Last week an email passed though my inbox that said something like “my district is buying the latest shiny new computing gadget. What software should I get to teach computer science on it?” OK now I am a software guy and biased towards software but this question seems all wrong to me. I’ve always believed that first you figure out what software you need to solve your problem (or teach your course) and then you find the operating system and hardware that software runs on. As I Tweeted last night “Asking what software should I buy for my computer is like asking what kind of car should I buy for my tires.”
What far too many people, and unfortunately far too many people spending scarce educational technology dollars, are doing is finding some hardware and in effect saying “this is magic – let’s find some problems that it solves!” Now 38 years of using computers has taught me that once you have a computer and some software you will find all sorts of solutions to all sorts of problems many of which you didn’t know you had. But that is not the way to invest scarce money. I believe one should start with the problems they know about and look for solutions to those. Generally the software comes first. Those times when it doesn’t the software usually comes with the hardware. For example if you need sensors for physics class it will probably come with software. So here you want to find a computer that supports this hardware and software. Picking the computer first and saying “ok now let’s find a sensor and software that runs on it” does not seem to me to be a good idea.
The other thing that I see which is almost as bad is a hardware and software combination for a new purpose – bought together so they work perfectly – and then telling people with existing computers to find some way (after the fact) to do what they used to do but on the new hardware and software. I have seen cases where schools have replaced labs without warning instructors who show up to school to find that the software they used in the past no longer works in the new lab. Worse still, the textbooks that they can not replace for 5 more years are also now useless. Sometimes excitement over new “solutions” causes people to ignore what was working previously. This is a failure to think holistically.
Picking the software can be tricky enough as it is. I know one school that went with some “free” software only to find that none of the accommodations and accessibility tools they needed to support special needs students were available for this software. Fortunately they didn’t change the hardware and OS so were able to go back to the previous tool. But again narrow thinking, in this case only on purchase cost, caused long term problems.
Selecting software and hardware for schools is more complicated than buying for home use. A lot more complicated. I recommend starting with software for him use as well but really for schools and businesses it seems to me to be absolutely essential.