On the Obsolescence of #edtech

For the first two decades of the history of personal computers in schools (from about 1980 until about 2000), the primary goal of school and technology leaders was to put computers on educators’ and students’ desks. During that period, educators were installing the school’s first computers, then replacing those with multimedia-capable computers, and then replacing those with computers configured for Internet connections.

As a result, schools entered a cycle of technology obsolescence. They would expend significant capital in one year and a wave of new devices would arrive on campus. In the following years, the students and teachers would enjoy improved access to and improved function of the devices. Over time (usually less than five years), the devices became worn, increasingly dysfunctional, and obsolete compared to the products introduced to the market since the initial purchase. Recognizing the inadequacy of the systems that were sufficient just a few years previously, school and technology leaders would recommend another significant capital expense to obtain large numbers of devices that would soon be obsolete.

Since 2000 or so, the cyclic nature of technology purchases and the accompanying cycle of obsolescence have become less common. Several factors have led to tendency to more stable and predictable technology in schools. First, extant technology provides a foundation for technology purchases, and most schools have adopted a replacement cycle, so a fraction of the technology is replaced each year. Second, as networks became more important to computing, technology planning refocused from user devices to network infrastructure. eRate, a program that provides on-going financial support for network access and devices,  has moderated those expenses. Third, as cloud computing has become more widely accepted, Internet-only devices have replaced computers with require full operating systems. These devices are generally priced at a fraction of the cost of full computers and the total cost of ownership tends to be less than full computers. Those factors are dampening the purchase and obsolescence cycles and they are anticipated to influence decisions related to networks and devices purchased and maintained by school technology leaders into the future.