Category Archives: Technology

Backward looking forward

Four years ago I wrote about yesterday. Well, not exactly. I’m not really clairvoyant or a time traveler. What I wrote in 2014 was about a typical occurrence – an internet outage. These happen. Sometimes a cable breaks, sometimes a power problem disrupts service, sometimes other things can interrupt an internet connection for hours, days, sometimes weeks. It’s not a problem unique to our location, but it does happen here more often than many of us are used to. Therefore we kept mission-critical services (mail, e-learning, etc.) on local servers. It meant more work and headaches, but it also meant that we were in control and could reliably provide services to the school.

So when we were told about a month ago that we’d migrate from our self-hosted mail system (Zimbra) to using GMail, I was skeptical. I’m OK with GMail (I have my own account), but I’ve resisted such a move for years here precisely because of internet interruptions. If there was a disconnection and we were using GMail, I argued, we couldn’t even send notices to colleagues down the hall. We’d asked a Google representative about that at a local presentation and were told that they hoped the infrastructure here would support their services soon. Not very encouraging.

So we moved to GMail. Yay. (I do wonder what exactly is the advantage. I mean, it’s email. It works pretty much the same whether it’s GMail, Yahoo!, Zimbra, or whatever.) Monday was our G-Day. All communications were to be sent on our new GMail system. The old Zimbra system would remain in place for people to have access to old messages, contacts, etc. while we used GMail exclusively for internal and external communication.

Tuesday morning, guess what? No connection. The following message was sent out by the IT Help Desk at 8:10 in the morning:

Dear All,

Our Internet connection is down. Other systems like moodle and powerschool in the local intranet domain are working fine. All Google suites are down at the moment. If you happen to check your zimbra email by any chance and see this, please notify people near by you as they may not check zimbra because of the switch to gmail. We are communicating with telecom about the issue and will let you know when things are restored.

And that’s how communication gets handled here in the 21st century. We were out all day long. No messages. No shared documents. Confusion. Frustration.

If only someone had thought about this before today…

 

Image credit: I’d love to give credit to the “backwards baseball-cap wearing man shading eyes” meme, but I have no idea where it originated. It’s not mine. I stole it. Sorry.

Technology for all

It’s not news that technology is making a big impact on education. Schools are spending lots of money on computers, robots, tablets, 3D printers, etc. Curriculum is being rewritten to embed technology skills within every subject at all grade levels. Students are being required to learn computer programming and being encouraged to become makers.

roboticsBut it’s not enough.

In our world 50% of the population are female. But only 8-20% of engineers are women. Less than half the schools in UK have girls taking A-level physics (and only one in five of the students taking that exam are girls). 19% of students taking AP computer science  are women.

The various technology industries, businesses and communities are predominately male. And schools are not doing enough to fix that. Schools and teachers can’t solve the problem (there’s plenty of indication that it’s societal and influenced by parents), but we need to constantly work at it.

teamworkIn our school, we just hosted a special all-girls technology event. It was a lot of fun and the girls loved it. But we only had 13 girls. It’s a start, but it needs to happen again and again. And we have to bring in the younger ones to combat societal and peer pressure.

I’m in. I owe it to my daughter. I owe it to all the girls.

Open House in the Makerspace/Robotics Lab

IMG_3435Wow!!

It was universal: children and adults alike were impressed with the Open House we held on Saturday for our new Makerspace/Robotics Lab. The whole morning there was a buzz of laughter and enthusiastic calls of “look at this!” People were moving around the room, checking out what other people were doing and showing off their own work. Kids were building robots and other contraptions, parents were helping them out and taking photos, teachers were demonstrating how to make things with various pieces of equipment …and everybody was having a great time. Several parents and children expressed their hope that this would happen every weekend! Here are some of the things that were going on:

It was a terrific day! We’ll definitely be holding more Open House maker sessions!

This is cross-posted from my school blog.

The pleasures and challenges of online learning

The internet and world-wide-web have revolutionised so many aspects of society, it’s no wonder that they have changed how people learn. (It’s only surprising that it hasn’t changed more already.) Online learning has provided so many opportunities for people all over the world, that it has become extremely easy and often free to learn just about anything. This can happen in very informal ways, but also in more traditional formal classes delivered online.

Over the past years, I’ve taken a variety of formal classes. I’ve learned Portuguese (um pouco!), how the brain works, Java programming techniques, online assessment tools, how to teach the IB Diploma Computer Science course, and many more. I’ve taken courses accredited by universities and international organizations as well as courses taught by private tutors. Some I’ve paid for and many have been free.

For me, the advantage of taking online courses is that I can learn wherever I am and whenever I have time. It’s an obvious advantage to online learning, and one that’s touted by online course providers. It also can lead to some serious challenges when you have a traveling lifestyle!

A perfect case in point happened to me this summer. I signed up for an online course offered through Thinkport (I recommend their courses – very well organized and useful). I needed a few credits to renew my Maryland teaching certificate, so I signed up for the summer course on Blended Learning. I’m experienced in that, so I thought it wouldn’t be too challenging and I could easily complete it in the summer, but I also knew that I could benefit from new ideas, formal training and communication with other teachers.

I started the course while on holiday in the US, and it was easy to work in the readings, discussions and projects while relaxing in my parents’ house in El Paso, Texas. However, we’d booked an Alaska cruise to celebrate my 50th birthday (and that’s another blog post or two!) and the course required log-ins and activity every few days. So I needed to make sure I had connectivity while cruising so that I could do readings and post to the discussions. It made for some interesting early mornings, watching the mountains and whales glide by from the “Crow’s Nest” cafe while I read about keeping students engaged while online! We then left the US and headed home to Ethiopia, first spending a week in Kenya with family in our beach house. Again, I found myself watching the water while reading and posting – this time from our beach house’s roof deck looking out over the Indian Ocean. (I’m an earlybird, so I saw a lot of sunrises over the ocean while doing coursework!)

The biggest challenge came, ironically enough, when we returned home. Despite being stationary and having all my resources around me, it became even more difficult to meet deadlines. School was starting and I had to prepare my classes, as well as set up our new student information system and oversee the distribution of student laptops to all the Middle School and High School students! It was during this time that I actually missed deadlines and lost points. My instructor was kind enough to give me some leeway, but I almost took it as a badge of honour that I put my students’ learning before my own and allowed my work and learning to suffer to make sure theirs got off to a good start for the year.

With all the challenges I faced over that course, and with the slightly diminished grade due to the opening of the school year, I’m valuing the completion of this course more than many of the others I’ve done. I’m looking forward to keeping that course certificate and framing it. It’ll be a reminder of the process and what I’ve learned about blended learning – both from the content and from the process!

No, Apple computers do not “just work”

Apple touts its products as being for the everyday user and being designed to be simple to use. The many fans of Apple computers, tablets and phones, argue that its products “just work” as opposed to other software, systems and equipment.

That’s not at all true. I use Apple’s OSX on a Macbook Pro. I also use Windows and Ubuntu. I have an iPhone, and an Android tablet. They all have their quirks and oddities and things that just DON’T work. Apple is no exception. Sometimes their stuff just does not work.

Note to Apple Fanbois: I’ve been using Macs for decades. I’m not dim and I’m a fairly competent computer user. I like some of what Apple makes, but not everything!

An example:

I got some photos from my brother-in-law of his new baby daughter. I wanted to print them. So I downloaded them from the email and then imported them into Apple’s Photos application. I went to print them. Here’s what I saw:

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 7.21.01 AMFor some reason, Photos decided to print my photos on a landscape page, even when the preview showed the paper as portrait. An there’s no way to change that. I looked. No “page setup” and no orientation settings in the print dialogue. No way to change the photos’ orientation on the page. I tried all kinds of menus, various options, different settings. Nothing changed the way it came out or let me print a whole photo on a page.

Not being a person to let an application defeat me, I went searching for a solution. I found others had discovered the same problem and posted their problems online. All agreed that there was no way to change the orientation of the print job. There were a few workarounds suggested, so I tried them …with no luck. I posted my question on Apple’s online community forum and got some more workarounds from a helpful member of the community …which didn’t solve my problem.

I am used to working with many applications on many operating systems. This is an application created by Apple and bundled with its operating system. It’s made to be a simple photo management program – and is THE system that Apple promotes and supports. But it lacks a basic feature, which interferes with users’ ability to get things done.

I’ve advocated for free and open source software, including the Ubuntu operating system, for years. People have complained that the software isn’t “intuitive” and that installing software or setting things up on Linux is complicated and requires looking things up, finding workarounds, etc. I’ve said that sometimes easy isn’t better and that if things are hard it may be worthwhile. I’ve been shouted down when I’ve advocated for alternatives and told that our school needs to use Apple and other commercial software because it “just works” and doesn’t interfere with teaching and learning. I’ve given in and our school is now a Macintosh and Windows school, a Google school, a Microsoft Office school.

I fixed my problem: I took the photos out of Apple’s Photos, put them into a draw document in the free and open source LibreOffice and printed them.

The problem is NOT the computer

We were checking in to board the plane, and the woman at the check-in desk told me our seat assignments. “That’s not right!” I said. “We’re a family of three, traveling with a child. You cannot give us three separate seats.” The woman apologized, but said that the plane was full and she could not give us three seats – or even two seats – together. I argued and became insistent that we be given seats together, and she brought in her manager. The manager was able to do some rearranging and gave us two seats together for one parent and the child, and another seat nearby. I thanked her for accommodating us and said that the airline policy should be that families – especially with children – should always be seated together. That’s when she said it:

“The computer assigns the seats. That’s the problem.”

Before steam started coming out of my ears, I swallowed hard, counted to 10 (in binary) and then calmly and patiently explained to the woman that the problem was not the computer.

Perhaps nothing reveals the great need for Computer Science to be taught to every student in school than this very common misunderstanding. People in every job and every walk of life use computers every day. And many of them fail to understand fundamentally how computers work.

Computers do not do things magically, and they don’t operate on their own (yet). Computers do exactly what they are told by human beings, and how they accomplish those tasks is also controlled by human beings. That is called programming.

In this case, the airline (or their programmers) instructed the computer (their servers) to assign seats to passengers once they book a ticket (or when they check in or whenever). Seemingly, those instructions (program) prioritized business travelers, frequent flyers, people who checked-in early, etc. There seemed to be no provisions within the program for families or children.

The solution to the problem is very simple: adjust the program to ensure that children traveling with families are always given seats next to their parents (or at least one parent). Sure, this might interfere with frequent flyers choosing their ideal seats, but the program can be written to maximize the choices for prioritized customers without sacrificing at least two adjacent seats for every child traveling with family.

The problem does not come from the computer. The computer is only doing what it has been told to do by the airline’s programmers. The problem comes from the programmers not being told to prioritize children by the airline.

Too often people blame “the computer” when things do not go well. It’s more than just “blaming the messenger” – it shows that people really do not properly understand how computers work. It’s a mystery to them, so they can blame computers for mistakes .(And also presumably to praise computers for serendipitous good fortune – “Congratulations! The computer has selected you to be upgraded!”) If people truly understood that computers were programmed by human beings to produce the results they come up with, then they would not only be better able to explain problems but also feel empowered to fix those problems. Imagine the manager’s response if she had really understood the way computers work: “I’m sorry for the trouble. The computer system has obviously been programmed poorly to not take into account children traveling with their families. I will make a recommendation to my superiors that the program be revised so this problem doesn’t happen again.”

Aside: I know I’m whining a bit about my own situation. However, I’ve been on airplanes where air hostesses were scrambling to rearrange passengers after boarding to try to unite families who had been separated by “the computer.” It’s a problem that affects many airline customers as well as many airline employees. I could write about the dismissive treatment of passengers by airlines, but I’ll have to wait until I can do so calmly!

 

photo credit: andreas160578 from Pixabay (CC0/public domain)

Follow your ears

footballWe’d just landed in the capital city of a country we’ve never visited before. It was the start of a grand adventure, a holiday full of firsts and new experiences.

And my daughter was dying to see a football game.

Croatia was playing its opening game of the Euro 2016 tournament, and seeing them play while in Zagreb was her main priority this Sunday afternoon. We agreed to fit the game in to some touring of the city’s sights, figuring it would also be a novel holiday experience.

So we asked the hotel concierge where would be a good place to watch the game. He said the hotel had a TV and we could watch the game there. As we seemed to be about the only guests in the hotel, we figured we could find someplace with a livelier atmosphere.

We took a taxi to the old town center. The driver didn’t speak much English, but we could all agree on “Croatia,” “Turkey,” and “football.” He said that any bar would show the game, but didn’t think that was right for our daughter. He left us with a prediction: “3-0!”

So we wandered the old city streets, empty except for small numbers of tourists. Zagreb was particularly quiet even for a Sunday afternoon.

Then we heard the noise.

There was a kind of roaring sound, which seemed to come from a big hotel. Was someone showing the game with the TV turned up all the way? We headed down some stairs towards the main square, while the sound got louder.

zagrebgame - 1“I see it,” Nadia said as we reached the end of a narrow alleyway. There, in the main town square, Trg bana Josipa Jelačića, an enormous screen was showing the game while a huge crowd of people wearing the red and white check of the Republika Hrvastka cheered, blew horns and drank beer.

We got her an ice cream and enjoyed the revelry for a while. It was exciting to be swept up with the locals and tourists, enjoying the game. We were there when The Goal was scored, resulting in even louder horns, lit flares, and lots of dancing and leaping about. We then decided to retreat to a quieter nearby venue which suited our 12-year-old better.

Lesson learned: it’s not always suitable to rely on “experts” available to tourists. Sometimes you have to just follow your nose. Or ears.

Ghosts in the Machine

It’s been brewing for a while …the feeling that there’s something not quite right with my Macbook Pro. It’s a suspicious feeling – that there’s something in there, acting on its own. I know it’s a totally irrational feeling: I know that computers are machines, hunks of metal and plastic and glass, programmed by people to do what they’re told and only capable of doing that.

Still…

The other night, I was checking my home wifi network. Our bandwidth isn’t great, and I’ve worked to set things up so I can manage the use of the bandwidth by the devices that I and the rest of my family own and use. I saw that my laptop was using up much of the bandwidth, so I went to go and check on it and close down whatever it was downloading.

My laptop was closed.

I know that closing the laptop is not the same thing as shutting it down, and that there’s a trickle of energy keeping processes going while a laptop is in “sleep” mode, but this closed machine was downloading something and using up my bandwidth. I shut it down properly and decided to investigate more in the morning.

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 8.58.49 AMI started it up and saw that there was a very active process, nsurlsessiond. I’d seen other sessions active and had done some investigation. OSX is now  configured to automatically sync files, look for updated programs, etc. I’d done some research and changed all the settings I could find but here it was again: the computer was uploading and downloading files while no other programs were active on the computer. It should have been quiet.

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 9.10.08 AMI left it for a bit, and the connection got even more busy. It was constantly sending and receiving packets on my network. It managed to download around 10MB of data (and sent another .5MB) as it sat closed while I ate my breakfast. This was a busy little computer for a machine that had no programs running and (as far as I knew) all preferences set to not automatically connect to anything.

I had done some research about this and found a fascinating discussion thread on Apple’s support forums about this process. Plenty of people have been having this problem with their Macintosh computers – some with much bigger problems than mine. It was merely an annoyance for me, but for people paying for every MB of their connection, this was a costly process that was running without the knowledge or command of the computer’s owner.

One particular post by mikelravizza struck me as particularly insightful (or at least one with which I could agree):

I’m tired of Apple’s multitude of hidden and newly introduced network daemons  eating my BW.  Don’t get me wrong, some are useful, but most are not, and hardly any are documented.. another “we just accept what Apple thinks is best” approach.

It’s a slippery slope both  apple and google are  now blindly sliding down. As revenues start to tighten up, after years of massive profits, its obvious where they will be heading to keep revenues flowing.. us, the user-base with all our data.

Maybe nsurlsessiond is a useful process that I should just let run. Maybe I should trust that Apple is doing the right thing. Maybe I shouldn’t worry about it at all.

Maybe.

Or maybe I’ll just go set up my laptop to boot into Linux and only use OSX when I really have to.

Priceless

I’ve written many times about the wonderfulness that is open source and free software. Going along with it is free culture and open sharing. It’s a beautiful thing when people give freely, expecting nothing in return but allowing others to use their work and build on it.

This past month I’ve been building some materials for our Middle School classes to use in Digital Citizenship lessons. I’ve published them within the school and I’m prepping them for proper publishing to the whole community. I could not have done this without other people sharing their work freely and generously.

A resource that I have used heavily in this is Pixabay, one of my favorite photo-sharing sites. It houses lots of gorgeous photographs as well as carefully-crafted clip art …and all of it is free, with no strings attached. All the images are licensed CC0 or public domain. That means anyone (me!) can download the images and use them to create new things without worrying about accreditation or needing to cite sources. (I always do for school work and often do on this blog.)

flowers-945450_640It is wonderful that people take beautiful photographs and then offer them completely free, with no strings attached. That act of sharing in and of itself is a beautiful thing.

I’m proud to say that I’ve contributed some of my own work to the site and that some of my few offerings have been downloaded, liked and (I presume) used. I’m happy if someone finds my photographs worthwhile or helpful …and I get a great feeling that I’m sharing and helping others.

If you haven’t used Pixabay, go check it out. If you like the free photographs that people share on it, give them some thanks. And then share something of your own!

Credits: the gorgeous image of the aurora borealis is from janeb13. The hands holding flowers are from the always terrific Unsplash. Freely licensed. Thanks!

We need more screentime to counter the scourge of sports

An open letter to my daughter’s PE teacher:

soccergirlDear Mr Biceps,

I am writing to you to complain about the amount of time my child spends in mindless physical activity. She is constantly insisting on balltime and it is causing numerous problems in our family.

Any free time she has, she spends in balltime. As soon as she gets up, she takes out a ball and spends time with it, ignoring everything else around her. We ask her to get ready for school, and she says “just a minute! I want to finish this!” When she gets home from school, she immediately gets her ball out and ignores her other work. When we tell her to get a book out, she complains that her coach wants her to use her ball.

I am concerned about the inordinate amount of time she spends with a ball. It is interfering with her intellectual development. She is becoming obsessed: if something can’t be played with a ball, she is not interested. I am sure that there are statistics that show that people who spend too much time with a ball become over-competitive and anti-social to people who don’t use balls.

My wife and I have had to insist on family rules for our child. She has to spend 30 minutes on her computer for every hour she spends with a ball. This has led to arguments and tears.

I am writing to you to ask you to please reconsider the inordinate amount of emphasis you and the school place on the use of balls by children. They are too young to be able to self-regulate and keep a balanced attitude towards sports technology. It is vital that young people spend more time with books and computers to keep their minds healthy.

sincerely,

A Concerned Parent