Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Some have claimed that Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” I know there is some dispute on whether or not Ford made this statement; regardless, the statement carries a powerful message. Sometimes asking customers what they want doesn’t uncover what they need - not because they lack a vision but because the question itself doesn't invite a conversation about possibilities.

There is a movement occurring in several schools across the nation - to provide students laptops and/or tablets. Many schools new to this journey often find themselves struggling to decide which device is best for their students. Also, too often the decision process is on a tight timeline. So, the process frequently involves purchasing a variety of devices to test for a few weeks or to pilot in a single class and then making a decision based on what seems to work best and/or seems most familiar and appealing to teachers and students.

Too often, I think this process ends up with… well… more horses.

So, I would suggest schools focus on four questions when navigating this issue:


What’s the problem with how many approach this decision? Hint: The first three words of the question also holds the answer: What’s the problem. Instead of beginning by asking what device is best, begin by asking what problem are you trying to solve. Hopefully your investment in the technology has something to do with student skills, so make that your starting point. Although I like some overarching ideas, such as wanting to improve student engagement, student collaboration, or student problem solving, I increasingly find those broad ideas often too abstract to help select a device. On the other side of the spectrum, in attempt to be specific, some state their problem similar to the following: “I want students to be able use Microsoft Word or PowerPoint and have the ability to print." But, this really isn't identifying the problem you want to solve or the student skills you want to improve. Those are tools (among others) that might help solve a problem, but don't mistake tools for the actual desired skills. Here are some examples of skills that you might identify:
  • I want students to know how to make and support a claim - becoming better at finding, interpreting, and synthesizing information. I want them to work with their peers to research a topic, write about that topic, and make presentations on that topic. In doing this, I want them to generate ideas and arguments that can be shared not only within the class but also with an authentic audience. 
  • I want students to be better readers. I want them to have quick access to books that align to their interest and their reading level.
  • I want students to be able to be more self-directed in their learning. I want them to access videos, tutorials, and educational games in order to review concepts that they are struggling to master and have greater flexibility to work ahead.
  • I want students to be self-reflective learners. I want students to have greater clarity of what they have and have not mastered and why. I want teachers to have more efficient and effective ways to regularly check for student understanding.
  • I want my students to be able to connect and collaborate with others in solving problems. I want students to be empowered to take action on real issues that they identify and to recognize the impact they can have in their community and the world.
Ideally, the list of desired skills would be developed by students, teachers, and administrators and would then be prioritized. I would advise that this list not be lead by the technical staff charged with making the devices work. During this stage, you are not trying to solve the problems; you are trying to identify the problems.


Think of it like buying a house. Long before you start looking at homes for sale, you probably have some idea of your needs (number of desired bedrooms, basement, master bedroom on first floor, etc). But, furthermore, you probably have some idea of where you want to live. Even if a house has the exact floorplan, features, and style of your choice, you probably don’t buy it if it is not in a desired neighborhood, too far from your work, doesn’t have area attractions aligned to your interests, or has a climate that remains too hot or cold for your taste. In other words, buying a house is also a decision about how you will interact with the people and places surrounding the home. After all, the real estate agents' mantra is location, location, location.

Similarly, selecting a computer now is greatly impacted by how well it will interact with the apps and services that you use. And today, these apps and your data won’t just sit on the device or in the main server room in your district. They will live on servers all around the world in what is often simply called the cloud. This applies to apps, pictures, music, documents, and just about anything you save or do on your device.

Let’s look at the three giants in the field: Apple, Google, and Microsoft:
  • Apple has been the master of making its products work elegantly together within their ecosystem. For example, with an iPhone one can turn on an Apple TV or play music from iTunes on an iMac. A picture taken on iPhone can automatically show up on an iPad, Apple TV, and MacBook Air, and iMac without the user doing a thing. None of this is possible without Apple’s cloud.
  • Google is not an immigrant to the cloud; they have always lived there. But over the course of the last 10 years, they have built an entire ecosystem that can now handle most people’s work habits with robust solutions for email, video calls, calendar appointments, task lists, documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and much more - all within their Google Apps environment. Unlike Apple, that largely uses the cloud to backup and replicate data across devices, Google uses the cloud as the primary area to store the data -- making it available to any device that can access the Internet.
  • Microsoft still has a strong hold of the desktop OS, with more than 90% of active browsing desktops still using a version of Windows as of December 2014 according to Net Applications. Microsoft Office 365 and the Microsoft recently designed App Store make it clear that Microsoft also realizes that its future depends on users relying on its cloud.
As time passes, users will care less about what is in their hand and more about the easiest way to access and share their work. In other words, cloud computing has disrupted the way most customers will select products moving forward. We use to buy a device and then think about where to save our work. Now, we think about where our work is saved (in what ecosystem) and then pick a device that will let us most easily access our work. Adopting a cloud is not an easy choice, but changing your cloud platform is even more difficult. The three giants have known this for some time. It’s also why they all eagerly provide access to most (if not all) of their cloud services for free to K-12 education.


Battery life, durability, reliability, speed, ease of use, available apps and features, compatibility with existing apps and websites, cost, and difficulty of support are among the factors that quickly come into play when selecting a device. Although each of these variables, or specifications, are important and every school has unique circumstances, they are much more clearly defined and therefore can be easily measured. What is more nuanced is how well these devices solve a problem. In other words, you really aren’t just testing if the device works; you are really testing your workflow.


Back in early 2001, many people were starting to ask the question, what is the best MP3 player on the market? But Apple surprised everyone and rattled the entire music industry by releasing iTunes, the iTunes Music Store, and an iPod that worked seamlessly with those products. And, nearly overnight, it became clear: Apple wasn’t just building a decent MP3 player, they were providing us with a solution to purchase, store, and transport our favorite music.

Similarly, what you are really trying to figure out is how a device, its apps, its cloud services, and other tools solve the key problems that you identified. Answering these questions often does not just flow sequentially, but rather the questions work in tandem with each other. You may find a device that feels right -- that has a killer app - which then drives your thinking of where the data should be stored and ultimately how you go about solving one of your problems. In other words, you should retouch and rethink a step as you move to the next step. Even though people may be asking for a device, what they usually really want is a solution.

So, when selecting a device for your students, the method of getting a few devices in to test for a couple weeks is as outdated as the term MP3 player. Instead, spend the time clearly identifying your problems and explore solutions to those problems. Do this by visiting other schools, talk with colleagues, and/or seek the advice of experts. Although Apple may have made it easy to carry your music in your pocket, the challenges in K-12 education are certainly more complex and the stakes are much higher. And trying to make a horse carry you too far too quickly isn't just foolish; it could be deadly.


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