As students become reliant on mobile technology for their education we have a responsibility as educators to enable them to make informed decisions about their digital life.
Many students and teachers I speak to are unaware of concepts like Digital Rights Management (DRM), cloud storage vs local storage, and cross-platform portability of data. Every day students and teachers are making complex choices about how to organise their digital lives but many are unaware of how these choices may affect them in the long-term.
Questions teachers and students should be asking themselves:
- Which cloud storage service should I use to store my personal photos?
- Should I buy my music from this service or another?
- Where are my files actually being stored?
- Can I get my data out of this service?
- If I move to another operating system can I still use this service?
- Is this an appropriate service in which to store my work?
With more and more schools implementing Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), and the boundary between home and school blurring, these decisions will become essential to how students use IT in education.
Dropbox may be brilliant for storing a teacher's personal photos, but may be entirely inappropriate to store school work. Likewise an MP3 purchased through the iTunes store for personal use is fine, but is that teacher aware that it shouldn't be used in class? An iBook is a great teaching tool, but how many students have devices on which they could access the content?
Many consumers are buying in to digital ecosystems with little thought. In my experience, many tablet purchases are made based on hardware brand rather than availability of services. This means that with iPad, where content purchasing choices are deliberately limited, and communication and cloud storage services are baked into the operating system, consumers are immediately restricted in their options.
But it's not just Apple that is guilty of this. Google, Amazon, Facebook, and many others are all responsible for creating services which act as “walled gardens” to varying degrees. It's our job to teach students and teachers the advantages and disadvantages of these services.
Educate and Trust Students and Teachers
To an extent we're moving some of the decision-making, traditionally controlled by the IT Support department, to the end-user. In world where undesirable parts of an operating system cannot be disabled, and where we are limited in guiding users where to save work, more trust has to be put in students and teachers that they are following processes in a way that meets the school's data protection requirements. Educating them is the only way we can influence this decision-making.
Encourage Open Platforms
We should encourage the use of open platforms, services allow the export of data in a usable format, and cross-platform applications. Conversely we should discourage apps and services which lock in the consumer, particularly when it is done for commercial not technical reasons.
Some may argue that we're just moving from a Microsoft monopoly to an Apple monopoly, so what's the problem?
The difference between Apple and Microsoft's dominance of education is that Microsoft's ecosystem was not end to end. I can purchase software, video, music, teaching resources or use any service I wish on Windows or even create my own. With iPad the user is continually funneled through Apple's ecosystem and choice is deliberately limited for commercial rather than technical reasons.
From media purchases, to backups, to app development, to messaging apps, everything has to be done within Apple's ecosystem, and in the long-term this will only stunt innovation.
Smash the Monopolies and Break the Walled Gardens
We have an opportunity for the first time in twenty years to break out of the Microsoft monopoly and find new and innovative ways to enhance education. Schools should take this opportunity to use more open systems and more cost-effective software and services. We have a duty to educate our students and staff not to get tied into systems that may limit them in the future. If we don't we risk walking from one monopoly into another much more restrictive one.
…we risk walking from one monopoly into another much more restrictive one.
This year a number of manufacturers released the first tablets priced under £100. This month Google will announce a new Nexus 7 tablet priced in the region of £160, and prices will only come down from there. This isn't a cheap iPad clone, but a real fully functional high-end tablet running an open source operating system.
Let's make sure that we're not corralling students into an ecosystem that requires premium priced hardware, and limits choice. Let's enable them to make informed decisions when purchasing mobile technology. Any school implementing a BYOD policy will be greatly affected by the choices students and teachers make.