Nine Rules for Good Technology  

Go to previous version with critical reviews.

Today's educational technology is like a Rube Goldberg contraption. Enter any technology-enabled classroom or other such facility and you will see a mish-mash of computers with associated wires, video displays, modems, ITV, CD-ROM libraries, tapes, and more. To use this technology effectively and avoid being distracted by the usual malfunctions and opaque manuals, teachers must spend a lot of time in the classroom themselves.

It doesn't have to be this way, however. As technologies mature, they tend to become easier to use. Take the elevator, for example. Once so finicky it needed operators to take you from floor to floor, today's elevators function flawlessly with little intervention on the part of users; people no longer need to take classes in elevator operations.

Another good example of the way technologies mature and become easier to use is the radio. When first developed, this tool was the domain of specialists, requiring expertise and patience to operate. Today's radio is a model of usability, requiring no special training in order to obtain today's Power Top Ten. Teens use radio constantly without ever having had to obtain a certificate.

Now it is true that not all technologies are easy to use. For example, one would expect someone operating a nuclear reactor to have some expertise in the subject matter. But such systems are rare, overwhelmed by an array of easy-to-use innovations. If a technology is to become widespread, it is crucial that it be easy to use, so easy that an operating manual is not needed.

Technology that teachers employ in the classroom must be of the latter, widespread and easy-to-use variety. A learning simulation, a conferencing tool, and a student record keeper should be as easy to use as a television, a telephone and a notebook.

I believe that we are in a transition phase now; we are moving toward such easy technologies. We must question whether our time and money spent teaching teachers to operate today's clumsy technology is time and money well spent. At best, we must view this period of transition as a temporary situation in which training is necessary to get us to a higher level of technological advancement. But we must not take our eyes off the long term goal: good technology.

What then distinguishes a good technology from a bad technology? I argue that there are some easily identifiable features which separate good from bad. Think of them as a checklist; a technology which has more of these features is in general better than a technology which has fewer.

Here are the rules:

1. Good technology is always available. This distinction is what makes buses, in spite of all their other advantages, bad technology. You can't always count on the bus being there; that's why people prefer cars. In the educational field, the technological equivalent of the bus is the equipment trolley, necessary because only one projector (or workstation, or overhead projector) is available to serve five classrooms. Good technology does not require scheduling, relocation, or set-up. Imagine what life would be like if we had to schedule our use of the elevator. Or to make reservations to use the telephone.

The availability requirement raises cost considerations. Equipment which costs less is more likely to be available. But cost is not the sole or even primary determinant. If some technology meets the other criteria described below, it will be made widely available despite the cost. Think of elevators again, bank machines (ATMs to you Americans), electrical lights, and highways.

2. Good technology is always on (Or if not always on, can be turned on with a single one-stroke command, or better yet, start automatically when the need arises). One thing which makes the telephone useful is that we do not need to boot up the operating system before we make a call. Electrical lights are a significant improvement over systems which required individual ignition with a match or candle. Streetlights are practical because they turn on when it gets dark outside. A weakness of motor vehicles is that they are not always on—causing endless frustration for users needing transportation on a cold winter's day.

Much of today's educational technology requires long and sometimes cumbersome initialization procedures. After wheeling in a projector from another room, for example, three teachers and a technician may spend time plugging it in, turning it on, spooling the film, and positioning the screen.

This requirement has significant energy consumption considerations. A portable device, for example, cannot always be on, because it must carry its own power supply. Energy itself—especially in inefficient forms like gas and oil—is too expensive to be consumed merely for convenience. Devices with low energy consumption, even portable ones, can always be on however; think of watches, telephones, bank machines and elevators.

3. Good technology is always connected. It can send information when and where needed, without human intervention. Fire alarms—especially institutional fire alarms—are useful in this way. Indeed, were the detector not connected to the warning system, the fire alarm would be useless. Again, telephones are useful because no procedure is required to connect to the telephone system.

As recently as last month, I spent about fifteen minutes in a room with a dozen or so highly paid professionals waiting for an ITV system to be connected to a remote location. I have spent much time listening to my modem dial up a local provider (and luxuriate today in the convenience of an always-on DSL connection).

4. Good technology is standardized. One television will function much like another television (televisions became poorer when brand-specific remotes were introduced). One telephone will connect to any other telephone in the world. One brand of gasoline will power your car as well as any other (which is why diesel cars represent bad technology, despite their other advantages).

Standardization promotes interoperability. Interoperability means that you have choices, that you are not locked into one supplier or vendor. It means that you can adapt easily to improved versions of the same technology; you can upgrade to a bigger television or engine-cleaning gasoline without replacing your electrical wiring or car engine. Technology which requires that you own a MacIntosh computer to play the video, or that you purchase a copy of MS-Word in order to view the document, or that requires that you connect with AOL in order to send email, is bad technology. I can't believe how much of this bad technology we have purchased over the years, and I conclude that there must be no alternative. But such bad technologies will be replaced.

5. Good technology is simple. 'Simplicity' is a slippery concept, but the best technologies can be learned by looking at the input device and not by studying a manual.

Here's how I distinguish between good computer programs and bad computer programs (computer programs are inherently bad technology for other reasons, but let's leave that aside): I try to install and run the program without the use of any manual. Installation is much easier today thanks to a good computer program called 'Setup.' Running the program is a different matter. When I have to stop and think (and read some very small print) about how to get rid of that paperclip icon so I can type a letter, I know I am dealing with bad technology. Good technology, by contrast, is intuitive. To use an elevator, I press the floor number. Simple. To make a phone call, I dial the number. Easy.

Simplicity goes hand in hand with range of function. The problem with MS-Word and a host of other programs is that they try to be all things for all people. Bad. Compare that with GuruNet, which lets me look up any word on my computer screen by alt-clicking over the word. Simple. So when looking for good technology, look for technology which does exactly what you want: no more, no less.

6. Good technology doesn't require parts. You don't need to replace anything in your telephone. My new vacuum cleaner (the much advertised Fantom Lightening) is good because it doesn't require bags (it's bad because it requires special filters). This is why cars are bad technology: they require a never-ending array of parts from gasoline to air filters to oil to oil filters.

It is easy to overlook parts because they don't seem very much like parts. Consumables like oil or ink cartridges don't satisfy our intuitive definition of parts. But insofar as they must be replaced and are essential to the operation of technology, they count as parts, at least for the purposes of this article.

The bottom line is this: Do you have to purchase something on a regular basis in order to use your technology? Do you have to replace something which could become worn out, depleted, lost, or stolen? The fewer times you have to purchase or replace, the better your technology, while the best technology requires no ongoing purchases or replacements at all.

Sometimes it is not possible to do without parts—but this is a sign of a transitional technology. Perhaps even good technologies such as portable stereos need parts such as CD-ROMs. But a portable stereo which does not need CD-ROMs, downloading MP-3s off the Net instead, would be better.

In looking at a technology which requires parts, follow this rule: the same rules apply for parts as apply for technologies. DVD-players, for example, are not good technologies until DVD disks become widely available. Electric lights are not good technology if they require non-standard light bulbs. Programs which require complicated start-up routines are not as good as those which start with a single command.

7. Good technology is personalized. One of the things that makes a telephone useful is that you have your own telephone number. In a similar manner, email is useful because you have your own email address. Bank machines would not be at all useful unless they opened your bank account and only your bank account.

Some of the simplest technologies succeed because they are personalized. Clothing and hats are selected on the basis of size and personal preference; standardized clothing which adjusts to your size and personal preferences would be even better. Houses are good technology because they are a place you and only you can enter. Personalized housing is made possible with personalized keys, another good technology. Things like credit cards, smart cards, pagers, cell phones, and eyeglasses are other examples.

Bad technology forces you to fit its requirements. My copy of MS-Word—which really wants me to spell like an American—is an example of bad technology. Ticket or teller windows, customer service counters, or registration desks—devices which force you to go to them, stand uncomfortably in a lineup, and to interact in a standardized way (no papers? go to the end of the line)—are bad technology.

8. Good technology is modular. By 'modular' I mean composed of distinct entities, each of which works independently of the others and may be arranged or rearranged into a desired configuration with a minimum of fuss and effort. To a degree, this requirement is a combination of the requirements that good technology be standardized and personalized, but modularity takes technology a step beyond either of those features.

Bricks and wood are good technology, for example, because they interconnect neatly and can be assembled into custom configurations. Legos are even better because they don't require parts like nails or cement (which is why Lego, and not Mecanno, is the construction toy of choice).

The stereo systems we purchased in the Seventies were good examples of modular technology. Using the standardized RCA jack, we could assemble systems with or without pre-amps, tuners, equalizers, or even turntables (the diamond needles in turntables were bad technology). Today's Universal Serial Bus (USB) represents good technology because it will allow computer systems to be assembled like the stereos of old. Telephone jacks, which made telephones portable, were a big improvement over the hard-wired systems. Books—and generally paper—are good because they are modular (a person may assemble a book such as a binder out of individual sheets of papers and a library out of a collection of books).

9. Good technology does what you want it to do. And it doesn't do something else. A good ship will take you across the Atlantic Ocean. A bad ship will collide with an iceberg and sink. A good airplane will fly from Mexico to San Francisco, coming to rest at the airline terminal. A bad airplane will experience control problems, coming to rest in pieces at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Sometimes 'doing what you want it to do' means the same thing as 'idiot proof'. Good technology minimizes the possibility of unexpected consequences by minimizing the potential for operator error. Good technology will also be robust, less prone to breakdowns and malfunctions.

Reliability seems like an obvious point but is frequently overlooked in less critical environments. Software which crashes instead of running is obviously bad technology. Telephone systems which connect you to India instead of Indiana are not useful.

Doing 'what you want it to do' is a highly personal thing. Parents often criticize teens' clothes because they represent bad technology. If you want clothes to protect you from the cold, then your daughter's selection of light chiffon and an ultra-mini represents bad technology. But if you want clothes to accentuate your physical features, then the same clothes represent good technology.

No technology is perfect. No technology will satisfy all nine rules. But some technologies will satisfy more of these rules than others. Some technologies will even break some of these rules and still be very good technology, if only because no better alternative is available. That said, purchasers should insist on, and vendors should be pressed for, good technology as defined above. It is not enough to show that a new technology works. The time and money we spend purchasing new technology and training staff demand technology which works well.