Friday, October 31, 2008

I Did Not Know This


Probably the greatest blow Ronald Reagan struck against American liberalism was changing tax law so as to index income tax brackets to the Consumer Price Index. Before that, each and every year inflation created a small tax hike. Consequently, the default scenario was for revenue to grow. That created a situation where for three decades following the end of World War II, politicians steadily increased the volume of public services while also offering the occasional tax cut. And until the economic malaise of the 1970s, voters liked the outcomes just fine. But by seizing the opportunity provided by the 1980 election to change this, Reagan was able to shift the structure of American politics in a fairly significant way. In many ways the biggest challenge facing an incoming progressive administration backed by progressive congressional majorities is to find some equivalent measures — things you can pass at a moment of political strength whose impact will continue to be felt long after that political moment fades.

Announcing SchoolTool 1.0 beta (aka 2008.10)

I'm happy to announce we've released packages for what we're calling SchoolTool 1.0 beta.

"Beta" can mean many things. In this case, it means this release gives one a clear sense of what the 1.0 release next April will look like and do. The core components we've been developing with individual schools have been pulled together into a single release. There is still plenty to do, but nothing to start (or start over) from the ground up.

The biggest impact I hope this release will have is in our relationship between the development team and the community of users and potential users. For the past couple years we've had to focus on trying to stay focused. There was always a list of big things that had to be done to get to where we are now, which demanded that we not get distracted by lots of little things that people might suggest for what was already done. Not that it was easy to make suggestions, because it was difficult to get all the parts of the most current code running (and it genuinely wasn't worth the time for us to make it easy, because of the big list of things which must be done looming over our head). And if you were interested in using SchoolTool at your school, I had to pretty much tell you to check back later.

Well, "later" is now, I'm happy to say. For the next year (at least), job one for us is improving what you see when you apt-get install schooltool-2008. We can focus on making that better, adding the reports you need, coming up with a good compromise set of demographic information for students, making the components share information among each other in smart ways, making it easier to get data in and out of SchoolTool and generally killing bugs. We won't be able to make everyone's dream come true, but we'll all be working from the same running application we can all look at, not just speculating about what might be nice.

There are a number of ways to communicate with the SchoolTool development and community. The SchoolTool mailing list has been mostly quiet for the reasons described above but is still probably the best venue for open ended discussion with the whole community. If you want to chat with the development team directly, there is #schooltool on freenode IRC. The best time to catch us all there is in the morning Eastern time in the US/late afternoon in Europe. All bugs eventually end up in Malone on Launchpad, and people have started using Answers on Launchpad to ask us questions, and it seems to work pretty well.

So... give SchoolTool a try and let us know what you think.

Shorter Letter to Obama on Education Policy

Please (continue to) listen to Linda Darling-Hammond and do what she says.


Tom Hoffman

(for Scott)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

That's a Little Harsh

Stephen on my Kusasa post:

Lesson? If a project depends on teacher training, it will likely fail. Hard to think of a greater indictment of a profession.

Here's the analogy I would make: let's say you invent a novel method of preventing malaria, which is not only novel and inexpensive, it is self-explanatory. If you can distribute it to a population, they can figure out how to successfully administer it, and also, it is fun to do so! So you don't have to figure out how to train people to use the prevention method, and you don't have to mount an educational campaign explaining to people why it is necessary.

That's the theory at least, but when you do a pilot, you discover that, in fact, how to use it is not as obvious as you'd hoped. So now your cost structure is not just "distribute this thing" but "distribute this thing and figure out how to teach every village doctor and nurse in the country how to train the population to use it." It may still be possible and worth it, but it will sure be a lot more difficult, and you have to reconsider some basic premises, like, "if I can teach everyone in the country to do something to prevent malaria, maybe it would be cheaper to teach them to use mosquito netting instead of this goofy new thing I invented."

Getting back to Kusasa, there is also the particular complication that training teachers to use technology creates an incentive for them to take a better job in the tech sector. This exists in the developed world, but is even stronger in the developing world, types the former teacher turned technology consultant into his blog.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The NEW 21st Century Skills

Pollan via Rhulman:

Train a new generation of farmers, spread them throughout the land, and make farming a revered profession.

I'm looking forward to Will finally bringing his work around this bend, although he's taking his damn time about it.

We are America


Ah yes, us loony bloggers, fighting for universal health care, to protect social security, to keep our government from unconstitutionally spying on us, and to promote a sane foreign policy that doesn't unnecessarily cost us blood and treasure. You know, loony things supported by a majority of the (apparently also loony) American people.

Here's what too many people still don't understand -- there's nothing loony about the netroots. This isn't fertile territory for the McKinneys and Kuciniches of our party. This is fertile territory for the Howard Deans of our party -- sensible, pragmatic progressives who aren't afraid to be Democrats. Why? Because we're the nation. We're not clustered in DC and NYC, we're spread out over all 50 states, and we know better than anyone what it takes to win in our own backyards.

We didn't rally around Webb, Tester, Schweitzer, Trauner, Brown, Massa, Burner and so many other moderate Democrats because they were little Kucinich clones, but because they were perfectly suited for the states and districts they seek to represent. It's that simple. Howard Dean wasn't an anomaly. He was our ideal.

We are not the elites, we are America, and we're situated squarely in its ideological center. We proved it in 2006, and we'll prove it again next week.

I Don't Understand Who is Supposed to Find this Convincing

W. Lance Bennett & Deen G. Freelon:

Digital communication technologies increasingly enable young people to invent new forms of civic engagement such as peer-to peer knowledge sharing, participatory media production, bottom-up network creation, and direct action initiatives.

In my brain, there is a direct link from "civic engagement and young people" to the youth movements of the sixties and seventies, so I've got that loaded into RAM while I'm reading this article. Then I go through the list of "new forms of civic engagement" and check off each one as "not new." Doesn't everyone think this way?

I'm not trying to make a clever semantic argument here; I just don't get this whole rhetorical strategy. All people who are actually interested in this subject know that they're just saying bullshit for no reason. This seems to be aimed at people who are not interested in civic engagement and students. If I was trying to speak to people who knew or cared at all about the topic, I'd say "Digital communication technologies lower the bar for long-standing forms of civic engagement such as..." I don't understand the motivation to take the bullshit approach.

Kusasa Cancelled

I just noticed that The Shuttleworth Foundation has canceled the Kusasa project:

Kusasa is a curriculum-aligned learning system that can:

  • be self taught, peer mentored, and evaluated without expert supervision;
  • provide learners with tools for analysis which they can use in all of their learning areas;
  • be an exercise machine for analytical and creative thinking.

Helen's explanation is a bit difficult to parse:

“It was apparent that the project success would depend on teachers developing skills we did not initially anticipate,” explains King. “Teachers would need to develop confidence in the Etoys modelling environment used by Kusasa in order to effectively manage classroom interaction. The original vision placed very low demands on the teachers and was to some extent intended to remedy individual teacher challenges.”

It sounds like (I haven't spoken to Mark or Helen about this) they couldn't route around needing a lot of teacher training.

Trying to avoid teacher training seems kind of perverse. The problem is that if step one (or two) of your plan is "successfully train a generation of teachers in a largish, mostly poor country to implement something sophisticated and unfamiliar," well, that's probably at least as hard as the problem your original plan is supposed to solve. Probably a lot harder. It is worth taking some strategic risks to try to break that bottleneck.

Anyhow, it is also worth noting that all the content (LAMS modules and eToys stuff) they completed is freely available and can be reused, remixed, recontextualized, etc.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Selling Infrastructure

Matt Yglesias is talking about high speed rail here, but it matches pretty closely my thoughts about selling OLPC:

On the idea that ridership estimates are unrealistically optimistic, it seems to me that the sad reality of politics is that it would be irresponsible for advocates of any large-scale infrastructure project to do anything other than present unrealistically optimistic measures. For better or for worse, that’s politics. Similarly, I never really understand the sentiment that Large Infrastructure Project A shouldn’t be done because Large Infrastructure Project B might be better. Sometimes you really do get asked “should we do A or should we do B” in which case, of course, if B is better than A you ought to answer “B.” Similarly, sometimes doing A really does prevent you from doing B — like if A and B would both require the same right of way. But that’s not generally the case, and it’s certainly not the case when you compare a statewide HSR system to a series of different local transit projects. In general, large infrastructure projects should be evaluated on their own merits. If California HSR is worth doing, then it really doesn’t matter if there may be other transit projects that are also worth doing. You do the HSR, and then you start organizing for the other projects. Doing worthwhile infrastructure projects ultimately grows your capacity to do future infrastructure projects.

ASCD on MathML

Laura Varlas:

In Kentucky, a small pilot study is demonstrating the benefits of this textbook technology for students with different learning styles. Instead of re-creating a complex math problem as a static image file, digital texts that use math markup language, or MathML, are able to speak words and equations while highlighting corresponding elements on a computer screen.

MathML-enabled digital texts helped the study's very small cohort of students struggling with printed text outperform peers who used traditional print texts. Many students said that before MathML, they'd see a problem but not know how to say it. Hearing the formula and how to say it was a big help to these students.

Can't pass up a post from the ASCD on markup languages. Also, Connexions supports MathML.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Dead Idea Walking

The moment has passed for teacher merit pay, but we'll still be reading articles about it for a while. The only way it happens now, due to the fiscal crisis gripping our cities and states, and what looks to be the nastiest stretch of white-collar unemployment we've seen maybe ever, is if muscle philanthropy moves from their current position where they leverage a high amount of influence over policy at relatively little risk and cost (vis a vis the cost of public education overall) to one where they essentially "bail out" public education and take much greater responsibility for very large, long-term investments in urban systems with a correspondingly greater share of the blame when things go wrong. I don't see that happening. On the other hand, it is hard to guess how they will respond, since they are opaque, un-democratic organizations.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The D.Willingham Twist

I'm tiring of Dan Willingham's rhetorical strategy of starting with a bold title like "Why Web 2.0 Will Not be an Integral Part of K-12 Education" and ending with a more reasonable-sounding conclusion like:

There will doubtless be more teachers like Michael Wesch who use Web 2.0 technology with great effectiveness. These teachers enjoy the technology and thus teach from the heart. There will also be teachers like David Cole (blogging in this forum tomorrow) who are not interested in using technology, and who are effective in the methods they use. The wisest course may not be to find “best practices” with the expectation that they will apply across the board, but rather to expect that teachers will select pedagogical practices based on their own strengths and the material they teach, and to support them in that choice.

I suppose whether or not these contradict each other depends on how strictly you want to interpret "integral." But to me if you're going to support teachers in the use of technology, including Web 2.0 technologies, then you're going to, you know, have to make this stuff readily available -- which it isn't in many, many schools in the US.

I think I more or less agree with Willingham, I just think that better, cheaper, more robust hardware and software is the key part of the solution, so that every discussion about technology doesn't have to be framed as a cost-benefit analysis of a high-cost item, so that teachers can have the right technology on hand to use (or not) when it is pedagogically appropriate (or not).

Update... Dan points out that he didn't write the title. Fair enough.

This is Totally Me


The one concession I've made to maintain some form of sanity is that I've taken to censoring my news, just like the old Soviet Union. The citizenry (me) only gets to read and listen to what I deem appropriate for its health and well-being. Sure, there are times when the system breaks down. Michele Bachmann got through my radar this week, right before bedtime. That's not supposed to happen. That was a lapse in security, and I've had to make some adjustments. The debates were particularly challenging for me to monitor. First I tried running in and out of the room so I would only hear my guy. This worked until I knocked over a tray of hors d'oeuvres. "Sit down or get out!" my host demanded. "Okay," I said, and took a seat, but I was more fidgety than a ten-year-old at temple. I just couldn't watch without saying anything, and my running commentary, which mostly consisted of "Shut up, you prick!" or "You're a fucking liar!!!" or "Go to hell, you cocksucker!" was way too distracting for the attendees, and finally I was asked to leave.

This Will Be an Amusing Read for Years to Come

Andrew Keen:

So how will today's brutal economic climate change the Web 2.0 "free" economy? It will result in the rise of online media businesses that reward their contributors with cash; it will mean the success of Knol over Wikipedia, Mahalo over Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), over the, iTunes over MySpace, Hulu over YouTube Inc. , over, TechCrunch over the blogosphere, CNN’s professional journalism over CNN’s iReporter citizen-journalism... The hungry and cold unemployed masses aren’t going to continue giving away their intellectual labor on the Internet in the speculative hope that they might get some "back end" revenue. "Free" doesn’t fill anyone’s belly; it doesn’t warm anyone up.

When, in 50 years time, the definitive histories of the Web 2.0 epoch are written, historians will look back at the open-source mania between 2000 and 2008 with a mixture of incredulity and amusement. How could tens of thousands of people have donated their knowledge to Wikipedia or the blogosphere for free? What was it about the Internet that made so many of us irrational about our economic value? It was a "mania," these mid-21st-century historians will explain, like the Dutch Tulip mania of the 1630s or South Sea Bubble of 1720 -- a mania that ended with the great crash of October 2008.

Open source will do just fine, in fact it will provide the infrastructure for whatever the next boom turns out to be, as it drove the current one (all those web 2.0 apps aren't running in and IIS). I think the most pressure is on things that are large-scale, proprietary with dubious income streams. Twitter and Second Life would be prime examples. In particular, I would think paying for the (energy to run the) servers behind Second Life is going to get tougher.


Perhaps the K-12 open source advocacy community should be assimilated into the open source in government community. That might be more effective positioning than focusing on relationships to the ed-tech community. But a) it isn't either/or, and b) I don't know how we'd do it, or even exactly what I mean.

Center-Right Attempts an Orderly Retreat in Education

Mike Petrili:

Let me make a prediction: either the Obama campaign will clarify that the Senator would consider portfolios on top of tests, not instead of them, or the McCain campaign will pounce on this issue and argue that it shows Obama to be weak on reform. Because one thing is for sure: embracing portfolios is a clear signal of an intention to roll back accountability.

Rhetorically, what we're seeing from the center-right education "reformers" virtually across the board is this: mis-characterize the organized opposition to NCLB and Bush-era reforms as being far to the left of what it actually is so you can seem quite reasonable by "compromising" by adopting what is, in fact, the position of the actual opposition proposals (that is, going beyond what people say in the teacher's lounge) vs. NCLB.

They've lost the argument, they know it, and they're just trying to save face while giving in to the inevitable.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Make Room for the Freaks

The Caretaker:

We need to open schools back up to thinkers, bullies, gifted teachers, imperfect students, rebels, poor boys, bastards, knuckleheads, teachers who offend our taste, people who don't share our values, kids who want to be left alone, kids who get socially promoted, kids who can't read, or write, or do math but who make the kid next to them wonder what the hell they might be thinking.

Critical thinking doesn't come as cheaply as real estate these days. It comes as a tension between the complacent and the outrageous. And that's a good thing.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Eat Me

I'm afraid my taste in cookbooks is somewhat formulaic. I seem to like cookbooks by idiosyncratic New Yorkers who aren't afraid to swear prolifically in their books and pass on lots of tricks for making, essentially, interesting comfort food. The first example of this genre is the Les Halles Cookbook my new acquisition is Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin.

Shopsin has for 30 year or so run a funky little restaurant in the East Village that serves hundreds of dishes, made to order soups, all kinds of eggs, burritos, burgers, salads, you name it. The kind of stuff I like to eat but don't necessarily know how to make well. It is a family operation and a community edifice; slice of pre-gentrification NYC; a contemporary McSorley's Wonderful Saloon.

Now, I haven't eaten at Shopsin's, nor, for that matter cooked anything from it yet, but it is definitely an approach to cooking that appeals to me and should help add variety and flexibility to my cooking, which will soon have to deal with more customers in our kitchen.

In other news, I smoked a brisket for the first time today. It came out pretty well, but I think it would have taken about 36 hours to cook in the smoker, so I put it in the oven to finish. Dad brought up some chunks of cherry wood which was a welcome change from Hickory.

Straight Sleaze Express

Josh Marshall:

But here's the key point, one that is getting too little attention. President Bush's father didn't run the Willie Horton ad. And this President Bush, however much they may have been funded by his supporters and run with Karl Rove's tacit approval, didn't run the Swift Boat ads. These were run by independent groups. Just how 'independent' we think they really are is a decent question. But even the sleaziest campaigns usually draw the line at the kind of sleaze they are wiling to run themselves under their own name.

I have no idea why the Republicans chose to do it this way, especially since everyone thought they'd need the 527's to do a lot to make up Obama's big advantage in direct campaign funds. It is mysterious.

Voter Fraud

According to my parents, I'm still registered to vote in Huntingdon, PA, despite my parents efforts over the years to get me off the rolls in a spirit of community orderliness. However, if I actually tried to vote in Huntingdon, Judge Taylor would probably spot me and bust my ass. See, that's the difference between spurious voter registration and voter fraud. One is much easier than the other.

You Can't Win If You Don't Play


Digital media and learning competition: I submitted a proposal to the DML competition. The gist of our project plan is to reach out to and support the Sugar community of educators and software developers. We are seeking resources to expose more teachers and learners to the features and benefits of Sugar and further enable its use by: (1) stabilizing the software to the point where it is turnkey; (2) working with and learning from diverse communities that seek better ways to educate children; and (3) growing the number of users of and contributors to Sugar. I made a similar proposal to the Google 10^100 program; the focus is on building our developer and user communities.

I've been known to complain about the lack of philanthropic funding for educational open source software, but the flip side of that is that you can't get receive grants you don't apply for (I would note that I haven't sought additional funding for core development of SchoolTool because it seems unlikely we'd get additional funding pre-release, i.e., we need to prove we can ship and have something other people will write grants around).

Sugar (and Sugar Labs) is establishing a good precedent here and has a doubly important role because it could become the foundational technology that other free education software could be built upon.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Conference Presentations Suck

As a genre, conferences presentations suck. There are myriad reasons why, but the bottom line is that it doesn't take a little more effort to go from a meh presentation/conference to a great one. It takes three, four, five times as much effort -- that is assuming that you've got something interesting to say at all.

Either way, for most people it is simply not worth the extra effort. They're giving presentations because they're good at doing something, not necessarily talking about it. It would be, objectively, a mis-allocation of the time of the vast majority of humanity to bother coming up with really good conference talks. That time is better spent elsewhere, unless you're a salesman. Wishing for better conference talks is like wishing for more industrious workers for your collective farm. It just isn't going to happen.

It is particularly disheartening that education conferences suck as much as all others. One would imagine that teachers would be inherently good at this, but consider the opposite. Would people who give good conference talks always be good schoolteachers?

Unconferences are a good way of compensating for the fact that conference presentations suck.

What I completely don't get is the virtual conference, or the internet broadcast of typically crappy real-world conferences.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Enough with the Ohio

I'm getting a little tired of the press seeking out white working class rural voters and the final remnants of America's heavy manufacturing base to determine if every single one of them is ready to vote for Obama (hint: no). These are dying demographics. Meanwhile:

Friday, October 17, 2008

Kill the Dude with the Thing

One of the many things you can learn playing video games.

Fennec: Mobile Firefox Browser

Fennec Alpha Walkthrough from Madhava Enros on Vimeo.

via Chris Blizzard.

The one problem with the XO not having a touchscreen is that more and more "mobile" apps that are otherwise well suited for the XO will assume you've got a touchscreen.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

How Recessions Feel


Almost everyone needs help, and many fewer people than usual are in a position to give it. Not just material help, either: those of you who haven't lived through a serious recession might not know just how much of a strain it is when everyone is hurting, no one can count on making it financially, nothing the country tries seems to work, businesses are shuttered, neighborhoods go dead, and couples all over the country stare at one another over piles of bills, wondering how on earth they're going to manage.

And it lasts for years.

I think it's going to get really ugly, in ways we haven't seen for decades. It's always a good time to try to be generous and decent, but never more so than when times are tough all around.

I would note that I can't imagine we'll maintain an educational policy through this that defaults to labeling schools as failures and promotes constant administrative reshuffling and reorganization. Generating false crises is an indulgence for flush times.


EurekaAlert via Region 19 BOE Gazette:

For African American and Hispanic students only, participation in fine arts led to significantly better earnings compared to whites.

Not that you should need an economic argument to teach (or live) the arts.

App Store = Android Market = Ubuntu Repository

One aspect of Linux distributions that we haven't done a good job of promoting is their use of package management and software repositories. For instance, we tend to refer to this using terms like "package management" and "software repositories" which don't mean anything to regular users. In the meantime, over the years people trying to use Linux often find that installing software is hard. This is mostly because they do not RTFM, and they try to follow the more difficult methods they learned for Windows and the Mac. It is also because the first things many users want to install are proprietary software like Flash, which can't use the standard methods for installing free software.

What the iPhone's App Store and Google's Android Market are going to do is get people used to the convenience of selecting and installing software from a central repository. Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora and other Linux distros have had the same thing for years, with one significant advantage -- by default, everything in their "store" is free. So this is a marketing opportunity for free software, if we can take advantage of it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The New Hooverism

Fred Clark:

That maintenance deficit doesn't appear in the figures tossed around when we talk about the size of the budget deficit, but the total amounts may be even higher. Our bridges, highways, dams, levies, rail systems, power grid, power generation, broadband, water, sewage and food inspection infrastructure is all languishing from years of neglect and insufficient investment. These things are not luxuries and they are not options. They are national emergencies -- bright flashing red lights on the national control panel.

Spending on projects like these is exactly what non-stupid economics prescribes for a financial crisis like the one we're currently facing. It's also something we desperately needed to do anyway. Such spending may increase annual deficits in the short term, but investing in infrastructure pays long-term dividends that will more than pay for themselves over time. What we have here, in other words, is a solution neatly divided into two crises.

As long as we don't listen to the McCains, the Brokaws, the Lehrers, the editorial wisemen and the rest of the Hoover Brigade, we should be OK.

Gradebook Sprint at PloneConf

Last weekend the Arlington Career Center hosted the post-PloneConf Plone sprint. SchoolTool took the opportunity to piggy-back a little sprint on our gradebook.

We started by going through a specification document that the Arlington Public Schools created to guide their upcoming selection of a new gradebook. Jeff Elkner and David Welsh helped us prioritize these, sorting requirement-laden index cards into piles.

Based on that process, Douglas Cerna, visiting from El Salvador, and Alan Elkner worked on adding category weighting to the grade book, e.g., tests are 30% of the grade, homework 20%, etc. They completed the basic implementation, with just a few known edge cases remaining to be cleaned up. Filip Sufitchi added Javascript hooks to the gradebook view and implemented fill-down to enter the same grade in a given column, while still having enough time to attend the Thomas Jefferson High School homecoming dance.

Beyond coding, Jeff, David, Filip and did a phone interview with education reporter Suzie Boss, which will hopefully result in some well-deserved CanDo buzz. Jeff and I also met with the technology director of the Arlington Education and Employment Program to discuss uses for SchoolTool in adult ed programs. This is potentially a good case for us if we could figure out how to get the funders of these programs to see that putting open source administrative software in the hands of their grantees would make their program evaluation much more efficient. I also got to introduce Jeff to fellow travelers Brian Jepson (Make) and Joan Peckham (URI/NSF) over dinner Saturday. Overall, it was a very productive weekend.

Sun in K-12

Chris Dawson has been convinced that Sun is starting a push in K-12. This makes sense technically, since virtualization, thin clients and their open source software stack are all maturing and starting to make sense economically and environmentally.

I don't know if it will work as a business strategy, and I don't care one way or another if Sun sells schools hardware, but I would point out that a trivially small amount of sponsorship money (in the grand scheme of things) would be of great help to the open source in schools community and provide a nicely leveraged branding platform for an open source friendly company like Sun.

Scratch Goes Un-Free

To recap briefly, I've posted in the past (I think those posts are lost) about Scratch's annoying take on open source software.

That is: in your NSF grant proposal state that you're going to do ongoing public source code releases; actually license the software under a permissive free software license; while not making it impossible to access the source code, disable the standard method of doing so; when asked about this respond as if confused as to why anyone would think you should be publicly releasing the source, despite the fact that the people of the USA are paying you on exactly those published terms, which you volunteered unprompted in your original proposal.

Still, it is kind of a technical point -- the software was released under a recognized free and open source license. They just made you find a work around on their forums to get to the actual source.

In the current release, they've made things much, much worse. They've given you instructions on accessing the source (good), but they've stopped using a free software license and switched to a non-commercial license (bad, bad, bad). From a licensing point of view, they've forked the project.

Briefly, there are a few problems with this. Nobody knows what a non-commercial license means in this case. Can I, a professional educational technology consultant, hand you a cd with Scratch on it? Can I train you to use it? Since it is un-free software it cannot be put in Debian, Ubuntu, Red Hat, or any other free software distribution. Can it be shipped on the XO? This license significantly restricts the distribution of Scratch to children around the world, and to what benefit?

Just to be clear, I don't have complicated or obscure desires about what Scratch (and other publicly funded educational software) should do: use a free software license and make the source code publicly available. That's it. I don't know whether MIT, the Media Lab, or the Scratch team is responsible for these problems, but the children and educators of the world deserve better treatment.

This Is the Kind of Thing People in Ed-Tech DON'T Say

Tim Bray:

Technology adoption has to be free. Technology deployment has to be real cheap. When you scale a system up and you’re getting business value for it, that’s when you can actually write a proposal for infrastructure and support that won’t get turfed by the nearest corporate-finance person.

Take-Ways · Two seem obvious: First, use Open Source. Second, if you’re doing a startup, and you were thinking of the Enterprise Software business model, think again. Because nobody’s going to be cutting those big software-license POs.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Standards-Based Grading

I still can't believe that 15 years or so into a broad-based nationwide consensus (or as close as we'll ever get to one) around standards-based education that standards-based grading is still uncommon. It is absurd. It is also a reminder that parents are often a significant brake to reform.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Getting Through the Tough Times


I got more and more convinced that we in the developed world are in for a pretty severely shitty period; short and deep or long and shallow; let me just say that I hope it’s one of those two. Then when I got to the show, it was jam-packed with starry-eyed young geeks high as a kite about how they were gonna build the next mega-viral social-networking stream-aggregating tag-driven microformat-rich video-focused Facebook-beating Kozmick Web Nexus, and I was thinking “Yeah, well actually some of you are gonna be looking for work pretty soon.” So, since these people are my tribe and I care about them, I just had to rewrite the talk.

The Universe Goes Planetside?

It is ironic that the real world home of my favorite game universe based on cut-throat capitalism, piracy, intrigue and outright warfare is being devastated by a real world financial crisis. In the meantime, however, in-game financial news is good!

Rens – Six Kin Development, one of the Republic's largest construction firms, was awarded a government contract today for the construction of a number of new housing developments in decaying urban centers throughout the Republic. Urban Management, which is managing the contract, awarded the contract to Six Kin only two weeks after the company released its line of new biotech construction materials and designs, a technology previously almost unknown outside the Federation and the State.

These new projects are intended to replace thousands of residential units that are in poor shape largely due to shortfalls in maintenance funds over the last few decades. The proposed replacements will use the latest in advanced construction techniques to improve the quality of the dwellings and reduce maintenance costs. They will also include many of the aforementioned biotech products, including those designed to improve air quality and provide greenspaces within housing developments, part of an effort by Urban Management to reduce the air pollution that afflicts many Minmatar urban centers.

Six Kin's plans have raised many eyebrows in- and outside the Republic. This is one of the few times in recent memory where a Minmatar corporation has been asked to take on such a cutting-edge project. Most suspect this is an effort by Prime Minister Shakor to both promote domestic industry, instead of contracting to Federation corporations as has been done in the past, and showcase the technological progress of the Republic while war continues to rage on the border with the Amarr.

Sprinting in Arlington

I'm at the Arlington Career Center this weekend, where we're having a small sprint on the SchoolTool gradebook with Jeff and Alan Elkner, Douglas Cerna (from El Salvador), Filip Sufitchi (a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology). We're making some progress with planning and coding.

Also occupying the school are about 150 Plone sprinters who are following up on this week's PloneConf. Once again, Arlington leads the way in showing how two way collaboration between schools and the free software community can work: the hackers provide the school with great software, the school occasionally provides the space for them to work.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

My Employer on the Current Economic Crisis

Mark Shuttleworth:

I’m nervous.
The big question I’m asking is which sidelines don’t have landmines? My team and I are fortunate to have stepped out of many markets before the current flood of fear. We stepped right into a few problems, but in large part dodged the cannonballs. So far so good. But what does it mean to have cash in the bank, when banks themselves are failing? What does it mean to hold dollars, when the dollar is being debased in a way that would feel familiar to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe? These are very dangerous times, and nobody should think otherwise.


Kudos to CASTLE for supporting Edjurist, a blog covering school law. The interpretation of law, which is often via paranoid hearsay and self-interested marketing, has a huge effect on how we implement IT in schools. In particular, it is the ultimate conversation-ender: "We can't do that because it is illegal."

These two posts on e-discovery are essential:

As I mentioned above, the e-discovery amendments for the first time introduced into the FRCP explicit provisions regulating the disclosure and production of electronically stored information. Since then, a misconception has developed among some public education practitioners that institutions using such information must therefore now archive all electronic information in case it is later needed in discovery, despite their prior practices and despite the lack of any anticipated litigation concerning the information in question. No such independent duty was created by any of the e-discovery amendments adopted in 2006, and no such duty exists anywhere else in the FRCP (although state education laws or administrative codes may require otherwise). As I will explain further in a future post, under the FRCP, an institution may be required to halt the routine destruction of electronically stored information once litigation has begun, but outside that limited circumstance, the e-discovery amendments do not require the archiving of any electronic information not previously stored.

There is nothing about e-discovery that requires schools to archive all electronic communication coming in and out of a school -- a common argument for blocking virtually all websites that allow user posting.

Another excellent post is Revisioning The Justification For School Employee Legal Education, which starts to make the case that education for democracy requires, in turn, education of educational lawyers about education for democracy.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Extending SchoolTool With Grok

A big part of my vision for SchoolTool is to create an 100% open source platform to help schools create their own administrative tools, for tracking things like IEP's, disciplinary reports, or alternative assessments. Over the past 20 years schools have done this with Access, Filemaker, FoxPro, and other commercial systems. Now, a few are using web frameworks like Ruby on Rails or open CMS's like Drupal and Moodle for some of these tasks.

As SchoolTool approaches our beta and 1.0 releases, our longer term story for extending SchoolTool is looking brighter, thanks in part to developments with Grok. SchoolTool is built using the Zope 3 framework, which, unfortunately, has had a higher barrier for entry -- that is it is more difficult to learn to program with -- than the newer generation of frameworks like Rails or Django. Grok is a new layer that works on top of the Zope 3 libraries, but incorporates the conventions that make the new frameworks so accessible. And happily for SchoolTool, Grok is taking care to make its components accessible to other Zope 3 programs.

The upshot of this is that, well, a year from now at most, we should have some very nice documentation on how to save time and money by using SchoolTool and Grok to create simple applications for your school. Not to mention that in the long run it will probably make our core developers more efficient.

Kudos to the Grok Project!

A Generous Mind

Alan Kay's comment on jazz and programming over on Mark Guzdial's blog is just full of wonderful:

And, there are the difficulties of learning jazz (even listening to it) that arise from its developed aspects -- to the point that most young people would not recognize e.g. the blues as being one of the foundations of jazz, but because of its simplicity and use in pop culture, generally think of it as pop music. Since two of the main elements of pop culture are identity and participation, the tendency is for extremely accessible forms that require little learning to be invented and used as tokens and symbols of membership. As jazz got more developed, it fell out of the pop culture because of the learning that most of its best art requires.

I think computing has quite a few points of similarity with this range of properties of music, but with only 50 or so years of development. Perhaps the most important for this discussion is the difficulty of moving from pop ideas to developed ideas as a *creator* of new developed ideas. The trade-off here is that we find creativity all the time in pop music, but there is little substance in most (but not all) of it (it is easy to have weak ideas), whereas getting fluent in a huge developed genre tends to kill creativity (in part because having a good idea in an already developed area is difficult). Another trade-off is between the acts of improvisation and composition which are similar in one sense and could not be more different in other aspects. These are rarely confused by jazz musicians, but I think are confused all the time in computing. [...]

Down deep, I think that it is a reasonable sense of *quality* that is lacking in computing, and there are many reasons for this. Not the least of which are available jobs for programmers who can just fog a mirror, and greedy universities (now businesses) that value retention and the fees thereof above the sacred duties they used to have to define and impart high levels of quality.

Richard Archambault also used to spin a different jazz/education analogy in Philosophy of Education classes at Brown. I was lucky to catch his last year of teaching.

Be Thankful

There will be no job for Dick Morris in an Obama White House.

Scaling Up Fleet Combat in EVE

EVE Insider Dev Blog:

That Saturday, out of the blue we saw one of the nodes supporting 0.0 go to Critical status and shortly afterwards it shut down. This happened a few more times in quick succession, and it became apparent that there was a new issue where extremely loaded nodes were simply not able to keep up with their heartbeat. This issue in itself is fixable and we are working hard to get it resolved.

At this point, it was apparent that with 700+ players trying to "pew pew", the AMD node they were on was not going to do anything other than keep crashing. We re-mapped the system in question to one of our dedicated Intel blades, just to see what it was capable of. Jita had performed so well the night before, that we thought these nodes would handle a fleet fight quite nicely. The system held, and the rest, as they say, is history.

On Sunday night, the M-OEE8 System was the hotspot and it had been placed on an Intel 64 bit dedicated SOL blade in anticipation. It held fine with a peak of around 450 players.

On Monday night, over 1000 players tried to start a fight in this system. As with Sunday, we had anticipated there would be fighting there, so it had been placed on a dedicated node. Unfortunately, what had caused node crashes at 700 players on our AMD blades caused our Intel blade to miss its heartbeat after going a bit over 1200 players. Interestingly enough, despite missing its heart beat, many players have reported that the performance of this blade with 1000 players was very good in the 10 - 15 minutes prior to its shutdown.

I would like to stress that we at CCP are very excited by this, and we are very hopeful that once the issue causing these node deaths is solved that we will start to see this impressive performance much more often. A lot of people have put in a lot of hard work towards new technologies and it is starting to pay off for you, the players.

Of course, once you can handle 1000 ship battles, everyone will try to pile in for a 2000 ship scrum...

Monday, October 06, 2008

Hobnobbing with the Coastal Liberal Elite

Jennifer, Vivian and I went out on Sunday to Clingstone for an Obama fundraiser hosted by the Woods. We all had a blast.

Vivian's ready to get on the boat:


A cloudy but dry day:


This is blurry, but captures (well, hints at...) some of the colors around the foundation of the house:


A jazz guitar and trumpet duo provided some entertainment next to a warm fire:


Vivian says "I had fun!"


I Don't Think This Metaphor Means What You Think It Means

Jay Mathews:

For the past several years, D.C. schools have ranked near the bottom of city school systems in student achievement. They are the educational equivalent of the financial services industry and need the same kind of bitter medicine being prescribed for those downfallen businesses.

Meaning, what? Taxpayer bailout?

Bleeding the DC Schools with Leeches

Isn't "For Kids' Sake, Power to Fire Teachers Crucial" (WaPo, Sept. 29) comprehensively rebutted by "D.C. List Shows 90 Teacher Vacancy" (WaPo, Sept. 29)? Also, Eduwonkette.

There is no light at the end of this tunnel.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

This Is Not Change We Can Believe In, My Friends

Coronation of Empress Jamyl Launches New Era for the Amarr Empire:

Amarr - Jamyl Sarum, the resurgent heir to the Sarum royal family, was today crowned Empress of the Amarr Empire. In a ceremony that began with her arrival amidst a huge assembly of Imperial Navy warships, interim Court Chamberlain Hemirin placed the sacred crown upon Her Majesty, declaring her the "Holy Ordained Empress of Creation".

Friday, October 03, 2008

Why is this "Plan B?"

So Michelle Rhee is going to start enforcing the existing D.C. teacher's union contract's provisions on firing and transferring teachers, in part with administrative support from her foundation friends. Fair enough. What took so long? I mean, what's the point in making big noise about changing the contract if you don't take advantage of the power you've got in the current one?

The End of the Reagan Revolution

Andrew Leonard:

The moral authority of the Reagan revolution has collapsed. It will be many, many years before a Republican can address the nation with a straight face and declare that what we need is more deregulation. Oh, they'll try it -- I've heard Senators and Representatives make that very case this week. But the majority of Americans will not pay attention to their garbage. [...]

The spectacle of this enormous bailout is an undeniable refutation of the ruling philosophy of the last 30 years. Government has failed us. If this country survives the economic turmoil that is sure to come, we will never be the same. We might even end up better off, because of it.

Digital Media in a Recession

It will be interesting to see how what looks to be a severe recession impacts the new media economy. In relatively flush economic times (which, all things considered, describes the past 15 years or so), perhaps the "give away the music and make money on t-shirts and touring" model works, or the "1000 True Fans" model works. In the near futher, a lot more people will download the music and simply not have enough money to buy the optional fancy packaging or fill their tank with gas to drive across the state to a show. It may be tough for artists. There is nothing to be done about the change in technology; we may actually be forced reconsider how we fund the arts to publicly subsidize more activity.

On the other hand, lots more young people will have time on their hands and fewer prospects, which is often good for rock and roll, at least.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Trumka on Race, Labor and Obama

I've gotten to see Richard Trumka speak in person a few times, and it is always a pleasure, although it probably comes across better irl compared to YouTube. via Sullivan.

Another Example of Why You Can Only Trust Free Software

The discovery of surveillance of Skype messages in China is particularly disturbing since I advised my sister that Skype would be the most convenient and secure means to communicate with her friends in China.

That Would Explain a Lot


Do we really know whether or not Sarah Palin is Sacha Baron Cohen's greatest role?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Economics-Driven Educational Philosophy and Vice Versa

As most of my readers know, lots of pundits in the education and educational technology space like to point to long-term economic trends and predictions as arguments for their preferred reform initiatives. So, on the surface, one might be surprised that there is precious little discussion of our recent economic upheaval on relevant education blogs -- in particular from the the 21st century learning and ed-tech scene. You would think that the unraveling of what has been a relatively stable system for the past 30 years or so would draw some comment.

The primary explanation is that education-policy centered analyses have simply ignored financial services, despite the fact that it has become the largest sector of the private economy. Finance, as an industry didn't fit the storyline -- the only storyline that fits is the "we need those experts from finance to come in and show the educators how it is done" -- so it just didn't exist. People like to talk about kids becoming artists or doctors or scientists or carpenters or community organizers but who wants to talk about them becoming insurance adjusters, stock pickers or hedge fund managers? I'm rather fond of a report that came out a few years ago called "Education for What? The New Office Economy" for telling the unsexy truth about how our economy actually works and what a reliable path to upward economic mobility looks like, if that's what you're actually interested in.

Arguments about education policy based on economic theories and projections are basically a hoax. People don't change their educational philosophy to match economics. They just pick economic ideas that buttress what they already believe about education. If you don't believe me, just keep an eye out for people changing their ideas about education in response to what will probably be pretty drastic changes in our economic outlook and let me know if you see anyone doing anything other than trying to cope with budget cuts.

Bush's Legacy

Brennan Center for Justice, via digby:

Today the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law released one of the first systematic examinations of voter purging, a practice—often controversial—of removing voters from registration lists in order to update state registration rolls—click here for report. After a detailed study of the purge practices of 12 states, Voter Purges reveals that election officials across the country are routinely striking millions of voters from the rolls through a process that is shrouded in secrecy, prone to error, and vulnerable to manipulation. Upon the release of Voter Purges, today the Brennan Center and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law began filing public records requests with election officials in 12 states in order to expose the purges that happened this year.

EVE Backend Upgrades

EVE devblog:

Normally Jita (solar system) reaches a maximum of about 800-900 pilots on any given Sunday. On the Friday following the deployment of StacklessIO, 19 September, there were close to 1,000 concurrent pilots in Jita and on the Saturday, 20 September, the maximum number reached 1,400. This is more than have ever been in Jita at the same time. Under our old network technology Jita could become rather unresponsive at 800-900 pilots but on the Sunday, 21 September, it was quite playable and very responsive with 800 pilots, thanks to StacklessIO.

All that's running on Stackless Python.