time!”)
  • What about all those other tablets running Android? Some are REALLY cheap, and, well, they’re all tablets, right?
  • Maybe focus on e-readers like Kindles? After all, the word on the street is that paper-based textbooks’ days are numbered.
  • Lenovo YogaShould I buy Chromebooks? They’re the cheapest computing device with a keyboard out there, and, well, Google is very familiar…I think I like them…maybe…
  • Should I go with laptops? They’ve never been cheaper, and they support a lot of activities.
  • What about these new 2-into-1’s or ultrabooks? They seem to be all things to all people – a tablet with a keyboard and the power of a laptop, and the Windows-based ones even come with Office.

Does your brain hurt yet? Stop the world!
Any crisis of faith, or direction, or any other decision you’ll need to live with for the near future, should (yes, I did say “should!”) cause one to re-examine direction and values. We’re educators, of supporters of educators, so the “direction and values” we’re talking about here are learning goals. What activities will our students be doing, and to what ends? After twenty years in this business, I find that that approach to making hardware-purchasing decisions is still quite rare (which is, of course, why I used the word “should” above). But you need to think about these things. If your students will leverage these devices primarily for app-driven remedials, or of they’ll be mostly reading and writing with them, that should drive your decision.
There are a few things you can count on for the future:

  • All devices will become more and more like each other over time. Even now, almost all will do almost all of what you want them to do.
  • It’s true, books are moving to the digital realm, but there isn’t a device out there that doesn’t run Kindle or other book-accessing application/reader.
  • The “cloud” will become, more and more, the place where software will be delivered (Office already lives there in Office365), security will be managed (also O365), and content will be stored (in OneDrive or SharePoint Online).

The implication is that you probably don’t need to worry about a lot about hardware selection. It is worth noting, though, that “the cloud” we’re using these days is Microsoft’s, so Chromebooks (which are tied to Google Drive) are probably not a great choice. And keyboards are still the primary text-entering interface for older students, so tablets are probably not the best choice for them. But, again, it depends on your learning goals and intended use.
There is one observation which has remained true from the beginning of computer-supported learning: if your teachers don’t know how the devices will be used, or how they’ll support the work that they do, it won’t matter what device you purchase: they’ll collect dust in the corner. Talk to your teachers – they’re the ones who manage learning outcomes, and can speak to what sorts of activities your devices need to support.
But my wife is still looking for a recommendation for a good 23” touch-screen monitor…
Jeffrey L. Jones

p.s. Happy holidays!

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