Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Eazel Effect

Sylvia comments:

It's hard to say exactly what to do. If you look at recent history (30 years) you might easily conclude that Squeak is a lost cause. There are too many examples of well-designed, great software apps that have languished in US schools.

What sets Squeak apart from the past failures is that it the depth and quality of the software engineering and that it is and always has been (more or less) open source software.

When I think about this kind of situation, I think of what I call the "Eazel Effect." Basically, Eazel was a much-ballyhooed company that took a bunch of venture capital to write Nautilus, the file manager for the GNOME desktop, released 1.0 and promptly folded. As a business, Eazel was an unambiguous failure, if they were writing proprietary software, their software would have, at best, been purchased and folded into some other product and at worst simply abandoned. Because they were writing free software, Nautilus continues to be a key element of desktop Linux. The company's failure had virtually no impact on the software's continued distribution, development and ongoing utility. When I got into free software, the Mozilla Project was widely regarded as a bloated, behind-schedule failure. Once they released Firefox a couple years later, all was forgotten and forgiven.

Similarly, Squeak would have been killed outright by both Apple and Disney if it was proprietary software, and it would have subsequently died of neglect as a commercial product. But free software doesn't run on the same schedule that commercial software does. As I've mentioned, a host of the most exciting new projects in ed-tech use Squeak: OLPC, Scratch, Croquet and Kusasa. And it is really a small leap to imagine a world where the next time the MacArthur Foundation pours $50 million into digital media and learning they structure their investments to leverage these existing free cross-platform resources and initiatives, instead of subsidizing both the creation and sale of proprietary software (which seems to be their model now). The thing is that Squeak is both a small scale "tinker-toy," allowing students to extend it and create little toys and applications, and a large-scale "tinker-toy," allowing software engineers to build complex components atop it.

Now, I'm not predicting Squeak world domination soon. Safer money is on a similar set of tools developing on Python, a whole different set of tinker-toys (and the one I actually use).

It is a truism that, while writing software is hard, getting your innovation into schools and used effectively is even harder. With proprietary software, when we get the marketing, distribution, training, etc., wrong, everything goes away. We need the fault-tolerance of free software, where multiple vendors and distributors get an equal longer-lived crack at getting innovative software in the hands of kids of teachers.


Doug Holton said...

Squeak doesn't compare to Nautilus and Mozilla/Firefox. Those and similar tools took off when they became ready to use (not half done), easy to use, and well-designed (no serious bugs, usable interface). That's why it took Mozilla a few years to get off the ground, for example. They are also serve central purposes in our use of computers, such as accessing files, accessing the web, composing documents (openoffice), etc.

As Sylvia referred to with her mention of Bill Kerr's recent blog posts about Squeak, Squeak (the technology, not just the community) has issues if you actually try to use it seriously. It doesn't have that 'pick it up and use it now' feel that Scratch does. I didn't get that sense from Croquet or Sophie either ( Say I want to fire up Croquet and see others online (just like you can easily do in Second Life, ActiveWorlds...
You can't do that. It uses LAN P2P connections or something. I want to use it as an educational platform, for example a free, online tutoring platform, but if you can't get past step 1, I think it still is not ready.

Squeak isn't it. Hypercard/Supercard had it but are gone or not used anymore. I think there may be better potential in the coming years with java-based solutions, such as project darkstar, etc. They are also open source. Or else maybe Second Life will improve in a couple of years after being open sourced (they are open sourcing the servers, too).

Too many times people jump on the bandwagon of technologies (wikipedia, olpc, second life, pdas, podcasts, etc.) without having seriously used them themselves to uncover their warts, or turning a blind eye to the warts. In the case of the OLPC laptop, that isn't even out yet and may never even be sold in North America or Europe. How many educators played a role in the design of the laptop or the software? From what I've seen it is Negroponte and coders calling all the shots.

Tom Hoffman said...

Yes, my point is that an open source project can hang around longer and take off when it is ready. Squeak/EToys, as you download it from SqueakLand, is still somehow half-baked. Anyone who has tried that knows it -- but the half-baked part is also superficial. It has a rock-solid technical foundation.

But yes, I am not arguing that you should go use Croquet today, either. Am I arguing that as it is free and well-engineered it deserves continued attention and development.

It seems you also agree with me that, unlike Doug Johnson said (which triggered this whole thread), we don't really have the tools we need yet, or if we do teachers don't have wide access to them.

A larger point is that in open source processes teachers don't have to just jump on the bandwagon, or not. They can track the ongoing processes and development at OLPC, for example, in great detail and in many cases participate.

Tom Hoffman said...

And, if just one of these projects becomes successful: Scratch, Sophie, Kusasa, Etoys on OLPC, Croquet, doesn't that make Squeak a success, since they're all built on that platform?

But ultimately, I'm not predicting world Squeak domination soon. Python maybe.

tellio said...

I don't know Squeak from Squawk, but something you said set me off down an off-topic rabbit hole. You said, "...getting your innovation into schools and used effectively is even harder."

I agree, but what I want to emphasize that most schools' structures prevent the adoption of new tools. You can make yourself quite professionally insane pushing that river. So what's a teacher to do? Either find a compatible school environment (fine so long as the rare conditions that created that anomylous state continue). Or you can opt out of one level of taxonomy (k-12) in favor of another (university). This is what I did and on the whole it has proven to be a liberating experience. I can try to create within a larger frame. Or you can become a techie and devote your life to helping those in classroom do what they can. Or you can opt out of the system and try to make learning more like Jay Cross and John Holt and Ivan Illich and John Taylor Gatto. That choice is a brave one, a creative one, and one I am moving toward.

I guess what I am going on about is that swapping out gears or lines of code or Web X.X mashups ain't gonna get it done if what we are looking for is a more natural, brain-based, un-system for learning. I much prefer the sense of play (tinker toy) and the metaphor that grows from that--personal learning environments or personal learning algorithms. This implies a total shift from one where we are pieces within a system which, if we happen to fit, supports the teacher we luckily happen to be; to one where we treat each student as a part of a larger learning ecology. Our job there is suss out how that person learns best and then with their help them find their way in that larger system.

That is why it is so hard to get innovation into the schools. They are not natural systems which adapt but rather hardcoded, cultural artifacts whose prime goal is self-preservation. I know this sounds unrealistic and radical, but I don't really care how it sounds. Any system that doesn't fight back against a horrible virus like NCLB sure isn't going to know what to do with OLPC. Can we spell D-O-O-M?

I know this is a bit inchoate, but I did want to capture the moment before I lost it. Or have I already lost it? Thanks for your continued good work, Tom.

tellio said...

"Too many times people jump on the bandwagon of technologies (wikipedia, olpc, second life, pdas, podcasts, etc.) without having seriously used them themselves to uncover their warts, or turning a blind eye to the warts."

Man, have you ever got it right here. I spend all of my time learning and applying these tools in order to find out what works and what doesn't. I don't spend much time writing about it and I should and we all should.

For example, easily one of the best tools for my research methods class last year was Zotero. I got about an immediate twenty percent adoption rate on it when I first taught students how to use it. What I mean by this is that I would have five or six students immediately realize how it would save them time and effort while making their research deeper and more apt. I consider that amazingly effective for the first notch in the belt. Yet...this is the first time I have written about it. There are lots of results, both good and bad, out there in teacher-userland that we don't know about.

Tom Hoffman said...

Yeah, Zotero needs some K-12 love.