The “Next Big Thing”: Educational Context

Blake Ross has me thinking. A couple of weeks ago, Ross wrote a short post on his experience with reporters asking him about his predictions on the “the next big thing.” In his act of stonewalling the Press, Ross replied “the next big thing is the one that makes the last big thing usable.” He continues:

I’m not trying to be stubborn or difficult. I’m just disgusted by the status quo. I’m disgusted by what the average person has to deal with on a day-to-day basis, and I can’t imagine a more irresponsible way to spend my time than to sit around pontificating on how else we can widen the gap between the people who actually understand computers, and everybody else.

Here’s what I mean: put a digital picture and an instant message window side by side and ask Mom to share the picture. Even though the windows are approximately five pixels apart, sharing them is about as intuitive as a W2 form. It’s actually easier to share a picture sitting on a server in China than it is to share your own stuff. And you want me to gush about podcasting?

The issue of software usability is incredibly important as the “average” user, in the educational context, is also often the “average” teacher. As I’m reminded of the perceived ease of use of Macintosh systems over the years, I recall my own arguments that many open source software projects are still just too difficult for adoption for the non-techie. I certainly shouldn’t complain as I’m not a software developer, nor have I participated in the development of any open source projects directly, but I do see that there is gap to usability that will continue to slow adoption. Sure, there are many other reasons that open source software isn’t easily accessible in schools (e.g., politics, administration, marketing), but I think that software usability represents the ultimate “point of contact” between product and user. Even if we can get past all of the barriers to the greater adoption of FLOSS in education, usability will be crucial and may be the final deciding factor for teachers.