The Great Educational Lock-in

schedule Jan. 22, 2015, 8:54 a.m. local_offer post, tech, education

A question which has been plaguing me from the day I started teaching is a question which all teachers have asked themselves at least once during their teaching career. This is the most long winded version of that question, and as a teacher might say, see if you can guess the question as we go along!

Chapter 1 – Microsoft

I thankfully managed to arrive into teaching just at the end of the Microsoft dominance of ICT education; I only had to suffer a few years of leading kids by the nose through excruciating step-by-step Microsoft Office coursework tasks. I don’t think anyone thought it was a good idea but we seem to have moved on from that syllabus-wise now thankfully (although the Cambridge Nationals is still holding on in there).

The ubiquitousness of Microsoft products in formal qualifications was no accident: through the late 90s and early 2000s, Microsoft was smart enough to offer its software to education at a decent discount to schools. The result was every school in the UK having, using and therefore teaching with, Microsoft products. And by Microsoft products I mean Microsoft Office.

To see this in great effect, let’s take a trip down memory lane to every ICT teacher’s favourite oh-dear-I-thought-Y9-was-P2-not-P1 lifesaver, If we take a trip back to 2001, we can see the purpose of the site was slightly different:

The DfEE expects that by 2002/3 all teachers will be trained in the use of ICT.

Training providers have adopted different approaches to providing this training to schools, but each present a combination of training materials, training courses, online support and a way of letting teachers record what they have learnt.

The main thrust of the NOF ICT training is to plan lessons which make use of ICT, try them out, and then evaluate how they improved teaching and learning.

For many teachers, the first step will be to get on top of the basics of using a PC and the main PC applications. (2001)

So in 2001, a year in which I confess I was just out of middle school, we had a large swathe of teachers who were not using ICT in the classroom. (no judging) were offering the following courses:
ICT Tools

As an aside, it’s very telling how many of those are being taught in schools today although hopefully we’ve all moved on from Frontpage.

tables, tables everywhere

Teenage me didn’t have a great memory so it’s a little fuzzy, but by then I’m pretty sure I was already learning office applications myself. So I’m not blaming Microsoft for working its way into the qualifications, I think that happened on its own. I do however think that the domination of the Office suite ensured that it didn’t get removed and in fact took more prominence as the years went on.

The rise and dominance of office-based ICT qualifications is probably a topic that should be delicately addressed all by itself, indeed I know teachers who still wince at the thought of the OCR Nationals qualification in ICT. I shall leave the topic be, but only to add that this was one of the first examples of the titular lock-in. In reality, schools were free to teach whatever office-based software they liked, but given their school had paid for Microsoft Office, and the fact of its near monopoly in offices meant this was akin to a choice at the school serving hatch: in reality, no choice at all.

Having used Linux for a long time before, during and after University, it came as a bit of a surprise when getting into education how much Office was used. After all,, as it was known then, was a perfectly reasonable substitute (no laughing in the back). Having worked in education for all of a few days, I quickly realised why: most people use Office because Microsoft Office files don’t play nice with others, largely due to Microsoft before 2008 making file compatibility as difficult as possible and generally taking their ball home quite a lot. having a hard time with…text

Undeterred, the OASIS consortium proposed an actual, genuine ISO standard in 2005 based on the file format which if accepted should in theory become the standard file formatting for all office applications, compatibility all round!

So they did what any good near-monopolistic company would do when faced with a proposed standard they could adopt to make their software work well with others: they made their own standard and had it fast tracked.

Microsoft’s Office Open XML standard specification printed

Now a cynical person looking at that might say “but didn’t they just document the quirks of their current document formats, update them a bit and publish it as a standard so they could allow Governments and organisations to say they use open formats?” but then that would be a cynical person indeed.

Effect on the subject of ICT

Below I have included a graph showing the popularity of the subject and the pass rate. Now before I get death threats from the statisticians, I’m not going to try and imply any correlation, let alone causation. I will however make some insinuations and nudge-nudge-wink-winks.

From 1997 when it was no longer Information Systems, the pass rate increased from 57.1% to 59.4% in 2004, a fairly moderate increase given the pass rate for all subjects went from 54.4% to 59.2%. In 2004, the OCR Nationals were introduced.

Normally delivered over two years, we can exclude 2004 and 2005 but there is a steady increase in results over the years until 2012 (which is 2 years after the 2010 specification changes) and a steep decline in numbers taking the subject. Having lived through that, ICT was definitely seen as an easy-win due the ease of hand-holding students through the Office-based work and the high payoff of potentially four GCSE grades. Students hated it. I know anecdotally of a school who completed the National Award (two GCSE equivalent) in a week off timetable.

GCSE ICT Entries Vs Pass Rate Taken from:

Chapter 2 – Interactive White Boards

So now we’ve got our bank of lesson resources in Powerpoint because YAY MICROSOFT right? Let’s ignore the fact that Powerpoint is aimed at presentations with sparse information on, let’s cram our learning objectives, learning outcomes, starter, homework and keywords on the first slide. But all the resources are there in Powerpoint so we go with it.

I’m slightly naive towards the push for Interactive White Boards, as to whether it was schools, manufacturers, the now-defunct BECTA, or the Government who started the push, but push they did. Look at all these whizzy things you can do with our software they said, look at how much engagement you can create they said. Oh sorry, you’ve moved to a different school? Those files don’t work here sonny! Literally minutes of effort wasted by the fact that importing and exporting resources doesn’t work properly.

IWB are now a staple in classrooms but their software use seems to have slowed slightly (thankfully). Except if you’re in one of those Academies who insist you use them for all resources. This isn’t all that surprising that people don’t want to work with software on a daily basis that looks like this:

SMART Notebook

I literally don’t know where to begin, so let’s not.

Computer Says No

In the interests of science, I installed both of the main IWB resource creator software onto my personal laptop, all 1.2GB of pure awesome, as relying on their online documentation would as be foolish as taking a Powerpoint, exporting to PDF importing to SMART Notebook!

All software downloaded is the latest version available for Mac OS at the time:
SMART Notebook 14.3 (968.2MB)
ActivInspire 2.3.65940 (a svelte 289.9MB)

The results of the compatibility are below, I looked through the Import and Export menus as well as trying to use the file open dialog to open varying file types.

File format ActivStudio SMART Notebook
Default .flipchart .notebook
Interactive Whiteboard Common File Format (.iwb) Import & export Import
ActivStudio No
SMART Notebook Yes*
Powerpoint No No
PDF Import & export No
Any other weirdness? Imports *SMART v8,9,9.5,10 and SMART Gallery Item File, exports JPEG, BMP No

So in summary, using the official Mac OS clients, you can export from ActivInspire to .iwb and import to SMART Notebook which is hardly without problems… and that’s it. From memory, you can import from Powerpoint on the Windows ActivInspire version but hey, Mac OS is hardly rare in education these days, which brings me nicely onto my next section.

Chapter 3 – Apple

Enough time has passed that we have forgotten Microsoft’s monopoly. Google and Apple have made a dent in the behemoth and we’ve moved onto Computer Science now anyway. From literally nowhere, iPads were being forced down our respective throats, not my students’ I must add, with no bitterness at all.

The problem is the iPad is a truly awful platform for schools, and I say this as a regular user of Apple devices rather than out any anti-Apple sentiment. I can summarise my thoughts in the following table:

Pros Cons
Zillions of apps on the App Store LITERALLY EVERYTHING ELSE

Apple is a notoriously closed ecosystem which includes:

This may be tolerable for a home consumer but it is less than ideal for an educational environment where money is tight and product lifetimes are measured in decades rather than years.

Hardware-wise, the iPad is absolutely fantastic. I challenge you to hand one to a child of any age and not have them being able to use it without adult input. Putting them into a school is where things start to fall down:

There are of course solutions to some of the above, but it’s a pretty bad start out of the box for a school environment. They do look pretty though.

Chapter 4 – Apple Ecosystem

Now we’re all cosy in our Apple ecosystem that needs replacing every 2 years because the batteries are dying, we can start to create our even-more-flashy-than IWB resources using our latest apps.

This is the part that finally spurred me on to remove the seething mass of hatred that is this topic from the not quite deep enough parts of my mind and to make other people read it. I’m an ICT teacher so the technology of the day mentality isn’t a new one to me but being in a school which is itself new where there is few existing technological relics, the incentive to use every trendy app and cloud service available is high. I have even myself gone through about four different “learning platforms”, settled on two, then had to change one as it was now mandatory school-wide. Added to this, as part of a blended learning project, everyone is doing magical things with learning platforms and iPad apps such as Explain Everything, Nearpod and Blendspace. I look on in slight horror to see such time, effort and enthusiasm poured into these services as I cast my watch forward to two years time to think what will either be still used, or still accessible on those relatively new services.

In the same way people are now seeing the dangers of cloud services, I think as educators we should be wary about putting our content into closed systems. This is not because you can’t get your content out, because most of the ones listed in the last paragraph do a much better job than the IWB software, but because our time is better spent.

The question I always ask myself is “why am I making this resource?”. The follow up is “this must have been made 100 times, 100 times better by 100 different people”.

Maybe this is a slightly unique experience as an ICT and Computer Science given that I have changed syllabuses almost every year I’ve taught, and I know as teachers we all like to do things our own way but surely there must be a better way than reimplementing the same material, over and over and over again every time there’s a slightly new shiny platform?

No? I’ll get back to making my screencasted, live-annotated, voice-overed, interactive videos delivered though a paid app on the App Store.

Splash picture: System lock by Yuri Samoilov on Flickr