Why Schools don't need ICT

I have written an article in this month's ATL magazine that seems to be causing something of a stir.

You can read the full article here.

The closing paragraphs read as follows:

Our schools are now a desert swept with the winds of yesterday's technology; meanwhile our students can be found drinking from an oasis of smartphones, smart apps and smart interfaces. They have answers to questions we haven't even dared to ask. They outsmart us at every turn.

Teenagers upgrade their mobile phone every 12 months. Even the socially disadvantaged are one step ahead of their school's ICT. That's not a problem. That's a huge opportunity schools should grasp. It's an opportunity to save money and upgrade our thinking about ICT.

Even last year's smartphone will operate as a calculator. And a book reader. It will translate the Bible from the original Hebrew and can differentiate Sin(x). It can pinpoint both the Battle of Hastings and the Belt of Orion. It will act as a word processor, a piano and a spirit level. Not bad for a bit of kit that your school didn't purchase and doesn't maintain.

Schools don't need ICT. It's coming through our doors every day. We just need to adopt and adapt a little bit.

Unfortunately, you can't leave comments on the ATL pages.

But feel free to comment here. Or on Twitter - I'm @IanYorston.


You can follow much of the debate that was prompted by my article from this thoughtful response by The Angry Technician.

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Updating Old-Fashioned Technology

Just occasionally I find myself needing to revert to old technology. Like writing letters. Or sending faxes.

Which is difficult if you are averse to paper.

Step forward two cool services that make my life a little easier.

1. L-Mail. This lets me write letters by e-mail (or via a web interface) which are then printed, stuck in an envelope and posted by hand. Neat. I can even choose from which country they are posted. Which is fun. I can pretend to be in India and send birthday cards to my children.

2. PopFax. This lets me send (and receive) faxes from my computer. Either scanned files (photos, handwritten notes, etc) or standard desktop files (.pdf, .doc, etc).

Both services are web-based, cheap and efficient.

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How much ? NHS spends money like water on ICT

According to the Guardian "BT Group will next month become the third major contractor in as many years to take a multimillion pound writedown on its work with the government's crisis-stricken GDP12.7bn overhaul of the NHS computer system."

This is the most astonishing amount of money.

The NHS is pretty much the biggest employer in Europe. There are something like 1,330,000 employed by the wider NHS - of whom some 133,000 are Doctors.

Yet despite that vast workforce we could (takes deep breath) give every-single-one of those employees TWO top-of-the range laptops (one for work and one for home) AND an iPhone each - and still have some change left over from GDP2.7bn.

Leaving some GDP10bn to spend on connecting them all up...

Let's look at that one more time. Two laptops and iPhone for every single NHS employee, and still have GDP10 Billion left over.

For pity's sake, who runs these contracts?

Because we sure know who's paying for it all.

Update - June 2011 - "NHS Chief Information Officer - Christine Connelly - in dramatic resignation. Terminal crisis for £11.4bn National Programme for IT?" ComputerWorldUK
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The Future of ICT

It's becoming ever more obvious that the future of ICT lies with Web Based Applications. Facebook, Google, Amazon, Flickr, Twitter, etc If you want to keep an eye on the future then you could do a lot worse than to have a look at this list of the best web-based apps of 2008. It is worth noting that Google appears in just about every category (bear in mind that Picassa, Blogger and YouTube are all Google products - and iLike is essentially a Google product). Also note that Amazon do a lot more than just sell books, music and DVDs; they're rapidly becoming a major force in the ICT world.

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Why iTunes matters, and how it happened.

Once upon a time there was a really neat program for the Apple Mac. It played your music. It shuffled songs and albums. And it was called SoundJam.

Apple bought it - re-badged it - and iTunes was born. The rest, as they say, is History.

Or, more to the point, the rest is the Future of Computing for the next 10 years or so.

Because Apple have leveraged iTunes into the interface of choice for every form of content that you might want. Music, Film, TV, PodCasts, Lectures. You name it (er, "Books?" I hear you cry), and Apple have figured how to put it on your iPod. And as the iPod (and now the iPhone) has become the smart device of choice, so iTunes has become the interface that everyone uses.

For content.

And as everyone knows (and Sony learned) content is king.

But actually, that's changing. Because now the iPhone is actually a computer - it runs Apple's OS X operating system and is well on the way to functioning as a fully fledged laptop/tablet. And that means that, well, iTunes is growing into something more.

It's now the conduit for all the functionality you wanted.

Apple have had the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) triumvirate covered for a while. But now they have a hotline to every Form and Function you might possibly want.

Neat.

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Downgrading to Vista

According to Microsoft, XP has one or two problems that just might mean you want to upgrade to Vista. Personally I'd recommended you upgrade to a Mac and run OS X - but I'll leave you to read Microsoft's own views on their own issues - or, as one colleague put it, "here are some reasons why Microsoft reckon that XP is rubbish".


How to Justify a Desktop Upgrade: This article outlines how IT managers can make a case for upgrading the OS, with a focus on practical tips

Standardizing on the latest operating system and having enough RAM to support everyone’s applications would make your life so much easier and more productive. It could also make your systems efficient and secure. Sounds like an easy decision, right?

But, in fact, convincing business managers to upgrade company desktops or migrate them to a newer operating system can sometimes be a very hard sell. Often, management cannot see the value in spending money on something that, from their perspective, already runs smoothly the way it is.

Bruce Johnson, principal consultant with Toronto-based ObjectSharp Consulting, and a 25-year veteran of the computer industry, has spent the past 14 years on projects at the leading edge of Windows-based technology. He has some useful insights on how IT can talk to management in a language they will understand – especially when it comes to spending money in order to save money.

In Summary:

• New security features alone (such as enhanced Group Policy capabilities) can make upgrades worthwhile – know in advance what reacting to security issues is currently costing you

• When selling an upgrade, be sure to divide your reasons into clearly defined benefit “categories”

• Start slow – a phased in approach may be easier to sell than a large-scale upgrade

Security is the message

According to Johnson, management may not be aware that the most compelling reason to migrate to a newer operating system, such as Windows Vista, is to take advantage of the latest security features.

“The problems with positioning upgrades is that, from a user perspective, the changes may not seem significant. But from an administrative perspective, some of the security features are huge,” he said.

“So, as an IT person, who is responsible for the security of the company from viruses and for making sure that everyone is safe, there are many features in Windows Vista that I like. It does a great job of keeping people from being able to browse certain sites. It protects from viruses, because there are a lot more things that will get locked down, and the lock down tends to be tighter. You have a tougher time having things happen accidentally. Probably the biggest hassle from a security perspective [with past technologies] is that users tended to run as administrators. In Vista, that’s not the default anymore.”

The challenges

Johnson said upgrades can be challenging for IT as well. It requires the team to be a lot more involved in the installation and testing of the individual machines, because users are typically not going to be the administrators. Users may also be resistant to this idea at first, because they can no longer download all those fun, quirky applications that may, inadvertently, make their machines vulnerable.

“We have a bit of a Catch 22 here because, as much as people complain about their perceived lack of security, as soon as you try to do something to make it more secure, the users don’t want this, because it keeps them from doing all the things that they have always done,” adds Johnson.

Another challenge is the fact that the OS install requires more RAM, so IT also has to convince management to upgrade the desktops to support this. “That can be problematic for large companies, because it can get expensive.”

The hidden cost of vulnerability

What management may not realize, however, is that they are already paying a hefty hidden cost by having outdated systems in place, “because you are paying for an administrator’s time to deal with these issues,” Johnson said. The trick is to show management this in a way that translates into dollars saved.

“It’s a hard sell, because security is not a line item on their income or expense sheets. There also is not a line item that says they lost, say, $100,000 on their security problem last year. Or lost staff productivity because people had viruses on their machines,” he said.

Make a list

Johnson says as a first step, before even talking to management, IT first needs to classify and itemize the work that they do in several categories: improved productivity, security breaches, recovering from problems, etc. and then start dropping them into categories. “Once they do this, they can then start to map how much of it falls into the areas that Windows Vista, for example, may very well have been able to prevent from happening.”

Save me the money

So how do you convince management to buy new machines, or upgrade the RAM and get the latest OS, if what they are doing right now seems to work OK?

Johnson said that they have to realize that they are going to have to move there eventually, in order to match the capabilities of their competitors. And once they see the cost savings they could be gaining by the increased security and productivity, they will be more open to the idea of upgrading. Even if they are not ready to do an end-to-end migration just yet, they can build the OS migration into a succession plan, and do a few machines at a time.

Proactive versus reactive

The best thing about the upgrades, once they are done, is that administrators will have more time to devote to preventing problems before they happen, Johnson said.

“The increase in security – the inability for users to just simply install stuff, means that you are decreasing the amount of reactive tasks that an administrator has to perform,” said Johnson. “This allows him to become proactive in all things you want in your company.”

I've quoted the whole of the Microsoft page for two reasons: firstly as a public service on behalf of Microsoft; secondly, because I'm darn sure that Microsoft Canada will take down the source page pretty soon...


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Moore's Law continues... now Teraflops chip points to a faster future

Moore's Law suggests that computers double in power every 18 months or so.

But then the BBC report this:

A chip with 80 processing cores and capable of more than a trillion calculations per second (teraflops) has been unveiled by Intel.

The Teraflops chip is not a commercial release but could point the way to more powerful processors, said the firm. The chip achieves performance on a piece of silicon no bigger than a fingernail that 11 years ago required a machine with 10,000 chips inside it.

[...]

The first time teraflop performance was achieved was 11 years ago on the ASCI Red Supercomputer built by Intel for the Sandia National Laboratory. That machine took up more than 2,000 square feet, was powered by almost 10,000 Pentium Pro processors, and consumed more than 500 kilowatts of electricity.

The new Teraflops chip uses less electricity than many current high-end processors, making the design attractive for use in home computers. It consumes 62 watts, and the cores can power on and off independently, making it more energy efficient.

I'll leave you do the sums yourself - but Moore's Law suggests that computers improve by a factor of 10 every 5 years. In educational terms that is pretty significant because it tends to be the length of time that a student stays in each stage of their education...

So it should take approximately 20 years to get an improvement of 10,000 times baseline. Yet here are Intel suggesting that they have workable technology that is 10,000 times better than hardware they were producing 11 years ago.

Even allowing for a couple of years to get this off the workbench and into a workstation it looks as if technology is running ahead of Moore's Law.

Stand by for some seriously smart machines. And ask how your local school is even beginning to prepare for the implications...

Link: BBC Technology.

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Scientists teleport two different objects - Oct 4, 2006

CNN.com reports that Scientists have managed a significant development in teleportation; this is one of those stories that may begin to look really, really important in retrospect.

Beaming people in "Star Trek" fashion is still in the realms of science fiction, but physicists in Denmark have teleported information from light to matter bringing quantum communication and computing closer to reality.

Until now scientists have teleported similar objects such as light or single atoms over short distances from one spot to another in a split second.

But Professor Eugene Polzik and his team at the Niels Bohr Institute at Copenhagen University in Denmark have made a breakthrough by using both light and matter.

"It is one step further because for the first time it involves teleportation between light and matter, two different objects. One is the carrier of information and the other one is the storage medium," Polzik explained in an interview on Wednesday.

The experiment involved for the first time a macroscopic atomic object containing thousands of billions of atoms. They also teleported the information a distance of half a meter but believe it can be extended further.

[...]

"It is really about teleporting information from one site to another site. Quantum information is different from classical information in the sense that it cannot be measured. It has much higher information capacity and it cannot be eavesdropped on. The transmission of quantum information can be made unconditionally secure," said Polzik whose research is reported in the journal Nature.

Quantum computing requires manipulation of information contained in the quantum states, which include physical properties such as energy, motion and magnetic field, of the atoms.

"Creating entanglement is a very important step, but there are two more steps at least to perform teleportation. We have succeeded in making all three steps -- that is entanglement, quantum measurement and quantum feedback," he added.

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