2009 Horizon Report Thoughts & Observations

This is my first opportunity to read the Horizon Report, and I have to say that I found it to be a very thorough and useful resource.  I think the notion of issuing an exhaustively researched report on emerging technologies and their expected impact on education is an invaluable service.  I expect that now I know where to find this report, I will become a regular reader.

Still… a few questions and observations came to mind as I read this year’s report…

First, just to play devil’s advocate… I have no doubt that all of the technologies listed in the report will have a profound impact on education in one way or another.  But I wonder if some of the items are included in the report because the advisory board sees genuine educational potential in the item, or if it’s a matter of playing “catch-up” with a popular trend and trying to attribute an exaggerated sense of educational importance and urgency to a particular technology.  To illustrate my point, the first technology highlighted in the report is mobile devices.  Now, I agree with the report that one cannot overstate the impact mobile devices are having on our society and the way we communicate and access information–including in educational applications.  But the report goes so far to hint that mobile devices could someday replace personal computers.  True, smart phones potentially offer almost limitless information all in a pocket-sized device.  But…a crucial point that is overlooked by the report is one particular–and in my opinion, glaring– limitation of these devices–specifically, the small keyboards and screens.  Granted, for such applications as playing rudimentary games, viewing YouTube videos, language translation, and looking up movie times, weather forecasts, sports scores, and news blurbs, mobile devices are perfect.  But the cramped keyboards and small screens take their toll on the user, in my opinion.  How quickly and accurately can one really type an entry of any length using only their thumbs?  And while I agree that the potential of mobile devices is almost limitless, until the ergonomic problems are solved, I don’t believe desktop and laptop computers are going anywhere anytime soon.  That’s not to say that mobile devices should be dismissed as educational tools–in fact, I believe quite the opposite to be true.  I guess my point is that the implied urgency with which these technologies are described should be tempered by their limitations as well–not the least of which being universal access.  I think the “Pockets of Potential” article addresses mobile technology more thoroughly and fairly.  To be fair, though, I think the Horizon Report’s main oversight is the anticipated time-frame; I doubt that the screen & keypad shortcomings of mobile devices will be improved enough in the coming year to bring them closer to replacing laptop & desktop computers.

Now, as a counterpoint to my own previous example, I think the second technology cited in the report–cloud computing–may be a potentially pivotal solution to making mobile devices more useful; the recent popularity of mini laptops–netbooks–is testament to this.  It’s not inconceivable to think that future computers will simply provide processing power, memory, minimal storage space, and Internet access–because all applications will reside somewhere in the “ether”.  Google Docs is already an example of this.  Many users are switching from expensive software suites that have to be upgraded to “free” applications on the web that are constantly updated and improved beneath the notice of the user.  The potential shortcomings of this, though, include questions of rights and ownership and security.  If I create a document on a computer I’ve purchased using software I’ve bought, the ownership is mine, and I am responsible for the security and integrity.  However, if I create an identical document in Google Docs, do I really have sole ownership?  And who else might have access to its contents?  As the report cites, trust is still an issue–for both security and integrity–and rightly so, in my opinion.

Lastly…before this gets even lengthier…  Having said all that, I still applaud the efforts of all the contributors to the Horizon Report.  Their approach seems to be as exhaustive and impartial as possible, and I have no doubt that the information is as accurate and timely as possible.  As I stated earlier, I have no doubt that I will be consulting this report in the future.  I would only offer that readers treat the report as one of many resources regarding technology and education–that they use it along with other sources to help gain a more global and wider perspective.