You hear that Mr. Anderson?… That is the sound of inevitability… – Agent Smith, The Matrix
I wasn’t very good at math in school. It’s not that I couldn’t do it, I just was easily distracted by other things. In a way, blogging has been good for me as it forces me to focus on a single issue for a while, thus allowing deeper insights.
Even thought I’m not really good at math I respect it. It has a sort of relentlessness about it. If you setup a certain set of conditions, things will work out a certain way. Emotion doesn’t play a role. You can get mad at a math problem but it doesn’t change the solution. (I know, I’ve tried)
Why do I bring this up? It’s because when you are dealing with computers you are really dealing with math. This math tells me that the only way for every school child to have their own state of the art device in school is for them to bring their own. Here’s my reasoning.
If you were to ask someone how much a computer costs (and for this discussion let’s look at laptops) they would say between 1000 and 1800 dollars. If you were to ask them how much they expect them to cost in 5 years time they would say about the same and they would be right but it’s the wrong question. I am completely sure that in 5 years time you will be able to buy a laptop for 1800 dollars. A better question to ask is how much would today’s laptop cost in 5 years time? In other words, in 5 years time laptops will be many, many times more powerful than they are today so how much would today’s performance cost in 5 years?
This is being driven by Moore’s Law. Briefly this states that computers roughly double in performance every 12-18 months. This “law” (it’s more of an observation) has been pretty accurately followed for a long time and right now seems to be continuing. Of course nothing goes on forever but let’s assume it will continue for 5 more years. This means we can’t just look at the cost of computers, but the price per unit of performance. So how do you measure performance?
A widely accepted measure of computer performance is a FLOP. This is how many FLOating Point calculations (ex. 5.123 plus 6.545) a computer can do in one second. This is the basis of everything a computer can do. The more FLOPs, the more computation can be done, the faster a computer is.
This is a chart from a very good explanation of how computer have progressed in FLOPs over time. (Note: a Petaflop is 10 to the 15th flops, or 1,000,000,000,000,000 math operations)
As you can see, things have increased massively but notice it is not a linear chart? The jump in performance from 2005 to 2010 is vastly greater than the previous 10 years. What this means is that computers in 5 years time will be not just 5 times faster than today, but maybe 100 times faster according to Moore’s law. Therefore the cost of today’s performance will be radically cheaper. Here’s a graph I made from Wikipedia data of the cost of computing performance over the last 40 years.
Notice how the interval between date ranges decrease as time goes on? Also note this chart is a logarithmic chart. You can’t display it linearly at all because the change is so great everything after 1984 disappears.
Ok so how does this affect education?
Most education reformers think that having one computer per child is a desired classroom configuration. The big question is how do you do this. Many people in the government (teachers are included in this category) think the solution has to come from the school system. On one level this doesn’t make sense to me. Schools don’t provide paper and pencils to students so why are computers different? The obvious answer is cost but it may be dawning on you by now that if you hold computer performance constant, the price will drop very quickly. In 5 years even poor families will be able to buy decent computers with equivalent performance to today’s best laptops. In fact by 2020, the cost of today’s computer will essentially be zero.
Now the inevitable argument here will be “great, so schools will be able to afford to buy every student a computer”! I don’ t think so. Have you seen how slow government moves when it comes to purchasing things? I can see outfitting a classroom with computers one month and then 6 months later they will be obsolete. If you have the students bring their own, they will always have technology better than the school. Not only that, but they will be able to take those computers home with them, enabling learning anytime and anyplace.
Having students bring their own devices entails the schools giving up some control, which makes some people uncomfortable but I see this has happening fairly soon. The article I listed below is just another signpost on this highway.
People can argue against this but I just think it’s a matter of math.
As always I am interesting in what you think!