How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dematerialisation of Educational Technology

One of the seminal blogposts in the British nerd canon is, in my opinion, Matt Jones' article bearing the wonderful title of "Who Stole My Volcano? Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dematerialisation of Supervillain Architecture".

Matt's article was brought back to mind the other day when I was browsing through my obscenely large collection of Bags Made of Black Nylon Designed For The Transport of Computers. One bag that I loved but which had fallen out of use for a while was my Tumi Pocket Bag. It's a simple vertical messenger bag with a zip top. I bought it last year to transport my then newly-imported-from-the-US iPad.

Anyway, the bag is about 14"x11"x2" and it easily swallows an iPad. I wondered if it would take my 11" MacBook Air so I tried it. Not only did it accept the Air, albeit with little room for padding, it also accepted the iPad 2. For some obscure reason, this rather blew my mind. Not that Apple have made a small, useful, computer device. I knew that existed. It was more about reflecting on the evolution of my working set of technology.

I started my professional life carrying around the 17" PowerBook, convinced that I needed everything with me all the time, to the max. Back then, I could only afford one computer and no external displays, so it had to be the machine that could do everything from web browsing to photography apps to software development. As time has gone on, the technology set has gotten smaller and lighter while maintaining or increasing its functionality and delivering much better battery life.

What really struck me, though, was how tiny and invisible this has all become. I grew up in a world in which you sat at your computer. Today, for many use cases, you sit with your computer. I grew up in a world in which your portable technology required special luggage designed and built to protect its fragile cargo and bear the weight of same. Today, an incredibly functional technology rig collapses into a tiny fashion satchel and weighs less than four pounds. The first 17" PowerBook G4 weighed 6.8 pounds by itself.

It's the same in school. Everyone uses the iPad differently but one of the common themes has been the way that objects that were formerly classroom resources are collapsing into software for the iPad. This isn't just digital convergence. It's the virtualisation of physical classroom hardware.

In the early primary, we have seen the replacement of those little blackboards with the magnetic letters with an app like Magnabet. The replacement of small percussion instruments with GarageBand. The replacement of personal whiteboards with finger-drawing apps like CHALK_BOARD. The replacement of simple games with apps like Preschool Memory Match.

Don't wallow in nostalgia for these things. The usual experience of a jigsaw, a magnet board or a whiteboard in the average classroom is missing pieces, a shortage of the letter N and a dried-out marker pen.

Further up the school, paper books are slowly going the way of the dinosaur. Our reference library is really just for show now and will probably not be here in August. Class literature texts are inexorably moving to ebooks as the rest of the book industry is. However much you personally Like The Feel Of Paper(tm), it's going away.

Science equipment like data probes are now talking to iPads over BlueTooth. Powerful microscopes are now broadcasting their images over wifi to every screen in the classroom. The sensors in an iOS device - microphone, accelerometer, gyroscope and GPS - are easily as good as basic classroom equipment. They're better when you mix in sophisticated software.

Classroom voting systems - a horrible concept designed to replace meaningful classroom interaction with the game mechanics of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire - are dead, replaced with $5 software on iOS devices or, hopefully, a more meaningful pedagogy.

Interactive Whiteboards are the next great Zombie Technology. The installed base is now so massive in schools that, like Internet Explorer 6, they will have a long, slow, lingering death. Too many long-term PFI contracts for schools have "IWB in every classroom" written into the contract for the next 30 years. Too many "increase the use of technology in the classroom" development plan checkboxes get ticked simply by screwing a Promethean to the wall and moving on.

Put simply, if you're in the business of making discrete hardware for the classroom you are in very serious trouble. Your business is about to be replaced by a $5 download from the App Store and the rest of your company's existence will be about trying to sell a refresh to your existing installed base. That is, selling to what's left of your installed base that hasn't moved to iOS devices - and that remaining part of your base will be the part with the least money to throw around.

Good luck with that.