This article was initially inspired by my reaction to a blog entry by Fraser Speirs: “We need to Talk About Android“. It’s been a while since it was posted, but unfortunately other priorities have caused this to be delayed quite a bit as I did not have any time to reflect on the content properly. However I think the topic is still as relevant as it was then.
I have read some of Fraser’s previous articles and have found them interesting reading. From the perspective of an education practitioner the lure of having most of the complexity taken care of by one company does make some sense. However, I believe that the ability to have complexity taken out of the equation by creating an artificial IT monoculture is a very dangerous one.
My (now distant) agricultural background alone tells me that no monoculture is sustainable in the long run. Sure, they do initially reduce complexity, allowing “economies of scale” to develop and reduce some expenditures in the short term. However, it’s not a reflection of reality. Life is complex and creating artificial limitations in educational contexts can often produce outcomes that students are struggling in real-life environments where the one tool they are comfortable with is not available.
From a technical perspective I see two main problems with Fraser’s article:
- The whole comparison of a “Single Device” Operating System (in 2 sizes. Phone and Tablet) with an open Operating System Platform (multiple devices by multiple manufacturers). It is literally comparing Apples (pun intended) with Oranges.
- The whole premise of the thinking in the original post seems to be based on the assumption that ‘native’ applications on certain platforms are the only option and it is an either/or choice. This is ignoring a whole universe of web-apps accessible content from all of these devices.
Just to make it perfectly clear – I am not arguing the case for Android here (neither am I arguing a case against Apple). I am arguing the case for Open Standards (in this context mostly HTML5, but also ePub and similar cross-platform standards) versus the ‘seeking refuge in a walled garden’ scenario. For me the second approach is a cop-out. It is taking the easy road. It’s the ‘if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’ mindset and worst of all we are actually setting this as an example for our kids.
As an alternative I would argue that the emphasis should be put on the usage of Open Standards rather than proprietary ‘answers’ that in general have one main purpose – ‘vendor lock-in’.
I have two kids going through high school myself and I have tried to show them that there always lots of ways to achieve an outcome. You don’t need to have Microsoft Word to create a text document or Adobe Photoshop to manipulate an image. Whilst it has not always been appreciated in the process, I think both of them now have a much better understanding of the underlying concepts, rather than having just been trained to push certain buttons in some piece of software.
Some of the points raised by the blog in regards to fragmentation and perceived lack of security are valid (although they would warrant a separate closer discussion as they are often used purely as an excuse). Any IT professional knows that closed platform does not mean more security nor does open mean a lack of security. Again I think a more complex ecosystem of multiple devices and operating systems actually reflects the real world and learning the concepts of Cybersecurity is something that should be part of our teaching (although a by-product). The conclusion to put all your eggs in one basket is in my eyes the wrong one.
The points about the perceived lack of backup tools seem plain wrong in my opinion.
And in the end (as much as we ed-tech people might value the importance of tech-tools) it will always be the human element that remains the most important ingredient in a successful learning journey for all but the most technophile students. Unfortunately, a point that get sometimes lost in the technical arguments.