Teaching and learning requires students access and consume information, analyze and manipulate it, and create and disseminate it. Some educationally relevant information tasks, such as consuming text-based web sites (e.g. Wikipedia) and composing text (e.g. writing research papers) require little computing capacity; the rate of data creation is a small, the necessary processing power is minimal, and the output is simple enough that an inexpensive processor, low resolution display, and minimal network connection allows the work to be completed with no impediments caused by the technology. Other information tasks in the curriculum, such as consuming or creating video require much greater computing capacity as the amount of data necessary to encode video is far greater than transferred for text. A device that is sufficient for a text-based activity may be insufficient for a video-based activity.
The capacity of a computer determines the nature of the information tasks that can be accomplished with it. Systems with greater capacity can process more data in a shorter time so users can use more sophisticated data sources and create more sophisticated data products using systems. When one attempts to use a computer with insufficient capacity, the computer is likely to “freeze” as it becomes unresponsive and many software features stop working.
Capacity is determined by several factors. In general, these factors determine the rate at which a system can access, process, and display information. Devices must be evaluated relative to a particular need, and IT managers will determine the capacity of the systems by evaluating:
- The speed at which the computer can processes information. is measured in giga-hertz (GHz); a processor operating at a speed of 3 GHz can perform 3,000,000,000 operations in one second. For the first generation of IT managers in schools, the processing speed of the computers was important as it determined the performance of the machines. For most of the 21st century, IT managers have been more concerned with the number of processors installed in parallel on the systems they purchase. The increasing processing capacity of computers has been referred to as Moore’s Law, and it has continued unabated for more than 50 years.
- The amount of RAM available to the processor. RAM has always been important in determining the capacity of a computer. It is relatively cheap and easy to increase, so RAM upgrades are common. For some devices and for some purposes, however, increasing the RAM will have little effect on the perceived performance of the system. For example, if a student is using a computer that has 4 GB RAM installed to access G Suite and its performance is adequate, then doubling the RAM to 8 GB is unlikely to provide any better performance.
- The efficiency of the operating system as it manages system resources affects users’ perception of the computer’s performance. Over time, updates and changes to the operating system can decrease its efficiency and systems with excessive extensions to the operating system or web browsers can also interfere with operating system efficiency.
- The sophistication of the applications used to complete tasks also affects capacity; many programs are sold in different versions. For example, schools can install and support various levels of video editing software, including that packaged with the operating system, up to the same software used by professional video editors. Professional level software provides very sophisticated functions, but it requires hardware be upgraded frequently and it requires time and effort to use at its fullest capacity.
- The data rate at which the system can send and receive information on networks is increasingly a determinate of sufficiency. For many users, computing devices are less about information processing and more about interaction enabling. Access to networks also expands the information capacity of our devices.; we update our software through the network and we move photographs from our devices onto network storage systems to free memory for more images (for example).
These variable aspects of computing systems that determine its capacity cannot be considered in isolation, and each contributes to the others. Consider the smartphones that many of teachers and students carry into school in their pockets. These are the latest in a series of “pocket-sized” technologies that have been evolving for decades and these evolve together. The processing speed and memory in pocket-sized devices exceeds that available in desktop computers manufactured only a few years ago, they connect to networks that make multimedia content available, and they allow users to create and share multimedia content with little effort. These devices have evolved through a combination of manufacturer push and consumer pull; as devices made more tasks possible, the demand for the products increased and motivated manufacturers to further improve and expand the devices they sold. Perhaps the best example of this effect is the co-evolution of the displays and the network capacity to access video. Better networks afforded users capacity to receives video and improved displays make the viewing experience acceptable.
The reality of evaluating device capacity is even more complex than presented so far as even more factors affect the capacity of some devices and the all of these factors continue to evolve. The battery technology necessary to power the devices in our pockets is able to power devices longer than previous generations of batteries and they recharge more quickly. Network engineers are developing more sophisticated methods of securing the networks we use and the data we store on them. Like other technologies, these methods are being refined through market pull and industry push but also through reaction to threats posed by the devices themselves and by misuse of the devices. The Internet of things (IoT) is the label given to the growing range of consumer devices that are connected to the Internet, and the IoT represents a vastly extended collection of source of input for computing systems, and it is possible because of increasing capacity of processors, expanding wireless networks, and decreasing size of circuits that has contributed to the mobility of technology.
Despite the evolution of a greater diversity of computing devices, which is likely to continue into the foreseeable future, schools are likely to be places where the original model of computing will continue to dominate technology-rich activity in schools. Learning will find students accessing information, composing text, and creating media using general computing devices managed by the school and running software supported by the school. The fleets of devices managed by school IT professionals will be more diverse than the fleets managed by previous generations of IT managers. They will obtain, configure and install, manage and support computers with full operating systems, devices with mobile operating systems, and Internet-only notebooks.