Schools and Compatibility With the Business World

My role as a Chief Technology Officer has been with a somewhat unique organization, at least with regard to their having a CTO. I have been the CTO of a medium-sized not-for-profit agency that serves individuals with neurological impairments, learning disabilities, and autism. Most such agencies do not have a CTO, but this one's founder and Executive Director felt that technology was so critical to the organization's future that she appointed me to transition us from having isolated pockets of technology deployment to having an integrated world-class technology operation. I think we have met her charge. Our receipt of a 2000 CIO 50/50 Web Award was confirmation that at least we are on a good track.

Anyhow, one of the interesting aspects of the role was in managing technology for a school environment. Roughly half of the organization's budget was used for operating a K-12 school for students with disabilities. There are many aspects of managing technology in schools that are different from what you would find in a regular business environment. Managing the school's involvement in the Federal government's E-Rate program is but one of the unique challenges. E-Rate is a very beneficial program that provides to schools discounts on communications technology. While beneficial, I have not been personally involved in any activity that generates anywhere close to the paperwork this one does.

The agency has long been overwhelmingly Macintosh-based in terms of its desktop deployments. While this occasionally presents some challenges in terms of software availability, at the same time I am absolutely convinced that by choosing Macintosh we reduced our need for support-related personnel by at least half, and probably by two-thirds. Over the years we have run every version of Windows since 3.0 and every version of Mac OS since 6.0, so we have had the ability to weigh the comparable cost of support for each platform. The Macs just simply require less care and feeding, which reduces support needs, which saves money. Important for any organization, yes, but saving money is truly of paramount importance in resource scarce human service organizations.

I have also been involved in technology at my children's elementary school. Some years ago now, their district decided to move exclusively to Windows largely, but not exclusively, on the belief that the students should have experience on the computing platform they would most likely find in their future workplace. While there are indeed some sound reasons for arriving at a decision to primarily deploy Windows, this is not one of them. Technology changes at such a rapid pace that it is a general familiarity and an ability to apply skills to problems that we should be striving to teach our students.

Let us take a look a few of the primary tasks people use computers for. We will look first at the really easy cases, then move to the slightly less easy ones.

These days the most critical tool I use is the Web browser, once ridiculed by no less than Bill Gates as a trivial application to develop. Perhaps, but this simple application is usually the second one I use in the morning and the last that I use in the evening. I use the browser to get news, do research, find answers to problems, access applications, and sometimes even for entertainment. The modern browser, while indeed simple, is probably my favorite application of all time and the one I find most indispensible.

Back to school. Since Internet Explorer dominates the "market," as if there is a browser market, it stands to reason that we should make sure all of our kids are exposed to it in school, right? I would say not necessarily. Absolutely, they should be exposed to the Internet and Web browsers. However, browsers are among the easiest of applications to use, so the training cost of using another one is small to begin with. Second, all of the browsers out there work very much the same. Again, that makes switching an "inexpensive" matter. Finally, with Microsoft no longer feeling any competitive pressure, they have essentially stopped innovating, despite their reserved right to do so, in the browser space. Mozilla Firebird, Camino, Safari, and Opera all demonstrate more innovation than the current "king of the hill." Arguably, students would be better served using one of these browsers as they more likely signal the future if it is true that they should be using what they will use in the future. Or, something like that.

Of course, the browser software itself is not the issue. What we need to teach students is how to use the Web as a resource. They need to know how to find information and how to sort out what is valuable and what is not. These skills are not by any means platform-specific.

E-mail, too, is simple and easy. Once set up, which can present a minor challenge, but generally only for people over forty, most students take to e-mail like a fish to water regardless of the application used. In fact, students of middle school age and older probably could teach the school staff a few things about the best ways to use computers to communicate. At least that has been my experience.

Which brings us to word processing and spreadsheets. Best I can tell, these applications essentially reached their peaks sometime in the early 1990s. In fact, I maintain that the best versions of each were Microsoft's Excel 4.0 and Word 5.1a for the Macintosh. This was back in the days when Windows was still overwhelmingly "clunky" and the Macintosh was the only good option if you wanted to use a graphical user interface. If Microsoft had done nothing but minor enhancements and maintained platform compatibility, few people would ever need anything more. Indidentally, I have spent some time with Gnumeric, the GNOME spreadsheet, and like it very much as it reminds me of Excel when that product was great. Now if someone would only port it over to Mac OS X, which is my preferred desktop environment, so that I could actually make use of this fine product.

Thus, there has been precious little innovation in these application spaces, at least in terms of features. We should, therefore, teach our children the basic skills needed to use these applications as the tools they are and feel comfortable that they can figure out how to apply to skills to different programs. Indeed, it seems that it is only the interface to the core features that changes, and, arguably, the changes are made primarily to drive upgrade revenue for the producing vendor. If this cynical viewpoint is accurate, then it is again reasonable to conclude that by the time a student graduates, the interface will have changed enough that it really doesn't matter what version he or she used in school. Rather, again, it is important that they have the application skills so that the computer is a tool for writing and numerical analysis.

Finally, there is a notion out there about platforms being special with regard to basic operations, such as file manipulation. While there are more differences in this regard than there are between different offerings within a class of applications, the differences are mainly superficial. For better or worse, all of the primary file systems in use today utilize a hierarchical organization model. Getting people to understand to organize things in hierarchies is typically the difficult part of teaching them to save, find, and open files. The interface is usually trivial once people grasp the concept of a hierarchy.

Additionally, each filesystem has a notion of a "home" user directory. They have similar mechanisms for managing files. Again, the interfaces are different, and perhaps more so than the interfaces of applications as discussed above. Thus, it may take users a little bit longer to get used to a new filesystem interface. However, even if a school standardizes on Windows, it is likely that Microsoft will change the interface enough every few years that going from one version of Windows to another is likely to be as difficult as going from Windows to something else.

The bottom line is that schools should be driven in their technology planning by issues other than compatibility with the business world. Microsoft Windows may indeed be the best choice for schools that value highly the broadest availability of applications. But, if total cost of ownership is the most critical aspect of the decision, then an alternative platform may represent a better choice. By the time a school's students graduate, the available platforms, due to competition, will have changed sufficiently enough that interface knowledge will be of marginal value. We need to focus our schools on the teaching of skills and not the teaching of Windows. Knowing Windows is not a skill, at least not for end users. And, if it is a skill, then something is seriously wrong with how we design computer interfaces.