Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Application vs. app

One of the key considerations, in my mind, about deploying ANY new platform is the availability and compelling need for a particular application. I'm specifically using the word "application" rather than "app" at this point because to me they are different in key ways. An application is, in mind, a particular capability that is available through a tool or platform that has a meaningful impact on someone's work. Obviously in education, the overall goal of our work is to improve teaching and learning. That happens in a number of ways (instruction, assessment, evaluation, reflection, research, information management, communication, etc.)

Ideally, we all want members of our communities (teachers, students, administrators, staff, parents) to be able to access the various applications we provide in as many different ways as possible. For example, we want parents and students to be able to access our student information portals using PCs, Macs, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, etc. Obviously, there are limits (someone using IE5 on Windows 98 or Mac OS 9 is most likely going to be out of luck), but in general, we want our most important tools/applications to be as accessible as possible.

The "appification" of the web is the antithesis of this, because an app is something that is tied a specific platform (iOS, Android, BlackBerry, etc.)  If we're lucky, an app might be available for multiple platforms, but in many cases it is exclusive to one particular platform or another. Apps have been great for the consumer because they are generally cheap, simple to purchase and install, and add functionality to mobile devices previously unheard of. However, they are not necessarily great to an organization looking to make an application or tool available to the greatest number of users in their community. Should we assume that every organization has the funding for the latest and greatest gadget running the shiniest new version of their mobile platform? Do we believe that all members of our community have access to that platform?

Here is where I really think that we as technology and education leaders can make a difference and contribute to the conversation. If we explain why a more accessible application/service/tool is better for our communities, then we have an opportunity to have a powerful impact on decisions. We also have the influence to push our vendors and partners to keep this in mind when developing the latest version of their "must have" applications. It also lowers development costs for them. Can you imagine trying to develop for and support all these different platforms (objective C for iOS, Java for Android, etc.)

So, my ideal is for applications that build their user interfaces using web standards like HTML 5 and CSS 3 (notice I purposefully excluded Flash), rather than going down the app road. If done properly, these applications will be supported by any device running a modern browser (IE9, Chrome, Firefox 4, Safari), including desktops, laptops, netbooks, tablets, phones and handheld devices.

I don't consider myself a "real" developer or coder, but I do have a firm grasp of HTML and CSS. Here is some information and a few demonstrations of how a web interface can adapt to different devices or form factors by using "responsive web design" principles. Try out the examples in a modern browser (IE9, Chrome, Safari, Firefox 4) and adjust the width of the browser window. You will see the page adapt accordingly based on the width of the window. Also, try them out on your favorite iDevice or Android gadget. I'm hoping that this is where the future lies. We just need to help it become reality.



Here's an article from A List Apart talking about the "responsive design" approach. It's a little developer focused, but very interesting, http://www.alistapart.com/articles/responsive-web-design/


Thoughts?

Follow up to "Tablet Time"

So, my "epic" post on how tablets like the iPad integrate into a typical K12 school environment generated a ton of discussion from colleagues in person and via email. Unfortunately, it didn't result in comments on this blog (come on guys)!

I wanted to follow up with some links that validate some of the points in the posting. I also wanted to be clear that I am not "anti-tablet" or iPad. I feel like there are some valid use cases right now for this type of device. What I am encouraging is thoughtful discussion and careful planning. These two links should help with both :)

http://www.convergemag.com/classtech/Impact-iPad-K12-Schools.html

http://ipadeducators.ning.com/profiles/blogs/what-do-students-think-of

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tablet time?

So, the latest technology fad and the apple of everyone's eye right now (pun intended), is tablets, specifically the iPad.

The explosion of the popularity of the iPad, has been something that I've been watching very closely over the last year. The undeniable "cool factor" and the iPad being seen as a status symbol for administrators and teachers alike make it impossible to ignore. Apple is also very shrewdly marketing it directly to education administrators, bypassing more traditional IT processes.

Like many educational technology leaders, I have a number of concerns and am skeptical of a tablet's true utility and value as a general educational and productivity tool. However, I think there are some valid uses and applications for a tablet, including for principals to use as a tool in recording and tracking evaluations. I have been working with one of our principals to recreate the observation tools from the Dana Center in an online Google Form that can be used to easily record observations on the fly using a touch device. Our initial attempts using an Android phone were unsuccessful because of the small size of the screen, but a tablet definitely looks feasible. I also know that there are a number of specialized applications for some students with special needs that are truly powerful.

My overall concerns reflect a number of factors, some being related to the relative infancy of the iOS and Android platforms, and these may be resolved in the near future as this market matures. Here are some of my thoughts and the topics that I'm discussing with my administrators as we think about the best solutions for us...

Consumption vs. creation

Tablets are great for consuming information (checking email, browsing the web, watching video, reading, and playing games), but not necessarily the most efficient tool for creating content. The latest iOS and Android devices do support video capture and editing right on the tablet, so that does offer some unique content creation functionality to consider. You can certainly do some light typing with the on-screen keyboard, but more involved text entry and editing is cumbersome without the use of a mouse or an add-on keyboard. You can carry an add-on dock or bluetooth keyboard, but that seems to reduce the portability of the device. At that point, wouldn't a netbook or small notebook be a more practical choice?

Single user devices

In their current state, iOS and Android tablets are primarily single user devices. This makes total sense because they were initially conceived and sold as consumer devices. If you've configured a tablet to access your email, calendar and social networking accounts, there is no simple way to logout or protect these accounts before handing the tablet to someone else. All your data and information are exposed to anyone who uses the tablet. This will work OK for a 1:1 type of deployment, but not well at all if the thought is to share the devices. Until there exists a true way to implement multiple user account support on the devices, I don't see them being very useful for shared use, unlike more traditional laptops and desktops. Maybe the HP webOS devices will implement something like this when they are released? Interestingly enough, I have been using a Google Chrome OS notebook and the way it implements multiple users using Google accounts would be an interesting and compelling solution  Unfortunately, Chrome OS is not a tablet OS, at least at this point.

Centralized management

Centralized management of the tablets is another thing to really take a hard look at. We use Altiris and Group Policy to very efficiently create standardized configurations of our current laptops and desktops, deliver software applications over the network, and manage policies. It will be very difficult to effectively and efficiently manage the new tablets without this type of functionality. I know that there are some solutions emerging, but I need to find out a lot more about them, their capabilities, and their cost. Again, maybe HP will offer this as part of webOS? I can also imagine Google integrating this type of functionality into Android and Google Apps in the future.

Purchasing content and apps

The purchasing of apps and content for tablets definitely poses some challenges for an organization. Do we provide iTunes or Amazon cards to users? Do we have "official" school and district app store accounts? How do we handle personal purchases? Who is responsible for the backup and transfer of personal purchases when the device is re-deployed to another user? What are the licensing models of apps across multiple devices?

Are our networks up to it?

The impact of a number of tablet devices on our school networks is a key concern. Since these devices are wireless devices, wireless networks need to be ready to handle the increased number of clients, as well as bandwidth and traffic. A colleague has anecdotally shared that his iPad has been a bandwidth hog on his school's wireless network. We should obviously investigate this in much more detail and get hard data, but it's something to consider. As we implement better wireless security and management using 802.1x and/or RADIUS, how well do iOS and Android devices support these security protocols? Do we need to look at bandwidth shaping and QOS on the networks and at what cost?

Is this the best way to expend funds?

I'm concerned about the public and political perception of spending funds on these devices during tough fiscal times. It's absolutely essential to stay on top of emerging technological trends, but we have to balance that against increasing budgetary pressures. This is obviously a collaborative discussion that needs to happen within each district, but it's something to keep in mind.

Cool vs. effective

Lastly, I'm always trying to walk the line between tools that are cool and have a big "wow" factor, versus what really has a positive impact on teaching and learning. This doesn't necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. There is no doubt in my mind that there are some valid education applications and uses of these new tablet devices and more will develop over time. However, I think that administrators, teachers and technology folks need to avoid the temptation to adopt the latest and greatest technology out of hand without thoughtful discussions about how it will be used and what support and professional development are necessary to make sure that there is a positive return on investment in terms of student and teacher performance.

I'm cautiously optimistic and I think we will start testing out some tablets in the near future. Our initial foray will probably lean towards Android since we are already using Google Apps, but I won't rule out Apple iOS if it turns out to be the best solution for our needs. I'm also intrigued with the idea of HP webOS if it integrates well with our current infrastructure, but they have a lot of catching up to do. Windows 8 is far away, but may also turn out to be a good long term solution. The next few years could be a lot of fun ;)

I would love to hear other perspectives and possible approaches, so feel free to add comments.