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What the Post-PC Era Means for Education

Jonathan Nalder

My computing journey + a Market Analyst’s summary allow us to ask – what does the Post-PC era mean for Education?

Part 1. My Computing Journey through a PC World

I’m not typing this on a PC, but on a tablet. The screen on which the letters are appearing is the same one on which I am tapping. I’m not sitting at a desk, but on the couch while my 3-year-old plays balancing games. This location means I can still chat with and encourage her while getting work done.

The first computer my family owned was an 8086 running DOS. It was advanced with its 8 MHz processor, 3 colour screen and 512k memory, but had far less power than my current smartphone and took up a whole desk. It cost over $2000.

And so it remained for each subsequent computer I owned. An 80386 with 16 colour screen and 33 MHz processor; a Pentium 4 with thousands of colours, a 1700 mhz processor and 512 MB of memory – all cost over $2000, and … took up almost a whole desk. I next switched to a 12 inch laptop – so portable! and with a price tag of – you guessed it, over $2000.

Something changed in 2006. I bought a high end, top of the line Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). With a 200 MHz processor and 16 MB of memory, it could do some of the things that the computers I’d had so far could do, but it also had a touch screen and, as one of the first ‘converged devices’, a digital camera. It cost $1700, a huge amount still, but a price that was the beginning of a trend.

Two and a half years later and my first Smartphone (a PDA with a phone built in) cost $1100 and had 64 MB of memory and a dual-core 200 MHz processor. Then my first iPhone 3G cost $900 and had a 412 MHz processor. Finally in this history of my personal computing journey came the iPad, an $800 device with 512 MB of memory and a 1000 MHz processor.

So what’s the point of all this historical conceptualising? It’s fairly obvious that as computing power has increased, size and price has decreased. At some point however, the primary computing platform changed from a central, ‘one computer does all’ model to a multiple mobile device model that builds on the existing desktop computing network to enable computing applications never possible before.

To paraphrase Mr Jobs, CEO of the world’s largest technology company that now sells ten mobile devices for every one laptop or desktop computer, this is like the first phase of automobiles, which consisted almost entirely of trucks. Now trucks still form the backbone of our transport infrastructure, but the average automobile today is far smaller and more efficient. Similarly, car buying has long passed the stage where the absolute top speed or revs per minute was all important; we now look for efficiency and usability, and the same thing is occurring with computing.

Once a certain threshold of computing power was reached where all computers by default could have enough memory and processing speed to perform all basic functions required, other factors have come into play. Is it easy to use? Does it fit to my needs or desired location? Does it require me to learn complex commands and file systems or help me just start on the tasks I need done?

Other questions may join these ones shortly as the extra abilities of the emerging class of devices in this field become more familiar; questions not just based on what we could do with PCs but now in a new mobile way, but questions relating to what new things they can do which PCs never could. Can it tag my geo-location (GPS)? Does the device know where it is in 6 dimensional space (Accelerometer and Gyroscope)? Can it overlay information on a live view of the scene in front of me (camera and Augmented Reality)?

Part 2. A Market Analysts Useful Summary

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This era then in which such new questions may be asked has recently been labeled ‘Post-PC’. Horace Dediu, a Market Analyst with Asymco (March 8, 2011) has defined what Post-PC means better than I could:

The first post-microcomputer tablets are used alongside microcomputers for tasks such as presentations and entertainment. They depend on PCs for data backup and software updates. They do not require IT support. They do not require a keyboard or a desk. They are cheaper and simpler to operate… new products rely on new input / output methods and allow a new population of non-expert users to use the product more cheaply and simply.

Before we ask then what the Post-PC era may mean for education, I also want to list Dediu’s consequences of such a generational shift so that we can discuss what they may mean for learning:

  • Skill required decreases
  • Support required decreases
  • There are new applications and use cases
  • The economics are not favorable for incumbents
  • The economics are favorable for new entrants

Part 3. What Does it Mean for Education?

Let’s start with the potentially bad news. Only one of the consequences listed by Dediu is negative, that being that generational shifts in computing are not favourable to incumbents. How does this relate to education? One might say that as a sector found to be the least IT intensive off 55 major US industries (Dumagan, Gill, Ingram, 2003), it’s highly likely that Education is still driving around in trucks.

As an industry that traditionally was focused on centralised knowledge, the stable, fixed model of computing of the PC era was much easier to integrate than the mobile and agile model emerging in the Post-PC one. Whether this means that Education as it stands today will suffer the same fate as the technology company Bell Labs did (hint, they went bankrupt) during the transition from pre-PC, vacuum tube mainframe computing to the microchip PC era (as Heppell, LWF Talk, 2011, thinks likely), is yet to be seen. But there would appear to be plenty of potential for ‘new entrants’ to appear. We wait and see what these may be.

ipad apps for education
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On the positive side however, if the entry level barriers of initial skill level and the amount of IT support required are reduced by tablet and smartphone devices, educational institutions that have struggled to:

  1. Find the time to provide basic technology skills training to staff or
  2. Get past the time intensive ‘learn menus and file systems’ lessons or
  3. Keep technology repaired and working so that it’s available in the first place.

- may instead be able to:

  1. Spend staff training time on improving pedagogy.
  2. Spend valuable student lesson time on using technology not just learning to use it.
  3. Spend less money on supporting existing technology and more on supporting its use in classrooms.

Most important in helping to cut through the either/or arguments that often dominate definitional discussions such as this one is another of Dediu’s statements that “The older generation slowly fades through diminished growth but never disappears”. Post-PC devices do not mean that Desktop and Laptop PCs will go away. They may replace them numerically at some point, but larger more powerful computers will not be extinguished by mobile devices any more than cinema replaced radio, or television replaced cinema, or video tapes, discs and downloads replace television.

The work of Australian schools such as Hambledon State School in Queensland, or St Aloysius College in Tasmania provide acknowledgement of this by providing students a blended selection of computing devices that spans PCs, laptops, converged mobile devices and stand-alone mobile devices. The emphasis in both of these schools is on avoiding a one-size-fits-all solution and instead expect students to understand the learning process enough to make the choice of the best computing tool for specific tasks themselves.

Interestingly though, there are some sectors who don’t have to choose a blended environment because mobile computing is their first computing experience. Only in the West has affluence been wide spread enough to afford $2000+ computers. Third-World nations, not having had the same opportunities to develop either the level of electricity supply required by larger computing devices, or the economic base to purchase them in large numbers, is well known for embracing cheaper mobile devices such as cell phones which require less infrastructure, support and skill. Indeed, the One Laptop per Child organisation that has delivered over 2 million education-focused XO devices worldwide was inaugurated primarily to target the low power and low cost needs of such nations.

Similarly there is a movement of consumers who are embracing Post-PC devices due to their simpler, more personalised nature. Generally these are older users such as the 99 year old Virginia Campbell of Oregon, USA, for whom an iPad was her first ever computer, and one she was able to use unaided. She has been writing limericks as well as reading books again after having not been able to for ten years due to poor eyesight.

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So what does this mean for education? If Virginia can overcome encumbrances older than the PC era to take advantage of the lower entry level of skill and IT support that Post-PC devices provides, as well as go on to explore new applications and uses suited to her personalised needs, then anyone, including Education can.

So, what is next on the computing journey? How long until the race of increased computing power and shrinking size does lead to a world even beyond tablets of embedded, ubiquitous computing? Today’s students will find out. And they will master it, if we’ve trained today’s teachers well enough in harnessing the potential of the current generational shift in computing to give them the education they deserve.

Disclaimer:

While some references are supplied, this article acknowledges its non-academic nature and is intended to simply be a beginning, not end of discussion on this topic. In addition, all opinions are my own and not that of my employer.

References:



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