Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Scratch on Ubuntu

Today I had a personal visit from Bud the Teacher. We had a few things to discuss about our upcoming district tech fair, but as usual we soon were talking about big ideas and all sorts of stuff that we would like to see reach fruition.

Bud mentioned the possibility of using Scratch with some of our district Gifted and Talented student. Bud didn't even start by saying, "have you heard of Scratch?" No, by now he knows that if it deals with teaching programming and/or is open source, I probably have looked into it. I told Bud I would be happy to help teach Scratch to any interested teachers, possibly this upcoming June.

When I got home, I fired up my Ubuntu laptop, opened the command line and typed "scratch". I got the cold and impersonal Linux response of "command not found" and realized that I had NOT installed Scratch on my current Ubuntu version (8.10). I did recall, however, installing it on Ubuntu 8.04 and having it work great. A quick visit to this page had me up and running, scratching my way along in a neat little world of click and drag logic. I remember the days when Linux versions were a ton of work. That's changing, though, and more and more great apps for teachers are fully supported on Linux, with Ubuntu being the most common choice.

Gotta go. My Scratch is rusty....

Oh, and if you're like me, you'll want the source code. Happy {code} reading.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Raygun Gothic: The Future That Wasn't

Today I went for my first long bike ride of the year. It's day one of our school's voluntary "wellness challenge", and I'm looking forward to getting in shape.

The weather was very windy, but warm, almost warm enough for me to be wearing the t-shirt and shorts I had on. While biking, I listened to my iPod play the first episode of the old time radio series X Minus One. It was a great example of retro futurism, as the episode (from the mid 1950s) described the "future" in the 1980s.

Now, if you were a kid of the 80s like me, you won't recognise the 1980s in the old radio episode. That's because it was the future that did not occur, the future from the forgivably short-sighted minds of 1950s writers and producers.

As I was riding along, I got to wondering: what's the term for that style? Steampunk has it's own look, as does Cyberpunk. I found myself wishing I could Google it right then and there on my bike just to put an official term to it. Now, after looking it up, I find there are really two terms: retro futurism and raygun gothic (from Wikipedia):

Raygun Gothic is a catchall term for a visual style that incorporates various aspects of the Googie, Streamline Moderne and Art Deco architectural styles when applied to retro-futuristic science fiction environments. Academic Lance Olsen has characterised Raygun Gothic as "a tomorrow that never was".
I first came across this term when William Gibson coined it in his excellent short story, "The Gernsback Continuum." That was the first time I really thought long and hard about the concept of retro futurism. I mean, of course I had always watched The Jetsons and a host of other old science fiction shows. When I first watched them I still thought they were presenting a plausible (all-white, sexist, and safe) version of what the future could be. In time, though, you notice that the "future" of those old shows looks more like our own past--albeit with big shiny fins and slidewalks.

Great examples of Raygun Gothic are all around us. The Fallout 3 video game is 100% raygun gothic. The TV series LOST is also almost entirely raygun gothic. Heck, even this great video on Youtube is Raygun Gothic, as it tried to imagine the world of 1999 way back in 1967.

The thing is, though, that every story about the future to come is doomed to become another case of retro futurism. When I was reading cyberpunk in the late 80s, it sure looked cool and exciting. Now it looks a lot like ... well ... the late 80s. :-)

[Note: All the episodes of X Minus One are now in the public domain. You can find them at the Internet Archive for free.]

[Note number two: The difference between the term retro futurism and raygun gothic is this: raygun gothic is a particular type of retro futurism that features a future that was envisioned by the (male) writers and producers of the 1950s: automobiles with big fins, blonds ubber people, rayguns, etc. Stempunk, therefore, is also a form of retro futurism.]

Why Teachers Don't Share More Often.

One thing that drives me nuts is watching money be wasted. Pretty much every institution finds ways to spend money unnecessarily, but schools are often quite proficient at this skill.

What makes this even more frustrating is that teachers are by nature one of the most sharing and willing to contribute group of people I've known. Teachers create things every day that they'd be willing to share with others. If only someone would coordinate this resource and bring a true community to fruition!

Sadly, it seldom happens. I blame proprietary formats and money-hungry businesses. Teachers have been slammed for so long by the copyright zealots of the textbook publishing industry that they simply are unaware that there can be an open alternative to the way they do their jobs. Certainly within individual schools and districts there may be a large amount of sharing going on. By this I do not mean illegal sharing. Instead, I'm talking about the plethora of lesson plans, activities, and strategies that teachers create and use in their classroom. Most teachers would love to share their creations and utilise the creations of other teachers. This occurs whenever teachers get together at a workshop--they exchange email addresses and promise to send each other their creations.

Many times, though, they feel guilty doing this, or feel that it is too good to be true to be able to "steal" from other teachers. [They use that term, "stealing"! when they should be saying "sharing."] Where does this come from? Maybe from the fact that any time teachers attend a workshop sponsored by major textbook publishers, they are given complimentary copies of what often appear to be wonderful resources. As soon as they open up the book to make a few copies to share in class, though, they see the strict copyright warnings printed on every page. This is so common that they believe it is typical of teachers sharing resources: there's always a cost.

But, there isn't always a cost. Most of the resources that teachers share are not photocopied from copyrighted materials--they're quizes, plans and activities that teachers created by themselves. They should be able to enter these items into the vast network of teachers and create a free and open community of resources for any teacher to contribute to and to use.

There's one problem, though: proprietary formats. If teachers continue to use closed software like Geometer's Sketchpad, we remain slaves to the format. This is changing slowly, however, as there is no longer a stigma attached to writing pdf files or importing doc files into OpenOffice. Geometry teachers could use several of the free and open source alternatives to Geometer's Sketchpad, but few do. Why? Because the textbook publishers are like crack dealers. They know by now how to "give" (although you really don't get any rights to what you're given) teachers a free copy of their software. They also know how to make district tech departments feel like adopting their software will make their lives very easy.

So the district buys a site license to Geometer's Sketchpad and they're all set. Notice the students were never mentioned in this process? That was intentional. They are NOT factored into this process at all. Instead, decisions are made that lock students into having to use expensive software that they have no access to outside of class. Students would have access to all of the open source alternatives at home.

My district has done quite a dance with proprietary software. In the past it was acceptable to pay for access to, say, MacSchool, as it was pretty reliable and did what we wanted it to do. Since then, though, we have used expensive software that was terrible, and freeware (NOT open source) that was generally despised by all involved. Next year we switch to Infinite Campus, which I believe is a good thing. In the meantime, though, we have a semester where teachers are allowed to use whatever they want for a grading program. Really. Whatever we want. Some will no doubt just use the traditional red gradebook and only use computers for reporting final grades. Others will try to find an old copy of Making the Grade or something similar lying around.

I decided to Google "open source grading program teachers" and found Open Grade. It's simple and (dare I say) elegant. I did the Linux make, build, install and now have a pretty cool grading program with few features, but even less annoyances. It works. I can print out student or class reports into text files and fit a lot of info on one page. Also, since it's open source, you can get to the source code (in Perl) and alter the way it works.

We're lucky, as educators, that there are people like Ben Crowell, who created Open Grade. Some may scratch their heads and say, "but why would someone do that and share it for free?" I would say, however, that behavior like that is the rule, not the exception, in higher education, and I have hundreds of examples to prove that point. Here's a couple:

Jason R Briggs has written an excellent Python book for teaching Python to kids.
Dick Baldwin shares a ton of his own work for the Alice programming environment.
Allen Downey has been sharing his Java and Python books for years.
Moodle and Wordpress are used by many teachers, most of which can't believe they're free.

I just wish we had a more efficient way of sharing all these homegrown education resources....

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Leaving on a jet plane

Tomorrow is the first day of the Spring semester. While my students are filing into my classroom, I'll be on a jet flying to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for a one-day workshop on Alice 3.0, which I'll be using in my Intro to Programming class this semester.

My students will be official bug reporters for Alice 3.0, a scary and yet exciting job for us. I'm also hoping to put a word in for Linux support while I'm there. Wish I was better at tweaking Java in Linux, so I could help out more. :-(

Spent most of today packing up and storing away my NES and SNES game collection. Had to make more room for some recent book acquisitions....

Thursday, January 1, 2009

When worlds collide....

My online identity is pretty diverse. Each different facet seems to interact with a large web or sphere of somewhat similar individuals. What surprises me, though, is how little the various spheres tend to interact with the other spheres.

For instance, I see very little overlap between these three spheres: math teachers, programmers, and technology in education experts. All three of those spheres accept me and allow me to contribute and ask questions--and yet I know very few individuals that exist in even two of those three spheres.

For instance, take a look at this recent post about a probability question on a programming blog. The immense number of comments arguing one solution over another reminded me of the Monty Hall problem, which is taught in IMP 3 Math. In fact, there's almost nothing in those comments (other than the occasional coded "solution" to the problem) that would tell you that these are primarily programmers--not math teachers--arguing their view of the problem.

I found the comments amusing. I haven't necessarily found that being a natural at math makes a student a natural at programming--although I must say that almost all of my best programmers are very good at math. I've done research on a correlation between language acquisition aptitude and programming ability, but the results, of course, were unclear. What I do know, though, is that very few programmers (aside from a few Linquistics experts) ever think much about language acquisition.

Let the fun begin:

Let's say, hypothetically speaking, you met someone who told you they had two children, and one of them is a girl. What are the odds that person has a boy and a girl?