As many readers have pointed out, I haven't been posting as frequently as I used to. In fact, this is going to be one of my last stories on ZDNet Education as my career shifts and takes me in some new directions. It's appropriate, then, that this story, related to Sean Portnoy's news yesterday about Dell's new Latitude 3330 ultrabook for schools and small businesses, represents many aspects of what I've been advocating for over the last several years in this blog:
Reasonable, standards-aligned assessments
Choice in technology, allowing schools to design hardware and software solutions that best meet their particular needs
Requirements first, then platform, then (and only then) hardware
Technology that solves problems for schools and enhances teaching and learning, rather than technology for the sake of technology.
I've been a fan of Dell hardware for many years, and have deployed more than my share of Dell machines. My current primary tablet is a Latitude 10 Essentials (its Windows 8 tablet targeted at schools). My geek heart is filled with gadget lust for its new XPS 18 super-tablet. I'm no fanboi, though. I'm typing this on an HP mobile workstation that rocks out loud and is my main computer. Various members of my family use everything from a Lenovo desktop to an Acer laptop to chromebooks to MacBook Pros, and I've had good luck with all of them (and more) in education settings. What really continues to impress me about Dell is how educational pain points are driving its products, services, and solutions, rather than simply shoehorning its existing enterprise stack into schools.
The Latitude 3330 is a great example. The aforementioned Latitude 10 is already a solid tool for schools and works well for 1:1, younger students, and teachers. However, the upcoming Common Core-aligned assessments being rolled out in many states in 2014, all of which are administered electronically, need an easily managed testing environment, especially in schools that can't afford 1:1 or extensive, elaborate labs. So Dell did a couple of things:
Put together a team of former teachers and school CIOs, who developed a framework for assessing district readiness for these exams
Made sure that schools could leverage existing hardware, tablets (including the Latitude 10) if it suited their situation, or low-cost, highly manageable laptops like the 3330
Outlined a use case with its new Mobile Computing Cart to support the new assessments with a turnkey mobile testing environment; schools where space, funds, or other resources are an issue can roll a set of the 3330s into a classroom or testing site, fully charged and centrally configured, potentially using Dell's simple KACE management tools to save time for IT and instructors
Added cost-saving, performance-improving hardware like hybrid hard drives, so students can get to work quickly and on hardware that schools can afford.
If it sounds like I'm raving about Dell here, I am. Other OEMs should be following its lead in taking very realistic, hands-on, problem-driven approaches to student computing. For their part, schools shouldn't be rushing to make 1:1 happen at all costs (although I think most of us agree that 1:1 is both the ideal and the goal). I've seen schools lay off good teachers to fund technology implementations. However, when OEMs respect the real-world budget, time, and resource constraints facing most schools, then it becomes much easier for schools to find solutions for providing technology to students without sacrificing art, music, sports, or even entire teacher positions for the sake of technology that may end up underutilized anyway without the right training, use cases, and learning platforms.
The bottom line is that the 3330 is great, but what's greater is that schools can make tablets available where appropriate, laptops can be available where physical keyboards are still necessary or 1:1 becomes cost-prohibitive, or desktops/thin clients can be deployed where lab space is easier to come by than money. Computers are just a tool, albeit valuable tools that are also now required for a growing number of assessments. As always, it's the students and teachers who need to come first, supported by the best tech for the job (and not just the tech that many people think students automatically need without fully assessing).