• Why Web-based Technology is the Best Fit for Education

    I started my tech career with two separate strands: website building for simple sites like this blog, and app building for mobile phones. The websites were made with WordPress, and were very easy to put together, following the built-in menus. Only when I wanted something advanced, like a searchable folk song database did I need to expand and learn a little (cobbled-together) javascript and php.

    The app experience was more serious programming. Since I was learning just as Apple unveiled the Swift programming language (and Objective-C is terrifying to look at for the inexperienced), I began with Swift, and then expanded to Java as I converted apps to the Android platform.

    My main focus was a music teacher lesson planning app, where teachers could access their class schedule, and create nice lesson plans for their administrators with little hassle. One thing that many users requested was a web version, where they could access their lessons from a computer, and type more easily. While the apps were already using an online database on my server, this request required me to go back to the web and cobble together an online portal as well.

    Of course, my full-time career during all of that was as an elementary general music teacher. I remember being asked countless times by colleagues and administrators, “How do you use technology in your classroom?” My answers at the time (before building my own solutions) were limited to mostly tools I used myself, rather than tools the students used.

    One seriously limiting factor for using any technology was the ability to install and update software. The district devices were locked down, so that teachers were unable to install or update any software without making an appointment with the tech support person, who travelled between buildings. While I understand the security reasons for this procedure, it was difficult for a music teacher, who needs iTunes installed, especially when Apple sends out updates on a regular basis! Likewise, our textbook series came with digital resources which I could not install without “assistance.” (techies like me hate asking for assistance, although we’re happy to provide it).

    In a previous job, I was a middle-school choir director, and worked alongside the high-school director. He showed me the SmartMusic program, which was really incredible. Yet not only did it require a hefty download and quality computer, it was also expensive, and not really designed for the students I was working with.

    When I began Cedar River Tech and Unison.School, I decided to take what I had learned as a beginning programmer, combined with the challenges that I knew teachers faced in schools, and start with a web app. The first feature was a touch-enabled digital xylophone. By making this a web page, I only had to create one app that would instantly work on any device. Yes, it’s slightly less convenient to go into your browser on your tablet or phone than to open an installed app. But in exchange, I can reach every student in the world who wants to use this tool right now. As a result, I was able to move on immediately to more challenging and helpful tools for the sight, without rewriting the first tool in multiple languages.

    You can always expand by adding native apps later, but to provide core functionality to as many users as possible, especially in a field as diverse as education, web-first is the clear winner.