Thursday, September 28, 2006

Interviews with Maddog Hall and John Selmys; Coming Up--Doc Searls and Richard Stallman

This week I've spoken to Jon "maddog" Hall and John Selmys about Free and Open Source Software in schools. Their recorded interviews are linked below. Tonight at 5pm PDT I interview Doc Searls (see to participate or listen real-time), and on Saturday, October 7, I'll be interviewing Richard Stallman at 7:30 am PDT.

Maddog (and he told me only his mom calls him Jon) is the Executive Director of Linux International, and even though I was struggling with a flu bug, he did a great job of succinctly communicating the value of Free and Open Source Software in education.

John Selmys is the organizer of the Seneca College Free and Open Source Software Symposium being held in Toronto this coming October 26 - 28.

While Maddog gave a great overview of the theoretical value of FOSS in schools, John S. gave a somewhat discouraging practical report on the lack of progress for FOSS in Toronto schools. In many ways, the combination of these two interviews is reflective of the reality of the situation with Free and Open Source Software.

Now, I know I must sound like I'm beating the same drum over and over again the last few weeks, but as Maddog was talking about the grassroots kind of assimilation that the FOSS world hopes for into the classroom, and John S. was talking about the top-level decision-making that is precluding FOSS from getting to the classroom, I couldn't help but continue to reflect on Larry Cuban's remarks from a couple of weeks ago. The lessons seem to be:

  1. Decision-making about technology in most schools is not made by the teachers themselves, but by higher-level policy-makers. And this is a political game, with lots of money at stake.
  2. Teachers are extremely busy (it was a little heart-wrenching to hear John S. talk about the restructuring in his area that has made it even harder for teachers). We cannot place the burden on them to learn about and integrate technology into what they do, as most simply don't have the time and are measured on other factors.
  3. There are early-adopter teachers who are utilizing technology actively in their classroom, but their adoption pattern is not the same as the average teacher, and so attempts to roll out technology initiatives on their experience historically haven't proven effective.
  4. Even though billions of dollars have been spent on educational technology, the computer has not really penetrated or transformed the average classroom experience.
  5. For technology to be truly integrated into the classroom, it will have to be so reliable and easy to use so that average teacher can participate in a grass-roots movement to bring it into the classroom, since it will likely buck the trend of decision-making at higher levels.

Now, I am sure that this is an oversimplification, but to me this last point really helps to explain why FOSS has not made more inroads in the classroom. It's not going to come from the top, since even though the cost savings and the openness of FOSS would have value to the school or district, the existing proprietary vendors have a financial interest in keeping their programs in use. And it can't come from the bottom, because to the average teacher, Linux and FOSS are no easier to use than their existing computer tools and the cost savings and openness are not as important to them. Linux, in particular, is significantly less difficult to maintain from an administrative level (where the decision-making won't necessarily be about that), but at the classroom level can even be harder to use for a teacher because it is unfamiliar.

So far I've focused on the classroom, but the computer lab (or technology training program) is another story that I'd still like to figure out. Maddog makes some great points about the use of Free Software (which is his preferred term) for training.

  1. Free software can be given to the students, and so there is no economic barrier to learning or to continued use outside of or after school.
  2. Much of the technologies that drive the Internet and the Web are based on Free Software, and so teaching these programs would be much more advantageous to students.
  3. Free software teaches you three times: once when you use the code, once when you investigate what it does and how it does it, and once when you improve it to make it better (particularly for the older students).
  4. Free software introduces students into the world of collaborative programming.
  5. Free software allows students to create their own computer labs (a la LTSP).
  6. Free software allows students to investigate everything from embedded systems to supercomputers.

I'm particularly fascinated by the potential for computer and programming classes to provide students with the opportunity to work on collaborative programs that would benefit their community. If you are seeing this done, would you please let me know so that I might focus some attention on it?

Listen to the Maddog Hall WebCast in MP3 format
Listen to Maddog Hall WebCast in Vorbis OGG format

Listen to the John Selmys WebCast in MP3 format
Listen to John Selmys WebCast in Vorbis OGG format

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Interview with Eric S. Raymond on Open Source Software

This wide-ranging interview with Eric Raymond didn't turn out to be the historical view of Open Source Software that I thought or hoped it would be. ESR, as he is know to the Open Source or "hacker" community, is one of the Open Source movement's "most recognized and controversial characters," and while we didn't delve into topics that were too controversial (well, except for his position on a liberal arts education), his responses to my questions were relatively brief and direct--leaving me ranging all over the map, trying to find some area for discussion that would benefit educators. I'm not sure I fully succeeded, but it was interesting!

Here are some of the items that we talked about:

  • Eric is a strong believer in the pragmatic aspects of Open Source Software, believing that the market will reward and promote Open Source because of the quality of results that it provides. He is less interested in the philosophical or moral arguments of Richard Stallman and the "Free Software" movement. He also felt, along with the other founders of the Open Source Initiative, that the phrase "open source" would be more likely to attract business support than "free software." When I tried to point out the links between this way of programming and the academic world--where knowledge is freely distributed--I felt he was a little guarded about making that association. I also think Eric's answers to the assumption of Open Source in schools depend on volunteers championing Open Source--which really depends on the philosophical commitment.
  • Eric's most well-known writing, an essay called "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," was a description of the methods used by Linus Torvalds to create the Linux kernel. While we didn't talk much about this, it does seem that Eric was seminal in describing a method of massive collaboration that had previously been believed could not produce high-quality results. While others have taken the principles from his essay and extended them into other spheres, he is less interested in doing so because his expertise is in programming. I have no such hesitation! Much of the interesting collaborative technologies that we call "Web 2.0" (blogs, wikis, social networking tools) seem to me to have both a technical and sociological roots in the Free and Open Source Software movements. He wasn't sure he actually believed there was a "Web 2.0," but I think my description was acceptable to him.
  • Eric definitely had some negative things to say about Wikipedia, and didn't want to concede a comparison between Open Source development and the collaboration of a wiki. I'm not sure I fully understood why, and I wasn't sure he was comparing "bests to bests"--both Open Source Software and wikis have successes and failures, and I felt like he he may have painted the picture of Open Source too positively.
  • Eric's view of Open Source Software in education was pragmatic: the quality of open source software will be better than proprietary software, and will ultimately win out. At the same time, he acknowledged that proprietary vendors are likely to provide financial incentives to keep schools using their software. I guess I am left feeling dissatisfied with both the Free Software and Open Source software answers to the question of adoption of their software in education. If the Free Software movement requires a moral or philosophical commitment by its users, it's not really realistic to think that is going to happen on a broad scale by educators who have to see the technology as a means to an end. In Eric's representation of the Open Source movement, there is a dependence on the free market to choose the best product, and I think we have to recognize that capitalism is often messier than that. With no financial backing or marketing of Open Source software, I'm not sure the best product does come to the top. My standard example for this is the Apache, which runs some 70% of the world's web servers, would be a great program for technical students to learn, but is virtually untaught in our schools--for there is no marketing money promoting it to schools.
  • In this vein, I asked Eric why we don't have a United States equivalent to South Africa's Mark Shuttleworth--that is, someone who has had financial success because of Open Source Software, and who then funds initiatives to provide the benefits of Open Source Software to schools. Eric's answer was that we can't count on someone like that--that Mark is a "random event." However, it does seem to me that the Free and Open Source Software movements in this country would be greatly benefited by such a "random event," and that a realistic view of marketing and publicity would accept it as very important for someone like that step forward.
  • I followed my thread from the Larry Cuban interview about computing in the classroom: basically, that the computer is still too complicated and unreliable to be fully integrated into or to transform the regular teacher's teaching methods. What has occurred to me recently, and which has been something of an eye-opener, is that this description of the problem does help to explain why Linux is not making more inroads in education. Among early adopters (those teachers who are willing to spend the extra time on technology), the idea of a freely available operating system has great appeal--but maybe we are being tricked in that way. Early adopters may not have the same needs or respond in the same way as mainstream educators, and maybe Linux isn't making more inroads because it essentially doesn't answer, any better, the needs of that individual mainstream teacher. While "free," and arguably more reliable, Linux is an unknown to most of them and doesn't actually present them with any more of an "appliance-like" classroom tool than a Windows machine. (The standards for me of "appliance-like" being the overhead projector and the iPod.) I then broached the topic with Eric of a more "appliance-like" computer, and he shot that down FAST. He said we can't expect that for 10 or 20 years. I'm not sure he's right. I think we don't have an "appliance-like" computer not because it's not technically possible--it surely is--but maybe because 1) we're not ready to trade reliability for reduced functionality, or 2) because the decision-makers for educational technology don't see the value. But it's not hard for me to imagine a read-only PC that runs the web, word processing, and spreadsheets, and saves to USB key only. We certainly have the technological capability of producing such a machine, although that doesn't mean it would be successful.
  • We did talk about the abundant changes in work that have been brought about by the Internet, collaboration, and a higher standard of living. I'll have explore this later, but one of the effects of the "Long Tail" world we now live in is that there are likely to be many more opportunities for us to work--as part of our vocations and avocations--on things that interest and motivate us. If our educational system has typically prepared us to have a breadth of skills, assuming we may not have much choice in what we ultimately do, how will that change when there is more choice? If schools continue to be rigid institutions without much integration of technology, will the charter, alternative, and homeschool movements become more and more attractive to students?
  • We did get into the fascinating topic of ownership or accessibility of "metadata" from Web 2.0 services. This is something Tim O'Reilly has talked about. I've been putting up on flickr all the photos of my ancestors that we have previously had in several boxes, and have been "tagging" them with information so that other family members can easily find them and help organize them. All of that data--the tags and the descriptions--is extremely valuable to me, and is really only accessible to me as long as I am using flickr. So what happens if flickr goes away, or has a system failure, or raises their prices so much that I want to switch services? I'm pretty locked in. No easy answers to this one, although Eric discusses the Open Source way of solving this issue.
  • We also talk about another favorite topic of mine--the changing nature of the commercial relationship between producer and consumer, and how Open Source has provided a model for more active participation in the creation of the end product. Again, I always use the simplistic example of American Idol, since the viewers actually end up helping to create (choose) the product (singer) that they are likely to purchase (music).

I'm grateful to Eric for taking the time to talk to me. Let's hope I've characterized the discussion accurately. :)

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Thursday, September 14, 2006 Interview: First Choice for Some Schools Now?

My conversation with Solveig Haugland, Ben Horst, & Randy Orwin on the popular Open Source program OpenOffice. This was a particularly interesting interview because Solveig has actually done teacher training for Bainbridge Island School District, where Randy is the Director of Technology, and they both had insight into the transition from a paid office program to OpenOffice.

According to Randy, the move to OpenOffice will save the district "hundreds of thousands of dollars," but he also seemed to indicate that version 2.0 of OpenOffice might actually makes it their first choice regardless of cost because of the features--particularly the ability to natively export to PDF format, the ability of OpenOffice to more easily read and repair documents than the commercial alternatives, and the ability to standardize on document formats because the students can use the OpenOffice for free at home as well.

It would be interesting to find out how many schools or districts are going through this same process of formally evaluating their office productivity software. As was pointed out this summer by two professors at Harvard (see "Microsoft vs. Open Source: Who Will Win?"), as soon as OpenOffice becomes a real threat to sales of commercial software, the commercial vendor will lower the price of that software to keep their "first-mover" advantage and visibility in the marketplace. That seems to me really likely to happen (in fact, Ben argues in the interview that it already has). And while that scenario might be disappointing to those who have worked so hard to create a viable Open Source alternative to the commercial programs, it would still have led to some really positive outcomes: first, choice; second, one of those choices being "free" (in both senses of that word); and third, a significant reduction in the amount of money schools have to spend for basic technology. "Hundreds of thousands of dollars" must surely make a big difference to a school district, their faculty, the students, and their parents. (I've already said how much I hate the additional fundraising that our schools do--especially when they take time to train the students to do it).

We also talked about the trends that have made the adoption of OpenOffice by schools much more likely:

  • OpenOffice has just gotten a lot better. Everyone agreed on this.
  • Office programs are really not adding features now that are significant for the bulk of use by most users. And, in fact, the adding of a lot of new features can actually work against basic productivity programs because they run the risk of being overly complicated.
  • Students are coming to school now from a computing world in which they are used to a large variety of choice. There are multiple IM, email, music, and other programs, and they have learned to navigate quickly between them to accomplish what they want. They aren't as bound by past experience as the previous generation, and are very adept at exploring and figuring things out. The "first-mover" advantage mentioned above won't mean as much to them.
  • Students are also using a lot of different programs to accomplish tasks that once were the sole domain of office productivity: most of their writing surely does not take place in a word processor (think online journals, blogs, texting, and social networking programs), and when they are "word processing" they have access to several web-based programs that are becoming more and more robust.
  • Randy and Solveig both seemed to indicate that OpenOffice, when shown to students and teachers, is often mistaken for the commercial alternative.

All in all, a pretty exciting time for OpenOffice, and for user choice, I think.

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Friday, September 08, 2006

Interview with Larry Cuban, Author of “Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom”

The link above is to my interview with Larry Cuban, Emeritus Professor of Education at Stanford University, and the author of the 2001 book “Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom.” (This interview could not be “skypecast” because of some problem at Skype at the time.)
Maybe this was not a natural interview for someone who sells computers for a living, but let’s chalk it up to the the quest for “truth” and a desire--as a computer lover--to understand why the efforts to put computers in the classroom have not had broader success in improving teaching and learning. And while there was a natural tendency in the interview to focus on the "oversold" part of Dr. Cuban's message, the opportunity seems to lie in understanding the "underused" part.

Professor Cuban provides a very balanced and thoughtful perspective on the use of computers in schools–or rather, the non-use thereof. First, to counter the perception that it is the fault of the teachers that computers aren't being more broadly adopted in the classroom, he shows that most teachers are actually active computer users themselves as they prepare for their classes and organize their work. We therefore, he says, need to look deeper than a perceived “resistance” by teachers to explain the lack of technology integration in the classroom.

Dr. Cuban gives us a glimpse of the incredible challenges teachers face in trying to accomplish all that is asked of them, and asks us to consider that teachers would more likely embrace computer technology in the classroom if it actually helped them do their jobs better or more easily. He gives the example of the video-cassette player and the overhead projector--both technologies that became quickly and easily integrated into teaching. Can we really expect, if there are relatively few computers available to students, if they are available only for limited periods of time, and if they are often unreliable, that it would really make sense for a teachers to change the way they teach because of computers?
While pointing out that there are ways in which computers have been clearly shown to improve academic performance, he says that by and large there is a surprising lack of significant studies or real data to show where those benefits exist and where they don't. Instead, he is concerned, the factors which really seems to drive the purchase and implementation of computer technology are not usually the teachers' needs or requests, but a push from those outside of the classroom: politicians, parents, and administrators. Well before the publication of The World Is Flat, and across political lines, there has been a concern that we are "a nation at risk," and that we need to make sure our children are computer "savvy." He made a fascinating point in the interview: if you go to a college campus, you will see computers in active use by faculty and students--so the absense of computer use in high schools doesn't seem to impede their use in college. (I didn't mention it, but my brother, who is a professor of business, has actually banned the use of computers in his classes because the constant instant messaging and other non-class-focused uses of the computer were distracting from his ability to teach.)
What occurred to me is that when the pressures to use computers are external, then the more detailed understandings of how they can be used successfully get lost. In one of the articles I read to prepare for the interview, Dr. Cuban separates computer use in education into three categories: computer-assisted instruction, computer-managed instruction, and computer-enhanced instruction. (Noticeably missing, but probably intentional, is vocational technical training.) While the first two, according to the article, have been pretty-well documented to improve academic performance, it is the third--the use of computers in such a way that transforms the educational process--that is less understood. What I think I notice from my interactions with proactive and engaged teachers who are excited about certain technologies (like blogs and wikis, or Moodle) is that they are experiencing this transformational change; and I would imagine that they are likely to have have been able to do this because they were so proactive and engaged. And if his theories hold true, it will be these kind of technologies that really capture teachers' imaginations and desires that can ultimately lead to more ubiquitous use of the computer in the classroom.

I did ask Dr. Cuban specifically about blogs and wikis, but got the sense that these are technologies that are not yet fully on his radar as educational tools. I meant to ask about Moodle, and forgot. Based on his perspective, I am particularly encouraged by the fact that these technologies don’t require buying new computers (or even having "current" technology), since they really only require a web browser to work.

We also talked about the role of commercial companies play in "selling" technology to schools. In a free-market economy, it is hard to see an alternative, but Dr. Cuban recommends being a "skeptical" consumer of those commercial offerings. I've been thinking long and hard about this, since I sell computer hardware to schools. The conclusion that I have come to is that, as a vendor of technology, I need to be exploring ways to understand how to make the computer a better and more reliable tool for teachers. K12Computers is way too small to effect broad change, but if I ask the right questions and start to find the right answers, maybe we can make a difference.
He also pointed out that if the end-goal is truly academic achievement, it may sometimes be measurably better for a school to reduce class size or hire more aids than to buy computers. Most of those involved in our educational system need to get paid for their work, but are actually involved in the work because of a personal commitment to the cause of education. It seems, as a vendor to schools, we should hold ourselves to the same standard. I'm not quite sure how to do this, but it does seem important.

It also seems that Linux and Open Source Software hold the potential to reduce acquisition and maintenance costs for providing a computing environment. The work in Indiana, in particular, should be very instructive. If the cost of having one-to-one computing can be significantly reduced, there should be a great opportunity to study the transformative effects of this kind of program. And I can't stop thinking about the concept of a "web appliance:" a no-maintenance computer that provides access to the web. If every classroom in a school had some number of "webstations" that the teachers knew were always available and would always work, would they begin to integrate web reasearch and other web tools into their classwork as easily as they have the overhead projector? This is something I would like specific feedback on, and would like to try some testing if anyone is interested.

Listen to the WebCast in MP3 format

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Audio Webcast Interview This Week: Larry Cuban, author of "Oversold and Underused"

This Thursday evening (September 7), I'll be interviewing Larry Cuban, emeritus professor of education at Stanford, and author of "Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom." The interview will start at 5:00 pm PDT, will be be one hour long, and will be webcast live with a question and answer session at the end.

Links to the webcast and the concurrent chatroom are available at You can also see details on upcoming interviews on Open Office (Solveig Haugland & Ben Horst), Open Source Software in Education (Eric S. Raymond & Doc
Searls), and Open Source licensing (Ruth Lutes & Ragavan Srinivasan from HP).

Recordings of the interview (.mp3 and .ogg) with Prof. Cuban will be available the next day. Recent interviews recordings are available at Included are:

* Victoria Davis and Adam Frey on "Wikis--What Are They, and Why Use Them in Education?"
* Michelle Moore on "Moodle: An Open Source Learning Management System"
* Mike Huffman and Laura Taylor on "Indiana's ACCESS Program: Affordable Classroom Computers for Every Secondary Student"
* Daniel Howard and William Fragakis on Atlanta Public Schools' Linux Thin Client Project
* Jim McQuillan and Eric Harrison on LTSP, K12LTSP, and Linux Thin Client for Schools
* Dr. David Thornburg on "Free and Open Source Software in Education"

Happy listening!