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'Only Connect': The Answer to Digital Learning Is in the Clouds, Not in the Hardware

04/14/2015 10:47 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

Anyone who has ever pottered around a typical school will have seen them, gathering dust. The huge flatscreen TV, the PCs on trollies, the range of gadgets, faddish once but now forgotten - the collateral of any one of a number of one-laptop-per-child/no-nerd-left-behind initiatives which proved better at spending money than providing educational outcomes.

Education is an industry fascinated by the idea of being disrupted by technology. But when the 'consumers' (pupils) are so far ahead in terms of their consumption of content and tech than the 'suppliers' (teachers) are able to deliver or purchasers ('parents') able to keep up with, then an industry is in trouble.

So the easy answer for schools, looking to respond to a disruption they don't understand, has been to spend on hardware: the screens, the laptops, the tablets. Throwing money at a problem can be soothing to senior managers and, unsurprisingly, schools have spent plenty on hardware. And they drive the learning through the single device they allow pupils, perhaps on shaky wifi, through a single learning platform and through a limited series of suppliers of content and lesson plans.

And then everyone involved goes home, checking for updates on their phones, listening to music on their MP3 players, settling down in front of the iPad on the train and then watching TV with a laptop on the sofa. And as they are doing that, they are following recommendations on social media, checking out stories, conversations, videos, audio, from a huge range of content providers, both professional and amateur. Perfectly normal digital habits, none of which were applicable in teaching hours, it seems.

The way schools were originally organised was to replicate (and prepare us for) the work environment - clocking on and of together, working together on identical tasks. The workplace is less and less like that, but we cling to the school version of the industrial model. The digital equivalent is to provide identical devices and ask us to perform a limited set of tasks, driven from a shared platform with limited content. In all other ways, we've moved to a multi-platform, multi-channel society - its just that our schools have yet to do so.

And yet, it's the easier, cheaper choice. While we can't ignore the digital divide, it isn't a chasm for the young as it is for the elderly. Expecting children of 12 and above, in the developed world at least, to have regular access to at least one digital device is not too big a leap, so a policy of Bring Your Own Technology to a school makes increasing sense, if not for every school right now, then for every school soon enough. That alone would make significant savings on IT budget - allowing that money to be spent on other things. Other digital things, but the role of IT departments in such a situation becomes one of support, of ensuring compatability and connectivity, rather than one of hardware and infrastructure.

Because all a school really really needs is that those devices can 'talk' to each other without using enterprise-level procured technologies. Put at its simplest, it's using Gmail, Dropbox, WordPress, Moodle ... - low-cost or no-cost or open-source or open-standard tools that allow a school to spend it money on teachers. In such a space, the technology becomes invisible because its technology we are used to. Spend the money of inspirational ideas, not on hardware with built-in obsolescence.

In short, the answer isn't singular, it's not one thing in a box, but it is out there and 'all' you have to do is pull it all together - a variety of providers and a variety of content, services and products, with a single entry point. It may not seem like the simple way - so many moving parts - but it's better than built-in obsolescence.