Enough hardware, already!

By Jon Bower
March 29th, 2010

Schools may see more impact if they look past hardware.

Schools may see more impact if they look past hardware.

Guess the years: a computer in every classroom; internet access in every school; 1:1 laptops for middle or high school students; an interactive whiteboard in every classroom; 3D projectors to make content more engaging.  Now, tell me how education outcomes have improved since 1985 when the goal was a computer in every classroom.  According to the test scores, there has been no significant improvement.  And now that we need to teach 21st century skills, our schools are further from success than they were in 1985.

So why hasn’t technology helped to improve education the way it has made manufacturing more productive, the way it has made financial services more profitable, or the way it has transformed the retail experience through online reviews, recommendations, and shopping?

There is a simple answer: educators have been obsessed with hardware.

The successful modernization of manufacturing, financial services and retail have been supported by software running on pretty much whatever was available.  Mainframe, minicomputer, PC, or portable device using infra-red connection, radio, or Wi-Fi hot spot–nobody really cared.  The essence of the transformation was achieved through software.

Resource planning, process simulation and spreadsheets in manufacturing, yield maximization and customer resource management systems in financial services, and community-building software combined with targeted advertising in retail were used to revolutionize their industries. The use of these applications led to rapid positive shifts in customer experience, reduced costs and dramatic changes among industry leaders and laggards.

Compare those three industries with education, where more than 80 percent of technology funds are spent on hardware and wiring, leaving less than 20 percent for software and training.  The rule of thumb in business is 1/3 hardware, 1/3 software, 1/3 training and support.  After spending 10 percent on software and 5 percent on training, educators wonder why they don’t see significant impact.  The answer is that they have not invested adequately in software and the training to ensure its use.

But, educators respond, we need hardware before we can run software.  True enough–but not an excuse for inappropriate investment.  A better model is to select the software that will have the largest possible educational impact.  Then, spec out the amount you can afford using the one-third rule and buy that much.  Install it, train instructors and students, use it and then, measure the results.  If they were positive, use the success to justify another round of investment.  But, be careful, you might need something different for the next group of students!  If the results were not positive, analyze the problem and try to fix it–are you targeting the right students, did you achieve greater than 80 percent utilization in year one, did you provide adequate support for new users?  Those are the three most common points for failure.

Only after considering those failure points, and others, you need to ask yourself if you should abandon your investment and try another.  That is the second major difference between education and industry.  In education, we like to try new things.  In industry, they work to make their investments successful.  Why don’t we do the same?  Often we worry that our jobs are at risk–won’t technology replace us?  No–teachers will never go away.  Our roles will change–from giving performances that provide information in an entertaining way to deeper and more satisfying relationships with our students as we guide their personal learning journeys.  Administrators won’t disappear.  They will shift from responding to daily crises to leading and guiding teachers, students, parents and community members through technology-supported planning.

Once we see those new roles, perhaps we can seize the tools that will help us fulfill them.

The software tools:
•    virtual teaching and learning environments that are as easy to use as social networks, yet as powerful as’s 1-Click shopping tool is to the retail market
•    assignment tools that use existing assessment data to help us predict which students will respond positively to different teaching methods and curriculum materials, and then suggest assignments based on their analysis
•    skill development software that ensures all students master basic reading, writing, calculation, problem solving and technology skills
•    professional community building tools that help teachers and administrators share their experiences and learn from their peers

All of these tools exist today, yet most teachers and administrators are not aware of them.  They are distracted by netbooks, interactive whiteboards and 3D projectors.  Well, the solution is in front of you.  Search the web or a conference exhibit hall.  Try software demos the way you would flip through books in a bookstore.  Don’t let yourself get distracted anymore.  The improvement of education will be enacted through the software applications you choose.  Go choose them well.

Jon Bower is President of it’s learning, inc., and former CEO of Lexia Learning Systems and Soliloquy Learning.  He has been exploring the role of technology in educational improvement since the late 1970’s.