Why ubermix?

Posted by ubermix On Sunday, May 5, 2013 1 comments
A number of schools and school districts these days are struggling to come up with a great strategy for getting technology into students' hands. While the rise of the Common Core Standards are forcing some, others simply recognize that the world has changed; that the traditional practice of "chalk and talk" is no longer enough to prepare our kids for the 21st century world of abundant information, hyper-connection, myriad choices, and countless opportunities to communicate, collaborate, and create, unconstrained by time, space, or place.

While a careful understanding of purpose, a strong vision of what an ideal environment for learning might look like, a clear commitment to train up staff toward a change in culture, and a solid plan for measuring success are critical parts of the "big picture", many fail to consider the impact that a device choice/strategy can have on their long term goals for classroom transformation. While it's certainly arguable that any personal device continuously accessible to a student throughout the school day is a significant step in the right direction, it's important to consider the long-term when setting a 1:1 student-to-device strategy.

If you look at what most schools/districts are considering for their 1:1 "programs", you'll find they basically fall into one of four groups: Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD), some form of tablet (usually iPads), Google's Chromebooks, or some form of laptop/clamshell device (preferably running ubermix!) For the purposes of this post, let's dismiss the "Bring-Your-Own- Dream Disaster Device" model, as it relies on the absurd notion that the web is somehow a magical equalizer that makes every device equally capable, and that it is reasonable to expect equal outcomes from unequally equipped students. Anyone who truly cares for kids and their learning believes that every student should have equal access and opportunities when they are in school, and it is therefore the responsibility of the school to make sure that they have a mechanism in place to make that happen. As such, save the bring your own (random) device policy for +1 devices in your 1:1+1 program, where you allow kids to bring and use whatever they have, but make certain that everyone has at least a minimum capacity to meet the demands of the learning environment.

That leaves us with three remaining options - tablets, Chromebooks, and laptops. On the laptop side, let's throw out Macs because, let's face it, they are too expensive for most to consider seriously. Of the few remaining Mac laptop programs I know of, most are currently looking at alternatives due to cost. Let's also eliminate Windows because we're (hopefully) not completely crazy and are smart enough to recognize that the amount of management required to keep Windows devices running at such scale is untenable for most schools/districts (without, of course, locking them down to such a degree that they become pointless - even then, there's the malware issue). That leaves us with tablets, Chromebooks, and of course, ubermix!

So why might one choose ubermix over tablets or Chromebooks? Let's have a look:

No Lock-in
With tablets, in particular, schools subject themselves to hardware and software lock-in to specific vendors, which will hurt both financially and in terms of flexibility over the long term. Tablets rely heavily on software/content "ecosystems" that are tied to a single provider, and that content typically only works on the tablet type it was purchased for. Content creation tools for tablets (iBooks Author, for example) typically only work on a particular vendor's device, making it extremely costly in time and treasure to move away from said vendor down the road. And since the purchased content is (at present) always tied to specific accounts, with no real mechanism for moving/re-allocating content/apps from device to device, schools often find themselves making painful/expensive decisions as their strategies evolve.

ubermix suffers from none of this. ubermix and its free, open-source applications will run on almost any industry standard (x86) device. Any size screen, any speed processor, any amount of storage (well almost - you need at least 6 Gb of storage), any form factor - be it a desktop, laptop, tablet, or hybrid. And since the hardware is industry standard, repairing it probably won't require a trip to the vendor, as the majority of repairs can be completed with off-the-shelf parts. Plus, inexpensive, user-replaceable batteries in many portable devices further extend their useful life.

No bandwidth/connectivity requirements
Chromebooks, in particular, require Internet connectivity to function, as everything one might do on a Chromebook is done in a web browser. We all like to pretend that Internet access is everywhere and that it always works, but the reality is not everyone has it, and for those that do it is often less than fast or reliable. But the one thing most often overlooked by schools when testing Chromebooks isn't connectivity, it's bandwidth. While a few Chromebooks may perform just fine, a few thousand can quickly overrun a typical school's available bandwidth because, again, everything runs on the web. A school might not notice it at first but as their use gets more sophisticated the problem will surely rear it's ugly head.

Think about it: to do something so simple as prepare a photo or video for posting online with a Chromebook, a student would need to: 1) Upload the (much bigger than it needs to be in the end) full size image or unedited video content to a web tool for editing. 2) After waiting for the upload to complete (could be a while for video or a series of high pixel density photos), edit the content using a slow, simplistic, glitchy tool that barely works. 3) Download the edited content to the device, and 4) Upload it back to it's final destination - let's say a blog or online collaboration tool.

The time and/or bandwidth required to complete this makes the entire task painful. As Louis Goddard stated in his article, Life with a Chromebook: Three months of love and hate in the cloud, "Batch processing [of images], though, could only be described as painful. It took me nearly an hour of upload, drag, drop, export, download, rinse, repeat just to ready 20 pictures..."

And again, remember without connectivity your Chromebook is essentially dead in the water. A few basic things still work, but very few. As Jill Duffy of PC Magazine concludes in her article, The Frustrating Truth About Google's Chromebook, "The incredibly inexpensive and highly portable Google Chromebook only works if you don't have to go anywhere with it."

Sophisticated and powerful local applications on an ubermix device, on the other hand, free you from these headaches, enabling any content to be prepped/perfected on the device - without any connectivity requirements - prior to being uploaded. And the device will work completely, no matter what the connectivity condition at the time.

Full Web Browsing
The web is a diverse environment with a wide variety of content types, including Flash, Java, a variety of video and audio codecs/types, WebGL, etc., so when selecting a device, it is important to make sure that it is capable of working with the widest variety of content possible. Tablet and Chromebook support for web content is extremely limited and generally unexpandable. Want to view a video created using Flash or in a format such as AVI, WMV, etc on your iPad? Sorry, can't do. How about attend a Classroom 2.0 web conference on a Chromebook? Sorry, no Java support. Tablets try to work around the problem with yet more apps (see above), but bouncing in-and-out of apps every time you search for answers/information/how-tos can be tedious and unnerving, presuming of course that there is an app available at all (for most web sites, there aren't).

ubermix devices support a wide-variety of content types, making a plethora of custom viewers (apps) unnecessary and the web more useful. Why leave students wondering what was supposed to be in that empty space on a web page or why they can't see a video on their Chromebook? Choose ubermix and make the most of the web.

Simple, not simplistic
With all of the stresses already in play in the modern classroom, it is quite easy to fall into the trap of technology use as a series of activities, rather than a flexible platform for authentic, rich creation and exploration. App-centric devices (including web app-centric devices) tend to encourage this sort of short-and-sweet, "activity-centric" use by their very design and predetermined use-case scenarios. And it makes perfect sense, if you think about it. Touch interfaces are terribly imprecise, making complex applications with rich feature sets and interfaces all but impossible to build or use. Web applications designed to run exclusively in a browser are all plain-text, line-by-line interpreted source code, rather than high-performing compiled applications, which means the larger and more complex an application gets, the more bogged down the device becomes trying to interpret it. As a result, what you end up with is a large number of lightweight apps that perform a few simplistic tasks, because the best way to mask these limitations is to confine what you can do.

But simplistic, lightweight apps aren't great at generating high-quality results. So to compensate, these lightweight apps tend to include a variety of beautiful, pre-built templates and wizards that promise to make your work look "great" (according to someone else's definition, of course),
while simultaneously eliminating any requirement for serious thought about style or design. The end result is a safe, super-homogenized, and relatively boring idea of what creativity is, with the user playing the role of automaton or random number generator for an app with a predetermined outcome. Of course, one thing you will always be able to count on will be that every student's work will essentially turn out the same.

The ultimate risk in all this is that by deconstructing complexity, we build dependency. If we build up dependencies we create an environment where we begin to pay for, and ultimately expect to pay for things we used to do for ourselves. And paying for things doesn't enable, it enslaves.

ubermix offers not just a simple interface and simple applications, but also complex, open-ended applications that require time and thought, exercising key critical thinking and problem solving skills along the way to producing that amazing, unique, and personal result. Want to design something in a virtual 3D space that you can later construct in the real world, according to your specifications? No problem. How about perform science experiments utilizing a variety of sensors, probes, and other meters? No problem. Use computer aided design and visualization tools? Sure. What about writing a program, making a game, creating a simulation? Again, it's all available at your fingertips, easy to share without cost or restriction - fast, flexible, and powerful. And if you decide that you want to figure out how something works, go ahead - you have complete, unlocked access to your device and the software that makes it tick. Make it better. Make it yours.

Interoperability, ie no silos
One thing I often find myself asking when using a tablet or web app is, "where's the share button." Or, "how the heck do I get this creation from this app into that app so that I can use it as part of something bigger/have my way with it." More often than not, the answer is, "sorry, you can't." Sure, sometimes there is some complex workaround, like "save it as a PDF, then email it to someone else, then they can use [some random different app] to open it and write notes, then they can email it back to you and you can open it in [yet another app] to see the notes, then reopen it in the original app to perform the edits, then rinse and repeat." Sound familiar?

Application and document interoperability is particularly important in design, and ubermix has you covered in this area as well. Need to open that proprietary format file, convert it to something you can edit, remix and enhance? Odds are, you can get the job done with ubermix. And gathering, editing, remixing, and combining won't be an all day affair of uploading and downloading, or bouncing in and out of app after app. Best of all, when you are ready to share, you can count on being able to upload your final product to any wiki, blog, or other sharing site, because the content will be at your fingertips in a real filesystem, not locked away in some app, in or out of the cloud.

Better for the long term
One of the dirty little secrets of implementing new technology in schools is that, as much as we say it's all about 21st century skills and authentic learning environments, the honest truth is when we first bring it in, all we want is for people to actively use it. And that sprint to basic use is where the app-centric devices shine. Their simplicity and short activities become easy add-ons to existing practice, providing a little extra reinforcement for that key concept in the lecture/reading material. In the short term, things are great and the perception of progress is palpable. Comparatively, the more flexible, open-ended nature of a laptop naturally requires a bit more thought about options, concepts, approach, and context. This naturally slows the initial adoption rate a bit, leading some to conclude that app-centric devices are the clear winners.

But the add-on oriented devices only win the sprint to the first hurdle. Once the desire to step outside of mere augmentation starts to build, the limitations described above hit like a freight train. The long race is won by the flexible device - the one that can do it all, without ridiculous workarounds and overly complex workflows that most users simply won't endure. It is for this reason that no one has given up their laptop for a tablet or Chromebook. It's why the latter remain non-essential third devices (after the laptop and smartphone) for all of us.

Add to that the ridiculous pace at which these expensive devices become obsolete (Apple updated its most recent iPad in just 7 months!), and, in the case of tablets, how much more often they get broken (most schools are experiencing between 20 and 50 percent break rate, per year) and you quickly find yourself in an expensive hole that is a struggle to get out of.

The flexibility and device neutrality of ubermix will help you avoid all of the pitfalls of the short-term device. Need an inexpensive solution at first? Put ubermix on a $230 netbook. Need more horsepower or a bigger screen? Put it on a larger and/or more powerful laptop. Have a real high-end project? Install it on a high-end desktop. You choose the hardware that meets your needs best, and let ubermix handle the rest.

And best of all, the experience and skills can continue all throughout a student's academic career, without any additional costs. Consistent. Flexible. Powerful.

I believe that anyone who is passionate enough about kids and learning to take on the hard work of rolling out a 1:1 program in their schools and approaches such an endeavor with thoughtfulness and care will find a way to succeed no matter what course they take. Whether you choose to start with a "sprint" or begin with the long approach, ubermix will be there for you, when you are ready.

But as you evaluate or re-evaluate your options, don't fall prey to "Bright Shiny Object Syndrome" or be swayed by false-promises about a mysterious cloud that magically solves all technology problems. Take a long, hard look at each of these solutions. Be wary of allowing personal preferences to cloud your judgement and shrug off self-deceivers who mask obvious defects and gaps in functionality with irrelevant and/or spurious advantages. In the end, I think you'll find ubermix to be a powerful, flexible, and affordable solution capable of meeting almost any computing need.

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds via Compfight cc


Jeff said...

Great article (as always) Jim!

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