Friday, November 26, 2010

The Power of a Great Teacher

Next April will mark two years since Proyecto Juan Chacon's 27 XOs first arrived in El Salvador. We learned a very important lesson in the first year that they were in La Cooperativa Juan Chacon: a successful XO / Sugar educational project requires a great teacher. Progress was slow going during the first year. The XOs sat unused far more often then not, since the community really didn't know what to do with them.

That all changed about six months ago when the following occurred:
  • The Juan Chacon Free Software Project formally became part of the non-profit organization, PEACE International.
  • We hired a teacher, Erick Rosales, to go to the community once a week and develop an educational program using free software and Internet access.
Erick is an excellent teacher, and the community project in Chaletanango, El Salvador in moving forward at a wonderful pace, as the young student in this video can attest:

There are some in the Sugar community who believe that putting XOs in the hands of young folks is enough for them to begin learning on their own. Our experience in Los Chilamates suggests that while Sugar is an excellent learning tool, it requires a great teacher to make it come alive.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ejabberd Now Works with USR

Matt Gallagher is on a roll!  At 2 pm today (EST) he and Douglas used the Chat activity on Ubuntu Sugar Remix (USR) to communicate between Arlington, Virginia, USA and San Salvador, El Salvador.  This required Matt to patch ejabberd to support Sugar's requirements, which in turn required him to learn enough Erlang to accomplish that.

Wonderful work, Mr. Gallagher!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ubuntu Sugar Remix with a Working Browser!

Ubuntu Sugar Remix (USR) took a big step closer today to becoming a classroom ready computer learning environment thanks to the fine work of Matt Gallagher.  The USR that installs from the current Ubuntu 10.10 repositories lacks a usable web browser - a flaw which renders it not ready for classroom use.  Thanks to Matt, the full featured browse activity is now packaged and ready for installation from his Personal Package Archive (PPA).

Canonical makes community developed projects like this dead simple to use.  Matt wanted me to warn anyone reading this that these packages are unsupported and should only be used by folks whose primary interest is using Sugar on Ubuntu, since there may be issues doing a distribution upgrade to Ubuntu 11.04 with them installed that could possibly break your system.

If your still interested after that warning, here is how I will be installing USR on Ubuntu 10.10 machines from now on:

From a command prompt, run:

$ sudo add-apt-repository ppa:mattva01/ppa

This adds Matt's PPA to your apt repository list.  After that, run:

$ sudo aptitude install ubuntu-sugar-remix

You now have a working USR environment complete with a working browse activity.

If you already have USR installed, you will be able to remove the broken firefox activity after adding Matt's repository and updating your packages.

Tomorrow Matt will be tackling getting our jabber server to work, after which we can realize our big goal for this year by testing Sugar collaboration between Arlington, Virginia and Los Chilamates, El Salvador...

Thanks Matt!

Monday, November 8, 2010

A SchoolTool Gradebook for Educational Reform?

With prospects for the eventual creation of the Governor's Career and Technical Academy in Arlington now looking a bit more promising, I recently asked to join the grading committee at our school. We are reading a book by Ken O'Connor called A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades. My personal experience of 20 years as a teacher and at least twice that as a student has me totally convinced that the way grades are used in our schools represent student learning of our published content standards and learning outcomes either very little or not at all (O'Connor, 2007, p. 3).

Among the 15 "Fixes" O'Connor lists in the book, 3 in particular stand out as things I would like to incorporate immediately into my own classroom practice.   Fix 8: Don't assign grades using inappropriate or unclear performance standards (O'Connor, 2007, p. 61), Fix 11: Don't rely only on the mean (O'Connor, 2007, p. 81), and Fix 12: Don't include zeros in grade determination when evidence is missing or as punishment (O'Connor, 2007, p. 85).  I'm well aware of the problem of the zero. Using a 100 point scale and 4 equally "weighted" assignments a student earning 100, 100, 0, and 100 would have a 75 or "C average".  I'm interested in exploring the more meaningful score systems suggested in the book (O'Connor, 2007, p. 88), but to do this effectively will require an electronic gradebook which supports this.

 The good news is that the gradebook I am currently using, the SchoolTool gradebook, has the promise of being able to make the student data it holds more useful in the the service of learning.  There are three components of SchoolTool that together offer the potential to take communication about standards and performance among students, teachers, parents, school administrators and support personal, and other stake holders in the educational process to a whole new level.

SchoolTool has three components that I am using this year to help students learn better: the CanDo competency tracker, the gradebook, and the intervention system.  In future posts I'll describe each of these in more detail, but for now I want to mention one essential feature missing from the gradebook that could potentially make SchoolTool a tool of choice for educational reform efforts involving grading.

The gradebook has nicely designed worksheets that hold collections of activities that are individually scored.  I'm convinced these worksheets could be further developed into an amazingly flexible tool for more effective grading if:
  1. each worksheet could have its own score system.
  2. each worksheet could be individually and flexibly programmed to produce a "grade".
  3. worksheet "grades" could be combined in flexible ways to produce a term "grade".
By flexibly producing a "grade" I mean having support for more than just the customary calculation of the mean of a set of scores.  O'Connor emphasizes that grades are broken when the procedures used to arrive at them are faulty, and that simply using the mean score as a measure of student achievement is often times faulty (O'Connor, 2007, p. 81).

I can image being able to create worksheets that are labeled according to learning outcome, and are scored using a system that better reflects what students can do at the time the "grade" is determined.  This may mean counting later evaluations more than earlier ones or using a mode score of multiple evaluations to arrive at a "competency score".

Because SchoolTool is free software and is open to direct input from users within the SchoolTool community, it offers the possibility of being our evaluation tool in support of educational reform.


O'Connor, K. (2007). A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades. Boston: Pearson.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

ejabberd: It sure is nice when it "just works"!

 (Note: Evening after the original post -- Oops!  I was dead wrong about our ejabberd server "just working".  It turns out that Sugar machines on the same network can "see" each other without a jabber server, so changing the server only removed us from interference from the pre-configured server.  Back to the drawing board :-(

With Ubuntu Sugar Remix (USR) now running on all the machines in our CS lab, here are the near term goals for our Sugar project:

  1. Setup an XMPP server so users can connect with each other.
  2. Increase our general level of "sugar culture" by using sugar in our day to day classroom activities.
My original thought was to use OLCP's School Server (or XS).  Two of our system administration students installed the XS software on one of our servers.  I had hoped that the XMPP (jabber) server would be active out of the box, but this does not appear to be the case. After talking to David Farning, the man responsible for getting USR ready for the Ubuntu Maverick release, I decided it would be better to look into running XMPP on an Ubuntu server instead.

A quick google server lead me to this page comparing available jabber servers.  I decided to try ejabberd, and after running:

$ sudo aptitude install ejabberd

on one of the Maverick workstations in the lab.  After setting the Sugar "learnstations" (it doesn't sound right calling them "workstations" ;-) to use the new sever, it just worked!  (note: I added a quick how to page on the Ubuntu wiki here showing how to set the jabber server).

It is a wonderful feeling when things "just work", but we have a lot more to do now.  Specifically, we need to:
  1. Learn more about how ejabberd does what it does.  If something doesn't work, we lack the tools at present to figure out why.  This page from the ejabberd website may prove helpful.
  2. Learn how collaboration works in Sugar.  This page from the floss manuals site may be a good place to start.
In both of these efforts, I'm hoping to coordinate with the David Farning, Caroline Meeks, and the rest of the USR community to make our work as effective as we can.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Introducing the Ubuntu Family Home Computer

I'm not sure if the good folks at Canonical even know what they've got, but thanks to the hard work of of the Ubuntu Sugar Remix (USR) team, October 10, 2010 will mark the arrival of the first Ubuntu family home computer.

The Bear Family's Ubuntu 10.10 Login Screen
This is the first Ubuntu that is truly for the entire family.  Mama Bear and Papa Bear can both have administrative rights and private data, thanks to their encrypted home directories and secure passwords.  They login to the gnome desktop environment that keeps getting prettier and more user friendly with each six month release.

Papa Bear's Gnome Desktop
But what is really exciting and new with this release happens when Baby Bear clicks her name on the login screen, and is taken right to her Sugar desktop without having to type a password.

Her parents are happy because they know that the Sugar Learning Platform provides Baby Bear with a safe and effective place to learn and grow.  No evil advertisements here, just games and puzzles that teach Baby Bear to type, and add, and write, and problem solve.

Baby Bear's Sugar Desktop

The Sugar Learning Platform is starting to deliver on its early promise of creating a free, open learning platform for children of all ages.  With USR now installed on each machine in our computer lab at school, we will be able to explore its possibilities and contribute to its development.

Stay tuned for our reports on what we learn!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Saving the World with Python

I had the great pleasure yesterday morning of having breakfast with with Cecilia Alcalá, Executive Director of Paraguay Educa, the organization responsible for the OLPC/Sugar deployment in Paraguay.

As we talked about our respective projects and shared ideas about how we might work together, I was viscerally excited that my original hopes for the OLPC/Sugar project may be coming to pass.

Cecilia was proud of the fact that her team did much of the heavy lifting in the release of Sugar 0.88, the version of Sugar that will run on the new XO 1.5. In addition to Paraguay Educa, Sugar 0.88 was developed as a joint activity between Activity Central and Sugar Labs, in collaboration with the Uruguayan OLPC/Sugar project, Plan Ceibal.

What we have here is a collaboration among grass roots software developers and educators from both South and North America to create educational resources for the benefit of learners the world over.

On a personal level, I'm happy that the community around this particular project is centered around the use of a common language.  I'm not talking about Spanish or English, but rather Python.

It was Guido van Rossum's 1999 "Computer Programming for Everybody", with its vision of a more democratic world where the programming of computing machines becomes part of the basic literacy of every day people, that brought me into the Python community.  There has been a small but vital subgroup within the community that is motivated by that vision.

At last year's Pycon, had a sticker at that read, "Python will save the world! I don't know how, but it will."  It may very well be that groups like Paraguay Educa are showing us how.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Setting Up SchoolTool with The SchoolTool Book

I just finished setting up SchoolTool for the GCTAA Summer program.  I added a school year, then a term. I set up the timetable, then added courses, teachers, and students.  It was so easy that it made me feel real good!

The thanks for this pleasurable experience go to the SchoolTool project manager, Tom Hoffman, who has crafted The SchoolTool Book. As someone who has spent many an angry hour trying to work my way through complex and impossible to read configuration manuals, I can recognize a well written manual when I read one, and this one is well written.  It is clear and concise, and has all the information the reader would want in just the right places.

The lesson here is simple:  all free software projects should have their documentation written by English teachers who are also free software geeks.  If only we could find more of those.

Thanks Tom!

Friday, April 30, 2010

Planning for an Ubuntu Install Factory

Yesterday was Ubuntu release day, which means that today it is almost impossible to use the repositories, jammed as they are with users eager to get at the new release.

I've become familiar with this pattern, so I ran sudo update manger -d on all the machines in my lab two weeks ago, updating them all to Lucid before the rush.

Since Lucid is an LTS release, it will be supported on the desktop for the next three years, and there will be a direct upgrade path from it to the next LTS release, two years from now.

While I personally run the latest release, I usually install only LTS releases on computers I gift as part of my free software advocacy.  This is because I will very likely be called upon to help the recipients maintain their machines once I've given them, and it greatly reduces my workload using only the more stable, upgrade once in two years, LTS releases.

This release promises to be particularly exciting, thanks to the excellent work of the Lubuntu developer team.  Lubuntu appears ready to deliver something I've been needing for years - a lightweight, easy to use version to run on legacy computers.  There are lots and lots of Pentium III computers with about 128 Megabytes of RAM floating around, and having Lubuntu provides a way to breath new life into these older machines, delivering a modern, powerful computing experience to folks who can't afford to purchase a new computer.

What I want to do now is setup an "Ubuntu Installation Factory", with the following characteristics:
  • The ability to install Ubuntu (server, 32 bit, and 64 bit), Kubuntu, and Lubuntu from our own internal apt server.
  • A flexible installation process that makes it easy to use a standard installation process for each of these installation types.
Again, from the Lubuntu community, I just found out about the mini.iso install cd.  While this cd was developed for netbooks, it appears to provide just what I need to install on older computers as well.  It is wonderful how netbooks have provided the market motivation for the creation of the tools we computer salvagers have been needing for so long.  The process for using this cd to install Lubuntu is described here.

So the plan is to setup an apt repository in our CS lab and an installation process using mini.iso to install all the different versions of Ubuntu we want to make available.

I'll post updates as the process unfolds....

Thursday, March 11, 2010

TurtleArt for Ubuntu

A debian package for TurtleArt is now available for Ubuntu.  The launchpad site has information on how to install it on the upcoming 10.04 (Lucid) release of Ubuntu is on the site, but for the command line comfortable, the simplest solution is to run each of the following command in a terminal (in order):

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:mattva01/ppa
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install turtleart

 I just finished running these steps for the 3rd time, and they worked each time, with the following warning:

 install-info: warning: no info dir entry in `/usr/share/info/'

I can't figure out how to file bugs on launchpad, and plan to follow up on that next.

In addition to the warning mentioned above, there is no icon yet for the Applications -> Education -> TurtleArt menu item.  I'll ask TurtleArt developer Walter Bender what he thinks about the icon later today.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Emerging Synergies in El Salvador Free Software Project

Yesterday was a really encouraging day for the Juan Chacon Free Software Project.  Douglas Cerna, SchoolTool developer and hacking high priest of our project, sent an email and made a phone call to Lic. Liseth Giron, Profesora de Computacion at la Universidad Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero (UMOAR), to start a conversation about how we might work together on several projects.  Douglas's chat to me afterward captures the mood of their conversation:

Douglas: WOW
and wow
just wow

It turns out that Lic. Giron is already familiar with the free software movement, has Ubuntu already running at the university, and is interested in exploring ways we might work together toward community development in Chalatenango.  So our collaboration with PEACE, International and UMOAR is off to a promising start!

When I first learned about the Free Software Foundation more than 15 years ago, I thought the day would come when free software would play a crucial role in movements for progressive social change.  Now, watching free software sweep across progressive Latin America, it is great to be able to play a small part in the process.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Educon 2.2

Chris Lehmann, principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, teaches a class to a group of mostly senior students called Modern Educational Theory (see Chris's letter to the students of the class here).  I found out about the class from the SLA student taking me on a tour of the school in session during the 1st day of Educon 2.2.  That Chris teaches a class like this comes as no surprise -- he believes that the education experience is something we should do with students, not to them, and it shows in SLA.

This was my 3rd trip to Educon, but the 1st for my colleagues Isaac Zawolo and Dr. Ann Kennedy.  It was apparent to each of us that we were in a truly amazing place of learning.  As our guide took us from class to class, walking into any class that we wished, and talking with students and faculty (especially students!), what we saw everywhere is characteristic of SLA: confident, articulate, reflective students actively engaged in learning -- learning not just how to do things, but why.

The educational experience at SLA is informed throughout by the three essential questions: How do we learn?  What can we create? What does it mean to lead? and the five core values: inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection, that guide its mission.  Students at SLA are so articulate because they articulate, day after day, at SLA.  They are able to answer deep questions about what goes on at their school because reflecting on their experience is a core part of what they do there.

As we undertake the creation of the Governor's Career and Technical Academy in Arlington, I hope we can learn from what I saw at SLA to bring our students the same kind of education for a democratic society that the SLA students experience.