May 2009

I am reading The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric S. Raymond. The process of developing a program collectively, when developers and users both have access to the source code, is the “bazaar” in which everybody has the chance to catch bugs (program errors) and communicate that quickly to someone who is ready to fix the bug. The process is characterized by its rapid cycle of releases and improvements based on the shared work of involved users and competent developers. The “cathedral” is represented by tight control over the source code, limiting users’  access to the developers and programs that get provided to the users in a “finished” version.

If you get the chance, you can find an online version:

The published/printed version is also available.
Amazon link:

It got me to wondering whether there are parallels in education.

  • There is “The Textbook” and a cadre of teachers who lead students through the chapters.
  • Then there is “The Teacher” and classes of students who progress through material the teacher gives them.

In their basic form, both of these scenarios sound like “The Cathedral” approach. In the case of a mandated textbook, the educational program is well on the way to being “given” to the cadre of teachers who then typically pass the content on to their students.

State level curriculum outlines (in Massachusetts, they are called Curriculum Frameworks) provide something like a “super textbook” in which the specific text isn’t mandated, but the guidelines pretty much dictate the content that must be presented to students. When standardized assessment enters the picture, the learning process closes a kind of loop. If the material isn’t presented effectively so students get it, then the test will reveal failures of the system.

Adding the national level “No Child Left Behind” draws the loop even tighter. Schools whose students don’t meet the expected level of success for the current cycle are penalized in subsequent cycles.

  • Has the American public education system become a cathedral system?
  • Are the users involved in the “source code” or merely consumers of a product they are given?
  • Is there a bazaar, open-source-like education process?
  • Does the Internet play a part as a source of “text”?
  • Do teachers and students have a way to open up the process?

Teachers and students are both “users” in the sense that they are the interactive group within a classroom and school. Teachers may be simply presenters of information to the students which enhances the cathedral structure, but they may also be cooperative leaders of the classroom, working to get the class of learners to advance collectively and as individuals. The more involved each person is within the classroom, the more the learning experience approaches the bazaar structure.

Feedback is inherent to the open source improvement of programs. Bugs get identified back to competent developers who fix them. There is a steady cycling of the process to enhance the results (where testing isn’t the end, but a bug identifying process).

More Questions to Consider:

  • Which way would you characterize the way you work in your classroom, Cathedral or Bazaar?
  • Is skill/process mastery more important than student grades?
  • Do you cycle back around to skills/processes that deserve more development?
  • Do your students participate as bug identifiers, seeking to get clarification and improvement of the process of their own learning?
  • Does the school system in which you work (teach…since the main audience of this blog is educators rather than students, I think) provide for student feedback at all?

Every once in a while, I run across a Web page on which apostrophes are shown as a question mark. (Don?t you like the way it looks?) It certainly looks odd, and I wondered what the problem was.

It turns out that “smart quotes” from Microsoft Word are the culprit. When somebody writes a quotation mark in Word, it automagically converts to the “smart” version, even if the single quote is used as an apostrophe. If you then export your work as HTML or copy the text to paste into a blog page, the result looks downright stupid, as if the author doesn’t know what an apostrophe is. These fancy quotation marks (both the full and single variety) use codes that don’t properly translate into fonts displayed on browsers which aren’t also Microsoft products. A bunch of use use browsers like Firefox, Safari, Opera and such. The standard fonts of these browsers don’t handle the out-of-bounds character codes of smart quotes and some other characters, too.

HTML is the coding for the World Wide Web, and is supposed to be as standard as possible. If you are writing a blog, you need to pay attention after pasting from Word. Fix those apostrophes!

If your school job includes maintaining a Web site, it is your job to make the result look the best it can. You don’t want people to think you, an educator, are a dope.

There is a tool written by John Walker who is the guy behind Autodesk, Inc. and co-developer of AutoCAD, written in Perl, that can help you. Check it out.

The article at the following link also shows that corporate gurus can be cool, too.

[This post started out just to focus on Richard Stallman’s comments about Free Software in schools, but morphed as I wrote it to also focus on programming in schools. I guess you are lucky. You get two posts in one!]

Richard Stallman isn’t exactly a household name.  The chances are that his name isn’t brought up in most US schools either, but it should be.

Stallman is the moving force behind Free Software. Yes, that does mean free from cost, but much more importantly such software is free to be used, studied, modified, improved.

The Free Software Foundation is an organization working to put Stallman’s ideals into action. The most well known of the organization’s work may be the GNU General Public License (GPL), a software license that seeks to ensure software freedom.

The operating system, GNU/Linux is licensed under the GPL as are thousands of other programs.

I bet Richard Stallman would not even mind too much if students didn’t learn who he is, as long as they get to benefit from his ideals.

Students need to learn by doing. That means they need to learn to read by reading, learn to write by writing, learn math skills through computation.

Students learn more by being creative than by rote memorization. It has seemed to me a shame that the creative activities of computer programming have been almost totally absent from the curriculum lately. There has been an argument that students should see and use computers only as a tool, one they learn to use, but not actually control. So we teach them how to do word processing, spreadsheets, etc. That strikes me as similar to stopping math education after fractions…no algebra, trigonometry, calculus and so on. Math teachers are certainly asked often enough, “Why do we need to know algebra? We’ll never use it.”

You might know that programming was once a common part of many schools’ curricula. TRS-80, Pet, Apple II, IBM 8086 and more all came with the computer programming language, BASIC along with the operating system. When those computers spread into schools in the late 1970s and 1980s, programming was common in high schools and junior highs. Soon after that, Computers got the Logo programming language created earlier by Seymour Papert and colleagues at MIT. Logo took programming skills into the elementary schools. Is any programming language still generally taught in your school/district? Has programming remained at all, even as an elective for high school?

Writing on Education, Stallman has said:

Free software permits students to learn how software works. When students reach their teens, some of them want to learn everything there is to know about their computer system and its software. That is the age when people who will be good programmers should learn it. To learn to write software well, students need to read a lot of code and write a lot of code. They need to read and understand real programs that people really use. They will be intensely curious to read the source code of the programs that they use every day.

Some have argued that programming need not be taught until college, but is that really soon enough to begin programming?

Stallman further along in his article says:

The next reason for using free software in schools is on an even deeper level. We expect schools to teach students basic facts, and useful skills, but that is not their whole job. The most fundamental mission of schools is to teach people to be good citizens and good neighbors—to cooperate with others who need their help. In the area of computers, this means teaching them to share software. Elementary schools, above all, should tell their pupils, “If you bring software to school, you must share it with the other children.” Of course, the school must practice what it preaches: all the software installed by the school should be available for students to copy, take home, and redistribute further.

You can read the full article at the Free Software Foundation:

You might also benefit from reading more about Free Software.

Questions for you to answer:

Does your school/district use and encourage students to use Free Software?

Does your school/district have programming courses in the curriculum?

Do you use algebra in your daily activities, and if not, would you advocate it be removed from the general curriculum?

Galileo wasn’t the inventor of the telescope. That was probably the Dutchman, Hans Lippershey.

Galileo wasn’t the person who first said the sun is the center of the solar system instead of the Earth. The credit for that goes to Coppernicus.

Galileo did build a telescope and did gaze at the planets to learn about their sun-centered orbits and, most importantly, did his best to tell other people about it. He gave public demonstrations. He wrote in Italian instead of the scholarly language of Latin. He did everything he could to make the knowledge available freely, openly and without restrictions, and while he didn’t use the terminology we do today, Gallileo was an “Open Source” kind of guy.

Open Access to information is the equivalent, in academic circles, of  “Open Source” in software. Open Access  isn’t always popular with the entrenched scientific establishment. You might be interested to read more at the Academic Evolution blog.

We have at hand an instrument of vision and inquiry more powerful than any telescope: the socially organized and semantically agile engine of inquiry and insight being erected in the digital domain, propelled forward by broad and rapid participation and an accelerated iterative review process that print publishing cannot approximate with its asynchronous “conversations.” We cannot transcend the prior knowledge system if tethered to its slowness and secrecy.

We should be better stewards of our instruments of knowledge–humble enough to discard systems that shut down epistemological evolution. The restrictions of conventional toll-access and peer-reviewed scholarship keep knowledge in the low orbit of what is familiar and controllable. But there are Galileos out there who have caught sight of higher worlds. They are learning to bypass systems of knowledge in order to achieve the purposes that those systems seem to have forgotten.

That’s what Open Access is, really, and not just a way to more publicly warehouse traditional scholarship. It is an epistemology; it is a worldview; it is a commitment to a new way of understanding, expressing, and improving the world.

Thanks, to Glyn Moody’s Open… blog for calling this post and blog to my attention.

How much like Gallileo do you want to be? Isn’t your role as an educator to open students’ access to knowledge. How open is your process?

Explaining Free Open Source Software can be helped with parables or fairy tales.

I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did.

Jono Bacon is the Ubuntu Community Manager. Ubuntu’s popularity as a Linux distribution is, at least partly, a result of the success it has had building a community of users, not just a community of developers. When asked, I do tell people I am a happy user of Kubuntu. I spend some time at the meetings of the Massachusetts Local Community (LoCo) Team which is a very helpful bunch of friendly people doing what they can to spread the word about Ubuntu and Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) in general.

MassCUE has always stressed the benefits of sharing, “teachers helping teachers” has been a guiding principle for years. The MassCUE community of educators has been successful in promoting technology in Massachusetts schools and has been around since 1982, a good while.

Jono Bacon is writing a book, The Art of Community,  which will be published this summer by O’Reilly. Early indications are that it will be a good book for anybody trying to develop a community group, no matter whether the group has any interest in FOSS. The book should be helpful to anybody trying to get a bunch of people organized around any cause, a church group, a fundraising team, whatever.

Even better, Bacon and O’Reilly are agreed that the book will also be released on the internet with a Creative Commons license. You can even keep tabs on the book’s progress by going to the Web site for the book:

I am looking forward to reading this one.

Ubuntu is the distribution I use (Kubuntu 8.04 LTS) most.

Besides being a distribution of Linux, Ubuntu is more, a broader concept about being human. It certainly works for me as I think about the ideas of Open Source.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1999):

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.

A longer discussion (from which I took this quotation) is on Wikipedia.

What is your school doing “with” cell phones?

No I don’t mean what is the administration doing “about” all those cell phones in students’ pockets/purses/knapsacks.

Has your school considered embracing these nearly ubiquitous bits of technology?

PC Magazine (sadly now just a digital edition) has an interesting article “One Cellphone Per Child”  about how common cell phones have become and suggesting that the mobile tool may be a potentially useful tool for education.,2817,2344283,00.asp

You may also want to follow up with sites like mLearnopedia.

On the other hand, is this just a pipe dream? Have you seen the revolution caused by computers in the classroom? Don’t your students still mainly sit in desks and focus on one member of the teaching staff for 30-45 minutes at a time?

Well, okay. What if you want to know more about the technical issues of making the cell phone internet connection? In that case, you might be interested in reading the overview about Kannel, an open source project to provide the gateway services for messaging and internet on cell phones.

Then your administrators and tech staff may want to find out more about cell phone repeaters and signal enhancers with a good internet search on those terms.

Have you set up your May Pole for recess today?