Sunday, 12 May 2013

Future technology and the IT industry

On the first day of term the school’s teaching staff was privileged to have Fred Baumhardt, the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Microsoft South Africa, as a guest speaker. In a speech entitled “2016 and beyond”, Fred took the time to show our staff the amazing technology that already exists and will soon become affordable (Every year the price of a new technology decreases by approximately 10 times!). Many of the amazing technologies we were introduced to will be available within the next few years.

Fred showed us a world where connectivity was an everyday occurrence and a person’s ability to access information was unlimited. More importantly, he explained how this connectivity was already available, although the costs associated with staying connected were still, at times, exorbitant. He pointed out that as time passes this cost is decreasing worldwide and we, as teachers, parents and students need to take advantage of the abundance of information available to us. We need to train students to understand this abundance of information, to be able to use it effectively through research, to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of the information we find and, finally, to be able to analyse the content objectively.

This Utopian view of technology has to be balanced by an acknowledgement of the weaknesses of the hardware and software available to us, the need to have an ecosystem that supports its use and a confession by Fred that the IT industry as a whole have not come to the party in regards to education and its very specific needs.

Until now the IT industry has sold solutions that they have developed to support the software they have developed to be used by people who understand how to use the hardware and software as a unit. The attitude was, and in many times still is, one of ‘fire and forget’. Each user was expected to adapt their systems to fit the hardware and software that was already available. This was especially apparent in the Education field. Schools built networks to support the needs of the organisation without much input from the providers of the hardware and software. There was no concerted effort to develop solutions for education. In general, the money was not made in the education field.

This lack of partnership between providers and users has led to a vast variety of ‘solutions’ for educational institutions and each school has had to choose their own path. At this point we need to acknowledge the efforts any school network 'guy' who manged, in spite of the providers, the development of a stable, sustainable and, maybe most vitally, upgrade-able network for their school. As Fred mentioned this has been done, in many cases, despite the IT industry rather than because of it.

Things are changing!

More and more both hardware and software providers are looking at delivering a unified system to Education institutions. These technological ‘Ecosystems’ are been designed to facilitate the process of skills acquisition rather that the sales of software or hardware. Each school will have an ‘App’ that will govern hardware policy, software deployment and who can access which part of the network. This ecosystem will adapt to the varying needs of each school and, therefore, no solution will be the same.

More importantly, each individual will have their own ‘ecosystem’ which may not be the same as the school they attend. The schools system will then have to adapt to and incorporate the individuals’ choices and also support those choices.  The next big step for both education and IT will be to allow open access to the systems that allow for effective and open communication in the hope that teaching and learning will grow from this openness.

In the hour that we spent with Fred we heard and saw things that both shocked and amazed us. If you are interested in seeing some of what we saw have a look at the following videos.  All the technology in them already exists and will be available commercially in the very near future!