The Ecosystem Wins In Educational Mobile - InformationWeek

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2/4/2015
01:25 PM
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The Ecosystem Wins In Educational Mobile

Educators and their tech staff look to management ecosystems rather than device features when it comes to making mobile device decisions.

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When you look at advertisements for, and articles about, new laptop computers and mobile devices, the words tend to focus on "speeds and feeds" -- the performance and features of the hardware. When you talk to educators and professionals about those same devices, performance and features tend not to come up.

Why is there such a disconnect?

When I spoke with educational and IT support professionals at the recent FETC conference in Orlando, Fla., a common theme showed up in their comments. None were concerned at all about the performance of the various devices under consideration and, aside from a handful of basic needs, the feature set wasn't of tremendous concern.

What was high on their list of needs was the easy use of an entire fleet of the devices with regards to configuration, deployment, and management. The ecosystem, in short, was "the thing."

Walking around the expo floor at the conference was an eye-opening experience for anyone used to dealing with mobile devices in single-digit quantities. There were carts for recharging and synchronizing tablets a hundred at a time, systems for disinfecting tablets (from real pathogens, not malware), and system after system for managing the configuration and permissions of tablets. Looking at those management systems went a long way toward explaining why consistency matters far more than "best of breed" features in the minds of many educational purchasers.

In talking with attendees and exhibitors at the recent educational conference FETC 2015, I heard technology staff, educators, and vendors all repeatedly say that a consistent, manageable ecosystem explained past purchases and continues to drive plans for future deployment. One word in that sentence -- consistent -- may well go a long way toward explaining why Apple's operating systems have grown in large organizations while more open systems like Android have struggled to reach the same level of enterprise penetration.

A 'walled garden' maintains order but reduces the open nature of the ecosystem.
A "walled garden" maintains order but reduces the open nature of the ecosystem.

Apple's "walled garden" approach has come under criticism from those who prefer a more open approach to software, but it has resulted in tremendous consistency in the version of software in use by the installed base. Microsoft has used a similar approach through its hardware partners to build on its large presence in the educational field. The upstart, Google's ChromeOS, has many of the same consistency advantages coupled with the allure of relatively inexpensive thin clients. The only major client operating system left out of the mix is Android, and consistency plays a role in this, as well.

As of this writing there are more than 33 variants of Android from Gingerbread up through the current Lollipop. While some of these are relatively minor feature upgrades, many have significant user bases. The range of different features and interfaces makes it challenging for IT staff to create and deploy applications and systems that work across a reasonable range of devices.

Among the devices running each operating system there are fast, full-featured products with cameras, screen, memory capacities, and storage options that can be shown to be better than those of devices running other operating systems. For most educational purposes, there are many devices that would work perfectly well. The deciding factors for schools and school districts, then, are the ease of deployment and management, with reliability and vendor (or partner) support next.

Very open systems can result in great provider diversity at a cost of greater chaos and less standardization in user and programmer interfaces.
Very open systems can result in great provider diversity at a cost of greater chaos and less standardization in user and programmer interfaces.

What kind of deployment and management gets the attention of educators?

The ability to put 100 tablets into a cart that simultaneously charges and synchronizes all of them with a teacher's system matters. Devices tend to win favor among educational IT staff that attach to the central authentication server and fit into the school's security and policy-enforcement systems in a consistent matter -- regardless of the precise hardware version. Devices that present a consistent user experience and software development interface regardless of differences in screen dimensions or form factors will continue to be popular at proposal time.

[Chromebooks are a win for one school. Check out how it happened.]

My grandfather was fond of saying, "Good enough is hard to beat." Educators and educational technology staff seem to have embraced that sentiment in choosing devices to put into the hands of students and faculty. The devices are good enough: The battle is for the mobile management ecosystem.

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Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio
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Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
2/5/2015 | 5:19:38 PM
Re: Simplicity often beats functionality
Li Tan, I agree, if IT does not have to be involved, every time a login has to be generated, it will create savings because IT can focus on tasks that deliver greater value. This can be viewed as automation at the IT end, but it won't be automation in the true sense. Another area that I feel is important at the educator's end is analytical tools, because educator's are the professionals on the ground that actually implement new initiatives, and if they have good tools to measure the results of their efforts, then they can refine and modify their processes to deliver greater value and/or transfer of knowledge. 
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
2/5/2015 | 5:03:20 PM
Re: Schools vs. Universities
@Curt, great point about the challenges that are created in the IT environment as we enter higher education, which tends to be specialized and focused on unique needs. In a small town, that has for instance, 5,000 inhabitants, the notion of a specialized Halloween costume store would not make a good business plan, but with the way global markets are evolving and globalization is transforming industries, I feel, that these specialized higher education departments are very important for introducing individuals to the types of jobs that will be available in the future.

However, if resources are not deployed towards the IT infrastructure at an optimal level, and users/customers/clients are forced to utilize their personal devices, then I feel that down the road, it will be viewed as a missed opportunity.
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
2/5/2015 | 9:53:39 AM
Re: Simplicity often beats functionality
@Li Tan, you're exactly right: While many resources are constrained in most educational environments, skilled IT personnel can be among the most rightly limited. If schools can find total systems that minimize the management effort and allow teachers to push some configuration changes rather than waiting for IT, then it's a "win" for everyone.
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
2/5/2015 | 9:49:05 AM
Re: Schools vs. Universities
@Brian.Dean, universities can easily be some of the most challenging environments for IT precisely because so many researchers and professors have "unique needs" that require them to choose hardware and software outside the normal fleet parameters. I've seen this from both sides: I've done a great deal of product research in and around university environments so I've seen the chaos that the system anarchy brings, but when I was a grad student just a few years ago the computers the university provided in grad offices were so old that I always worked on my personal system. Sigh.
Li Tan
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Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
2/5/2015 | 12:32:43 AM
Re: Simplicity often beats functionality
For education, the performance will not be a big concern - all mainstream product can fulfill this needs. I can understand that the key factor is ease of use - otherwise the IT staff needs to spend tremendous effort in configuration/deployment and also troubleshooting.
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
2/4/2015 | 3:34:51 PM
Re: Simplicity often beats functionality
@Stratustician, I think that we're seeing human resources as the limiting factor in an awful lot of schools. A one-person IT staff for a school (and just a handful of folks for a district) is something I hear about quite often. These small staffs will lean on integrators for the initial deployment then look for something that's very easy to maintain and manage -- and, in general, something that will allow the teachers to make necessary adjustments without the intervention of the staff.

And you're right -- the integrated back-ends are getting better so the trade-off is smaller (unless you're just philosophically committed to a more open solution).
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
2/4/2015 | 2:13:49 PM
Schools vs. Universities
The perspective of the educators is a great take away and it makes perfect sense -- if the transfer of knowledge is based on text, audio, video, graphics and interaction, then the differences between a device that has, for instance, 1 GB of ram vs. a device that has 2 GB of ram is of little concern. The software should focus on the lower end because, that's where the mass resides in the market. Facebook's mobile app is a good example here, they write their mobile app with 512mb of ram in mind -- maybe, that's what their data is indicating towards. And, one of the reasons for Windows Vista to fail was because it required extremely powerful hardware for its time.

Universities on the other hand are a bit of a mixed bag, the majority of departments can benefit from the standardization of mobile devices. However, they will be a few departments that require a unique ecosystem. For example, a department that specializes in teaching, Big Data skills, will requires the Big Data, infrastructure (cloud resources) as well devices that have already been experimented by companies such as, SalesForce and SAS, etc. 
Stratustician
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Stratustician,
User Rank: Ninja
2/4/2015 | 2:00:09 PM
Simplicity often beats functionality
Working in a space where I talk to many organizations about mobile deployments, I can definitely mirror many of these points.  It seems simplicity is really high on the list when it comes to being able to manage and deploy across multiple devices, and having less variables (such as different software builds) is preferred.  That being said, there are many great case studies where leveraging different tools such as security solutions that have tools to support mobile device-heavy environments, things like Apple DEP which can simplify deployment and management platforms that allow for better integration of different device platforms with in-house applications, there is still lots of flexibility that can be had across different platforms.  It really depends on risk tolerance, and whether it makes sense due to often limited IT resources, to maintain individual devices or to look at ecosystem solutions for mobility management.
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