Monday, February 28, 2011

Arguments Against Standardization

JD and I have been sitting around the past couple of months planning, plotting and evangelizing the idea of a BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) program for Brebeuf Jesuit. Our educational passion playing out in terms of equipping students with the critical skills to access, evaluate and use technology tools based on personal learning style and needs. Then Ed Tech Magazine comes along and publishes an article entitled “Standard Issue” by Heather B. Hayes ( – touting the benefits of standardizing technology tools across classrooms. Well did this get us heated up! And so we blog…

From our educational point of view, while we appreciate that standardization can make life easier for IT departments, and to some extent may lower tech anxiety among teachers, we think standardization is a great disservice to our students (…and to any teachers who prefers a Macintosh computer, or the newest processor, or an Android device). With the rise of mobile technologies geared to individualized needs, the earlier we can facilitate access and evaluation of unique tools by our students, the better prepared they will be to make their own technology decisions. Students need to develop the ability to process their information/productivity need, access tools which might meet the need, evaluate the tools to meet that need and analyze the success or failure of the outcomes (say it with me “critical thinking skills”). Handing them a uniform technology platform does not encourage or facilitate this process. The world is not standardized. The world is fluid and the tools students will use every changing. Developing flexibility of technology skills will allow our students to navigate any technology tool.

From our techie point of view, draw-backs to standardization jumped out at us from the article. The economic benefits of standardization espoused by the article only work in a significant way for large school districts. Economy of scale does not kick in for building specific infrastructure. Small schools like Brebeuf Jesuit do not generate sales large enough to make standardization a truly cost saving venture. Furthermore, even for large districts (who admittedly might save money buying 500 interactive whiteboards at once), why would you standardize if you recognize the technology will change in 2 years (note: how silly will these administrators feel if they find out that a computer and wireless projector with 90% of the functionality of an IWB can be purchased for LESS money than a computer, projector, and keep-the-teacher-at-the-front-of-the-room-like-the-good-old-days SMARTBoard)? If you truly commit to standardization, say on laptops, they will all need to be replaced at the same time. Most schools, for financial reasons will make a 20% replacement rotation … this is not standardization. You may have up to 5 generations of technology rotating at any time. Any school district that purchases one large blast of technology will pay for it down the road when replacement hits all at once. Seems short sighted.

At Brebeuf Jesuit, our general approach is a 3-4 year rotation cycle. We replace 1/3 of X with whatever cutting edge is ... it doesn’t give us standardization but it does give us the ability to have 1/3 of our building be state of the art* while the other 2/3rds simply feels a little old. Finally, we can experiment with new technologies** without fear of taking a bath on those that don’t work***. Flexible purchasing not only meets the needs of unique teaching and learning experiences, but allows us to innovate and respond to learner needs in a much more fluid manner. Locking in to a standard platform or device negatively impacts this fluidity (much of the decision making process might be outlined in another post, but when the teachers and students drive the decision making, the conversation becomes more about universal accessibility to programs, data, and hardware…and occasionally Adobe Flash).

We agree that standardization can make life much easier for the hardware techs. For example, we have universal projector mounts in our classrooms. We can change projectors to meet the needs of teachers, the budget, and the network as a whole without changing the mounts each year. But we chose to buy universal mounts to provide the flexibility to buy projectors that meet the needs of the classroom that grows and expands.

The needs of teaching and learning must be the paramount decision maker – not comfort level of the IT department.

* This year’s “State of the Art” were the Lenovo touchscreen tablets with stylus and/or finger input
** Independent pilots are being run with iPad, GalaxyTab, cloud-based online solutions (Microsoft Live@edu), etc.
*** The last classroom based IWB was purchased by the school seven years ago. Currently 2 of the 15 whiteboards are used as anything more than a screen, clicker, and rough note taker. Microsoft OneNote and stylus based tablet computing is the standard in most classrooms.

IWB - Interactive White Board