Saturday, June 30, 2007


Will points to this Seattle PI piece on a "social learning network" written and deployed by the Seattle Public Schools called L3rn.

A few points:

  • I've argued from the beginning that this kind of web application, hosted and administered by school districts or regionally, is a good idea. We don't literally want or need schools to use flickr, we need for them to have their own tools which work just as well as flickr. An urban school district is full of interesting happenings; even completely dysfunctional wrecked systems have isolated points of brilliance. There is no reason to think a well designed site that truly captured the goings on in a city school district, particularly over a period of years, wouldn't be compelling. This is a minority position, I think because people don't believe schools will ever have good software at their disposal, or even if they do, that they will never use it. I'm not sure how you can be an educational technology advocate and hold either of those two ideas, but many people seem to manage it.
  • If we want to expand the reach of the "Edubloggercon" circle, we should start by reaching out to people who are doing projects like this. This is the distinction I was trying to point out in my earlier post about NECC; that at least in the open source in education community we're getting some connections between the grassroots bloggers and the state and corporate players who are, in some cases, managing major open source projects. This has taken years of work, however. We need to get the folks who are implementing significant initiatives using social software in education into "the conversation." That we're finding out about this project in the newspaper is absurd on several levels.
  • Why, for the love of God, is this not an open source project?

Know Your History

Deborah Meier:

I was talking with a young man yesterday who is working at a new NYC high schools for students who have dropped out or are about to. He's very enthusiastic about the work and the school. He thinks Bloomberg and Company invented such schools, and that his is the first.

Historical amnesia is, alas, widespread. In a piece on Bloomberg’s ambitions for the Presidency and another on the High School of International Business and Finance, NY Times reporter Sara Rimer suggests that Bloomberg/Klein are the first to worry about how to educate the kids at the bottom, the first to develop small schools, the first to be enamored of test score accountability, the first to eliminate “social promotion” and so on. How does she explain that half of NYC's kids were starting high school at least one year over-age in the late 80's. Shouldn’t a fact-checker catch such historical untruths? My young friend’s ignorance is forgivable, the NY Times reporter’s is less so.

Small, personalized schools for kids who are floundering, or for kids in general, is not a new idea. It was thriving 30 years go. Steve Phillips, now teaching at Brooklyn College, ran a district that served thousands of NYC’s most needy kids in small, personalized and relatively successful schools. He operated a "system" of schools for twenty years that was threatened by each new Chancellor, and disappeared finally under Bloomberg/Klein. With it NYC’s school history was rewritten. Phillips' "domain" eventually included many small schools that weren't designed just for dropouts—like CPESS, Vanguard, Landmark, International etc. By the time his work was dismantled, Phillips had created a system that was larger than Boston’s. How sad that this new recruit to NYC’s schools thinks his school has no history to draw upon.

Ditto for bloggers.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Welcome to the Darkness

Garrett Epps

Considering that one of the three cases dismissed the right of high school students to ridicule the solemnities of their elders, the cases might be scored as Ferris Bueller 0, Ben Stein 3. The cases also provide an example of how the new justices, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, operate. Both proclaimed themselves respectful of precedent; and unlike Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, they did not go in for the wholesale overruling of precedents they dislike. Instead, in all three cases, they have chosen to narrowly interpret previous cases, until in the end there is almost nothing left of them. Think of it as a soothing way of diminishing liberal precedent, slice by tiny slice. But the direction is clear, and we should not be confused about where this court is taking us. "Reason by degrees submits to absurdity," Samuel Johnson once wrote, "as the eye is in time accommodated to darkness."

Social Networks: Good for Networking Socially

One likes to leave NECC with a nice tidy theme resonating in one's mind. This impulse isn't quite healthy, as it reinforces the "one damn thing after another" nature of ed-tech, and it inherently excludes trends like free software, which grow steadily over decades.

Nonetheless, I dub this the Social Networking NECC. Of course, conferences are inherently about social networking. That's why they exist, basically. Blogging is bigger this year, but not dramatically so (as will be the case every year for the foreseeable future), and is certainly "social software" (as is, arguably, email, IM, etc.). But Facebook, the ning's, WOW2, Worldbridges, etc. and other more explicitly social networks have become prominent in the past year. Twitter's popularity at NECC is a further extension of the trend. It seems more clear than ever that most people prefer to speak to a smaller group of friends than to the entire internet.

People were and are excited by the physical manifestation of a cohesive, globally distributed social network at NECC, but I feel less certain then ever about what the point is beyond networking, or for that matter, meta-networking (a network about networking). I felt like some of the conversations I had in bars after NECC were indistinguishable from conversations I would have had fifteen years ago in a bar after an indie rock show. The names have changed but it is just another "scene." And not to say I didn't enjoy the gossip now and then.

One reason I'm feeling like things are a bit vacuous is that "the conversation" feels much more separated from the rest of the world than it needs to be. That is, there is a larger ongoing institutional and academic discussion of (and much action on) education reform, much of which is just as radical, if not moreso, than the "School 2.0" etc., discussions. When I talked to Greg DeKoenigsberg and Steve Hargadon and Mike Huffman about free software at NECC, we were doing a little person to person networking, a little discussion of a grassroots movement, a little sharing and strategizing about how Red Hat, CoSN, IBM and the state of Indiana are playing things, and still more discussion of how these fit together. There was news. Hopefully, in the future we'll have social networks around school reform which are more deeply engaged in the national discourse on and process of school reform, and more news on that side as well.

How's That "Informally Posting Preliminary Thoughts About Ongoing Research On Your Blog" Thing Working Out?

Unfortunately, not so well.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


I find it strange that a Sun, with free and open source software central to its corporate strategy, would not want an educational software project that they fund to be free and open source as well. Perhaps they will pay more attention in the future.

Did You Know?

The National Review crowd are watching a slightly different version:

The table nods solemnly before marching onward to Topic A: the billion-strong swarm of Muslims who are poised to take over the world. The idea that Europe is being "taken over" is the unifying theme of this cruise. Some people go on singles' cruises, some on ballroom-dancing cruises. This is the Muslims Are Coming cruise. Everyone thinks it. Everyone knows it. And the man most responsible for this insight is sitting only a few tables down: Mark Steyn. He is wearing sunglasses on top of his head and a bright shirt. Steyn's thesis in his new book, America Alone, is simple: The "European races"--i.e., white people--"are too self-absorbed to breed," but the Muslims are multiplying quickly. The inevitable result will be "large-scale evacuation operations circa 2015" as Europe is ceded to Al Qaeda and "Greater France remorselessly evolve[s] into Greater Bosnia." He offers a light smearing of dubious demographic figures--he needs to turn 20 million European Muslims into more than 150 million in nine years, which is a lot of humping--to "prove" his case.

Computers More Important Than Cell Phones to Every Demographic


Fact Check


...His school principal, Deborah Morse, disagreed. She ran across the street, tore down the banner and suspended Frederick from school. The infraction? Holding up a banner at a non-school event not held on school property or during the school day. Frederick sued, claiming that his civil rights had been violated and won all the way up through the appeals process until today. (emphasis added)


The event in question occurred during normal school hours and was sanctioned by [Principal] Morse as an approved social event at which the district’s student-conduct rules expressly applied. Teachers and administrators were among the students and were charged with supervising them. Frederick stood among other students across the street from the school and directed his banner toward the school, making it plainly visible to most students. Under these circumstances, Frederick cannot claim he was not at school.

I don't, of course, agree with this decision, but it would be nice to keep the facts straight.

Tom Friedman: Human Airport Nonfiction Table

Ezra Klein:

It's of course inevitable that Tom Friedman would fall solidly under the spell of a book entitled "How." The man is a human airport nonfiction table -- he can't help himself. Give him a single-word title with an overeager thesis and he's set.


Look: I am young people. I do Google folks. And you know what? There's not much there. Most people don't even come up. And certainly most screw-ups aren't in online existence. If you start a blog under your name, or populate your MySpace profile with keg stands, you'll be creating a record you may not be interested in. But the pictures of you as an acrobatic alcoholic can be taken down when you apply for jobs -- nothing permanent about that fingerprint -- and surprisingly few folks start blogs under their own name. The record just isn't that substantial. And it's certainly less substantial than it was a few generations ago, when you'd probably be applying for jobs in the city you grew up in, where there was a living, communal memory of the time you fell off the barn drunk. And naked. Now that you're applying three states away, nobody remembers that. Not even Google. Possibly not even you.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

My Phantom Talk

Somehow my talk last year on SchoolTool at the open source lab at NECC ended up in this year's lab brochure (not anywhere else). I'm leaving Atlanta this evening, so the talk listed on the brochure for 11:30 Wednesday won't be happening.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Fifth Branch of Government

Dick Cheney is his sock puppet.

Hooking Up at NECC

It is no coincidence that my one year prepaid phone card died right before I left for NECC. I can get through long stretches without needing it, especially since a lot of my travel tends to be in rural areas with poor cell coverage (for ball games) and overseas. One time I do need it to work is at NECC, although I have trouble remembering to recharge it or even carry it with me. Similarly, this is one time Twitter seems useful, so now I'm

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Open Source's Death Greatly Exaggerated

It is always interesting to see how many ways a smugly dismissive post about free and open source software can be wrong at the same time. George Siemens writes:

Web 2.0 is killing open source. We too often equate free tools with open tools. Not the case at all. Google offers great software tools to make money and capture market share. Not because they adhere to a higher ideal of a better world. The ideals of open source software (and related concerns, including content) are usurped by ease of software use (hmm, install squirrelmail or use Gmail? Set up WordPress or use Blogger?

First off, as is usual in this genre of posts, Siemens does not recognize or acknowledge the meaning of the word "open source," which was coined for the express purpose of describing a process or methodology that does NOT "adhere to a higher ideal of a better world." The idealistic movement is Free Software. This is like not knowing the difference between someone who does not eat meat to keep his cholesterol down and someone who does not eat meat for religious reasons. It is like writing a post about "connectivism" but calling it "constructivism" or "constructionism."

Of course, neither open source or free software are being killed. They are both healthier than ever. There is simply no evidence to the contrary.

And of course, "Web 2.0" is overwhelmingly built on free software: Linux, Apache, Ruby, Rails, Java, Python, MySQL, etc., etc., etc., so any kind of either/or analysis is fundamentally flawed. But you already know that, don't you?

Fear of WordPress

I agree with this assessment:

All of this leads to one simple conclusion: if you want install to WordPress on a public-facing web server, don't. And if you insist on installing it, then you need to watch the trac like a hawk and be ready to patch faulty files as soon as flaws are discovered, because the WordPress team simply doesn't take security seriously. Even then you won't be safe because there will always be undiscovered flaws and you never know when someone might come knocking. I am not the only one who thinks this.

The ReDistricting Game: As Closed and Proprietary as a Diebold Voting Machine

A catchier title for this post.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Digby Revealed!

She(!) speaks! (video) (text)

The ReDistricting Game: Why is this Not Open Source?

The ReDistricting Game looks like a nice Flash game to teach people about an important civic issue, sponsored by the Annenberg Center for Communications at USC. I don't understand why they have not released the code under an open source license. This is not a commercial project, so losing licensing income wouldn't seem to be an issue. There are good reasons to open source the code to this educational project:

  • I should be able to verify that the way the code is implemented accurately reflects the law and is not somehow slanted. This is particularly important in a game that addresses an explicitly political issue.
  • If a teacher wants to integrate this into their curriculum, they should have some assurance that it will be available and up to date for a long period of time. Five years. Ten years. Right now, the Flash application could be taken off the Annenberg web site at any time, and there is no guarantee that it will be kept up to date if the relevant laws change. If the code was open source, it could always be installed on a different server if the original version was taken offline, and an open source community could keep the code up to date, even if the original authors had moved on or been hit by busses.
  • I might want to translate this application, so I can use it with a citizenship class for recent immigrants (or some other reason).
  • I might want to serve the application on my intranet to cut down on bandwidth consumption in my school and improve performance.
  • I might want to modify the application to use data from my neighborhood and city.
  • I might want to fix bugs in the application.
  • I might want to improve or extend the application.
  • I might want to redistribute the application on a CD so it can be used in a place without a reliable internet connection.

There are two things I conclude when seeing a non-commercial non-free application like this

  • The Annenberg Center does not take me (i.e., the user) or my freedom seriously.
  • The Annenberg Center does not take this application or their investment in it seriously, because they have not taken basic steps to ensure that it will be as widely used as possible for as long a period of time as possible. This is a toy. It is an experiment. They are not in this for the long haul. They do not believe their own hype, and neither do I.

Monday, June 18, 2007

This Is How You Structure a K-7 Curriculum

From Deborah Meier, natch:

From 5-year-olds to 13-year-olds everyone studies the same subject matter at the same time. (A few years ago the staff added a short "spring fling"—to enable teachers to spend a month on a topic of their own classes' special interest, as well a Friday K-8th grade elective program that functions outside the set course of study.) The year is divided into trimesters; every winter it's one of four Ancient Civilizations; in the fall and then spring everyone studies a common scientific theme and an American history theme. These themes repeat every four years—so that each child studies the same "topic" in K-3, and again in 4-7. We "do" American politics each presidential election year, and we rotate between the natural and physical sciences. The other three American studies themes include the African-American experience, the Peopling of the Americas, and How We Make a Living. In addition we teach math and literacy both separately and as part of our thematic studies. All but the 8th grade are multi-age (K-1, 2-3, 4-5, 6-7), and every student (with the help of his or her own faculty adviser) must complete six portfolios (bodies of work) to the satisfaction of their graduation committee before walking across that stage in mid-June.

Saturday, June 16, 2007



One of the big problems for Republicans in this is that their lizard brain base thinks that the Latino population is even more stupid than they are, and that's a very big mistake. Politics are mother's milk in Latin culture --- they pay attention.

Friday, June 15, 2007

One - Two Punch


You seem to be tossing about a number of theories. However, a lack of precision and clarity makes these theories unverifiable.

Responding to challenges to your theories with “Being deep is not where I want to go with this. I probably don’t have the capacity “ does little to advance your arguments. This is especially worrisome since you are in a privileged position to influence thousands of educators.


in this thread people have challenged your depth of understanding and you have responded by just repeating yourself

to increase my understanding of developments of literacy then I would study someone who has actually looked deeply into literacy, eg James Gee

This scrutiny is long overdue.

What We Need Is Some Uniform Way to Identify a Resource...

Stephen is right that from the point of view of web architecture, giving each session at NECC an opaque tag (e.g., n07s643) is completely fucked:

The way it should have been done in the first place: each event has an associated URL. Blog posts, etc., can link to (or 'refer to') that URL. In the metadata (ie., the RSS) for an event URL (which now has the same status as a blog post, right?) you can add some event data ('start','finish','location') and indicate event structure ('parent').

Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like an SOB

Michael Paul Goldenberg has been kicking ass and taking names all week over at the Rational Mathematics Education blog.

Good times!

The Skype Catch-22

Miguel is getting wound up about schools banning Skype. I'd really prefer that schools allowed its use, but it is important to understand the central issue here:

People like Skype because it works almost anywhere.

Skype works almost anywhere because it aggressively punches holes through whatever firewall is in its way.

The security professionals whose job it is to create and maintain those firewalls look darkly at this practice.

The underlying problems are that the large majority of schools use an operating system with a long and painful history of insecurity, and that a good chunk of the computers on the internet are compromised computers running some version of that same operating system, spewing out all sorts of attacks against their peers.

With current technology, it is hard to make a definitive argument against the security guys.

We need better technology.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

You know, Baudrillard?

David Thornburg comments to David Warlick:

So, without addressing what “information” means to you, I am at a loss. This word meant one thing to McLuhan, another to Jean Baudrillard, and something else to Gilles Deleuze. Well, you know what I mean.

Having read David Warlick for a few years now, I'm pretty sure he doesn't.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Feds Brace for Anti-NCLB Protests at NECC

I wish.

What are the Big Problems in Ed-Tech?

NECC is an occasion to take stock every year. These are the bottlenecks I see in ed-tech, or at least the part of ed-tech that I'm interested in (this probably isn't news):

  • Utter chaos around privacy, safety and liability. The "practical" advice being promoted seems out of sync with empirical evidence, but much worse, there just doesn't seem to be any doctrine to guide decision making. I have absolutely no clue how we work our way out of this mess, because ultimately, the problems are driven by anxious parents, who aren't exactly rational actors.
  • Out of control web filtering. Again, what's the doctrine? There seem to be no professional guidelines. We've got a situation akin to letting the clerks in the purchasing department decide whether or not the books ordered by teachers and librarians are acceptable. This one at least could be addressed by some of our professional organizations, if they're willing to show some spine and dive into this mess.
  • The economic model of ed-tech. How is this market even supposed to work? Just look at something like games in education. Explain to me how this works economically? Really. It is 2007 and every teacher doesn't have a school-supplied laptop. WTF? We need fewer people reading management gurus and more figuring out ways to make the accounting work.

Everything else we talk about at NECC doesn't matter much until we solve these.

My NECC Plans

I don't really have any, other than arriving in Atlanta on the 23rd and leaving on the 26th, hanging out with Lauer and the the Portland ed-tech mafia for a while, needling Will at some point and hanging out at the open source pavillion, or whatever it is called this year.

So if you want to grab a coffee or a beer, leave a comment. My schedule is open.

Democrats Sell Out Youth

James Wagoner:

Today (June 7), the House Democrats will waltz into the mark-up of the Labor HHS Subcommittee and proudly present a bill that puts their stamp of approval on domestic abstinence-only-until-marriage programs—an ideological boondoggle that threatens the health and well-being of America's youth.

The most appalling aspect of this sell-out is that that the Democrats will not only fully fund the worst of the failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs—they'll give them a $27 million increase—the first in three years!

Shame on Congressman David Obey for brokering this "deal;" shame on Congresswoman Nita Lowey for agreeing to it; and shame on those other Democrats on the Appropriations Committee who have already promised not to offer any amendment that would cut funding for abstinence-only programs and thus "upset" the deal.


So you have an obscenely expensive program that the data shows doesn't work, that Democrats don't want and that actually hurts kids. The only people it benefits are a bunch of right wing extremist scam artists who would rather put ice picks in their eyes than support a Democrat --- and the Republican party, who continue to receive plenty of largesse in return. Yet the Democratic congress has agreed to fund it.

This is just disgraceful on so many levels.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

I'd Pay To See This

As a native of central Pennsylvania, vintage base ball player and fan of Gangs of New York, this passage from Tom Melville's Early Baseball and the Rise of the National League piques my imagination:

There were certainly many objectionable features with baseball's intensifying focus upon all-out achievement, with "petty jealousies, unmanly criticism and childish bickering" appearing in Philadelphia baseball by 1862. The Athletics themselves, against Altoona, a year later, were running into on-field behavior more "fitted for the 'pug uglies' of Baltimore or the 'dead rabbits' of New York (Brooklyn Clipper)."


Saturday, June 09, 2007

Shared Spaces in Croquet

Given Mark's apparent endorsement and my general Squeak explorations lately, I decided to take a little time for my semi-annual "what can I get Croquet to do now" sessions. Generally, the results have been "not too damn much," although mostly because of OpenGL problems and general lack of documentation for getting it running on Ubuntu. With these tips, I got the 1.0 SDK running properly and managed to open up multiple instances where three avatars are sharing the same world. In this world, everyone happens to be a white rabbit. Of course the idea isn't to have three instances running on one computer, but to do the same thing over the network from multiple computers, which presumably also works. What makes this different than, say, Second Life, is that there is no server and the code is open source (among other things).

So, while I can't do anything useful yet, and Croquet is still quite buggy... progress!

Friday, June 08, 2007

Beyond Defending Wikipedia

I second the tone and content of Doug Johnson's Defending Wikipedia - its our job post, but I've got a few things to add.

First, I'd like to understand how librarians failed to get control of school and district web filters when they arrived five to 10 years ago. This was a major strategic disaster for everyone involved, and both our schools and the profession of "school librarian" may simply never recover.

If we are going to recover some semblance of freedom and sanity in web filtering, librarians need to go on the offensive. They need to choose their ground carefully, and attack where they are strongest and the brainless blockers are weakest. Wikipedia is not that point. We need to push back where our Constitutional protections are strongest: political speech. Right now, I know that the Providence School Department systematically blocks political blogs. I'm sure that is not the only district doing that. We need a campaign to show we can successfully push back in a nationwide, coordinated fashion. Once that happens, we can think more about what is reasonable on the margins, like the "Dirty Sanchez" entry in Wikipedia.

Sugar at NECC 2008

I'm thinking I should just make a proposal for NECC 2008 like "Using OLPC Sugar in the Writing Classroom," whether or not I have any idea of how to do so in October of 2007 (roughly when submissions will be due). Because otherwise, it is easy to imagine that it will be June of 2009 before anyone would possibly make a regular NECC presentation on using Sugar, which seems like an awfully long time from now.

Using The Sugar Journal

The sugar-jhbuild version of Sugar has built and updated consistently for me (on Feisty) all week, so I've gotten to spend a little more time kicking the tires and watching development in real time (as opposed to just trying to get the build scripts to work). Not that there is a high probability that I'm both wrong on details about the current state of development and that things will certainly change vastly between now and when this is deployed. But I think I've got the general idea right, and you'll probably end up better informed than you started.

The "Journal" activity (pictured above) now does enough to get a general sense of how it will work. "Journal" doesn't refer to writing. The journal is the main way students will interact with files, replacing the traditional routine of saving files in a hierarchical filesystem. It is structured like a chronological log.

The lines that say "Test" above are versions of an Abiword document. Every time I close the Write activity, it saves a new version of what I'm working on. If I want to resume working on the most recent version, I select the last one in the journal. If I want to go back to an earlier one, I can scroll up. I can also share any of these versions with my peers in various ways. I would note that, while it is almost certainly not a design goal of the development team, this could be nice for plagiarism detection, since you could see whether or not the text evolved organically or just appeared in large, perfect(ish) chunks. Also, note that turning in work in this system does not require uploading and downloading from a server. It can be shared directly over wireless.

The second-to-last item on the list is a web browsing session. When you start up your browser you can give a name to your session. It is not exactly clear how this works, because at the moment my browser activity is crashing whenever you try to navigate to a new page, but I think I get the idea. You teach kids to label what they are doing, e.g. "dinosaurs", so they can easily stop and pick up a line of research, and they can come in the next morning and share the page or sequences of pages easily with their peers.

The list of things shown in the journal can be filtered in various ways so it doesn't get too overwhelming. Also, there will be heuristics for backing up the journal to the school server and weeding out old revisions when you start running out of space. Merging different versions would seem to be an issue for future development, too. Luckily this is a pretty well understood problem for programmers.

Ubuntu Summits on Croquet?

On Mark in The Economist

One area where (Mark Shuttleworth) sees this happening is in real-time collaboration. E-mail is widely used as a collaborative tool, but has severe limitations. When a team, such as a group of software developers, wants to work together on something in real time, something more elaborate is needed. Mr Shuttleworth points to an open-source platform called Croquet, an immersive environment that is similar in many ways to Second Life, a popular online virtual world. “You can see your collaborators' avatars looking at a spreadsheet in a virtual room,” he says. “People change things in different colours—newer stuff glows. We've started to use this for planning and building Ubuntu.”

Canonical, which is based in London where Mr Shuttleworth now lives, cannot afford to pay for all its programmers to come to planning meetings for new versions of the software, which are held every six months. Rather than demote some participants to a “second class” of virtual participation, he would prefer to have everyone participate virtually.

I can't find anything that suggests that this is happening in the present tense, such as, say, an Ubuntu package for Croquet. I think this is more a wishlist item than a current reality. Mixing up the two is the kind of thing that happens when you discuss technology with reporters.

Nonetheless, interesting.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Web 2.0 Defined!

Ian Bicking:

Maybe Web 2.0 should just be "good ideas that aren't new, but this time they might actually work".

Second Life Avatars Per Server?

Will points to this back of the envelope calculation of the amount of electricity a Second Life avatar consumes, which is interesting in itself, but look at this:

If there are on average between 10,000 and 15,000 avatars "living" in Second Life at any point, that means the world has a population of about 12,500. Supporting those 12,500 avatars requires 4,000 servers as well as the 12,500 PCs the avatars' physical alter egos are using.

Um... so on average each server supports, say, 3-5 users? This kind of puts the promise to open source Second Life in another light, particularly for K-12. What kind of horsepower would it take to run a Second Life node that would allow, say, 50 students to work in at the same time? If it is more than one beefy new server, I don't see it happening.

A Map of the Squeak-o-sphere

I spent much of the day working on a diagram for my FOSSED keynote. I had already decided that I'd use a couple concept maps rather than a bunch of slides. The map came out a lot more Squeak-centric than I was originally envisioning. It is looking like my "FOSSED: Beyond the Grassroots" is going to center on Squeak as an extended case study. Anyhow, here's a jpg of what I've got right now. The problem is that now, I really should implement this in Squeak...

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Education Blogs

When I think of education blogs, I think of, especially now that James is working on it full time. That is all.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Hack Attacks

There is a long comment thread on mezzoblue discussing what seems to be a pattern of website hacking. There doesn't seem to be any consensus on what's causing the problem. Maybe WordPress, maybe other bad PHP code, maybe the host systems being hacked. All I know is, I don't trust PHP apps, and at this point, I don't run public servers without a really good reason. The Moodle code must be pretty well written and audited, because that's one important PHP app I don't hear problems about.

Later... Aha. The problem was Dreamhost getting hacked.

Sloppy Reading

Sherman Dorn:

The temptations vary by age, I think: those 20-25 are tempted to interpret readings through an "it fits with my preconceptions or doesn't" filter, while older students are more tempted to conflate their preexisting notions and something they read in class. When I read, I tend to imagine a dialog with the text. I still don't know how to make sure students have a similar orientation.

Ed-tech pundits succumbing to the second temptation tends to inspire posts here.

Later... I'm reminded that we can make the same mistake while "reading" things other than books...

A Great K-12 Free Software Case Study

Kamloops school district gets an education in free software:

The Kamloops/Thompson School District in British Columbia, Canada, is a free software success story. Gregg Ferrie, manager of information technology for the district, believes its infrastructure may be "the largest Linux on-the-desktop implementation in Western Canada" in public education. According to Ferrie, hardly a week goes by without another of British Columbia's more than 60 school districts consulting Kamloops. Currently, five other districts are considering or planning to implement the Kamloops district's custom-built thin client solution, and the department of education at the University of British Columbia is also investigating the possibility.

Kamloops' success did not come overnight. It represents a culmination of almost a decade of effort that includes resistance from both instructors and unionized technical staff. Ferrie's account of how he and his small team of system analysts managed to introduce free software to the district provides a case study of the challenges that others might face in making similar efforts...

However, resistance among educators crumbled with the emergence of an advocate of the new system. In 2005, Dean Coder, a principal from the Prince George district with whom Ferrie had corresponded, transferred to the Kamloops district because he wanted to become involved in its transition to free software. Assigned to Barriere secondary school, Coder decided to convert all 110 computers at the school over to the thin client system. Systems analyst Dean Montgomery began work on a second-generation system, using state-of-the-art equipment.

By this point, applications such as and Scribus had evolved to the point that teachers were "awestruck" by the new pilot system. However, what really convinced teachers that the change was worthwhile, Ferrie says, was Coder's advocacy. "He put his own reputation on the line and said to the staff, 'I'm going to be there for you.'" A young principal at the district's largest school soon requested the new system, and several others quickly followed. Now, Ferrie says, "we're struggling to implement it at the rest of our secondaries." In the end, an advocate who was both an educator and an administrator, he maintains, made all the difference in getting the system accepted....

However, perhaps the greatest benefit of switching to free software is that the reliability of the new system frees up technical staff to do more than routine support. Where the district once paid 10 technicians to keep the district's computers running, many of those can now be freed for other duties. Since implementing the second-generation system at Barriere Secondary, the district has been able to create a new help desk position to work directly with teachers so that they can make better use of applications. Recently, too, the district has improved the new position of technology coordinator to offer teachers hardware support.

That last one frequently comes up when you talk to people who have implemented a transition to Linux. Going from spending one's time putting out technical fires to supporting learning. It doesn't show up in the TCO calculations, and it seems so audacious it is hard to assert in your advocacy. But it definitely happens.

Welcome My Better Half, Madame Defarge

As part of her "Web 2.0" class, my lovely wife has started her blog. Her opening post is on right-wing attacks on the student-written and performed play directed by her mother last weekend:

It seems some of the residents of my hometown, Farmington, Maine are having a little bit of trouble discerning the facts surrounding the production of "Hurricane of Change," a joint collaboration of Foothills Arts Center and the Mt. Blue Middle School music department, directed by Anne Geller. The show about global warming and related topics was researched and written by seventh and eighth graders at the middle school as part of their after-school program funded by a 21st century grant. Students brainstormed topics and discussed their own experiences with environmental changes in the Farmington area, did research on global warming, then developed a script, wrote the songs, and created the giant puppets that were part of the production.

I was appalled by the reporting of the event by the Lewiston Daily Sun. Ann Bryant inaccurately portrayed the show as one on which students did "some work," and then proceeded to cover only one side of the controversy--the cranks who feel the traditional middle school spring concert was hijacked by left wing liberals.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Aurora Base Ball Club


Using my sophisticated research method of searching for "Providence Baseball" occasionally on eBay, I found this 1857 newspaper, the May 9th copy of the New York based Porter's Spirit of the Times, which contains a short item on a new club:

BASE BALL AT PROVIDENCE -- We have received a notification of the formation of the Aurora Base Ball Club at this place, and in accordance with their name, the members meet from 5 to 7 o'clock in the morning. They have been out seven times since March, notwithstanding the pluvious state of the atmospheric phenomenon this season. Their President is Levi Starbuck, and Jas. V. Taylor Secretary and Treasurer. We hop they will have finer prospects to greet the blue-eyed goddess of the morn for the future.

First off, it it interesting that Timothy Hughes Rare and Early Newspapers chose to list this sixteen page newspaper based on a one-inch entry buried in the middle of it. Clearly, they know their market and a thing or two about baseball history.

This team is not generally known; my buddy Rick Stattler, who has extensively researched 19th century base ball in Providence for a decade, had never heard of the Aurora Club, until he independently noticed the listing on eBay. On the other hand, since this paper is a key primary source for early base ball, surely other historians had seen it.

What's really intriguing about this item is the possibility that the Aurora were playing the "New York Game," the direct precursor to modern ball, rather than the competing "Massachusetts Game" which was an evolutionary dead end. Peter Morris writes in A Game of Inches, on the first "Mass-circulated Rules" for baseball:

The Knickerbockers' rules appeared on December 6, 1856, in a publication called Porter's Spirit of the Times. This was an important step for a country that was still making the transition from oral communication to print. It enabled baseball to spread rapidly and also helped the game make a valuable ally in the burgeoning American newspaper industry. Tom Melville has concluded that "baseball was the first game Americans learned primarily from print," noting that town ball was "handed down from generation to generation orally" but that baseball was learned by reading "printed regulations."

So this suggests a storyline where the Aurora's founders read the New York Knickerbocker rules in Porter's, decide to take it up, and then send a letter to the paper saying, in effect, "we're trying out those rules you published." It is unlikely that there is any more evidence of the existence of the Auroras. I wouldn't be surprised if they never found another team to play against. Intra-club games were more common at that point; the Knickerbockers rarely played other clubs, for example.

So one way to build an indirect argument that the Auroras were playing the New York Game would be to show that Porter's does not write about Massachusetts Game teams, or specifies the difference when they do. Rick is an archivist at Harvard, so he has access to more copies of the paper and is going to look into it further. I did note that in a June 27, 1857 copy of Porter's they discuss the formation of the Tri-Mountain Club of Boston, which is generally regarded as the first New York Game team in New England. The paper does not, however, mention any of the Massachusetts Game teams in Boston, suggesting they're only interested in the New York Game. If the Auroras were playing the New York Game, they would predate the Tri-Mountain Club by two months, adding another little bragging point to Providence's baseball history.

For My Faithful Readers

Michael Meeks:

During my gap year I became a Christian, and at that point I realised my computer was riddled with non-free software, most of it stolen. So we had a big fight about this, me and God, and the voice of conscience was quite clear that this was not what should go on. So eventually, I ditched it to run Linux instead, which at the time was not good news. The hardware support, and anything graphical or visual, was just hopeless.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Cell Phones or Laptops; Private or Public Networks?

When we talk about educational uses for cell phones in schools, aren't we just compensating for the inadequacy of a school's IT resources? To be sure, the entire school IT industry has in the aggregate been a profound failure in very concrete ways. Indiana isn't the only state that has found itself doing the equivalent of spending a billion dollars to give each kid a half-hour a week in front of a computer in school, to paraphrase Mike Huffman's pitch. In 2007 if a student needs to take a photo in class for a project and upload it to the web, he or she shouldn't need to pull out a personal cell phone. The school should provide these resources. It ought to be basic stuff by this point.

"Given the failure of school IT market, how do we move forward?" is an essential question that underlies the discourse of educational technology in the US, but is rarely if ever stated or understood. Saying "it is not about the technology" is a cop out, when the technology has been a failure. Spending our way out of this mess, pouring more money into the same approaches, seems unlikely to those of us facing large budget deficits on the local, state and federal levels. To me, embracing cell phone usage represents capitulation. We will simply give up on providing publicly funded computing resources attached to our (already well built out) publicly funded network, and let each student use a personal device to connect through a proprietary network.

You probably already know by now that the way forward I advocate is robust, inexpensive hardware (be it laptops or thin clients) and free software written and supported by a global network of governments, academia, hackers and commercial vendors. At this particular historical moment, these elements are coming together, but whether they will be successful in the market still remains to be seen. Certainly, every little bit of advocacy helps.

So to me, promoting cell phone use in schools is, with apologies to Scott McLeod, dangerously irrelevant. If cell phone usage was embraced by schools, what would we gain? Students working on a hodge-podge of closed, proprietary, mostly incompatible platforms, noted as a class for their dreadful usability, usually with incomplete and/or inconsistent wireless reception throughout the building, provided by notoriously bad actors, known not for innovating but for keeping the US far behind other countries. Plus the whole idea of putting students in a situation where they may be paying to access information through a private network while in a public school is distasteful.

Now, it may be the case that we can have it all, and advocating for private technology use won't distract or detract from the goal of free, public resources for all students, but I worry.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Mom! They Took My Cell Phone!

My comment over at Will's

First off, this is an article in the Times about kids, so let's consider the class angle. By all appearances, this story is about privileged white students and parents having a fit over being subjected to something (metal detectors) that many, many poor students in urban schools are subjected to every day. Not to say I agree with the policy, but this is only news when it is done to white kids.

Concerning cell phones in schools in general, I think there is a sensible center, but I'm not sure you've got a grasp on it. It seems to me that having cell phones in school is inevitable, but I really can't see having them on or out in class, with some caveats I'll explain below.

If you are pro-cell phones in schools, does that mean you think seventh graders should be able to answer and place phone calls in your class? If 13 year old kids are sending and receiving SMS's when they should be programming their robots, is it OK for the teacher to tell them to knock it off? If they say, "I'm asking someone a question about my robot" does the teacher have to back off?

I think cell phone enthusiasm is the kind of thing which increases the further one gets from an actual core subject area classroom. It is easy to think of vague, gauzy uses for cell phones in the classroom, but it is a lot harder to think of specific ways they would improve the educational process in an English, Math, Science or Social Studies classroom. The contrast with, say, blogging, is stark; once you understand the basics of blogging the ideas pour out. Certainly in a school like The Met, where kids are off campus much of the time, the utility is clear, but not in most schools, even most progressive schools.

The only reason cell phones will be important pedagogically in schools in 2011 is if educational computing, as it has been constructed over the past three decades, finally fails completely. I think that people who are very excited about the possiblities for cell phones see an opportunity for a fresh start, but it is a mirage. The same problems will follow us, on a platform which is inherently less hospitable than the general purpose computer.

Engineering is for Suckers

Matt Yglesias writes down what I've been thinking, so I don't have to:

...I'd love for somebody to write up a model for me in which the optimal level of US investment in math and science education is increased by an increase in the number of Asian scientists and engineers. If anything, it should be the reverse, right? If engineers are scarce, then a country with a lot of engineers will be a country with a lot of relatively well-compensated people. But if the supply of foreign engineers is going to increase at an astounding rate in the near future, then engineering won't be as relatively lucrative as it is today so it makes sense to cut back on our investment in educating engineers.

I suppose this is why Dan Pink trumps Tom Friedman, but the real question is who is going to wipe the baby boomer's asses when they get Alzheimer's, and do you want the person wiping your ass to be in a union or not?

Real World Sugar

Jim Klein and I have been thinking about the same things (via gnuosphere):

What we are forgetting is that critics are bringing their world view with them, which is always jaded by personal/corporate experience. Anyone who has used a modern computer has had trouble with it, and will naturally be prone to assume that the OLPC experience will be no different. Their view of computing is highly structured and institutional, with layers of control coming in to play at every level. At the top there is the software company which exists to provide both software and support to the institution who is purchasing it. Next, there is the institution, who has purchased the software to meet some institutional goal or need and is providing the staff to support the software, as well as to seek support from the software company. Finally, at some point, the users gain access to the software, which in the end is painfully difficult to use because it was designed to meet the needs of the institution, largely forgetting the needs of the people who are actually using it. The traditional design is hierarchical, top-down, cumbered about by layers of control.

I was thinking this morning that it would be a good idea to do some very short, concrete posts about what collaboration will be like in a classroom with XO laptops running Sugar, if their code meets their vision. For example, let's look at a peer editing session in a writing workshop using XO's:

The kids split up into groups, and decide whose work they'll look at first. That student opens their document and hits a button to share it. The other students look at that student's laptop, note the unique color combination on this laptop cover's XO logo. Hit a key on their keyboard to switch to a view that shows icons for all the XO's on their network, find the icon that matches the author's XO logo, and click on the document icon next to it. A copy of the document is transferred to their computers. As members of the group do this, their icons move into a group around the document, so it is easier for subsequent students to find the document, and the teacher can see that they're roughly on task.

They read the document, make a few marginal notes that are visible to the author, and then do whatever they'd normally do for peer editing.

Now, I guarantee that this is inaccurate in some particulars (although I don't know which ones) compared to how the deployed version will work, but I think it captures the zeitgeist. Isn't this approach a million times more practical than what you're doing now in your classroom?

Gears-Enabled Google Reader Online

My Google Reader just informed me that I could switch into offline mode since I've got Gears installed.

It seemed to work.

One thing I don't know is if a user can install Gears on their locked-down Windows school computer. I suspect not, which would mean schools won't be able to use this until they get Gears on their standard image. Something to think about if you're re-imaging this summer.