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KISS Me, Please

At InfoComm 2011, simplicity characterized the new products for higher ed. Thank goodness for that.

I confess that educational technology got away from me for a while. About 23 years to be precise. At the risk of betraying myself as a wizened old coot, when I last edited an ed tech magazine, educators were all dewy-eyed about the Apple IIe and debating the merits of teaching BASIC to students.

So you can imagine my relief at InfoComm last month, when vendors repeatedly talked about the simplicity of their products. I think I actually hugged one man.

To compete in the higher education market, vendors are realizing that their products must facilitate the learning process--not be a learning exercise in and of themselves. Again and again, everyone from projector manufacturers to digital signage exponents touted the plug-and-play aspects of their wares. The technology may be complex, they argued, but the user interface is assuredly not.

When you think about it, my hiatus from education technology made me a perfect guinea pig for the A/V products on display at InfoComm. In my early days on the job, I'm not much different from thousands of faculty members across campuses nationwide who may be mystified by the rapidly evolving technology options available to them. However, my job is to stay on top of the technology learning curve. Faculty, on the other hand, enter the world of academia to pursue their own passions and research--and, hopefully, to teach. We have no right to expect them to fiddle around with connectors, switches, and complex interfaces. They want products that are as easy to use as their TVs, because they want to do their own work.

But the drive for simplicity now reaches beyond the lecture hall. As state budget cuts cleave a path of destruction through higher education, IT departments are laying off employees and cutting back on training. They need products to be simple as well, because their overworked staff simply doesn't have the time--or the expertise, in some cases--for anything more complex.

That's probably why networking was such a recurrent theme at the conference. For embattled tech and facilities departments, the ability to easily control and monitor the performance of equipment across campus from a central location is priceless: It requires fewer employees, and permits savings in energy, maintenance, and replacement parts. Simplicity works.

When I first became involved in education technology, many educators were convinced that students would need to learn programming to survive in a 21st century world. As the technology has improved and products grown more powerful, however, the interfaces have become ever simpler--in fact, the programming is not even visible to the average user.

If faculty--and higher education in general--are to use technology to its fullest potential on campus, this trend toward simplicity must continue. To put it another way, vendors are going to have to pucker up and KISS: Keep it simple and straightforward.

About the Author

Andrew Barbour is the former executive editor of Campus Technology.

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