Thursday, May 29, 2008

Marc Andreessen's Guide to College and Career Planning

I doubt that in all these years I have ever come across a more useful piece of writing to guide students on higher education choices, and skills development for a successful life than Marc Andreessen's Guide to Skills and Education (Part 2 of his guide to Career Planning). The fact that it resonates so well with all my beliefs and life learnings may well have a lot to do with the high points I am giving this article, but students will do well to heed a lot, if not all, the suggestions of this admirable man, who could be called the "father of the Internet Browser".

Marc Andreessen's Mosaic (which later became Netscape) browser, was probably one of the biggest early web innovations (that incidentally came out of Illinois and not Silicon Valley!) and it revolutionized how we interact with information on the World Wide Web. Those of us who have used the pre-Mosaic web can truly appreciate how Mosaic changed life for the better :)). He recently co-founded Ning - a social networking platform that many of us are familiar with. Marc A is clearly one of Silicon Valley's most successful entrepreneurs.

So parents and teachers, do read it and share your reactions to Marc's Guide to Career Planning Part 2: Skills & Higher Education. If you are a student wandering through here, this piece is a must-read - it may well change your life (for the better, I'm sure :))!

[Cross-posted on educatorslog.in]

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Ideal Technology/CS Curriculum for Middle School

This post is inspired by a curriculum question raised on educatorslog.in by a 'Computer Studies' (CS) teacher (an alternative moniker for a 'Technology' teacher in India).

So, what should kids aged 10-14 be taught by way of technology apps/tools in schools?

I think the question is better answered if we rephrase it to - What skills can kids aged 10-14 develop through technology apps/tools? In my view the 4Cs provide an excellent guideline to develop the curriculum - thinking about which technology tools will help kids with the following -

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity &
  • Critical Thinking
I’d like to preface my list of candidates tools and/or specific applications that could be considered, by underscoring the need for embedding the learning of specific technology tools in authentic tasks and integrating it in projects/assignments/artifacts that are part of the curriculum of core subjects such as Science, Language Arts, Maths and Social Studies. Technology taught stand-alone as a separate “subject” is neither necessary nor beneficial. The idea that technology is a “tool” can only be impressed on students when it is taught as a tool to achieve a larger purpose.

The other thought that I’d like to voice for consideration is the need to include elements of computer science and computational thinking rather than simply restricting the Technology/Computer Studies curriculum to the learning of software applications. This would mean exposure to the ideas of algorithms, data structures and data management. Ideas from CS like multitasking, time slicing, recursion and redundancy are sort of like life skills in some sense, and how cool would it be for kids to see applications of these in computers and operating systems. Programming is of course an important part of this, but programming alone is a very narrow piece that does not cover many of the elements of computer science that children could get exposure to, even at an early age. Such instruction should ideally be cleverly designed and appropriately disguised (a la Randy Pausch’s “head fake”) so that kids have fun learning relatively difficult concepts.

Enough rambling, and on to specific themes/tools... (Note that there are free alternatives to almost all proprietary ones that I mention here). I will try and organize this into a table at some point.
  • Google Docs, Sites (Communication, Collaboration)
  • Blogging & Podcasting (Communication, Collaboration, Creativity)
  • Wikis (Communication, Collaboration)
  • Publishing - Publisher (Communication, Creativity)
  • Photo/Video uploading & sharing ((Visual) Communication, Collaboration)
  • Audio Editing- Audacity (Communication, Creativity)
  • Image Editing - Photoshop, Fireworks (Communication, Creativity)
  • Movie making/Digital Story Telling - Movie Maker, PhotoStory, iMovie (Communication, Creativity, Critical Thinking)
  • Concept-Mapping - CMap, FreeMind, Inspiration, many others (Critical Thinking)
  • Presentation tools - Open Office Impress, Powerpoint, Google Presentations, Slide Share (Communication, Collaboration)
  • Programming - LOGO, Star LOGO, Scratch, Squeak, Drape, Alice, Visual Basic/C++, C, (Critical Thinking, Creativity)
  • Web Design, including HTML (Collaboration, Creativity)
  • 3-D Modeling - Google SketchUp (along with Google Earth) (Creativity, Critical Thinking)
  • Game Creation- Game Maker, Scratch, Squeak (Creativity, Critical Thinking)
  • Animation - Flash (Creativity)
  • Spreadsheets - Google Spreadsheets, Open Office Calc or Excel (Critical Thinking)
  • Databases & Information Organization - Open Office Base, Access (Critical Thinking)
I think this is a fairly exhaustive list. These tools can be taught at the appropriate grade level and even in multiple grades through some sort of a spiral curriculum (building on basic skills taught in an earlier grade).

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Web of Possibilities with Indic Tools for India

Barely 2 weeks ago I blogged about my brush with Indic Language Support in Blogger - a post which garnered several comments from the Hindi blogging world - with most of the comments being in Hindi. Most of the Hindi bloggers who left comments maintained solo blogs while being on several group blogs as well. One such group blog - Buno Kahani (Weave a Story) is an interesting attempt at collaborative story writing by a group of Hindi bloggers!

Clearly, that one post did much for my appreciation of a phenomenon that I was simply not (consciously) cognizant of - how a large percentage of India's populace is enjoying access to the several Indic language web tools that allow them to express themselves in an Indian language of their choice.

In the comments was also one by priyankar who urged me to take some time out to write a similar blog in Hindi - share my thoughts on education and technology in a language that will serve the Indian Hindi speaking and reading population as well -
"आपके शैक्षिक और तकनीकी अनुभव का कुछ लाभ हिंदी के माध्यम से भी देश के लोगों को मिलना चाहिए . इसके लिए थोड़ा समय निकालें - यही अनुरोध है"
Well, thankfully, Google's new English-Hindi-English translation tool obviates any extra effort on my part to make this wish come true! See the "Read this blog in Hindi" link on the top right of this page? Thanks to Google, an automated Hindi translation of this blog can be produced at the click of a button. Go ahead and try it - right here, right now!

Even though the translation is nowhere near perfect yet, the potential for this in India is HUGE! Think about it! Any page on the web in English hitherto inaccessible to someone who cannot read English, is now available in Hindi as well. Imagine what this could mean for education in parts of small-town and rural India where there is Internet penetration, but where English is neither spoken nor read. Vast amounts of educational content on the Internet in English were until now out of the reach of the non-English literate population of India. Not anymore!

Google's Translate toolkit toolkit also has a text translator which allows any text to be translated from English to Hindi or vice versa. For more information on all the capabilities of the toolkit - check out the Google Press Release - Google aapki bhasha mein (Google in your language).

Here's a snapshot of the educatorlog.in home page in Hindi. As you can see, the translation is not quite perfect, but still, one can get the gist of the text.
It's enough to get my head buzzing with ideas and possibilities :)

Saturday, May 03, 2008

More on FOSS (aka Muft and Mukt Software) for Schools


Is it just my imagination or is the FOSS movement for schools truly gathering momentum? Anyway, just wanted to share some more on the idea of FOSS and the rationale for its use, especially in schools.

The first is the much-talked about article by Richard M. Stallman ("rms" - the father of the GNU project) - Why schools should exclusively use free software - in which he lists the following reasons (in brief) -
  1. Cost - obviously the first good reason to go with software that is truly "free" (and not "donated" like some proprietary software is which has hidden costs and other strings attached)

  2. "School should teach students ways of life that will benefit society as a whole."

  3. Free software permits students to learn how software works. This is especially useful for older kids, and proprietary software rejects this thirst for knowledge of how things work.

  4. "To teach people to be good citizens and good neighbors—to cooperate with others who need their help. Teaching the students to use free software, and to participate in the free software community, is a hands-on civics lesson."
The second is an argument (in favor of FOSS) that I will borrow from Why Free Software by Nagarjuna of gnowledge.org (and the Free Software Foundation of India). I think he explains it really well--
"The argument can be best understood if we focus on what happens when we digitize any document, whether text or other kinds of media. Digitization uses a computing model to write (encode) the data, and when we try to retrieve the data, the computer reads (decodes) it for us in a human readable form. Normally, we expect that the computing model used for encoding and decoding is part of computer science, and so we rely on it.

However, since code is by nature arbitrary, each company can invent (mind you an arbitrary invention is not necessarily an innovation) its own model of digitization and provides a computing service to its customers. The arbitrary computing model they use is protected under the various forms of IPR, and the current Governments not only respect this but also protect and promote the interests of the companies.

Free Software Movement (FSM) identifies this as the root cause of betrayal that happens in the digital society in various forms. The computing model used must be published, just as any scientific or technological models are published for use by the society. More important than providing access, by publication, is the freedom to use the computing model by other agencies. In addition to this, FSM also seeks the freedom to modify the model, as well as the freedom to republish the model either without any restrictions or with the restriction that other users cannot transform them into private property.

Considering that computer science is a strange mix of deep theory as well as sophisticated technology, it is very vital for any society to use this transparently. Else, we will let some agencies become monopolies. This is a serious danger to digital society because, the data that is digitized belongs to you and me, and not to the company. But, in reality today, our data has been handed over to the proprietary companies, since they alone have the license to decode our own documents. This will create a possibility for computer crime, which is happening all around our eyes. We let this happen."
(By the way, I've heard the expression "Muft and Mukt Software" to describe FOSS in India. I love the way it rolls off the tongue - it means Free (Muft) and Open Source (Mukt) Software in Hindi/Urdu.)

Thursday, May 01, 2008

FOSS in Schools in India

Just wanted to highlight the Kerela story here that has also made it to the latest educatorslog.in Spotlight - Kerala Blazing the Trail for FOSS in Schools. I posted the story on a google group of people deliberating ICT in Education in India, and received some comments on the story from Anivar Aravind who is an information architect, in addition to being a self-proclaimed "hactivist, campaigner, FLOSSopher, initiator, and occasional writer", who also happens to know the inside story of the Kerela FOSS movement. I have embedded his comments (in quotes and in green) in the story just as he shared them in the googlegroup. Thanks, Anivar, for sharing your insights....
KOCHI, MARCH 4: Richard M Stallman—global free software guru, VS
Achuthanandan’s darling and almost a freewheeling adviser of sorts to
the Kerala Government—may now have more reasons to break out into
that jig that he abruptly did while being given a somberly
reverential welcome in Kerala a few weeks ago.

Kerala is all set to become the first state in the country to
completely banish Microsoft and allow only GNU/Linux free software to
be used in the mandatory IT test at the state SSLC examinations that
half a million students will appear for from next week. Till last
year, they could take the exam using either free software or the
Microsoft platform. Not anymore.

"Kerala selected free software because in the syllabus committee meeting
85% of the teachers opted for it (after 2 year experience of on the
platform & trainings and support by free software advocates - no state
help at till that point) But Because of it was a Anti-MNC position and
left-ruled Govt Media used all juicy stuff. Govt also captured the
mileage from it."

A few weeks ago, the Government formally ordered that only free Linux-
based software should be used for IT education in high schools, using
new the Linux text books developed by State Council for Educational
Research and Training and the Free Software Foundation of India.

"It was an old decision, on the starting of the academic year. Not few
weeks ago. This report was appeared just before RMS's visit to Cochin,
on March, end of the academic year "

The hardline Left’s familiar anti-MNC, anti-proprietory planks apart,
another major plus of abandoning Microsoft, claim state IT Mission
officials, is plainly the cost factor. “Going for a massive Windows-
based infrastructure cost a lot. Linux can bundle all applications
with the operating system facilitating a single installation kit”.

"Some official IT Mission has nothing to do with IT@School which is under
Education department. Kerala's IT policy clearly states the logical
reasons for Free software adoption of Kerala. And I think this Official
never gone through the content in text books"

The logistics for making Kerala the country’s Free and Open Source
Software (FOSS) destination—one of Achuthanandan’s pet Red obsessions—
may be daunting, but the state is coping with it. Since last
September, some 15 lakh students have been busy training on or
migrating to free software on 40,000 computers put up in 2,832 high
schools watched over by over 60,000 IT trained school teachers (some
86 private training institutions train the teachers) besides 161
master trainers and 5,600 school IT coordinators. “We checked. It’s
the world’s biggest mobilisation of its kind,” says K Anwar Sadath,
executive director of the state government’s IT@Schools mission.

Every high school in Kerala, including the over a thousand government-
run ones, will be wired to high-speed broadband Internet by this
July, which will be another first in India. All, of course, will use
nothing but free software. “We are now moving from IT education to IT-
enabled education in our schools, using only free software,” asserts
Education Minister M A Baby.

When Stallman, who fathered the GNU project and developed text editor
Emacs, flew down to Kerala for the first time in 2001—in his old
patched jeans, long beard, free flowing hair and crumpled T-shirt—and
told the curious who hadn’t heard of him in Thiruvananthapuram that
he was, really, “Saint iGNUcious of the church of Emacs”, the then
Congress-led Government was already busy getting the state’s IT drive
on keel, drawing in Intel and Microsoft. Achuthanandan, then
Opposition leader, was quick to demand that both be got rid of, and
launched a particularly vocal campaign against Microsoft being
allowed to train Kerala school kids, calling it “exploitative”.

The then A K Antony Government had not overly warmed up to Stallman,
who opened Asia’s first centre of his outfit, the Free Software
Foundation-India, in Thiruvananthapuram. But Achuthanandan was keen,
even when CPI(M) state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan originally favoured
the Microsoft idea. Stallman then began regularly dropping down to
Kerala. Two years ago, Achuthanandan, after vainly ordering Pepsi and
Coca-Cola out of the state, declared that all schools will go the
FOSS way.

Last year, in its state IT policy, the Left Government vowed to use
only FOSS in all e-governance projects and declared it would even
incentivise companies developing free software. Government
departments, beginning with the state Secretariat, soon began
switching from Microsoft to Linux. “There were some initial fears and
some understandable resistance, but things have been smoothing out
faster than we thought.” says a a senior state IT official. The
migration is at various stages in key Government arms now.

"
First of all Kerala had a silent adoption history of Free software
solutions. I did a study&documentation on successful free software
project on public Enterprises for SPACE-KERALA in 2005. An Interesting
result we found is more than 95% of successful projects in all
e-governance are using Free Software solutions. (book is available at
http://www.space-kerala.org/downloads/foss-lr.pdf) IT policy is a result
of various civil society movements , adoption histories, their success ,
and awareness on bureaucratic & Politicians level. We welcome such good
initiatives from state. I mentioned it to point the errors in juicy
reporting "