The Future of Educational Technology: The Conundrum of Tablets, PCs, Smartphones, and the Cloud

My discipline lives and breathes by technology. Personal computers helped revive the discipline of Geography beginning in the 1990’s. Along with rapid advancements in personal computer technology came application development environments such as Microsoft’s Visual Studio. Several companies were poised to avail themselves to rapid changes in personal computing technologies, Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), MapInfo, Intergraph, AutoCAD, and ERDAS. Open source options were few in the 1990’s; only one option occurs to me, GRASS.

Throughout the 1990’s Moore’s Law prevailed. At least every 18 months processing power doubled, prices remained flat or declined. In the Geography discipline, mainframe terminals were replaced by desktop PCs. In my particular case, we replaced UNIX servers and mainframe terminals with a hybrid environment. My institution used Motorola PowerPCs running AIX to provide GIS and remote sensing software with both Sun Microsystems servers running Solaris and Gateways servers running Windows 2000 Server.

Late in the 1990s, we began phasing out our Unix servers in favor of the cheaper and easier to manage Dell PowerEdge servers running Windows 2000 & 2003 Server Editions. Our Motorola PowerPCs were replaced with Gateway desktops, and later were replaced with Dell desktops. Thankfully, hard drive space increased as costs decreased, as the software footprint (the amount of space a program consumes on a hard drive) increased. Additionally, data types, sizes, and formats grew amazingly fast. Student projects and homework assignments that once consumed 100-200mb grew into the gigabytes. One undergraduate student was able to accumulate 11gb of data on her own, in 1999-2000 no less. We pushed a lot of data around in those days. At one point, my center had 10x’s more disk space than the entire IT division of campus.

Today, we are nearly three years deep in the 2nd decade of the 21st century. Both applications and devices have the potential of becoming “spatially-aware.” Spatial awareness encompasses the GPS hardware embedded within electronics, the firmware controlling the hardware, the operating system software providing a software interface to the hardware, the application development environment through which developers create Foursquare, Yelp, and applications for all of us to play with. Additionally, being spatially-aware includes the network, the WI-FI at your local coffeeshop, the cell towers providing 3G and 4G access, and the servers, server appliances, server applications and server infrastructure on the corporate provider-side.

Geography is about nothing else other than spatial awareness, in a nutshell. The entire discipline is concerned with nouns: “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how much.” To answer those questions requires computing power. To teach others how to analyse and interpret results to queries requires computing power.

The question facing Geographers today, especially in Higher Education, as politicians pander to the Ignorant and castigate intellectual pursuits and attack education budgets at all levels – in effect waging a culture war much like the Cultural Revolution in China, albeit milder – is how best to leverage meager budgets to continue educating student populations in inarguably one of the most prolific, intrusive, pervasive, and useful technologies of the early 21st century.

Is the future in desktop computing? Or, is the future tablets? Or, even is the future of the Amazon/Fire variety, whereby our tablet hosts some native applications while more sophisticated processes are shifted into the “Cloud,” churned, re-packaged and delivered back to our client-tablet. Round-trip being about 0.7secs.

As smartphones become increasingly more powerful, the lines between tablets and smartphones will blur, perhaps coalesce into a syncretic appliance, like a Swiss Army Knife, a technological mash-up of VOIP, camera, and computer. Soon, quad-core processor based smartphones will be available. Solid-state hard drives are developing fast, capacities are increasing, and the Cloud is making off-device storage fast, easy, cheap, and convenient.

Chasing technology is not like herding cats. Chasing technology is more like raising children. Technology changes, adapts, modifies, grows, evolves, argues, fights, compliments, competes just like children. Forces exist which affect your child-rearing choices outside of your ability to control. Technological standards change. How many different version of HTML, or Flash, or Java, or operating systems have arisen in the last decade?

For colleges and universities to maintain relevance, IT professionals and faculty are obligated to stay near the crest of the Technology Curve. Does relevance mean servers and virtual desktops using Hyper-V or VMWare or Citrix? Does relevance mean maintaining a quaint traditional desktop computer lab with all applications loaded locally and managed using an enterprise-level system image solution, such as Symantec’s Ghost Solution Suite, or even Microsoft’s Windows Automated Installation Kit (WAIK)? And, what environment is most suitable for teaching, learning, and developing “mobile” – whatever that means – applications for smart, spatially-aware devices?

I wonder, both aloud and here, in bit form, of the directions available to us, and the most appropriate direction for us, as technology educators.

Because, everyone is a geographer. Everyone. Geography is intrinsic to our lives. You cannot exist without using geography any more easily than you could live without your pancreas.

Only a small fraction of us get paid for doing geography, though. PAX.

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