The classroom is a demanding environment. How do you ensure your tech is up to the challenge?

An ABC of education technology


It’s hard to imagine that any responsible parent would send their children into an environment that is too challenging even for military grade IT kit? Yet this is what parents the world over do every day.

The challenging environment in question is the classroom, and the fact that Lenovo takes “mil-spec” as the baseline for hardware for education highlights how successfully embedding technology in education means much more than repurposing standard business and consumer gear.

Understanding this is more important than ever, given how technology has played a pivotal role in keeping children connected with their teachers, and their peers, throughout the pandemic. Education has been one of the key factors behind surging PC, Chromebook and tablet sales over the past year, according to IDC.

But this focus on emergency tech rollouts perhaps obscures the progress that has been made in recent years in ensuring that technology is integrated into the classroom in such a way that it augments rather than distracts from learning.

It goes without saying that content is crucial. The fastest processors, or most immersive VR headsets, will count for nothing if what is being conveyed to students is superficial, or, worse, irrelevant to their curriculum.

But, says Chris Babson, director of Lenovo’s worldwide education portfolio and strategy, “The number one concern that we hear when we talk to teachers is that they can't afford to be IT admins for their students. They need a product that works, and that’s seamless. And we try to provide the seamless piece between student and teacher and IT admin.”

So best practice begins with thinking well beyond just the hardware: “If you’re going to give students devices, they need to be set up and deployed in such a way that when the student gets it, it’s turn on, connect, and there’s your workspace.”

This means providing a full suite of services to make technology easy to deploy at scale, and which ease the admin load on perennially stretched school staff. “We can provide things like zero touch deployment, which means the school or the district can give us their requirements, and everything goes on the system, before it's rolled out.” This includes applications, network settings, and protocols, he says. “So essentially they get the device, and it's all set and ready.”

More broadly, he says, schools have to consider the entire lifecycle of their kit: “So at the end of life, we have services that can help with disposal or removal of those products to ensure that any data that's on the systems is cleaned, securely removed and taken care of.”

Teachers need to be teachers, not admins

The focus on hybrid learning that came with the pandemic means schools are looking at more sophisticated kit, and this presents additional challenges, he adds.

“What we're seeing that's really interesting is the adoption of devices that are used in the commercial space for education”. One example is the Google Meet Series One Room Kit which features noise cancellation and 4K AI powered cameras and allows for synchronous and asynchronous learning.

But again, this all needs to work seamlessly: “To be able to maintain that compute system, and the communications piece, and then the software and management that brings it all together is key.” Hence Lenovo offers a “white glove” service to handle physical setup and installation.

Hybrid learning – which seems set to be part of education even when the pandemic fades – raises broader issues of network management. It’s one thing to manage cybersecurity and network filtering at the router level when children are in the classroom and on the same network.

“When you're at home, you're a little bit more in the open,” says Babson, which raises big challenges around “managing cybersecurity and locking down those devices, managing those devices, and preventing harmful acts on students who are not on a school network.”

So, given that devices are increasingly likely to be used away from school networks, Lenovo is focusing more on on-device and security, to ensure children are protected from bad actors and

not exposed to harmful content. This also allows for teachers to exert more control over remote devices when necessary, by preventing children from navigating to other tabs when teachers are in full flow.

Sticking with the hardware itself, it’s really not enough to take a consumer device or even a business device and put it in the hands of students.

Schools, and parents, should consider what’s appropriate for different age groups. With younger children it’s more about content consumption and touch, which means tablets or Chromebooks are often ideal. Older children will demand more interactivity and ability to create, meaning keyboards, stylus, cameras, and of course, raw compute power.

And, says Babson, devices have to be sufficiently robust to stand up to the pressures imposed on them by children. How bad can it be? The answer is: really bad.

“All our devices are designed to be extremely durable. They meet or exceed what we call education spec,” he says. And what counts as education spec in Lenovo’s point of view? It’s mil-spec, and then some.

“If you're going to put a device in a kid's hands, it's got to be able to function. The key caps have to be fixed and not pried up by little hands,” says Babson. “The ports have to be reinforced so that as you plug in and unplug a power cord or a mouse or anything like that, they last.”

This also extends to desk height drop tests and tolerances for cold, heat, dust and liquids. Devices also incorporate Gorilla Glass on the panel, to prevent shattering and breaking.

“Then what we do is we go a little bit above and beyond - so how often your hinge opens and closes, the flex on the screen, the rubber bumpers that we put around the device,” he says.

Thin and light doesn’t cut it in the classroom

This becomes more important as devices go into homes, he says. “Maybe you’re going to a home full of cats…your dust tolerance has to be a little bit higher.”

This inevitably means an apparent price premium over, say, a £160 Chromebook. But, Babson says, “a consumer device looks sleek and clean and is very thin and light. But it's not something that's going to withstand a three-year lifecycle. When we talk to schools, they're looking at an ROI over three, four or five years on a single device.”

It’s likely that at least some of the technology snapped up by panicking authorities over the last year may have a relatively short shelf life. And this raises the continuing concern over how vendors and education authorities address the perceived digital divide.

Babson says that Lenovo works with schools to develop ways to address this problem, and noted how during the pandemic, in the US, for example, vendors and comms providers stepped into the breach – the “divide” can be as much about access to the internet as having a device per se.

“The rise of LTE in education is one of those key pieces that we've seen come out of this pandemic. So for us, it's the ability to have integrated 4G LTE, which we have, so you don't have to have a dongle.”

And this has implications beyond just the disruption caused by the pandemic, according to Babson, who notes the massive disruption in the US as this year’s hurricane season kicked in.

“The ability to stay connected with your school and with your studies, even asynchronously because you have LTE and can continue with some level of connection to school is key,” he says. The same applies to the snow days which are an inevitable part of the school year in some parts of the world. (Though whether children will agree is perhaps another question.)

Ultimately, teachers and school administrators need to have a realistic idea of what is achievable with technology. For instance, remote learning can mean it’s harder to pick up on body language that might suggest inattention.

But at the same time, Babson continues, technology gives teachers greater opportunity to reach out to students privately, maybe via chat, and for students to respond. Over time, he says, this can be further augmented by analytics and AI, with teachers better able to identify trends in classes, and understand how students are consuming and grasping educational content.

One of the biggest misconceptions about technology and education is that “because you’re using a computer, or video, or a stylus, that the learning is somehow easier or not as in depth.”

The reality is quite the opposite, he says. “Your learning can be enriched. It can go deeper because you get greater content, and you’re still having that interaction with a teacher…imparting that knowledge and teaching you to walk through the steps.”

The trick is simply doing all of this without the teacher or student having to think about the technology.

Sponsored by Lenovo.

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