Open Source, Open Hearts

The power of a small, dedicated group who choose to do something about it.

GUEST COLUMN | by Stu Keroff

CREDIT StuKeroff-PenguinsClubIt was 12:25 on a Thursday afternoon when I signaled Chu Fue to get the other students’ attention and start today’s meeting.

“What are we trying to do?” asked Chu Fue.

“Change the world!” replied the students.

“How do you change the world?” asked Chu Fue.

“Be crazy enough to think you can!” said the students in response.

And so began another club meeting for the Asian Penguins.

I am the technology coordinator at Community School of Excellence, a Hmong charter school in St. Paul, Minnesota. Our school population is overwhelmingly Hmong and Karenni children who are either children of refugees or refugees themselves. Over 90 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced price lunch because of family income.

“How do you change the world?” asked Chu Fue. “Be crazy enough to think you can!” said the students in response.

I am also the faculty adviser for the CSE Asian Penguins, our school’s Linux club. The Asian Penguins are the only Linux club based in a Hmong school anywhere in the world. The Asian Penguins learn to install, configure, and use Linux as their primary operating system, and have become very comfortable working with free and open source software.

The club started in 2012 with five or six kids in our after school program that would come to my room because they wanted to play with the computers. The desktop PCs in my classroom ran Linux because they were obtained through a grant from Free Geek Twin Cities, a non-profit that uses Linux to recycle computers.

Since the kids were so curious, I started teaching them software lessons about Linux, even progressing to teaching them how to install the operating system itself. It seemed a club was starting to form. The kids were Asian, the mascot of Linux was a penguin, so we decided on the name “Asian Penguins”. From there, the club has grown to 47 students today. The club is made up of Hmong and Karenni students, and has a close to even split between boys and girls.

As might be expected, our school has a Digital Divide. What we chose to do about it is something that I have not seen any other school do, but something that almost any school could do.

Making Things Happen

The Asian Penguins recycle used computers, using Linux as the operating system. We provide them for needy families whose children attend school here. As of today, we have provided 58 computers to area families, and plan to provide several more by the end of this school year.

Further, we sent 4 computers to our sister school in Thailand, gave 5 computers to an antipoverty non-profit in Minneapolis, and provided our own school with 60 laptop computers for our middle school and a few more for our elementary.

How do we do this?

First, we use all open source software, such as Linux, so we spend zero on software (free as in, free stuff). Not only do we not have to pay for it, but we are allowed and even encouraged to give away the software as much as we want (free as in freedom).

Second, we use used and recycled computers, which keeps costs down. Some of the computers were donated to us, while others we purchased with money we got through our own fund raising efforts.

Third, the students do all of the installation work on the computers. This provides them with an authentic learning experience and a community service opportunity they are not likely to find anywhere else.

As a result, this program does not cost the school anything. Why do we use Linux? A better question would be, “Why don’t other schools use Linux?”

If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to email me.

Stu Keroff is Community School of Excellence Technology Coordinator and Asian Penguins Faculty Advisor. Visit: www.asianpenguins.org and https://www.youtube.com/user/CSEAsianPenguins Write to: stuartk@csemn.org

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(Not So) Rough Drafts

Finding a technology tool to remedy a writing iteration problem.

GUEST COLUMN | by Susan Van Doren

CREDIT Turnitin Revision AssistantI like to imagine an ideal world in which I would be able to sit side-by-side with each student in my class at the same time and make thoughtful, helpful comments to move their writing forward. I could compliment them on what works well in their essays and ask guiding questions whenever I see a lack of clarity. But even on those rare occasions when I can workshop a paper one-on-one in the real world, the scenario is never ideal. Distractions, time limits, and even the nuances of personal relationships can get in the way of effective feedback.

I sat next to him and watched as he submitted a single paper over 25 times in order to meet his goal level of proficiency. 

Teachers know that feedback needs to be timely and specific; that saying a student did “a good job” or that a paper “needs work” is useless. And all too often, suggestions for improvement reach student writers too late, when the teachable moment has passed and they have already moved on to something new. But even when I sit at the kitchen table with my own eighth grade son, I question whether the feedback I am giving him is meaningful or within his zone of proximal development. As a veteran middle and high school English teacher for almost 20 years, I know what I need to do to move his writing forward, but I still struggle with the how. Multiply that struggle by another 80 to 100 students, and the problem becomes even more pronounced.

For a few years now, I have been experimenting with technology tools to try to remedy this problem. Google docs can enable collaboration between peers, and some programs can help students proofread, but truly giving feedback during the revision process demands much more than just fixing errors. So when I heard about a pilot test of a new writing technology that provides automated feedback to student writers, I jumped at the chance to try it.

Turnitin’s Revision Assistant gives immediate feedback on student essays at the exact moment they are engaged in the writing process. It provides the same kind of comments that I might make, such as, “This is a great example of descriptive language. Where else could you add more?” The game-changer is that this technology can provide individualized feedback to all my students simultaneously as they draft a paper. Until I learn to I clone myself, I will never be able to do that.

With the click of a button, students get feedback about what they are doing well, and how they can improve. Studies show that the number of revisions increases when students write with it. I can attest that once we started using the this tool, the number of revisions my students submitted skyrocketed. My students revised their papers an average of 5-7 times, and I often saw over 10 revisions.

The first time my son used this tool on his homework, I sat next to him and watched as he submitted a single paper over 25 times in order to meet his goal level of proficiency. He took suggestions from the computer that would have led to sullen looks and resistance if I had made them. The second time he used it, it took half as many revisions to meet the same goal. It wasn’t just helping him learn to revise one paper: it was teaching him the habits and strategies of good writing. Within a few weeks, he had set a new, higher goal.

The tool meets the need for timely, specific, and effective feedback while also empowering students to take control of their own learning. My students can move forward with their writing at their own pace, calling for a Signal Check whenever they want feedback. As the teacher, I can engage them in conversations about the comments. A student might get a comment like “Work on balancing your opinion with strong reasons. Evidence and reasoning is what elevates opinion to argument.” Imagine how this statement opens the door to a conversation about crafting an effective argument. Instead of lecturing, I become the “coach” or “guide” who supports the students’ own personal quests to hone their craft.

These conversations about writing had an additional side effect that I never imagined. From them, I am learning what kind of feedback works, and also—embarrassingly—where I have fallen short in the past. One 9th grader I had last year always struggled with writing, usually producing just a few sentences. He had his first breakthrough with the tool: “Look at this, Mrs. Van Doren!” he exclaimed, “The computer is actually telling me things I do well.” I cringed: Had I really forgotten to do that? With the help of the technology and my renewed efforts to encourage him with positive feedback, that student has grown into a solid writer this year.

Technology can’t replace good teaching, but it can help me reach more students than I could have dreamed of previously, and it can empower students to take ownership of their learning. Once students see the results they get from true revision, they don’t go back to submitting rough drafts.

Susan Van Doren graduated from Colby College and earned her MFA in Poetry at the University of Virginia. She currently teaches English 9-10, AP Language, and AP Computer Science at George Whittell High School in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. She is also the computer club advisor, a district STEM leader, and a SpringBoard national trainer and writer. In 2012, the Nevada Association of School Boards named her “Innovative Educator of the Year.”

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Getting Past the Hype of 3D Printers

A closer look at managing an emerging technology in education.

GUEST COLUMN | by David Miklas

CREDIT be3DWhile it is easy to demonstrate 3D printing’s power in manufacturing or healthcare through faster time to market or lower costs, calculating the benefit in education is more difficult. Instructors have brought 3D printers into the classroom and incorporated them into their curriculum, often creating graded projects where a student’s hypothesis is proven with the aid of a 3D object.

When asked how 3D has helped in their instruction, they often cite student motivation and engagement with the project as a positive result. A student who is motivated tends to excel and any tool that can help with motivation is welcomed, right? Or is it just a lot of hype that will pass?

A student who is motivated tends to excel and any tool that can help with motivation is welcomed, right?

Let’s take a short walk through the past to see if history has some pointers from which we can learn.

The first laser printer came about in 1969 and started to make its way into offices and academic institutions in the ’70s. In education, the ability to print documents was transformative, enabling instructors to share information with students easily, usually getting boxes of documents from the head office. In the ’80s and ’90s, students were using the printers for their school assignments and access to printers became as natural as access to books. Today, each school district has a fleet of 2D paper printers, the use of which is managed carefully by IT and finance. Students simply send a document to print, go to the nearest printer, and pick it up. School districts and universities may even have a pay-for-print system so that costs can be recovered by the school.

It isn’t hard to imagine that if 3D printers are adopted in education as paper printers were and still are today, that fleets of 3D printers will be in demand. And with that comes some unique challenges that paper printers did not face.

For example, a paper project prints in a few minutes. If someone accidentally takes a page or an entire print job, it is not too difficult (albeit annoying) to just reprint it. Not the case with 3D printing. Until there are significant changes in 3D technology, even a simple 3D print can take hours. And, if someone ‘takes your print before you can get to it’, reprinting is more than just annoying, it is painful—not to mention costly. On top of this, waiting for the 3D printer to be available can be frustrating.

Let’s look at the pay-for-print system. It is fairly easy to calculate the cost of a paper print job. The school knows the cost per page, and price lists can be created. Students know exactly how much it will cost to print their report in black/white or color. How does the school present and recover costs on 3D projects?

Many schools and universities have tested 3D printers and want to make them available to instructors and students. Like their paper printer cousins, they also want to print an object on any available 3D printer. But today’s 3D printers are not networked and once a print job has started, anyone can stop it and the school has little way to manage its use and its materials.

Today’s 3D printer purchase decision rests highly on the quality and cost even though many of the printers on the market are meant for hobbyist use. (Eventually these two factors will decline in importance as the number of models on the market shrink due to right-sizing of the 3D printing industry through mergers and acquisitions.) There are other important considerations when bringing a 3D printer into the school environment.

Whether K-12 or university, instructors should also consider the safety of these devices and the integrity of the 3D print. Many do-it-yourself and big brand 3D printers have exposed mechanisms which inquisitive students will want to touch, exposing the school to liability for injury. Open-air printers also mean that the fumes from the printing materials are exposed, many of which are toxic; US researchers suggest well ventilated rooms or enclosed printers with a vent. For these reasons, a fully enclosed printer is a better option for education.

Ease of use is an important consideration. Students (and instructors) should not be hampered with learning a complex system that takes away from the classroom subject learning.

If you or your school is investigating 3D printers, you may have tested a few systems and are ready to purchase on a larger scale. In this case, you want to consider how these printers will be available to students and how the costs can be recovered. Does a 4-hour print job cost the same as a 10-hour print job?

Once the hype of 3D printing moves from the classroom to the campus, these are the kinds of issues that school administrators, IT and purchasing should be considering.

All the issues mentioned above are solved on paper printers – it’s called print management and the software is embedded in the world’s most popular brands of printers that print, copy and scan. The same system that manages paper printers in education can be leveraged to manage use, costs and workflows for 3D printers.

David Miklas is the General Manager of 3D printers in Y Soft. Y Soft is a leading provider of enterprise office solutions and 3D printers including YSoft be3D eDee, a 3D printer for Education that includes print management, workflow and an accounting system.

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Cool Tool | Dogs Discover

CREDIT Dogs DiscoverScience and social studies publisher Kids Discover today launched Dogs Discover, an interactive, digital library of literacy material for man’s best friend. The new unit, which will be available at no charge, includes seven topics tailored to canine readers, including Working Dogs, How Dogs Communicate, and Physical Characteristics of a Dog. With the national canine literacy rate at an abysmal 0%, the Dogs Discover team is committed to getting dogs excited about reading and learning. The beautifully crafted dogfiction will help canine readers understand signs such as ‘Please Keep Off the Grass’ and food labels such as ‘Chocolate’ or ‘For Cats Only.’ To celebrate today’s launch, Kids Discover will donate a full set of its 140 print titles and a percentage of its April 1 sales to the Shelter Buddies Reading Program, which was designed to help shelter dogs become more adoptable and to nurture empathy in children by having them sit outside of dogs’ kennels and read to them. To inspire a worldwide conversation about canine literacy, the company has launched #DogsDiscover to encourage people around the world to share photos and success stories of their dogs learning to read. Readers can participate on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For a limited time, the mobile version of Dogs Discover comes with a screen protector to prevent tablets and smartphones from getting scratched by eager canine learners. For more information, please visit DogsDiscover.com.

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Training Tomorrow’s Leaders

It’s not that they’re not interested in STEM jobs, it’s that they’re not educated in them.

GUEST COLUMN | by Holly Benson

CREDIT InfosysThe Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that, from 2014 to 2024, computer and information technology jobs will grow 12 percent; faster than the average for all other occupations. By 2020, the agency predicts that of the projected 9.2 million jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM fields), roughly half will be dedicated to computing.

Yet, out of roughly 14,000 school districts, only a quarter of schools today offer computer science and programming courses. About three-quarters of all public schools don’t offer students the education they need to compete in tomorrow’s globalized job market. This is not for a lack of interest in computer sciences on the part of students. It’s for a lack of educational offerings at schools today.

Tomorrow’s workforce will need to learn, relearn and retrain as new technologies and processes are introduced. 

That needs to change. U.S. schools need to offer computer science as a part of their curriculum so today’s students can remain competitive in tomorrow’s workforce. They also need to start training students in “soft skills” where communications, relationship-building and problem-solving abilities help students to build the habits of learning throughout their careers.

While it’s never too late to learn computer sciences, studies show that the earlier a student is exposed to these skills, the greater the probability they will pursue a related college major. In fact, according to a Gallup study commissioned by Google, of the students who had the opportunity to take an advanced-placement computer sciences exam, 46 percent were more likely to be interested in a computer sciences major.

However, according to an Infosys-commissioned survey, 45 percent of young people in the U.S. considered their academic education to be either very or quite old-fashioned. They also felt that their education failed to support their career goals, especially when compared to students and educational systems in emerging economies.

There is some truth to these suspicions. Many developed economies created their education systems to funnel students into economy-driving industries (e.g., farming, manufacturing). This makes it difficult for developed school systems to rapidly adapt to new and evolving fields like computer sciences. Emerging economies don’t share this burden, and by contrast, are often pioneering new education strategies that funnel into the industry driving their economies – namely, technology.

These two approaches nurture two divergent mentalities. Students in emerging economies are typically more aggressive in their education and are more willing to find ways to fill gaps in training. By contrast, students in developed economies expect a steady diet of preparatory training and feel uncomfortable when their education has shortcomings. Both educational models have their advantages and disadvantages, but only one encourages a lifelong desire to learn – a key factor when it comes to preparing students for one of the biggest industrial revolutions in history.

The research also found that in both developed and developing nations, young men feel markedly more prepared in technology knowledge than young women do. This echoes the lament that girls are simply not pursuing STEM education in the same numbers as boys. Many researchers and social activists are looking at the causes of this disparity in STEM education between boys and girls – but any solution to better equipping our youth with technology skills must also address how to attract more young women into the technology classroom in the first place, and give them greater confidence that they can succeed there.

In a more general approach however, educators will need to develop curricula that instill a passion for learning in students. Today, U.S. schools focus on testing and grading, rather than teaching the habits of lifelong learning. This is a problem, because tomorrow’s workforce will need to learn, relearn and retrain as new technologies and processes are introduced. They will also need an intuitive sense of how to apply new assets. What they will need are liquid skills — the ability to flex and adapt skills as needed.

Fortunately, there are many after-school activities that can nurture liquid skills while sparking an interest in computer sciences. Code.org hosts a yearly “Hour of Code” event, where students spend an hour learning to code. It’s a great introduction to the basic elements of computer science. The “maker” movement, where hobbyists of all ages build new digital inventions, is also a great way to encourage students to learn both mechanics and programming. Finally, hackathons offer students access to professionals with real-world experience and knowledge — one of the best educational resources you could ask for.

The best educational resource for computer sciences, however, will always be school itself. After-school clubs and alternative activities can only do so much, and can’t properly replace a dedicated curriculum.

Computer sciences are here to stay. The workers of the future, regardless of industry, will have to leverage computing skills to remain employable. Retail workers, farmers, construction workers and car mechanics — all will need to have an intimate knowledge of how computers work, how programs operate and how the two interact, to remain competitive.

Most youth today recognize that technology evolves faster than educational systems can keep up. This creates an unsettling predicament: students know they need to learn and apply new skills, but have little to no help in acquiring them. It’s time for today’s education system to step up and provide them with the support they need.

Holly Benson is a Partner in the Organizational Transformation practice of Infosys, where she helps clients find realistic solutions to their people and organizational challenges.

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