Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Cellular Alarm Clock

Here's a trivial example of what you'll probably be able to do with the new wireless spectrum. Go to Best Buy and pick up a travel alarm clock, stick a SIM card from your wireless provider in it, five minutes before it is set to go off it looks up, I don't know, the weather, and displays it on the clock face.

I'm not saying this is brilliant or better than doing the same thing with wifi, but there are whole classes of new applications that will become possible. Use your imagination.

Cracking Open the Wireless Web

Well, one step towards allowing some innovation in the wireless space. From the Machinist:

Once carriers move over to the 700 MHz band -- which promises faster, stronger wireless data connections across the country -- phone companies will not have the right to dictate to consumers what devices we can use on their network. This is a win for Google.

Wireless firms will also be prohibited from preventing us from using applications we choose on those devices -- you'll be able to use Skype or Firefox or whatever else on your phone, whether your carrier likes it or not. This is also a win for Google.

Note that in this case "Google" == "consumers." This is a very big deal, although its importance underscores how completely FUBAR our current wireless policy is.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Why Didn't Anyone Tell Me Gary Stager Has A Blogger Blog?

Apparently Gary Stager has had a personal blog going all year, which I'm happy about, but I can't figure out how it took all this time to find out about it, especially after this post.

Anyhow, this is nice, because it allows me to finally get a broader look at Gary's views on software freedom, which I'd gathered he doesn't believe in, but hadn't seen him state explicitly, as he does in this post. I left a comment. Also I left a comment on this post.

In the process of writing the first comment, I also found this article by Robert Tinker, How Do Innovations Travel from the Lab to the Classroom? which I highly recommend. A long quote from Tinker:

These examples illustrate the time it takes for technology-enhanced educational practice to become widespread and the range of paths taken. All these examples started with government funding of an R&D group and achieved their greatest distribution after a decade or more by others. Logo, MBL, and Kidnet tried the standard method of licensing materials to a publisher, but all eventually failed and none generated significant income for the developer. Mindstorms stands as a unique example of a grant supported innovation breaking into a mass market.

Another clear message is that the original innovation needs to be more than simply a good idea. To take off, extensive and continuing development is needed of the technology and of educational applications. Research on student learning with the innovation is required, as well as close cooperation with experienced teachers.

With software, the complexity of the required code is a major factor in determining the route to dissemination. Of these examples, only Logo and Kidnet involved extensive software. Two of the commercial Logo efforts failed and the third barely survived. The NGS did not have the capacity to maintain Kidnet software and additional grant funding was required to make the transition to the Web. The MBL software is relatively simpler, but vendors are challenged to produce the needed code and we are currently helping them all with grant funding.

This history has convinced us that the best way to disseminate educational innovations that incorporate sophisticated software is to encourage mimicry by giving away the technology and making it easy to author related student materials. We hope to duplicate for educational applications the phenomenal worldwide spread of the open source GNU/Linux operating system. All the software now being developed at the Concord Consortium is free and open source. These include a wide range of models, probeware, and graphing tools, along with hundreds of student activities based on these.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The True Utility of Second Life

Brady Forrest:

Where Second Life may end up providing the greatest value is by being an easily shareable 3D experimentation platform, not the social world usually envisioned.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Color XO Icons

This picture from Joel Stanley, of XO's getting baked for a torture test, is the best I've seen of the color logos they'll feature on the back. Basically, each one comes with a specific random color combination that is used to identify the laptop in various network views in the user interface.


Of course, they're stuck with the problem of making the icon right side up when you carry the laptop by the handle, or right side up when it is open. Guess they chose right side up in reference to the handle.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

On "Twittering While America Burns"

Regarding Gary's recent critique of the (K-12) education blogosphere's focus on "edugaming, all things Web 2.0, Flickrs of NECC photos and abstract ruminations on school reform" over weightier issues in educational politics, I agree that more political engagement from this group would be welcome, but it is also pretty clear to me that this group is just not as liberal as one might assume. So whatever discussion and/or activism we would end up with would be equally annoying, if not retrograde.

Open SIF Milestone

Got word via IRC that Alan Elkner a team of CanDo interns down in Arlington got a basic SIF end-to-end test working with my TinyZIS installed on one machine and two SIF-enabled SchoolTool instances running on two other computers. So they could add a student to one SchoolTool instance, and it would automagically appear on the other. Yay!

This is good, because my personal motivation for SIF work has been flagging lately... there were just so many separate parts to implement before anything actually happened.

Professional Guidelines in Ed-Tech

So... is there any professional organization that would be in a position to issue objective guidelines for using a new technology like the XO in schools? ISTE could, but I don't think they would. CoSN seems more like an industry group than a professional organization... I'm not sure I'd trust them to give a new paradigm a fair shake.

IT Showdown: XO's On Your Network

So... if kids are getting XO's for Christmas, will they be allowed to bring them to your school? Even if they can't connect to your school network, they'll be able to connect to each other to chat, collaborate, etc.

This would be a good issue to lay some groundwork on, particularly for those of you who sit on the advisory boards of foundations influential in the world of ed tech, write columns for magazines read by school administrators or IT guys, or generally have influential blogs.

Monday, July 23, 2007

OLPC Plan B - Make 3,000,000 and See What Happens

Well, I guess XO's are going into production, national orders be damned, apparently meaning that there will be enough surplus to sell to whomever wants one. Hold on tight...

When a Workaround becomes Standard Operating Procedure

David Thornburg and Bill Kerr offer some "Web 2.0" in schools pushback.


We have lots of new technologies that have the power to transform education (e.g., MIT's "mesh"networking for the OLPC) but these topics have yet to make it into many presentations, and when I talk about these topics at conferences, you can drive a truck through the room without hitting anyone.

And yet, stick "podcasting" into a speech title, and it virtually screams "cutting edge!" even though some of us were posting audio files in MP3 format on the web years before Apple introduced the iPod...

So, to me, newness implies just that - something that hasn't been done (in education) before. There are tons of innovations waiting to be shared with educators. But until we see blogs, wikis, etc. as extensions of old technologies, we don't give ourselves time to explore the truly new. That, I fear, will hold us back from bringing the benefits of our new tools to all children.


Web 2.0 has become the new conventional wisdom of those who see themselves as radical reformers of the education system. Flashing bells and lights, gee wizz. Web 2.0 dominates educational technology conferences just like logo used to dominate educational conferences (without being deeply understood) in the late 80s, early 90s. This is a new majority within a minority. Let's sit around and self righteously criticise other educators because we get it and they don't.

I think a lot of the phenomenon that David in particular is pointing to in his piece is due to the still unintegrated nature of the "ed" and "tech" in "ed-tech." Most "edubloggers" just have a limited technical background. Most people on the "tech" side of "ed-tech" aren't in this conversation at all, and basically approach their work like MCSE's in a generic enterprise, whose job security depends on their minimizing risk via limiting access.

To the "ed" person, a new technology is irrelevant until they can access it at no cost (because they have no software budget) without having to install anything on their hardware (because they can't). On the tech side, new technologies are irrelevant until they are installed by default, interoperably, on the OS image of every OS they support. Whatever explicitly educational software is purchased for teachers seems so irrelevant to not even bear mention.

You don't even have to reach far for a perfect example: Zeroconf, aka Bonjour or Rendezvous networking. It is a mature, open, cross-platform standard, long supported by Apple, with free implementations for Windows and Linux, and support from lots of printer and other peripherial manufacturers. There are many, many applications for this technology in schools, but until OLPC started baking it into Sugar, these possibilities went almost completely unexplored. And if you can't install any software, or if you have no incentive whatsoever to open up the computers and/or network you're responsible for, then experimentation is barely possible, and it is hardly worth even talking about.

Of course, this is a vicious cycle

Nonetheless, there are interesting things to do on the web these days. I'm just reminded of John Gruber's line about the iPhone's (lack of) an API:

If all you have to offer is a shit sandwich, just say it. Don’t tell us how lucky we are and that it’s going to taste delicious.

A huge portion of "Web 2.0" innovation in schools is work-arounds for the closed and broken architecture schools have been saddled with. It's good that we've got work-arounds, but lets not confuse that with innovation.

Heh. Indeed.


Ben Worthen of The Wall Street Journal:

And this is why information-technology departments always worry about employees’ bringing new technologies like the iPhone into the workplace. The conventional wisdom in IT shops is that anything that’s not standard-issue will cause unanticipated problems when it’s introduced into an existing network. The new technology may be perfectly innocent; but the network still goes down, and the IT guys have to fix it.

Translation: A lot of IT infrastructure is fragile rickety crap, and the people responsible for it aren’t smart enough to fix it so they make rules and place blame based on little more than superstition.

(lest there be any confusion, all the above is a blockquote from Daring Fireball)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Long Live the Viv-Text!

OK, iWeb is useless. I'm just going to use Google Video and Blogger for family video blogging purposes: Viv-Text.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Economics, Demographics and De-Schooling

Terry comments:

I think that the question of 'where'housing and transport and politics will be addressed as alternatives become more popular as accreditation loses its stranglehold as parents struggle to find better futures for their kids. An alternative universe of choices is already out there as you so brilliantly point out. Those alternatives will become a parallel train that people will jump to. Eventually the old train will lose steam and stop and rust. Circumstances will make radicals of us all and noone can say when.

I'm less optimistic about this, because I see some extremely fundamental trends running in the wrong direction (as they have been for quite a while), particularly insofar as they make parents highly risk averse:

  • Fewer children per family;
  • longer lifespan;
  • "winner take all" economy;
  • "winning" dependent on intellectual skills.

This is not to say plenty of people won't seek alternatives, for a variety of reasons, some will be willing to go "all in" to raise future leaders of the "creative class," but I don't see a big upswell of middle class families looking for alternative modes of schooling. It is too big a risk, given the structure of our economy.


I picked up a video camera today -- a Panasonic SDR-H200 with a built in 30 gig hard drive. No tapes. Yay. It adds a step for using iMovie, because the files are stored on the recorder as mpeg2's and have to be converted back to dv clips for iMovie, but you can also upload them directly to Google Video off the recorder, so that cuts down a step if you're going that route. Since the main objective here is quick web clips for the grand-parents, I think it will work out ok.

Anyhow, here's the new Viv-Vid video podcast page, for the things I do decide to run through iMovie.

Later... ok, iWeb just sucks. Moving to Blogger: Viv-Text.

New SchoolTool Packages for Feisty

To test the new SchoolTool Ubuntu packages for Feisty, do the following (if you're using Ubuntu Feisty, natch):

  1. add the following line to the end of your /etc/apt/sources.list
    deb http://ftp.schooltool.org/schooltool/archives/ubuntu feisty main
  2. sudo apt-get update
  3. sudo apt-get install schooltool
  4. say "y" when it asks to install unauthenticated packages
  5. go to http://localhost:7080 (user:manager, passwd:schooltool)

That's it. Debian packaging is a pain to set up, but it is a beautiful thing when it just works. Let me know if it does for you.

Deschooling & Freedom to Roam

The Wikipedia entry on Paul Goodman states:

As a child, Goodman freely roamed the streets and public libraries of his native New York City, experiences which later inspired his radical concept of "the educative city").

This concept is best expressed in his novel The Empire City. But if we are to try to pull this take on "de-schooling" up to the present day, we need to take some broader cultural changes into effect.

Specifically, the collapse of young people's freedom to roam. This article from The Daily Mail nicely charts the changes experience by one family over four generations, which seems typical. Great-grandfather George, born in 1911, same as Paul Goodman, at age 8 walked six miles unaccompanied through Sheffield to fish. Today, his great-grandson Ed, also at age 8, has a permitted range of about 300 yards (the map representation of this is recommended).

If we are going to de-emphasize school, we have to explain where students are going to go and how they are going to get there, and how this will be sold politically. In the US, that is a non-trivial problem, in terms of parents' expectations, lack of public transportation, lack of public space, separation of work and residence, class segregation, etc.

The necessary components to an urban "Network of Learning" are laid out in Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language:

Above all, encourage the formation of seminars and workshops in people's homes - Home Workshop (157); make sure that each city has a "path" where young children can safely wander on their own - Children In The City (57); build extra public "homes" for children, one to every neighborhood at least - Children's Home (86); create a large number of work-oriented small schools in those parts of town dominated by work and commercial activity - Shopfront Schools (85); encourage teenagers to work out a self-organized learning society of their own - Teenage Soclety (84); treat the university as scattered adult learning for all the adults in the region - University As A Marketplace (43); and use the real work of professionals and tradesmen as the basic nodes in the network - Master And Apprentices (83) ....

Now, I'm in favor of all this stuff, but we have to be mindful of how hard it cuts against the zeitgeist and how ill-suited our communities are to support this kind of learning. Certainly technology can support and enhance learning networks -- and I'm only thinking about primary and secondary age learners here -- but I contend that the physical network of learning is still most important, and I'll take good community-based schools over any "de-schooling" that circumscribes kids to their own houses and corporate franchises.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Lind on Progressive School Reform (more or less)


The Norwegians impressed all of us with a lesson they had learned inadvertently. At the beginning of their reform of the curriculum, they said, things got screwed up unintentionally more than once, as is inevitable with major change. The cadets had to unscrew it themselves. Doing so proved to be such a powerful learning experience that now the faculty creates deliberate screw-ups. We could hear John Boyd cackling his approval and delight; the faculty as well as the students had learned how to learn.

I shared with the Norwegians an idea I had come up with during a visit to the U.S. Naval Academy, where the education is as rigid as it is fluid in Norway. How about paintball at sea? Like all naval schools, the Norwegian Academy has small sailboats in which cadets learn basic seamanship. If a paintball gun were mounted on each broadside so the elevation could be changed but not the aim, the sailboat would become an 18th century warship. Naval paintball battles would require the cadets to rediscover and employ 18th century naval tactics, for both single ships and fleets. At least in Great Britain's Royal Navy, those tactics were highly fluid by century's end; maneuver warfare was actually developed at sea before it was born on land. The Norwegians loved the idea and said they would do it; at Annapolis, the midshipmen I suggested it to also loved it but said it would never happen, because they aren't supposed to have fun.

The Norwegians told us they faced a different challenge in extending their Boyd-based curriculum revisions into the academy's second and third years, where much of the instruction is in regular academic subjects such as ,mathematics and English. In teaching English, I suggested, there is one easy solution: have the cadets learn English by reading and writing about naval fiction that teaches maneuver warfare thinking, such as C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series and C. Northcote Parkinson's excellent naval novels, both set in the age of sail. Could mathematics also be taught with reference to naval tactics, without becoming Jominian? It is a question someone more skilled in math than myself might want to consider.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Please Read Illych, Thank You

It will do much good for my sanity if the trend towards (re-)reading Ivan Illych, furthered here by Doug Noon, continues and gathers some steam. I haven't read much Illych, because his work was relatively difficult to find in used book stores circa 1992, when I was into reading social criticism from the 50's through the 70's. I was more of a Paul Goodman man. But anyhow, check this out from the "Web of Learning" chapter in Deschooling Society:

What are needed are new networks, readily available to the public and designed to spread equal opportunity for learning and teaching.

To give an example: The same level of technology is used in TV and in tape recorders. All Latin-American countries now have introduced TV: in Bolivia the government has financed a TV station, which was built six years ago, and there are no more than seven thousand TV sets for four million citizens. The money now tied up in TV installations throughout Latin America could have provided every fifth adult with a tape recorder. In addition, the money would have sufficed to provide an almost unlimited library of prerecorded tapes, with outlets even in remote villages, as well as an ample supply of empty tapes.

This network of tape recorders, of course, would be radically different from the present network of TV. It would provideopportunity for free expression: literate and illiterate alike could record, preserve, disseminate, and repeat their opinions. The present investment in TV, instead, provides bureaucrats, whether politicians or educators, with the power to sprinkle the continent with institutionally produced programs which they-or their sponsors--decide are good for or in demand by the people.

Technology is available to develop either independence and learning or bureaucracy and teaching.

That was written in 1971, but clearly presages podcasting, iMovie, YouTube, etc. Which means you can drop all this crap about Tom Friedman, "digital natives," millenials, and every other damn argument that is based on the idea that something fundamentally changed in education the day flickr was launched. I'm beyond sick of reading shallow, technological, temporal arguments about fundamental philosophical principles. Does "School 2.0" == Illych? If yes, we need to consider how those ideas played out over the past 25 years:

Only hindsight will allow us to discover if the Great Cultural Revolution will turn out to have been the first successful attempt at deschooling the institutions of society.

Not so much...

And more to the point construct some arguments around how technology renews our opportunity to create Illych's vision. Or at least clarify the distinctions between people who share this vision and those for whom "School 2.0" or whatever is in fact, quite different.

Goat to Hero in One Week

So, without getting into too much gory detail, in the '05-'06 school year, at Feinstein High School, my former school here in Providence, they committed a grave error: failing to properly organize the administration of state tests, leading to a high number of incomplete tests and general lack of focus. Scores plummeted from the "good for Providence and mostly improving if not literally AYP" into the scary zone. After a rough year under the microscope from downtown and the state, "corrective action," etc., lo and behold, the '06-'07 test scores come out with hefty double digit gains across the board, making up last year's (clearly artificial) losses and more. Now everything is peachy. It is all a bit absurd.

EuroPython Reflections

At EuroPython I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time and working all week with two SchoolTool contributors, Brian Sutherland (pictured below at left, with SchoolTool lead developer Ignas Mikalaj┼źnas) and Andrew Rodriguez.


Brian, a South African/German living in Spain, has been the volunteer release manager for SchoolTool, specializing in Debian/Ubuntu packaging, for the past couple years. We've been in touch via IRC and email practically every week during that time, but this was the first time we've met. He is really the only volunteer to have a substantial ongoing commitment to the project, and we've even started paying him a bit every month to act as the sys admin for our servers. The primarly goal for this sprint was packaging a release for Ubuntu Gutsy (due out in October), so Brian had a central role in the sprint.

Packaging this version was particularly difficult, because we have started using several Zope 3 components (what's the point of using an open source component architecture if you don't reuse other people's components?) that don't themselves have Debian packages, which means that in addition to getting SchoolTool's packages to work, Brian had to package about a dozen external components. It is tedious work in the extreme, but he doggedly pursued it to completion.


On the way to Vilnius, I realized that I didn't have the slightest idea of what my responsibility to or for Andrew Rodriguez (above, with Zeppelins) was. I knew that he was a CanDo developer who was spending the summer in Spain, and Jeff Elkner had arranged for him to be put on a plane to Vilnius for the week and he'd be landing about an hour after me, but not much beyond that. For example, if he was kidnapped, smuggled across the border to Belorussia and sold into white slavery in Minsk, would it be my fault?

As it turned out, I never had to find the answer to that question, because Andrew behaved as impeccably as a 15 year old hacker dropped into a refurbished Soviet conference center for a week could possibly be expected to. The Reval Hotel Lietuva and its immediate surroundings is comical in its range of distractions for a 15 year old (Lithuanians still value their freedom). There is a casino in the basement, a strip club (pictured below) about 100 feet in from of the front door, a skate park about 100 yards away, a couple malls across the street. The only thing that is missing is an Amsterdam-style coffee house. Luckily, none of this turned out to be a problem.


Open source conferences like EuroPython are strictly come-as-you-are affairs. The attending geeks are, I suppose, in many ways a homogeneous group, but have nonetheless all arrived by idiosyncratic paths. The whole week I never saw a single person question Andrew's presence, or, for that matter, comment in any way on the fact that he was the only minor in attendance. It was refreshing. Andrew maintained the same pleasantly bemused affect throughout.

Andrew also turns out to be a talented programmer, blessed with patience beyond his years. He and I worked together to clear up a big pile of small user interface annoyances and bugs that I'd been dying to clean up in SchoolTool, but couldn't quite handle by myself. I'm very happy he'll have two more years to work with us and CanDo while in high school, and I hope we can keep him engaged in the project.

Of course, the rest of the team did great work as well. Pictured below from left to right, Ignas, Jean-Francois Roche, CanDo lead developer Paul Carduner, Andrew and Brian. Thanks for a great sprint, guys!


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

EuroPython Sprint Report

My basic report on the EuroPython SchoolTool Sprint.

Met School Receives Edu-Blogging Seal of Approval

Stephen writes:

Ewan McIntosh introduces us to the MET School, "where no more than 120-150 kids are led in groups of 12-17 students by advisors. No 'teachers' in sight."

Of course, he also could have written "Bill Gates introduces us to The Met School" back in May 2005, although I guess billg didn't make it sound as compelling:

At the Met School in Providence, Rhode Island, 70 percent of the students are black or Hispanic. More than 60 percent live below the poverty line. Nearly 40 percent come from families where English is a second language. As part of its special mission, the Met enrolls only students who have dropped out in the past or were in danger of dropping out. Yet, even with this student body, the Met now has the lowest dropout rate and the highest college placement rate of any high school in the state.

These are the kind of results you can get when you design a high school to prepare every student for college.

I've name-checked The Met and Big Picture quite a few times over the past few years. I'm looking forward to finding out whether or not this is what "School 2.0" looks like.

One More Comment on OLPC & Intel

It seems pretty clear to me that Intel sells more chips if Classmate and OLPC are selling to the developing world, even if only some of the OLPC's have Intel chips, compared to how many Classmates they sell if OLPC fails completely and taints the entire idea of giving cheap laptops to kids in the developing world.

Especially since giving those kids a standard Linux or Windows desktop is a much worse idea than giving them an environment designed around their needs.

Monday, July 16, 2007

OLPC and Intel

I don't think there is much to say about the OLPC/Intel deal. OLPC needs to get enough orders to go into production, and Intel has at least come close to stopping that from happening, as in, game over, turn out the lights on the way out, it was fun while it lasted.

Intel wants a slice of the pie, should the multi-million unit pie start shipping. It isn't like there is a conflict over pedagogical strategy between Intel and AMD. They're both just trying to sell chips by any means necessary.

I do think that the idea that the Classmate is more appropriate than the XO in certain markets is a joke. Yeah, give me the one with the shorter battery life, no mesh networking, etc. If the XO works, there won't be much question about which is the better design.

Oh Dear

Home now from Vilnius, and my Google Reader seems to be wedged in offline mode -- meaning I can't read any new content. Not much to do now but hope it fixes itself.

Later... I guess the fix is to just turn Google Gears off and forget about offline mode. It just reminds one that as we make web apps more complicated, there are more things to go wrong.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

AIM Icons for Bong Hits For Jesus

I was not too pleased about the outcome of the "Bong Hits for Jesus" case, but it did seem to be an edge case. If students had walked across the street from the school, during school hours, at a school sponsored event and unfurled a banner that said "Niggers go home," many people might feel differently about whether or not the school should be able to enforce their disciplinary policies.

But Andy Carvin reports on a new lower court ruling that cites the Bong Hits case as precedent and seems to go way beyond it. It strikes me as extreme enough in its implications that there is a good chance it will be overturned, so I don't want to completely evacuate my bowels, but it is definitely cause for alarm.

Basically, a seventh grader used an AIM icon in chatting with his friends that encouraged killing his English teacher. This eventually got back to the teacher, and the kid was ultimately suspended for a semester. Here's a quote from the decision:

[I]t was reasonably foreseeable that the IM icon would come to the attention of school authorities and the teacher whom the icon depicted being shot… and the risk of substantial disruption is not only reasonable, but clear. These consequences permit school discipline, whether or not Aaron intended his IM icon to be communicated to school authorities or, if communicated, to cause a substantial disruption. As in [the Bong Hits 4 Jesus ruling], the student in the pending case was not disciplined for conduct that was merely “offensive,” or merely in conflict with some view of the school’s “educational mission.”

My question is, what if I use "Bong hits for Jesus" as my status message at home, with my friends? Haven't we now established that that phrase is in conflict with a school's educational mission, and that messages used in private IM chats off-campus can be the basis of disciplinary procedures?

Even leaving aside the first amendment implications, this would seem to make life impossible for schools. I mean, leaving technology out entirely, if two students in the same class get in a fight, and one of the students' parents insists that the students be put into different sections, then couldn't that fight be cited as a substantial educational disruption (because the school had to rearrange class rosters), violation of the student code of conduct, etc., and subject to disciplinary action at school? And once you say "schools may discipline students for doing X," then it often seems a short walk to "schools are exposing themselves to a lawsuit if they don't discipline students for doing X."

This is a recipe for chaos, repression, or both.

Cry of the Principals

I loved The Baffler, deeply and passionately. Loved it.

If you internalized The Baffler's particular style of cultural critique, however, you can't really stomach a lot of of LeaderTalk. For example, read "Why Johnny Can't Dissent" by Thomas Frank and then re-read Greg Farr's post "Effective Principals: Rebels with a Cause." Not that Farr doesn't accurately capture the zeitgeist, and I like the way he focuses on how the pace of reform is inhibited by the pace of the introduction of consecutive reform initiatives.

Anyhow, here's a quote from Frank:

Today that beautiful countercultural idea, endorsed now by everyone from the surviving Beats to shampoo manufacturers, is more the official doctrine of corporate America than it is a program of resistance. What we understand as "dissent" does not subvert, does not challenge, does not even question the cultural faiths of Western business. What David Rieff wrote of the revolutionary pretensions of multiculturalism is equally true of the countercultural idea: "The more one reads in academic multiculturalist journals and in business publications, and the more one contrasts the speeches of CEOs and the speeches of noted multiculturalist academics, the more one is struck by the similarities in the way they view the world." What's happened is not co-optation or appropriation, but a simple and direct confluence of interest.

The problem with cultural dissent in America isn't that it's been co-opted, absorbed, or ripped-off. Of course it's been all of these things. But it has proven so hopelessly susceptible to such assaults for the same reason it has become so harmless in the first place, so toothless even before Mr. Geffen's boys discover it angsting away in some bar in Lawrence, Kansas: It is no longer any different from the official culture it's supposed to be subverting. The basic impulses of the countercultural idea, as descended from the holy Beats, are about as threatening to the new breed of antinomian businessmen as Anthony Robbins, selling success & how to achieve it on a late-night infomercial.

Also amusing, incidentally, is this line, for the way finds equivalence in Vicki Davis's and my personal histories:

Henry Rollins is no more a threat to established power in America than was Dale Carnegie.

This is a pretty good piece by Frank on Tom Friedman from 1999:

When future students of the 1990s seek to categorise his book they will be tempted to understand it as a contribution to that popular genre of business writing known as "futurism," a literature marked by its wonder-filled talk about the ever-increasing rate of "change"; its ranks of neologisms; its homegrown "metanarratives" destined to replace archaic or pitiful categories like social class; and its telltale charts, purporting to explain geopolitics or management strategies or consumer enthusiasm according to some calculus of pop-psychology categories.

But what Friedman has actually written is a veritable dictionary of the shibboleths of our time, awesome in its inclusiveness. They are all there : enthusiasm for the "rebranding" of Britain, casual badmouthing of France for its efforts to retain its welfare state, facile equating of Great Society America with the Soviet Union.Each of them is monstrous, foolish, and preposterous in its own way, but thrown together here they make a truly dispiriting impression.

Also fitting with this theme is Stephen's characterization today of Bridging Differences:

Education Week has ventured into the world of blogs, including this column featuring a conversation between Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch. The issue is the usual set of questions around testing in schools - the usual fare for mainstream media.

I for one think Deborah Meier's vision of progressive, democratic public education continues to be the truly subversive one, and it is a shame that Stephen has presented her insightful blog as bland mainstream fare.

Not Notes?

Peter Brantley:

For those who have active community within it, (Facebook) is this generation's Lotus 1-2-3.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Red Hat High

Greg DeKoenigsberg:

Free software is good enough for schools.

As users of free software, we know it. We use free software every day, and we derive great value from it. We understand the value of free software, and the value of the communities that create and sustain free software.

As free software continues to improve in quality, the struggle to increase the adoption of free software becomes a struggle to educate users. There are plenty of incredible free software applications out there, waiting to be discovered — not only for Linux, but for Windows and OS X as well. But what good does this software do, for the world in general and for schools in particular, if people don’t know it exists? Or worse yet: what if people think they know about free software, but presume that, because it’s freely available, it must not be any good?

This is the particular problem that Red Hat High was created to address. In this, its first iteration, Red Hat High is a weeklong summer residential camp for rising 8th and 9th grade students in Raleigh, North Carolina and the surrounding areas.

The immediate goal is to expose these particular kids to great free software tools — tools like Blender and Inkscape and Gimp and Audacity — and to teach the kids how to use these tools, in a collaborative way, to create amazing stuff.

The greater goal is to learn how kids use free software, and to apply those lessons in the real world.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Free as in Couch

Paul Carduner came up with a better analogy for explaining why "Linux is not free" is wrong.

If someone offered you a free couch, but didn't bring it to your house or come to vacuum it once a week, it is still a free couch, and if you claim otherwise, you're an asshole.

No, Linux is Free

Marc Wagner rolls out the conventional wisdom in "Don't be fooled, Linux is not free," a response to Christopher Dawson's "Linux definitely has a place in education post." This is all a little confusing because Wagner's post appears on Dawson's Education IT blog on ZDNet, making it seem like Dawson is rebutting itself until you check the byline.

As is often the case, there are so many problems and inaccuracies in this post, it is difficult to organize a response. I'll make a specific point and then a more general response Wagner's approach.

Wagner writes:

The quote from Chris Dawson’s piece presents two false assumptions:

1. That education IT pays substantially more for one operating system solution than it does for another. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Educational and corporate discounts bring the price of commercial Windows and Macintosh licenses in line with desktop Linux licenses. This pricing parity extends itself to server licenses as well.

It is a little difficult to know what the apples and oranges would be in this comparison. I think it is hard to dispute this observation from the inACCESS initiative:

The sustainability model for the Indiana ACCESS project relies on keeping costs as low as possible for schools. Using Linux as the operating system and open source for the application stack, we have been able to keep software costs to about $13-$18 per machine per year. This includes software update support. The traditional model for similar software would cost more than $200 per computer.

If we aren't trying to include the application stack, and just OS licensing cost, then Linux is still cheaper, because the licensing cost is $0. If we include utilities necessary to run the operating system, such as anti-virus and spyware protection necessary to run Windows, the difference is even greater. If we are trying to compare OS licensing plus a commercial service contract, the gap probably narrows, but I'd be shocked if it disappeared if the level of service is truly equivalent. I'd say the burden of proof would have to be on the person claiming the costs and values are the same.

My broader beef is with Wagner's title. "Don't be fooled..." Who is doing the fooling? Linux is free. This is objectively true. It is both free as in freedom and you can get a copy of Ubuntu or many other distributions at no cost. This is not a trick. It isn't like a "free phone" where you are locked into a service agreement. It isn't even like a "free car" where you can't avoid paying for registration, insurance, etc. Yes, if you want professional service you have to pay for it, but nobody has ever claimed otherwise, and I doubt anyone believes that. It is a straw man argument which is deployed to create the impression that the "free" in "free software" is a trick. It is a dishonest tactic.

Wagner winds up his post with an attempt to re-establish proprietary software as the choice of the serious minded CIO:

Education IT personnel need to think like CIOs — seeking cost-effective solutions to well-defined needs built upon three-to-five-year life-cycles. Inexperienced education IT personnel tend to think like consumers trying to make today’s best buy “work” without regard to future needs instead of considering the long-term TCO of what appears at first glance to be the cheaper solution. Which are you?

First off, I'm unimpressed by the implication that thinking three to five years ahead is "long term." Anyone who looks into research or case studies into making a transition to Linux and free software knows that the transition itself will take three to five years, and in that time the one-time transition costs will reduce the cost savings. The real savings come further out, after the transitional period, after staff has been retrained, systems migrated, etc.

The CIO who is really thinking strategically is also anticipating the network and platform effects that will come over time from Linux and other free software taking an ever-increasing share of the global educational IT market. More schools, foundations, governments and corporations will be developing free applications designed to work on a free software stack. Schools which develop the technical infrastructure and intellectual capacity to take advantage of this will be able to provide ever increasing levels of service at lower cost. Think iTALC, for example, free software developed for German schools and now widely used in Indiana. That's the kind of play the truly strategic CIO is positioning himself for.

Telecom History 101


The carriers view Net Neutrality not as a mere restriction or inconvenient regulation. It is a direct challenge to their business model, that is, to their existence. That's why in 2006 the carriers spent $1.4 million per week lobbying against it [source]. They will do to Net Neutrality what they have done to previous attempts to get them to behave:

  • The Telecom Act of 1996 required the carriers to make elements ("Unbundled Network Elements") of their networks available to other companies at prices that would allow these new companies to offer services and earn revenues from them. The carriers tied these new companies down with law suits. In 2003, the FCC eliminated the rules for broadband companies. Net effect of the legislation: None.
  • The carriers routinely agree to build out their networks to the poorer parts of the town. Then they don't.
  • The carriers took $200 billion [source] of tax payer money to create a fiber optic network that reached to every house. How's your fiber optic connection today?

The carriers will tip their hats at Net Neutrality if they are forced to. They will then ignore it. For the carriers, business models trump regulation, law and reason.

We have history swe can learn from it.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

And That's Why I Married Her...

Madame DeFarge:

I guess in the end I’m just more a Jonathan Kozol girl than a Thomas Friedman girl.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Head First Programming With Python

Vern Ceder:

Right now I'm laboring away on storyboards for Head First Programming with Python, which is intended for first time programmers, people who've MAYBE looked at HTML, but nothing more. Somewhat the same space as Zelle's book, but from the Head First perspective. (Should be out in about a year, give or take, all support appreciated, etc...)

In going through the whole Head First process - initial interview, audition, proposal, production - I've never met a group of people quite so obsessed with the details of how people learn stuff. That's saying something, since I've spent 20 years in schools filled with great teachers.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Screen-Scrapey Goodness

templatemaker, a new Python library by Adam Holovati (of Django fame) steamlines the process of screen scraping:

Well, say you want to get the raw data from a bunch of Web pages that use the same template -- like restaurant reviews on Yelp.com, for instance. You can give templatemaker an arbitrary number of HTML files, and it will create the "template" that was used to create those files. ("Template," in this case, means a string with a number of "holes" in it, where the holes represent the parts of the page that change.) Once you've got the template, you can then give it any HTML file that uses that same template, and it will give you the raw data: "The value for hole 1 is 'July 6, 2007', the value for hole 2 is 'blue'," etc.

This is helpful if you want to, say, get the data out of your district's web based SIS or data warehouse and into something more flexible for analysis on the school level. Just don't tell anyone at the district what you're doing.

Me Grok SchoolTool!

I'm getting ready to head off to Vilnius for a week to attend EuroPython and an associated SchoolTool development sprint. One thing I'm particularly excited about is talking to the developers of Grok about how we might use it with SchoolTool in the future.

Grok is kind of a friendly wrapper around the Zope 3 framework, from which SchoolTool is built. Zope 3 has proven to be a difficult beast to master, and rather less popular than we would have hoped when we started. Basically, the past few years have seen a big trend toward "convention over configuration" (pioneered by Ruby on Rails) as a means of streamlining web development. Zope 3 is a couple years older than RoR, and chose to emphasize explicit, flexible configuration. The problem isn't that Zope 3 doesn't work. It does work and is well suited for complex tasks. Think Boston.com, not Ta-da List. But Zope 3's developer base is limited.

Grok applies the agile aesthetic of Ruby on Rails or Django to Zope 3. The results are very promising, especially since Zope still has a few aces in its hand, like the Zope Object Database, which eliminates the need for object relational mapping entirely.

If we can work out how to mix Grok modules into SchoolTool, we'll vastly lower the bar for creating SchoolTool extensions and make it much easier for people to contribute. Right now, it is simply too hard to do SchoolTool development for all but the deepest Zope gurus, but I think Grok might give us a chance to save our bacon and build a broader community.

Um... OLPC?


Somehow, I find Bowie’s appeal to prosperity for all of humanity a bit naive. But I do see great value in providing high-speed access for all. Can you also imagine government issued laptops for every citizen? Better yet, perhaps not a laptop, but a mobile device that handles email, voicemail, that serves as a pager, chat client and gaming platform. You know, a device that provides us access to maps, guidebooks, Web browsing, and our local election precincts. A device that is a video player, music player, radio; a device that serves as a transit ticket, a payment system, a biometric ID, an environmental safety sensor; a device that serves as an alarm clock, camera, laser scanner, navigator, pedometer, flashlight, remote control, a high definition projector, an office key, car key, house key…. (these features are listed in Bruce Sterling’s article Dispatches From the Hyperlocal Future, Wired magazine, July 2007, p. 163).

When I read things like this, I wonder "Does it matter that we're failing to do OLPC advocacy?" I sort of hope it doesn't, but that would imply that this stuff we write doesn't matter in general.

One thing I know for sure is that, despite my solidarity with my brothers and sisters in the CWA, we can't do anything that involves giving money to the telecoms. They are bad actors. They eat government subsidies for lunch. They are the source of our problems with broadband and wireless innovation. We need to route around them.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Enemy of My Enemy

I've been feeling pretty hopeless about countering fear-mongering about kids and the internet, because it is easier to fear-monger and there's a lot more incentive to do so in our society than to do the opposite. I had forgotten, however, one powerful force which will have to rouse itself to defend internet access for kids: marketing. Given the alternatives, I'll take it.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

More On L3rn...

Ramona Pierson leaves a comment over at Wes' place:

This brings up a great conversation as we all move forward. We are essentially functioning like a Dot com within a school district which has its benefits and its struggles. The benefits for a district is that we are nimble and capable of rapid development cycles and we are very customer centered. Our team spends a lot of time working with and listening to teachers, students, and other educators as we design and develop programs. The struggle comes from having a different cultural approach to development districts tend to purchase software solutions from large companies and are subject to vendors demanding tight controls on their source code; while we have approach development from a community/grassroots approach, which is comfortable being part of a larger open learning and open development community.

Unfortunately, one difference between a dot com and EdTech REA Seattle Schools, or whatever the official name of the people who have created l3rn is, is that a dot com does not operate in the crazy cone of silence which encloses a public school department. Why is this stuff such a secret? Why is there no web page describing this unique and important approach to developing software for schools? Or if there is one, why is it so well hidden? What they're doing should be a model for other districts.

Over time, as the districts become more comfortable with the open source/open community approach to development and problem solving, it will become easier for departments such as ours to release code as it is developed. It is our responsibility to the community and the district to develop processes that provide responsible source code sharing and meet the legal concerns of a district.

This is why we need some mainstream open source in K-12 education advocacy that doesn't suck, backed by some foundations, industry groups and corporations that people on the school board will recognize. Given that there are plenty of the aforementioned that are at least superficially behind open source software, and quite a few that substantively support freedom, this should not be impossible.

We are entering what may be the last, most aggravating period before a global public/private ecosystem of free software for education emerges. The last phase when schools are using 100% free tools and public money to write software that they only fail to release to the commons because of bureaucratic inertia and benign neglect by mainstream "advocates" of open source software.


I randomly discovered today that former Microsoftie (apparently) Eric Artzt used Ruby on Rails last year to write a very pretty little student information system (well, part of one) named TinySIS for an alternative school in Seattle called The Nova Project as part of his work on a masters in ed tech.

The screen shots in this pdf look great. The only problem now is that despite describing how the project "Made me love the O.S.G (open-source goodness)," Artzt doesn't seem to have any plans to release his code as an open source project. Oh well. Another missed opportunity. I'm used to those.

NECC Reflections

This post brought to you by Computrace Lojack for Laptops.

I'll try to get down a few thoughts about my NECC before they fade from memory. I had no responsibilities this year; I didn't give a talk or man a booth. I also barely looked at the program. The only talk I attended was the inACCESS update in the open source lab, so my NECC was defined almost entirely by a few conversations.

I probably spent about one full day (of three) with Chris Lehmann and Marcie Hull, including a memorable bull session with Chris Sessums and Bill Fitzgerald. That was the most fun I've had talking in a long, long time. It was the first time Chris and I had met, and while I think he was exaggerating a bit when he said we'd been corresponding online for 10 years, it has been close to it. We'll have to make sure it doesn't take another ten.

Steve Hargadon did his usual great job setting up the open source lab. It wasn't in quite as prominent a position as it was last year, but this time you could actually hear, and the room was often packed with 100+ people for the slate of open source talks and demos. There is some dissonance between the popularity of the sessions and one's attempt to evaluate the primary buzz at this year's NECC. Oh, free software was big this year, ask Red Hat's Greg DeKoenigsberg:

Turns out that the Moodle session is going on in the Open Source session room -- and it looks like a Who concert. People sitting and kneeling at every table, and sitting and standing at the back of the room. Not a square foot of empty floor space in the entire room.

There comes a time in any given IT market when the "open source" switch goes off in people's minds. Education is clearly at that point. And no one is so zealous as the newly converted. It's a very exciting time.

Free software was big this year, bigger than last year, and it'll be bigger still next year, and even bigger every year for the foreseeable future. The buzz may wax and wane a bit, but substantially the open source universe only grows. This just doesn't fit into the inevitable pattern of trying to find something new at NECC -- although increasingly those new things may themselves be free software. Hopefully next year Second Life will fit into that category.

Greg was at NECC to man a Red Hat/OLPC booth in the "Open Source Playground." So there was, as far as I could tell, a single XO at NECC, sitting quietly under a staircase like a cute white and green IED (Information Explosion Device), barely noticed by the masses. I left town before Greg's talk, but I guess it went well.

One interesting tidbit I gleaned from talking to Greg: the Sugar interface designed for the XO is also part of Red Hat's larger post-GNOME desktop strategy. Basically, they feel they've gone as far as they can with a desktop that is essentially a Windows clone and that bigger market share will require a more distinctive and innovative desktop. This gives me some reassurance that even if the grand vision for OLPC goes off the rails, some of the cool technology they're developing will endure.

There were promising signs at NECC that we might be beginning to bridge the gap between people currently implementing free software solutions in schools and industry players impotently speculating about the possibility of being more "open" at some indeterminate point in the future. In addition to giving an update on inACCESS (plugging along nicely, thank you very much) Mike Huffman announced the K-12 Open Minds conference (web site to come...), sponsored by the Indiana Department of Education and the Center for Digital Education, October 9-11 in Indianpolis. Mike is one (and perhaps the only) person with credibility with both the "do-ers" and the "thinking about doing" crowds, so actual progress is not out of the question. Also, Steve Hargadon confirmed to me that he's working part-time developing some content (i.e., podcasts) for the K-12 Open Technologies initiative, which is a good thing. Getting someone with grassroots experience with open source can only help push K12OpenTech in a more clueful direction.

It is now five days after I started this post. If there is anything else I meant to write, I've forgotten it by now!

Monday, July 02, 2007

L3rn on Django

L3rn development manager Lindell Alderman fills in some details in comments here. Most notably, that L3rn is built with Python and the Django web framework. This is a pretty big deal, because while it is surprising that a school district would write its own web 2.0 application, it is downright shocking that they'd actually use web 2.0 development best tools and practices, instead of bureaucratic Java, closed ASP.NET or ugly PHP. Django is specifically designed to encourage "clean, pragmatic design," so there is a pretty good chance that if they do open source their code, it won't be illegible, unmaintainable shit. Here's some random bonus Django advocacy that popped up today.

A little Googling points to an earlier Plone portal Lindell's team created. I don't think I'd heard of this; not sure how I managed to miss it.

Whippets 4 Cthulhu?