Sunday, September 30, 2012

SugarLabs DC Is Back!

SugarLabs, DC has a new project.  Khady Lusby, founder and president of OPEN International, a non-profit she created to help build first a library, and now a growing school in her native Senegal.

I've had the great pleasure to work with Khady for a few years now, ever since she brought me several donated laptops for the library she was creating and (at the suggestion of the donor, I might add) wanted me to install Ubuntu on them.

The library has now grown into a six room school, and the same donor has come back with 30 additional laptops that Khady wants to use to start a program for elementary students.

Thinking about her requirements, to best meet her needs we need:
  1. Sugar, the free software learning platform for children.
  2. A stable, easy to maintain OS underneath so that the tech at her school can keep the laptops running with minimal headaches.
  3. French, English, and hopefully Wolof languages on the systems.
 It would also be a plus if the systems could dual load an adult desktop as well.

After monkeying around with Fedora 17 for several days, trying the stock install as well as the XFCE and LXDE spins, I decided I would be much more comfortable with an Ubuntu variant for the following reasons:
  1. I know Ubuntu, and so does the tech at the School in Senegal, since that's what he has been using since we first sent him laptops.
  2. Ubuntu is definitely the more "polished" distro.  After installing Fedora on one of the laptops and running yum update, I got a new kernel that wouldn't boot on the laptop.  This kind of thing happens on Ubuntu too, but with what seems to me at least to be far less frequency.  Our purpose is to help teach children, not muck around with hardware and software, so as much as possible I want something that "just works".
Even with these arguments in favor of using Ubuntu, there were serious obstacles as well:
  1. The sugar packages in the main Ubuntu repositories are either very out of date or don't work at all.
  2. The sugar team itself develops on Fedora, which has apparently has been a far friendlier supporter of the sugar effort than Ubuntu has, so it gets tested on Fedora, not Ubuntu.
I tried Ubuntu initially, but gave up after the sugar installs from the stock debian repositories crashed repeatedly.

A trip to the irc channel #sugar and help from the ever helpful alsroot came to the rescue.  He pointed me to the Sweets Distribution and said it would work on Ubuntu 12.04.  It did work!  Here is what I did in a terminal:

  1. wget
  2. sudo sh
  3. sudo sweets-distribution select 0.94
This adds the sweets repository to your /etc/apt/sources.list.d/ directory. From there you can install the sweets-desktop meta package and you are good to go.   Here is a screen shop of a VirtualBox setup as a test for the laptop installs:

Thank you again, Mr. Lim, for all your help!  I'll post again soon with an update of how things go from here...

Monday, August 27, 2012

Now That's What I Call Education!

I had the opportunity this past weekend to participate in an inspiring educational experience. Djentle Django, a two day workshop introducing the Django web framework, was organized by the Northern Virginia Python Users Group and DC PyLadies and hosted at the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College.

There were 24 seats available for the two day, 12 hour workshop, and all available seats filled up.  The 24 students were led step-by-step through a beginner friendly (truly "djentle" ;-) introduction to this complex topic by 6 web development professionals, each volunteering their time to help share their knowledge in the true spirit of free software and free knowledge.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Our New Trisquel 5.5 Lab Is Up and Running

According to its Wikipedia page, the Trisquel GNU/Linux project has been around since 2004, but I only heard about it a few months ago when it was recommended to me on the #sugar irc channel.  I clicked on the web site and it was love at first site!  Trisquel has just about everything I am looking for in a software distribution:
  • Built on Ubuntu to give it a "for human beings" usability.
  • Total dedication to software freedom.
  • An active community with many members located in the Northeast of the US.
  • A focus on software for education.
  • Ties to the Sugar community.
I've spent the last three days reconfiguring my high school ICT lab, and it now runs Trisquel GNU/Linux 5.5.  I had been planning to do this over the Summer, but construction issues in our building knocked out our network login infrastructure, so the need to get the lab working again as quickly as possible provided a motivation to migrate to Trisquel 5.5 now rather than later.

I needed to make the machines work as stand alone workstations with guest login accounts.  The new 5.5 version of Trisquel comes with Ubuntu 11.10's guest session (see Guest session and user management in Ubuntu 11.10).  This allows a guest user to login without a password to a special account with restricted access and volatile data storage (when you logout everything goes away).  I used ofris, a program that "freezes" accounts by restoring to a preconfigured  setup each time the machine is restarted to create a student account with a nicely configured terminal and a launcher on the desktop.  Here is a screenshot of the student account:

After adding all the software I wanted on a single machine, I installed remastersys and used that wonderful tool to create a custom installer disk that I used to install on the rest of the workstations in the lab.

We now have a working lab again, and can begin planning on to add back the following features:
  1. Configuration management (using Puppet).
  2. User management (using Kerberos and LDAP).
After getting those services restored (with an easy way to back out of them if the network goes down so we can still hold classes), I'm thinking of looking into iTALC, especially if there are other folks in the Trisquel community with experience with it.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

There is no stopping learning when the motivation for it comes from within...

This past week was a reminder both of why I still love being a teacher after twenty years working in schools, and of the sad truth that it is only working actively against the harm we often do to young folk's love of learning in our schools that keeps me going from day to day and year to year.

Trevor, a student in my Multimedia Software class, came into class on Monday bubbling with excitement about what he had been doing with jQuery and the HTML 5 Canvas over the weekend.  I didn't have to twist his arm to get him to share with the rest of us, and he became the teacher for the day.  The rest of the class watched and listened to their classmate with heightened interest.  It was a wonderful class.

It is obvious that Trevor likes what he is doing.  You can clearly see that he is having fun.  He is expressing himself, and the skills he is gaining are amazing.  Since his motivation comes from within himself, there is no stopping him.  I don't have to worry that Trevor will be a life long learner, or that he will have an active and rewarding intellectual life ahead of him.

It happened again in the following class, when Mica arrived wanting to share what she had taught herself over the weekend.  She had read ahead in the book we are using to learn Python programming, and she was eager to show the program she had written applying what she had learned.  It filled me with joy to see her presenting her program.  It is for opportunities like these that I'm glad I'm a teacher.

 Mid week I had the opposite experience.  I was giving a mini "formative assessment" - three multiple choice and fill-in questions designed to help me figure out if the students in class could recognize the data types I had introduced them to the previous day. Despite my instructions for students to "work on their own and not share information with anyone else in class", I caught a few of the students "cheating" on the assessment.

I was upset by this and made the students aware of my feelings in no uncertain terms.  I almost never give assessments of this type, but I thought in this case it would be useful in helping me determine whether to move forward or to have activities to reinforce concepts not yet understood by the class.  The actions of the students who "cheated" had made the results useless, and the whole exercise a waste of time.

I know why the students did what they did.  They are just playing the game they've been taught  to play by experience in school.  Learning isn't the point, getting the "score" is what matters.  I had put them into a situation with which they were clearly familiar, and they were acting the way they have learned to act in similar circumstances.  In the words of Thomas Huxley:
They work to pass, not to know; and outraged Science takes her revenge. They do pass, and they don't know.
I was upset because I work so hard to make sure that what happened on Wednesday can't happen.  I design assessments that are individualized and project based, and I tell students that it is absolutely OK that they share and help each other out, as long as they can discuss intelligently everything they present as their work at the end of the process.

I won't give up on trying these mini "traditional assessments" with the class.  After I explain to them that I won't be averaging the grades, and will only use the results for feedback on how to set up a more effective learning experience for them, and as supportive evidence of competency attainment, then I bet I can get them to treat the assessments with the right attitude and to refrain from the impulse to game the system.

I actively resist standardized testing, and the impersonal, dehumanizing effects it has on student's love of learning.  I will continue to actively resist harming students in my work as a teacher for as long as I am a teacher.

Sadly, I've seen increased pressure on teachers in the last few years to think of preparing students to take these educationally harmful instruments as their main duty, the one on which their job performance will be measured.  As Thomas Huxley put it more than a century and a half ago,
Examination, like fire, is a good servant, but a bad master; and there seems to me to be some danger of its becoming our master.
While I don't pretend to know exactly where this drive toward standardized testing and "data driven" evaluation of students and schools is coming from, it is not hard to image some of the causes.  There are huge sums of money to be made by the companies producing and administering all these tests, and if children have to be harmed in the process, we can't let that get in the way of profits.

Progressive educator friends of mine tell me that when President Obama chose Arne Duncan over Linda Darling Hammond for Secretary of Education, he sent a clear message that under his administration, the Corporatocracy would be firmly in control of education policy.  We teachers are feeling the effects of this control in our schools today.

The day that I am told that preparing students for a meaningless and harmful standardized test has to replace striving to make my classroom a place where creativity and love of learning are celebrated is the day I will need to leave the classroom.  I hope that day is not near, but I fear that it may be.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Let's Move School Into the Real World!

In the twenty years I've been teaching high school, I can't tell you how many times I've heard from supervisors, curriculum specialists and the like that we should strive to make real world connections in our classroom.  Duh!

The problem for me is that this very suggestion reveals a much deeper problem. Why are we creating an institution that we implicitly consider to not be part of the "real world" in the first place?  Why is the real world something out there to which we need to make connections?

I just got back from EduCon,  and I just finished reading Dennis Littky's book, "The Big Picture: Education is Everyone's Business",  so this problem, and the well demonstrated solutions to it that schools like the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) and The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (The MET) show are possible make it hard to be satisfied with the broken educational system we have now.

To make things better, we need to:
  1. Stop treating "subjects" like mathematics, English, science, social studies, etc. as isolated islands of learning to be studied separately in 50 minute blocks of time punctuated by the ringing of bells.
  2. Bring the community into schools by bringing schools into the community.  Schools should be a place where students, parents, and folks from the community meet, hold events, learn, teach, design, build, sing, dance, and play.
  3. Have the curriculum address real problems and work toward real solutions to those problems.
  4. Serve children "one child at a time" by having student's educational goals develop directly out of the learners interests and needs.  A "one size fits all" curriculum actually fits almost no one.
  5. Make our schools into democratic communities where our members learn to be creative, active participants in a democratic society. 
We know it is possible to make schools like this.  SLA and The MET are two shining examples of how to do it.  Now is the time to learn from what these schools are doing and to create more schools like them --  schools that don't need to make real world connections, because they are already located smack in the middle of the real world.