Locked In


I recently attended a presentation given by the company that my district contracts with to supply, and repair our fleet of Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs). During the last 8 years, our district has gone from 0 to ~100% IWB saturation. We went with SMART Boards, a product that is somewhat akin to the Cadillac of IWBs (in that they are very expensive, and get relatively poor mileage).

There are a lot of posts that I could write about what I dislike about IWBs in general, and SMART in specific, but this is not going to be any of them. Here, I’m going to focus on a much larger issue with educational technology.

The purpose of the presentation was to demo upcoming features of SMART Notebook 14. I suppose the product is a decent iterational improvement over the last version. There are certainly all sorts of new features. I imagine they’ll be useful for teachers who are interested in the product. From where I stand, the most interesting new feature for me wasn’t in the new things the product could do. Instead, it was in a new policy that SMART is moving to with this release: They will now be charging districts annual licensing fees for their software products. Until this release, the SMART software that accompanied the ~$5,000 SMART Board was free, as were all of its updates. Now that most districts are as saturated with IWBs as we are, hardware isn’t as lucrative as it used to be. So the business model shifts, and every district that went all-in on SMART Boards, budgeting hundreds of thousands of dollars to put these IWBs in their classrooms over the past decade, are now forced to continue budgeting ongoing expenditures if they want to keep their IWBs up-to-date with features. Put another way, the choices that districts made a decade ago have constrained their options in the present in a way that could not have been predicted when those choices were made.

This problem of initial decisions restricting possible future outcomes is well known in technology circles. It is called “lock-in,” and it is an unavoidable outcome of making choices. This phenomenon can manifest itself in a lot of different ways (consider the classic example of the QWERTY keyboard, which enjoys seemingly permanent dominance for no other reason than it was the first key layout widely deployed and utilized). The outcomes are not necessarily negative, though it tends to be most obvious when they are, as in the case of SMART. Simply put, when you choose one path over another, you make it all the more difficult to move to another one.

The important thing to remember here is that lock-in is a universal property of complex systems. It is closely tied to the concept of “opportunity costs.” It most obviously manifests in technological domains, but it is at work in every system of our lives where we make choices. I’ll suggest that much of what goes on in schools, generally, is a function of lock-in due to decisions that were made in the distant past. Our schools are, in a large part, the consequences of decisions made by people who have been dead for centuries. Certainly, this is true of most of the major foundational pieces of the “typical” public school experience. These things are as they are because that is how they have been since the beginning. And changing them is not something that can be accomplished very easily, if at all.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a thing. It is something that influences the ongoing functioning of education, and it should be acknowledged, particularly if we are interested in making changes. Ideally, it will be anticipated as much as it can be, so that the type of care that needs to be taken when making choices that affect the education of students will be taken. Not that our foreknowledge will always help us to avoid unpredicted outcomes, but at least it will make the changes of course that we might need to engage in all the more possible. And maybe, we won’t be left holding the bag when any particular company decides to change its business model due to the whims of the market.