Still the Only Education Game in Town

Purchasing computer equipment for schools used to be a relatively simple task. When programs like PageMaker, Illustrator, FileMaker, PowerPoint, and the WIMPS version of Word were only available on the Macintosh, the system pretty much chose itself. The Mac interface transformed business software into educational tools, offering accessible power to every level of schooling beyond the primary grades. At the time, the PC world was enthralled with MS DOS, Windows 3.0, and the latest version of Word Perfect – sporting inane ALT CTRL Function Key combinations to accomplish simple document formatting. Choosing the Macintosh was a no-brainer.

My, how times have changed! Today, every major business application available on the Macintosh is also available for Windows 95 or Windows NT. Intel-based systems now sport an operating system that delivers speed along with pre-emptive multi-tasking, and PC vendors are aggressively competing for the school technology market. Any school, from Kindergarten through University, involved in a purchasing decision must seriously consider Windows-based computers. With Apple’s continuing problems and apparently uncertain future, Windows might seem like the only reasonable choice for many.

Such a superficial analysis, however, does no service to the schools. The one major application absolutely crucial to the effective use of a computer in a school setting is the operating system. The Macintosh OS remains immeasurably easier to maintain and use than Windows 95 or NT. Installing a new piece of software on the Mac is as simple as clicking an install button, while similar installations under Windows 95 or NT can wreak havoc. The Windows 95 users I know have been required to ‘restore’ or ‘reinstall’ their system software to the point where they hesitate to try new software.

The Mac OS, based on Apple’s Human Design Interface, is significantly easier to learn than Windows 95 or NT. The Mac OS tends to disappear seamlessly into the background, delivering software access, while Windows 95 is omnipresent – presenting the user with enormous systems flexibility – but at the price of complexity. Teachers need to be trained to use classroom systems and opting for the Mac OS can minimize educational resources in terms of time, personnel, and equipment dedicated to teacher training. Three important words of advice for any school system introducing new technology into the schools: simplify, simplify, simplify. And that must mean, buy Macintosh.

Hardware expansion is an important factor in evaluating educational technology. The Macintosh has incorporated an external SCSI (Small Computer Systems Interface) bus since the introduction of the MacPlus over twelve years ago. Up to seven peripherals, like scanners, external drives, tape backups, and the like, can be daisy-chained to the external port in a matter of minutes. Adding external devices to a Windows 95 machine can often be a complex task requiring the user to install an expansion card, modify interrupt assignments, change jumpers, select memory addresses, install the drivers, and hope that there are no conflicts with other hardware or software. Though Windows’ ‘Plug and Play’ facilities can simplify this whole process, its success depends on whether the user’s current version of Windows recognizes the peripheral card being installed. After considerable user frustration, ‘plug and play’ has been replaced in the minds of most Windows users by ‘plug and pray.’ In an educational setting, computers are vulnerable to both accidental and malicious tampering by students. Accidental tampering results from the tendency of students to ‘explore their world.’ That is, a student might delete a desktop icon, try to change a control panel, create an empty folder, etc.—not maliciously, but in an attempt to find out how the system works. The clear desktop metaphor on the Mac tends to minimize these types of problems whereas the Windows 95 kludge almost dares the user to make a mistake. Windows 95 is so cumbersome and so vulnerable to tampering that teachers can get hopelessly lost trying to troubleshoot a problem. Diagnosing and recovering from a systems ‘accident’ on the Mac is much easier.

Malicious tampering is a serious problem in both K-12 and University computing. There are no foolproof ways to prevent these attacks, but there are effective ways to minimize the problem. Apple’s At Ease and At Ease for Workgroups presents each user a customized interface upon login that can prevent most accidental and malicious attacks. The user is confined to working with a preset group of programs and can be barred from access to systems software. Though there are some third party solutions that offer security to Windows 95 and NT work stations, none are bullet proof and the complexity of the operating system makes it more vulnerable than the Mac.

Ease of use and ease of learning, effortless expansion, and reduced vulnerability to accidental or malicious system attacks can be directly translated into cost savings for school purchasing Mac-based systems. When computing the cost of that sub $1,000 Pentium II system and comparing it to a more expensive G-3 based Macintosh, the systems administrator must account for additional expenses related to support. Training and support at school level are potentially big budget items for Windows-based systems and a school system ignores this requirement at its peril.

Of course, purchase decisions by school systems are not made in a vacuum. Schools generally want new systems that are compatible with existing networks, hardware, and software. The compatibility argument is often a major factor in determining which systems a school purchases. On the surface, it’s an easy argument to accept, and some school districts use it to perpetuate their expensive commitment to Windows-based systems.

The argument ignores the fact that there are compatibility solutions that allow the Macintosh to work quite happily in just about any PC environment. Macs can be used as Macintosh work stations on a Windows NT or Novell Network; Windows software can be run on Macs by using Connectix’s Virtual PC or Insignia Solution’s SoftPC; and almost all major programs include translators for moving data back and forth between Mac and PC environments.

Schools from K-University should make technology purchase decisions based on which system delivers the most accessible power to the student for the least overall cost. The cross platform technology sharing agreement between Apple and Microsoft offers hope that at some point in the future, Windows NT (or Windows 2000) might evolve into an operating system offering a competitive alternative for the schools. For the foreseeable future, however, the Macintosh is still the only education game in town.

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