Saturday, April 29, 2006

Reason or Reprehensible Rearing?

Recently, I had an off-curricular yet important dialog with a few students. We were discussing the state of affairs in Iraq and the United States. Naturally, George W. Bush was introduced as a key personality involved in current events. As is common concerning this topic, several students voiced their opinion of the 43rd president of the United States. A young child - that of "missionaries" to Africa - pipes up and states, "George Bush is a good president!"

One would think that a teacher's best approach to any students' supposed proclamation of truth would be to question rather than immediately rebut. As well, the teacher may be mistaken and could negate an opportunity to learn by reexamining one's own view. With this in mind, I ask a straightforward question...

"What's your reason for saying so?"

The student responds, "Because he's Christian."

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Fighting to Keep Secrets


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

No Child's Behind Left Intact

The United States' No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 will do an excellent job of dumbing down education, ensuring that it can be rigorously measured by standardized testing. Of course, with standardized testing that "raises the bar", we can only expect that some children will not "measure up" to the task. But no worries, the U.S. military will be there to save the day. Section 9528 of the NCLB Act states that

"[...] each local educational agency receiving assistance under this Act shall provide, on a request made by military recruiters or an institution of higher education, access to secondary school students names, addresses, and telephone listings."

Those unable to "perform" and those simply too creative to survive the boredom and disinterest created by "bubble-in-the-right-answer" high-stakes testing and prescribed curricular programs won't be left behind. Unless they opt-out of this "privilege", their behinds will be offered a place on the front line.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Profit Over People

Skype becomes the latest proprietary software vendor to publicly claim that violating human rights is an acceptable price to pay to "do business."

Free software puts users in control. China wishes to deploy free software at the level of government. This choice offers the best in security. However, the chinese government is more than willing to have its citizens use proprietary software. Proprietary software can be used by an outside agency to spy upon its users and censor information. Free software provides protection from such oppression.

At this time, Skype's promotional ditty says -
"With Skype, you can talk to anyone, anywhere for free."
But with Skype, you cannot talk to anyone, anywhere freely.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Grade 4 technology class was today. It was the first class of a new quarter. The students were asked what they would like to learn about regarding technology. We threw out some ideas. We soon agreed that we'd like to learn a bit about graphics though this didn't quite follow the curriculum.

Games are a key component of class. There's an effort to have many games in the computer lab that encourage critical thinking and avoid the (usually) mindless "shoot-em up" games. One game the students play is called "Same GNOME" by Callum McKenzie. It's a critical thinking game where the goal is to remove objects from the screen in a collective way leaving as few objects remaining as possible, thus increasing the score. The game uses graphical themes for objects, such as colored balls and planets. We decided to learn how to edit those graphical themes to customize the game.

A student then asked a question which illustrates a pervasive defaulting view in regard to the world of copyright. He is concerned about creating new themes and editing existing themes. He asks -
"What if they find out?"
By "they", he was referring to the creators of the game. He assumed that we were learning to do something that "they" would have to grant us permission to do beforehand. Of course, no matter the licensing of the Same GNOME graphics, the class would be able to do this under "fair use" for educational purposes. In fact, one is told how to edit themes under the help menu. However, the question itself was rather telling.

We spoke about Same GNOME - released under the GNU GPL. I mentioned that we would simply be editing the graphics in class and not try to pass them off under our names to deceive people. After we talked a little about free software and the motives often found in those who create it, I ask the class what they think "they" will do if they "find out."

A young lady responds -
"Nothing. They'll just be happy."

Monday, April 10, 2006

Mitigating Incompatibility - OpenDocument

I teach at a school and act as head of the technology department. One of the aims of our department is to make FOSS (Free/Open Source Software) the de facto choice (when possible) of tools to handle any educational needs. The vision of a FOSS school is well on its way, but we've hit a snag.

After 1 full year of testing and planning, I was approached by new administration concerning our possible move to FOSS. I was told that we would "probably not" be moving to become a FOSS-based school.

Caught by surprise, I asked - "Why?"

The key "reason" given to me was this: There are incompatibility issues. Students are not going to use FOSS because they all have Microsoft Office at home which is incompatible.

Here are the 2 most important facts that must be known:

1) Microsoft is the cause of incompatibility.
2) Incompatibility can be mitigated.

Technical folk following current events are now aware of OpenDocument and its potential coup in Massachusetts. OpenDocument is an office format designed for public use. That is, OpenDocument can be implemented by anyone. Let me mantra-ize this, for this is the crux. Repeat after me: OpenDocument can be implemented by anyone. OpenDocument can be implemented by anyone. OpenDocument can be implemented by anyone.

Yes, the definition of "anyone" includes Microsoft and excludes no one. At this time, Microsoft is choosing not to implement an open standard to protect their monopoly.

Now, part two of the mantra. Repeat after me: Microsoft Office formats are a trade secret available to others only by permission. Microsoft Office formats are a trade secret available to others only by permission. Microsoft Office formats are a trade secret available to others only by permission.

I hope reflection upon these facts will make it obvious what we should do. If one wants to solve the "incompatibility" issue, one will support OpenDocument, not the status quo.

Mitigation of incompatibility in educational settings can occur through education and sound policy. Set a policy requiring all digitized student work created by an office application to be in an open format such as OpenDocument. As well, educate students and teachers about open formats. For home use by students and teachers, make available installation files of applications supporting OpenDocument that run on proprietary operating systems such as Microsoft Windows and Mac. In short, free your data.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Am I a Religious Zealot?

A question was asked the other day - "Why do you support free software?"

Here's a recent quote by rms that I agree with wholeheartedly and without question -
"Fundamentally, the use of a non-free software program gives somebody power of the kind that nobody should have. And therefore software should be free. Computer users should always have the freedom to control their computers. And they should be free to cooperate with each other in doing so."
The proprietary world has an interesting way of dealing with this view. They call it "religious" and brand those who see the fundamental necessity for humanity to use computing technology in freedom as "zealots." Painting a picture of extremism is a common tactic. As an educator currently working to implement Free Software in a school setting I was once told by a colleague -
"Basically, you're making us all suffer because of your philosophy."
Generally, this is not the reaction I get when fellow colleagues take time to listen to the facts. When people understand the facts, they realize that "suffering" is different than the absence of a particular feature. For example, suffering is dealing with spyware, worms, back-doors, and obfuscated e-voting machines. Suffering is not being able to share a program with a friend. Suffering is being told when, how, or how often you can watch your movies or listen to your music. In a nutshell, suffering is when code fundamentally controls the operations of your machine and your data.

Of course, it's up to each individual to decide how their values stack in regard to the use of computers. Unfortunately, many define "suffering" as a lack of convenience ("That 'Linux' machine won't run my games!", "I need iTunes!") rather than the absence of freedom.

As the technology coordinator of a school, I am largely responsible for the direction computing technology takes. By switching a school's machines to a Free Software platform, am I doing what's right for the school? Or am I committing an act of intolerant "religious zealotry" by making colleagues "suffer" due to my "philosophy"?

Am I a "religious zealot"?

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