The Death of the Term Paper?

My long-time friend Jason Johnson had a strong opinion piece in the Washington Post a couple of days ago:

Cut-and-Paste Is a Skill, Too

Jason makes several strong points about the shared content pool concept in a workplace, which I think is important to reveal. We’ve discussed this in the past in the posts about “Corporate Self-Plagiarism,” and how students are given zero preparation for producing content in that type of environment. In academia, almost everything is “single combat warrior” when it comes to writing. Plagiarism is a morality issue at schools, but a productivity issue in the workplace.

I’ve talked about this issue with our English teachers at OES, and I was rather surprised by how unconcerned they were with copy and paste plagiarism. In effect, OES students may do as many as eight drafts of a paper, with feedback from the teachers at each stage, to the effect that the writing is so closely reviewed and revised that plagiarism would be difficult to “slip in,” simply because the students are so driven to revise their own writing. In Jason’s article, he writes mostly about term papers that are written with zero faculty involvement, which does occur, but not at all schools.

Jason notes that his earlier drafts of the article had more complete and rounded thoughts about what should replace the “term paper as assessment tool” approach. I would argue for a different type of writing assignment, which includes a different way to assess. The real value of a term paper (in terms of student expression and possibly shared pool amalgamations of content) is a process-based learning experience. Jason is right in that the type of term paper he describes should be dead, but students still need writing experiences that include both the personal and the concepts of the shared content. I’ve been away from teaching writing for too long– but I still feel that effectively organized collaborative group work could provide interesting experiences.

Anyway, it’s great to hear “wake up” ideas like Jason’s. Without them, flawed processes seem like they could roll on forever on their own inertia. He deserves a latte for his efforts, but I wonder where all his content came from… :)

Moving to London

I have greatly enjoyed my six years at Oregon Episcopal School, and I have worked with the finest faculty and staff imaginable. Thus, it was a very difficult decision when the opportunity arose to be considered for the Director of Technology position at the American School in London. ASL is a K through 12 school of 1300 students located in the St. Johns Wood area of London.

As time passed, as my wife and I weighed the opportunities and costs, it became clear that an opportunity to work at an exceptional school overseas would not happen often, and that moving our children to a new city and country would be easier now (when they are 8 and 10 years old) than later. I lived in London for four months right after I graduated from college, so I knew the city and how exciting it could be to live there.

St. Johns WoodSo, we’re making the move. All this week (during Spring Break) we’re shedding years and hundreds of pounds of old papers, books, bikes, boats, and other gear as we prepare for the move. We’ll likely sell the house, the cars and the sailboat, and start again with a basic three bedroom flat and only a fraction of our current possessions. This “restart” was an attractive part of the process, since we’ve felt a bit cluttered and overwhelmed by our house during the past couple of years.

As for the American School in London, we’re very excited by the academic program and the opportunities while working there. We both feel our kids should enjoy the school and its multicultural student body and surrounding community.

At OES, Brad Baugher (our current MS Technology Coordinator) will be taking over for me as Director of Technology. I hope he’ll consider starting a blog to help others follow OES’s program in the future. There are many details to work out there before I leave this summer, and I’ll continue this blog to share notes about our progress. I also hope to continue it in London, and the technology challenges and integration approaches I’ll work with there.

Until then, wish me luck with flooding Craigslist with bicycles, camping gear and other possessions as we clean out our house. (My wife actually plans to let go of six boxes of teaching supplies and materials– wow!).

Back From the Valleys

My BikeWe got back from the Sonoma and Napa Valley cycling trip on Thursday– after finishing up the 1400 mile “road trip” part of the excursion. Unlike last year, the weather this year was about perfect– sunny and warm for nearly all of the days, and not a drop of rain on us while camping or riding.

The trip was far from perfect, however. We did have two injuries from simple accidents, one on the bike and one off. The group of students were very good riders, however, and their cycling abilities were really impressive. They improved with every ride.

During the trip, one of the the other adults leaders told me about an organized ride of about 1500 miles he did with his son who is in high school. The kids, as young as 13, did multi-week rides from church to church (where they slept and refueled along the way). The impressive thing was that these were teenage kids being lead by some adults, but they were doing rides of 100 to 200 miles a day, at an average speed of 20 mph on some days (including the climbing stages). For the record, my best ever average for 101 miles in one day is 18.1 mph.

The startling thing is that high school kids can be remarkably capable not just at academics but physical challenges. With some focus and time, the results can be well beyond most of the post-college crowd. Sometimes I wonder if we indirectly hold some kids back from really soaring at some endeavors, due to issues that relate much more to us than to them. It can be uncomfortable for an adult to see such vertical achievement so plainly.

I know that I felt strange this week, seeing kids who do little cycling being able to fly along on the flats on their heavy, inexpensive bikes with noisy chains and squeaking brakes. I didn’t want to hold them back, but I knew what would happen fairly quickly if they had better bikes and we were going for more than one week.

Time to Ride

Tomorrow I leave for a week to help lead the “Winterim” cycling trip to Napa and Sonoma Valley in California. We also get to stop and ride in the Redwoods as well.

At OES, the US students get to choose from a wide set of offerings for the week before Spring Break. Some go on international trips, some go backpacking in Utah, and others take experiential learning courses for a week on campus (how to build a kayak, for example).

I enjoy this trip, and we get to visit wineries, but no tasting or buying. It is a lot of work in that we drive down with Suburbans and tow a U-Haul with the bikes inside. Overall, there’s about 1400 miles of driving. Most nights we camp out.

Still, it’s worth it for some sun and quiet roads in some beautiful countryside. We’ll be back a week from Thursday.

Napa Valley Cycling

Comforting Complexity, and a Broader Purpose

Good to Great Social SectorsAt the NAIS Annual Conference, I attended both the keynote and a follow-up panel discussion with Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and other books. I was able to read most of the recent monograph he published that attempts to tie the ideas of Good to Great to the Social Sectors (schools, non-profits, etc.).

My first reaction was that about half of what he presented was interesting and reassuring (having more discipline, having a clear focus, technology as an accelerator, right people in the right places, Level Five leadership). The other half of his content seems to miss the mark:

— Good is the enemy of great.
— Slipping from great to good can happen instantly, without clear indicators.
— Plan for, and even hope for, disruptions that will reveal your strengths.
— The simplistic hedgehog and flywheel concepts.
— Instead of profit, the measure of success of a social sector organization is reputation.
— Being “neurotically productive” is the best state of existence.
— In effect, live in and for the future, not the present.

In many conversations afterwards, we focused on both the positive and the confusing aspects of his presentations, and it became clearer that school environments can be much more complex than the business environments that have been the subject of his research. In addition to leadership being more “legislative” than “executive,” it is also true that independent schools still have a social service calling. That might be why technology coordinators, school financial officers, and others are much more likely to share information with each other than hide it. In many ways, our missions are linked, instead of competitive.

All of that messes up his good to great premises, including the “hedgehog” investment to be “the world’s best” at one element in your organization. Resources, time and investment in schools is a subtly changing balancing act with multiple fulcrums and measures of achievement. We need to act with discipline and with an eye toward the future, but in the end we’re looking for the greatness in our students and not our organizations. In effect, that’s how we serve the current and future community.

Collins is correct that a country filled with successful companies may be prosperous but not great. That “broader sense of purpose” is what attracts many of us to education to begin with, but those goals are too complex to simplistically match with corporate structures.

Vista and Office 2007: How to Implement

Okay, it’s time to finalize the budget plans for next year.

We’re looking to purchase approximately 30 new PC systems (50% desktops, 50% laptops) for faculty and staff members next year. As far as Vista is concerned, I believe we’ll pass for a year. We’ll go for a gig of memory (one chip, we hope), but not a high end video card yet in the systems. The desktops, at least, should be upgradeable to Vista in the future, but not fully Vista-capable to begin with.

In fact, we’re much more concerned about Office 2007 right now. We plan to have all new systems be capable of running Office 2007 well starting this summer (on XP Professional), and we’d like to upgrade all existing one-year-old staff machines to one gig of memory and Office 2007 as well. We’ll calibrate the systems to automatically save to the backward compatible file formats.

So, we’ll have 50% or more of staff on Office 2007 next year, but no Vista. Starting a year from now, we’ll buy new systems with Vista, and we might upgrade the systems from this summer to it, but I don’t see a major rush to get everyone on Vista (even on the new machines this summer). Getting all staff on Office 2007, however, is a different matter. We hope to achieve that over a two-year period.

As for Macs, we’ll have a lot of Intel MacBooks next year, and a new US multimedia lab with Intel Mac Minis. They’re fun little machines, but I fear we may have to cable them down since they are so small and light.

Ideas about Bandwidth

Some schools are in range of fiber connections and can have 10 mbit connections fairly easily. We’re not in one of those locations. We can get cable, dsl and our T1s, but not high bandwidth fiber.

Currently, we have two bonded T1s for bandwidth, going through a Packeteer, Microsoft ISA Proxy server (which works with our Websense server). All the client systems on campus go through this proxy server.

To improve bandwidth, we’re considering a business class cable connection that runs into its own ISA proxy server. I believe that Websense could connect to that second proxy server, and to begin with we could enable only faculty and staff to use that proxy server. If we could connect them to a more dedicated bandwidth connection (or the students to this connection), the load on our T1s could be reduced.

One example is the Daylight Savings Time updates this week. Mostly, the Windows machines only needed a 600k patch. Many of our OS X machines, however, needed to download 200 megabytes of updates to get them 10.4.8, add the Java update, and then the Daylight Savings Time update. Even having a handful of users doing this at once saturated our T1s yesterday (the lab machines, etc., we did with downloaded updates off the servers).

So, we’re on the hunt for bandwidth, and the second proxy server with its own pipe appears to be our next test solution.

Update on Daylight Savings Time Changes

Update: We’ve run the Exchange server tool to update calendar events for Outlook and Entourage users, and yesterday we emailed All Faculty and Staff about how to verify or patch their Windows and OS X systems (school and home machines).

One interesting incident: an OS X Entourage user noticed this morning that all of the appointments next week were off by an hour (after we had updated the events on the server). Once she ran the OS X and Microsoft Office Updates on her local machine, the events re-calibrated back to the right time, but we were surprised by the event.

We haven’t tried this yet on an unpatched Windows machine, but it’s possible the same issue could occur. Time to update, everyone…

Update of the Update: yes, we saw the same issue on unpatched Windows machines (next week’s events shifting off an hour), but the patch shifted everything back into place.

New Daylight Savings Time: Not-So-Great!

ClockIn terms of the new starting date for Daylight Savings Time this year, I believe we have “most” of the servers worked out now in terms of Exchange, our Calendar server, etc. We’re still following up on voice mail and access control system servers.

If we’re reading the tech net articles correctly, we can update the user’s calendar items in smaller batches at the Exchange server level. This is pretty important for our students, since they only use Outlook Web Access, and not full Outlook. Ergo, I’m not certain that they could run the small local updater at all since they don’t have Outlook.

If that works for everyone, we hope that we only need to send an email about the local OS update (in case the auto update didn’t work) and the Outlook update (for their home machines, etc.). We’ll do the same for OS X and Entourage users, and likely revise the instructions and links to a smaller version to send out to parents as an FYI for their home machines.

If the centralized updater of calendar events on the Exchange server doesn’t work for us as planned, then things could be interesting… :) So far, this process has been a lot more work than anticipated, and I’m surprised the problem isn’t getting more press. The difference of an hour on the client machines could do more than just mess up appointments in calendars– it could disable some network services if the clocks are that far off.

Online Community Building

Deri Bash and I are in the final stages of completing the presentation for the NAIS Annual Conference this afternoon. Our session is titled “Simple Online Tools for Local, National and International Community Building,” and it is at 1:30 p.m.

Here is the Resource Handout for the presentation:

Resource Handout for Online Community Building

Here are the presentations slides (5.2 megs) for the presentation:

Presentation Slides for Online Community Building

Now, off to some sessions before we present.

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