The Importance of Questions Part 1 – Mobile Devices and Tablets

As the end of an academic year approaches, many educators start planning for the start of the next. Often, plans are made for new projects and many of these have technical components. I believe that the technical considerations are the least important in determining whether to undertake a project within education. However, the failure to address them at the outset can often have serious implications. This is why I’ve decided to start off the series by discussion technical questions or considerations on tablets. This is an area in which we can expect significant growth in the foreseeable future. These questions ought to be discussed prior to moving forward with a plan to deploy a technical solution.

Rather than categorize the questions, I’ve chosen to include them in the order in which they came to me. For questions that are self-explanatory, I’ve omitted detailed discussion. For others, I’ve included italicized commentary immediately below the question. My intention is not to give a comprehensive list of questions. I’m sure that my list is not all-encompassing. Rather, these should be considered as representative of the type of technical thinking that ought to accompany any educational innovation that relies on a significant technical component. My goal in asking these questions is not to provide standard answers. Each set of answers will vary based on the curricular and technical nature of a project under consideration.

Question 1: What is the strategy for dealing with damage to devices?
Often, in my school district, new innovations are deployed in schools though local funds or via special grants. If a device is damaged (a real possibility for portable devices such as smartphones, tablet or laptop computers), how will the the repair or replacement of the device be funded? Is the district responsible for funding repairs or replacements to equipment brought in on local initiatives? And, vice-versa, if the district puts an initiative in place, is the school then responsible for dealing with damage after the fact? Does the district’s technical support services have the resources to conduct repairs? (Note: If they don’t, then extended warranties at the time of purchase are a really good idea, though they will drive up the initial acquisition costs to get the project off the ground). It might be wise to have funding mechanisms in place so that a lost or broken device doesn’t result in a long-term service interruption to the students, or that the project’s inventory is permanently reduced by breakage.

Question 2: What is the learning plan for dealing with technical service interruptions?
While all technical services aim for 100% ‘up-time’, this goal is rarely achieved. While service interruptions reduce as technical support systems become more sophisticated, they still remain a fact of life. If we know that a service interruption is possible, what will teachers and students do while we are waiting for its restoration? Instructional time is a valuable commodity. Advance consideration for this scenario helps to ensure that the impact of service interruptions on the students’ learning experiences are mitigated.

Question 3: What is the management strategy for new devices?
This question is more targeted towards tablet computers (in my mind, and in my current context). While iOS and Android devices give users powerful computing in the palms of their hands, they are set up to run as stand-alone, user-focussed devices. IT Departments generally like the idea of managing devices. In an increasingly-consumerized environment, users become more resistant to having their devices managed. Yet, there are benefits to finding a good balance between management and independence. Essentially, managed devices are easier for technical staff to support, and unmanaged devices are more responsive to end-users’ emerging demands.

Question 4: Whose devices will we use?
There are benefits to using district-owned devices. Different benefits arise from having students and teachers use their own personal devices. There are also benefits to using a blended approach, mixing personal and district-owned devices within a single learning environment. Each approach places different demands on a district’s technical staff. If there is significant ‘behind the scenes’ development work that has to happen prior to deployment, it’s best to let technical staff know early on in the planning cycle. Doing so helps to ensure that your technology is deployed on time, and with a minimum of heartache.

Question 5: What is the plan for the replacement of the devices once they reach end of life?
Often, new tablets are deployed from local funding, or grants. This is generally one-time funding. Tablet computers are generally new in our context. We don’t yet have a clear picture of the long-term implications for these devices, especially if they are owned by the school district. If we follow conventional wisdom for desktop machines, end-of-life could be anywhere from three to five years in the future. What will happen to ensure that those devices are replaced at that time? Or rather, what is the process that we will undertake to either replace the devices, or put in place a new set of instructional strategies (and possible future technologies). Discussing these issues at the outset helps to ensure an awareness that all technology has a limited limited life span, and that we need to pro-actively plan for its eventual, timely replacement.

These are my initial questions about mobile devices (and particularly tablets) in the instructional environment. What are your thoughts, experiences, observations?

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