Category Archives: Computers

Getting SaaSy: Software as a Service

Getting SaaSy: Software as a Service
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2016-10-28

by Richard White

Ah, remember the glory years of installing software on a computer? Buying cardboard packages with floppy disks or CD-ROMs inside them, and spending an afternoon installing a new game or Microsoft Office on your desktop machine.

If you’re a bit younger, installing software got more convenient: later, you might gone to the Mac App Store, or iTunes, and downloaded software directly off the Internet.

Even those halcyon days of software installation are on their way to becoming a memory, though, at least for some of us. That software you previously installed and ran on your computer is increasingly being replaced by “Software as a Service“, and if you aren’t familiar with “SaaS,” you almost certainly use it. SaaS provides you with the cloud-based equivalent of an installed program, often via an interface running in a web browser.

Google’s Docs, for example, provide you with the ability to create and edit word-processing or spreadsheet documents. When you use Google Docs, you’re not running the equivalent of Microsoft Word on your computer. Your browser is interacting with documents that have been made available to you over a network. Google is providing you with “Software as a Service.”

Google’s Docs are an example of a “free” service (in quotes because you do pay a price in terms of your privacy), but it’s more likely that a company will charge you for their SaaS. Spotify, for example, provides you with the ability to stream music onto your computer or mobile phone. There is a small app that you download to use their service, and it is this app that allows you to interact with their music delivery service in either free or paid form. The music doesn’t reside on your computer; the music is streamed to your computer as a service.

I’m a bit old school when it comes to these things, so I’m not that big a fan of SaaS. Sure, I’ve got a Netflix subscription, and I watch Game of Thrones via HBONow. But I don’t have 24×7 access to the Internet, and I don’t like the idea of my hardware having to lie dormant when I’m not connected.

This is a little more than just a philosophical debate. I’m a teacher, and as part of my job, I record and calculate students’ grades on assignments. I used to do this in a paper gradebook, and then quickly graduated to a spreadsheet system. Spreadsheets were practically made for teachers to record and calculate grades with. Some of my colleagues who weren’t so good with managing a spreadsheet bought specialized grade tracking software and installed it on their home computers. That works too.

In the interest of providing students with ongoing access to their grades, I switched a few years ago to using a free service called Engrade, formerly at https://www.engrade.com. And with that move I entered the SaaS realm, using someone else’s software running in my browser, with access to my students’ grades via the Internet… assuming I have a connection. Which I usually do.

One of the downsides to SaaS is that you no longer have a copy of the software that is yours to use. When McGraw Hill purchased Engrade for $50 million, there was a new sheriff in town… and the service was no longer free.

And maybe that’s okay. Maybe McGraw Hill deserves to see some return on their investment in this company. Enough of my colleagues at my school site used Engrade that our school decided to pony up for a site license, so I’m still using Engrade. And that’s mostly good news…

…until their site goes down.

engradepro-outage

So, yeah. Software as a Service. Advantages and disadvantages. Pick your poison. Just be aware of the benefits and pitfalls of your options.

Next weekend I’ll be on a cross-country flight, writing up grades and comments for my students to be turned in the following week. I won’t have Internet. I won’t have Engrade. I won’t have Microsoft 360. I won’t have Spotify.

I’ll just have my laptop, with iTunes playing my old CDs that I ripped, and I’ll be writing comments in a text editor while consulting student grades in a spreadsheet, the way you do.

Like a Boss.

Losing the Functional High Ground

Losing the Functional High Ground

by Richard White

2016-10-26

The title of this post is a direct reference to Marco Arment’s excellent online essay from January 4, 2015, Apple has lost the functional high ground. If you haven’t read that post, in which Marco points out that Apple’s software quality has fallen off in the past few years, you should check it out.

Since that post was written, Apple’s success as a computer company has suffered other slings and arrows at the hands of former admirers, and most recently, on the hardware front. For a variety of reasons, Apple’s once formidable line of “best in class” computers has been reduced to a rag-tag selection of pretty, well-made, computers that run pretty nicely considering you’ve just paid top dollar for a new machine built from four-year-old hardware.

In 2013, Apple’s Phil Schiller unveiled the sleek, new, Mac Pro at the World Wide Developer’s Conference, with a defiant “Can’t innovate any more my ass!” for the benefit of observers who felt even then that Apple might have started to lose its way. Now, over three years later, that Mac Pro hasn’t seen a single upgrade, and Schiller’s sneer has become a sadly ironic comment on the ongoing state of affairs.

MacRumors, a fan-site so faithful they’ve got “Mac” in their name, maintains a Buying Guide for its readers, with listings on the current state of Apple’s hardware, and recommendation on whether now might be a good time to buy or not. Here are their recommendations as of a few weeks ago.

2016-10-15-macrumors_buyers_guide

For anyone who has been a fan of Apple over the years, it’s painful to watch this decline. There may be some comfort in knowing that they’ve got the best selling mobile phone on the planet, and a good thing, too: that single product line, the iPhone, accounts for almost two-thirds of Apple’s revenue.

There’s a reason they removed the word “Computer” from their company name, “Apple Computer, Inc.” back in 2007.

John Gruber disagrees with Arment’s characterization of Apple: “…if they’ve ‘lost the functional high ground’, who did they lose it to? I say no one.”

It appears to me and to other observers that they’ve lost it to themselves. Their development of computer hardware and OS X software has effectively been abandoned in favor of their cash cow, the iPhone.

This is written on the eve of a much-awaited product release from Apple. I have every hope that the new products they announce tomorrow will restore our faith in the company.

And I have every fear that we will be disappointed.

Follow-up

I think I have my answer.

OS Agnostic

OS Agnostic

by Richard White

2016-03-19

I try to be OS agnostic. I really do. I started out programming DOS PCs back in the day, made the switch to Apple’s Mac in the early 90s, and Apple’s OS X—based on Unix—was my gateway to Linux in 2005. I now have a number of Macs, three machines that run Ubuntu Linux, and two machines with a Windows installation on them.

I try to keep in touch with Windows. I have a few students who run it on their computers, and I try to pretend I support their OS.

It’s getting increasingly difficult for me to do so, given how annoying that OS is.

You Windows people, you know what I”m talking about.

i_hate_windows

Looking Back

Looking Back

by Richard White

2016-03-05

Those of us who use technology, who teach with technology, and who think about technology and its influence on society, enjoy thinking about what’s coming, what might happen in the future.

It’s interesting to take a look back every once in a while to see where we’ve come from. I’ve got a Motorola RAZR sitting in the bottom of a drawer in my utility closet. I’ve got a 1990 Macintosh Classic sitting in the attic, a 2001 Titanium PowerBook G4 in my utility closet, and a 2004 PowerMac G5 Dual Processor sitting underneath my desk at school, all currently unused. (I’ve had many other machines over the years, but these were iconic, and I keep them around for sentimental reasons.)

powermacg5_2cpus_open-100043320-orig

I’ve got a box of floppies with files of mine that I can’t use anymore, EXCEPT on that Classic, because the software companies that created those files, market leaders at the time, went out of business a long, long time ago.

designing_web_usability

I also recently stumbled upon a book of mine from 1999, Jakob Nielsen’s seminal Designing Web Usability. As a fledgling designer at the time—some might consider me still a fledgling designer—I devoured that book as gospel.

designing_web_usability_notes

I found some marginalia for that book that I’d jotted down on a Post-it. At the time, a 17-inch monitor was considered an outrageous extravagance, but Nielsen considered it an investment in one’s productivity, and I made a note to myself to get one. Cascading Style Sheets were new to me, and I jotted down a reminder to create a .css file for the websites I was developing.

It’s almost cute!

Things have changed since then, of course, to the extent that I sometimes question whether or not something as quaint as a printed book can usefully advise on something as dynamic as the World Wide Web. Since Designing Web Usability came out, the number of people using the web has (obviously) exploded: approximately 41% of Americans used the Internet in 1999, compared with 87% in 2014 (Pew Research Center). In 1999, the primary means of accessing the Internet now (smartphones), didn’t even exist. Since the book was published, advertising has changed the way we surf twice, with the appearance of Google’s “AdSense” in 2000, and with the increasing popularity of adblockers in 2015.

The fact that this book is no longer useful is in no way a criticism of its content. At the time it was perfectly relevant, and the web was evolving at a relatively slow rate.

And now? Now, our browser software is updated more frequently than most websites, and books about the current state of the our technological culture, for good or for bad, are in danger of becoming outdated between the time they’re written and the time they’re published. Books produced in smaller batches by smaller, digital-based publishers (see TakeControlBooks.com, for instance) have stepped in to fill some people’s need for printed matter.

But the logical conclusion to all of this seems to be consuming content on the machine or in the browser itself, no? From man pages in the Terminal to FAQ pages on websites, increasingly we learn about how to do thing from the very device that we’re working on. That seems reasonably clear at this point.

Just as with my old computers, I feel affection for my old books. There’s a texture to the pages, and a smell, and an experience, that a monitor, touchscreen or smartphone will never replace. (I gave a candle with the scent of “old books” to a friend for Christmas this year.)

And yet, the vast majority of those old books now occupy the same space in my life as the old technology: I think of them fondly, and take them out to look at once in awhile, but mostly I store them tucked away in a space in my life where they sit, remembered but unused.

Boys Like to Break Things

Boys Like to Break Things.txt

by Richard White

2014-09-10

It’s no secret that Technology Education has something of a gender problem. For reasons that are still unknown (at least to me), I have far fewer female students in my Computer Science courses than in my Physics classes, where the ratio is close to 50-50. I encourage young women to join my classes, and even had the honor of advising an all-girl group of “Technovators” in an app-design competition the year before.

It’s a curious thing, and although I’d like to find a way to improve the girl:boy ratio, it’s not entirely clear what I should do to do so.

An interesting thing happened in the AP Computer Science class the other day however, and it broke down along gender lines. We’d taken a few moments earlier in the period to examine an old PC running Linux that I’d placed at the front of the room. I’d taken one side of the tower off, and we were looking at the motherboard, graphics card, disk drive, CPU, etc.

And a bit later in the class we were going over shell commands that students might find useful, and after introducing the “remove” command (rm), I mentioned the dangers of inadvertently typing sudo rm -rf /, a command which will recursively remove every file on the computer… usually not something that one intends to do.

it’s an interesting concept, and the thrill of a dangerous command like that holds some inherent appeal, perhaps, to geeks. And then one of the boys raised his hand and asked, “How long will it take before the rm command eventually removes some critical file that is necessary to the ongoing operation of the computer?”

It was an interesting question and one that I hadn’t given much thought to up to this point. The rm command is working on the hard drive, while the operating system mostly resides in RAM, but there are swap operations in which the OS interacts with the hard drive, so… this was a great thing to ponder. At what point does the snake eating its own tail become unable to continue?

You know where this is going. “That’s a great question, Cyril. Let’s find out.” So I had one of the students type the requisite command on the computer that, moments ago, we’d used to demonstrate hardware. They hit the Enter key and took great delight in the list of files scrolling by on the screen, a live-action view of what was being deleted as the rm command slowly destroyed the OS.

This singular opportunity was of such interest that the students crowded around the machine to watch the spectacle, and one young man recorded the event on his phone…

Here’s the other part that you can almost certainly guess. Of the four young women in the class, not a single one came up to the front to watch the event up close. Were they intimidated by the gathered crowd? Was the destruction just less interesting to them? Were they thinking about heading off to their next class? Are boys just more interested than girls in testing things, even (especially!) to the point of breaking them?

I don’t have the answer, but I think about these things. We all need to be thinking about these things, and encouraging women who express interest to explore the idea of learning more technology.

Whither Media?

Whither Media?

by Richard White

2014-09-09

I was out walking with a friend of mine the other night along Hillhurst and happened to stumble into High Fidelity records. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but vinyl is making a comeback, and the stacks of records in this place had attracted a few evening shoppers. And even though I don’t own a record player anymore, I worked for a number of years in the early 80s at a southern California record store chain called Licorice Pizza, and I still have a soft spot in my heart for music stores of any kind.

I was a bit surprised to see a sign in the store advertising that their CDs, already in short supply, were all 50% off. I grabbed a couple of discs that I’d been meaning to buy—the soundtrack to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells, in case you’re curious—and chatted with the girl at the register who was ringing me up. “So, you guys aren’t going to carry CDs anymore?”

“Yup,” she said, flatly, and the logic of that decision didn’t need to be explained to me. The store has a higher mark-up, greater volume, and better profit selling rare vinyl than trying to compete with Amazon, Wal-mart, and Target selling CDs. The rack space where their dwindling supply of discs remained was losing them money.

I did what I do with all the CDs I buy these days: I scurried home and ripped them into flac files on my Linux box using the abcde utility. Because that CD isn’t going to last forever…

And neither is the CD player, right? My primary computer, the one I’m using to type right now, certainly doesn’t have a CD player, and Apple retired their “Rip. Mix. Burn.” iTunes advertising long ago. Most of my students with Apple laptops no longer have access to anything with a CD drive in it (with the possible exception of a parent’s car), and instead are more than happy to listen to and share music via iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora.

All of which leaves us with an interesting question. In a world that no longer provides physical media, does one even need to keep media? If so, where? and if not, why not?

If you ask Netflix, the answer is clear, where their DVD delivery business has been on the decline for awhile now, even as their streaming business is on the increase. I’m one of the many people who eventually ditched my delivery subscription in favor of the curling up in bed with my iPad and their streaming software, even if the selection of movies available to stream if inferior to their stock of physical disks.

And if you ask my students, the whole idea of physical media is almost foreign to them. I recently conducted an activity in my computer science class where students were required to provide evidence that they had three copies of their computer science files: one on their laptop, one on a secondary storage device like an external drive, and one “in the cloud.” (It’s a great activity, and students who are budget-constrained can satisfy the requirement simply by using the 16GB flash drive I provide them at the beginning of the year, and signing up for a free Dropbox account.)

The idea that one needs backups is nothing new, but I had one student who took exception to the requirements. “Look,” he explained, I have a copy in the cloud, and a copy on my machine. Why do I need a second copy locally?”

It took a bit of explaining for him to understand that it was entirely possible for him to have his local hard drive crash, or for him to drop his computer, or for his logic board to fry, or for someone to spill coffee into the keyboard… all of which have happened to students and colleagues of mine in the last year. “I’ll have a copy in the cloud!” he responded, and that’s certainly one of the points of having a backup in the cloud.

“Do you have a backup of your entire hard drive in the cloud?” It’s a trick question that I, the instructor, win either way. Either he doesn’t, in which case he’s lost enormous amounts of data, or he does, in which case he’s going to find out how long it takes to restore hundreds of gigabytes of data over his home Internet connection.

But I digress. The interesting discovery for me was that this young man, articulate and well-spoken, didn’t seem to be able to appreciate the concept of “losing one’s digital stuff.” And while it’s possible that he has simply had the good fortune to never undergo that experience—this is a kid, after all—I think it’s more likely that he doesn’t “have” any digital stuff to lose, at least in the traditional sense. Somebody else already keeps his stuff.

From his class assignments stored in GoogleDocs to his browser-based email to his Spotify playlists, his data is completely out of his hands, but typically available just about anywhere he can find an Internet connection… and he’s just fine with that.

Are the days of “owning” media over, then? Will I come to rely on Netflix streaming for being able to watch my favorite movie? And will I accept its disappearance with reluctant understanding when their licensing agreement with the studio runs out? Will we no longer be able to share a favorite book with a friend (or will we bound to a particular e-book platform/distribution channel if we do)?

Can you even make a mixtape anymore for that guy or girl you like? I tried the other day using iTunes, and it was a complete catastrophe.

In a world where all we have is digitized, what happens to the media that isn’t?

It disappears…

Three copies of your data, people. One on the computer, one on a local backup, and one in the cloud.

And take care of those precious books and records, lest they disappear forever.

ipod-7gen

P.S. A couple of days after writing this, Apple discontinued their venerable iPod Classic line. This hard drive-based music player had been in production in one form or another ever since it was originally introduced in 2001, and there’s a wonderful eulogy by Mat Honan online at Wired.

For ten years my iPod—in various incarnations—was my constant companion. It went with me on road trips and backpacking through the wilderness. I ran with it. I swam with it. (In a waterproof case!) I listened to sad songs that reminded me of friends and family no longer with me. I made a playlist for my wife to listen to during the birth of our first child, and took the iPod with us to the hospital. I took one to a friend’s wedding in Denmark, where they saved money on a DJ by running a four hour playlist, right from my iPod. And because the party lasted all night, they played it again.

Everyone played everything again and again.

And now it’s dead. Gone from the Apple Store. Disappeared, while we were all looking at some glorified watch.

In all likelihood we’re not just seeing the death of the iPod Classic, but the death of the dedicated portable music player. Now it’s all phones and apps. Everything is a camera. The single-use device is gone—and with it, the very notion of cool that it once carried. The iPhone is about as subversive as a bag of potato chips, and music doesn’t define anyone anymore.

Preach on, Brother.

Legacy vs. Transition

LEGACY VS. TRANSITION

by Richard White

2014-04-18

Hello, and apologies for the long absence. You know how things can get busy…

Actually, I’ve got the best excuse of all for being away—I’ve been extra busy this year teaching the new AP Computer Science class this year. Organizing, developing materials for, and teaching that class has taken up just about every spare work moment I’ve had. I’m not unhappy about that at all—having the opportunity to work on any new course, and especially that one—is an exciting experience, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons this year, lessons that I’ll tell you about soon.

In the meantime, let’s talk briefly about Legacy vs. Transition.

Here, I’m referring to legacy in it’s modern digital sense: legacy software is software that is not the most current, but which is still supported to some extent, perhaps by virtue of the fact that it was very popular at one point, and its use is still widespread. (The adjective legacy may be extended to other uses as well, but the software context is a common one.)

Last year Microsoft announced the new version of its venerable Office suite, now called Office 365. Along with whatever features that new software includes, it also comes with a new licensing strategy. Under this new system, a one-time license to use the software is not purchased outright; rather, the user pays a monthly fee for the right to use the software. It’s a classic example of the software as a service model for software distribution, and it’s certainly within Microsoft’s rights to transition to such a model. Google has been doing it for years, and if Google doesn’t charge cash money for the service, I’ve certainly paid for their services in other ways (including my privacy every time I send or receive an email from someone with a GMail account).

After losing the ability to read ClarisWorks (and then AppleWorks) documents a number of years ago, I made the decision to transition to using Microsoft Office products, with the intention of avoiding the kind of data loss that comes from using products that have a shorter lifespan. I have gigabytes of Microsoft Office documents on my hard drive, from my own handouts, worksheets, tests, and letters of recommendation to documents that have been shared with me by practically every person with whom I have a professional relationship.

libreoffice_screenshot

Microsoft’s new licensing plan, however, was just the impetus I needed to start thinking about transitioning to a new system. I still have the Microsoft Office suite on my computer and occasionally still edit legacy documents using those applications. New documents, however, are being created using LibreOffice, which is a serious attempt at providing free software to support the creation of OpenDocument (.odt) files.

You can see a screenshot of the LibreOffice word processing interface above, and the similarities between it and Word are such that you shouldn’t find yourself too disoriented.

LibreOffice includes translation features to bring Word documents (.doc and .docx) over, and how well your files will be translated depends in part on how hard you’ve pushed Word’s feature-packed capabilities—I haven’t explored those capabilities much yet.

For the moment, I’m just enjoying adapting myself to the new system, and creating a new series of documents that, going forward, won’t require an ongoing investment with the powers that be at Micro$oft.

In the grand scheme of things, working about the long-term viability of your electronic documents might not be something that you want to think about… but it merits some consideration. I have songs made with music mixing software that I no longer have access to. (I have final mixes of the music, but the software itself no longer works; I am unable to create new mixes of the music.)

deck_bias_software

JPG graphics images, carefully edited and compressed fifteen years ago when dial-up connections were still a thing, look terrible on the high-resolution Retina Display of an iPad. (At least the colors of those images haven’t faded with time, which is more than I can say for the paper-based photos in an old photo album of mine.)

Hardware legacy is something to consider too. I have FireWire hard drives but my laptop doesn’t have a FireWire port. I have Zip disks from the 90s, too, and no Zip drive to put them into. Fortunately, I copied everything from those drives onto a USB external hard drive a few years ago when I did have access to those machines. I was either smart or lucky to have anticipated the transitions that would have to be made happen down the road.

I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all to the challenges posed by aging software and hardware. Some people spend enormous time and energy making sure that they always have copies of everything digital—I tend to lean towards that end of the spectrum, as you might imagine—and others don’t want or need to keep anything of their digital life.

I don’t know any of those people, though, so I can’t really speak to that.

:)

The Ed Tech Battle

The Ed Tech Battle

by Richard White

2013-10-06

There’s been a lot going on lately in the world of educational technology.

I mean, okay–there always is–but this past week or so, there have been some really interesting items that have caught my attention. The general theme is simply this:

What we’re trying to do is really difficult.

Getting the hardware / software / lessons / workflow right is surprisingly tricky, and some of our best and brightest are struggling (and often unsuccessfully) to get it right.

My take away is that if these people are having trouble, it’s okay if I’m finding it a little frustrating, too.

In the news:

Kevin Marks talks about trying to manage Amazon textbooks on This Week in Google episode 217, (September 25, 2013)

At 34:20, Kevin starts talking about the challenges of dealing with Amazon.com / Amazon.uk licensing differences for electronic textbooks, with corresponding separate Google accounts to manage those accounts. Even once he gets this solved, he’s still concerned that notes taken in the textbook for one country are stuck in one Amazon cloud, and inaccessible from another.

Summer Adventures of a Droid Tablet

A math/computer science teacher outlines in gruesome detail his efforts to get a new “recording his class lessons” workflow going after the untimely death of his laptop. Sample entry:

I would love to drop the USB Mic too if I could figure out how to use the Droid’s Mic with this configuration. I would then be truly wireless! This new incarnation of the Kindle has an 8.9″ HD screen, dual WiFi, dual speakers, dual cores as well as a webcam and mic. I think there’s a version of Teamviewer, called Teamviewer for Meetings, that uses VOIP so I wouldn’t need a separate Mic. IDK if it’s free or cheap. I suppose I could go back to using a wireless lapel mic? Maybe I could use a BlueTooth Headset Mic? You see, my lapel mic disappeared after Hurricane Sandy destroyed the Math Building at my High School….

I am also experimenting with other Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) apps such as SplashTop. I’m using Splashtop2 for Droid and SplashtopStreamer for Windows.

I’m focusing on Teamviewer and Splashtop as these Desktop streamers are available for both Windows and Linux and the client app is available for Droid. I usually have to use Windows whenever I’m on the road, say at a conference. However, I usually use Linux all day every day at the High School. Further, all my tablets are now Droids!

How iPython notebook and Github have changed the way I teach Python

This article, referred to me by my friend Cindee, relates how one teacher, reflecting on frustrations encountered while teaching Python, eventually developed a technology-based workflow that allows him to give student better access to the materials covered in class. (More relevant to computer science classes than traditional subjects.)

Students in LAUSD “hack” their iPads

It’s a kerfuffle all the way ’round, and everybody’s got something critical to say about the situation, from the large scale of the roll-out to the money involved, from the choice of device to the sloppy execution. Everybody except perhaps Audrey Watter’s, who says this is what we should be teaching kids to do anyway.

And for me: Google Saves the Day?

My own frustrations are perhaps minor compared with some of these, and I’d like to think they won’t cost 1 billion dollars to solve (the projected cost of LAUSD’s iPad program). One of my recent discoveries: Google Docs and Presentations, used by many teachers and students, don’t have a notifications option that will inform a document’s shared users when that file is edited. Google Spreadsheets offers this option, but Docs and Presentations don’t.

Huh?

So my genius plan for conducting an ongoing conversation with colleagues via one of those documents hit a bit of a snag, and while there is a workaround–we wouldn’t be education technologists without our workarounds, would we?!–it shows again that trying to find a solution to some of these things is sometimes / often / usually harder than we’d like it to be.

The reality is that I’m grateful for Google’s shared documents, which are increasingly a cornerstone of many teachers’ workflows. It’s good enough that I almost don’t mind them mining my data so that they can more efficiently sell me ads.

Almost.

Hang in there, people. We’ll get this figured out one of these days soon… :)

The Intersection of Teaching, Learning, and Technology

The Intersection of Teaching, Learning, and Technology

by Richard White

2013-05-23

When I was nine years old I read Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine, a story in which Danny and his friends Joe and Irene program a computer to do their homework for them. At that time the personal computer was still a fantasy, but the possibility of being able to have a machine handle my academic chores–my learning–was absolutely intoxicating.

Fast-forward a few years: I’d gone from programming a mainframe in high school to majoring in Computer Science in college, and then from teaching computer programming in high school on IBM PCs (pre-Internet!) to teaching AP Physics in Berkeley. I’d re-discovered the book from my childhood–there’s my name on the inside, written in my mother’s neat cursive–and read again about Danny’s hard-earned lesson: that programming a computer is not a shortcut to learning. The last page of the book, though, opens up a new possibility:

“Danny had a strange, wild look in his eyes, and a faraway smile on his lips. ‘Listen–what about a teaching machine…?'”

I began investigating the possibilities of technology-enhanced programmed instruction. The learning process for an inspired student can be a pretty straightforward process: get exposed to something new, learn a little bit about it, and then use what you’ve learned to do something interesting. For some subjects, the process of presenting information and checking for understanding is ideally suited for a computer, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Programmed instruction in book form had existed for years, and computer-based math instructional methods were already being launched.

I was a month or so into developing my own programmed instruction when I began to realize that this system, whatever its benefits might be, also had the effect of isolating me from the very best part of my vocation: working with students to help them understand the world around them. Teaching content, exploring with students the process of interpreting content, and perhaps most importantly, learning to develop strategies for dealing with new and unexpected situations, all demand a dynamic, creative, process that is the very heart and soul of my work. There was no way for me to write this stuff down, to program it, to “classroom flip” this aspect of my work.

That hasn’t kept me from leveraging technology where appropriate. The vast majority of my current curricular materials are online–lessons, labs, homework help, and practice tests–and students across the U.S. and abroad use these materials as a guide in their own learning. I am part of a global learning and teaching community, using technology that is faster, cheaper, and better than ever. We are actively exploring new ways that we can use that technology to improve education.

But at the heart of it all–sometimes just barely visible behind the iPads and the laptops, the email and the tweets, the websites and the Massive Open Online Courses–are students and teachers, working together, just as we always have.

And there is nothing that will be able to replace that.