On Strategy

Jeff Bezos is my hero. Every time I think about what Amazon might do, I think "if Jeff Bezos was smart, he would do X". Usually what happens is that they do X in an even more brave and insightful way than I could imagine.

I had a conversation recently with some people involved in education technology strategy and the question of "where do you see this all going?" came up.

I try to be cautious in making definite claims about specific technologies. I don't know for definite that the iPad is the best possible device for all time. I do believe it was the right choice at the time I had to make a choice. You can always wait for something better to come along.

However, I cast my mind back to an interview with my hero Jeff on the Charlie Rose show (or read the transcript).

CHARLIE ROSE: What is it they want? What’s the feedback from customers?

JEFF BEZOS: You know, the interesting thing, what we have discovered is every time we have entered into a new country, we find that on the big things, people are the same everywhere. They all want low prices. You never go into a new country and they say, oh, I love the Amazon, I just wish the prices were a little higher.

This is how I feel about technology in schools. I can't tell you which device we'll be using in 2012. I can't tell you how long its battery will last, or how much memory it will have or what the interaction model will be.

I can tell you some long-term big trends that I'll bet on right now:

  • Pupils and teachers will never wish they had fewer computers.
  • Pupils and teachers will never wish their devices had shorter battery life than the iPad.
  • Pupils and teachers will never wish that they had to queue up to get access to computers.
  • Pupils and teachers will never wish that their internet access was slower.
  • Pupils and teachers will never want a device that's harder to use than the iPad.
  • Teachers will never want to have to go to a special classroom to use The Computers.
  • Nobody will want a device that's more expensive and less capable than the iPad.
  • Nobody will want to carry around a device that's significantly heavier than the iPad all day.
  • Pupils will not want to use a special "education device" when the market is going elsewhere.
  • Schools will not want to deploy a device that requires more tech support than an iPad.

And that's the strategy. This is how we think about technology at Cedars. We know that we don't know. We don't plan 10-year strategies, we plan 3 years and we finish the plan in a few months then we do it.

I don't much care if, in five years, we're using Android tablets - as long as those Android tablets last longer, are easier to use and deploy, are better and cheaper than an iPad. If future devices deliver information faster and better than an iPad, then we'll switch to those devices.

Fixating on specific technologies, such as interactive whiteboards, has cost schools dearly and has largely failed to meaningfully transform classroom practice.

At the same time, the deployment of technologies which require a lot of care and maintenance have accreted a massive IT bureauracy that threatens to fossilize educational technology in the business models and information architectures of the early 2000s.

Arguments about money are, largely, a smokescreen. As a thought experiment, imagine that your school budget was quadrupled overnight. Would you then be set on a golden path to a fast 1:1 deployment of up-to-date mobile technology in your school? I suspect not and the likely reason is that you have too many people who can derail your project with a simple "no".

The challenge, now, is not "which device do we buy?". The challenge is "how do we move from a 3-5 year decision-making and deployment cycle to a 6-8 month cycle?".

Technology is ever more complex and the days when it was feasible to build computers specifically for education are long gone. We are, I believe, now passing the time when it was feasible to build large-scale software specifically for education. I believe that the way ahead is to adapt commercial software to the needs of students and teachers in the same way that we adapted commercial hardware in the post-BBC Micro era.