Category Archives: Technology & Culture

SCaLE14x

21-24 January 2016

This weekend, the Southern California Linux Expo came to Pasadena. I’d met my brother Kevin at SCaLE 12x at the LAX Hilton two years ago, but the convention had outgrown that hotel, and a tech-friendly Pasadena councilmember thought that bringing them here to the Pasadena Convention Center would be a good idea.

It was. There were 3000+ hardcore geeks who descended on the town for the weekend.

You know it’s a Linux convention when the nervous nerd walking on the sidewalk looks up at you, takes note of your event badge, and actually says ‘hi’ to you.

On Saturday, Jan 23, eleven students from Polytechnic School—M Yen, K Callero, M Flannery, G Hashimoto, C Hicks, D Magsarili, J Wong, M Xu, C Strassle, M Berke, and J Lang—attended the event, including the SCaLE Youth Track, various other sessions, and the Expo. We learned about the Open Source movement in general, Linux in particular, and met some great people.

It was awesome.

Since the Expo:

  • I’ve been contacted by multiple parents saying how much their kids enjoyed the event, and asking for further info/opportunities like this.
  • I’ve been in email contact with Tom Callaway about a new CS course I’m writing.
  • I appear to have stumbled into a mentoring relationship with a local teacher-in-training with whom I struck up a conversation while leaving Callaway’s talk Sunday morning.

Photo Jan 23, 14 55 47

Southern California Linux Expo comes to Pasadena

Photo Jan 23, 13 15 43

The Hewlett-Packard Pavilion

Photo Jan 23, 11 43 04

Poly student, hoping to win a penguin

Photo Jan 23, 14 18 11

Roaming the Expo

Photo Jan 23, 14 26 29

Poly students grill the System76 representative

Photo Jan 23, 14 18 04

Poly students getting the sales pitch

Photo Jan 25, 16 40 27

Mr. White’s swag

We’ll definitely be back.

The Best and the Worst of Online Learning

THE BEST AND THE WORST OF ONLINE LEARNING

by Richard White

2014-12-25

mooc_reviews

A few months ago I signed up to take my fourth Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). We’ve discussed MOOCs here before, but it’s been awhile since I’d taken one, so perhaps it’s time for an update.

My track record with regard to these MOOCs is better than that of most people. The first one I took, a Python-based course on Building a Search Engine offered by Udacity, was far and away the best one I took. The whole MOOC craze hadn’t really started yet, and so it was clear that the instructors wanted to get this right, and that fact showed in the time and care they took in developing both the curriculum and the materials used to support the course. I followed the course, completed assignments as required, and earned a “certificate of completion” at the end of it all. Based on my experiences with that single course, I became a true believer in the concept of MOOCs.

I signed up for a couple of other classes over the course of the next couple of years, but didn’t complete either one. Udacity’s follow-up CS212 course, Programming Principles, taught by Peter Norvig, was poorly organized and poorly delivered, a disappointment all the more striking on the heels of the first course. Based on comments left on the course Discussion Board, students abandoned the course in droves. (Here’s an online review from a student as well.) I left my own comments on the Udacity Discussion Board:

…One of the important tenets of education is the idea of giving as student a problem that is just beyond their current level of understanding, along with the tools he or she needs to make that next step. In CS212, in the first unit, just about every quiz solution reveals a strategy or technique that had never been broached in the discussion to that point.

Yes, I understand that “the real world” requires one to do independent research as required. This is not “the real world”–this is an educational course that is intended to guide me in discovering the tools that I can use to solve problems. CS212, in that regard, has been a bit of a disappointment.

The third course I took was again offered by Udacity, this time a Java-based Intro to Programming course that I quite liked. It had the benefit of being taught by the author of the textbook I use for the AP Computer Science course I teach, and it was entertaining for me to hear his audio- and video-recorded development of topics that I would be teaching myself. I didn’t complete this course because I got busy prepping for school, and that seems to be a common malady when it comes to MOOCs. Without the structure offered by a regularly-timed class, there is an enormous attrition rate.

Just a few days ago, I completed the second of the four MOOCs I’ve taken, this one an Introduction to Linux offered by edX. I finished the course–a PDF certifying that fact is being readied as we speak!–but I can’t say it was a pleasant experience.

Here’s the thing. Learning is hard, and teaching is even harder. You’ve got to help students develop a coherent picture of the content and process that you’re presenting, typically with explanatory comments to help them understand why something is the way it is.

Here’s the type of video I got in this most recent course.

This is not teaching.

I survived the course only because a) I already knew most of the material in it, and b) the “final exam” consisted of 30 Multiple Choice questions, open notes and open coursework, with two tries allowed for each question and a pass-fail cutoff at 70%.

MOOCs aren’t going to go away. With a lot of planning and forethought, it’s possible to do them well. It’s also extraordinarily easy to mess this up, and it’s going to take some time for things to settle out. There are lots of challenges to be solved. How to reliably deliver good content? How to accurately gauge students’ progress? How to certify completion/mastery?

We’e seen some interesting forays into this new area of learning, and we’ve seen the ensuing land-grab by various corporations and higher-ed institutions, and the backlash that resulted from trying too much, too soon. We’ll see within a few years what we’ve decided to make of all this.

In the meantime, feel free to try out a MOOC and see how it feels. If at all possible, see if you can determine in advance how well a given course works. Coursetalk.com may be one place to start.

Good luck… and I’ll see you online.

Whither Identity: Reclaiming your templated self

Whither Identity: Reclaiming your templated self

by Richard White

2014-10-05

Part III in the “Whither” series

Who owns your online data? Who owns the content that makes up the digital you? Is your digital identity locked into Facebook as a series of uploaded photos, status updates, and comments on others’ posts? Do you have a copy of your tweet timeline? If and when you decide to migrate from Facebook, will your digital identity travel with you?

Audrey Watters refers to the “templated self,” a digital “you” that is described and defined via the features and constraints of any given platform. As cyborganthropology points out, Facebook and Twitter are strongly templated, with structures are policies that are highly confining to interactions. WordPress and Google+ are less confining, but still require working within a templated (pre-structured) space. MySpace pages—to their own detriment—had much less in the way of structure (hence the obnoxious and hard-to-read backgrounds that some users delighted in presenting).

Creating one’s own website is the least restrictive platform of all, of course. User-created content is not shipped off to be stored in someone else’s silo, but is maintained and managed in one’s own domain.

How significant is this to you? Is your Digital Self hosted somewhere that’s “too big to fail?” “Software as a service” relies on a company maintaining support for that service. Some services/platforms that have gone away in the past year or two:

  • Google’s social networking service Orkut
  • Twitter’s image hosting service TwitPic
  • Video streaming service Justin.tv
  • Apple’s MobileMe shut down
  • Yahoo!Blog shut down
  • Everpix photo hosting service shut down
  • Google Wave shut down

It’s no surprise that businesses and product lines occasionally fail or are discontinued, and that possibility is especially prevalent in technology, with boom-bust cycles akin to a bucking bronco. It’s all the more important, then, to give serious thought to how much of one’s identify one wants to invest in an organization’s template.

Closer to home—in our classrooms—it’s also the case that educational platforms enforce templated identities. Learning Management Systems, almost by necessity, structure content and data in such a way that it makes it difficult to move that data around to other places. Even something has simple and local as a classroom wiki doesn’t typically provide much in the way of data portability. The online grading program that I use for tracking my own students’ progress provides an Export utility that creates a CSV-based backup file for instructors, but provides no such option for students. Data that goes in to these systems very rarely finds its way out.

Another educational feature, perhaps peripherally related to the templated self, is the Digital Portfolio, which purports to provide some means of collecting, storing, and presenting a students’ electronic information over a longer period of time. I understand the desire for such a record–I have both digital and non-digital portfolios of work that I’ve done, assignments in school, artistic pieces, etc.–and I think schools are wise to be considering ways to implement these collections. (My school is in the process of discussing these possibilities right now.) I have to wonder, however, at the wisdom of paying for a storage/presentation service that places student assignments in a proprietary silo, with access controlled by a business that may or may not be around five years from now. Are there significant advantages here over the simple and expedient solution of having students place their most important work in a network folder?

The Internet began with a decentralization of access; anyone could access information from anywhere on the network. If Facebook and WordPress have given us templates, and in so doing forced a proprietary, siloed, centralization of our data, Watters encourages us to consider a “re-decentralization of the Web.”

If you’re interested in having an honest, long-term, presence on the Internet, reclaim your self. Get your own domain. Be who you are, rather than a Facebook status update that may or may not actually be seen by your friends, depending on whether Facebook decides to show it to them.

The original promise of the Internet was a democratization of voice: everyone had access, and everyone could be heard. Increasingly, however, voices are siloed behind paywall, registrations requirements, and licensing agreements.

Register your own domain, at hover.com or any one of hundreds of other registrars.

Reclaim your voice.

Reclaim your identity.

Whither Data?: Dude, where’d my content go?

Whither Data?: Dude, where’d my content go?

by Richard White

2014-09-20

Part II in our series.

In a previous post, Whither Media?, we explored the ongoing transition away from physical media, and what implications this transition might have. The related question is Whither Data?: What happens when your content—your written documents, photos, email, music, etc.—are all stored on somebody else’s computer?

The Cloud is a term that has a number of definitions, but typically it refers to a collection of servers run by a company that (usually) offers a user access via Internet to that data and those services. In addition to offering Internet access, a cloud-based service typically implies multiple servers hosting redundant copies of the data, providing faster access to the user and backups of a user’s data.

If you use Google’s Gmail, your email is stored on their servers, “in the cloud.” If you use Google Docs, your documents are stored on servers, “in the cloud.” Microsoft’s Office 365 stores your Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents “in the cloud.” And although you may not think of it this way, many social networking sites such as Facebook also provide content and services “in the cloud” so that your conversations, photos, status announcement, comments, and Likes are store where you and others can view them.

There are a number of powerful advantages to using cloud-based services, and most of these are self-evident, especially to teachers. At my school, which provides Google Apps for Education (GAFE) to teachers and students, we’ve been able to offload our email services to Gmail and provide Google Docs and Calendars to the entire community, allowing for teaching strategies and communication workflows that simply weren’t possible before. Content Management Systems (CMS) and their educational offspring Learning Management Systems (LMS) provide a structure—usually a proprietary one—in which a teachers information can be delivered and a students interactions with that information can be tracked.

I love the fact that the ability to share data from user to user and machine to machine has become easier. Without cloud services, teachers would be forced to a) try manage an endless and non-linear flow of emailed attachments (something some of us still do, I’m sorry to say), or b) implement and manage our own servers to which students can upload documents, and from which they can download them. (Actually, I do do this, but it’s in the context of a computer science course in which those processes are part of the curriculum). Cloud services allow for shared files, shared folders, and drag-and-drop functionality that “just works” (most of the time).

There are two caveats here, however. The first concern is security. Unless students are encrypting their documents before uploading them, there’s the possibility that the information in those documents—perhaps confidential, private information—may be visible to others, either in transit or on those servers. The reality for most teachers, I think, is that the documents that students are sharing with us—book reports, essays, lab reports, homework assignments—don’t require a high degree of security, and so maybe this is just fine. If you were having students email Word documents to you before, having them work on a GoogleDoc on Google’s servers is at least as secure, and almost certainly more unless they’ve elected to make the document’s contents available publicly.

I am not a doctor or lawyer and am not aware of the specific legal requirements concerning the secure storage of patient or client information, but I would investigate that carefully before using cloud services for these purposes.

Perhaps a more significant concern for teachers and students, however, is retaining access to cloud-based content over the long term. Low-priority content like quizzes or in-class essays may not be of much concern to students, but more significant essays, research papers, or portfolio work has a higher value, and may even be submitted to colleges as part of an application. Ideally, a student would be able to retain access to their work—and it is their work, isn’t it?!—for some indeterminate time into the future. Which cloud-based services allow for that?

The notorious offenders here are the providers of online books—where online notes and marginalia disappear when your one-year access license expires—and the various Content Management and Learning Management Systems, with password-protected access that may not extend beyond the current year. Students who create or store documents in these systems are at high risk of losing access to them when the end of the school year comes around, or the next school year starts begins (depending, of course, on the administration of the system).

The same may happen with Google Apps For Education, although it is much easier to export this data onto a student’s own computer or data storage device, assuming he or she has access to something more than a Chromebook. Here, a personal Google account may come in handy, although questions about privacy of these documents may be relevant.

exporting_a_google_doc

I don’t think we’ve yet reached the point where lost access to data is a broad concern, although some are wrestling with this issue already (as mentioned previously here. 34:20 in show). As we ask that are students create more and more of their work in a digital form, however, it’s fair that we keep these questions in mind: ‘Should students have access to the data that they’re submitting to me?’ and ‘How do I go about facilitating that access?’

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.