Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tipping Point Technologies

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Gartner, the world's leading IT research and advisory company, produces a "Hype Cycle" Report: each year.  Gartner tracks over 1900 technologies and uses the Hype Cycle graphic to highlight common patterns of technology adoption.  Often when a new technology is launched, early adopters jump on-board with sometimes inflated expectations of what the technology can actually do or how it can be used.  This can be swiftly followed by a "trough of disillusionment" before the technology improves and possibly drops in price.  Eventually as the technology becomes mainstream it rises up the "slope of enlightenment" and eventually reaches the "plateau of productivity".

A good example of this could be tablet PCs.  When I first started teaching at NIST in 2005, a 1:1 tablet programme was introduced in the high school.  Teachers and students were keen to embrace this as they saw that tablet PCs provided many opportunities that other schools hadn't yet  recognised.  Of course there were problems and it's fair to say that during the teething problems some did get disillusioned (teachers rather than students), but as we pushed through these issues we learned from our mistakes, and as we subsequently rolled out the tablets to more and more grade levels, these got ironed out.

Using the Hype Cycle model it's clear to see that there can be intense pressure to adopt a new technology at the peak of  inflated expectations.  Often technologies that are adopted at this point may not be suitable or their implementation may not have been properly thought out.  One example of this is schools adopting iPads and then asking "what can we do with them?", rather than starting with what they want students to be able to do and asking "is this the best tool?"  Adopting at the peak of over-enthusiasm can work, but there may be better uses of resources at that time.

The real challenge with new technology is deciding when to adopt.  It can be great to get in before the mainstream, but if so then it's also important to stick with it and not abandon it through the trough.  My school in Thailand was an early adopter of many new technologies:  mobile devices, cloud computing, Web 2.0 tools, social media and so on.  For me the hard thing when I left there and moved to Switzerland was to deal with moving from such a forward looking school to a place where the focus was on the limiting factors.  I was told that cloud computing would fail, that the school did not support even investigating the possibilities of a 1:1 laptop programme, that social media was regarded with suspicion and that as much as possible was locked down.  In my second year there I struggled even to have something as mainstream as Google Apps for Education accepted, even though that was clearly well over the hype phase.

What should we be looking forward to now?  The Hype Cycle Report this year talks about us being at a tipping point as many technologies are now maturing and coming together. Hung LeHong, the research vice president at Gartner says "We are at an interesting moment, a time when many of the scenarios we've been talking about for a long time are almost becoming reality." We now have internet TV, speech to speech translations, augmented reality, gesture control, natural language question and answers, speech recognition, image recognition, cashless transactions using smartphones and so on.  Companies and schools are starting BYOD by giving employees stipends to use their own devices and in the case of schools are requiring that students provide their own computers. BYOD is also evolving into BYOE (Bring Your Own Everything). A few years ago when I first heard about 3D printing and its use in the US military for producing spare parts for armaments,it  seemed like something out of Star Trek.  Now it is a reality.  You can print physical objects such as toys or household items by buying a design and then making the items on your own 3D printer- this of course is going to have enormous implications for world trade if you can now simply buy a design and make it locally. We are at the tipping point of new products and services, new markets and business opportunities.  We need to rethink our approaches to challenges.  Education will have to move with the times.  Like the dinosaurs, schools that do not adapt may simply disappear as online schools that embrace the new technologies capture an increasing share of the market for education.

Image of the Hype Cycle from Gartner Newsroom

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