Dell brings platform first to education, hardware second

Dell's next-gen learning platform marks a very important tipping point for ed tech, where hardware follows tech-enabled pedagogy and best practices, rather than the other way around.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

A week ago, Dell made headlines by claiming that it was no longer just a PC company, but was, in fact, an IT company. While ZDNet's Larry Dignan pointed out that their revenue, for now, remains largely hardware-driven, it's clear that Dell has a new strategy around both its hardware sales and the services it now provides. Perhaps the best evidence of this is in the new platforms they will be rolling out to educational institutions this spring.

I've never exactly been a Dell detractor. Overall, they consistently deliver solid hardware at very affordable price points. Until recently, this has been a surefire formula for success in education. However, as schools increasingly look to the cloud for cost savings and readily available tools that can be accessed by students, teachers, parents, and administrators alike, decent inexpensive hardware is no longer enough. Dell clearly recognizes this and is taking a very different approach from that of most other hardware companies in the education market.

The Platform Back at the end of 2010, I had the first of many conversations with Adam Garry, Dell's top educational evangelist. It led to our tech predictions for 2011, where arguably the best prediction (actually, more of an opinion than anything, but one that clearly foreshadowed Dell's current direction) was that "1:1 should be a learning initiative instead of a tech initiative". This seems like a no-brainer, but, in fact, countless schools provide or mandate devices for students and then figure out what to do with them later. It becomes tech for the sake of tech, simply because this is the 21st Century and every student should have a laptop (or a tablet, or whatever), right?

Though still under development and with many details under embargo, Dell's "Next Generation Learning Platform", announced earlier this year, not only appears to be one heck of an outstanding LMS, but a compelling framework for tech-enabled learning and teaching. Moreover, it brings to the table a suite of tools that encourages outcomes-based education and ongoing formative assessment rather than the teach-to-the-test approach that has characterized education since NCLB became law.

Aligning content drawn from a variety of resources for teachers, parents, and students with standards, learning styles, and particular needs identified by regular assessment, the learning platform provides what Dell refers to as truly personalized educational tools. I had a chance to take a sneak peak at the platform last week and, aside from its slick web interface that will lend itself to both younger and older students, as well as to both tablets and PCs of varying sizes, I was blown away by the sheer thoughtfulness of the whole thing.

More details will follow when press embargoes lift, but suffice to say that it's very clear that Dell actually spoke to a lot of students and educators to design a platform around and through which curricula can be easily designed, mapped, and executed and comes closer than anything I've seen to the holy grail of differentiated instruction via technology.

Now here comes the brilliance of of the platform from a business perspective for Dell: it practically begs for 1:1 devices for students and schools to take full advantage of the integrated assessment, progress monitoring, and content tools that are all wrapped up in the software as a service platform. The learning platform itself is something we'd expect to see from a wonderfully disruptive startup that took the best of modern educational theory and packaged it into a new take on a comprehensive LMS. It just so happens that Dell can sell a bunch of hardware that leverages this educational goodness quite nicely. At once, it's a great educational tool in its own right and the best sales pitch for 1:1 hardware that an OEM could make to educators.

This isn't meant cynically - on the contrary, Dell did this right and makes a strong case for both a powerful blended learning and instructional platform and 1:1 hardware. Dell actually seems to have solved the chicken/egg problem of educational technology. Do you need the right hardware to justify the development of and investment in a software stack to support it? Or do you have great software looking for hardware that schools can afford and use for instruction? And where, in all of this, do we bring in modern pedagogy? For once, the pedagogy drives the software and the software creates a clear use case and framework for the deployment and use of the hardware.

The Hardware That hardware, by the way, can come in just about any form. Obviously, Dell would like it to come in the form of their own hardware, but it isn't necessary. The next-gen learning platform is purely web-based and very touch-friendly. It should work as happily on a Dell desktop as it does on a Kindle Fire, although I'd be mighty surprised if we don't see some tablet offerings coming soon from Dell that are a wee bit more successful than the Streak turned out to be.

However, in addition to getting a preview of the learning platform, I've spent the last week with a pre-production model of Dell's XPS 13, a new ultrabook aimed squarely at the MacBook Air. You'll remember that the Air has replaced the white MacBook as Apple's primary K12 educational notebook offering and the XPS 13 more than fills the bill for students actively creating and consuming content, both through the learning platform and otherwise.

Adam Garry shares my feeling that, while tablets certainly have a place in education, a thin, light, durable notebook remains the best choice for students as they begin to write and create as much or more than they consume. I'm writing this blog on the XPS right now and I have to say that I will be genuinely bummed to pack it up and send it back to Dell today. I love my MacBook Air, but the student-friendly touches on the XPS have won my affections.

To some extent, it's standard ultrabook fare. Really thin, really light, SSD, snappy low-voltage Intel processors. No big deal there. However, the brilliant Gorilla Glass screen, the great keyboard, and the soft-touch painted carbon-fiber wrist rest make this very comfortable for long-term use and confidence inspiring for backpack-jamming. It's a very tough little 13" laptop with which my 9-year old was as comfortable as my 19-year old.

My test unit was spec'ed out beyond the base $999 model, adding a Core i7 processor, but even the base model should provide very solid performance. My tester had no problem with Adobe CS5.5 and the integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics took on 3D tasks in Photoshop remarkably well. Rendering video in Premiere Pro couldn't match my quad-core workstation, but I certainly didn't feel limited or underpowered. For student purposes, this is one heck of a durable machine that performs exceptionally well.

Dell has plenty of hardware it can sell to schools. But if this blog post seems to be raving about how great Dell is, it's because a major OEM stepped up, made a huge investment in a best-of-breed tool, and happily let its hardware (no matter how nice it is, and, in the case of the XPS 13, it's very nice) play second fiddle to a learning platform. You bet I'm raving about Dell. This is not the Dell of 2003. This is a Dell that we can call an educational leader that just happens to make some solid computing devices for students.

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