A Thankful Weekend

Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated in Britain, but that didn’t slow us down as we enjoyed the four-day weekend.

On Wednesday night, we had our thanksgiving meal. I worked a bit late, and then got home just in time for the wonderful meal. Our plan was to enjoy the cooking/eating part on Wednesday, so that we’d have all of Thursday and Friday to enjoy sites and locations in London on a weekday.

On Thursday, we spent most of our time at the Victoria and Albert museum (V&A), seeing sculpture, art, stained glass, and even some modern art. Afterwards, we wandered about Kensington.

On Friday, we went to Harrods department store, and were pretty amazed by the floor after floor of consumer craziness. After some small purchases, we had lunch at a nice French restaurant, and then returned to the V&A to see some of the photography, ironwork and British collections. We finished the day at the Natural History museum, which had set up an ice rink and Christmas village.

On Saturday, we went to Borough Market for our traditional Bacon and Egg Butties, cappuccino, hot cider and shared chocolate ├ęclairs. It’s hard to find a better way to start a Saturday. Then we read for over an hour at a coffee house, and I spent the afternoon at work, helping with some physical network rerouting.

Today, we went to a coffee house again to read the Sunday Times and some books, then took a long walk in Hampstead Heath after lunch to Kenwood House, where they had a Christmas Fair and the kids were also able to see some paintings by Rembrandt, Gainsborough and Vermeer. We hiked back across the Heath to West End Green, where we visited the Marks and Spencer to collect good for dinner.

All in all, a great fall weekend.

Thanksgiving 2007

Social Networking

I’ve been spending some time on the new Independent School Educators Network (ISEN) at http://isenet.ning.com/. It’s been fun to “social network” with some long-time colleagues, and ponder what a social networking site can do.

The site just reached 200 members, even though it only went live last Thursday. There are developing groups, discussions, file libraries, video clips, images and notes passing back and forth. At the same time, though, there’s also some “figuring out” what the direction of the site is.

The twitter feed on the main page is interesting, in that I hadn’t followed before how one might add little ongoing notes to a group share. Some, or maybe most, are inconsequential, and maybe that isn’t a bad thing. The successful online communities I’ve enjoyed over the years have been a combination of the serious and the non-serious. It’s fun to learn about others’ personalities and lives– we can’t just be sharing facts and serious opinions all the time.

Meanwhile, my son Doug is outraged I’m typing this, as he thinks it’s time to wrestle. Well, he asked for it! :)

Care to Google Your Own Genome?

Most of you have probably seen this video already:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGCJ46vyR9o

It’s “A Vision of Students Today” video from Kansas State University. Basically, it presents a future we were trying to avoid or prevent– it shows a strong disconnect between education and student technology use.

At the same time, however, I find the video mostly disappointing in that the students seem to present themselves as dis-empowered. I could think of a better argument for changing the structure of 120:1 student to teacher ratios, and perhaps the most positive message in the video was the Google-based word processor that allowed 200 students to collaborate on one document.

Before I’d argue for a digital ethnography course at all schools, I’d rather contribute to the design of a digital science curriculum. If we look forward a few years, I believe that we’re approaching the point of this type of technology synergy becoming a “must have” instead of a “nice to have.”

For example, I’ve been reading a bit about the Cancer Genome Atlas (http://cancergenome.nih.gov/) in which some of the most powerful computers in the world are being paired with genome analysis protocols to create an atlas of genomes of all known cancers in the world. I was reminded of this future again today when I read a NY Times article about several services coming online that will distill specific aspects of your genome from a saliva sample, and then allow you to “Google” it for clues to your genetic nature

The “wake up” message in these articles for me is that technology is now being focused in ways that can help solve problems for humanity, be it in medicine or the environment, and I wouldn’t mind working at a school that looked toward that future. I’d like to work on a hybrid of teaching and technology practices that unlocked student potential in positive and focused ways, collaborative and individualistic.

This also makes me wonder if the goals of education should aim higher than “creating lifelong learners.” In some ways, the generation we’re working with now may change the world in fundamental ways– world-changing discoveries we can’t even imagine yet.

Ethics and the desire to improve humankind will be essential in this process. It is likely that all of our current students will have serious decisions to make about their lives and their children that we never even had to think about. If we are moving from an age of scientific discovery to an age of scientific mastery, I’d like our students be aware of the discussions and opportunities on the horizon.

A final reference that come over my horizon this week is a BBC documentary called Visions of the Future that broadcast its second episode this week. It covered much of the genetic progress to this date, and looked into the near future.

As for Googling my own genome, I’d have to think about that. Personally, I found the film Gattaca to be disturbing enough on that score.

FIRST Robotics

I had the great pleasure yesterday of visiting a team preparing for this year’s FIRST Robotics competition. The team had competed this year, and they were in the early stages of fund raising, computer animating, designing, building, programming and testing a new robot for this year. They had the base of last year’s robot powered up for programming test runs, and they had just received the extruded aluminum beams used to build the frame and base of the new creation.

It was really great to to see so many layers of teamwork happening in one room– even metal working tools were in use as structural parts were prepared. As it defines itself, FIRST Robotics is “a varsity sport of the mind” for high school students, and they have different types of programs for students from age 6 on.

It’s interesting that the organization uses the sports analogy for how the teams of students work so hard after school, doing focused vertical work with technology and collaboration, planning and competitive skills. I wrote a post not long ago called “Is Technology Like Music?” and I saw themes of that idea yesterday as the students worked together (with a solid group of mentors and facilitators) toward a sort of performance.

I’m looking forward to seeing more of this team’s work as the year progresses. So far, it looks like they are off to a great start.

Ownership– On a New Course?

I’ve touched on this a couple of times in the past, but this last week I’ve had several interesting conversations on the topic of ownership. Ownership of technology, that is.

In the past, a typical school would buy computers for computer labs, laptop carts, workstations in libraries, and even 1:1 programs. In the end, the school could say we have a 1:4 computer to student ratio, or a 1:2 or even a 1:1. We have students, and we buy computers for their use.

Currently, though, the trend I’m working on is a different type of ownership. If we really embrace the concept of high school students actively bringing their own laptops to school, or handhelds, or phones with Internet access, then the traditional idea of school-provided computers begins to skew.

As noted a couple of posts earlier, vertical and high-end computer labs owned and maintained by the school may make a strong come-back in this period, but networks and IT infrastructures will also need to change to enable user-owned computers to be effective. That means providing cross-platform services, such as printing with a non-domain computer. It also means embracing more web-enabled or open-source applications, or ways of delivering school-purchased high end software to home-owned systems with license key servers, expiring packages, and the like.

As noted in an earlier post, I also see this trend occurring with more advanced faculty users of technology. A school-provided faculty laptop will always have some limits, for example. The school may not be able to afford the type or power that a faculty user wants, and in most cases a school-provided computer cannot be used for personal business (taxes, side consulting). Nor is it typically a place for personal media collections. Thus, I have seen successful examples of faculty buying their own laptops, but using them for school work. Yes, the school-required software for accessing the student information system and other admin tasks needs to accommodate this, but overall I believe that these faculty are better computer users because they are taking ownership and responsibility for their own computers. As for the IT infrastructure, it also means one less computer we need to buy, maintain, repair and buy official licenses for.

This all relates back to long-term infrastructure planning. For example, is it worth the hassle to have a student information system with web portals for student and faculty work, instead of specific clients with licenses to maintain and domain member issues. The long-term benefits of simple web faces for the work to be done by these constituents is difficult to judge, if it means that doors are opened for more personal ownership of hardware and software (along with the responsibilities of that ownership).

A very traditional organization with strict controls on the infrastructure (only one platform, only computers provided by us, and bans on student-owned technology tools) may have several short-term benefits or advantages, but my initial experience suggests that student and faculty owned computers can work in a school environment, and have dual benefits of reduced hardware and maintenance costs, as well as improving the quality of use and responsibility of the owners.

At first I thought this type of approach may only be credible in schools, but then I learned this week of commercial organizations moving toward fully virtual online desktops and applications that are served only on the web from data centers, with the management benefit of just about any PC or laptop being able to run the centralized software needed by the organization. Employees are told that they can use their own computer, as long as they followed the privacy rules and had equipment of a certain standard. This is obviously a step forward in the long-evolving telecommuting movement, and a possible cost effective alternative to office space and network infrastructure costs.

Hmmm. Enough for now. It’s a sunny Sunday morning in London, and soon as my family is ready we’re going to take a long walk on Hampstead Heath.

Live from an eeePC

Well, the testing of the Asus eeePC starts in earnest now. My crack testing team of at-home offspring are ready to put through its paces (after homework, of course).

This post, for example, is being done entirely on the eeePC, but I don’t want to mention how hard it is for me to hit the right shift key.

Images from the integrated cam:

doug piceve pic

Hmmm. Maybe I deserve one of these for Xmas.

Experience and Choices

I had the great privilege last week of attending a lecture by Jimmy Cornell at the Cruising Association in downtown London. In the world of sailboat cruising, his books about world cruising routes (trade winds, weather patterns) are pretty much standard reference guides for small craft ocean crossings, especially sailboats. During the lecture, he spent about two hours talking about his three circumnavigations and route choices, using over 200 slides from his voyages.

A Passion for the SeaI also bought a copy of his new book, A Passion for the Sea, which is more of a narrative and interpretive book about his 200,000 miles of sailing, compared to his factual World Cruising Routes and similar books. I’ve only had time to read the opening chapters, but he starts with the first half of his life which involved a lot of harsh times in Romania, both for himself and his parents and extended family. We’re talking extreme violence during WWII, political imprisonment, failed attempts to escape the country, and more.

He didn’t see the ocean until he was nine, and it was later in life when he did his first “cruise” on the Danube to the Black sea, in an inflatable kayak that was left to him by a departing German. After that, cruising became a focus of his life, although he didn’t do much more until he got a fresh start in London and built up a 36 footer from a bare hull in 1973-75, the first “Adventura” of three.

(Footnote: his first sailing was in dinghies on the Thames, and then on a 40 footer owned by his employer, the BBC. The brief story of his first sail on the Solent in the 40 footer with colleagues is extremely funny. At the end of the day sail, an ambulance was waiting at the dock to take two of the crew to hospital.)

In addition to his sailing, he’s worked with around 15,000 sailors during his time organizing the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers and the round-the-world rallies. Based on those experiences, he uses his journalistic-trained mind to distill decisions and recommendations about both sailing routes and technology choices.

And that creates an important connection for me– at any given time, it may seem like the choices and issues involving technology seem infinite, but in reality there’s only a few logical courses to choose from in terms of setting and achieving a given end. In terms of academic technology (instead of the ocean-crossing kind), we can learn a lot from each other by talking and sharing information about how different choices actually play out. In the end, we share more common ground than differences, and we may discover that the path forward is more clear than first thoughts suggest.

Anyway, congratulations to Jimmy Cornell for his accomplishments and new book. I’m looking forward to finishing it, even if it makes me want to sail an aluminum boat to Antarctica with my family…

P.S. This is now our second night of almost constant firework flashes and bangs, from about six p.m. to ten p.m. in London. I wonder if there’s something I could do to be remembered like that Guy Fawkes guy. :)

Web Interaction, Reliability and Scale

As we move toward systems with greater web interactivity, I feel it’s important to consider reliability and scale.

Just this weekend, our web interface for the Destiny library database is acting up again. It runs on Tomcat Apache, not IIS, and this has been causing some reliability issues. It’s not a major interface, carrying a major load, but it is having problems allowing web searches of the database.

On a step up, our Moodle system is having load issues, primarily in the realm of overloading the CPU when a certain number of students are online simultaneously. Currently, our load on the system is only around 30 percent of what it will be in the future, so obviously we’re looking for solutions that can scale appropriately.

As I research web portals, the norm now seems to be hosted solutions instead of in-house servers, and this is becoming less and less of a controversy. Their facilities should have more redundancy, larger pipes to the Internet, better fire systems and fall-backs. The portals may speak and interact with our databases, but the front-line information is hosted and shared by them.

Before we go too far with planning serious online database interfaces, it’s worth taking a moment to think about load, scale and reliability. Any academic content management system, for example, will eventually be larger and more important than the email system, and it should be planned for accordingly. Web portals into Student Information Systems fall into the same league. So, in the future, we may have more mission critical systems, doing a greater volume of work, and we need to be realistic about the facilities and staffing needed to do this in-house vs. hosted.

Return of the Computer Lab?

So, things move in cycles.

In the beginning, there were computer labs in schools. Apple IIe computers in nice rows, or better still all facing the wall so you you could see all the kids’ screens in one sweeping glance. Not long after that, we connected them all together with Phonenet cables so they could have (gasp) a shared file folder.

Anyway, things moved on. Computers became more integrated into the curriculum, so they moved into the classroom where the core curriculum action was, instead of being a “field trip” to the computer teacher in some windowless room elsewhere in the building.

Before long, though, the three computers against the wall in the classrooms weren’t enough. So we tried to cram six in there, and a networked printer. Then we had laptop carts (scary, heavy things) with a laser printer on top competing for space with a wireless access point. You didn’t want to run over anyone’s toes with a 20 laptop cart, I assure you.

Next step, 1:1 laptops for the students, and they went home with the kids as well. Some schools ran 1:1 programs smoothly, and others had quite a few challenges with reliability and curricular integration. Early educational-specific computers, like the Emate 300, didn’t catch on because they seemed too limited or too unusual.

As I ponder the Asus Eee PC, I’m sure it will receive the same criticism as other palm top computers– the keyboard seems too small, there are 20 programs I can name that won’t run on it, and the screen is only seven inches diagonally.

At the same time, I could see something else happen. They might sell like iPods. Or a competitor to the Eee PC might sell like iPods. In other words, they may be around in great numbers, and they may or may not be allowed in schools.

Despite the small keyboards and screens, and the inability to run either Final Cut Pro or Mathematica, I wonder if the future isn’t going to include computers that are bigger than cell phones, smaller than Macbooks, and cheap and cool enough to sell like iPods. I also wonder if they might eventually be a reasonable choice for reasonable computing, like web research, some writing, and organizing your time and files. This might be a significant or majority percentage of what students need to do during a fair chunk of the school day.

However, it’s unlikely they will do Final Cut Pro 4, or Mathematica, or Adobe Creative Suite 7. Maybe the computer labs are coming back, not only to do things that palmtops can’t, but also to exceed what the home desktops can do as well. They could support a balanced response to the horizontal needs (routine) and vertical needs (exceptional) of the modern student.

eeePC Update

Well, we have the Asus EEE-PC in our hands, and we’ve been playing with it all day. So far, I’d say that it has exceeded our expectations on several levels:

–The feel and weight are relatively solid.
–The hinge mechanism is good.
–The seven-inch screen is bright and clear.
–We can hook it up to an LCD or Projector and have XGA screen resolution.
–Hooking up an external screen, keyboard and mouse is perfectly feasible.
–Open Office and other programs open up quite quickly and cleanly.
–The games play without frame drops, even in XGA resolution on external screen.
–It went on our wireless network with no problem.
–It prints to our printers via PCounter.
–The user interface is friendly and straight-forward.
–The web cam takes decent pictures and video.
–It has Skype, but we haven’t tested yet.
–Browsing speed is very good.
–It runs FirstClass email in web form with no problem.
–It is small and light.
–The AC adapter isn’t too large.
–It came with instructions for installing Windows XP, if we want to.
–Surprising array of software pre-installed, including educational software, Kidpix clone, etc.

On the downside so far:
— Keyboard is small and is taking some getting used to.
— Speakers work, but are tinny.
— Screen might be too small for some.

That’s it for now, but an interesting form-factor. Given its functionality, I’d say I’ve never seen such a built-out device in this size before, including the earlier palm-tops I played with. At some point, I know we’ll toss on Windows XP, but it may not have the speed needed to run Windows, true Office, etc.

We’ll see…

Mini-Book

Asus EEEPCAs part of our advanced, foreward-thinking prioritized objective mindset, we ordered a 4 gig Mini-Book Eee PC today. Early reviews tempted us into this purchase, and I’ll post some of our hands-on observations once it arrives.

Worst case: it becomes an office paper weight. Best case: it becomes what I buy for my kids for Xmas. Their might even be some school uses in that range…

Meanwhile, our research into student information systems continues. The Senior Systems demo was interesting in how they integrated PDF forms (two-way?) into the application process, and apparently allow scanned attachments to an ongoing creation of a online application packet. An application could be saved and added to until the parents decided to finally submit the forms (and keep a PDF version for themselves). I believe that future updates could recreate pre-populated PDFs for the parents to work from, but I need to confirm that. Interesting.

Next week, we see what Blackbaud currently offers in the SIS arena.

Sailing news: my wife has now surpassed me in both certifications (RYA 1 and 2) and heavy weather sailing. She did a three-day trip last weekend with some active sailing in Force 7 winds, and had a great time. In fact, she’s feeling so confident now that it’s scary. The title “first mate” may be in my future.

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