Thursday, May 31, 2007

Research, Collaboration and Freedom

I've been thinking about why non-commercial software written for academic research is so rarely free software, and why this is a problem. On the surface, you would think that the creators of non-commercial software often funded by philanthropies or taxpayers and distributed at no cost would be early adopters of free and open source licenses, since, unlike a commercial vendor, they've got no income from proprietary licensing that would be sacrificed in a license change. However, there has been very little progress toward software freedom in this space.

This is a problem because even if we don't want or need to modify the core functionality of an application, we need the freedoms offered by free software to do things like translate applications into other human languages, to integrate them into larger distributions of educational resources, to include them in services that are commercially funded if that makes the most sense in a given case, or port them to new operating systems or programming languages. People who think that it is sufficient to provide these freedoms on a case by case basis ("just ask!") don't understand the scale of the free software movement. If, as the world of free software grows, at each point we had to remember to ask more and more people for permission to do more things, it simply wouldn't work. Granting freedoms universally through licensing has worked, and amazingly well.

Part of the reason we have not seen much free licensing is that conducting professional research is by its nature about control, as in creating a controlled experiment. You can't be testing the effect of a piece of software that is being modified by its users or incorporating changes by a third party during the course of the experiment. Also, in the academic career path you need to be able to take credit for your work. You've got to worry about people taking credit for your work or that if your work integrates too much from others you won't be seen as original. I'm an outsider on this world, but I think that's reasonably close to correct.

On the opposite side of the balance scale, researchers are in no way accountable to educators. We are not their customers. They do not work for us, and whether we do or don't use their work may have no direct bearing on their careers. We have no direct leverage to push them to freely license their work.

Another complication is that the rhetoric in the academy around open source software, open content, access to knowledge, etc. has tended to stick to themes of collaboration and access. If, as you often hear, open source is not about licensing, it is about collaboration, then if you have no intention of creating a collaborative process, you don't need an open source license. If people only need access to a resource, then access is enough. Freedom to redistribute and modify aren't necessary.

What we have not seen in the academy is an understanding of the role of freedom. Not in the "it is morally wrong to use proprietary software" sense, but that recognizes that if the products of research in educational software are made truly free, there is a growing pool of people, governments, and companies around the world ready to leverage that freedom to create utility, to improve education for students everywhere. It doesn't matter if the researcher has no interest in collaboration and will never accept a patch from anyone. It doesn't matter if the researcher wants to control a trademark. It isn't about the open source development process. It is about freedom.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

My BBC Notes

Well, the flow of the conversation didn't go in a direction I was very interested in, and I didn't get too many words in edgewise, but overall I don't think I embarrassed myself. I had jotted down a couple sentences in case I just had an opportunity to randomly opine:

If we accept that this is a serious problem, the inevitable result is a loss of freedom for young women and a shift to thinking that feminism is based on a guarantee of comfort and safety rather than an assertion of equality and fundamental rights.

This article in the Post is part of a genre of post-modern damsel in distress stories about how our highest achieving young women are still unhappy. It is an extension of the "you can have it all" ethos that says women should be able to perfectly balance work and family, traditional and modern roles, to be sexy but not sexual.

Young women are not only being taught that they must have a perfect body, they are being taught that if they achieve that, they'll only acquire a new set of problems. They can't win.

Overall, I'm more interested in how the Post covered the story than the situation itself, which is a little too meta for talk radio, even on the BBC.

Apparently danah boyd is Busy Today

In a couple hours I guess I'm going to be on "World Have Your Say" on the BBC World Service, discussing this whole Allison Stokke thing.

Memorial Day Hijinks


My (Longer) Comment at on the Allison Stokke Flap



I do have a lovely young daughter, and if when she turns 18 she is a successful, beautiful scholar-athlete or artist, I will be very happy. Or if she’s just intact and happy I’ll be happy. And if she has millions of admirers on the web, I’m sure I’ll find some of them to be crude, at worst it will pass, and at best we’ll make it into an opportunity.

But I think you need to look deeper into the rhetoric here. This is an internet story, but it is also an example of a very popular kind of scare story focusing on the problems of ambitious, successful young women, like, say, this one. Actually, here’s a relevant quote from that article:

And, for all their accomplishments and ambitions, the amazing girls, as their teachers and classmates call them, are not immune to the third message: While it is now cool to be smart, it is not enough to be smart.

You still have to be pretty, thin and, as one of Esther’s classmates, Kat Jiang, a go-to stage manager for student theater who has a perfect 2400 score on her SATs, wrote in an e-mail message, “It’s out of style to admit it, but it is more important to be hot than smart.”

These are postmodern damsel-in-distress tales the anxious rich write about their peers. They’re fun to read and talk about, certainly more fun than, say, and article about an 18 year old girl with no health insurance, in but what’s the underlying message?

We wrap these girls up in such contradictory, perfectionist constructs. Be sexy but recoil from sexuality. We teach them to be powerful and assertive, but we treat them like wilting violets in a crisis. As a feminist, I think Allison is quite capable of handling this situation, even if her father isn’t, and from what I’ve read, she’s doing fine.

Let’s be clear though. If we really think incidents like this are a problem, there is one clear solution. Modesty. To my knowledge, in the history of Western civilization, no female athletes were allowed to dress like Allison and her contemporary peers and do the things they do, and this is literally something that has changed in the past decade or so, right? Women’s ple vault didn’t even become an Olympic sport until 2000.

Why didn’t people do these things before? In large part because people would talk. Now, admittedly, a lot more people can talk now than did before, but they also live a lot further away from you than they used to and have much less direct impact on your life (and remember, there have been no substantive threats or stalking in this case).

If it is a serious problem that crude horn-dog guys spread their locker-room talk about our athletes in public, if it is something 18 year old women need to be protected from, we need to cover up the girls.

That isn’t really the direction I want to go.

This is, incidentally, yet another time I'm left feeling like my undergraduate education at CMU was just freakishly different than everyone else's college curriculum. Apparently all that sex-positive feminist literary theory soaked in more than I thought, and other folks never got it or just drop it when they start reproducing.

One more point... think about how much money Ms. Stokke will make in endorsements and speaking engagments if she makes the Olympic team eventually, which would seem to be a real possibility if she can stay healthy, given her record-setting performances thus far. I'm sure a lot more than any other US woman pole-valuter has. You'd have to start from a very privileged place to not appreciate the opportunities this sudden notoriety creates, even if it is a bit shocking at first.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

My FOSSED Keynote

I'm giving a keynote at the FOSSED (formerly the Northeast Linux Symposium (NELS)) conferences in Maine and DC this summer. The Maine one will be on June 20th at Gould Academy; the DC session is at Gallaudet University from August 5-8. Check their website for more details.

Here's the little summary of my talk

FOSSED: Reaching Beyond the Grass Roots

FOSSED is a grass-roots conference dedicated to spreading free and open source software from one educator to another. This is an important and beautiful thing, but we can also now see emerging patterns of free software adoption, support and creation that go beyond spreading freedom one classroom or school at a time by engaging government, grant-making foundations, academia, professional organizations and commercial vendors.

In this keynote, SchoolTool project manager Tom Hoffman will discuss the significance of examples such as the Indiana INaccess initiative, One Laptop Per Child, the Scratch development environment, regional government-funded Linux distributions used throughout Spain, and "Open Technologies" advocacy, building a broader vision of a world where free software is the norm in schools, and collaboration across organizational, commercial and national boundaries creates learning environments that are more effective and efficient for individual learners and communities.

I got the talk pretty well planned out during the drive down to PA for Memorial Day, and I'm excited about finishing and presenting it. Basically, in the first half, I'm going to sketch out a fictional but more or less present-day scenario where the key non-profit players in educational technology embraced free software and content a couple years ago. Then I'm going to go back through the scenario and contrast that with what we've really got. What it will let me do, I hope, is show the cumulative effect of all the little slights, half-measures, and licensing gaffes that I complain about here. For example, what if the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning initiative was investing in Scratch instead of proprietary software? You can make a long, long list of missed opportunities like that, and I think the cumulative effect will be impressive. A little depressing, but hopeful because the necessary shift is so small. We only need a tiny gestalt shift.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Scratch on Linux

David Thornburg apparently worked out how to get Scratch running on Linux, but his instructions are offline. There is also a workaround in a Spanish blog post. Officially, they'll have a Linux release sometime this year, if they get around to it.

I'm a bit mystified by their lack of interest in outreach to the open source community, although I guess it may be partly attributable to the fact that I don't think Squeak has been officially switched to the Apache License yet, which means the whole thing probably can't be put in a Linux distribution. Although if they're distributing an Apple licensed Squeak, they certainly don't mention it in the license information included with the Mac version, which they would be obligated to do. Squeak licensing remains an arcane mystery.

Licensing and Sharing Child-Created Projects

I've spent a good chunk of the day contemplating the implications of the project sharing facilities built into Scratch and its website. Basically, you have a "Share" button that uploads your project to their website, which is designed on a social networking model. As far as I can tell, based on the Terms of Use page (and this is the only place I can find where this is stated), you (i.e., a kid using Scratch) is licensing his work under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (by-sa) license.

This raises lots of issues. Why did they choose a license that is explicitly not for software? Why doesn't Debian feel that the by-sa license doesn't fit their Social Contract and is this a reasonable position? What would the GPL work in this case, particularly regarding what counts as access to the source? Should their application make the terms under which kids are submitting their work clearer to kids? If everything is supposed to use an attribution license, shouldn't the system specifically prompt you to give attribution when you re-use code?

Ultimately, while IANAL, I have a strong suspicion that at least in the US, while anything a minor creates is automatically copyrighted, he or she probably doesn't have the legal authority to waive that right and license their own work under a Creative Commons license without a parent also signing. It is possible (I don't know if it is wise) to gloss over these issues when you're looking at one degree of separation (kid uploads project to your site). But it is definitely the kind of thing which throws a monkey wrench into more serious redistribution (package these projects with your Linux distribution). It will be interesting to see how these things play out, particularly as OLPC spreads in the field.

I hate to suggest a new license, but it does seem possible that there is a place for a kid and parent readable free software license, particularly one aimed at Python and Squeak applications where applications are more or less distributed in source form.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


A little wireless baseball scoreboard for you desk. I was thinking about something like this for a microcontroller project, but I wanted it to read morse code to make it more 19th century, and that quickly spiraled me off into the realm of wildly impractical. Now, if they can just cut the price by 2/3rds (at least!) I'll get one.

What Monica Said

Saves me the time of writing it myself:

Wikis are fantastic and I have found them quite useful in the classroom. There is value in using them wisely, balancing the needs of all (including parents).

I’m still befuddled as to the reason why the educational process of young people has to be broadcast to the whole world. Unless there is a compelling reason (pedagogically) for wikis to be public, why make them public?

As a parent, I would want to know who my child is sharing their personal information with, like this parent. Was the parent asked to sign a waiver or memorandum of understanding before the project began? Were the details laid out? Was a risk-assessment performed?

As an educator, I want to make sure my students have a safe learning environment, where their mistakes can be used formatively for their own learning benefit. I fail to see how broadcasting these learning initiatives around the world helps with their future career, especially at a young age.

“…the problem is most parents, and most educators just don’t get it yet…” That’s a sweeping statement. Does a parent “not get it” because he/she has concerns about the safety of his/her children that may not have been addressed by the educators?

(And I fail to see how this issue is our own little Iraq. If you mean to compare this to a dictatorship, then there would be no open discussion or debate about these issues.)

There are two extremes–those avoiding all technology and those embracing all technology without due process. We can help reduce “battles” by skillfully assessing and addressing concerns before they arise. Educators can use this as an example of what information should be shared, and how parents can be a part of the solution.

Well, I guess I'd be a bit less fearful. I don't need a risk-assessment. But it seems quite clear that the real reason that these kinds of collaborations are being done on open wikis on the public internet is because we lack the technical capacity to do them in a more controlled, translucent (as opposed to transparent) way for younger children. And I find Will's response to be pretty thin gruel:

Monica: Thanks to you too for the thoughtful comments. Much appreciated. I think the compelling reason why we should make this work public to the world is so that they have experience doing that with us in the “room” to guide them. I really parallel it to teaching kids to drive. We wouldn’t only let them drive around the neighborhood before sending them off to get their license, would we? Or we wouldn’t say “here are the keys; go practice on the Interstate by yourself.” Their worlds are going to be globally connected. Now is our chance to help them navigate what that means.

I mean, are we teaching kids best practices for collaboration, or are we teaching them the easiest possible way to do it?

With Advocacy Like This...

Casey Adams, It's Not About Free Software, It's About Control and TCO:

Often times when discussing open source software, you hear the term FOSS, which stands for Free Open Source Software. To me personally, FOSS is very idealistic and somewhat unrealistic. In case most people have forgotten, we live in a capitalistic society that rewards those who create wealth. Ultimately, we must provide necessities for ourselves such as food, clothing and shelter. Writing free software and then giving it away does not lend itself to a supportable model. Even considering the power of community and collaboration, it is likely that those two factors are not enough to sustain a long term model producing FOSS.

So where does that leave us? Paying customers of course that enable a philanthropic software model to exist over time with sustainable results. That is not a bad thing and the reality is that is the way successful open source software works now. In my lowly opinion, OSS is really about control and total cost of ownership, not free software. Let's look at these two items separately.

This is abjectly wrong on so many levels. It is either vastly ignorant or an intentional misrepresentation.

By stating that FOSS stands for "free open source software," in contrast to just OSS or "open source software," Casey implies that "free" open source is a non-commercial, and therefore un-sustainable sub-set of open source. This is a distortion of the standard definitions of both FOSS (or FLOSS) and free software. The acronym FOSS stands for "free and open source software," meaning software which is both free and open source was created to avoid having to choose between the terms "free software" and "open source software." In FOSS, "Free" modifies "software," not "open source software."

This acronym is meant to recognize that free and open source software are functionally the same thing. Their definitions (free, open source) are not substantively different. Or to the extent they are, those technical differences aren't what is being discussed here. That is, free software is not inherently less commercial than open source software. The "free" in "free software" refers to freedom, not cost.

I cannot understand why Casey would question whether or not the free software paradigm is sustainable. It has been sustained since 1983 and is growing stronger every year.

I am further baffled by the explanation that selling software is a "philanthropic" model. There is nothing wrong with selling free software, but that's a commercial endeavor, not philanthropic.

Given that Casey's larger post is in favor of something dear to my heart, providing free and open source administrative software to schools, I'm quite frustrated that he chooses to lard his argument in a thick coat of pointless bullshit.

Now, I recommend you cleanse your palate with some outstanding advocacy from Italy (with subtitles).

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Yet Another Free Software Advocacy Thread, instigated by I think I acquit myself well.

This Should Be Fun...

My wife, needing to pick up a few credits from home to renew her certification while on her maternity leave/summer vacation, has just started a "Using Blogs and Wikis to Foster Literacy" class at URI. Jennifer rather pointedly doesn't read my or any other blogs, so we'll see how it goes.

Good news, they're using Will's book.

Bad news:

Additionally, you will need to have access to a computer that has PowerPoint version’97 or above to view the presentations. If you cannot hear the sound on them it is possible that the “wave” element of your volume is either on ‘mute’ or not turned up enough. URI’s servers are remarkably unpredictable, so please be patient with this process.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Cliche Alert: Better Media Literacy Needed

Scott Rosenberg:

These conversations are happening almost exclusively among media people and media obsessives. Meanwhile there’s a wider conversation taking place on the Net among bloggers and participants in Web communities that has very little to do with journalism at all; it’s basically people talking to one another. At several points in the discussion tonight people got up to make this point, including one woman (I didn’t catch her name; she talked about participating in the community of mother-bloggers) who said, “I don’t know what Internet you guys are on” — and wondered how what she was doing could be considered narcissistic when so much of it involved paying attention to other people’s stories.

These conversations are all taking place orthogonally, and progress is limited. Indeed, the discussion tonight dribbled off into a consensus embrace of the notion of “media literacy”: the media have degenerated, so now, it seems, the consumers of media had better shape up!

Of course, the smarter people are at evaluating what they read, the better. But saying the answer to the crisis in journalism today is “better media literacy” is like saying the answer to the crisis in education is “better learning skills.”

Friday, May 18, 2007

A Concrete Plan for Making Shift Happen "NSF and School Reform"

An August 2006 post on the Concord Consortium blog, "NSF and School Reform" has so far drawn links from exactly one other blog, EdTechDev, which luckily I started reading yesterday, because this post by Concord Consortium President and CEO Bob Tinker is a gem. He analyzes current NSF spending on K-12 education and lays out a compelling "Existence Proof for Reform:"

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education could be reformed by simply reallocating the current NSF education budget. No huge infusion of new funding is required, just the leadership to change from current policies that are not achieving the desired goal. No huge research effort is needed to find new ways to teach and learn; we already know all that is required to make major improvements. Innovation, not fundamental new knowledge, is needed at each step to integrate ideas from researchers from mathematics, science, and engineering and to incorporate changes in the disciplines and new insights about cognition.

To make this point, I have sketched below a five-year effort to reform secondary STEM education that would require $25M per year for development and, in its later years, $70M per year for professional development. The proposed plan is offered as and existence proof—that is, without claiming that this is the best plan, it provides one feasible plan for a significant part of K12 education. Its importance is less its details than its feasibility; it shows that something very important could be done with available resources.
The proposed plan would develop new curriculum material in math and science for grades 7-12. The materials would have the following characteristics:

  • Courses for each grade. There would be course materials for mathematics and science for all students in each of five grades 6-11, and four advanced courses would be generated for grade 12 science students. Engineering topics would be woven into each course.

  • Research-based. The design would incorporate insights from research and best practice. Learning would be contextualized, inquiry-based, hands-on, and adapted to student capacities and understandings.

  • Integrated. Mathematics and science would be tightly integrated and the math/science/engineering topics would be integrated across grades. Grades 9-11 would feature a physics-chemistry-biology sequence.

  • Focused on core concepts. The treatment would make extensive us of computational models and tools to help students learn concepts and avoid getting lost in details and exceptions. Formalism, proofs, and computation would be minimized.

  • Online, free replacement for texts. All materials, assessments, and teacher support would be available free online using the open source and open access models of electronic distribution. This would free schools to use $600M/yr in textbook money for the requisite technology and break the tyranny of state textbook adoption procedures.

  • Tested, revised, and validated. An extensive formative and summative research effort would support revisions and measure student learning gains.

The primary development effort could be done for $1M for each of 14 courses, $5M for technology, $3M for research and assessment, and $3M for coordination. Except for the technology, which would be front-loaded, these levels would be maintained for five years while three versions of the materials are developed and tested in increasing numbers of schools.

Starting in year two of the materials development effort, a linked teacher professional development (TPD) effort needs to be launched that can eventually reach all 400K math and science teachers. This effort would also be research-based and, following one of the consistent findings in this area, would be tightly focused on the new materials and classroom practice with these materials.

It is not feasible to provide TPD for every secondary math and science teacher. Instead, a leadership model can be used in which 20K teacher-leaders are provided with extensive training and resources so they can each support, on average, 20 additional teachers. A rich combination of resources in the form of workshops, online courses, guides, and meetings can be provided for these leaders for $3K each per year, or a total that would reach $60M per year. Development, technology, online courses, and evaluation would cost another $10M per year.

Reform in grades K-6 has similar costs, but needs to use a different PDF model because of the larger number of elementary teachers, their turnover, and their multiple disciplinary responsibilities.

This sketch shows that a major STEM reform effort can be undertaken starting at $25M and building up to less than $100M per year. There can be disagreements about the desirability of, for instance, starting at the secondary level, making free materials available, relying on computers, and using a teacher-leader model. These important issues would be interesting to debate, but the point is ANY reform effort that developed exciting, innovative materials and provided opportunities for every teacher to have some professional development, would require about five years of funding that started in the $25M level and built up toward $100M. This level of funding is huge compared to current efforts, but still small compared to the current NSF education budget.

This is ultimately the kind of advocacy for investment in open source software and open content we need, as it puts licensing and cost considerations in the proper context. It also seems to acknowledge something I've long believed about open content in K-12: that it will take big-time government and/or foundation support to jump-start the process for real, but if you run the numbers, the amounts aren't out of line with similar investments made at this level. If you think about it, a national low-cost laptop program could virtually ride on the coattails of this project.

This is a plan I could get behind, and certainly one deserving of more attention in the ed blogosphere.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Dynabook & Squeak Dissertation

I just semi-randomly found this disseration by John W. Maxwell, Tracing the Dynabook: A Study of Technocultural Transformations, which has a good chapter about Squeak. Abstract:

The origins of the personal computer are found in an educational vision. Desktop computing and multimedia were not first conceived as tools for office workers or media professionals— they were prototyped as “personal dynamic media” for children. Alan Kay, then at Xerox’ Palo Alto Research Center, saw in the emerging digital world the possibility of a communications revolution and argued that this revolution should be in the hands of children. Focusing on the development of the “Dynabook,” Kay’s research group established a wide-ranging conception of personal and educational computing, based on the ideal of a new systems literacy, of which computing is an integral part.

Kay’s research led to two dominant computing paradigms: the graphical user interface for personal computers, and object-oriented programming. By contrast, Kay’s educational vision has been largely forgotten, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of discourse on e-learning and the Web. However, an historical analysis of Kay’s educational project and its many contributions reveals a conception of educational computing that is in many ways more compelling than anything we have today, as it is based on a solid foundation of educational theory, one that substantially anticipates and addresses some of the biggest civil/political issues of our time, those of the openness and ownership of cultural expression. The Dynabook is a candidate for what 21st-century literacy might look like in a liberal, individualist, decentralized, and democratic key.

This dissertation is a historical treatment of the Dynabook vision and its implementations in changing contexts over 35 years. It is an attempt to trace the development of a technocultural artifact: the Dynabook, itself partly an idealized vision and partly a series of actual technologies. It is thus a work of cultural history. But it is more than simply a looking back; the effective-history of the Dynabook, its various incarnations, and its continuing re-emergence and re-articulation mean that the relevance of this story is an ongoing question which needs to be recognized and addressed by educators, technologists, and learners today. This dissertation represents an introduction to this case.

Another Reason Not To Put .docs On The Web


My son made his discovery while impatiently waiting to play a computer game on my laptop. As part of a research project, I had downloaded 45 documents from a section of the CPA Web site known as Consolidated Weekly Reports. All but three of the documents were Microsoft Word. I had one of the Word documents up on my screen when my son starting toying with the computer mouse. Somehow, inadvertently, he managed to pull down the "View" menu at the top of the screen and select the "Mark up" option. If you are in a Word document where "Track changes" has been turned on, hitting "Mark up" will reveal all the deletions and insertions ever made in the document, complete with times, dates and (sometimes) the initials of the editors. When my son did it, all the deleted passages in a document with the innocuous name "Administrator's Weekly Economic Report" suddenly appeared in blue and purple. It was the electronic equivalent of seeing every draft of an author's paper manuscript and all the penciled changes made by the editors. I soon figured out that with a few keystrokes I could see the deleted passages in 20 of the 42 Word documents I'd downloaded. For an academic like myself it was a small treasure trove, and after I'd stopped hooting and hollering it took some time before I could convince my startled son that he hadn't done anything wrong.

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.

You Think You Have It Bad

From the May Shuttleworth Foundation newsletter:

According to a new study, poor pay is a key factor in the decision of many South African teachers to seek work in the United Kingdom. The as-yet-unpublished study by Oxford research fellow Dr K Ochs, surveyed 192 teachers recruited from other Commonwealth countries to jobs in the UK. 90 % of the South Africans who responded said they did not consider financial packages at home attractive enough, compared to a figure of just 60% in Australia.

One thousand teachers in the Western Cape were absent during the first two months of 2007 due to, amongst other reasons, stress. Teachers feel alone, unsupported and disillusioned. The department said it would no longer accept doctors’ certificates for stress unless they were issued by a psychiatrist. Teachers are under pressure from high work loads, violence and undisciplined learners. Since the introduction of the new curriculum which depends on continuous assessment, teachers have been complaining that they spend more time keeping up with paperwork than teaching. Other factors that are inhibiting successful teaching are class sizes, a discipline system where the rights of ringleaders seems to be prioritised, the rights of teachers that are being ignored, lack of in-service training for the new curriculum and weak departmental administration. A shortage of 50,000 teachers is foreseen within the next three years if government does not urgently intervene to improve the working conditions of teachers.

In yet another incident of school-related violence, a Grade 2 Eastern Cape educator died after being shot three times by a man masked in a balaclava. In expressing his condolences with the family of the murdered educator, Johnny Mankato, MEC for education in the Eastern Cape, stressed the importance of the speedy implementation of the education department's security programme for schools. This programme, he hoped, together with the co-operation of the community, would bring an end to violence at schools.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I Am So Full Of Myself...

That I'm going to quote myself from comments:

What is the role of a leader in this situation? You're looking at software of the highest quality (truly!) from an engineering point of view, which is if anything hampered by an overabundance of pedagogical ambition. It is as relevant and ahead of its time today as the day it was started, but has mostly languished due to a lack of attention. Isn't it the role of a leader to point to it and say "This is worth saving, what can we do to make this work?"

Squeak: Tinker-Toy Software

Despite my evident cynicism, I'm still completely gob-smacked by posts like "Virtual Tinker Toys" by Doug Johnson, which starts in response to a comment by Sylvia Martinez:

I'm wondering if there is another criteria - something like "extensibility". The old idea of "no floor, no ceiling." I hate learning something new and then finding that there is no way to extend it, add options, go under the hood, etc. Not that everyone wants that, but in an educational setting, having tools that you only have to learn once yet can accommodate different learners and different styles seems like important criteria. Maybe there's a better word for it?

Of course, there are at least two good words we can use to describe this concept, or at least a big chunk of it: freedom and openness. I'm not going to belabor that point; follow the links if you're confused.

After an exchange of comments, Sylvia states that some activities which have what she's looking for are HyperCard (entirely defunct), HyperStudio (it lives!), Flash (which is both expensive and not designed for K-12 students at all), Microworlds (a commercial Logo which I'm sure is lovely) and good old coding HTML by hand (yes, it is good to know the rudiments).

Doug continues, incongruously:

First, it was a good reminder that teachers' resistance to technology is less about technology itself but more about unfamiliar ways of teaching. Learning HyperStudio is not an issue; adopting a new teaching philosophy in which students learn by creating instead of absorbing is an issue.

Perhaps he didn't notice that her list is really pretty weak, and the best candidate in there, MicroWorlds, isn't exactly universally available to teachers. We really should have better tools for this, and we do. And they are free (some libre, some just gratis). The problem is that they aren't well known.

I could point to various projects by leading researchers in our field like Mitchel Resnick at MIT or Randy Pausch at CMU, but the best example for what Sylvia is talking about is Squeak, which was started at Apple in 1995 by Alan Kay as an extension of many of the ideas first seen in HyperCard. The project was booted from Apple to Disney and then into the void, but because it is more or less open source software, the project has survived and grown, despite the fact that the US ed-tech community has chosen to ignore it. Squeak is highly platform and OS independent. It is widely used in classrooms in Spain and is integrated into the OLPC environment. Its foundations in the SmallTalk programming language are sufficiently robust that it has been extended to be used for a variety of new and cutting edge projects like Scratch and Croquet, the not quite ready for prime time open alternative to Second Life.

I'm simply baffled by the argument that the quality of the tools schools currently have is sufficient, particularly when there are superior, mature, free alternatives that aren't even being considered.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Wrong-Footing the Ed-Tech World

The news about various plausible near-term scenarios for inexpensive 1-to-1 laptop deployments in the US is coming fast and furious; at this point I can't keep it straight, and I have no idea how serious the several American state governments who have expressed interest in OLPC are. But it is a very real possibility that the whole US ed-tech establishment will find themselves wrong-footed on this one.

I get the impression that a lot of leaders in this community would give a sour response to any governor who asked them if his state should spend, say, $200 per unit to put robust, inexpensive hardware and free software truly designed for learning and collaboration in every kid's hand. Now, to be sure, I had an email exchange with a friend on the matter and my first response wasn't "Hell, yeah!" but "Make sure you know what you want." But really, it seems like a lot of folks would sit down across a conference table from a state commissioner of education and tell him laptops are a waste of money unless he can completely transform pedagogy in his state, reform his pre-service training, re-design professional development from the ground up, etc., etc., etc. And/or that he should muster the political will and budgetary slack to buy computers designed for business or personal use for five times more. What they wouldn't do is talk about the very real technological problems previous technology rollouts have run into and how they can be prevented or mitigated by new technology.

This may not be a big factor on the hardware side, which may have a political momentum all its own, but I'm more worried about the software side, where there is shaping up to be a three way showdown between OLPC's Sugar, a more conventional Linux desktop environment and Windows XP. Perhaps a simple, practical example of the difference is needed. From OLPC News a few weeks ago:

Dan also demonstrated a version of the Read activity that can show itself in the mesh view: you can click on it and a PDF is downloaded between two machines—suddenly two kids are reading it.

It isn't a huge flashy feature, but it is the kind of thing that is easy to do on the Sugar, because it is the kind of thing that Sugar is designed to facilitate. If I was doing peer editing in an English classroom, it is certainly one I would want to have (without routing through Google Docs, etc.), and it is absurd when you think about it that we can't do it today. It seems so obvious.

If nobody is paying attention to what's going on with Sugar, who is going to argue for it -- and in turn argue for a new generation of collaborative and constructionist tools -- in the US? If nobody argues for it, we may well end up with $250 locked-down laptops running XP that you can't even install Skype on. The gaming advocates have to realize that the XO is their best opportunity. The hand-held advocates have to realize this is their best opportunity. The Web 2.0 advocates have to realize that moving collaborative services out of the commercial internet cloud and into their local classroom will solve many of their problems.

Or else what? More of the same, I guess. Or all the "leaders" will quickly fall in step once they see which way the money is flowing, and everyone will clear out of Second Life to figure out how to get sugar-jhbuild running. Time will tell.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Kindred Spirit

Scott Rosenberg:

As a teenaged publisher of mimeographed magazines in the 1970s, I was a bulk user of postal services, and there was something wonderful about how you could count on your six-sheets-stapled zine getting where it was going in the continental U.S. with a single stamp. Who knows how such publications would fit into this new postage world — but they’ve pretty much all gone Web anyway.

Successful Nagging

A brief email to K12 Handhelds got them to clarify their licensing of "free materials" as Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivatives. Clarity is good. Thanks!

The XO/Classmate AMD/Intel Politics

I somehow missed the memo about Negroponte's announcement that they were seriously considering distributing XO's in the US, and when I heard about it didn't make sense to me. This Fortune column explains the political wrangling behind it. As I understand it Negroponte and OLPC believe Intel is offering Classmate PC's to countries considering the XO in smaller batches (10,000 Classmates instead of 1,000,000 XO's) and at a loss to match the XO's price and performance. The suggestion that OLPC would sell XO's in the US is an escalation of this conflict, because AMD's market share for laptop CPU's in the US is low, so selling low-priced AMD-powered laptops in the US doesn't piss off too many conventional laptop vendors, but Dell, HP, Apple, etc. would never allow Intel to undercut their Intel-powered products by selling a much lower cost Intel-powered laptop in the US, especially dumping it at a loss.

This is business, and it is getting hard-ball. It is a real possibility that Intel could undermine OLPC enough to cripple it, although, to be fair, it isn't certain that they are even trying to do so. I just don't want to try to imagine what the next decade of educational computing will look like if OLPC is crippled by industry maneuvering (think exactly like the last one).

The fact that OLPC is trying to completely re-create the application shell, security model, file system, etc. on a very tight schedule also makes them vulnerable. I can't really believe the software will be ready this year, but OLPC has already done the impossible with hardware, so we'll see. Hopefully none of the people considering which laptop to buy are reading Dreaming in Code.

XO == Clamshell iMac

Chris Brian comments (sorry!) that his students are getting a lot of productive work out of their seven year old clamshell iMacs. I'd add that those iMac's specs are very close to the current XO specs. With a little historical perspective, we can see that's a sweet spot for basic desktop computing. If it is really "not about the technology," then a 466mhz processor, 256mb RAM, 1 gig hard drive is sufficient.

Friday, May 11, 2007


Mike Klonsky points us to the new blog by Dean Millot, covering the "School Improvement Industry," which includes "providers, educators, policymakers, investors, researchers and policy advocates." I've been lucky to have a bit (but not too much) exposure to the big foundation and academia side of school reform, and it has always been a bit disorienting to read more "netroots" discussions about school reform and ed-tech, not in a "why are these neophytes trying to do things that clearly should be left to professionals" kind of way, but more in a "if you really want to get involved with this issue, you should at least be aware that millions of dollars have been poured into the exact problem you're talking about over the past decade."

I mean, it is kind of like talking to someone who has a great idea for a car with a battery that recharges itself when you hit the breaks and uses an electric motor to help run the car. You'd be like, "Yeah, a hybrid car, Toyota makes one." And they'd look at you and say, "I don't know what you're talking about." It doesn't mean a hybrid car is a bad idea, and maybe their idea for how it would work is even somehow better, but the fact that this person doesn't seem to know that such things already exist is disconcerting, at best.

Anyhow, I haven't had enough time to figure out exactly where edbizbuzz is coming from politically or philosophically, but frankly any insight into this realm is helpful, particularly if it is clearly written and lands nicely in my news reader. I do like this passage on a recent get together of ed industry movers and shakers:

But the venture philanthropy movement is probably best understood as a network of folks who were “30-Something” when that was a television show, and who now earn pretty nice livings ($100K plus) doing “God’s work” managing heavily subsidized k-12 nonprofits. For that crowd, NSVF's annual meeting remains a hot ticket and Kim Smith has done a very good job of maintaining its aura of exclusivity.

Russo is not far off comparing it to Davos or Sundance, although your editor thinks it's closer to the Clinton era's Renaissance Weekends. They all share a county club atmosphere of comfortable people who went to the right schools, know the right people, and worked with other right people on the right causes, plus the minumum acceptable spattering of outsiders who don't quite fit that profile but make it politically correct - but who are really all tied together by money - having high-minded conversations at an event that costs several times what it would if it were held on a college campus instead of an upscale hotel. Anyone attending any of these events fresh "from the field" inevitably wonders aloud how much good the extra funds might have done "in the field" This is something of a faux pas.

That sounds about right. I'd subscribe if I were you. And if you're the kind of education blogger who occasionally subjects me to posts on fracking management guru bullshit, I think it should be required.

Sharing Posts with Google Reader

I'm very pleased Doug Noon has found my Google Reader shared posts feed useful and mind-expanding. You can tell we're on the same wavelength because his shared posts is the fourth most popular source of my shared posts (if that makes any sense).

I'm kind of surprised this feature hasn't proven to be more popular, considering a lot of people seem to be using Google Reader, and it only takes one click to share an item. I think the fact that you can't comment or tag the shared post at all is a feature, because it prevents you from making the task more complicated or involved than it needs to be.

Ignoring the Obvious

Will points us to a post by Greg Farr on LeaderTalk about his frustration about the inevitably slow pace of adoption of "Web 2.0" tools by his teachers. But dig down to the actual teacher's frustrations and here's the #1 concern:

How is all of this possible when our classrooms are not equipped with computers for the students? How can I incorporate technology at this level without even weekly access to computers or the computer lab? Each classroom needs at least a projector so the teacher can connect the projector to his/her computer.


Most of our students don’t even have a computer at home.

Whether or not the second one there is statistically accurate, I don't know. Even in poor neighborhoods (like the one I'm looking out my window at) many homes "have computers," although "having a computer" doesn't mean it works, is connected to the internet, isn't hogged by your big brother, etc.

Also, I don't know if the teachers in this district have laptops. That makes a pretty massive difference, too.

Regardless, I think it is perfectly natural for a teacher's enthusiasm for a new technology mandate to be dampened by limited access to said technology.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Kusasa: Analytical Education

Jonathan Carter reminds me that I haven't specifically pointed out the attractive new website for Kusasa:

Kusasa, a Zulu word for tomorrow, is the name of a new, dynamic learning system for the 21st century.

Kusasa will provide learners with free software to model the objects, organisms or processes they are studying in any learning area.

Kusasa projects will challenge learners to use computers not for "drill and kill" instruction, but as tools to help them explore, discover and learn.

Free constructionist goodness using Squeak and Python. This should fit in quite well with OLPC, Classmate, Edubuntu thin clients, or, if you're nasty, plain old Windows boxen.

From The Shuttleworth Foundation, natch.

The Trojan Horse Strategy

I would note that another way of explaining the ideas behind my recent posts on one-to-one laptop initiatives and IT infrastructure in general (here and here) is to point out that this is essentially the "Trojan Horse" strategy devised by OLPC, applied to US schools. You find very conventionally convincing ways to almost completely offset the cost of hardware and software (which you keep quite low) as a way to get your (subversive) technology into schools and keep it there. In the case of OLPC, this means pointing out that many countries in the developing world spend about $100 every four or five years per child on textbooks. If the laptop can replace the textbooks at that cost, or close to it, the program can be nearly budget neutral. In US schools, there are additional pieces of technology that can be replaced by the laptop, like graphing calculators, digital cameras, and sensor readers, to offset the cost of an inexpensive laptop and make the project sustainable in a district's annual budget rather than reliant on the feast and famine world of grant dependency.

Not Blogging With Gary Stager

My most entertaining ed-tech blog reading this week has been in David Warlick's comment threads (here and here), where Gary Stager has been cutting loose with both barrels:

I have disagree profoundly with some of the work and beliefs of the colleagues you mentioned in your original post. I would love to discuss both the subtle and extreme points of disagreement with any of them in a public setting. The audience would certainly benefit from watching smart people discuss serious issues.

So, consider this a challenge to conference organizers. I would be delighted to share a stage with David or any of our other colleagues for a sustained substantive debate about the nature of learning, the role of technology or the future of learning. Just tell me when and where to show up!

I'm certainly in favor of poking holes in David's stream of convivial babble, but I have a crazy idea: couldn't we do this on blogs?

If you're going to consistently criticize a colleague/competitor in comments on their blog, you really ought to give them the same opportunity to come back at you on your blog, where you sincerely lay out your ideas (and no, The Pulse isn't enough). David has at least had the sand to do this, while folks like Gary and Alan November haven't, and, quite frankly, Gary and Alan have never given me the impression they understand the medium of blogging at all.

Edubuntu On Classmate, BTW

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Funny New Bill Richardson Ads

(part of) OLPC OS + Classmate = ?

I'm baffled by this announcement:

UPDATE - Red Hat is preparing to release a new "Red Hat Global Desktop" that over time will grow into an online desktop that integrates online services into a client desktop platform. The platform will allow users to access online and local data in a unified way.

Red Hat has teamed up with Intel for the platform. Local PC manufacturers will build the actual systems. The compuers will target small businesses and governments in emerging economies, and the software will be made available on Intel's Classmate PC, a low cost notebook computer for students.

The software borrows from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, with about 95 per cent of the code overlapping. The OLPC uses an adapted version of Red Hat's Fedora Linux. The Global Desktop won't share the OLPC's "Sugar" user interface, but will come bundled with applications such as Firefox and Open Office.

The first version of the software is due out in June and will use a traditional user interface. Consequent updates will move to a model where traditional applications are integrated with online services, said Red Hat chief technology officer Brian Stevens.

But I can't imagine why this would be a bad thing, so, YAY! More innovative free software and cheap hardware!

My "Theory of Change"

One thing that you need to understand about me is that, despite appearances, I'm not a technology person interested in school reform, I'm a school reform person interested in technology. All of my professional training and most of my career within schools was aimed at progressive reform, with technology becoming the lever I am best able to wield toward that end.

Anyone who has been personally engaged in school reform, particularly public school reform, knows that it is not a game you win once and go home, it is an ongoing process, if not a war of attrition, and over a career you'll see many victories and losses, hopefully more of the former but don't count on it.

I also believe that the general purpose computer is a unique tool for learning, and while using computers does not inevitably lead to progressive school reform, it does grease the skids in many ways. Even measures which simply increase efficiency can free up time to focus on teaching and learning rather than paperwork and administrivia.

If you put those two things together, I think you can see why I am dubious of the current model of coupling a big, expensive technology rollout with a simultaneous goal of making comprehensive school reform happen, fast. That's trying to do two hard things (and the technology is the easier one) at the same time. The technology compliments the pedagogical reform, but it also puts even more political pressure on it, because it increases the cost in a very specific and high profile way, and as a result we see cases like this, where you spend a huge amount of money and political capital and get literally nothing in the end. No new technology or pedagogy.

If you want to do progressive school reform, you don't need more computers to start the process. I think you're better off making that move using what you've got on hand, focusing on teaching and learning, and if you get things moving in the right direction, the utility of technology to your teachers will become clear. They'll be chomping at the bit to start publishing online instead of little xeroxed booklets, turning those bulky binders into digital portfolios, running simulations of processes in science (and social science), etc.

But if you've already got a stable, sustainable, flexible (free!) IT infrastructure already in place, so much the better, even if when you start it is just being used for on-line quizzes and downloading porn. You don't have to go get a million dollar bond issue; you just need some new (free!) software and better administration, and you can focus your energy on teaching and learning.

In a sense, I'm asking for systems that fail more gracefully. Jim Heynderickx rightly points out that the 1-to-1 deployment that was the focus of the Times article last week was fraught with internal political divisions from the start, which led in large part to its failure. But on the other hand, does this mean that big technology deployments only work when there is political harmony? If so, we will never see them in the Providence Public Schools, even The Singularity won't change that. And I would argue that the political fighting around that technology deployment is inseparable from its cost. Cheaper technology means less political pressure and a longer timeframe for change.

We need sustainable, appropriate, free computing in schools, before, during and (unfortunately, often) after each successive push for progressive reform.

Local Linux Advocacy Done Right

Jim Kronebusch describes the slow and steady approach to the K12OSN list:

But as far as convincing the staff, teachers, and administration, this has been about a 5 year total effort. I started by just telling them about the software and possibilities. Then I slowly moved into some demos and a small lab (I never formally told the staff that they had a new lab, I just built it and left the doors unlocked, it was their decision if they wanted to wait for the mac lab or try this new thing out) to show what things looked like. Every time budget shortfalls came up in discussion I mentioned FOSS and how it could save money. But I think the most important part is I never told anyone that we had to switch. I just kept throwing the bone out and then as they asked more and more about it I gave them needed information but told them that we wouldn't make the change because I didn't think they were ready. Finally this year the President of the school told me we had $50,000 to update teacher machines and he would like to switch from Macs to Windows. I gave him the usual lines about how Windows is subject to spyware and viruses and tough to manage... yadda, yadda, yadda. I told him that if we went to Windows we might have to hire another person part time. I said as much as I don't like Macs (flame away :-) I thought that at this point Macs were the best option as they didn't put too much change on the teachers and staff, and that if we were willing to move to Windows we may as well go Linux. Then explained how much each option would cost but said again, I don't think our staff and teachers can handle the change yet. I told him if I had my choice of what to do, I would upgrade all the lab and media center machines for less than the budgeted $50,000 this year (which would only have updated a portion of teacher machines), let students and teachers adjust to that change for a year (I would put Firefox and OpenOffice on the Teacher Macs for a little compatibility but not too much change). Then the following year convert the teachers for a fraction of the cost of going with Windows or Mac. But then said that I didn't think we should go that way because it would put too much stress on the staff/teachers to make the change and it could cause some small curriculum hiccups which would require change. Long story short the President finally said "I want to go with this Linux open source stuff, if we can offer hundreds more applications, save money on administration costs, money on power consumption, and offer more computers for less money, then the teachers and staff can deal with a little change". I still tried to be hesitant instead of leaping for joy and said that we should consult with the teachers and staff before making such a change instead of blindsiding them over the summer. Surprisingly when presented to them they seemed to realize that even though this may be some work, we need to make the changes.

Now everyone wants to make this a big deal publicly. They now see that this is something they can present to the public to show how "advanced" our school will be and how we are environmentally conscious by using a lower power thin client solution and machines with longer life cycles. They now see this is a positive thing to show parents who pay tuition how we are getting the biggest band for their buck in the area of technology. They will tout our increased application offerings and higher computer to student ratio for less money. We will also be offering connectivity to work from home via FreeNX or VNC for students who are home sick or for doing homework at night. They will be able to provide the same software available at school to students for free. It seemed taking the not so pushy approach and just offering the facts in this case paid off. Our school President has now met with the administrators of all other private schools in our Hiawatha Valley Conference (who our school competes with in sports) and is preaching to them that Open Source is the future and this can help them overcome their budgetary shortcomings while offering more computers and applications. He is trying to convince them to attend the North Central Linux Symposium ( and is distributing our fliers to them for us now.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

I Let Other People Handle the Cute Linux Advocacy

Mark Your Calendars: Ubuntu Education Summit BOSTON -- October 25 & 26

The next Ubuntu Education Summit (and Ubuntu Developers' Summit) will be held in Boston, with UES taking place on October 25 & 26. These events are free (natch!) and open to whomever cares to attend (although attending the Developers' Summit is pretty much like visiting an office displaced into a few hotel conference rooms, so you'd better have some work in mind). But anyhow, if you're interested in understanding the open source process and the people behind it globally, particularly in reference to education, I strongly recommend finding a way to attend UES. In particular, I'd love to see some folks like David Thornburg (who does has a pretty good handle on open source) making the trip, particularly some of our ed-tech experts who still don't get it.

In other news, Dave Trask has another good post today from the current Ubuntu summit:

Today was AMAZING! I had the opportunity to visit a school here in Sevilla, Spain. The school was more of an “inner city” school, but it was a shining example of what the “junta” (government) of Andalusia has accomplished with technology in schools. ALL the schools in the program (and soon it will be ALL the schools…it takes time)…have a 2:1 ratio of kids to computers. Some schools have laptops as well. I was particularly intrigued by the reasoning of the 2:1 ratio and the desks designed around that purpose. The intent is to foster teamwork and collaboration. Students learn to work together and collaborate in the learning process. This is not to negate any effectiveness of a 1:1 deployment, but the educators of Andalusia feel that working together is also quite important. It was made clear that it was a conscious decision that had nothing to do with cost…there was enough money for 1:1, but it was decided to do the 2:1 in most cases. The computer desks were made in Portugal specially for the project. They are RUGGED! I was impressed. EVERY single classroom has computers on every single desk. By building them into the infrastructure, they have essentially built them into the learning process. Very cool idea. Every teacher uses the computers as a tool in the classroom (this was stated repeatedly) in nearly every lesson. When I asked the kids how they felt the computers had helped them, they felt more connected and felt that the school had merged the old ways with the new in a manner that would better prepare them for college and work.

I think Dave should consider himself lucky he got through the trip without his head literally exploding.

Dave Trask Visits the Ed-Tech Nerve Center of Andalusia, Spain

Dave Trask got to take a little field trip as part of his participation in the Ubuntu Education Summit & Ubuntu Developers' Summit:

Today was a very exciting day! I was invited to tour the CGA which is essentially the Andalusia region Department of Education’s Computer nervous center. They administer, deploy, develop, and so forth…for the entire region of Andalusia in Spain. They use Linux exclusively….50 people are able to support almost 200,000 computers! Very cool to see in action. This deployment in Spain is a perfect example. They have a ratio of 2:1 in primary schools….moving up to 5:1 in high schools with many laptop deployments as well. All easily rolled out with automatic unattended installs…tech support…call centers for tech support…etc. Very cool and very well managed. A server goes down…the center knows before the school does!

The fact of the matter is, schools in the US have historically been too decentralized to gain this kind of efficiency, and generally speaking, I favor local control over raw efficiency. But I'd love to see a serious study of the TCO here by a hard-headed US accounting firm. Bet this would be hard to match.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Problem in a Nutshell

One paragraph at the end of the Times piece on 1-to-1 laptop initiatives seems to sum up the situation pretty well:

Alice McCormick, who heads the math department, said most math teachers preferred graphing calculators, which students can use on the Regents exams, to laptops, which often do not have mathematical symbols or allow students to show their work for credit. “Let’s face it, math is for the most part still a paper-and-pencil activity when you’re learning it,” she said.

Not to jump down Ms. McCormick's neck -- I'm sure those quotes are pulled out of a long conversation and made more sense in context, but let's run down the observations packed in here:

  1. Most math teachers prefer a $100(-ish) graphing calculator to a $1000 computer.
  2. There is a strong disincentive to using laptops in math class because they aren't allowed on the Regents exams.
  3. Their computers aren't set up in either hardware (keyboard) or software to do very basic things their students need to do in this core subject.
  4. Contrary to point 1, math is not even about using graphing calculators, it is about paper and pencils.

On one hand, this passage illustrates how comprehensively FUBAR ed-tech often is in 2007. Still, it gives me some hope. We don't have to start by changing point 4, that is, fundamentally reconfiguring the math teacher's conception of mathematics. There is lower-hanging fruit here. If we can give students a laptop that feels as simple and reliable as a graphing calculator, which replaces a graphing calculator and has uses in every subject at, say, four times the cost of a graphing calculator, that's a device that might get some traction, particularly if problem 2 is solved with a few pen strokes by the right state administrators.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Death Knell for $1000 Laptop Initiatives

Today's NY Times article, "Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops," marks the end of the first wave of (and roughly, the first decade of) one to one laptop initiatives in schools. On the whole, we've learned that in most cases the benefits, particularly in the age of high-stakes testing, don't outweigh the costs.

In the next wave, we'll have cheaper, more robust and sustainable systems running free software. The cost/benefit analyses will work because the additional cost to schools will be close to $0. How many years will pass in the trough between the crests of the waves remains to be seen.

Not at UES

Due to a death in the family, I spent the week in Burlington, Vermont, instead of Seville, Spain, at the Ubuntu Education Summit, as I had planned. It has been a bummer on several levels.

Windows: A Second-Class Citizen on the XO

Chris Blizzard:

The relationship can be explained thusly: Microsoft has some XO machines. They are trying to get Windows working on it. Sometimes they show up and ask random hardware questions. The OLPC guys say “look at the code.” They go away again. Sometimes they brick machines (because they have to replace the awesome firmware we have with a poopy PC BIOS) and send them back to the office to get them unbricked. Sometimes they complain that the machine has hardware problems and we reply that it works fine here.

For once Microsoft is getting the reverse Linux laptop experience: little support and little documentation for the hardware. The result will be a platform that doesn’t include any of the really novel features that we’re building in, bad power management, no systems management via the firmware and apps that will randomly crash because they can’t fix the virtual memory problem in the same way we’re approaching it. A second class citizen, to be sure.

This is a non-issue.