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...Utilising Equipment Matrices for Information Technology in Primary and Secondary Education Policy

Gordon Fletcher and Anita Greenhill

This paper first appeared as
Gordon Fletcher & Anita Greenhill (2000) "Equipment Matrix", National Study of Information Technology Skills, DEETYA Literacy Program, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Equipment matrices represent a systematised and regularised understanding of the relationships between social practices and technological tools (see Curriculum Materials Information Services, 1997). The users of these tools are enmeshed within the matrix through a complex combination of meanings and interaction. However, the correlation of just two series of variables within a matrix produces a ‘simple’ representation of available information that is also heavily abbreviated. The needs and presence of the user, either individually or collectively, are often obscured within two-dimensional equipment matrices as a consequence of this abbreviation. The ‘snapshot’ of information that matrices present is further refined by the direct inclusion of volatile information such as equipment specifications. The range of factors beyond technical specifications that influence the use and understanding of information technology are necessary elements for any consideration of IT. These, however, can only be simultaneously included in the equipment matrix representation through the incorporation of multiple parameters.

The Purpose of Matrices

This paper discusses the limitations of the equipment matrix included in the IT Skills Report. It also considers the relationship of the equipment matrix to the processes of planning for information technology in schools. The primary concern for a representation of information that can stand in isolation from a body of research is the extent to which it can serve an unambiguous purpose at a meaningful level of experience. The matrix is both a powerful and dangerous representation as it can apparently be interpreted in its own right, in a manner disconnected from the body of the text of which it forms a part. Within the context of a larger text, the matrix also assumes a particular emphasis with its generally graphical presentation. The combination of power and danger that a matrix holds is, also, a consequence of the relationship that connects the matrix with the actual experience it purports to represent. Matrices are the extrapolations of particular sets of data that have, in turn, been drawn from a wider accumulation of information regarding the experience that is being reported (see Curriculum Materials Information Services 1997). In the context of information technology, equipment matrices represent certain ‘key’ features of experience. This is a focus upon the observable and material features of the equipment in question particularly ‘hardware’ and ‘software’. This combination of parameters within equipment matrices reflects the power of this form of representation (Tilley, 1989). It combines the simplicity of a grid-like combination of data with an apparently meaningful connection of two associated and visible parameters of experience. However, this is an artificial disentangling of what is generally experienced and purchased as a single, albeit somewhat complex, ‘thing’.

Utilising equipment matrices in relation to the development of policy concerning information technology in schools requires a minimisation of the dangers found in these representations and a maximisation of their power to present information as coherent and ‘simple’ snapshots of current experience. These dual requirements present contradictory conditions upon the matrix. The representative power of the matrix decreases as it accommodates an increasing range of parameters. A more expansive matrix, in contrast, which represents the intersections of numerous influencing parameters, approaches an increasingly comprehensive picture of the experience in the classroom and school. As Tufte (1990, 37) claims, "to clarify, add detail". The ultimate aim for an equipment matrix in the context of schools’ IT policy is to enable a model which facilitates rapid self-assessment of a school’s current situation and provides a representation that is comparable at inter-school, regional, state and national levels. An equipment matrix developed within this environment will inevitably represent a compromise position although this does not necessarily invalidate its purpose. Even with the necessity to compromise, the equipment matrix requires a range of parameters that extends beyond technical specification to model the relationship of technology to human action for the purposes of policy development.

Two Dimensional Matrices

A matrix of two dimensions is a particularly restrictive representation of information. As an extrapolation of the variety of human experience with information technology, various ranges of information are discarded. Information is disregarded from each of the individual cases that inform the matrix. This ‘simplifies’ the matrix by removing the variation between cases of factors that are considered less significant. Within such a narrow framework the selection of parameters for each axes in the matrix becomes significant. The ‘obvious’ choice for equipment matrix axes is to plot ‘hardware’ against ‘software’. The data that drives these two axes can be quickly defined and collated. The relationships found at the intersections of this matrix are also identifiable as the installed machines in a defined environment. The experiences of users, however, can only be inferred in this form of matrix as part of the ‘discarded’ information. Concern for the intersections of users to technology is subsumed to becoming a tangent of the relationship between two parts of the same technology.

The plot of ‘hardware’ to ‘software’ represents a dual failing to adequately represent the situation ‘on the ground’ — in the classroom — beyond enumeration. The ‘software’ axis does not present a continuum of coherent or sequential data. Where software is first incorporated into a taxonomy that is then introduced en masse into the matrix it is inevitably based upon the intended purpose claimed by its publisher or simplistically categorised by broad tasks, e.g. database, word-processing and spreadsheet. This approach, however, only partially identifies the way software is utilised and understood. Production-driven taxa do not present, for example, the possibilities that are available when many separate software packages are used on a single machine. Irrespective of these possibilities, software is generally not predicated on the presence of other software. Even the need for a separate operating system can be circumvented in specific cases. The popular game, DOOM, for example, is actually a package that runs with the bundled DOOM operating system. By incorporating software as a defining axis of the matrix the ability to represent the relationships between software is effectively lost. This loss, at a minimal level, prohibits understanding of the range of software on a specific machine that may, in turn, indicate general-purpose usage or a specific ‘lab’ context. More importantly, separating software as a distinct unit of specific functions prevents consideration of the interactions that are possible with a mix of software installed on the same machine through mutually readable files and ‘clipboard’ transfers. It is the suite of software found on a particular machine that renders a machine useful or otherwise for a user’s particular purpose.

A ‘hardware’ axis, in contrast, acknowledges a particular historical and economic relationship between machines. However, this relationship is, again, largely external to the technical requirements of an individual user. The relatively low level of relationship between each point along the axes in a software/hardware equipment matrix maximises the lack of meaning found at the intersections of the matrix. The separation of hardware from software of what is treated in the classroom as a single machine, also, creates an artificial representation of meaning that is only understood in the abstract away from the classroom environment.

The hardware/software equipment matrix is not the only two-dimensional representation of a classroom’s IT capacity — many others are possible. Each combination of information and representation highlights a particular aspect of the classroom experience with information technology. The limitation of these representations emphasises the need to connect the expectations of the user in the classroom with the technical capabilities of IT. This requires a multi-dimensional representation of the factors that impact upon the use of IT equipment that does not solely catalogue the equipment within the classroom. Equipment within a matrix that is sensitive to users’ needs in a classroom is connected to other factors as meaningful and single ‘things’. The equipment in the equipment matrix, in this way, becomes only one axis of the overall picture. This representation remains an equipment matrix, though, as its purpose is to identify the range of material requirements necessary to support the acquisition of appropriate IT skills within the classroom.

The Consequences of Applying a Two-dimensional Matrices to Policy

Developing indications of the number of tools, such as computers or video cameras, that a school owns does not in itself represent more than a prior financial commitment to specific technology. The presence of equipment within a matrix, however, implies that it is used in the classroom environment and supports the acquisition of skills by students. Benchmarks developed from matrix-based information must accept these implications and project them forward as the basis for advocacy. However, in order to achieve optimum educational outcomes with the support of an information technology policy, the limitations of these models must also be acknowledged. The readily interpretable matrix does not itself present sufficient context on which to base policy decisions. The policy and the matrix are, in many respects, parallel responses to the same information. Each can assume multiple forms and pursue different directions depending upon what data is incorporated and what is discarded. The matrix can, in this respect, form a graphical representation to the advocacy of policy. More actively, the matrix presents a map on which the significant issues within the policy can be charted for later comparison.

The form and content of the matrix itself determines the extent to which these comparisons can be conducted. A matrix that represents specific equipment information may, however, only offer limited opportunities for extended analysis. Historical comparisons, for example, in the same classroom or school environment may provide indications of the shifting levels of support allocated to IT in a school. The basis for this comparison is restricted as it is an almost coincidental aspect of the representation and not the original purpose for the matrix. The limits to analysis with a matrix can be blurred by the difference in the understanding of what the matrix should represent and what it actually does represent.

The two dimensional representation of IT equipment specification within the classroom and school is capable of one significant capacity — defining the limits to action without a particular tool. For example, the Internet cannot be accessed without modem, computer and telephone line. The equipment matrix beyond this general observation can only indicate which combinations of equipment fulfil this minimum requirement. These combinations within a matrix can only imply that employed staff and students within a classroom environment also understand the equipment. The use and role of the equipment is influenced by other social factors that are not represented through this type of matrix. This wider complexity not presented in a specifications-orientated matrix is evidenced by the problems schools have experienced connecting to the World Wide Web (see Kapiolani Community College, 1997). The emphasis upon possessing the equipment — an emphasis perpetuated by the specifications-orientated matrix — necessary to access the Web is only a small aspect of the continual cost, support and training necessary to ensure an ongoing virtual presence. The cost of STD connection charges is an issue for schools in central Australia and outside regional centres. Concerns such as these may be hidden within an equipment matrix that seeks to indicate the presence or otherwise of a modem and telephone line in a school environment. Funding allocations and policy decisions that utilise general specifications and per student ratios may only accommodate a generalised need and fail to accommodate specific differences. Similarly, schools gain access to the Internet with a variety of telecommunications constraints for example, ‘noisy’ lines, congested servers and low bandwidth are not as simply represented within an equipment matrix as is a ‘free telephone line’. However, the quality of individual specifications within the equipment matrix approaches the same significant for the classroom environment as its actual presence. Congested modem banks at an Internet Service Provider's point of presence can negate the meaning of possessing a modem, telephone line and computer in the classroom. Similarly, a shortage of secondary storage space can rapidly render a sufficiently fast computer with photo-editing software useless for the task implied by its specifications.

At least two factors influence the assessment of quality; how the task is achieved technically (speed, efficiency, system load) and how familiar the actions needed to undertake the task are to the user’s own abilities. In this way, the skills, knowledges and capabilities of the user must be acknowledged within the equipment matrix.

Recommendations and policy decisions cannot be based on a catalogue of tools available to a school as these provide no indication of who, how or where the tools are utilised or for what purpose they are present in the school environment.

Two-dimensional matrices, which focus upon technical specifications only, provide a baseline indication of a potential capacity to undertake a given activity within the school environment. This baseline may provide little more support to the decision making and policy-making process than the various cliches used by computer salespeople; "The higher the numbers the better" or "Buy the biggest you can afford". Applied in conjunction with the advice of cynical computer users, "It will all be out-of-date in a couple of years anyway" it is clear that the ad hoc and continuous upgrade cycle that the computer industry heavily encourages is not necessarily the best, or judicious, path for most schools. The two-dimensional equipment matrix that focuses upon the ‘numbers’ encourages and perpetuates this cycle. A more expansive model that combines other factors influencing the usage of IT within schools can avoid some of the ‘snake-oil’ elements of IT marketing to focus upon the relationship IT to classroom practice.

Technological Determinism

The purpose of the equipment matrix is to assist a school to develop a well thought-out, intelligent and achievable technology usage plan. If the understanding of IT is reduced to an equipment specification, the IT planner will inevitably be forced to adopt a technological determinist position. Technological determinism occurs when there is a distortion of the decision-making process away from the people using the equipment to the equipment itself (Jones, 1982). This produces decisions, which tend to the advocate the continued acquisition of equipment as a solution rather than regarding the impact of, and relationship to, technology maintained by those expected to use the equipment. A continuous drive to technology without consideration of previous success or failures within the specific school environment ties the implementation of new equipment to ‘mainstream’ and commercial developments. These are developments that are not driven by increasing technical capacities but rather the demands of consumers to be entertained and automate or simplify their business requirements. The development of IT capacity is not orientated towards education purposes but rather a reflection of a different series of demands. Choices based around these ‘reflections’ value a desire to be technically up-to-the-minute over the facilitation of a lifelong relationship with the advantages of a particular series of tools. The disastrous consequences of this form of planning are well documented through 1970’s literature associated with the integration of computers into society (e.g. Jones 1982, Coates 1974).

Stage-based Methodology Advocated through the Report

Stage-based methodology was utilised to construct the principals’ survey as a cross-reference to the teachers’ and students’ surveys of the Skills Report. The Planning for Technology in an International School Report (1989) was the model for the survey instrument. This report was developed in the United States as a guideline to international schools and overseas American schools for adopting a technology use plan.

The report’s advantage is that it is not driven by technology. This rationale was developed, in part, as a response to the limited or ‘unknown’ resourcing available to these schools. This need has required an intelligent response to minimal resources, which emphasises the human resources of IT. For this latter reason it is a reference point for methodological appropriateness in the Australian Skills report. The report advocates determining the current levels of IT use with a resource survey. This survey is expanded to incorporate description of the environment, identification of innovative and the current forms of classroom intervention to launch a school into a planning process for IT. The policy that is developed with this process therefore includes a clear rationale and strategy and stages for implementation.

The school environment is not immediately transformed under this policy to a ‘wired’ campus but rather progresses through four stages of technology use. This staging of IT usage acknowledges that the policy is not just implementing a change of equipment but a cultural one in which the learning and work environment is being significantly altered. Progression through the four stages in this implementation of IT usage is not simply represented by the accumulation of additional computers. Each stage requires the establishment of formal support systems, plans and procedures. Other considerations that relate to the ‘core’ business of the school are also considered at each stage. Instructional delivery strategies, budgetary constraints and teachers’ relative knowledge are also gauged within the systematic and ongoing adoption of new technologies.

The importance of this stage model is its flexibility. It is self-passed and has the capacity to accommodate the variety of school situations that exist within the Australian education system. Assessment and policy decisions based on a two-dimensional and specification orientated representation of a school’s situation could not support or inform this form of integrated planning model.

A Model for Using an Equipment Matrix

Some general cautions emerge in attempting to utilise equipment matrices with the development of IT policies. Any matrix presents a representation of available information and not the direct presentation of lived experience in the classroom or elsewhere. With this distance the matrix has the opportunity to assume a variety of forms, each of which emphasises particular concerns and interests. The most powerful, and persuasive, matrices represent a particular situation with only the pairing of parameters. The issues surrounding IT use in schools, however, constitutes a complex multi-dimensional situation that cannot be adequately reduced to this degree.

Within the matrix, there is also a need to reflect an understanding at the level of experience. In the case of IT equipment, the meaningful level of understanding is not found with individual software packages or the peripherals attached to a particular machine. The equipment should be represented within the matrix as it is experienced in the classroom environment, as a single coherent ‘thing’. However, a second caution also informs the incorporation of equipment specifications directly into the matrix. Matrices constructed in this manner locate a specific historical moment, which in the case of IT equipment can be measured in weeks or months and certainly in briefer timeframes than those in which policy is developed. In this sense an equipment matrix may provide longer-term and more appropriate representation of the contemporary IT environment by indicating general taxa of available IT equipment. The development of a series of classifications, which could be updated outside the scope of the main matrix, ensures timeliness beyond the immediate scope of the policy’s discussion. This would provide the advantage of indicating the flexibility and varying qualities of different equipment by allowing a scale of quality to be reflected within the matrix. For example, while two machines with modems would positively correlate to Internet accessibility a machine with a faster modem would generally appear in separate sub-taxa.

The presentation of equipment as taxa within the equipment matrix requires a series of additional parameters against which a relationship can be discerned. In the context of IT in schools one of these parameters must the Skills benchmarks. This presents a continuum of a student’s progress towards acquiring skills. These skills benchmarks embed an indication of capacity for a variety of skills with the achievement of each level. While these may echo the generic categorisation of software publishing houses, for example word processing and databases, it implies that there are ranges of proficiencies that are attained at each level of skill. This skills continuum can be further refined to indicate, also, various stage ‘milestones’ in which additional equipment needs are introduced which the acquisition of further IT skills.

The relationship of IT skills to the equipment necessary to conduct specific activities can be presented in correlation with a range of issues that can be broadly described as environmental issues. These issues incorporate a variety of factors that generally shape the environment in which IT skills are acquired. Among the contributing factors are relative scales of financial and institutional support, aspects of the classroom environment, such as class sizes, and the ‘people’ aspects of the environment, such as the home ownership of PCs. These considerations can be assessed at a variety of levels from the classroom itself to a national level.

Brought together the equipment matrix ultimately provides a graphical representation for self-evaluation. The matrix allows for the rapid identification of a variety of inter-relationships, beyond solely technical ones. The skills sequence also represents an individual temporal sequence that allows imminent and future requirements to be identified.

The equipment matrix is a powerful representational tool with the capabilities to persuade. As a device within the construction of policy and the implementation of practice its use should be heavily contextualised. The purpose and limits of the matrix should also be clearly defined. If the role and meaning of matrices are not de-emphasised, ‘simple’ two-dimensional representations of complex situations can too easily be read as a whole summation to the exclusion of any supporting text. This de-emphasis and contextualisation must become part of the representational matrix itself in order to avoid a casual reading. The incorporation of context into the matrix is provided by avoiding presentations of technology in itself and adding details of the classroom environment and the purpose of the overall IT skills project. The resultant matrix assumes a more complex multi-dimensional form and provides a meaningful ‘snapshot’ of a web of issues that influence the relationship of equipment to the school environment.


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