July/August 2000 // Commentary
Nine Rules for Good Technology
by Stephen Downes
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Stephen Downes "Nine Rules for Good Technology" The Technology Source, July/August 2000. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Today's educational technology is like a Rube Goldberg contraption. Enter any technology-enabled classroom or other facility, and you will see a mish-mash of computers with associated wires, video displays, modems, ITV, CD-ROM libraries, tapes, and more. To use this technology effectively and avoid being distracted by the usual malfunctions and dense manuals, teachers must spend a lot of time in the classroom themselves.

It doesn't have to be this way, however. As technologies mature, they tend to become easier to use. Consider the elevator and radio, for example. Once so finicky it needed operators to take riders from floor to floor, today's elevator functions flawlessly with little intervention on the part of users. Likewise, when the radio was first developed, it was the domain of specialists. Today's radio is a model of usability, requiring no special training for the listener who wants to find the nation's top ten hits.

It is true that not all technologies are so uncomplicated. For example, the person who operates a nuclear reactor must have some expertise and special training. But such systems are rare, overwhelmed by an array of far simpler innovations. If a technology is to become widespread, it is crucial that it be easy to use—so easy that it need not be packaged with an operating manual. Technology that teachers employ in the classroom must be of exactly that variety: widespread and easy-to-operate. A learning simulation, a conferencing tool, and a student record keeper should be as untroublesome to use as a television, a telephone, and a notebook.

I believe that we currently are in a transition phase; we are moving away from complicated technologies toward simpler innovations. For the most part, however, today's technology remains clumsy. We must question whether the time and money we are investing in that technology—in teaching teachers to use it—is well spent. Certainly training is necessary to get us to a higher level of technological advancement, but we must not take our eyes off the long term goal: good technology.

What distinguishes a good technology from a bad technology? The following nine characteristics define the former. Think of them as a checklist; a technology that has more of these features is, in general, better than a technology which has fewer of them.

Good Technology: The List

  1. Good technology is always available. This distinction is what makes buses, in spite of all of their advantages, bad technology. People cannot count on catching the bus at absolutely any time of day; thus most people prefer cars. In the educational field, the technological equivalent of the bus is the equipment trolley. It is necessary because only one projector (or workstation or overhead projector) is available to serve five classrooms. Imagine what life would be like if we had to schedule our use of the elevator. Or to make reservations to use the telephone. Good technology does not require scheduling, relocation, or set-up.

    The availability requirement raises cost considerations. Equipment that costs less is more likely to be available. But cost is not the sole or even primary determinant. If a technology meets the other criteria described below, it will be made widely available despite the cost. Think of ATMs, electrical lights, and highways.

  2. Good technology is always on (or can be turned on with a one-stroke command or, better yet, starts automatically when the need for it arises). One thing that makes the telephone useful is that we do not need to boot up the operating system before we make a call. Likewise, electrical lights are a significant improvement over systems that required individual ignition with a match or candle, and streetlights are practical because they come on when it gets dark outside. A weakness of motor vehicles is that they are not always on, a fact that causes endless frustration for users needing transportation on cold winter days.

    Much of today's educational technology requires long and sometimes cumbersome initialization procedures. After wheeling in a projector from another room, for example, three teachers and a technician may spend time plugging it in, turning it on, spooling the film, and positioning the screen.

    Admittedly, the "always on" requirement raises significant energy consumption considerations. A portable device that consumes a lot of energy, for example, cannot always be on because it must carry its own power supply. Energy itself—in inefficient forms like gas and oil—is too expensive to be consumed merely for convenience. Devices with low energy consumption, however, can always be on. Think of watches, telephones, and elevators.

  3. Good technology is always connected. Good technology can send information when and where it is needed without human intervention. Fire alarms, especially institutional ones, are useful in this way. Indeed, if the detectors were not connected to warning systems, the alarms would be useless. Again, telephones are useful because no procedure is required to connect to the telephone system.

    As recently as last month, I spent fifteen minutes in a room with a dozen or so highly paid professionals waiting for an ITV system to be connected to a remote location. I have spent much time listening to my modem dial up a local provider (and luxuriate today in the convenience of an always-on Digital Subscriber Line connection).

  4. Good technology is standardized. One television functions much like another television (televisions became less useful with the introduction of brand-specific remotes). One telephone connects to any other telephone in the world. One brand of gasoline powers your car as well as any other—but cars that require different grades of fuel, such as diesel, are bad technology because of their reliance on non-standard fuel.

    Standardization promotes interoperability. Interoperability means that you have choices, that you are not locked into one supplier or vendor. It means that you can adapt easily to improved versions of the same technology: you can upgrade to a bigger television or engine-cleaning gasoline without replacing your electrical wiring or car engine. A video that is designed to be played only on a specific computer platform and email that may be read only via a specific Internet Service Provider are examples of bad technology. Video should be viewable on all platforms and email should be accessible through any Internet service provider.

  5. Good technology is simple. Simplicity is a slippery concept, but the best technologies can be learned by looking at the input device, not by studying a manual.

    Here's how I distinguish between good computer programs and bad computer programs: I try to install and run the program without the use of any manual. Installation is much easier today, thanks to a good computer program called "Setup." Running the program is a different matter. When I have to stop and think (and read very small print) about how to get rid of a paperclip icon so that I can type a letter, I know I am dealing with bad technology. Good technology, by contrast, is intuitive. To use an elevator, I press the floor number. Simple. To make a phone call, I dial the number. Easy.

    Simplicity goes hand-in-hand with range of function. Features that you never use get in the way, and they make the product complicated and cumbersome. Look for technology that does exactly what you want: no more, no less.

  6. Good technology does not require parts. Cars are bad technology: they require a never-ending array of parts, from gasoline to oil to air filters. It is easy to overlook parts because they seem integrated into the whole; consumables, like oil or ink cartridges, don't satisfy our intuitive definition of parts. But insofar as they must be replaced and are essential to the operation of technology, they count as parts, at least for the purposes of this article.

    The bottom line is this: Do you have to purchase something on a regular basis in order to use your technology? Do you have to replace something that becomes worn out or depleted or that can be lost or stolen? The fewer times you have to purchase or replace, the better your technology; the best technology requires no ongoing purchases or replacements at all.

    Sometimes it is not possible to do without parts, but this is a sign of a transitional technology. Perhaps even good technologies, such as portable stereos that require CD-ROMs, need parts. But a portable stereo that does not need CD-ROMs because it can download MP-3s from the Internet instead would be better. If parts are absolutely necessary, they should be widely available, standardized, and simple to install. DVD players, for example, will not qualify as good technologies until DVDs become as widely available as videotapes.

  7. Good technology is personalized. Some of the simplest technologies succeed because they are personalized. One of the things that makes a telephone useful is that you have your own telephone number. In a similar manner, e-mail is useful because you have your own e-mail address. ATM cards would not be at all useful unless they opened your bank account and only your bank account. Credit cards, smart cards, pagers, cell phones, and eyeglasses are more examples of personalized technologies.

    Bad technology forces you to fit its requirements. I purchased my copy of Microsoft Word in Canada, but the default dictionary was for American English. I could install a British dictionary, but Canadian English is distinct from both British and American English. Like many users, I am forced to add each distinctly Canadian word to a custom dictionary. This is bad technology. Why can't I simply tell Word that I am Canadian (or an architect, or a member of some other specialized group) and have it retrieve the appropriate spellings for me?

  8. Good technology is modular. By "modular" I mean composed of distinct entities, each of which works independently of the others and may be arranged or rearranged into a desired configuration with a minimum of fuss and effort. To a degree, this requirement is a combination of the requirements that good technology be standardized and personalized, but modularity takes technology a step beyond either of those features.

    Bricks and wood are good technology because they interconnect neatly and can be assembled into custom configurations. Legos are even better because they do not require parts like nails or cement (which is why Lego, and not Mecanno, is the construction toy of choice).

    The stereo systems we purchased in the 1970s are good examples of modular technology. Using the standardized RCA jack, we could assemble systems with or without pre-amps, tuners, equalizers, or even turntables. Today's Universal Serial Bus (USB) represents good technology because it allows computer systems to be assembled like the stereos of old. Books—and paper in general—are good because they are modular; a person may assemble a book, such as a binder, out of individual sheets of paper and a library out of a collection of books.

  9. Good technology does what you want it to do. And it doesn't do something else. "Doing what you want it to do" means the same thing as "idiot proof." Good technology minimizes the potential for operator error and thus the possibility of unexpected consequences. Good technology is also robust—less prone to breakdowns and malfunctions—and reliable. Software that crashes instead of running is obviously bad technology. Telephone systems that connect you to India instead of Indiana are not useful.

    "Doing what you want it to do" is a highly personal thing. If you want your daughter's clothes to protect her from the cold, then her selection of a light chiffon top and an ultra-mini skirt represents bad technology. But if she wants clothes to accentuate her physical features, then the same clothes represent good technology.


It is important to remember that no technology is perfect. No technology will satisfy all nine rules. However, some technologies will satisfy more rules than others, and some technologies will even break a rule or two and still be very good technologies (if only because no better alternative is available). That said, purchasers should insist on—and vendors should be pressed for—good technology as defined above. We spend too much time and money on new technology to be satisfied with anything less.

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