On May 2nd 2017, Microsoft announced the release of ‘Windows 10 S’ and with it made a clear statement of intent in the education sector. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is an irrelevant update to their operating system – it has the potential to add real value to cultures of learning in our schools.
‘S’ is in effect a very light-weight version of Windows, compromising user control and flexibility in return for reliability, speed and security. Its closest analogue, for ease of comparison, is ChromeOS, the operating system behind Google’s hugely successful Chromebooks.
And it is in this huge success of a competitor that Microsoft has based its strategy. For a few years now, their hegemony in education has been steadily chipped away by both Apple and Google here in the UK, although adoption of alternatives to Windows here has been slow when compared to the speed of proliferation in the United States. At the risk of being reductive, I would posit that a significant reason for the success of the iPad and Chromebook can be summed up in two words – reliability and simplicity.
Education is a tricky sector for IT to serve, requiring robustness, first-time-every-time reliability, with zero patience for poor performance/ wait time and with a massive under investment in both infrastructure and training. Apple’s iPad and, in a different way Google’s Chromebook, have both succeeded where decades of managed Windows devices have failed, clearing most of those barriers to success with room to spare. And the sector is worth investing in – every year it churns out the next generation of paying customers who want to work with the tech they know and have skills in.
Windows PCs and laptops, managed in a traditional Windows network, have always suffered from slow boot times, huge software footprints with the performance to match and, most tellingly, very little in the way of helpful adaptions to the harsh environment of the classroom. Full-fat Windows is big and powerful and needs relatively expensive hardware as a result. And for all the power of choice this offers (the ability to install software from millions of creators, and for the user to control every nuance of the environment), schools have sensibly battled to turn all that stuff off and to try and create locked-down, safe and remotely-manageable devices for multiple users to share across a single day. It’s usually quite unsatisfactory for all involved.
Well, Windows S, with its gate-kept software store offering only secure and light-weight apps, 15 second boot and log-in times and general low power consumption resulting in 15-hour battery life replicates the state into which network managers have been shoe-horning Windows, at a fraction of the price and with benefits to performance and user experience.
For the first time, it’s possible to conceive of the technology in a room full of Windows devices genuinely disappearing into the background and allowing its use for learning to come to the fore. To repeat a phrase often heard in iPad and Chromebook schools, it might ‘just work ‘.
Why do I think this will be embraced by the sector?
- Most schools, and almost all school IT professionals, are Microsoft veterans already – it’s what they know, from PowerPoint and Excel to (increasingly) Mix and Teams. All their documents and skills are in these formats and if I’ve learned one thing in two decades of educational technology support, it’s that schools are hard to change. There will be a strong internal desire to stick with this toolset and to realise the benefits of more effective access to it for teachers and pupils. I’ve known many schools consider moving over to the Google universe only to pause on the brink due to the unfamiliarity and scale of change. That fear, uncertainty and doubt dissipates with W10S;
- Cost is becoming the critical determinant for IT decisions, in a landscape of historically low real-terms school funding. A Windows S laptop at Chromebook prices (think £150-£200) built for education’s stormy waters (subversive users with a proclivity to fiddle) would offer affordable access to the suite of productivity software which I’d argue 95% of lessons require. Add to this the claim that a W10S laptop will run as fast after 4 years as it will on Day 1, and it starts to look pretty cost-effective;
- Security is a huge and growing worry for schools, with a worrying number of them suffering ransomware attacks and data loss due to insecure practices (e.g. USB sticks) and locally stored documents. Once school staff are inhabiting a more secure cloud-based ecosystem, with fewer security issues from 3rd party software, we will lose less learning time to outages and crises;
- The shift to the cloud (and for schools this mostly looks like Office365) stands to make the user experience less fractured, with documents and settings being ported between multiple devices, from school to home, whichever and wherever you happen to log-on. It is this single change that has the greatest potential to join up pupils’ use of technology for school and life more widely. A school operating W10S will have taken an important step towards this;
- One of the biggest barriers to successful use of technology in the average classroom has always been opportunity cost – what else could we be doing while we wait for the machine to reboot/ log in/ complete its virus scan/ perform at anything close to an acceptable speed? Bah! I give up, let’s revert to pen and paper! These issues are largely solved by an OS like W10S;
- Form-factor is important – where the iPad has failed to take mass-market hold in this sector (KS4 upwards) it’s largely because the kind of work required at GCSE and A Level is often about taking in information, synthesizing it and producing one’s own output. So, lots of reading, note-taking and writing. An equally reliable clam-shell device providing a solid typing platform, with a full keyboard plus touch-screen, seems better suited to these tasks, particularly when you factor in the brilliance of OneNote as a learning tool.
So it’s all sweetness and light with zero challenges laying ahead? Obviously not, we’re discussing the confluence of technology with education. Things will never be easy:
- W10S offers many benefits, but at the cost of flexibility. There will always be the need for specialist software for some courses, and the possibilities offered by a truly converged device such as the iPad can be transformative. A W10S laptop isn’t the same thing. This isn’t necessarily bad – children will become adults who will need to be able to use a multiplicity of tech tools, and school should prepare them for this – but it’s an obvious lacuna;
- The Windows Store is a pretty depressing place right now – the company will have to work hard to convince suppliers to fill it with the things schools will want. At the moment, for example, there’s no Chrome, forcing the use of Microsoft’s Edge browser. This may be a compromise too far for some. If I were being uncharacteristically pessimistic, I might point to the death of the Windows phone, at the hands of the same disease;
- We shouldn’t confuse this nascent move into Chromebook territory with the real thing – Chromebooks are based on a mature OS that has evolved over a number of years. G-Suite (the new branding for Google Apps for Education, ICYMI) was designed from the ground-up to be online and collaborative. Microsoft – and their Office division most obviously – are coming at this from the other direction, and it shows. Don’t expect instant miracles tomorrow.
What do I think will happen over the next 6-18 months?
- UK schools will slowly move over to W10S devices, opportunistically, with existing cycles of refresh. They won’t buy more devices, but they will spend less overall;
- The (admittedly gradual) growth of G-Suite in UK schools will be impacted by this credible and in many ways more attractive alternative;
- Hardware manufacturers will put a toe in the water, but won’t commit too heavily – see Samsung’s Chromebook volte-face for a precedent. If one of them can come up with a killer device suited for education at a sub-£200 price point, they’ll clean up;
- Schools will accelerate their move online, particularly to Office365, and start to more fully investigate the power of MS tools like OneNote and Classroom;
- Teacher and pupil confidence/ use of technology day-to-day will increase in line with the affordances of W10S. This will mean that more teachers are willing to risk using tech, and pupils’ access to powerfully joined-up productivity tools (at school and home) increases. Eventually we will stop talking about it as a thing. Perhaps this last prediction will need pushing out beyond 18 months…