Posts that are olpc-ish

POSSE professors in Sugar-land for the next 2 weeks

Some of you may have noticed some new faces around the Sugar community – we (Walter Bender, urologist Peter Robinson, visit web and I) are hanging out with a group of professors (mostly from the Worcester area) who are in town this week for POSSE (Professors’ Open Source Summer Experience), a workshop for learning how to get their students involved contributing to open source projects. (In this case, Sugar, with Fedora as a dev platform.)

They’ve been learning to hack Sugar all week, and are in fact in #sugar at this very moment tinkering away on the Measure Activity. Their feeds haven’t yet been added to Planet Sugar Labs (those requests are still pending), but you can read some of their (great!) reflections so far on Planet TOS.

So if you have a moment, pop in and say hello to:

  • Peter Froehlich (Johns Hopkins) – pgf
  • Karl Wurst (Worcester State College) – kwurst
  • Nadimpalli Mahadev (Fitchburg State College) – Mahadev
  • Kristina Striegnitz (Union College, Schenectady, NY) – kis
  • Jerry Breecher (Clark University, Worcester MA) – diamond
  • Mihaela Sabin (University of New Hampshire) – mihaela
  • Gary Pollice (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) – gpollice
  • Aparna Mahadev (Worcester State College) – aparna

Next week we’ll have another – slightly larger – batch from RIT doing the same thing, with myself, Chris Tyler, and Luke Macken focusing more on how to make Fedora a better environment for running/deploying/developing Sugar – if you have any thoughts in this direction, please send comments our way! (Things we’ve come up with so far: general Python development stuff, liveusb-creator hacks, SVG rendering working strangely in different recent versions of Fedora… we need to turn this into a proper ticket queue. Ideas welcome! What are the little annoyances you always wanted to fix? We’ll do our best to take them on.)

The history of the SoaS Mirabelle release: learning from the past

With yet another (Fedora and SoaS) release cycle coming up, more about one of the things we can do to prepare for the future is to look at the past and try to learn from both the intentional and inadvertent things we’ve done before. With that in mind, case the Sugar on a Stick team has put together a release history for v.3 Mirabelle, troche recapping the main decisions/events and rationale of the past 6 months.

Sugar Labs folks interested in a peek behind the scenes may find it fascinating reading, but we think Fedora folks curious about what the spins process looks like from the “other side” and Teaching Open Source folks looking for examples of reflective learning may also benefit from a quick skim. We had many triumphs and learned many lessons (often the hard way) – some excerpts are below.

On becoming a Fedora Spin

Before SoaS was a spin, it was a Fedora Remix – which means that bit-wise, the product looked the same, but the technical work that needed to happen to generate it was all done manually and without external resources and support, so it happened spasmodically and slowly and with a great number of sleepless nights.

Becoming a Fedora Spin gave us access to Fedora’s engineering, marketing, and QA resources, which dramatically improved the sustainability and scaleability of our release engineering processes. For instance, .iso files stopped being produced by the “Sebastian manually builds them every time” process, and started being automatically generated for testing by Fedora build servers. We gained some instant automation of the infrastructure we need anyway, without any more work or maintenance on our part, so we could focus on things like… making Activities work, the stuff that’s actually unique to Sugar.

The January 8, 2010 SoaS planning meeting led to the decision to apply for spin status. Looking at the January mailing list archives, we didn’t explain the significance of the spin decision very well then, which may have led to communication disconnects down the line that made Activity development and Marketing more difficult. In particular, we did not make it clear enough that we were now tied to the Fedora release cycle, and what that meant.

On accidentally making life difficult for Activity developers

Two of our upstreams (Fedora and ASLO) basically collided when they combined, and didn’t realize that collision was coming, because we didn’t track dependencies between them… part of the problem was that we didn’t know who was responsible for keeping track of that aspect of communication, so everyone assumed it was someone else and nobody did it.

The Activities confusion manifests itself in the small number of “supported” activities in the v3 release. Marketing was then confronted with the sudden removal/noninclusion of activities from the release – again, this is something that could have been prevented with a working feature process.

Major accomplishments this release cycle

  • We have a team!
  • We have a release schedule!
  • We started using the Fedora Spins process and engineering resources, which made release engineering much smoother.
  • We started driving communications to public channels – notably the SoaS mailing list – so things are more transparent.
  • Multiple people have commit access to each repository that needs to be handled, so there are no single-person bottlenecks remaining.
  • We shifted to a time-based release cycle, meaning we had a target release date set early in the process rather than our prior “it seems ready… now-ish?” method.

There’s more available at the full recap – we’re still a pretty fledgling project and new to introducing many of these processes (and still building our scaffolding!) so if you have thoughts/comments/suggestions/advice on how we could improve, please let us know via comments here, the soas mailing list, or pinging pbrobinson (Peter), sdziallas (Sebastian), or mchua (Mel) on IRC (we’re often in #sugar on

Planning for the 4th release (the codename for this release is yet to
be chosen – suggestions for this welcome, too!) begins on Monday, June
7, at our weekly IRC meeting. And of course, if you’re interested in helping with the next release, please join us!

Let’s sweep the Grand Challenge Stories with stories from open source.

Dear students involved in Fedora, medications Sugar Labs, visit OLPC, hemorrhoids and/or any other open source project:

Please take a minute to explain to people with fancy titles why you are awesome.

That is all. I hope to see some of you in Boston in April spreadin’ the good news.

Help Melanie close Audrey’s first ticket

My cousin Audrey (kindergarten, gastritis age 6) just submitted her first ticket to an open source project. It’s in the Sugar Labs trac instance as a request for a “clear all” button in the Physics Activity.

This raises some interesting questions. How do we handle feedback from children? In this case, information pills Audrey has an older person (me) who can transcribe and submit her dictation (technically, it’s under my account because she’s not old enough to make one herself, I believe you need to be 13) and help be a mediator between her and the development community. I live with her – in fact, I’m sitting next to her in the kitchen while her mom cooks dinner right now – so it was very easy for me to ask her parents for permission. Do we need to sign something? What are the limitations on what we can do? What would I have had to do if she hadn’t been a cousin that I live with?

Once the legal stuff is all out of the way – what do we want to do with this kind of feedback? How do we teach children how to submit good bug reports? How do we stay responsive to them every step of the way? (I have a short attention span, but even my lack of patience has a longer timeout than Audrey’s…) Do we want to spend our bandwidth being responsive to this kind of feedback – over and above other kinds of work we could be doing? How can we help kids help themselves more?

On that last note, here’s what I’m looking for in terms of help with this ticket.

Audrey has an older sister named Melanie, who is 14 and a freshman in high school. 2 summers ago she taught herself some python and pygame to make a language-learning flashcard program when she was studying Spanish. She’s now looking to make her first code contribution to an upstream open source project, and is wondering if someone would be willing to sit down on IRC with her (nick: mkim – already lurking in GIMP and Fedora Design/Art channels) over the winter break and walk her through checking out the code (she knows what version control is, but has only used SVN before), searching through it to find the right stuff to modify, submitting a patch, and generally walking through the whole “how do you become a code contributor once you know how to code?” process.

Now, I could do this, but it’d be the blind leading the blind – my pygame knowledge can be described as “rudimentary” at best, and I’d rather have her guided by someone who already knows how to do Sugar code development. She needs a better teacher than me to guide her through this project. Would anyone be interested in taking a few hours some evening or weekend and working with her on this?

Help me design a scholarship (or two).

Emma Jane Hogbin had a great idea: do you want to see more $FOO in technology? Make a little scholarship for it.

Having recently transitioned from starving-intern to full-time-employee status without much of a corresponding rise in standard of living (…well, page a little – I might buy my dad’s 16-year-old car so I can get to and from the office), order I now have the ability to help the things I love financially as well as with my copious amounts of free time. And this seems like as good a place as any to start. I’m thinking something like $500, which seems both low and high to me; it’s “zomg a month of rent” high, but “pays for 30 minutes of college credit” low, just as a strawman for the time being; could go up, could go down, will probably multiply to cover several scholarships…

I don’t know how to go about thinking about this, so I’m hoping people here will be able to help me come up with a good design. I’m thinking mostly of my elementary, middle, and high schools here, but I might want to look at schools in the Philippines as well. This may take another year or two to figure out and put in place, or it could take a week. It all depends on the design parameters.

So… help me brainstorm! You’ll notice that I’m placing a high emphasis on follow-up and community support in addition to the $$$ (because I don’t have much $, am not used to thinking about $, and frankly, because I believe the real value of a scholarship/fellowship is the mentorship and not the money). Here is what I have so far. (Note that for each of these, I have a teacher or mentor in mind that I would want to name the scholarship after…)

  1. A middle school award for “creative use of open source tech” (for girls?) which gives the recipient a “high school fellowship” – in addition to the little scholarship, every summer between 8th grade graduation and when they start college (and they will start college if I have anything to say about it…*) I’ll work with them to figure out a cool (open source) project they want to do, and either mentor them through it or find someone who can. Thus, by the time they apply to college, they’ll have adult mentors who can vouch for their work, a kickass portfolio, and a bunch of folks (myself included) who can help them with their college essays. This one I know I can afford; I can always make time to mentor young people.
  2. A middle school or high school award for juniors, for “hacking your own school.” (Yes, better wording needed.) Who has worked to improve and modify their own learning experience in a way that works with (rather than against) their teachers and administrators? “Could I modify this assignment? Could we try X? Could I teach $name Y?” rather than “I’m not doing this assignment.” (How in the blazes do you measure this?) In addition to the little scholarship, these students (I’d either like to give multiple awards or make this a group award) will get funding and support for running a “teaching open source” unconference during the fall of their senior year of high school, because I think that Glenview, IL could use an adrenaline shot of hacker spirit, and because it will be a kickass thing to list for college apps. Seriously. Kickass. (One could easily see Sugar fitting into this, btw.)
  3. A high school award for “teaching open source” in the Philippines. For high school (or maybe first or second year college) students who demonstrate a dedication towards learning about open source and teaching it to others, a partial college scholarship and funding to organize a FAD sometime during their first 2 years of college. (Again, how do you measure this? And how much is this going to cost me? And how do I target Filipino students – do I go for one school, probably one from my family’s hometown? Do I look at OLPC deployments (which would be countries-that-aren’t-the-Philippines, unless eKindling changes that) and try to find a student from there? I don’t know!)

*unless they make a good case for why they want to do something cool that isn’t college – I’m all for that as well. I just want to make sure that it is an “I have something better to do!” decision, not an “I couldn’t possibly make it” decision.

I don’t want to overreach here; I recognize I’m far too eager at the moment (not just enthusiastic, but let-me-not-think-things-through-wheeee!-eager), which is why I’m stopping to ponder rather than jumping into immediate action. First, I need to make sure that there are communities that I can bring these students into, and that those communities want these students introduced in this way. And then… how do I make absolutely, absolutely sure that I can continue doing these for however long they are expected? Do it year-by-year? Place a sunset clause (“I’ll do this for 10 years”) and set aside that money now? (I know I definitely don’t have enough to make a trust and have these operate off the interest, so that’s out.) Is there a better way to spend this money?

Hit these ideas hard. Where are the holes? How could they be improved? What other ideas do you have? College students, what would you have wanted? High school students, what do you want? Professors, what would you like to see? Open source community members, what do you think would help the most? (Do you want to start a little scholarship? Read the HOWTO!)

(Yes, Nikki; excited Mel is excited.)

NECC[2] = Tuesday

On the bus to Boston and finishing up my notes from NECC09. As noted in an earlier post here, about it I was sick the first half of Tuesday (I slept in until my fever broke), ampoule but managed to get some good conversations in anyhow within the few afternoon hours I had.

Low floor, high ceiling. My hacker friends and I use this phrase to describe a good design – it should be easy to learn but not constrain you from doing powerful things. As a hacker, a high ceiling is a killer feature for me. I want control. I need control. I know I’m going to outgrow the defaults on – if not all, a substantial portion – of things I use; I actively seek to max out the capabilities of my tools. For this freedom, I’m willing to give up a good initial experience – I will climb a steep learning curve to get something set up on my computer and in my fingers and mind because the long-term benefits are worth it.

For teachers, low floors are the killer app. They need it working now. They don’t know whether their kids are going to be abe to take it further, so it’s not really worth looking at whether the thing can go farther. I mean, most of the assignments given to 8-year-olds take what, 1-2 man hours to complete? As a high school student (at an intense math and science magnet, too) spending over 5 hours on an assignment was unusual – and I remember sophomore year when friends of mine moaned about how hard it was to do so much work because they had to learn to make websites for their history assignments on top of… y’know, learning history.

If you have to think and train too much about the usage of a tool, that tool gets in the way of learning things other than how to use it. One teacher taught her elementary school kids how to make stop-motion films. When I saw the title of her presentation, I started thinking about all the neat things you could teach them with video editing and tricky lighting setups and special effects. But the teacher emphasized that all she had taught her kids was how to push the “take a picture” button on the camera. (Which was already mounted on a tripod. Pointing at a table. Which was lit.) The kids didn’t string the pictures into films, didn’t even zoom in or out. But those kids had time to tell a story.

Phrases I heard repeated over and over when teachers were showing me their work: “All you have to do is…” “It comes built right in!” (This one is followed by a chorus of awed “Ahhhs.”)  “You don’t have to set it up!” “If I can do it, anyone can!” These typically were repeated several times in rapid succession in the same presentation.

Other buzzwords: (yes, I made the bingo card – click picture to expand.)

#necc09 bingo - add buzzwords and make your own! on Twitpic

Some of the teachers had brought their students to show off their work. In one of the booths, a 6th grader was being filmed by her teacher, reading a prepared speech off a laptop screen about how “technology changed her life.” I thought once again about how good we get at giving the answers other people want to hear.

I also discovered SETSIG, a group of educators interested in technology for special education students. My laptop is about to run out of battery, so I will need to type that in later.

Please thank your schools today.

In the middle of a conference on education, buy information pills it would be remiss for me to not give thanks to the schools that got me here.

Willowbrook Elementary, approved where my kindergarten teacher said I’d learn anything I wanted through reading, ampoule where the librarians made a special exception to the book check-out limit when I began to max it out each day, and where I had my first taste of small nudges making big systems changes when the grown-ups implemented my solution to the bake sale product drought (give a one-free-goodie ticket to each kid who brought a plate of goodies from their parents). A much younger neighborhood kid came up to me years later when I was in high school. “Are you the one who had the idea for bake sale tickets? I heard the teachers mentioning your name about it yesterday.” I should go back and have breakfast there with some of my old teachers; I haven’t done that in a couple years.

Maple Middle School, where I learned to write my heart out and deliberately wear my geekhood on my sleeve. Where I learned that just because older kids said something was hard (reading Shakespeare, for instance) didn’t mean I couldn’t do it. Where I stumbled onto the idea of math concepts having proofs and fell in love with math before I could discover that preteen girls were supposed to think that math was hard. Where I began to throw myself into my work and pull allnighters at 11, sneaking into the bathroom past my bedtime to read textbooks and the most original source materials I knew of and could access (like the Origin of Species – I still hadn’t become aware of the concept of the “research journal”). When I graduated from 8th grade, my parents told me they were proud of me. That’s the first time I can really remember that happening. I’m pretty sure my teachers repeatedly reaching out to tell them about my somewhat ridiculous overachievement habits played a big role in that phrase coming out of my father’s mouth – he told me nearly a decade later that it’d been the first time in 14 years that he realized that I was actually doing really, really well.

IMSA, the first time I ever struggled to pass a class (Fogel’s legendary number theory elective), the first time I was surrounded by people smarter than me in every way, the first time I was adopted by a group of older kids who taught me, watched out for me, and were… my friends. It was the first place where I was marked more by my intellectual interests than by my hearing. This is where I learned to teach and improvise, where I started speaking up and making suggestions, where I started to see how I could grow up and perhaps even choose to live in a culture that differed from the one that I was raised in; where I had outlets for all my excess intellectual energy, where I discovered computers and Linux (though not yet the communities which made them), where I was stunned to find that I could adeptly participate in group discussions on the internet where I didn’t have to strain to lipread. My teachers pointed out to me that I was good at certain things I’d previously thought of things I “just did,” and coached me on creative writing, social science research, and curriculum development outside of class (though I didn’t realize that was what I was doing at the time – I thought I was being a class assistant for workstudy). There was the expectation that you would grow up to do great things – it took me a long time to believe that I could be included in a statement like that, but eventually the revelation came that not only could I be worth something in the distant future if I worked my butt off, I already was. And what a difference that made.

Olin gave me a place where the entire instutition was a home – all of campus rather than a corner and a nest of friends. It showed me (with great difficulty) that I could define my own goals rather than always finding my way to someone else’s. This is where I caught on fire for education, changing systems of schooling, making learning more self-directed. This is where I learned to work with whole communities, dancing between administrators, students, professors, visitors, having little conversations here and there, making tiny tools, catching others on fire for something so that it became our project instead of mine, relaying stories… until something shifted, quietly, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world that something should be a certain way. It’s where I became a hacker, where I started contributing to project communities (including open-source ones) because I thought it would be cool – to have doing something that I wanted to do even cross my mind as an option. I learned how to reflect on my own learning, how to embrace failure as a teacher, and how not to ask permission. How to see my heroes as human and established ways as socially constructed and therefore somehow hackable. And that I could get other folks to realize the same.

None of these schools were perfect; none of them are perfect. Still, I wouldn’t be the person that I am without those years – the good experiences encouraged me, the bad ones gave me empathy that drives me to improve things for the kids who follow.

I am ridiculously strapped for cashflow, but I need to put my money where my mouth is. The latter two ended their fiscal year 15 minutes ago; right before that, I made my donations for the year (IMSA and Olin students are known for pyrotechnically last-minute procrastination sometimes) and will circumvent the same thing happening next year by giving my 2009 donations tomorrow. I’m a public school kid and a scholarship kid; thanks to the generosity of many, many people, I’ve never had to pay tuition, never had to take out a student loan, was able to save some of the money that I earned from working all through college – enough to volunteer for things I loved straight after graduation instead of needing to take a job I didn’t want in order to get out of debt.

I’ve also emailed my old teachers to tell them thank you. (It’s easy to forget, my middle school teachers told me when I visited from college. Most kids never come back. Thank you for coming back.)

If a school or teacher – or most likely, schools or teachers – made a difference to you, please go back and tell them – and do more than tell them. Give them something – money, time, supplies, advice, introductions, whatever you can offer. Pay it forward so that they can do the same for other kids.

I’ll write an actual update on NECC-Tuesday tomorrow.

NECC Monday continued

NECC, see Days 1-2 – photo slideshow, pharmacist and then I’ll finish my notes for Monday (with the expectation that I’ll feel better enough afterwards to head to Tuesday’s NECC; I love my immune system.)

Many attendees here have flipcams and netbooks – simple, seek few-function devices that they do not mercilessly power-use. They  generally don’t have time to recompile their kernel, let alone know what one is; they need to email their students NOW. They don’t have time to debate the merits of .ogg vs .avi vs other video formats; their high school seniors are presenting NOW and they need to grab something off the shelf and hit a button and have a movie NOW and who has time to figure out licensing when you need to upload that movie for their parents NOW and we need a spreadsheet NOW so let’s use Excel because it’s on our computers anyway or maybe if we aren’t on dial-up) Google Spreadsheets is sufficiently handy to fulfill our need for NOW. Default settings are important.

I need to talk with more teachers to find out how they find about technologies to use, but my current hypothesis is “click first hit from a Google search that has a massive easy-setup download button and is free or very, very cheap.” By that metric, Fedora and Sugar have a long, long ways to go. The workshop on Google Apps, on the other hand, had a crowded line that stretched on down the hallway. The  workshop wasn’t run by Google; it was run by a teacher who had used the stuff. Same with the iPhone session.

Went by the Second Life pavilion. This was a master lesson on how to welcome newbies to a space in a way that makes them want to  come back again and again. No sooner had I sat down than a volunteer approached me and offered to help get me started – sat with me for a half-hour walking me through making an account and doing basic navigation, didn’t leave until I’d started talking with the remote welcome team in Second Life (who he enthusiastically described to me – “oh, she’s wonderful! One of my best friends in SL! Tell her I say hello!”). By starting as a message courier, I rapidly got drawn into the conversation; the online greeters were equally excited, people kept coming up to me and welcoming me and showing me small interesting things (multiple welcomers treating you as if you were already a key part of their community == good feeling), the on-site volunteer kept popping in and asking if everything was all right and going “oh, you’re doing X! That’s awesome! Check out that thing near X!”

The thing that most impressed me was how they encouraged me to experiment and explore while simultaneously putting “you won’t fail” fallbacks in place (“Mel, can you try to teleport and follow me? Don’t worry, I’ll teleport you if you get lost.”) I tend to be more reckless than the average in terms of launching from unfamiliar trapeezes and trusting that I’ll grab something to break my fall on the way down, but knowing exactly what safety net was in place was nevertheless comforting. They had scheduled tours; we walked around Genome, a world that a genetics professor had constructed (swim inside a cell! talk with chromosomes!) and then Biome (flying up to realize the globe of paramecium I’d been staring at was actually a water droplet in the lens of a gigantic microscope was a lovely moment) and were constantly encouraged to try things, play with things, come back and use the space anytime… Teachers sure do know how to make you feel comfortable taking risks in learning new things. We need to learn that.

Looking at ads like this, I wonder how computers ever got a reputation for making children into socially isolated beings.

Andy Pethan (engineer): “The focus on STEM! STEM! STEM! is driving me nuts!” (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.) “I think English teachers are the biggest untapped market for technology in education. They could do so much with it.” I pointed out to Andy that STEM teachers tend to be the ones that like the tech stuff – which he knew and acknowledged as obvious – and that sometimes English teachers became English teachers, or early childhood teachers, or… well, non-STEM teachers – not just because they loved English or small children or History or such, but also because they might be afraid of STEM. This is a blatant overgeneralization and there are tons of exceptions, but that’s something that’s been drilled into my head by my aunt (who teaches kindergarten) – the phrase “those who can’t, teach,” as untrue and unfair as we think it may be, actually did come from somewhere. Argh! Systems that don’t work!

Happy exception: an art teacher and a physical education (PE) teacher from Ohio had teamed up to get another HP grant – I talked with Julie Lustic, the PE teacher, and was amazed. These teachers started out with very little technical knowledge. Julie described how she had to figure out how to save video files, struggling on her own until she discovered “File > Save As,” and then how it was tough to figure out which folder it had just saved into – a reminder of how many computer skills I take for granted despite trying my best not to. I was awed by their tenacity; they’d obviously gotten far more digitally fluent on their own since.

Julie would film her students running, jumping, and skidding across the gym on scooters. “Kids love to watch themselves,” she said. This was particularly helpful for the very young children (kindergarten, first grade) who were still developing a lot of fine and gross motor skills. Kids go through a continuum of development; for jumping rope, a 4-year-old might start by trying to windmill her arms awkwardly around at the shoulder, arcing over the back of her head; then over the next year or so progress to flailing elbow movement until finally, at 6, she’s jumping rope fluidly with her hands down by her sides and the barest hint of wrist movement. By filming the kids, she was able to track who was in what development stage when, and convey that to the parents, who often would think “able to jump rope” was a binary “yes she can / no she can’t” switch, and profited greatly from seeing the stages of learning they could then help their kid through.

She showed videos of adult athletes doing the moves she was about to teach them. “None of these kids had ever seen somebody vault before. They thought it was something I had invented.” They got projectors so kids could see the videos closer to the scale of actual people. All three teachers also set a target of raising 4th grade math test scores; they did this by talking with the 4th grade classroom teachers to find out what vocabulary words they were using in their classrooms, then working those words into their lessons (“run around the perimeter of the gym, measure the circumference of your head…”). While Julie and I talked, Ida Bergson – the art teacher – played stop-motion videos of dancing geometric shapes that she and the kids had made. Ida and Julie were proud of how it had worked out, and also said it had taken an immense amount of extra effort to pull it off.

These were teachers clearly going above and beyond and having huge effects on their students. And they had to fight every step of the way. Nobody in their district took their grant application seriously, because “they thought we weren’t going to get it anyway, sure, apply.” When they got it, there was an uproar because “who gives a PE teacher a computer?” They were refused district tech support and told they were on their own, which is entirely reasonable. But when they tried to fix things on their own, they got in trouble for not going through the district tech support that had already said it wouldn’t help them. There was a long story about how they had to keep on fighting through administration to keep doing this – even after the results had been apparent and positive.

We talked about where that might come from. Politically, it is unusual for art/PE teachers to get technologies the classroom teachers don’t have themselves (then again, Julie and Ida put in the work to make the grant happen and succeed). It’s new. It’s scary. New things are scary. And if you barely have the resources to keep afloat, taking the energy to deal with scary new things is not high on your priority list; you kinda wish that it would go away. Another systems problem. It’s hard to fix. I’m glad that Ida and Julie are still determined to fight the good fight; those kids in Cleveland Heights are very, very lucky.

My cousin Audrey watches this TV show, so I had to take a picture with the SuperWhy! team.

Walking around the vendor exhibition area, I was reminded that I’m not really the type of person that’s attractive for a sales rep to talk with. For good reason. I look too old to be a K12 student but too young to be a teacher (though I’m old enough to be a brand-new one) or someone who actually makes or influences purchasing decisions (ok, wearing a t-shirt rather than business attire may have made a difference) so I wasn’t pegged in the “education” space, and as a young woman I usually don’t get pegged in the “technology” space, so educational technology vendors probably don’t see me as a fit for who they ought to talk with. (Many happy exceptions here, but compared to the response to my friend Evan, a 21-year-old asian male engineer a in collared shirt, it was a fascinating contrast.)

I actually like being invisible, since I can easily choose to make myself visible by turning on the SHEER ENTHUSIASM!!! switch. This let me quietly wander around and watch what people were doing; there was an overwhelming amount of marketing shiny – far more than I would usually think contributes to conveying the real value of a product or service. Does a salesman dressing up as Indiana Jones (complete with whip and cave-themed booth) make your product any more valuable? Can you be more specific than “RAISES STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT!” in terms of what you’ll do for me? Primary colors and exclamation points everywhere; buzzwords on every sign. There were a lot of mini-workshops where the presenter “taught” the audience something with their technology, be it a clicker response system or a smart whiteboard; they were very polished and energetic, but I felt like most of them were…. sort of manufactured. One booth had a film crew taping the presenter on a stage, elevated about 4 feet above an audience of roughly a dozen people – few enough to jump down and have a real conversation with, in any case.

I have very mixed feelings about branding and marketing and PR. (This means, of course, that if I ever get an MBA, it’ll probably be in one of those, since that’s the thing that makes me most uncomfortable. And I do realize the three are different things… the MBA interns at RH are trying to teach me the difference, but I don’t yet really understand it. Anyway.)

NCWIT did see me walking by, and went “oh! you need to go encourage young women to pursue technology careers!” That’s a paraphrase, but I got a packet of materials (…actually, with rather good statistics) and a howto on approaching a local school to volunteer to do a presentation or something with them. I’ve got mixed feelings about this too. I am female, and I do like technology (and education, for that matter), and… okay, so? I’m wearing sandals, and I like technology, and you don’t see campaigns crusading for more sandal-wearers to get into IT. I was amused by how they tried to persuade me to particularly target low-income schools to volunteer at, though. “You know first-hand that engineering is a way to not have a low income!” I’m fairly certain that if you tallied up my work hours and my income since graduation, I would be making way below minimum wage, but that’s what I chose when I decided that volunteering and working on interesting things to help people trumped getting a stable job with lots of monies immediately after getting my degree (which was certainly an option – and I can see that someone from a low-income background might be more motivated to pursue that route than a child of the middle class with backup savings, no student loans, and no family to support).

Apparently Joseph Schumpeter wrote about Disrupting Class 70 years before the book came out.

Generally speaking, I have not found the below photograph to be true.

As an open source geek, I find it interesting to see proprietary software vendors trumpet that their products give users the “freedom to create, share, and discover everywhere.” If you buy their product, you are free to use it to create non-interoperable files and share those files with other people who have purchased the exact same software, and thereby discover what they’ve done. You can take your laptop running this software with you, hence the “everywhere.” (Or maybe you can pay to make it work on your cell phone for a year.) I know this is a very biased view, but it makes me feel kind of like… “yes, cookies from a box are mighty tasty, but in comparison to cookies that my brother bakes from scratch – you really don’t know what you’re missing…”

Sat down next to two teachers (well, one is now a teacher trainer) for lunch. When I conveyed my mixed feelings about what I’d seen that morning, Sandy Scragg helped me sort it out by explaining that there were two tracks of thought in educational technology. The one we come from is the one that sees tech as a tool for creation, for enablement, for greater interaction between individuals. The other one is an entirely reasonable response to the current system which is full of high-pressure, high-stakes assignments and tests and unions and long hours and low pay and high turnover; it sees technology as a way to automate teaching, not to free teachers to be more creative, but to turn them into standardized automatons. “Can you believe, I actually heard them say, ‘with this, your teachers don’t even need to think!’ They give you these scripts, say ‘read this word for word,’ the idea is, since we have high turnover, with a script it doesn’t matter who’s in front of the kids.”

We talked about how K12 education in the US has had this huge “lectures are bad! we need to make things more interactive! no lectures!” thing going for quite some time, and when our most successful students from that system graduate and go to college as we hoped they would (the topic of whether college as The Desired Endpoint of K12 is another debate), where do they end up their freshman year but 200+ student lecture rooms. We also talked about standardized testing; Sandy differentiated between testing as a benchmark (“that’s okay”) vs high-stakes testing as The Thing that the futures of “students, teachers, entire districts” ride upon.

Later that afternoon, I sat with a teacher from the Bronx and another one from a tough part of Texas who were discussing the difficulties of dealing with parents. In the good ol’ days (long before I was born, according to their dates – they’re both veteran teachers), parents were More Involved; schools made an effort to reach them. They’d bus the parents in for meetings and workshops once a month after school, so they could teach the parents too. They had a place where non-working parents could go and study and learn in the library after they dropped off their kids in the morning. Nowadays they’re seeing far more teenage parents who don’t know how to raise their kids because they didn’t have a chance to finish growing up themselves, 24-year-old mothers with 10-year-old children. The mothers still want to go out and party all night because they missed prom, missed hanging out with friends, dropped out of school, etc. because they had a kid to take care of… both the child-rearing and the childhood-having can’t coexist, so both get done quite badly, in most cases. There was no mention of what happened with the dads.

That’s all for Monday. I’ll write about separately, since I hope to find out more about it today.

NECC[1] = Monday

In the style of “release early release often” and “perfect == good.enemy()” we bring you this totally unedited, case rapidly typed post, because I need sleep.

This was the late-night idea. Results forthcoming. Traffic not as good as hoped, but it did meet our primary criteria of “hey, we need a way to meet people!” (In other words, we were so busy talking to people that we didn’t have time to constantly man #neccwall. This is good.)

Manned the Sugar Labs booth for a bit; had a good conversation with Scott Bullock on how engineers interested in education tend to make things for the kids they used to be (a tiny minority) and the problem of how to reach the rest.

Stopped by and talked with teachers who had gotten HP tablet PC grants. An Arkansas school had children annotate photographs with geometric drawings (“This sunflower exhibits symmetry over this line! *drawdraw*”). I asked if it was far more engaging to do that than to print out the picture and hand the kid a marker. They said yes, but didn’t know why – I wonder how much “technology helps students!” is attributable to students being excited by shiny new things, how much is due to the self-selecting nature of teachers willing to experiment with new tech (they’d tend to be the more adventuresome, dynamic ones even without “technology”), and how much the design and enablements of technology actually chips in to “increased performance.”

Another note: as an engineer, I’m used to being able to think about the “perfect” solution and then take the time to build it. Most teachers can’t do that; they don’t have the skills or time to create much in the way of new things (said the Arkansas teachers). You look around and see what’s on the shelf and do something with it. You don’t waste time thinking of things to build from scratch because you’ll never have the resources.

Then there was the Mt. Vernon high school that had gotten tablet PCs for their teachers. They didn’t have them for students; maybe 50% of their students had computer access at home. One of the teachers mentioned that he’d done his student teaching in a neighborhood with much more computer access, where you could actually email the students files and expect all of them to be able to print them out and bring them in the next day – this was a very different situation. Computers are expensive.

They were so proud that they had moved to using Powerpoint for classes. “The students love it,” they said. “Some teachers don’t have good handwriting… and this way it’s clear what they have to study [by memorization]… if they’re absent, they can watch the video at home without having to come to class and talk with the teacher…”

I… have conflicting feelings about this. On the one hand, they’re doing the best they can with a difficult situation. On the other hand, this is an incremental improvement down a road I don’t agree with (drill and kill, turning learners into automatons and using technology to script away human interaction). But to overturn such a difficult situation would be extremely difficult, so maybe this is the best that they can do.

Overheard amusing conversation: “Municipal wifi? Won’t that spread all sorts of viruses around?”

There is a film titled “Autism: The Musical.” It is a documentary of an acting teacher coaching 5 autistic children to perform a musical, and looks intriguing.

The exhibit hall is HUGE.

These notes take me nearly to lunchtime on Monday. I will have to finish them tomorrow.

If I were making NECC bingo cards, they would have the following words: collaboration, sharing, management (as in “classroom managment” – this bothers me, as if children were an industrial process that we need to keep in line), problem-solving, 21st century learners, integrative, accountability, standards, immersive, constructionist, community, reaching-outside-the-classroom-walls, rigorious, standards, innovate.

There’s power and honesty here. There’s also a lot of thin glossy washes of sounding-good – educators aren’t in particular positions of power, nor are the kids they teach, and both have (as people in those situations tend to do) become extremely good at giving the answers that those in power like to hear. You can see that gloss occasionally washing over someone’s passion – projects designed so that the outcome is in ready-made press-release format, obligatory scatterings of buzzwords (you know what? I will make that bingo card) but it gives me heart that oftentimes the fire will break through. The best thing I can do, I think, is be on fire myself these next two days so that nobody else will be the only one outside their comfort zone.

Speaking of fire, I’ve got a low-grade fever – my immune system has decided that DC is full of allergens that it must FIGHT! NOW! so I’m going to sleep and write the remainder of Monday’s notes tomorrow.

NECC[0] = Sunday

Hypothesis: sometimes it is better to release crappy existent stuff rather than nonexistent perfect stuff. It is late, pills I am tired and quashing a mild fever, cure here we go.

Breakfast with Mike Lee while we picked up Sugar Labs flyers. Talked about the digital divide; seniors and the underprivileged are being left out; the interfaces we assume are also leaving people out (typing, glaucoma reading, and able to carry 5lbs of laptop are big assumptions). Pointed Mike towards IIF’s session with Ezter Hargittai, who studies social inequity online.

Mike mentioned that the MIT Media Lab was working on a collaborative development environment. ACTION: find out what this is – it sounds neat!

Email discussions with Eric, Mikell, and Greg about FIRST robotics and open source, prompted by FIRST presence at NECC (yay!) Why aren’t teams producing open source robotics code? Why don’t they have code repositories, even? Some of this is in the works to being fixed, and there are certainly people interested in making it happen, but nobody’s stepped up to drive it yet. I am trying to plant as many seeds as possible this week because I know I don’t have the bandwidth to drive this (but I think I might have the bandwidth to help mentor and encourage someone who wants to). Should track down Denise Lewis tomorrow.

All For Good – another excellent Mike Lee conversation. The balance between shiny top-down endorsement/marketing from the big players and the grassroots movements they’re trying to start is fascinating. I admire the effort – aggregating and matching volunteers with opportunities is certainly not a new idea – at the same time, I wonder if it’s going to work.

There are serious signal-to-noise problems to overcome without bottlenecking at a single point of quality control; it’s hard to make sure organizations can actually handle the volunteers they ask for. Even the amazing Leslie Hawthorn puts in tons of effort filtering Summer of Code orgs and certainly doesn’t have a perfect hit rate. Compounding this problem is the divide between “traditional” volunteer coordinators (volunteer coordination as done, say, 20-30 years ago) and the kind of volunteer coordination folks like Mike and myself and the Red Hat CommArch team do (which is less coordination and more… the best word I know for it is Karsten’s “gardening” analogy). It’s always a problem when two people use the same word thinking they mean the same thing when that’s not actually the case. We tossed around the idea of content stamping before letting it rest as a wait-and-see.

And then we got to the convention center. This conference is freakin’ HUGE. I have never seen anything on this scale before. You stand in the entrance and look up and there are four stories of displays and then hallways that go back and back and back and then there is another building and it is LARGER THAN MY COLLEGE BY ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE. (Granted, that’s not extraordinarily difficult.)

The keynote was Malcom Gladwell, who is a good speaker. I’ve watched him before, though, and he tends to rehash points from his books. (And sure enough, he did it again this time. Still a good speech.) I didn’t actually watch the keynote; I caught up with people on it afterwards, and read the written summary. Instead, I helped set up the 60 VMs in the Open Source Pavilion, hereafter referred to as the OSP. Thin clients are sweet. With the money one school saved by getting a thin client system, they got huge monitors, sound systems in every classroom… 

Mike has a video of every machine here simultaneously rebooting (with cheers from the crowd). It’s sweet.

Jeff Elkner arrived. I introduced him to April-Hope (one Sugar/OLPC chapter founder to another, with the “high school chapters are awesome” bonus shared category). And Luke Faraone and I have finally met face-to-face.

Talked with teachers from northeastern NC about BBQ until one of them started telling the story of how her (middle school) kids put on a film festival – “have you ever seen a room of middle school students fully engaged? They would cheer, and then whent the next video started, they would become absolutely quiet…” The same group of teachers pointed me towards animoto, which which I have attempted to produce a slideshow. I’ll post this when the pictures are done processing.

ISTE has a lot of SIGs. It’s a list worth looking at to see the topics and the language educators interested in technology are grouping into right now. Of note: there is no early childhood category here. In fact, they don’t even really have books on it. There is a huge debate on whether computers should even be used in early childhood – with “computer usage” meaning “sit the kids in front of a screen and have them type.” I don’t think that’s age-appropriate (these kids usually are learning how to read and don’t have much fine motor control for rapid typing) but also think that type of computing is just a tiny, tiny piece of what “technology” can mean. Teachers doing vlogs of their young students, for instance.

Then there’s #neccwall. It’s one of those “it’s 11pm and we have AN IDEA!” moments (3 people now, but we’re going to try to find other first-time attendees to help out). It will be… explained more when I don’t have to wake up in 4 hours to prepare for it. In the meantime, the best explanation I can give is this video.

Finally made the mile+ hike to my hotel, accompanied partway by a group of teachers (a retired edu prof and her former students, it turns out) who gave me a blackboard pointer (I am not sure what to do with this, but I can point at things with inpunity and 2 extra feet of reach now!) and once I mentioned I’d attended a math and science magnet high school, we talked about math and science training for teachers until our paths diverged.

Need sleep so badly.