December 2010

Support the Open Internet.

Make it easier to share.

Creative Commons CC-BY Badge

Look for this badge on the Web - Use it yourself.

You see the badges on Web sites, and they make it easy to decide what you can do with the information. CC-BY is my favorite license. It means you can use the page contents and your “cost” is acknowledging the original author. That’s just common courtesy. This is the way to help teach your students how sharing works. It also encourages them to think of others in everything they do.

The CC-BY license is just one of the licenses that Creative Commons has developed. Choose the one which suits your needs.

I encourage you to choose to use the Creative Commons licenses and teach your students about them, but here’s your chance to donate some money, too.

For the record, I donated today.

Education Week published a discussion between middle school teachers, Dina Strasser and Bill Ferriter. Are computers and the Internet more a distraction in classrooms than a benefit?

Dina Strasser selects a couple of books for support of her localism. One suggests that classroom computers and the Internet engender short attention spans putting in doubt “whether they [students] can stick with a good novel”. She also references a book suggesting that computers limit the focus to only a couple of the senses and impede “interaction with the environment through the senses.”

I’m going to focus on those two alone.

Personal experience doing programming (something mainly restricted to computing) has shown me that I can completely focus for long periods of time, surfacing from my work only to realize hours have passed. Of course, not everything done with a computer requires such focus. Reading the headlines of a newspaper has been considered a good use of time by several American generations, even if they have read only a few of the articles from beginning to end and done even less research to study the background of the story. Today’s interaction with the Internet might be seen in that light. Indeed, if a student should start with a short headline from the Web, it is actually much more possible that a student will follow supporting links and dig deeply to find answers that the initial story doesn’t cover. That would have been difficult with a newspaper, unless a student happened to be in a well stocked library and a supportive reference librarian.

The second concept, that computers limit us to two senses, is very oddly placed right after the suggestion that long term focus on a good book is more valuable than flighty focus on the Web. It might be argued that a book limits us to the sense of sight, and the focus on book pages is even narrower than the focus angle of a computer monitor. Now, I’m very much in favor of reading. I love to sit and immerse my imagination in the story line of a good novel and its characters. On the other hand, I also enjoy taking a long walk with my dogs. I don’t read during those walks. I listen for the birds, watch the clouds chase across the sky, feel the crunch of snow beneath my shoes, smell the breeze, feel the wind in my hair (what remains of it, anyway). On some of my walks, I am even able to get tastes of berries and edible greens which grow along the route. I love the chance to engage all my senses.

I would not trade the walk for more time absorbed in a book nor more hours focused on getting a program just right. Each of the tasks is independent. Each of them contributes to my personal development options. Each of them enriches my experience (education) in ways that the others do not.

Spending six hours in a classroom might also be blamed for restricting students from fully experiencing their local environment, walking along the hillsides with an educator, looking at the edges of the layers of protruding shale. I would actually think it was the responsibility of some educator at the school to do that field trip instead of talking for one or more class periods about how important the political and science issues are.

Localism might entail gaining a rich personal experience of ones yard, town and surrounding environs, but it might also be used to justify “following local norms” which has been a euphamism for things like not allowing children to dance, or worse, segregating one ethnic group from all others.

No matter what the topic is, no matter what tools are used to implement a lesson plan, it takes teacher effort to effectively use the tools to engage students with the topic. New tools aren’t always the answer. It also doesn’t make sense to ignore new tools if they enhance students’ chances to learn a complex topic. It also means that the teacher needs to know the tools so as to judge their effective use. Sadly, I’ve observed many teachers who fail to grasp many forms of technology. Overhead projectors, slide projectors, math manipulatives, 16mm projectors, purple master duplicators and their proper uses come to mind. The computer, the Internet, word processors, etc. are just the current technology challenge.

If cost of technology is the overriding issue, then teachers and the schools for which they work should seek to minimize the costs to both the schools themselves and the costs for students’ families trying to provide computers as educatonal tools. One way to do so, is to encourage use of software which provides freedom of choice, freedom from lock-in and in most cases freedom from cost. I’d recommend all teachers, all schools find what Free/Open Source Software meets their real needs and promote the use of those tools, making computers more flexible by making the cost of the software not be a barrier to implementation. Software costs using proprietary products, can easily exceed the cost of the actual computer hardware. Using FOSS not only reduces cost, it encourages wide exploration to find and implement just the right software to get a lesson accomplished.

Does choosing software that is the standard of business help educate children?

When I was teaching in the middle school, using a lab of Macintosh computers to engage and challenge children in my computer skills classes, a member of the district’s finance committee visited the lab. He informed me and the school principal that his committee would not support any further purchases of anything but PC computers. That meant, of course, computers which ran Windows operating system (Win95 at the time, I think). That meant using Microsoft products for the productivity software. His rationale was that Windows and Microsoft products were the business standard, and that students should develop their skills with those tools, giving them a leg up when they got to the business world and needed to be productive.

At the time, our high school was already using PCs with Microsoft software, and the business department was always asking for budget to purchase the newest versions of all of their software so they would be more compatible with what was being used in businesses.

When I asked my students to write with Clarisworks on the Macintosh computers, I wasn’t teaching them keypress sequences or menu locations. I was expecting them to be creative in their writing and to develop editing skills like  delete-insert, spell checking, find-and-replace, selecting fonts, making appropriate use of bold and italic text, etc. It was my contention that the children could learn those skills using any software on any operating system. I still think that is true.

My argument was that the skills were the standard we should use as our focus and that the computers we used really didn’t matter. The software wasn’t the real issue, either. That argument fell flat. The plan for the next purchase was “Buy Microsoft” (though that phrase wasn’t actually said).

Have times changed?

This blog recommends the use of GNU/Linux and free, open source software (FOSS) that isn’t commonly used on desktop computers in business. Microsoft OS and productivity tools are the business standard. But do students who use the computers learn better, get a better education because they use the defacto standard tools?

When schools install expensive learning tools on school computers, are they making it easier for the students or more difficult? By purchasing Microsoft Office when we purchased our computers, the school where I worked was able to spend around $60 a copy. Students needed to buy their own copies. The school couldn’t send the software discs home for students to use, assuming they had a computer at home. We also used other software, of course. If students wanted to do more at home, they needed to spend more money. Did they? Do parents tell you at your annual parents’ night that they try to have all the school’s software installed at home so “Johnny” can practice better?

What is your educational standard? Does it depend on the brand of software you use? Do you feel better if your software costs more than someone else’s?

Do you buy software because it is stylish?

“I use Photoshop to crop my photos. Oh, you use brand X.”

Is brand loyalty for software really just consistent with buying clothess labelled Aeropostale, Hilfiger, Gap, Nike, etc. so you are part of the stylish crowd?

Is that your standard?

There is another way to look at standards. There are standards which support a broad community but are not defined by brand names. The success of the web on the internet is probably the most well-known example. HTML isn’t a houshold word, in spite of being a standard which allowed the web to go from a dream to international common ground for sharing, publishing, documenting, buying, selling and more. It happened in a single decade. HTML isn’t owned by Microsoft, Apple, General Motors, the United States. It isn’t owned by anybody. It is an international standard for information exchange. It is the “language” of browser software, and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer uses it. HTML is well documented and is highly standardized. Apple computers provide a browser called Safari. Many computer users even install a alternative browsers on both their PC and Mac. Firefox, Chrome, and Opera are some of the alternative browsers in regular use.

There is no vendor lock-in with true standards. As the HTML language expands, all browsers improve as they attempt to be the best tool for display of the web.

FOSS is tied closely with the effort to develop and support international standards which are not dependent on one vendor.

What do your tech people have to say about standards?
What does your school administration and school committee have to say about standards?

What about you?
What are your standards?

Educators are asked to leave no child behind by federal mandates. In essence, we are asked to run a perfect school. That’s some goal.

It also may be a debilitating one. Instead of an organic, dynamic workplace for staff and students, there’s a real chance the school will become immobile, rule-bound, ossified, rigid.

The more comfortable you become with a path you’ve already begun, the less chance there is for exploration of alternatives. A well worn path is a clear path. Paved by the pounding feet of those who have gone before, such roads lead efficiently to the selected destination. Sounds good?

The problem is that one selected destination isn’t appropriate for everyone. One job that represents success, CEO of a corporation, is an example. All of us cannot be the head of General Motors. Recent events even tell us that might not be the best job for anybody.

Fear of failure helps adults to lock onto habits which their personal experience has validated. We like “what works”. We develop patterns of behavior. We repeat, refine, repeat, refine, repeat, and effectively relax. The more things we can relegate to routine habitual behavior, the more efficient we become…but is that perfection?

Do we teach our students avoidance?
Avoid making mistakes. Avoid being different. Avoid standing out. Avoid being too far behind…or ahead.

I’d say that the job of an educator (by extension, a school) is to leave no child behind by offering a support system which allows a child to attempt all sorts of challenges with a safety net. The safety net must be “visible” enough to promote reach beyond one’s past performance level, but “invisible” as well, so that it doesn’t encourage reckless behavior. Children need an environment in which they can fall, stand up, dust off their knees and try again. Children begin their lives expecting to fail at most things until they develop skills through practice. They naturally observe the actions and behavior of those around them, trying to do their best at the tasks which their peers are doing, and try to begin the tasks of those a little older, too.

Schools need to nurture the growth of each child so that he or she steadily expands into a richly educated individual, not a molded clone of the school’s former successes. Each child needs to grow into their own space, not some adult’s preset, predetermined space for them. That isn’t an easy task.

Practice, precision, patterned performance, it becomes predicable, but is it perfection?

Striving for perfection: the tasks of angels in the hands of man.

If you do public performances (including classroom singing) of most Christmas carols this season, you normally need to pay a fee because most carols are under copyright.

Watch this cute video and learn a new carol for the holidays. You’ll get the added benefit that the tune is in the commons, thanks to a Creative Commons license.