What Happens When “Computers” Are Replaced by Tablets and Phones?

With personal email services managed online since what feels like forever (and probably is “forever”, for many users), personally accessed productivity apps delivered via online services (perhaps with some minimal support for in-browser, offline use) – things like Microsoft Office Online or Google Docs – video and music services provided via online streaming services, rather than large file downloads, image galleries stored in the cloud and social networking provided exclusively online, and in the absence of data about connecting devices (which is probably available from both OU and OU-owned FutureLearn server logs), I wonder if the OU strategists and curriculum planners are considering a future where a significant percentage of OUr distance education students do not have access to a “personal (general purpose) computer” onto which arbitrary software applications can be installed rather than from which they can simply be accessed, but do have access to a network connection via a tablet device, and perhaps a wireless keyboard?

And if the learners do have access to a desktop or laptop computer, what happens if that is likely to be a works machine, or perhaps a public access desktop computer (though I’m not sure how much longer they will remain around), probably with administrative access limits on it (if the OU IT department’s obsession with minimising general purpose and end-user defined computing is anything to go by…)

If we are to require students to make use of “installed software” rather than software that can be accessed via browser based clients/user interfaces, then we will need to ask the access question: is it fair to require students to buy a desktop computer onto which software can be installed purely for the purposes of their studies, given they presumably have access otherwise to all the (online) digital services they need?

I seem to recall that the OU’s student computing requirements are now supposed to be agnostic as to operating system (the same is not true internally, unfortunately, where legacy systems still require Windows and may even require obsolete versions of IE!;-) although the general guidance on the matter is somewhat vague and perhaps not a little out of date…?!

I wish I’d kept copies of OU computing (and network) requirements over the years. Today, network access is likely to come in the form of either wired, fibre, or wireless broadband access (the latter particularly in rural areas, (example) or (for the cord-cutters), a mobile/3G-4G connection; personal computing devices that connect to the network are likely to be smartphones, tablets, laptop computers, Chromebooks and their ilk, and gaming desktop machines. Time was when a household was lucky to have a single personal desktop computer, a requirement that became expected of OU students. I suspect that is still largely true… (the yoof’s gaming machine; the 10 year old “office” machine).

If we require students to run “desktop” applications, should we then require the students to have access to computers capable of installing those applications on their own computer, or should we be making those applications available in a way that allows them to be installed and run anywhere – either on local machines (for offline use), or on remote machines (either third party managed or managed by the OU) where a network connection is more or less always guaranteed?

One of the reasons I’m so taken by the idea of containerised computing is that it provides us with a mechanism for deploying applications to students that can be run in a variety of ways. Individuals can run the applications on their own computers, in the cloud, via service providers accessed and paid for directly by the students on a metered basis, or by the OU.

Container contents can be very strictly version controlled and archived, and are easily restored if something should go wrong (there are various ‘switch-it-off-and-switch-it-on-again’ possibilities with several degrees of severity!) Container image files can be distributed using physical media (USB memory sticks, memory cards) for local use, and for OU cloud servers, at least, those images could be pre-installed on student accessed container servers (meaning the containers can start up relatively quickly…)

If updates are required, these are likely to be lightweight – only those bits of the application that need updating will be updated.

At the moment, I’m not sure how easy it is to arbitrarily share a data container containing a student’s work with application containers that are arbitrarily launched on various local and remote hosts? (Linking containers to Dropbox containers is one possibility, but they would perhaps be slow to synch? Flocker is perhaps another route, with its increased emphasis on linked data container management?)

If any other educational institutions, particularly those involved in distance education, are looking at using containers, I’d be interested to hear what your take is…

And if any folk in the OU are looking at containers in any context (teaching, research, project work), please get in touch – I need folk to bounce ideas around with, sanity check with, and ask for technical help!;-)


  1. Richard Sweet

    Is it any less reasonable to ask for a PC now (for certain courses) than it was say 15 years ago? I would argue not, especially as an adequate machine is much cheaper now. For some courses learning to use specialist software or advanced spreadsheet skills will be inherent, and difficult to do without a Windows PC.

    Sadly I don’t have any of my old requirements booklets either, though I did find some audio cassettes (for a 2003 course, amazingly).

    • Tony Hirst

      @Richard I don’t know…I guess there is also expectation management, and a recognition that perhaps the demographics are changing. That said, another £300 on top of not inconsiderable loans is yet another financial burden to impose on OUr students?

      Re: “difficult to do without a Windows PC” – I think we are supposed to be platform agnostic now? A problem then arises from a student who comes along with iOS or Android, rather than Windows O/S, Linux, or OS/X?