Friday, November 30, 2007

The Breadth of "Commercial" Use

Stephen writes:

Hoffman writes, "People working from the first principles of the free software movement or the definition of open source software, like me, will never accept non-commercial licensing as 'free' or 'open,' because it limits the use and redistribution of the work." No it doesn't. They can use and redistribute the work all they want. The one thing they cannot do is block access to it by charging for it.

It is certainly not true that "the one thing" prohibited by a non-commercial license is to "block access to it by charging for it." Or if it is true, that's a much narrower interpretation of "non-commercial" than is generally used. My sense, first of all, is that none of this is really settled case law; secondly, last I checked I wasn't a lawyer anyhow. But non-commercial use would generally constrain my ability to use the resources as part of a business. What if I'm running a for-profit day care center? Or if I'm an education consultant paid by public schools? What if I wanted to use the resources as part of the research to formulate a business plan? What if I'm a consultant with a free web site that advertises my services, could I post the resources at no charge to draw traffic to my site (which is, technically, entirely an advertisement for my commercial services?

Also, what if I want to sell a printed or electronic version of the resource which retains the original license, thus allowing further redistribution at no cost, not "blocking access" at all? Or to cite the example from the declaration's FAQ:

For example, is it your goal to forbid a for-profit publisher in a developing country from printing copies of your materials and distributing them there?

In case it is not clear, my interpretation, and I think the common interpretation of "non-commercial" disallows all of the above, so there is far more than one thing prohibited by those licenses.

Irreconcilable Differences Over the Definition of "Open"

Following up a little more on Stephen's criticism of The Capetown Declaration. This foundational statement in the declaration is completely consistent with the founding principles of the free software movement and open source software licensing:

(The open education movement) is built on the belief that everyone should have the freedom to use, customize, improve and redistribute educational resources without constraint (emphasis added).

Compare to the Free Software Definition:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Stephen's perspective on this is:

Third, the document advocates a form of 'open' that explicitly encourages the closing and blocking of access to education through the commercialization of these resources. The meaning of the catchphrase about "differences among licensing schemes for open resources creat(ing) confusion and incompatibility" is made explicit in the FAQ: "we believe that open education and open educational resources are very much compatible with the business of commercial publishing."

People working from the first principles of the free software movement or the definition of open source software, like me, will never accept non-commercial licensing as "free" or "open," because it limits the use and redistribution of the work. Free use, customization, improvement and redistribution are completely non-negotiable.

Now, this doesn't mean that Stephen is wrong, but I think he holds out a bit more hope that these points of view can be reconciled than is warranted. This is a schism.

Intentionally "Misaddressed" Fundraising Email?

Well, it got my attention, anyhow:

Tim, I made a few small changes to your email draft -- you'll see them below. Would have sent to the entire list myself, but I could only figure out how to send this test. I know you're concerned about sending another fundraising email, but we're only $40,000 short of hitting our November goal, and that money will help keep us on the air and talking about ending the war in Iraq and the Constitution. And honestly, our supporters online are so terrific and have come through for us every time. Plus, with votes on the war and retroactive immunity coming up, our leadership will help keep the pressure on other presidentials to keep their word. Ask people to give at this link so we can track the goal publicly. Thanks, Sheryl Cohen Campaign Manager, Chris Dodd for President

Dude, I Need an Intern!

I mean, Paul Lukas not only has an intern on Uni Watch, he had, you know, a whole selection process, he has rejected, wannabe interns:

Back when I invited people to apply for the Uni Watch intern’s position, one of the finalists was David Sonny. Although he didn’t make the final cut, he had already set up an interview with Bengals equipment manager Rob Recker...

Clearly I don't know how to play this blogging game. I guess it doesn't help that Paul's blog is much more entertaining and interesting than mine.

Realistically though, Will needs an intern.

Dangerously Innumerate

Scott McLeod spews some jibber-jabber:

However, some states seem to be more GDP-efficient than others. For example, Connecticut is ranked 29th in overall population and 23rd in overall GDP, but is the 4th-ranked state when it comes to GDP per capita (column G). In contrast, Alabama is ranked 23rd in overall population and 25th in overall GDP, but is the 45th-ranked state in terms of GDP per capita. Connecticut’s GDP over/under (column H) is +19 (23 minus 4). Alabama’s is -20 (25 minus 45). Connecticut appears to be a GDP overachiever, while Alabama seems to be an underachiever. Dollar for dollar, person for person, Connecticuters are contributing more to the overall national economy than Alabamans.

Huh? If you want to know how "efficient" a state's economy is, in the gross terms we're dealing with here, you can just look at the per capita number. All this subtracting one rank from the other is completely meaningless.

What's even more embarrassing is Ewan McIntosh and Doug Johnson chiming in to praise it.

Also, the states that have the highest per capita GSP is because they've either got a big financial sector or lots of extractive industries. Does banking require 21st century skills? I know mining doesn't.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

My Research Indicates this is True

At least for now:

...the only way to get a spare battery is to buy another Eee.

Shorter Stephen Downes

I do not believe in a distinction between "educational resources" and everything else, therefore I do not support your declaration on "open educational resources."

The Argument for the Professional Use of Social Software by Teachers is This Simple

Pgh. Post-Gazette:

All across the nation, school districts are under pressure to raise the quality of their teachers by training them better or monitoring them more closely.

They might be better off just giving them a chance to talk to each other, says Carrie Leana, the Gordon H. Love professor of organizations and management at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business.

In an award-winning study of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, Dr. Leana found that in the schools where teachers talked to each other the most about their jobs, and where the principals did the best job of staying in touch with the community, students had noticeably higher reading and math test scores.

Even more significant was the discovery that these communication networks had a much bigger impact on test scores than the experience or credentials of the staff did.

Given the time constraints teachers work under, augmenting face to face interactions with online modes, making it easier for them to share student work and data, publish the results of their collaborations, etc. is a no brainer. The costs of setting up the services are minimal, the techonology is easy to use. Teachers just need access.

It doesn't need to be any more complicated than that.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Thoughts Today...

... I'm pretty sure kids were never taught to use fountain pens outside a business class, but I might be wrong ... also, the problem with reading business/marketing blogs: the context is "not only are the wealthy like us, they are us" ... we need to hold more firmly to the idea that that the reason teachers don't use technology is because we give them lousy technology ... also, we tend to not actually give them technology ... I must admit that I thought Fisch's prediction that Google would get in the energy business, directly at least, was absurd; guess I was wrong about that one ... otoh, not holding my breath for Googlezon ... the falling dollar is helpful for the Euro-denominated SchoolTool budget ... after I saw the EeePC in Indianapolis, I realized I should have grilled them a little about license compliance; I knew Asus would screw it up ... when it came out that they screwed it up, I figured they would fix it; they did, so nothing to see here ... Stephen points out that I was reading yesterday with my David Warlick glasses on: only seeing the parts that reinforce what I already want to say ... took me a few takes to realize Gruber was quoting the real Steve Jobs and not the fake one ... maybe Doug Johnson would understand DRM better if he'd think of it as a filter installed on your own computer ... it is nice that Doug, Miguel and Wes are all posting a Naomi Wolf interview, but ongoing links to posts on liberal blogs would be even better ... you know, it seems like there are a lot of ed-tech bloggers whose actual work with kids and teachers I respect a lot more than their interpretation of their own work.

Facebook Jumps the Shark; Or I do

So the Grays (new page coming) need to recruit some new players, in particular some young ones. The core of the team has now been playing bare-handed overhand base ball for a decade and are starting to taper off for various reasons. Finding new players through our existing social networks has tended to make our rookies the same age (or older) as our veterans, so we need a marketing strategy to reach young men in their early 20's:right now that seems to mean Facebook (or MySpace if we want to go downmarket).

So I made a team account for the Grays, and then a group, because the team functionality seemed a bit limited. But then I discovered there is already a "The Providence Grays" group with 80 members. I was a bit confused by this, since the Facebook concept of a "group" doesn't exactly map to the real world meaning. I mean, I guess the current group is just people who think the historical Providence Grays were cool and an interesting reference to act as a facet of their online persona. I'm not sure how much this represents an actual little social network. Regardless, I've now found quite a few local young males who have some interest in the historical team, so my thought that this would be a good place to get the word out that we're looking for players seems to have been the right one.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Thoughts This Afternoon/Evening...

...isn't it funny how bloggers and ed pundits who have been basing their arguments around changing global economic conditions don't display any broader interest in economics? ... speaking of economics, I'll remind you there is only one question that matters regarding games in education: how to bootstrap the development of open source games, otherwise, nothing is going to happen ... how many of the "10 things holding back tech" are directly or indirectly challenged by the XO? ... Cory's take on Facebook seems spot on ... the Korean kid Will blogs about today seems extremely extrinsically motivated ... I at least understand the "the Asians are going to crush us because they're more hard-working and plentiful" POV, but I don't know why I'd be worried about being out innovated by kids who respond to problems by asking someone else for an answer ... Twitter is like a single IRC chat room where you only see the comments by people you've white-listed ... one fundamental fallacy most people other than Stephen Downes have about history is that in the past, people didn't have a sense of humor ... just about every suggestion I've read about how OLPC could have been done differently would require a much larger OLPC Foundation ... also, Brooks's Law is very relevant to OLPC development right now ... at the moment I've got an eye on an IRC meeting in the #olpc-meeting room, and it is pretty intense, getting down to crunch time ... open source development meetings on IRC would be good for teachers to observe; good ones are quite structured ... it is hard not to think that a lot of the enthusiasm for twitter and Skypcasting is just people (re-)discovering chat ... Do you want more braindumps like this in the future?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Kindle, XO, Blah, Blah

This comment I'm leaving Doug Johnson is long enough to post here. It should sort of make sense on its own, but of course you can read the rest of the thread if you want. I start by fixing a link to a video of Brewster Kahle demoing the XO as an eBook reader:

Sorry, I munged the link above (or something). Try: Regarding readability, CRT's scan and flicker, LCD's don't. The Kindle display is more readable than LCD because it is reflective and high resolution. The XO's display has a reflective mode. A little casual Googling seems to indicate that the Kindle can display 167 dots per inch and the XO can display 200 dpi in monochrome mode (less in color), so in theory the XO display is sharper. I'm not sure those numbers are perfectly authoritative, though. My subjective memory of my experience is that you'd need brighter ambient light to read an XO in reflective mode than a Kindle-style display, but I've not done close to a side by side comparison, so I may be wrong. If the display Kahle is holding in the video above is in reflective mode, then my memory would seem to be faulty, but you can't really tell. As far as battery life goes, when used as an ebook reader with the battery off, the XO is designed to essentially go to sleep with the display on and wake up only when the display needs to be updated, so this should provide very long (all day) life. With the backlight on in ebook mode, it'll obviously take more power, but it will still have longer life than a conventional laptop. The power consumption on the XO should improve (from very good to outstanding) over the first year as the final kinks in hardware drivers get ironed out. On the other hand, you can do vastly more with the XO's display than with Kindle's. As Tim Lauer explains, there is a pause between each refresh of the screen, so not only can you not display video or any animation, as you can on the XO, you can't even draw a conventional mouse cursor! And of course, the Kindle can't display color, but the XO can. If you're ok with buying your own books for use on the Kindle, it is no skin off my nose. However, I think that, as I explain in this post, it is important to differentiate in this conversation between what you think is ok for your personal use and what you think kids should be taught and what good public policy is. I'm sure, for example, textbook publishers would be elated to support the kind of DRM the Kindle uses. It would give them more control than they have now with paper textbooks. I would expect, for example, textbooks to be licensed for a specific period of time, which would stop working when the new edition came out. What we really want to see is publically funded, freely licensed textbooks and curriculum of the sort Bob Tinker outlines here. That would save far more money and produce better results than buying DRM-laden digital texts from the big publishers.

Some "Did You Know 3.0" Math

We're living in sigmoidal times.

Why Are There No "A-List" Ed Tech Bloggers from Maine? (Or, When Did I Start Smoking Crack?)

I certainly don't think it is because anything is wrong with Maine -- they're a leader in K-12 ed tech. You could ask the same question about other innovative states like Indiana, or for that matter, innovative schools like High Tech High or The Met.

It is an important question though if you want to understand the lack of zip in K-12 ed-tech blogging.

Update...Stephen points out that I am on crack. Bob Sprankle is from Maine, as is Cheryl Oakes. Those weren't intentional slights, I just didn't know they were from Maine. Also there is Learning in Maine.

But addressing Stephen's second point, one would think that working in a Maine middle school in particular would give one a lot to blog about, since those schools have had 1-to-1 laptop programs for what, five years?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Web Publishing for People Who Don't Want To Publish on the Web

I could go on and on and on on "Death of a Blogger" and the general ed-tech blogging malaise.

I'm reminded of a panel I attended at SXSW 2004 on "The Future of Blogging," which included danah boyd and I think someone connected to Six Apart. Given the way the conversation went, I thought it should have been titled "Web Publishing for People Who Don't Want To Publish on the Web," because the consensus on the panel was that that was what the mainstream wanted. They were right. Most normal people don't want to publish quasi-permanently to the whole world. They want to write for their friends, perhaps people they have some professional relationship with. These people are happier with social networking sites than straight blogs.

On the other hand, there are people like me who started reading and writing xeroxed fanzines in high school, studied radical magazines of the early 20th century in college, and had to stop reading the newspaper in the late '90's because I didn't want to spend my time writing an indignant letter to the editor every week. I fully expect to keep blogging, pretty much in this format, until I die. It is a natural medium to me. Over the years, I've probably overestimated the extent to which it is natural for others.

So anyway, getting back to Ryan Bretag's post, he buys into the premise that blogging is primarily a conversational medium. If you believe this, you've made a fundamental misunderstanding of blogging. It is a publishing medium. If what you were looking for all along is conversation, you probably will move on to something that suits your needs better.

Beyond that, I could go on at length about why blogging and teaching aren't as good a fit as other topics, like politics or technology. Blogging on those subjects seems quite healthy. But I'll save that.

That Was Quick

So I got off the phone and walked into the parlor as the Pats were kicking off to open tonight's game. I said "Hey, it's still 0-0, I thought the Patriots would be ahead by now." Then I watched two plays, walked upstairs, checked on Vivian, and came back downstairs. Sure enough New England was already up 7-0.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


This experience informs David Warlick's work:

It’s just another of those discoveries that force me to think back to my days as a history teacher, and the incredible scarcity of content that I had available to me, and how that scarcity defined what and how I taught.

However, out of the many, many critques of American schools I've read, I can't recall ever reading that a lack of access to information was a central problem, and to the extent it has been a problem at all, the answer was always straightforward. You can throw money at a library.

This is one reason why David's work always seems slightly off the mark to me.

DRM: What Will We Tell The Children?

I think an argument over whether consenting adults like Stephen and Doug Johnson would use a DRM-laden device like the Kindle can only go so far before it runs out of gas. Ultimately what Doug does with his money is his business. An appeal to consumers as a class to hold out in hopes of getting a better bargain in the future isn't likely to have much effect.

I think it could be more fruitful to reframe this, especially considering that we're all educators here, as a question about what kids should be taught about DRM.

First, however, a brief aside on the scope of the debate. In his response to my comment on his post, Doug wrote:

I guess I don't see DRM and copyleft or open-source as an either/or proposition.

It is important to not mush DRM and licensing together. They are intertwined, but separate issues. Let's stick to DRM for now. I suppose the scope is also important in terms of media. Let's stick to written texts, as opposed to say, video games.

What would (do) you teach your own kids about buying books that they cannot copy, resell, trade, transform or use on multiple devices? I'm going to say "Don't do it, Vivian." It is very likely that ten years later, you won't be able to use the book you're purchasing. Buy the paper. It is a better deal.

Now, what should we teach in school? What should we teach the future 21st Century Citizens? As Mark Pilgrim illuminates, should we be teaching them to buy books on a platform that allows the books to be changed without your permission, or their access to the books they've purchased to be revoked at any time? What are the implications for democracy and political freedom?

A little hypocracy is part of education. Even if we do the wrong thing sometimes personally, cut some corners, it doesn't mean we shouldn't be teaching kids to do the right thing, and to do the right thing for the future of the Republic. That means teaching them to not buy texts via a system like Kindle.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

It was November and It Would Not Get Better Than This

Mark Bernstein on the Patriots:

Watch them now. It's like a flower; tomorrow they'll be gone. But right now, they're historic: you can tell your grandchildren that you saw them.

This theme is also explored on "Cowboys" on DiskothiQ's epochal Football Albums. From the online notes:

My tenuous explanation for its inclusion is that it’s Troy Aikman imploring Michael Irvin to get his shit together, because, after all, when you look at things on a cosmological scale, it’s completely miraculous that any two people could have the opportunity to do anything together, let alone something at which they both excel and do better together than apart.

The difference here is that Randy Moss seems to appreciate how rare and brief and precious the moment is, and he's making the most of it. Interestingly, this is presaged by "Vikings" on the same album:

Imagine Randy Moss in his first week at camp, writing letters home before turning in early, playing his heart out during the day and sleeping like a babe all night, all earnestness, humility and wholesome courage. Randy Moss as directed by Frank Capra. Randy Moss drinking tall, cold glasses of milk. Why is this cynical?

While we're on the subject I'll note that "Chiefs" is one of my all time favorite songs, period. Seriously. Also, while both albums are available online for free from the band, they've "got a lot of fucking Football Albums, you guys, so come on: give it up."

In other mediated football news, Jennifer and I are enjoying working our way through season one of Friday Night Lights on DVD, and I just read the book, the whole time thinking, if I was going to start writing a bunch of crap about "participatory culture" and schools, wouldn't I have to address this stuff? Sports? Cheerleading? Band? I mean the things themselves, not their media representations. They're not really peripheral, and they're certainly participatory.

Running Sugar on Ubuntu Gutsy

OK, I've tried this out, and it works pretty well. To install Sugar, essentially a virtual XO, on Ubuntu Gutsy, do this:

  1. Add (using an terminal/editor or Synaptic) deb gutsy main universe
    deb-src gutsy main universe

    to your /etc/apt/sources.list.
  2. Do sudo apt-get update or the equivalent in Synaptic.
  3. Do sudo apt-get install sugar-emulator sugar-activities.
  4. Enter sugar-emulator in a terminal.

It works pretty well. The window is too big for my small laptop screen, and I'm not sure how to adjust that, but it is fine on my desktop. One notable omission is eToys. There are a number of activities I haven't seen before that are branded by MamaMedia. Not sure what's up with that; I don't really care as long as it is free software. Not sure what activities are going to be on the shipping laptop.

The Recent History of U.S. School Research & Reform in a Nutshell

Deborah Meier:

Some years ago we designed a 5-year "experimental" project in NYC—with $50 million in Annenberg funds, to explore a large-scale experiment with the above in mind. It involved an institute at Columbia headed by Linda Darling-Hamond, Michelle Fine at CUNY and other research backup, about 130 schools with 50,000 students, organized into 15 networks. It gave schools direct access to their full budgets and a great deal of freedom from union, city and state mandates in return for developing new forms of accountability. It managed to get the support of the then-chancellor, mayor, teachers' union and state commissioner. Unfortunately, as we were about to "go", both the chancellor and the commissioner departed and their replacements said "no way."

It's an oddly distorted version of this idea that emerged 10 years later under Bloomberg and Klein. It gutted what we believed was the essence of the plan: that it was voluntary, small scale (the size of the average American city), invited networks to develop self-designed plans, and had the support of some of the best independent research institutions in town to track different aspects of the work as it played out over time. We hoped that the work would help us find answers suitable to the various audiences involved. We were genuinely curious and thought it quite likely that we would end up with some shared agreement about "what works" and many different answers as well!

This theme plays out over and over and over, with infinite variations.

Architecture for Achievment

I got my copy of Architecture for Achievement: Building Patterns for Small School Learning today, as recommended by Mike Klonsky. Kind of hard to resist for those of us interested in pattern languages and school reform, and not a disappointment. Hardly as pithy as the original A Pattern Language, but what is? Also, the photography is pedestrian and doesn't seem to give you a great sense of the spaces. But it is reasonably priced ($25), certainly essential for anyone planning a new school, and I'd also recommend it to anyone feeling lost in abstractions regarding school reform. Focusing at the architecture makes things nicely concrete.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Syndication Dragging Us Down... (a rant)

Stephan comments on Brian Lamb on the slow progress in the state of the art of RSS and syndication.

It is pretty remarkable how this has petered out. RSS (and Atom) are now widely supported by web publishers of various stripes, including the mainstream, mature reading clients and web apps, and to a certain extent at the OS level. But ultimately, it still feels very much like a niche technology. Not a technology that is going away, mind you, but it is going to take something I can't foresee to get things moving again. A big part of the problem is just that the implementations are too inconsistent. It is too easy to make a bad RSS feed.

But beyond that, it is amazing to me how strongly things have turned against the idea of "small pieces loosely joined" (as a concept, if not the book). In 2007, Twitter shouldn't be a single site -- I mean -- you can get RSS feeds out of Twitter, but it's probably more successful because you don't have to. Same for Facebook (does it support RSS at all?). We aren't seeing what we thought we'd be seeing: individual sites exchanging data in a wide variety of ways. We're seeing big sites that pass the data around internally very effectively and also offer their own API's, but not so much common, open standards.

I guess I've been at this long enough now to see just how slowly the wheels of standardization turn. Technically, Web 2.0 hasn't been a great leap forward. You could probably make a good argument that the post-boom lull was just long enough to fix HTML, introduce CSS, clean up Javascript and get Really Simple Syndcation rolling. That's pretty much what you need for Web 2.0. If you want to guess what will allow the next boom to happen technically, you should probably look for simple existing technologies which just don't quite work right or haven't quite caught on because they're hard to justify when you're going for an IPO or sale to Google.

Let Me Know If You Hear Anyone Quote This Unironically

Zuckerberg's Law:

Once every hundred years, media changes.

That may be too inane even for ed-tech.

I'll Trade You My Fly for your Kindle

When Tim commented yesterday that he's getting a Kindle, I was going to suggest that perhaps in a few years I would trade my useless, goofy original Fly 1.0 pen for his Kindle. But then today, David highlighted a new iteration of "pentop computing," so maybe my Fly will become a valuable collector's item, recognized as a pioneering device.

Or... no. The one benefit of buying one of the things is that I'm quite certain these pen-based systems will never be more than an oddball sideshow, and the entire genre is safely ignored. Also, as a side note, despite David's post title, these pen-based computers have nothing to do with "e-paper." They use specially printed paper paper.

The New "Affero" GPL

Mako gives some background on the new license from the Free Software Foundation.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Free EVDO for Life?

Gruber on Amazon Kindle:

The most interesting technical aspect is the wireless data plan — you get free unlimited EVDO networking (but only EVDO networking) with no monthly plan. You buy a Kindle and you get free wireless EVDO for life, apparently.

Well, that's different.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Scaling Class Blogmeister

Mark Ahlness discusses growing pains with David Warlick's Class Blogmeister service. Basically, David's server has gotten swamped, so he was going to split the database to put older posts in a separate archive (or something like that see here and here). He talked to his hosting service and it looks like they're going to set up a separate database server behind his web server. I haven't done this myself, but I don't think it is too hard, and it is the obvious next step in scaling things up. David should be able to pull it off without a significant amount of time and expense.

However, scaling up a web application doesn't get easier and cheaper from here. If Class Blogmeister doubles in use every year, which I'd imagine is quite plausible, this isn't going to be the last architectural rearrangement. It is pretty easy for part-time self-taught programmers like David, or Chris or me to throw up simple, small web apps. One of the things that separates the pros from the amateurs is this process of scaling up. It's not a hobby, and the costs associated with server hosting aren't going to disappear because of Moore's Law. You're looking at electrical costs, real estate, labor, real world stuff.

David needs to have a long term strategy for dealing with these issues. They aren't going to go away, and the service could easily do more than double every year. If many of the classrooms using Blogmeister turn into schools using Blogmeister, he could be looking at x10 growth or more.

Recessions Aren't All Bad

Heather Havrilesky:

But let's give thanks anyway. Recessions aren't all bad, remember. At least now your dumb yuppie friends will stop prattling on about installing a Jacuzzi tub in their enormous bathroom. At least now fast food and cheap beer will be back in style. At least now college kids will stop thinking that they should be running their own companies or directing multimillion-dollar movies the second they graduate. Instead, they'll have to go get temp jobs, just like we did, back during the last recession. Because when recent college grads aren't eating Ramen and groveling for unpaid internships, there's really something wrong with the world.

Is Knowing What You're Not Allowed to Read "Literacy?"

I'm all in favor of moving the locus of control in determining what is and is not appropriate content to be reading/viewing in school down to the level of teachers and students as much as is practical. I just don't think that making these judgments is a "literacy" skill, as Ewan's post (and others, to be sure) implies. I'd call it "propriety." Particularly regarding YouTube, there isn't much porn there, so aren't you just telling kids not to watch dogs on skateboards when they're supposed to be doing their math? Is that now "literacy?"

Friday, November 16, 2007

Sugar Binaries for Ubuntu Gutsy

Mike says they seem to work... this'd be the easiest way yet for Ubuntu users to try out the XO interface. They're hosted in one of the handy Personal Package Archives now offered on Launchpad.

Teacher Workstation 2.0

Mark Ahlness is happy to be free of his clunky "teacher workstation," whose CRT took up a big chunk of his desk.

I'm not going to argue with Mark's personal case -- I'd be glad to be rid of the old CRT, too -- but I think there is still a place for the "teacher workstation" in, um, "Classroom 2.0."

Basically, if you want to argue that you, as a teacher, should have some freedom to innovate and do crazy things like install software on your computer, you have to also take into account that a big part of the reason you can't do that now is that the IT staff's Job #1 is making sure you can take attendance and do other essential administrative stuff every period. You have to have a reliable terminal to do that. Now, "Teacher Workstation 1.0" tends to be a full featured PC, probably pretty clunky, probably with the bulky CRT. Expensive, and if it isn't replaced at least every five years, it is going to break or just crap out.

"Teacher Workstation 2.0" is a thin client, it has no moving parts, completely silent, low power consumption, an LCD screen with a the paperback book sized thin client hardware velcroed to the back (a trailer park iMac, more or less). It's connected to a server running a ridiculously stripped down, secure, enterprise Linux distro with the least possible software installed to let you do your job. It is entirely boring, fast and reliable. The hardware on your desktop is expected to last 10 years; all upgrades are done to the server. It is really, really cheap, and it doesn't break.

With your boring teacher workstation taking care of all that boring stuff, you're given permission to experiment a little more freely with your laptop. Yay!

Miss? What's a Recession?


Severe or not, I really worry about any nontrivial recession. There really hasn't been one since early in the Reagan administration. Both the Bush (I+II) recessions were mild, with some regional exceptions. They've sort of vanished from our cultural experience.

My wife was discussing this idea of a "recession" with her students this week -- not as an abstraction, but the experience of it. It is kind of weird because while these kids certainly live around, if not in, poverty, the last recession didn't seem to have any significant impact on the neighborhood. I think it is fair to say things have improved here fairly steadily over the past 15 years or so. I mean, there have literally been small factories near here that have closed in the past five years. I may be discounting their impact of because they always seemed like such weird anachronisms anyhow, but I don't think so.

Anyhow, Jennifer tried to describe what Farmington, Maine was like growing up in the 70's and 80's -- boarded up storefronts, high unemployment, etc. A lightbulb went off and one of the kids said "Like the Rhode Island Mall?" Exactly. A recession is like when everyplace feels like the inside of an out-of-fashion run-down mall. It is kind of good when you have to think up metaphors to describe a recession to high school kids, but scary to think of what one might do to the neighborhood and their lives.

Right now Adelaide Avenue, which the front of our house faces, looks better than it has in decades (these Victorians were as boarded up as Farmington's storefronts in the 70's), but behind our house on Hamilton Street are, I think, four vacant houses.


Yet Another Data Point for "Did You Know? 3.0"

Financial Times via HTWW:

In a little-noticed mid-summer announcement, the Asian Development Bank presented official survey results indicating China’s economy is smaller and poorer than established estimates say. The announcement cited the first authoritative measure of China’s size using purchasing power parity methods. The results tell us that when the World Bank announces its expected PPP data revisions later this year, China’s economy will turn out to be 40 per cent smaller than previously stated.

This more accurate picture of China clarifies why Beijing concentrates so heavily on domestic priorities such as growth, public investment, pollution control and poverty reduction. The number of people in China living below the World Bank’s dollar-a-day poverty line is 300m – three times larger than currently estimated.

1-to-1 Wireless Thin Clients in Lemon Grove

eSchool News:

The district has provided access for all students, with a 2-to-1 student-to-computer ratio in grades K-5, and a 1-to-1 ratio for grades 6-8. All students and teachers are issued a wireless e-pad in these middle grades, and students are given broadband internet access at home.

Including the e-pad devices and broadband access, the cost is just under $300 per student, per year, over a five-year acquisition cycle.

So far, the district reportedly has experienced improved student and teacher attitudes toward technology and an increase in student motivation. Attendance has increased, too, which, according to LaGace, has resulted in $100,000 in additional state funding for average daily attendance. Language-arts scores also have increased.

The e-pad is a web-based thin client with no hard drive. Because it doesn't have a hard drive, it can be ruggedized--meaning it can withstand a hard impact, such as a fall of four to six feet. Students experience a simplified interface, as well as textbooks embedded on the chip.

With textbooks on the e-pad, students can view animation and links, and they can read and hear in both English and Spanish. However, because of the need to view textbooks on the devices, Lemon Grove spent a little extra to have e-pads with a 10.4-inch screen.

The district worked with Interlink Electronics to develop its customized solution.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. You know what would be really cool? If there was a frickin' magazine or web site that actually covered this stuff in any detail.

The Scales Fall From His Eyes

Chris Dawson:

Yet when we talked about (giving students notebooks) a bit more extensively, (my students) had some interesting perspectives. Most actually felt that once the novelty of a new computer wore off, they would actually make real use of the notebook for school-related activities. No doubt there would be a fair amount of extra-curricular communication going on, but the general sense was that even being able to research and type a paper in their room at night would be preferable to fighting for time on a shared computer. Similarly, only a small minority thought the prospect of YouTube in class was especially attractive; rather, they immediately keyed in on the way the few students in the class who have laptops have access to so much information to contribute to class discussions and projects.

They also noted that, while the computer labs are great, it is often hard for a teacher to schedule time in the labs or to use them in an impromptu fashion. An overwhelming majority expressed a preference for being able to type their work instead of write by hand and felt like they could be more efficient in writing and editing on a computer than they could on paper.

A lot of people seem to have trouble realizing the utility of giving older students an inexpensive, robust work computer. I think it is partly because you can't thread the needle between those who say "we can't give them this, they'll play around with it" and those who say "if you don't give them something they can play around with, they won't use it." However, for kids, as adults, if you give them a computer to do their work on, they'll probably do their work on it. Of course, you can't say that because supposedly the whole purpose of giving kids computers is to change what kind of work kids do, so any discussion along these lines is immediately hijacked into a an unresolvable discussion of curriculum and pedagogy.

Sure Kids, Turn Those Cell Phones ON In Class!

What problems could there be? danah boyd:

Whatever the case, it's clear by comparing European and American practices that the economics of texting play a significant role in how this practice is adopted. It's more than one's individual plan too because there's no point in texting if your friends can receive them. As we watch this play out, I can't help but wonder about the stupidity of data plan implementation. Just last week, I went with my partner to AT&T to activate his Nokia N95. He was primed to add data to his plan because of the potential for the phone, but we both nearly had a heart attack when we learned that 4MB of data would cost $10 and unlimited would cost $70. We walked away without a data plan. More and more phones are data-enabled, but only the techno-elite are going to add such ridiculously costly plans. (And what on earth can you do with only 4MB?) It's pretty clear that the carriers do not actually want you to use data. The story is even scarier in Europe with no unlimited options. Who actually wants to calculate how many MB a site might be and surf accordingly? And forget about social apps with uncontrollable data counts. There's a lot to be said about paying to not having to actually worry about it.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Question...

If you were a member of, say, a band, and you could either have 500 fans in your home town, or 500 fans scattered across the country, which would you take? What about 5000 fans scattered around the world?

The Magnolia Ball Club of 1843

I'm now a member of SABR -- the Society for American Baseball Research. This is a pretty intense little group, at least the 19th century component, and it is fascinating to watch these guys grind away via the mailing list.

Here's a nice new piece by SABR member John Thorn: A really good find: The Magnolia Ball Club of 1843, which digs into some of the early social history of base ball in New York. It is still very much contested territory (as it was then), balancing out the influence and importance of working and professional classes. Thorn manages to weave both Walt Whitman and Bill the Butcher (from Gangs of New York into his tale.

Also, as an aside, I'd note that this article has a lot of the flavor of an i-search paper. I think people assume that "i-search papers" are a totally contrived, dumbed-down style of academic writing. They aren't. Lots of magazine writing takes on the form.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

It's Not "Like Wonkette, Except About Schools," Thankfully

The unfortunately titled Eduwonkette is really quite good. It just took me a while to check it out for the same reason I might not read "InstaEduPundit" or "Ed-Tech Crunch."

Defining "Social Networking"

My extended comment on the definition of "social networking" over at Warlick's

Here's the thing: if you define "social networking" too generally, it won't really mean anything. You not only end up including not only IM, email and BBS's, but the Kiwanis Club, football team, people who sit with you at lunch in the cafeteria, family, etc. Social networking writ large is central to the human experience and always has been. The study of this stuff is certainly worthwhile, but it has a name already: sociology.

What is new here? What has changed to bring "social networking" to the fore as a subject for discussion (and investment)? What is new is that people, kids especially, have technology and social practices to explicitly create and publish an individual statement of their social network -- their friends. We didn't do that before. The closest we'd get is the invitation list to a birthday party or who we gave Valentine's Day cards to. That innovation (with a few tweaks for easy group formation and adding things that aren't people to your social network) is central to the popularity of MySpace and Facebook.

That is what has changed and why people are talking about "social networks." If you don't understand that, you don't understand the phenomenon.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Why You Need "New Standards?"

I think there are only a few likely interpretations of this statement:

There should be a new set of education standards for the 21st century; the ones from the 1990s must go. (Dede)

  • The speaker supported the standards of the 1990's and was right then and is right now. Therefore, education standards are so transient to be a waste of time, unless you think the pace of technological and social change is slowing.
  • The speaker was wrong to support the standards in the 1990's, but now he does not and he is right not to. This doesn't say much for the speaker's authority, since he was wrong the last time.
  • The speaker opposed the standards of the 1990's and was right, but nobody listened to him; but you should listen to him now. This suggests that arguments about how the world have changed are just a pretense for having a fresh crack at convincing you of what he believed all along.

I suppose there are other possibilities which get increasingly baroque and unlikely, like opposing the standards of the 1990's for one correct reason and opposing them now for an entirely different correct reason.

All Tabs Must Go!

  • Another for "Did You Know 3.0."
  • The Ubuntu Code of Conduct deserves a lot more attention from those interested in "the ethical use of information" and the like.
  • Based on what I'm reading about OLPC hacking in the developing world, Squeak and EToys are getting a lot of use and attention from the target audience. This makes sense. The big problem with Squeak is that it doesn't draw off users prior experience, but in this case, the users won't have much prior experience, and Sugar is no more familiar. Squeak is far more mature, well documented and powerful than Python/Sugar at this point.
  • This look at the trend of playing Werewolf/Mafia (via Tim Bray) at open source development sprints/hackathons is fascinating. I haven't experienced this myself, but it makes a lot of sense. If you've got a limited amount of face time with people you work with remotely, figuring out who is best at lying to your face seems like a ruthlessly efficient use of time (although just writing code is still probably the best idea).
  • Ms. Frizzle is blogging again from the US (I tuned out her year in Turkey).
  • WikipediaVision.

Save only money!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Give One Get One Easy Enough

Vivian slept in a little today, so I didn't wake up and order order my XO's until 6:30 AM (the sale was supposed to start at 6:00 AM). The Give 1 Get 1 site was entirely painless to use. I grabbed my laptop off the night stand, refreshed the page, and since they've only got one product and are using PayPal, it only took a few clicks to complete the order.

My prediction for G1G1 sales... 125,000 (that is, 125,000 sales w/ 125,000 going to the developing world).

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Is "Easy" the Goal?

Bill Kerr says "not necessarily:"

IMO it's fair to say that etoys is not particularly easy to learn. I think that the main point about visual programming systems is not about "easy" but about different channels of representation.

I think this resonates with a nuanced understanding of "multiple intelligences" theory.

Friday, November 09, 2007

"Soft Launch" of

It wasn't clear to me yesterday whether the story behind and its lack of buzz up to this point was "um... we decided we didn't need this so we'll just put it on the web and see what happens" or something more strategic was going on. Well, as it turns out, as Dean Millot pointed out yesterday afternoon, there actually was a story in USA Today on this week indicating that Wireless Generation agrees with me that publicists are helpful even in the world of Web 2.0, and the promotion for the site is only now starting up.

Even more importantly:

But perhaps the most significant development is at the most elementary level. Last fall, a Florida textbook adoption committee approved Free-Reading, a remediation program for primary-school children that's believed to be the first free, open-source reading program for K-12 public schools. It's awaiting approval by Eric Smith, the state's incoming education commissioner, who could approve it by mid-December.

Florida is one of the top five textbook markets in the USA, so its move could lead to the development of other free materials that might someday challenge the dominance of a handful of big educational publishers.

Setting aside the question of whether or not these textbook approval processes are a good idea, this demonstrates that Wireless Generation is making a serious play. It also underscores a good reason why, as Doug Noon points out, the curriculum hews to the post-NCLB status quo on reading pedagogy. A little more on Wireless Generation's strategy:

Wireless Generation CEO Larry Berger, 39, says he hopes to make money from teacher training and technical support. "We probably will get involved in offering those services," he says.

Berger should know. Four years ago, he turned another free item, the DIBELS reading test, into a moneymaker by developing software that allows teachers to score the test on a handheld computer.

Regardless, the potential significance of getting on the approved list for Florida is huge. Somewhat depressingly, Millot's interpretation of this move is that it may be designed to trigger a buy-out:

All they need is for the big publishers to conclude (a big win for is) a nontrivial possibility. To the extent they do, they will try to buy the company - and that’s The Mouse that Roared scenario. The more the publishers believe Wireless Generation is a viable initial public offering opportunity, the more they will be willing to pay to avoid it.

This gets into why it is way too simplistic and shallow to say open source is about collaboration and community more than licenses. Because of the license, in this case, CC-by-sa, you're protected, even if Harcourt buys Wireless Generation next week and kills the program (well, assuming someone downloaded the content...). You don't have to rely on someone else's good faith or intentions.

A couple nits from the USA Today article. They write:

The California-based William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is funding K-12 open-source projects worldwide, including English-language training for native Chinese- and Spanish-speakers.

That's pretty generous, considering they haven't done shit for open source in K-12 schools in the US. If they can do nothing and still get namechecked, what's the motivation for doing anything? Also, where can I find this English-language training?

Also this:

Websites such as offer free materials tied to high school textbooks, and several college-level open-source projects are trickling down to K-12 schools.

Here's the license:

The content on this website is provided by the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education for personal enrichment and individual instructor use only. The use of this content by educational organizations or commercial vendors is prohibited.

In other words, useless.


Thursday, November 08, 2007

Free Reading: A Model For K-12 Open Source Curriculum

I've argued in the past that if open source curriculum development is to work like open source software development, what we won't see much of is "Hey kids, lets write a curriculum!" global barn-raisings starting from an empty wiki. The reality of open source software development almost always starts with development centering around an individual programmer or a small team, up until the point where the application is in at least a semi-usable state. Trying to get an unbounded open network starting from scratch to agree on first principles or even a programming language and database, coding styles, toolset, etc., is well nigh impossible.

I hadn't found a good example of the open sourcing of a more-or-less complete, professionally produced and "research-based" curriculum for K-12, however, until I noted a reference to at the end of Larry Berger and David Stevenson's paper I discussed yesterday. Not coincidentally, it was created by their company, Wireless Generation. It isn't clear why they created or open sourced the work. There is an advisory board of well-placed academics and a documented research base.

Before I go any further late me state that early reading instruction is just about the most specialized, closely researched and most controversial area in education, and I'm not at all qualified to state whether this curriculum is actually any good or ideologically correct. There may be vast "Reading Wars" sub-texts here which are completely lost on me.

Regardless, the resources provided on their wiki seem polished and professional, equal in production quality to a commercial product. Importantly, they provide both a specific program sequence ("Intervention A") and various ways of searching and browsing just for specific types of activities, so that you're free to take an a la carte approach if you want.

They do enforce a difference between the core "research-based" pages and the editable parts of the wiki. Also, since a lot of the resources are various cards and other things designed specifically to be printed, there are inevitably a bunch of PDF's. Some editable source for these would be nice. I would like to see this using MikMikm the wiki Mako Hill (check out his new blog, Revealing Errors, btw) is writing based on the principles of distributed version control. This would allow an individual school or district that was implementing the program to make their own "branch" of the wiki that they could edit completely and without worrying about mucking up the "official" ("trunk," "stable") wiki with quick comments, notes and things generally only useful in the local context. Going forward, this system would allow ongoing changes to the "official" wiki to be merged into the local version and more polished local changes to be sumbitted to the "official" branch, establishing a process for reviewing changes and additions to the core parts of the program.

It looks like this wiki has been around about a year. I hadn't heard of it until now, so it hasn't gained much buzz. As much as we like to think of "Web 2.0" as a grassroots movement, an old fashioned publicist would make a big difference. Whether or not it is currently being used anywhere is hard to say as well. I'd like to know what some of the reading specialists out there think of the content.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Most People Seem To Have Forgotten Living In The Cold War

Not William Gibson (and me):

When I started to write science fiction, the intelligent and informed position on humanity's future was that it wasn't going to have one at all. We've forgotten that a whole lot of smart people used to wake up every day thinking that that day could well be the day the world ended. So when I started writing what people saw as this grisly dystopian, punky science fiction, I actually felt that I was being wildly optimistic: "Hey, look — you do have a future. It's kind of harsh, but here it is." I wasn't going the post-apocalyptic route, which, as a regular civilian walking around the world, was pretty much what I expected to happen myself.

Permanent Jetlag

So when I returned from Europe, the result of my jetlag was that I went to bed around 10:00 PM and got up around 6:00 AM. Since this is when the other two members of the household sleep as well, I seem to be sticking on this schedule, at least for now. It is pretty weird. My natural cycle is to go to bed around 2:30 AM.

Berger and Stevenson on K-12 Entrepreneurship

I'll second Dean Millot's recommendation of Wireless Generation's Larry Berger and David Stevenson's paper, K-12 Entrepreneurship: Slow Entry, Distant Exit.

Wireless Generation was founded in 2001, and seems to have a practical, useful, well regarded product aimed at a sector which has seen unprecedented growth in the intervening years, yet:

We have grown to 250 people, serving more than 2.5 million K-6 students, including most of the K-3 classrooms in New York, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Washington, D.C. and more than a thousand smaller districts. We are considered a preliminary entrepreneurial success story, but we are not quite profitable yet, and we remain vulnerable to political funding shifts, to the various ways that the culture of education is slow to change, and to competition from “Big Edu” (the three dominant educational publishing companies).

Waitasec... they "aren't profitable yet?" Whew. This market is even more brutal than I thought.

Berger and Stevenson explain that while there are a multitude of small education consultants (that is, smaller than them), the little guys don't generate much innovation:

The small business owners in education are not necessarily entrepreneurs. Many of them are building “lifestyle” businesses to keep themselves engaged after they retire from the school district. They are not attracting investment capital to drive accelerated growth and in many cases do not want to grow beyond a certain size. In their local community, they get to know the local landscape just like the local Big Edu sales rep, and they learn to thrive in that small pond. They are not entrepreneurs who want to innovate across the sector, to create value by redeploying resources, and to take high levels of risk for high levels of reward – enough potential upside to justify gambling years of low salary, high stress and uncertainty. The would-be entrepreneur scans the educational landscape, notes the crowded field of small companies and the rarity with which any of them cross the chasm to become big companies and starts looking at other sectors.

The bulk of the paper is an elaboration on their "top ten barriers to entry."

  1. The Education Sector Does Not Invest in Innovation
  2. Oligopoly
  3. Decentralization
  4. Vicious Sales Cycles
  5. Pilot Error
  6. No Return
  7. Viewing Teacher Time as a Sunk Cost
  8. Short-Lived Superintendents
  9. The Vendor Wall
  10. Start-Up Capital

I'd encourage the reader, in exploring the whole paper, to not slip into thinking of this list as ten manifestations of one problem (most likely, educators being generically resistant to change), but an interlocking web of problems. Short lived superintendents means true innovation is swamped in a constant churn of change. Education professionals cannot chose to invest in innovation on their own; their budgets are determined by political processes. There is not an easy solution like simply getting educators to think like businesspeople.

Berger and Stevenson do offer three possible paths forward, and I'm happy that "Create A Welcoming Climate for Promising Disruptions, Including Open Source Business Models" is one of them. They don't elaborate much on this idea, but I think I can.

One possible route is for open source processes to drive more innovation, and more distribution of innovation, by the "lifestyle businesses" described in the paper. In this kind of case I think of Plone Foundation and ZEA Partners. The Plone Foundation is made up of over 100 individual developers who contribute to the Plone content management system. Zea Partners is a non-profit business network for 25 companies building Zope, Plone and Silva systems. These developers and companies are probably more entrepreneurial than the "lifestyle businesses," but they aren't much bigger, and as far as I know, aren't aiming for rapid growth and an IPO. They're pretty much smallish web development shops. Working together through open source processes, they collectively innovate at a rate comparable to, if not faster than, a single big company

There is no reason that small education consultants can't create similar processes and organizations. There is also no reason that releasing open source software and explicitly cultivating such organizations should not be a goal of foundations, universities, etc. seeking routes to scale up innovations.

Also, Berger and Stevenson describe Big Edu's dominance of traditional distribution channels. It is important to try to start communicating the role of the free software community and free software distributions as an alternative distribution channel. While the web is in many ways the ultimate distribution channel for software, there is still something to be said for the integrated packaging systems of Linux distributions like Ubuntu (or, in this case, Edubuntu). At this point there still seems to be a gap between the innovative educational software being developed at universities and what ends up in K-12 oriented distributions like Edubuntu.

Case in point: the Ubuntu Developer's Summit was at MIT last week, including the prime movers of Edubuntu. Scratch, the second most interesting and important educational free software project of the year, also lives at MIT and is conspicuously not included in Ubuntu or any other free software distributions that I'm aware of at this point. I wonder if anyone from Edubuntu called anyone from Scratch to have a meeting, or vice versa (part of the problem here is that it isn't clear whose responsibility it is...). I don't know, but I'd be surprised if they did. The academics don't see the need for a new distribution channel, and the free software guys aren't used to initiating these conversations, especially when they've got more than enough work on their plate already, thank you very much. Nonetheless, these two camps need to be brought together; they need each other.

One final note. The paper says:

Draft: Please do not cite without permission from the author.

Which I interpret to mean, "don't cite this in an academic work" not "don't quote us on the web," which would seem kind of absurd since the paper has been posted on the web in its entirety. But consider yourself warned. Regardless, the whole thing is highly recommended, even if it was written for the execrable AEI.

Monday, November 05, 2007

That's Some Game Cabinet

The "Gamerator" has an impressive list of features, to be sure:

Today on Boing Boing Gadgets we looked that this downright majestic "Gamerator" arcade cabinet with a built-in beer tap, a touch-sensitive glow table, heat-reflective windows you can flip for the seasons, rubber laces for your shoes, magnetic nail polish from Lancome (yes!), a movie that does act like tech is strange, a winning self-navigating robo-car, an attractive upcoming plug-in hybrid car, a rubber-faced murder golem (in need of I.D.!), a water bottle with a space for a phone or MP3, a video from the World Toilet Summit, the announcement of the Google phone OS name of "Android," a super-expensive mixer and my—and your—top 5 kitchen gadgets. And deals.

Some Truly Disturbing Statistics

Heather Havrileski:

The share of consumers who believe happiness is just around the corner dropped below 25 percent for the first time since August 2006. Meanwhile, an October survey of consumers indicated that those who believe that "It's all good" fell to their lowest level in two years, while those who believe that "It is what it is" increased by 34 percent.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Local Apps on Edubuntu Thin Clients

Dave Trask is having an orgasm:

Hey everyone! History has been made at UDS Boston! Last night, Halloween, four developers holed up in a room in the Hotel@MIT and hacked away on what would become a working version of local apps running on an Edubuntu thin-client! This is VERY big news. Normally in a thin-client environment, the applications all run on the server. This is fine except when you have a whole lab of kids using Firefox and Flash to access an educational web site or to (*gasp*) play games. What about YouTube? Well, with local apps you take advantage of some of the processing power on the thin-client itself (which largely goes unused). In essence we simply ask a particular application to run on the thin-client rather than the server. This will be something that can be defined for individual thin-clients or groups of thin-clients. As schools already have or possibly may purchase more powerful thin-clients, the choice to be able to run some applications such as firefox may become more desirable. Right at this moment I am watching a very smooth video running locally in Firefox on a thin-client. Normally it runs quite choppy on a thin-client, but when running locally it’s very smooth just like running it on a desktop or laptop.

This is a big deal in the Linux thin client world.


Joss Whedon returns to teevee. 'bout time.

Utecht et al on SIS's

Jeff Utecht has a long post on the strategic importance of student information systems, and his hopes for their evolution in the Web 2.0 world. There have been a flurry of other SIS posts and stories this week, and I'll tie a few of those in here as well.

This is, of course, something I've got a lot to say about, since this has been my primary work focus for a few years and the reason I'm sitting in Vilnius right now. On the other hand, I have been pretty quiet about SchoolTool lately and have kept a fairly low profile for the project in general. Basically, a half-done student information system is useless. "Almost works" is fine for at least playing with some kinds of software, but not a SIS. Even basic testing of an SIS takes a significant investment of time, and I don't want to cause people to waste their time.

That said, we've made significant progress this year and next year will see a sequence of increasingly finished and public releases.

Anyhow... with that disclaimer let's move on to Jeff's post. Jeff writes:

First I believe that the system must have an open database that allows a school to incorporate other programs into it to allow for a seamless system. A program built in a database like mySQL would allow easy integration into the educational programs we talked about in Part 1.

First off, absolutely. A public institution should not store its data someplace where it cannot use and access it any way it sees fit. The fact that this has been accepted in the recent past is just an illustration of how immature this whole field is.

Unfortunately, there is a lot more to enterprise integration than just having an "open database." First off, "open database" could mean a few things. It is probably reasonable to say any database that implements the Open Database Connectivity protocol, or even handles standard SQL queries is an "open database." By that standard the vast majority of commercial database engines are "open."

However, you can still run into problems like Chris Dawson describes:

We were just walking away from a wildly convoluted data system that, while running on SQL server, was nearly indecipherable.

So you not only need a database that is open, but that is well designed and documented, if you expect to re-use it with other applications.

Even then, you're talking about having one application stick its grubby little fingers directly into another application's database. This is common, and it works in many cases, but it is inherently tricky, because you're bypassing all the application logic that the various applications have built around that database. If you have, say, your CMS peering directly into your SIS's tables for account and personal information, you're probably bypassing the SIS's security infrastructure. Also, your CMS may not expect records for new users to just suddenly appear in its database without having created the user itself. Also the CMS may be unpleasantly surprised that it doesn't have write access to parts of its (that is, the SIS's) database. This is not to say that any of these problems can't be hacked around by local admins and developers, but you're looking at a growing set of workarounds. This type of system is also based on the assumption that the SIS's database tables are not going to change, which is almost never a safe assumption, so you may be fixing breakage every time you upgrade the SIS, and certainly major changes if you switch SIS's.

What you really want are API's that allow the two applications to talk to each other as peer applications, respecting each application's programming and business logic, rather than plunging their dirty fingers into each other's databases without asking. You want your SIS to notify your CMS when a new user is created and for the CMS to create the corresponding user in its system. Or at least for the CMS to be able to ask the SIS itself for a list of users, rather than just peering into the database. In 2007, in particular you want a Web Service API.

API's require a bootstrap effect, however. An API that is used by only one application is much less useful than one that is used by many. Otherwise, you're still doing a lot of re-coding if you have to switch applications. If you're dependent on an API which can be changed at the whim of a single company, they can and will break or hide parts of the API if it works to their advantage to do so.

So... what Web Services are widely (at all) used in K-12 enterprise apps, in the US, at least? Ug... SIF. To say I have a love/hate relationship with SIF would be an overstatement. Grudging acceptance/hate is more accurate, but it is nearly the only game in town. Unfortunately, the incumbent players in the SIF polity have decided that dividing a larger chunk of a medium sized market is better than a unknown slice of a vastly larger pie, and they've effectively throttled SIF's growth for the sake of keeping control. It is not so much their greed that bugs me as their lack of vision.

Probably the sanest alternative is the e-Framework approach of leveraging broader industry standards, but it is still a hodgepodge of standards which, even in relatively simple cases often are implemented inconsistently, and the cases often aren't so simple.

Another approach to extendability is what Jim Hirsch seems to be talking about here. Basically using standards for extension established within one programming environment, in this case Java J2EE. This is again, better than nothing, but limited to a given language or framework.

If you've got a good XML Web Services approach, what kind(s) of client access (web, desktop app, phone, etc.) is used is less of an issue, because you should be able to create new clients and mashups relatively easily. This is the "The Machine Is Us/Ing Us" scenario (just use XSLT!) which in fact barely exists today.

So, this sounds pretty grim. What's the answer? Ideally, a little of everything, judiciously applied. What we really need is an open source SIS built on a modern extensible web framework, so that each of these strategies, and hopefully better ones coming in the future, can be pursued in a wide variety of schools, with improvements and enhancements rolled back into the main distribution. That's what SchoolTool aims to be, and part of the reason it is taking so long, and why it may ultimately be so valuable, is that its mission is not to simply be an SIS, but the foundation of the kind of system Jeff describes.