Friday, March 24, 2006

A Belated Appreciation for Blogging in Education

I've always felt that writing is important. Which may explain why I can't bear to throw anything written away--from my own grade school papers, to any book I've ever bought. It's a great frustration to my wife, who (accurately) asks the question: "When will you ever even look at this stuff--in bookshelves all throughout the house, or stored in boxes in the attic or garage--again?"

I believe there is a significant power in thoughts, and writing, for me, is the most vital way to try to understand, communicate, and record those things in life which have the most meaning. I can imagine living without a lot of things in life, but not the written word. There are thoughts that I can identify that just having been thought, or encountered, changed my life from that moment forward. The complex structure that makes up my understanding of life and what kind of person I am supposed to be are built on a framework of ideas, most of which have been captured and expressed by someone who wrote them down for me to encounter later and to make a part of who I am. A couple of years ago I determined to record what I thought were the most important ideas that guide me in my life. The list got very long, and for several months I would remember one or another new one each day. It has been a fascinating experience.

I've also been a pretty regular journal-writer for much of my life, which I have always felt gives my day-to-day experiences more profound meaning, and allows reflection and perspective. So it is surprising to me that I wasn't really aware of blogging as an academic tool until just the past couple of weeks. And as I have "Googled" the topic and read enthusiastic reports from teachers, I've come to a belated appreciation of blogging as a educational tool. In fact, I would have to say that I can imagine blogging ushering in a significant era in education. Which makes sense to me--I don't think it's usually the glitzy technologies which really make an impact on us, but the more simple, profound changes that a technology allows, like blogging.

So what is it about blogging that is so profound, and makes it such a powerful teaching tool? I think it is because blogging re-invents writing as a dynamic, active method of communicating ideas. And communicating ideas requires that we refine and purify those ideas if we want others to understand them and communicate back to us. Certainly, watching the incredible desire to communicate that is released by sites like MySpace.com has to remind us of how much each of us wants to express ourselves to others. While the more disciplined and structured blogging of an educational setting may not have the immediate excitement to students of MySpace, it still brings the important element: an audience, that is, eyes that will challenge and provide feedback. It's hard not to see some significant good there.

I've had my share of concerns about the Internet, technology as an addiction, and the difficulty of being only a few clicks away from pretty bad stuff. But blogging has me enthusiastic again.

Computers and Academic Performance - From the Front Lines

Daniel Howard is an interested parent who helped set up computers at Brandon Elementary in Georgia. By using Linux thin client technology with donated computers (see my explanations of this at www.TechnologyRescue.com), he has been able to increase the number of working PCs from 1 or 2 per classroom to 7 or 8--and he has done so for significantly less time and money than it would have cost to install new computers. Students who were used to getting only a couple of hours a week on the computer are now likely to have an hour a day.

One of the most enthusiastic adopters of this technology at Brandon Elementary is a first-grade teacher, and a letter from her to Mr. Howard is below. Granted, computers in the classroom are not a cure-all, and in this case it is not hard to read between the (articulate) lines of this letter to see that the benefits of additional computers have likely been significantly magnified by this teacher's understanding of how to use them. Nevertheless, Mr. Howard's use of Open Source software and Linux to bring more computers to the classroom has had an amazing effect.

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"Dear William and Daniel,

"Thank you so much for all of the time and energy you have put into the technology needs of Morris Brandon this year. I love the Linux software. My students are discovering fun, educational games to play every day.

"Having 7 working computers in my classroom has helped increase student performance in both reading and math. My students are able to access Accelerated Reader whenever they are finished reading a book. The average grade equivalent score of the students in my classroom on the Star Reading Test has jumped from 2.0 at the beginning of the year to 2.7 at the beginning of third quarter.

"I have seen an even larger jump in the mathematics computation scores of the students in my classroom. At the beginning of the year my students scored an average of 40.31% on a first grade computation test. At mid-year the average score of the students in my classroom had increased 48.44 points for a class average of 88.75%. Because of the number of working computers in my classroom, my students are able to access and play the First in Math Website more often than the students were able in years past. My class is now first in the nation for first grade students.

"I believe the academic success of my students is directly linked to the wonderful technology solutions that you have implemented at Morris Brandon. Thank you so much!"

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Mr. Howard is most interested in the measurement of academic performance as it relates to the number of PCs in a classroom, as well as the impact of Open Source software in this regard. Please direct any information you might have on this to him at dhhoward@comcast.net.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Soliciting Contributions for "Open Source In Education" Book

ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education
(www.iste.org), has asked me to coordinate the writing of a book on
Open Source Software in Education, which they will publish.

I'm interested in:

1. Ideas, feedback, brainstorming, etc. What topics should be
covered in this book? What specific programs? Who is the audience?
Are there books already written that we should look at?

2. Contributors. Would you like to contribute? Can you think of
someone I should make sure has a chance to contribute?

Please post this to any other lists you feel could help in this effort.

Thank you.

Steve

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Open Source Pavilion at the CUE.org Show

We've just returned home from the CUE.org (Computer Using Educators) show in Palm Springs, California--where Open Source "took the show by storm..." (an inside joke for those at the show, given the incredible wind storm on Thursday night and the snow storm Saturday!).

But certainly having 75 computers running Open Source software was a significant event, and our "Open Source Pavilion" was considered a great success by all involved, especially the show organizers. As part of a plan both to showcase Open Source software, and to simplify the show's evaluation process, the Open Source Pavilion was used as the exclusive evaluation area during the last part of the show, where attendees filled out an online evaluation and then received a show t-shirt in return. The show organizers had used words like "chaos" and "madness" to describe the frenzied hordes that would descend and do anything for a free t-shirt, but using the Open Source Pavilion turned out to provide a fast, streamlined, and calm experience for all involved.

The Open Source Pavilion was also host to eight presentations on Open Source software (see www.cue.org/conference/opensource), three of which (two on moodle, one on blogging and podcasting) attracted crowds so large that even bringing in more chairs could not accommodate all who wanted to attend. In a significant move, our Open Source sessions were listed in the general conference brochure along with all the other sessions, and our visibility was quite high, as we were mentioned by several of the regular speakers in their talks.

We ran 32 laptops with our EZWebPC software (a CD-based Linux operating system that just runs a web browser) in an "email garden" formation with access to a printer. The laptops, used IBM’s with no hard drives and generously provided by Computers & Education (http://www.crc.org/info/index.html), were frequently in heavy use and appreciated by many. We then ran 43 old desktop Dell Optiplexes in a lab\lecture setting, each converted to thin-client use and booting from our "NetBooter" device. These thin clients then connected with either of two Linux servers, one running Fedora Core, and the other running Ubuntu. It was quite something to have 75 stable, reliable computers set up and running in such quick fashion.

At our hosting tables in the Pavilion we had available free copies of the OpenCD and Ubuntu, and lots of reading material. Many participants had lots of questions, and some few said that they only came to the show to see our Pavilion. We've been asked to provide a similar (although not quite so expansive) area at the NECC 2006 show in San Diego in July, where our speakers will also be included in the general program bulletin. As well, CUE.org wanted to make sure we could come back next year. (Which will be a lot easier, now that we have all the ethernet cabling built!) All in all, a good showing!

Also: I was part of an interview on Open Source software in schools during the show, a webcast of which can be found at http://www.kidzonline.org/webcast/webcast.html?id=191


Seeing the Future: Local Internet and Yahoo Save the Day

Driving back from the CUE.org conference in Palm Springs this weekend, we encountered the unexpected: a blizzard (!), and the closure of I-5 over the Grapevine. We'd called CalTrans several times before reaching the Grapevine, but there was no notice of current conditions until we had just passed Burbank on the 10, and a flashing highway sign alerted us to the closure.

Turning off at an exit, then sitting in the parking lot of a close gas station, we pulled out our laptops. Six wireless networks appeared, thanks to the local apartment complex, we assume, one of which was open and allowed us access to the web. Yahoo local produced a really cool map of the hotels in the area, and we began calling them on cell phone one by one. Because of the weird weather and the road closure, it took six or seven calls to find an available room--and then a couple more to make sure we could get a room at a good price that also had broadband!

I consider myself relatively tech savvy--but even I was surprised at how dramatically this event demonstrated to me the power of ubiquitous internet access. I remember years ago, when I was in college, my father came to visit me and was shocked to find that I didn't carry cash with me--just an ATM card. Now, twenty-five years later, it's hard to imagine life without them.

And what did we do before cell phones?

If the rise of the web has seemed dramatic so far, just wait--there's so much more to come.

A Powerful Idea: Free Municipal WIFI, the Poor, and Used Computers

Here is an idea, I think, whose time has some.

I've been talking to folks in three different cities who are working to deploy free citywide wireless broadband projects, and I have been struck by something: these wifi projects gain political support in part as a means of providing internet access to the poor, or "bridging the digital divide." But actually helping the poor to take advantage of the wifi service is a hurdle that hasn't really been overcome. In fact, I called a company in the UK that specializes in putting in wireless in apartment buildings and hotels, and they said that their experience has been that the use of free wireless in apartment buildings can typically be measured by income: that is, the higher the income, the more likely someone is to actually take advantage of the free wireless. Presumably, that relates to the ability to purchase and configure the right computer equipment, which makes sense. (It's maybe a little like pulling into the Costco parking lot and seeing lots of expensive cars.) But it may also mean that those who need free wireless the most are still the least likely to get it.

But several interesting threads are now weaving themselves together to create a solution that could make free wifi the basis for significant social benefit.

Thread number one: every day, in this country, there are 100,000 computers that become obsolete. My personal estimate is that less than 5% get reused here. The rest are shipped overseas, scrapped (sometimes because of data security issues), or just stored. Most cities have one or two non-profit computer refurbishers, but for all the good work that they do, the volume of computers that they produce is significantly constrained by our general lack of interest in using something that is not considered "current" technology, and by the cost of re-licensing the computer with the latest operating system.

Thread number two: the internet appliance--that is, a computer designed just to surf the web-- has not been successful in the past, but is an idea waiting for its time to come. There is still the difficulty of manufacturing and marketing something this specific, since the "traditional" PC defines our concept of personal computing. But with "Web 2.0" fast becoming a reality, a computer that uses the web browser as it's platform (what I call a "WebStation") seems more likely to be a reasonable tool in many circumstances. The used computer, as the entry point for the WebStation, would allow its introduction without the heavy manufacturing costs.

Thread number three: cities and public schools are providing more content, services, and resources on the web, and they have a definite motivation to provide a way for everyone to have access to the web. In the case of a school district, the ability for the administration to assure email and web contact with each student's parents--and for the parents to have access to the schools online administrative, attendance, and record-keeping systems--may actually save money in some areas.

Thread number four: the software to turn a used computer into a web-browsing appliance, or WebStation, is available for free using Linux and Firefox. (To test, download from www.PublicWebStations.com or www.LiveKiosk.com.) Because just running a web browser consumes fewer resources than a traditional full operating system, a Pentium II level computer with 128 MB of RAM works quite well. More than this, these programs can run directly from the CD-ROM or a flash module instead of the hard drive, which could actually drive better donations streams from corporations--as they would be able to destroy their hard drives as part of the process, thus assuring that no sensitive data is ever at risk of being compromised.

These threads lead to an elegant, powerful, inexpensive solution: take the excess computers that cities, school districts, and private companies have in significant numbers, add a wireless network card to them, and use WebStation software to now assure that everyone in a municipal wifi area who needs internet access will have that access at an inexpensive cost. Brilliant, I think.

You also end up solving the traditional nightmare of providing computers, especially used computers, to the poor: training and service. A "WebStation" would require no training beyond how to use a web browser, and because there is no hard drive in the machines, they are essentially maintenance-free: no hard drives or storage means no viruses and no spy ware.

We're currently moving forward with this concept, and encourage anyone with interest to make contact with me directly at steve@hargadon.com.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

More on Ed Tech in Rebuilding the Gulf

After I expressed concern in my previous post "Rebuilding Technology in Gulf Coast Schools" (27 Feb 06) about the missed opportunities to deploy used computers immediately into schools in the Gulf, I had a good email dialogue with Laura G. Ascione, Assistant Editor of eSchool News. Main excerpts:

LAURA:
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I appreciate your eMail, and it’s good to know that eSchool News is reaching people. This story was the result of a trip that I took down to New Orleans and Baton Rouge with the eSchool News publisher, and it focused on the Plaquemines Parish school system. The Intel effort will definitely be over the long haul, because these schools have a long way to go in terms of rebuilding. When I visited the Plaquemines Parish, I was confronted with a reality that TV and newspapers can’t really convey. There is not a single building that is not damaged in some way – businesses, schools, homes. These communities and towns have a long road ahead of them, and Terry Smithson of Intel told me that this initiative wasn’t formed with short-term results in mind. It will take a long time to help rebuild – not only to rebuild the schools, but to also rebuild communities. Intel hopes to help build those schools from the ground up, so that each school is in its entirety a 21st Century school.

At times it has been difficult to contact schools and to pinpoint which schools are receiving technology equipment. Some districts I’ve spoken with have received computers, etc. through local donations. Others are still waiting. I agree that, with the focus on those schools that have been totally destroyed, functioning schools in areas that were not as badly damaged are probably still waiting to receive computers and other technology equipment. Of course, immediately deploying computer equipment to schools IS glamorous and exciting to us here at eSchool News! I don’t even know how many schools are waiting for computers and other technology devices, but it’s been six months – entirely too long.

The portion of the story that refers to “schools that will receive networked laptops…” was taken from the Plaquemines Parish school system’s plan to rebuild schools – this is the school board’s technology plan for the district, and it isn’t yet clear where those resources will be coming from. I included that in the story because the parish has such ambitious plans to rebuild its schools and its technology. Still, that amount of technology is not mentioned in other districts’ rebuilding plans – the consulting team that presented a plan to rebuild the New Orleans schools made no reference whatsoever to technology. And even though the Plaquemines Parish hopes to have a great technology program, you’re right – other schools probably won’t. It remains to be seen whether the New Orleans schools will in fact be rebuilt better than they were.

STEVE:
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I just know that the "buzz" I have heard is concern that these kind of high-profile projects often fade away, and that one of the dangers of them is that their initial visibility detracts from other smaller, often more realistic, efforts.

Nancy Jo Craig of CACRC says that living in the New Orleans area is like living in a third-world country, and that the resources of those schools were often abysmal before the hurricane. I don't expect you to dig through my blogs, but one of my personal themes is that in the effort to provide cutting-edge technology we miss some significant opportunities. The local school district here raises, and then spends, an incredible amount of money on computers--but can't afford to fund many other activities because of it. And some aspects of teaching computers (networking, web hosting, programming) can be done on computers that are so old they are stuck in most people's closets. If you've read my posts, I'm repeating myself, but 70% of the world's webservers run on the free and open source program Apache--which can be taught on a Pentium one, would give a real-world skill, and even an impoverished student could continue to use the program after graduating.

Another good contact in this regard, should you ever want to go down this road, is Jeff Elkner from Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia, When I hosted the Open Source Pavilion at NECC in Philadelphia last summer, Jeff brought his computer students, who were your quintessential geeks. Geeks who had been trained in Linux and free software programming, any of whom I would have hired right out of high school because their technical skills were so high. I know that teaching computers is not just about teaching technical skills, but the point being that you don't need the latest technology to teach real skills.

LAURA:
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...Your comments raised an interesting point, one that I’d like to bring up in future interviews with Gulf Coast educators – when affected schools and districts receive computers to replace those that were damaged in the storm, are they brand-new or are they used. I’d be really interested to know whether educators have requested new equipment, or have requested equipment that is not necessarily new, but still works well.

You mentioned that teaching computers isn’t just about teaching technical skills, but that people don’t need to use the most cutting-edge technology to teach those real-world skills. I couldn’t agree more. Learning those skills on used computers might not be as “exciting” as placing a brand-new laptop in front of a student, but those skills are what make people attractive in the workplace. It’s especially interesting to me that the school district in New Orleans, which was so poor to begin with, is spending so much on new computers, yet the students are still suffering. I can think of at least 2 computers sitting in my parents’ basement that are still perfectly usable and could be donated (and probably would have, if my younger brother wasn’t in the habit of building new computers using the spare parts from older ones).

STEVE:
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I find that there are two main reasons why schools are reluctant to consider used computers:

1. They think they need the latest and greatest. On the one hand, this isn't always true, but the less you really know about something, the more comfortable it is to buy the newest model. On the other hand, this is real if you are teaching a program that is new and needs the latest technology. Certainly, my concern is that when you lump all computer uses into the category of needing the latest and greatest, you lose sight of the fact that learning to type, write a letter, browse the web, or create a spreadsheet are important tasks that don't require new technology. And the ability to understand how a computer work, to learn about networking, to set up a web server, and to program can be well taught on older computers.

2. They think that used computers are too much work to take care of. There is a lot of truth to this one. And it stems largely from the fact that replacing specialized parts that aren't consistent across all your computers can be a real hassle. It's so much easier to buy 25 or 50 or 500 of the exact same model, with a three-year warranty, and then not to have to worry about it. However, many schools just can't afford that, and with the right attitude and help, can learn to take care of a used-computer lab or installation quite well. And there is something to be said for the responsibility of doing so. Like schools that have the students help with the cleaning of the building, it builds an understanding of how we care for things and how they work.

I will agree that it is not really practical to accept donations of one or two computers here and there, that are all completely different models. But many businesses have quantities of identical computers that they can donate, and that significantly lessens the problems. Not to start getting too self-serving, but companies like mine specialize in selling large quantities of identical models (we specialize in the Dell Optiplex) for this very reason. You get the best of both worlds. The price of a used computer, but the quality, and standardization, of Dell.

OK, so as a liberal arts major who is also a geek, it is hard for me to watch how much we spend on computers, and then how quickly we discover we have to spend it again to keep current... There are no simple answers, but I would imagine that many schools and districts have already looked back and wondered if they could have used some of that money for other things.