Sunday, 6 March 2016

Smartwatch: The Education and Technology Arms Race

Image: "First Watch For Easy Studying" 

I started teaching during the microcomputer revolution of the early 1980s. Before the revolution computers were large, expensive, inflexible, rare and centralised - they needed a room. After the revolution computers were small, cheap, flexible, common and personal - they needed a desk.

The microcomputer revolution gave the education system the personal computer and a paradox - on the one hand we have technology intended to be personal but on the other hand to be used in a setting intended to be shared and controlled - this "monster mash" created the education technology arms race that education has been locked into ever since.

I've experienced the education technology arms race first hand over 35 years from all angles - as an IT manager trying to "defend" educational systems and policies and as teacher and learner trying to use the software, systems and technologies I want.

"Don't press this button" ... as an It manager I'm familiar with the technology arms race - with students a restriction becomes a challenge! If you block or filter something students will find a way around it, if you lock something down students will find a way to unlock it.

Creativity through necessity precipitates learning of course but its debatable how interested the education system is in creativity or learning - its certainly interested in content delivery and testing in a managed learning environment and this type of student creativity detracts from that and increases the education system's arms budget as we have to spend more time and money securing and defending what is essentially personal technology but used for institutional purposes.

The education system appropriated the microcomputer revolution for management and turned personal computers into terminals for managed learning environments - the diversity of the revolution became standardised, monopolised and mundane.

I've watched each successive wave of personal computing be corrupted by the education system. The latest being tablets and the use of tablet management systems to lock down and provision devices for students - in many cases turning tablets into books for  content delivery and consumption.

Education technology is big business - just consider the amount of technology in all its forms that goes into the education system every year - computers, data projectors eBoards, software, network cabling, switches, firewalls, routers, servers, backup systems, UPS systems, licences, support, maintenance, consultancy etc etc etc. Technology is a major cost in education today and its been a nice little earner for the education technology industry.

Each wave of personal computing has provided the education technology industry with opportunities and they have responded to promote whatever is "the next big thing" and package it as "the next big solution" for the education system.

Personal computing has become more personal as it evolved through a continuum of forms from desktops through laptops, pockets (smartphones) and now wearables. Where once students main access to computers was at a college controlled desktop these days nearly every student is packing their own computer and bringing in their own laptop, tablet, smartphone or smartwatch (and any combination of all of these) - computing has become a whole lot more personal.

The personalisation of computing has created a crisis of relevance in education technology. On the one hand the education system is still offering educational IT as terminals to big, expensive, inflexible, complicated, centralised and controlled institutional systems while on the other hand students are using personal consumer technology that is small, cheap, flexible, easy and convenient.

The personalisation of computing has opened a new front in the education technology arms race ..... students are bypassing education controlled systems - students are arming themselves and bringing in and using their own devices, networks and resources.

The technology industry is arming both sides - on the one hand the large corporate suppliers and the others that you can find at the ever expanding BETT show who have been selling technology solutions for education to the education establishment for decades while on the other hand those such as 24kupi who have recently been selling technology solutions for education to students.

Wearable tech like the 24kupi smartwatch are the first ripples of a technology mediated tsunami of problems for the education system as it is today. On the one hand the smartwatch offers an excellent device for easy studying - It has 4 Gigabytes of integrated memory and can store text, pictures, video and audio for easy access on a zoomable display that can be set to scroll. What's more, the watch can record audio and has a wireless earpiece so you can set the watch to play back recorded or uploaded audio. With features like this I would have expected the education system to embrace personal computing like smartphones and smartwatches but this is not the case - far from embracing student personal computing the education system has from the outset sought to block and ban it - from the decade old calls to block Facebook to the current controversy  and calls to ban "cheating" smartwatches - the reason being that students can use them to look up facts and notes on theor writs rather than remember them in exams.

The education system knew that wearables were coming and the usual battle lines were being formed between "education technology evangelists" and "education technology conservatives" about using them in teaching and learning. The difference this time round is that the issue with smartphones is being taken up by students rather than the system - students are entering the education technology debate and rather than being talked about they are talking ... in fact rather than talking they are doing and it is the education system that is having to respond. Student personal computing is shifting the power dynamic in education - while the education system finds this challenging to say the least - I find this exiting.

Of course, the technology development continues and already the "cheating watch" has progressed. The 24upi watch has exam use enhancement so that the watch appears black unless you are using special glasses. As is the case with technology new generations of personal computing are only going to get cheaper, smaller, more powerful and more pervasive - new waves of personal technology are going to flood the education sector - images of Canute can't help coming to mind but rather than attempting to stop the tide smartwtaches show its time to examine the education system and for the education system to accommodate rather than assimilate student personal computing.

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