Why Software Is Eating The World

Although from last year, this WSJ piece by Marc Andreessen, is still very relevant.

Marc (co-author of the first widely using web browser and Facebook board member among other tings) argues that software will become the foundation of all successful businesses. Either by forming the foundation on which they run, or through software services that deliver to customers. Marc cites some (often US-centric) examples of this trend:

  • Book retail with Borders disappearing while Amazon soared
  • Video rental with Netflix eclipsing Blockbusters
  • Media and music companies reinventing themselves as services – from iTunes to Pandora & Disney buying Pixar
  • Video games as the fastest growing entertainment category
  • Photography – just look at Kodak
  • Telecoms where Skype is the fastest growing company in the sector
  • Recruitment moving to services like LinkedIn

Increasingly, he agues, industries based on physical products (those, like food, that we haven’t yet figured out how to turn into digital bits) rely on software to power their businesses.

One of the areas that Marc calls out as yet to be impacted by this change is education:

Health care and education, in my view, are next up for fundamental software-based transformation. My venture capital firm is backing aggressive start-ups in both of these gigantic and critical industries. We believe both of these industries, which historically have been highly resistant to entrepreneurial change, are primed for tipping by great new software-centric entrepreneurs.

The view of education as an industry expressed in the quote above got me wondering about which aspects of education are most likely to follow this shift soonest. Looking at the objectives for education below (from Stop Stealing Dreams) which areas are more likely to benefit from entrepreneurial software-led change?

To create a society that’s culturally coordinated.

To further science and knowledge and pursue information for its own sake.

To enhance civilization while giving people the tools to make informed
decisions.

To train people to become productive workers.

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Terminology

I’m trying to follow the terminology introduced in the Royal Society Report on the future of computing[i] as I think and talk to others about computing in school. Here’s the summary to save you digging through the report:

Computing The broad subject area; roughly equivalent to what is called ICT in schools and IT in industry, as the term is generally used.

ICT The school subject defined in the current National Curriculum.

Computer Science The rigorous academic discipline, encompassing programming languages, data structures, algorithms, etc.

Information Technology The use of computers, in industry, commerce, the arts and elsewhere, including aspects of IT systems architecture, human factors, project management, etc. (Note that this is narrower than the use in industry, which generally encompasses Computer Science as well.)

Digital literacy The general ability to use computers. This will be written in lower case to emphasize that it is a set of skills rather than a subject in its own right.

 

Update:

 

See also this CAS document which follows the same definitions but adds TEL for ‘Technology Enhanced Learning’ across the curriculum: http://www.computingatschool.org.uk/data/uploads/Curriculum%20Framework%20for%20CS%20and%20IT.pdf

 

 


[i] http://royalsociety.org/uploadedFiles/Royal_Society_Content/education/policy/computing-in-schools/2012-01-12-Computing-in-Schools.pdf

A Lost Generation

Last week the Institute of Engineering and Technology put out a press release:

A leading UK expert on information and communications technology (ICT) says today that the teaching of ICT in England and Wales is 20 years out of date and as a result a whole generation has been lost who could have designed the systems of the future.

It went on:

There is an urgent need for school to be teaching the current generation Computer Science as a subject in schools in order that our future work force is equipped […]

I agree.

What’s more I’d go further and say that as well as the teaching of ICT, the use of computing to support learning and administration in schools is also 20 (plus!) years out of date. That’s based on a year working in a school after many working in the technology industry.

It’s been depressing to realise that many of the productivity benefits I’d taken for granted in the business world are completely alien in the environment of typical 11-18 schools I’ve seen.

To those that espouse the benefits of teaching and preparing learners for the 21st century, I’d like to point out two little things:

  1. It’s a lot easier if you’ve first dragged your institution and its processes into the end of the 20th century (if not the beginning of the 21st)
  2. We’re already over 10% into The 21st Century. So we better get a move on…

Some Strategy Guidelines

One of the little tasks I have over the summer holiday is to figure out next years strategy for computing across the school. Specifically, how we can leverage software and services to maximise the benefit to learning and teaching from the rather splendid investment made in hardware infrastructure as part of the new build.

To help I started with a set of guidelines, based around some principles, to help guide the decision process. Hopefully these will also help others understand where things are coming from.

Guidelines

Principles are important (especially if you can keep to them). This section sets out a set of principles that have been used to help guide the process of forming this strategy.

1. Keep things simple. Training and the impact of change can be costly. Simple things that get used are more valuable than complex stuff that doesn’t. Related to this, consistent solutions are often better than better solutions[i].

2. Use commodity stuff wherever possible. What needs a custom solution today can be done with commodity stuff tomorrow. It usually makes sense to wait for tomorrow. The benefits of large customer base and the associated multipliers of scale will typically outweigh the benefits of a solution customised for a niche market. We’re not experts in running technology infrastructure; so we’ll partner with those that are.

3. Education is preparation for life. So we will endeavour to ensure education reflects life outside the education bubble wherever that’s appropriate. Likewise, we believe that education doesn’t need specialist ‘education technology’ to support it[ii].

4. Life is risky. Learning how to manage risks is an important life skill so we don’t want 100% insulation. Where there is risk and risky behaviour we’ll try and architect so that it remains close. Pushing risks underground is more risky than acknowledging them and holding them close.

5. Boundaries are blurred. Working and learning don’t happen just within the physical space of TOA. More than acknowledging; enabling, supporting and promoting learning and working anywhere are important outcomes for our technology strategy.

6. Computing can be deployed such that costs elsewhere are reduced. Computing can also been seen purely as a cost to be minimised. We’ll aim for a balance that recognises that education has typically treated computing more as a cost and less as an opportunity.

7. Software is more important than hardware. Or: it’s not what you have it’s what you do with it that matters.

8. Open solutions are better than closed. ‘Nuff said.


[i] Tim Bray has some related thoughts on this at http://www.tbray.org/ongoing/When/201x/2010/01/02/Doing-It-Wrong

[ii] As an illustration: a reasonably recent trend in the commercial sector has been the commercialisation of IT (characterised by the support for consumer devices, like the Apple iPhone, as part of IT systems). A similar trend is expected in education: the consumerisation of education.