Run What Ya Brung

Go to any technology-in-education conference these days and you will eventually hear someone make the following claim:

In the future, we will teach using the mobile phones the kids bring to school with them.

The idea seems like a good one at face value. Here's how it goes: Schools have invested heavily in ICT and they're still miles behind the state of the art. Kids always have the latest stuff and we can't stop them bringing it to school. Let's use their mobiles as classroom ICT equipment!

It sounds great, right? It hits so many spots:

  • Kids love their mobile phones, so they'll love whatever we teach with them!
  • We are facing tighter financial times, so it'll save us tons of money!
  • We can't be blocked by the IT guy!

Unfortunately, this is technodeterminist fantasy-land. This idea is both wrong in principle and unworkable in practice and it needs to be opposed.

I say this as someone who, at some point each week, fulfils the role of IT director, policy writer, classroom teacher, software developer, systems administrator and front-line tech support.

Here's why the "run what ya brung" movement is dangerously wrong: it purports to save money while hiding massive costs elsewhere. It also relies on a number of assumptions that are difficult or impossible to justify, except by framing the argument in an indefinite "future" time-frame.

It assumes that every pupil has a mobile phone.

This is probably the least-worst of all the embedded assumptions. Most pupils will have a mobile phone. It's interesting to me, though, to receive criticism of my iPad deployment as "widening the digital divide" while hearing other people say, in effect, "let's base our lessons on some huge assumptions about the economic status of our pupils' parents".

It assumes that every pupil's mobile phone has a certain baseline capability.

It's easy for someone not familiar with technology to wave a hand and say "even the worst mobile phone can do XYZ". When it comes to actually delivering a lesson using those mobile phones, I hope you're not assuming too much.

How do you deliver one lesson that is equally as good on a three year old BlackBerry as it is on the latest iPhone 4? What about the kid with the Sony Ericsson W910i? What about the kid who dropped his phone and two buttons don't work? What about the kid without a data plan? What about the kid with the GPRS-only phone? What about the kid with the HTC EVO 4G whose battery can't last a day on standby, far less a morning of continuous use?

Even if this were tractable, which it isn't, who's happy teaching to the lowest common denominator? Who's happy that this is being advocated as the cutting edge of educational technology?

It assumes that every pupil's phone has internet access.

I would be willing to bet that there are pupils with web-capable phones whose parents aren't paying for anything more than a voice contract. I guarantee you there are pupils who don't have web-capable phones at all.

Only a small proportion of all phones have Wi-Fi. Even if you manage to get a class where everyone has a Wi-Fi capable phone, do you think your sysadmin is going to let them connect to the same network where your school MIS lives? I doubt it.

It assumes that pupils will be happy to have their mobiles used in this way.

Are you happy to hand your iPhone over to a stranger? I know that I'm certainly not. If you're 15, there's probably some quite compromising material on those devices. Some flirty texts? A little sexting? Drunken photos? Web history? Your Twitter and Facebook apps with stored passwords, such that anyone getting your mobile can access your account?

If the Run What Ya Brung movement ever gets off the ground, I'm pretty sure you'll start to see kids adopting "burner" phones, Stringer Bell-style, just to use in class.

It betrays a lack of confidence in technology

Many people are now recognising that many schools spent incoherently and in many cases overspent during the Labour bubble years. I suspect many educational technologists might be a little afraid to go back to their funding sources and ask for another chance in the current climate.

There has been a scatter-gun approach to technology in schools. Many schools have bits and pieces of tech lying around without a consistent idea of how to apply them to education. There are Nintendo DSes, Wiis, Xboxes, Windows PCs, laptops, iPaqs, Alphasmarts, interactive whiteboards and classroom voting systems. Each corresponds to an era of technological fashion in education and, crucially, none has produced lasting change in our education system.

It assumes that teachers will be aware of the differences between devices and able and willing to plan around or overcome them.

This, for me, is the stumbling block that kills the entire idea stone dead as a practical approach to learning and teaching.

The dark underside of Run What Ya Brung is that it tries to bury the cost of ICT in the cost of general staff time and effort.

The source is offline now but developer Bob Ippolito once wrote:

"If you put enough "almost works" things together in a particular way then you end up with something that approaches "works" as effort goes towards infinity."

Software developers and sysadmins know this. They have the scars to show for it. Many teachers and educational technologists, I can only assume, have never managed a heterogeneous hardware environment.

I assume this because nobody in their right mind would advocate it if they had to be personally responsible for delivering a working education system out of an unknown and constantly changing bag of components that they don't own, don't control and can't test on.

If you think I'm kidding, go and watch this video by Tim Bray which shows the "showcase" at the recent Google I/O conference of the latest Android phones. Good luck figuring out something that works on all of those phones, never mind on other mobile platforms too.

I consider myself to be one of the more technologically capable teachers in Scotland and there is no way that I would ever accept the responsibility of delivering learning under such a system.

Does anyone believe that the teachers who have hitherto refused to adopt educational technology will accept this kind of additional burden? Even if they were technically capable of doing so which, in the main, they simply are not, it is wrong for technologists to abrogate their responsibilities in this way.

We have come too far to retreat to a position where individual teachers are responsible for figuring out how to deliver relevant lessons using technology appropriately. We cannot now walk away and tell pupils and parents that it's their problem to provide ICT to schools.