The Coming Educational Software War

Back in the days before there were PCs, before Microsoft existed as a mega-force in the software industry, there were Apple II computers, TRS-80s and the Commodore PET.  Ok, for the purist, Microsoft did exist, but they were still trying to find their way in 1980 creating a XENIX operating system for the Intel 8086 and trying to get a contract with IBM to develop an operating system and some programming languages.  Anyway, I had been out of high school for several years and had been asked to participate in a committee consisting of school staff and community members to evaluate and choose a personal computer platform for a computer lab.


During the first two meetings of the committee, we saw presentations by representatives for  Commodore and Radio Shack with both showing off their best educational software for these new personal computers.  Ok, by today’s standards, that software was pretty primitive.  But you’ve got to remember that most personal computers of the day had maybe 16K and worked with only a handful of colors on screens that were forty characters wide by 23 lines or less of text.  The next meeting was going to be the local computer store’s chance to show off the Apple II.  Having bought an early Apple II that supported only Integer BASIC natively, I was an early Apple computer advocate (My first book was for the Apple II).  So I talked with the store owner to see what software he wanted to show.  It was sad.  I had seen a lot more interesting software from our local Apple computer user’s group.  So I suggest that he talk to the group to see what they might suggest.  The result was several of the group’s members helped do a presentation of some of the latest educational software for the Apple II and the Apple II was ultimately selected by the school for its first personal computers.


It seemed like Apple Computer also independently realized that the market for personal computers could be driven by students who used computers in schools and then would demand to use the same computers when they started working.  Of course, we know that IBM was not going to let Apple Computer take the entire market.  But the interesting thing to notice is that Apple computers still dominate many school classrooms although the generic PC (now no longer built by IBM) has gained market share.  While Apple may have lost its way for several years, the latest Apple Computers and now the iPhones and iPads are commanding increased attention not only in schools, but in businesses as well.


So what is the point of this trip down memory lane?  My answer is: “Follow the money.”  And money is something that most school districts do not have a lot of right now.  Across the country, school districts have to make critical decisions on how to spend their dwindling allocations from taxes, tuition, and other income sources.  At the same time, students are demanding an increase in the technology they use to learn.  Most students bring some type of electronic device to school.  Some may have their own computers, iPads, or other tablets, but almost all of them have some type of smartphone that can connect to the Internet.   Many school districts have resisted this trend and have tried to prohibit students from bringing in their own electronic devices.  Ultimately this will be as effective as the VP of Information at a company I started at many years ago absolutely forbidding any department from purchasing or bringing in the early IBM PCs to work because after all, they were just toys and no one would ever do any real work on them.  Ultimately, he was forced into retirement.  Similarly, school districts who try to resist this tidal wave of student’s need to work through and with electronic devices will cause these districts to lose their best students as they transfer to private schools that are more enlightened.


But some school districts are already adapting.  They are promoting BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) to class and are finding ways to provide more instruction electronically.  In the state of Florida, there is a requirement to deliver a major percentage of education materials electronic within the next few years.  Most districts are not ready for this.  Some have their heads in the sand hoping the requirement will go away.  Well, it won’t go away.  It’s time to adapt or become irrelevant.


A related issue is the software that will be used to support these students with their diversity of devices.  It will be difficult to mandate specific software products unless they work across multiple devices and are available at very little cost or free.  Google is already attending educational conferences like FETC to promote Google Docs and their related family of products and tools.  Microsoft has made available Sky Drive and versions of their four most popular office products (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote) through Office Web Apps.  Other companies are assembling on-line tools for email, collaboration and safe social networking for students.  Many products work with Twitter, U-Tube, and FaceBook, while some districts still actively block student access to these sites effectively making them unusable as a classroom tool.  Yes, there is a lot of inappropriate material on these sites and society expects our school to protect the children from them.  But we all know they still get to these sites from their personal devices and from devices in their homes.  It may be up to these companies or others to develop save sites to provide the same social networking.  Actually, some of these already exist.


So what is the answer?  I really think it is going to come down to who will give the best deal to educational institutions.  When you have no money, loyalty to products of the past means nothing.  You may even find yourself scrapping systems you used in the past because you can no longer afford to pay the maintenance fees or royalties.  In any real business decision, it really doesn’t matter how much you spent in the past on hardware or software.  The ONLY thing that matters is what it will cost you to supply those services in the future.  If you are using Oracle databases and SQL Server is cheaper, you’ll switch.  If you can get by with MySQL, you may switch.  If you cannot afford to pay the licensing on Microsoft Office, maybe Google Docs or Open Office will be your choice.  In some ways, it does not even matter if these are the best choices.  When you have no money, they may be your only choices.  What will happen to your staff if you make these switches?  Will an Oracle DBA want to work with MySQL or will they leave to work somewhere else using their skills and getting paid significantly more?


Education technology is at a turning point, a turning point driven by money or the lack of it.  Eventually this trend will translate into the products that students of today will want to use in their future workplace. While I personally don’t particularly care for many of Google’s policies especially related to privacy, perhaps they understand this trend better than others and they are poised to fight for this market.  I wonder who else is?



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