Saturday, April 26, 2008

Linux and Open Source: The epitome of 21st Century Skills

I know several readers of this blog are reading it for their interest in Linux and not so much for their interest in education. However, let me speak specifically to the educators for a moment. Besides, this is going to be a long post. A lot of us are looking at our schools and seeking ways to improve the application of 21st Century Skills into our environments. Many of us have recognized that the traditional models of instruction need to be shaken up a little as they are no longer reflective of the world in which we are sending our students. That was never more clear to me than this week. I spent the week in Austin, Texas as a guest of the Linux Foundation at their Collaboration Summit. What I observed and experienced was the most comprehensive actualization of the 21st Century workplace I could have imagined.

Though, at Whitfield, we are merging several notions of 21st Century learning to create one that best fits our school (something I would encourage you all to do) for the purpose of greater clarity, I will use the framework from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (“P21”) as a model for this discussion. The model identifies a new skill set for our consideration and suggests a framework for creating a sustainable environments for this kind of learning. The framework on which the skills are built is very good but will not be discussed in this post. Instead I will focus on the “rainbow” of 21st Century Skills.

Before I get into the model, I'd like to provide a little background on the Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit. The Linux Foundation is one of the key bodies dedicated to the support of the use of Linux, an open source operating system. Linux is not owned by a company, like Microsoft or Apple. Instead, it is created and maintained by groups of individuals from around the globe dedicated to making it work. Now, many of these teams include people from companies interested in seeing Linux succeed, such as IBM, Novell, Oracle, Google and Redhat. However, none of them “own” Linux and it can not really be sold. However, several companies, such as Novell and RedHat sell versions of Linux that include enterprise level support. Linux has prolific deployment in data centers. Almost everyone has Linux in their server room. However, most may not know it. It is usually an appliance, like a spam filter or remote access appliance, or a router. At home you may have Linux in your TiVO, television or car. I was invited to the conference to talk about how our students use Linux on their laptops. It was a chance for those who build it to hear how it is used by those who have little to no idea what is “under the hood.” I was honored to be there and they were extremely gracious hosts. However, for me, the magic was watching them collaborate during their few days together to identify issues, hash out conflicts and map out solutions.

OK. How was this 21st Century Skills? Oddly enough, it had very little to do with the technology. Instead it was all the things that show up in P21's Framework. The “rainbow” section of the framework has four parts; Core Content and 21st Century Themes, Learning and Innovation Skills, Information Media and Technology Skills, and Life and Career Skills. I will briefly break down each of those and discuss my observations of each.

The inside of the “rainbow” is Core Content and 21st Century Skills. New information is being created at an incredible rate. However, that doesn't mean we no longer need to learn fundamentals like reading, writing and math. We still need those basic skills as a foundation for new and ever changing information and knowledge. However, those skills can be taught in a cross curricular-manner within the context of a 21st century theme such as globalization.

At the Collaboration Summit, software developers from around the globe came together to discuss development standards. However, questions like legal access to DVD codecs and compatibility and adoption of standards within different media players colored the conversations. It wasn't enough to know “what” to code or “how” to code it. That's the “easy” part! Developers had to take international law as well as regional and global market demands into consideration. Though we all know information doesn't exist in a vacuum, it was instantly clear just how interdependent the discipline of their training was with critical information outside of their formal training. This is where executives from companies from HP and Lenovo would come into play. Also, to add further clarity to some of these issues, the Linux Foundation also hosts another conference dedicated exclusively to the legal issues surrounding the implications of their code. However, the point remains that information becomes significantly more relevant (and complicated) when placed in a meaningful context.

The next section of the model is Life and Career Skills. P21 breaks this down into several areas: flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self direction, social and cultural skills, productivity and accountability, and leadership and responsibility. Every manager wishes his or her employees possessed each of these and launching an entrepreneurial venture without at least most of these is virtually impossible! Watching the developers of Linux employ these skills was simply amazing.

In some ways, it may be more appropriate to consider Linux leaders entrepreneurs than software developers. The operating system is really created of different parts with varying teams that work together, and sometimes compete, to build the comprehensive Linux environment. The Linux community consists of teams such as the kernel team,, Gnome, KDE, etc. These teams work to enhance the user's experience and increase the power of the Linux operating system. Many work on their own for no pay or as part of non-profit groups. Typically, their only compensation is a “free” ticket to meet with other developers. However, several companies pay people salaries to engage with these teams to make Linux more stable and pervasive.

However, with no central management, each of these developers and teams are working together “on their own.” They don't have something like Q4 quotas with the pressure of a stock report to weigh on them. They share in the identification of problems, allocation of duties and completion of subsequent tasks. They work across political, social, linguistic and cultural boarders. They do this out of passion, pride and purpose. Now this is not to say their work will not be identified and yield them a high paying job with companies using or supporting Linux. However, this is typically not the motivation and there are much easier ways to earn that kind of salary.

The next section of the framework is Information and Media Skills. This is broken down into the following areas: information literacy, media literacy, information communication and technology literacy. This area challenges us to understanding different forms of media and how to best interpret and use information that comes from the varying forms of media. What role to books, magazine, newspaper, TV, radio, web pages, blogs, chat, and social networks, etc. play in our lives? What do we need to consider to evaluate the value of a particular message? Though this area was less significant, it still plays out in an interesting way in the Linux community.

People in Linux communities appear to be a tight group at some levels. I think this comes from working hard together over a long period of time. However, a great deal of time can pass before one member of team actually sees another member, if ever! Many times I overheard, “Wow! It's great to put a face with the name!” Most of the time, people are working over the Internet via e-mail, chat, web portals and ftp directories. It requires a different set of communication skills to develop solid working relationships with these tools.

The final section of the model is Learning and Innovation Skills. The P21 Framework further breaks this down into critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, and communication and collaboration. This, more than any other section of the framework, challenges us to get things done! These are the skills I saw most clearly played out at the Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit.

The Linux Foundation is building an ecosystem of computing! It is not an application, a suite, or even just an operating system...they are building an ecosystem! This is not a company, it is many individuals and groups. It does not have an organizational chart, a building, merit based parking or any of the other things we associate with organizations capable of taking on such a task. Instead, brilliant and passionate individuals work, often in their “spare” time, to build this computing environment.

This first requires the ability to communicate and collaborate. The Internet (e-mail, forums and blogs) provide the conduits of communication but people still need to be able to use those tools, and language, to collaborate and get things done. These developers not only collaborate across national and socio-economic borders, they also work across technical boundaries. What are the needs of the hardware, firmware, OS, and even (gasp!) the end user! This last one is the tricky one. These developers and leaders in the Linux community really care about the end user. They have worked hard to create an ecosystem and they are willing to talk to “the rest of us” to learn how to meet our needs. Those of you who have talked to extremely technical people know what an obstacle this can be. Now, imagine adding the complexity of language and cultural barriers to that. To me, given these challenges, it is incredible that Linux can boot, yet alone provide such a pleasant user experience.

However, these challenges may be the birth of the next skill set, innovation and creativity. Their access to so many people across so many cultures certainly creates a hot bed of innovation. At Whitfield, we've been using Linux Desktop since Suse 9. That was three years ago. In those 3 quick years, Linux Desktop has matched or exceeded the innovation curve Microsoft made in their move from Windows 98 to Vista! Those who have used Linux for the last three years know I am really not kidding! Linux is no longer the follower. They are a leader in new technologies. Their recent move to real time computing for the data center is one testament to this.

Lastly, critical thinking and problem solving is simply built into the nature of programming. Gary Steger, an educational consultant, was saying at event I was at that he believes that every student should take programming simply because it is such a great exercise in problem solving. Though I'm not sure that really meets the needs of each student in the best way, his point has considerable merit. Also, insofar as this post seeks to make the argument that the Open Source world serves as a wonderful example of 21st Century Learning, I couldn't agree more. Developers are constantly dealing with bugs, new feature needs and upgrade compatibility issues. When things don't work, they are forced to break down what they know and develop strategies for attacking the problem. Also, because they are developing a real product that is being used by the entire Fortune 500, it is a pretty meaningful challenge. You can't just set it aside.

So what does this mean to us as educators? Though perhaps to a lesser extent, 21st Century Skills are being played out in very real ways in all sorts of industries. What makes Linux and the Open Source world unique or special? Other than being able to say, “ I was one of the 5 people who made it this far in this ridiculously long blog post” what good does it do me to know this?

Well, the answer is access. It is difficult to create opportunities for your students in other major international projects capable of creating such meaningful and authentic experiences. It costs you nothing (and may actually save you money) to include your students in the Open Source community. It costs nothing to participate in an open source project and replacing a commercial product with an open source one in your school to create the environment for learning may actually lower your software budget. Not only does Linux and the Open Source community provide one of the best examples of 21st Century Skills, but its one that you have access to. How cool is that?!

OK. The next question is “how do I do it? I don't know anything about Linux! Also, I teach History for goodness sake, what does this even have to do with me?” A simple way is to begin using Open Source software in your school. Give students access and then point them to the community that supports it, usually found in Help menu, under “About.” Encourage them to bring questions about the software to the community. Encourage them to read the forums. After gaining some experience with a product, such as OpenOffice, Audacity, or iTalc, contact the project leader to organize a project to formalize feedback. Run the product through the paces of authentic use and have students engage in the process of evaluating the tool as a means to their productive end. Thinking about the process is a form of metacognition. By evaluating the role of the tool they are thinking about their learning and productivity process. Ask students to provide feedback on the tool based on their project steps. The project leaders will greatly value structured feedback. Also, they may make changes in the product based on your feedback and ask your students to test the changes. You can decide if you are going to build that step into your class. However, this is where the real energy happens. When testing changes, students will be working with a team of people (possibly international) to solve problems and meet standards.

Not everyone will care to do much more than “get the project done.” However, the end result of ALL of our projects is nearly meaningless in the big picture of our student's lives. However, the experience we create for them in while DOING these projects can literally change their lives. The “secret sauce” has always been the process...the experience. Letting open source be part of that allows them to think more about that process and some of your students will take advantage of the opportunity and become regular participants in open source projects, thus placing them in the epicenter of all of the 21st Century Skills discussed above.

Schools such as the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy have a chapter of kids developing for the One Laptop Per Child program. Vern Ceder teaches programming in open source languages at Canterbury School in Indiana. One of the most lively open source communities I've ever seen is the Moodle community. I encourage you all to take a deeper look at Linux and Open Source as an opportunity to enhance your student's learning of 21st Century Skills.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Linux Likes and Gripes (Response)

I solicited responses from members of our community and went back and did a content analysis on the survey data collected this year. I compiled a list of aspects of Linux that our students and teachers liked and disliked. I did not include items that are specific to our image choices. I tried to keep this agnostic to Linux in general as part of my feedback to the Linux Foundation at their Collaboration Summit in Austin, TX.

Here's the list including the number of times a statement was made:

Top Linux Likes:
Ease of Use (51)
Open Office (17)
Customization (16)
Desktop Effects (15)
Panel (10)
Stability (8)

Top Linux Gripes
Open Office (29)
Intuitive install (15)
Network Manager (11)
Ease of Use (10)
Samba (9)
DVD (7)
Power management (7)
Evolution (7)

Friday, March 07, 2008

Need Help - Linux Desktop Likes and Gripes

I am very excited! I was invited by the Linux Foundation to their Collaboration Summit in April. The SUSE Linux Desktop Team asked me to bring my joys and complaints to the conference. I will serve on a panel explaining to the bright people who make Linux work how well Linux Desktop OS works with consumers and enterprise technology people.

I need your help. If you are a user of Linux Desktop, please let me know what distribution you use and post what you like and don't like. What do you think it does well and what would you like changed? I need this feedback by April 7th but it would be great if I could get some feedback before March 15th, as I will be seeing some of the SUSE Linux development team at Novell's Brainshare at that time.

I will start:
I've used SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop for 3 years (the first year it was called Novell Linux Desktop). I have it deployed on about 20 desktops and 640 laptops that are used at school and at home.

My Likes:
Beautiful interface (compiz)
Love the cost
Love the security and lack of viruses and spyware
I love that most programs are configurable with either the GUI or easy to manage configuration files
Love the documentation both on the box and in the community (I'd like better writing but this is the case with all technical manuals)
I love Firefox
I love that the Linux platform puts me in the epicenter of open source development allowing me to afford applications that I can't afford on the commercial side allowing for greater creative outlet and innovation

My Gripes:
I want web cams to work right away
I want every piece of built in hardware to work without fussing around:
*Function keys
*ThinkVantage Button
*Finger Reader
*DVD player
*Audio Headsets
*External VGA port to work with projector
I want rpm's or an msi equivalent for every software package I want to install on my computer
I want Linux versions of the software I want to buy
I want WINE to run Windows versions of software I want to buy if a Linux Version does not exist

I will add more later. However, I wanted to get the ball rolling. When I started using Linux, I really didn't know what I was getting myself into. I'm kind of a "Ready - Fire - Aim" guy. However, I am extremely pleased with the decision. That being said, I'm never one to shy away from expecting the stars and moon. Even if you think it's not feasible, if you want it, put it on the list.
Comments et to be reviewed on this blog because too many people post commercials otherwise. However, please add your comments and I will readily post them.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Facebook for the rest of us!

I know sites like Facebook and MySpace cause technology directors and teachers great concern. "Students spend too much time on them." "Students give away too much personal information." "Students use these tools to obscure who they really are, and engage in fantasies."

Well, whatever the case or cause, students spend a lot of time on them. Why? I would recommend you find out for yourself. Consider connecting yourself to a Social Network that has meaning to you. I have a MySpace and Facebook account. I also have an account on an alumni social network through my college. I spend very little time on them. However, several months ago I joined a new social network on Ning specifically for Independent School Technology People. Whoa! I am hooked.

I have met people with similar interests that I would have never come across. I create and join groups to learn about different things. I have learned new stuff about technology integration, professional development, and new technologies.

The group is getting pretty big and it's difficult to meet the needs of local concern so I decided to start a Ning network specifically for St. Louis Area Tech people to discuss local concerns such as local vendors, infrastructure and local opportunities.

Ning is a nice way to create a reasonably safe and appropriately focused site that meets the 21st century needs of your students and, quite frankly, creates a fun and interactive way to communicate! Give it a shot!

Updated Research

Well I am grossly overdue in posting this but I have included links to research gathered over the last two years on our Linux Laptop project. The survey results can be found on the Links section of this blog. The survey instrument we created reflects the data gathered in the Baseline research as well as that gathered in the process to create the White Paper. The items on the assessment have been written to reflect the goals of our Technology Plan. This is because the Laptop program should further almost everything we want to do in out technology plan. However, because this is the only survey we do annually to see how we are doing with our plan, there are a few questions which have little to do with laptops.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Starting a Laptop Program

I would like to thank Lenovo and Captial Technology & Leasing for asking me to present on Preparing your school for a One-to-One program in Milwaukee. I spent 12 wonderful years in Wisconsin and it was nice to "be home."

The presentation can be found here.

The presentation is derived from the work done on the 1:1 Readiness Instrument developed by Educational Collaborators. This group has over 125 years of collective experience leading K-12 One-to-One programs and can help schools with their programs, beginning with this free tool.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Great Laptop Debate

I just learned of a fantastic blog giving us a wonderful peek into the debate of a community whose public school district is seeking to implement a 1:1 laptop program. They were kind enough to include a link to this blog, though I do not know if they seek to include Linux in their program. However, it really doesn't matter. Though Linux can save a lot of money with laptop programs, the goal is not to save money or deploy computers. The goal is to help students learn how to become great learners in the ever-changing global marketplace of the 21st Century.

The town is Oberlin, Ohio and the blog is called Community Diaries. I encourage you to take a look. Though I am sure many great things will be added to this discussion, I would begin with the comments made to the bottom post on the blog.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Terminal Services: The good, the bad and the ugly

I am hearing a lot about terminal services lately. I am also seeing a lot of excitement about it. About two years ago, I was also really excited about it but time, experience and experimentation has cooled my excitement. Terminal Services offers a great deal of additional access at a much lower cost but ultimately alienates today's youth who have become accustomed to personalized technology.

First, let me offer a brief definition. Terminal Services is effectively offering multiple users access to a single computer from multiple locations simultaneously. Microsoft offers terminal services and various products offer add-on functionality, such as Citrix. At Whitfield, we use Citrix. We have four servers which have up to about 75 users a piece running either a full desktop environment or specific applications. Thus, 75 people are using the same computer at the same time. Now, this is a pretty strong server but that's still pretty efficient. Terminal services have also gotten a lot of attention through the K-12 Linux Terminal Service Project and Linux Terminal Services through Novell's Suse Linux.

The Good
The good side of terminal services is that it can drastically cut costs. Instead of buying beefy desktops who's CPU remains idle most of the day, you can place low cost desktops or thin terminal devices (or hold onto really old, crappy computers) and run state of the art software on the relatively few beefy terminal servers. Because you can hold onto (or resurrect) old computers, it is very possible to improve your student to computer ratio. Lower costs and more access is a good thing!

The Bad
Whenever you have multiple users simultaneously using the same computer, you need to be careful about one user destroying the experience of all the others. In a desktop environment, if one kids messes things up, he or she will usually walk away and find another computer. Though that one computer is down, everyone else remains largely unaffected. The necessary result of this is that you have to lock down your terminal servers pretty tightly. You also need to watch them pretty closely, though, when things are not right, you will hear about it as it affects so many people! Also, one of the greatest limitations of terminal services is that resources are only available when people are connected to the network. Though many terminal services can be made available through the Internet, you still have to be connected. How lost did you feel the last time you forgot your cell phone? Magnify that times ten for today's digital kids.

The Ugly
Because the computing environment has to be locked down so tightly, terminal services turn technology into a pure utility. Now, some companies are very excited about this. They don't want people doing anything on computers other than that which they explicitly allow. Shamefully, some schools are that way. At best, this limits innovation and at worst, kills a spirit of exploration, which is absolutely counter-intuitive to education. What happens is that student use of technology is limited to the creativity of the IT staff and administration (most all of whom are NOT digital natives, unlike our students). Our students have become accustomed to slapping different colors on their iPod, changing desktop backgrounds daily, setting up digital environments which allow for the intersection of their work, personal lives, and interests. Kids will meet their needs someway and it simply can not be met through terminal services.

Our Experience
At Whitfield, we worked extremely hard to create a robust, fast and slick terminal services environment. We redirected many of the personal settings to other servers so students could have as much control as possible. They obviously could not install software or change any of the configurations of the terminal servers themselves.

We were also aware that the major limitation of terminal services is that the resources are unavailable if not connected to the Internet. Thus, we provided them access to Novell Linux Desktop 9 (the vastly inferior predecessor to SUSE Linux Desktop 10). Our Citrix environment offered most of the best Microsoft had to offer. Our Linux laptop offered most of the standard set of tools available on Linux. The only major modification we made was to give normal users a lot of rights over the Linux laptop.

Even though SUSE 9 was pretty inferior compared to Windows 2003, students reported spending half of their connected time in Linux. With SLED10, students now report spending 80-90 percent of their time in Linux. Though some of that relates to the new features of SLED10, people are reporting that the real reason they spend time in Linux versus Citrix is because they can "make it look the way they want to." Personalization is the key and terminal services can't offer that.

Terminal services still has a place in our environment. Teacher's frequently use Citrix for a Windows desktop environment and we also have some applications that simply can not be run from a Linux workstation. However, our mission calls for us to be a student centered environment. I can't honestly claim to be supporting the mission of my school and limit the needs of my students.

A Compromise
One of the latest innovations that seems to offer the savings of terminal services and the personalization of personal desktops is the virtual desktop initiative (Please see my post on virtualization). This allows people to use a low cost device (or actually any device able to connect to the Internet) to access a remote session to a virtual desktop. That desktop is, functionally, a complete and personal machine. However, that machine is virtual and actually exists on disk. That machine is made available through a virtual machine server, like VMWare or Xen.

In this scenario, users can personalize a machine to their liking without really affecting other users. Also, because these systems or easy to restore from frequent "snapshots," you can give users a little more freedoms on the box, encouraging innovation and technical literacy.

Now, this environment requires a lot more disk space than terminal services and still REQUIRES Internet connection, which is still a MAJOR limitation in most towns (NOTE: I would argue that kids need access beyond home and school in order to gain full fluency but equity issues also would require home connection for all users). Those limitations keep this from being a viable option in the St. Louis area today. However, if I were the CIO of Philadelphia Public Schools or Milwaukee Public Schools (where I actually started my teaching career) I would be ALL OVER this solution.