Cooperative Learning

This post is about my latest idea for learning about computers. I posted it to my local LUG mailing list and received no responses. But I still think it’s a great idea and that I just need to find the right way to launch it.

I think it would be good to try cooperative learning about Computer Science online. The idea is that everyone would join an IRC channel at a suitable time with virtual machine software configured and try out new FOSS software at the same time and exchange ideas about it via IRC. It would be fairly informal and people could come and go as they wish, the session would probably go for about 4 hours but if people want to go on longer then no-one would stop them.

I’ve got some under-utilised KVM servers that I could use to provide test VMs for network software, my original idea was to use those for members of my local LUG. But that doesn’t scale well. If a larger group people are to be involved they would have to run their own virtual machines, use physical hardware, or use trial accounts from VM companies.

The general idea would be for two broad categories of sessions, ones where an expert provides a training session (assigning tasks to students and providing suggestions when they get stuck) and ones where the coordinator has no particular expertise and everyone just learns together (like “let’s all download a random BSD Unix and see how it compares to Linux”).

As this would be IRC based there would be no impediment for people from other regions being involved apart from the fact that it might start at 1AM their time (IE 6PM in the east coast of Australia is 1AM on the west coast of the US). For most people the best times for such education would be evenings on week nights which greatly limits the geographic spread.

While the aims of this would mostly be things that relate to Linux, I would be happy to coordinate a session on ReactOS as well. I’m thinking of running training sessions on etbemon, DNS, Postfix, BTRFS, ZFS, and SE Linux.

I’m thinking of coordinating learning sessions about DragonflyBSD (particularly HAMMER2), ReactOS, Haiku, and Ceph. If people are interested in DragonflyBSD then we should do that one first as in a week or so I’ll probably have learned what I want to learn and moved on (but not become enough of an expert to run a training session).

One of the benefits of this idea is to help in motivation. If you are on your own playing with something new like a different Unix OS in a VM you will be tempted to take a break and watch YouTube or something when you get stuck. If there are a dozen other people also working on it then you will have help in solving problems and an incentive to keep at it while help is available.

So the issues to be discussed are:

  1. What communication method to use? IRC? What server?
  2. What time/date for the first session?
  3. What topic for the first session? DragonflyBSD?
  4. How do we announce recurring meetings? A mailing list?
  5. What else should we setup to facilitate training? A wiki for notes?

Finally while I list things I’m interested in learning and teaching this isn’t just about me. If this becomes successful then I expect that there will be some topics that don’t interest me and some sessions at times when I am have other things to do (like work). I’m sure people can have fun without me. If anyone has already established something like this then I’d be happy to join that instead of starting my own, my aim is not to run another hobbyist/professional group but to learn things and teach things.

There is a Wikipedia page about Cooperative Learning. While that’s interesting I don’t think it has much relevance on what I’m trying to do. The Wikipedia article has some good information on the benefits of cooperative education and situations where it doesn’t work well. My idea is to have a self-selecting people who choose it because of their own personal goals in terms of fun and learning. So it doesn’t have to work for everyone, just for enough people to have a good group.

Improving Memory

I’ve just attended a lecture about improving memory, mostly about mnemonic techniques. I’m not against learning techniques to improve memory and I think it’s good to teach kids a variety of things many of which won’t be needed when they are younger as you never know which kids will need various skills. But I disagree with the assertion that we are losing valuable skills due to “digital amnesia”.

Nowadays we have programs to check spelling so we can avoid the effort of remembering to spell difficult words like mnemonic, calendar apps on our phones that link to addresses and phone numbers, and the ability to Google the world’s knowledge from the bathroom. So the question is, what do we need to remember?

For remembering phone numbers it seems that all we need is to remember numbers that we might call in the event of a mobile phone being lost or running out of battery charge. That would be a close friend or relative and maybe a taxi company (and 13CABS isn’t difficult to remember).

Remembering addresses (street numbers etc) doesn’t seem very useful in any situation. Remembering the way to get to a place is useful and it seems to me that the way the navigation programs operate works against this. To remember a route you would want to travel the same way on multiple occasions and use a relatively simple route. The way that Google maps tends to give the more confusing routes (IE routes varying by the day and routes which take all shortcuts) works against this.

I think that spending time improving memory skills is useful, but it will either take time away from learning other skills that are more useful to most people nowadays or take time away from leisure activities. If improving memory skills is fun for you then it’s probably better than most hobbies (it’s cheap and provides some minor benefits in life).

When I was in primary school it was considered important to make kids memorise their “times tables”. I’m sure that memorising the multiplication of all numbers less than 13 is useful to some people, but I never felt a need to do it. When I was young I could multiply any pair of 2 digit numbers as quickly as most kids could remember the result. The big difference was that most kids needed a calculator to multiply any number by 13 which is a significant disadvantage.

What We Must Memorise

Nowadays the biggest memory issue is with passwords (the Correct Horse Battery Staple XKCD comic is worth reading [1]). Teaching mnemonic techniques for the purpose of memorising passwords would probably be a good idea – and would probably get more interest from the audience.

One interesting corner-case of passwords is ATM PIN numbers. The Wikipedia page about PIN numbers states that 4-12 digits can be used for PINs [2]. The 4 digit PIN was initially chosen because John Adrian Shepherd-Barron (who is credited with inventing the ATM) was convinced by his wife that 6 digits would be too difficult to memorise. The fact that hardly any banks outside Switzerland use more than 4 digits suggests that Mrs Shepherd-Barron had a point. The fact that this was decided in the 60’s proves that it’s not “digital amnesia”.

We also have to memorise how to use various supposedly user-friendly programs. If you observe an iPhone or Mac being used by someone who hasn’t used one before it becomes obvious that they really aren’t so user friendly and users need to memorise many operations. This is not a criticism of Apple, some tasks are inherently complex and require some complexity of the user interface. The limitations of the basic UI facilities become more obvious when there are operations like palm-swiping the screen for a screen-shot and a double-tap plus drag for a 1 finger zoom on Android.

What else do we need to memorise?

Sysadmin Skills and University Degrees

I think that a major deficiency in Computer Science degrees is the lack of sysadmin training.

Version Control

The first thing that needs to be added is the basics of version control. CVS (which is now regarded as obsolete) was initially released when I was in the first year of university. But SCCS and RCS had been in use for some time. I think that the people who designed my course were remiss in not adding any mention of version control (not even strategies for saving old versions of your work), one could say that they taught us about version control by letting us accidentally delete our assignments. :-#

If a course is aimed at just teaching programmers (as most CS degrees are) then version control for group assignments should be a standard part of the course. Having some marks allocated for the quality of comments in the commit log would also be good.

A modern CS degree should cover distributed version control, that means covering Git as it’s the most popular distributed version control system nowadays.

For people who want to work as sysadmins (as opposed to developers who run their own PCs) a course should have an optional subject for version control of an entire system. That includes tools like etckeeper for version control of system configuration and tools like Puppet for automated configuration and system maintenance.

Dependencies

It’s quite reasonable for a CS degree to provide simplified problems for the students to solve so they can concentrate on one task. But in the real world the problems are more complex. One of the more difficult parts of managing real systems is dependencies. You have issues of header files etc at compile time and library versions at deployment. Often you need a program to run on systems with different versions of the OS which means making it compile for both and deal with differences in behaviour.

There are lots of hacky things that people do to deal with dependencies in systems. People link compiled programs statically, install custom versions of interpreters in user home directories or /usr/local for daemons, and do many other things. These things can have bad consequences including data loss, system downtime, and security problems. It’s not always wrong to do such things, but it’s something that should only be done with knowledge of the potential consequences and a plan for mitigating them. A CS degree should teach the potential advantages and disadvantages of these options to allow graduates to make informed decisions.

Backups

I’ve met many people who call themselves computer professionals and think that backups aren’t needed. I’ve seen production systems that were designed in a way that backups were impossible. The lack of backups is a serious problem for the entire industry.

Some lectures about backups could be part of a version control subject in a general CS degree. For a degree that majors in Sysadmin at least one subject about backups is appropriate.

For any backup (even backing up your home PC) you should have offsite backups to deal with fire damage, multiple backups of different ages (especially important now that encryption malware is a serious threat), and a plan for how fast you can restore things.

The most common use of backups is to deal with the case of deleting the wrong file. Unfortunately this case seems to be the most rarely mentioned.

Another common situation that should be covered is a configuration error that results in a system that won’t boot correctly. It’s a very common problem and one that can be solved quickly if you are prepared but which can take a long time if you aren’t.

For a Sysadmin course it is important to cover backups of systems in remote datacenters.

Hardware

A good CS degree should cover the process of selecting suitable hardware. Programmers often get to advise on the hardware used to run their code, especially at smaller companies. Reliability features such as RAID, ECC RAM, and clustering should be covered.

Planning for upgrades is a very important part of this which is usually not taught. Not only do you need to plan for an upgrade without much downtime or cost but you also need to plan for what upgrades are possible. Next year will your system require hardware that is more powerful than you can buy next year? If so you need to plan for a cluster now.

For a Sysadmin course some training about selecting cloud providers and remote datacenter hosting should be provided. There are many complex issues that determine whether it’s most appropriate to use a cloud service, hosted virtual machines, hosted physical servers managed by the ISP, hosted physical servers purchased by the client, or on-site servers. Often a large system will involve 2 or more of those options, even some small companies use 3 or more of those options to try and provide the performance and reliability they need at a price they can afford.

We Need Sysadmin Degrees

Covering the basic coding skills takes a lot of time. I don’t think we can reasonably expect a CS degree to cover all that and also give good coverage to sysadmin work. While some basic sysadmin skills are needed by every programmer I think we need to have separate majors for people who want a career in system administration.

Sysadmins need some programming skills, but that’s mostly scripting and basic debugging. Someone who’s main job is as a sysadmin can probably expect to never make any significant change to a program that’s more than 10,000 lines long. A large amount of the programming in a CS degree can be replaced by “file a bug report” for a sysadmin degree.

This doesn’t mean that sysadmins shouldn’t be doing software development or that they aren’t good at it. One noteworthy fact is that it appears that the most common job among developers of the Debian distribution of Linux is System Administration. Developing an OS involves some of the most intensive and demanding programming. But I think that more than a few people who do such work would have skipped a couple of programming subjects in favour of sysadmin subjects if they were given a choice.

Suggestions

Did I miss anything? What other sysadmin skills should be taught in a CS degree?

Do any universities teach these things now? If so please name them in the comments, it is good to help people find universities that teach them what they want to learn and help them in their career.

One Android Phone Per Child

I was asked for advice on whether children should have access to smart phones, it’s an issue that many people are discussing and seems worthy of a blog post.

Claimed Problems with Smart Phones

The first thing that I think people should read is this XKCD post with quotes about the demise of letter writing from 99+ years ago [1]. Given the lack of evidence cited by people who oppose phone use I think we should consider to what extent the current concerns about smart phone use are just reactions to changes in society. I’ve done some web searching for reasons that people give for opposing smart phone use by kids and addressed the issues below.

Some people claim that children shouldn’t get a phone when they are so young that it will just be a toy. That’s interesting given the dramatic increase in the amount of money spent on toys for children in recent times. It’s particularly interesting when parents buy game consoles for their children but refuse mobile phone “toys” (I know someone who did this). I think this is more of a social issue regarding what is a suitable toy than any real objection to phones used as toys. Obviously the educational potential of a mobile phone is much greater than that of a game console.

It’s often claimed that kids should spend their time reading books instead of using phones. When visiting libraries I’ve observed kids using phones to store lists of books that they want to read, this seems to discredit that theory. Also some libraries have Android and iOS apps for searching their catalogs. There are a variety of apps for reading eBooks, some of which have access to many free books but I don’t expect many people to read novels on a phone.

Cyber-bullying is the subject of a lot of anxiety in the media. At least with cyber-bullying there’s an electronic trail, anyone who suspects that their child is being cyber-bullied can check that while old-fashioned bullying is more difficult to track down. Also while cyber-bullying can happen faster on smart phones the victim can also be harassed on a PC. I don’t think that waiting to use a PC and learn what nasty thing people are saying about you is going to be much better than getting an instant notification on a smart phone. It seems to me that the main disadvantage of smart phones in regard to cyber-bullying is that it’s easier for a child to participate in bullying if they have such a device. As most parents don’t seem concerned that their child might be a bully (unfortunately many parents think it’s a good thing) this doesn’t seem like a logical objection.

Fear of missing out (FOMO) is claimed to be a problem, apparently if a child has a phone then they will want to take it to bed with them and that would be a bad thing. But parents could have a policy about when phones may be used and insist that a phone not be taken into the bedroom. If it’s impossible for a child to own a phone without taking it to bed then the parents are probably dealing with other problems. I’m not convinced that a phone in bed is necessarily a bad thing anyway, a phone can be used as an alarm clock and instant-message notifications can be turned off at night. When I was young I used to wait until my parents were asleep before getting out of bed to use my PC, so if smart-phones were available when I was young it wouldn’t have changed my night-time computer use.

Some people complain that kids might use phones to play games too much or talk to their friends too much. What do people expect kids to do? In recent times the fear of abduction has led to children doing playing outside a lot less, it used to be that 6yos would play with other kids in their street and 9yos would be allowed to walk to the local park. Now people aren’t allowing 14yo kids walk to the nearest park alone. Playing games and socialising with other kids has to be done over the Internet because kids aren’t often allowed out of the house. Play and socialising are important learning experiences that have to happen online if they can’t happen offline.

Apps can be expensive. But it’s optional to sign up for a credit card with the Google Play store and the range of free apps is really good. Also the default configuration of the app store is to require a password entry before every purchase. Finally it is possible to give kids pre-paid credit cards and let them pay for their own stuff, such pre-paid cards are sold at Australian post offices and I’m sure that most first-world countries have similar facilities.

Electronic communication is claimed to be somehow different and lesser than old-fashioned communication. I presume that people made the same claims about the telephone when it first became popular. The only real difference between email and posted letters is that email tends to be shorter because the reply time is smaller, you can reply to any questions in the same day not wait a week for a response so it makes sense to expect questions rather than covering all possibilities in the first email. If it’s a good thing to have longer forms of communication then a smart phone with a big screen would be a better option than a “feature phone”, and if face to face communication is preferred then a smart phone with video-call access would be the way to go (better even than old fashioned telephony).

Real Problems with Smart Phones

The majority opinion among everyone who matters (parents, teachers, and police) seems to be that crime at school isn’t important. Many crimes that would result in jail sentences if committed by adults receive either no punishment or something trivial (such as lunchtime detention) if committed by school kids. Introducing items that are both intrinsically valuable and which have personal value due to the data storage into a typical school environment is probably going to increase the amount of crime. The best options to deal with this problem are to prevent kids from taking phones to school or to home-school kids. Fixing the crime problem at typical schools isn’t a viable option.

Bills can potentially be unexpectedly large due to kids’ inability to restrain their usage and telcos deliberately making their plans tricky to profit from excess usage fees. The solution is to only use pre-paid plans, fortunately many companies offer good deals for pre-paid use. In Australia Aldi sells pre-paid credit in $15 increments that lasts a year [2]. So it’s possible to pay $15 per year for a child’s phone use, have them use Wifi for data access and pay from their own money if they make excessive calls. For older kids who need data access when they aren’t at home or near their parents there are other pre-paid phone companies that offer good deals, I’ve previously compared prices of telcos in Australia, some of those telcos should do [3].

It’s expensive to buy phones. The solution to this is to not buy new phones for kids, give them an old phone that was used by an older relative or buy an old phone on ebay. Also let kids petition wealthy relatives for a phone as a birthday present. If grandparents want to buy the latest smart-phone for a 7yo then there’s no reason to stop them IMHO (this isn’t a hypothetical situation).

Kids can be irresponsible and lose or break their phone. But the way kids learn to act responsibly is by practice. If they break a good phone and get a lesser phone as a replacement or have to keep using a broken phone then it’s a learning experience. A friend’s son head-butted his phone and cracked the screen – he used it for 6 months after that, I think he learned from that experience. I think that kids should learn to be responsible with a phone several years before they are allowed to get a “learner’s permit” to drive a car on public roads, which means that they should have their own phone when they are 12.

I’ve seen an article about a school finding that tablets didn’t work as well as laptops which was touted as news. Laptops or desktop PCs obviously work best for typing. Tablets are for situations where a laptop isn’t convenient and when the usage involves mostly reading/watching, I’ve seen school kids using tablets on excursions which seems like a good use of them. Phones are even less suited to writing than tablets. This isn’t a problem for phone use, you just need to use the right device for each task.

Phones vs Tablets

Some people think that a tablet is somehow different from a phone. I’ve just read an article by a parent who proudly described their policy of buying “feature phones” for their children and tablets for them to do homework etc. Really a phone is just a smaller tablet, once you have decided to buy a tablet the choice to buy a smart phone is just about whether you want a smaller version of what you have already got.

The iPad doesn’t appear to be able to make phone calls (but it supports many different VOIP and video-conferencing apps) so that could technically be described as a difference. AFAIK all Android tablets that support 3G networking also support making and receiving phone calls if you have a SIM installed. It is awkward to use a tablet to make phone calls but most usage of a modern phone is as an ultra portable computer not as a telephone.

The phone vs tablet issue doesn’t seem to be about the capabilities of the device. It’s about how portable the device should be and the image of the device. I think that if a tablet is good then a more portable computing device can only be better (at least when you need greater portability).

Recently I’ve been carrying a 10″ tablet around a lot for work, sometimes a tablet will do for emergency work when a phone is too small and a laptop is too heavy. Even though tablets are thin and light it’s still inconvenient to carry, the issue of size and weight is a greater problem for kids. 7″ tablets are a lot smaller and lighter, but that’s getting close to a 5″ phone.

Benefits of Smart Phones

Using a smart phone is good for teaching children dexterity. It can also be used for teaching art in situations where more traditional art forms such as finger painting aren’t possible (I have met a professional artist who has used a Samsung Galaxy Note phone for creating art work).

There is a huge range of educational apps for smart phones.

The Wikireader (that I reviewed 4 years ago) [4] has obvious educational benefits. But a phone with Internet access (either 3G or Wifi) gives Wikipedia access including all pictures and is a better fit for most pockets.

There are lots of educational web sites and random web sites that can be used for education (Googling the answer to random questions).

When it comes to preparing kids for “the real world” or “the work environment” people often claim that kids need to use Microsoft software because most companies do (regardless of the fact that most companies will be using radically different versions of MS software by the time current school kids graduate from university). In my typical work environment I’m expected to be able to find the answer to all sorts of random work-related questions at any time and I think that many careers have similar expectations. Being able to quickly look things up on a phone is a real work skill, and a skill that’s going to last a lot longer than knowing today’s version of MS-Office.

There are a variety of apps for tracking phones. There are non-creepy ways of using such apps for monitoring kids. Also with two-way monitoring kids will know when their parents are about to collect them from an event and can stay inside until their parents are in the area. This combined with the phone/SMS functionality that is available on feature-phones provides some benefits for child safety.

iOS vs Android

Rumour has it that iOS is better than Android for kids diagnosed with Low Functioning Autism. There are apparently apps that help non-verbal kids communicate with icons and for arranging schedules for kids who have difficulty with changes to plans. I don’t know anyone who has a LFA child so I haven’t had any reason to investigate such things. Anyone can visit an Apple store and a Samsung Experience store as they have phones and tablets you can use to test out the apps (at least the ones with free versions). As an aside the money the Australian government provides to assist Autistic children can be used to purchase a phone or tablet if a registered therapist signs a document declaring that it has a therapeutic benefit.

I think that Android devices are generally better for educational purposes than iOS devices because Android is a less restrictive platform. On an Android device you can install apps downloaded from a web site or from a 3rd party app download service. Even if you stick to the Google Play store there’s a wider range of apps to choose from because Google is apparently less restrictive.

Android devices usually allow installation of a replacement OS. The Nexus devices are always unlocked and have a wide range of alternate OS images and the other commonly used devices can usually have an alternate OS installed. This allows kids who have the interest and technical skill to extensively customise their device and learn all about it’s operation. iOS devices are designed to be sealed against the user. Admittedly there probably aren’t many kids with the skill and desire to replace the OS on their phone, but I think it’s good to have option.

Android phones have a range of sizes and features while Apple only makes a few devices at any time and there’s usually only a couple of different phones on sale. iPhones are also a lot smaller than most Android phones, according to my previous estimates of hand size the iPhone 5 would be a good tablet for a 3yo or good for side-grasp phone use for a 10yo [5]. The main benefits of a phone are for things other than making phone calls so generally the biggest phone that will fit in a pocket is the best choice. The tiny iPhones don’t seem very suitable.

Also buying one of each is a viable option.

Conclusion

I think that mobile phone ownership is good for almost all kids even from a very young age (there are many reports of kids learning to use phones and tablets before they learn to read). There are no real down-sides that I can find.

I think that Android devices are generally a better option than iOS devices. But in the case of special needs kids there may be advantages to iOS.

A Better University

I previously wrote about the financial value of a university degree [1], my general conclusion is that the value is decreasing for most fields of employment that don’t have a legal requirement for a degree. In the past I wrote about some ideas for a home university [2], basically extending the home-schooling concept to a university level.

I recently read John Scalzi’s post about being poor [3], many of the comments address the difficulty of getting to college and how it impacts career possibilities. From reading that it seems that my ideas about a “home university” are mostly based around what middle-class people can afford. Also getting a job afterwards will probably be a lot easier for someone who was born into the middle classes.

It seems to me that a large part of the problem with the university system is the expectation that they will both provide for academic research and train people for jobs. Dr. David Helfand has some great ideas for running a university to give the higher education that a university is supposed to provide rather than the work training that most universities actually provide [4]. His ideas aren’t theoretical, they have been implemented and proven to work. Note that Dr Helfand’s talk starts slowly, the second half is the best (for those of you with short attention spans). The fact that most people think of a university degree in terms of getting a job seems to be a failure of the university system to fulfill it’s original aim.

If Dr Helfand’s ideas take off then it would really address the problem of universities not educating people. But that still leaves the issue of job training.

Is a Degree Mandatory?

I think that to some degree people expect that a university degree is necessary job training even when it isn’t. I wonder what would happen if it was generally agreed that the right thing to do was to search for a job between the end of high school and the start of university, then anyone who got a suitable offer could defer their university course and see what career success they could achieve without it. When I was at school the general idea was that after completing year 12 everyone just had a holiday until the start of university as the entire point of school was to get into university. While hiring managers prefer candidates who have degrees they also prefer to hire people who will accept a lower salary, so hiring an 18yo with no degree may give better value than a 21yo who has a degree.

I believe that making university degrees more accessible has reduced inequality which is a good thing. But making degrees mandatory (which is widely believed by high school students and thus is the situation that they have to deal with) contributes to greater inequality. While university doesn’t cost much by middle-class standards it is still expensive for poor people.

If a university degree wasn’t considered to be mandatory then the number of people employed to teach at a university level would be smaller. This would hopefully mean that the average skill of university lecturers would increase (I hope that the least skillful lecturers would be the ones to find work elsewhere).

The Financial Value of a University Degree

I’ve read quite a few articles about the value of a degree. Most of them come from the US where the combination of increasing tuition fees and uncertain job market makes a degree seem like a risky investment. I think that most analysis of the value of a degree are missing some important points.

The Value of Money at Different Times

The value of money is different at various stages of your life. The impression that I get is that when a married couple have their house fully paid off and they either don’t/won’t have children or their children are old enough to leave home the amount of money that they earn seems to matter a lot less. Doing a university degree involves 3 or 4 years not earning money (or more if doing post-graduate studies), which is usually starting at the age of 18. Effectively getting a degree involves giving up some money while young for the opportunity to earn more when older. Any analysis based on directly comparing the money spent on the degree to the amount of financial return without considering when money is needed is not very useful.

I think that a reasonable analysis would exclude income earned after the age of about 45. By that age most people have either achieved a solid financial position and learned to live within their means or messed up their finances so badly that they won’t live long enough to recover.

A Degree as a Signal

The Wikipedia page on economic signalling gives education as an example of a signal. A signal in this case means something that doesn’t inherently mean anything but which signifies something else. So completing a degree doesn’t necessarily mean that you learned anything relevant to work, but if you are able to do it then it means that you can probably also do things which are economically useful for an employer. This raises the question of how else one might signal their ability to work. One obvious answer is by working, someone who has remained steadily employed for 3 or 4 years has demonstrated their ability to work reliably and get along with other people which should be at least as useful as a signal.

It’s Not Only the Degree

Most analysis seem to compare average income of people with degrees with the average of income with people who didn’t attend university. That is based on the assumption that the degree was the only difference.

When I was young my parents spent a moderate amount of money on a full set of paper encyclopedias (about 2 meters of shelf space). I’m sure that this gave me some educational benefit as they intended, and it was something that was apparently quite rare – I don’t recall seeing a full encyclopedia in anyone else’s house before the Wikireader [1].

My parents also bought me quite a lot of computer gear (back when hardware was really expensive), were always available to drive me to computer users’ group meetings etc, and did everything else that seemed likely to have an educational benefit. The value of such learning opportunities is significant.

I think that almost everyone who had similar learning opportunities to me when they were young will probably have experienced similar support and pressure to attend university. I also think that almost everyone who receives such opportunities will be able to earn more than the median income even if they don’t attend university.

To a large extent people who are going to be successful attend university. A university degree doesn’t make anyone successful if they couldn’t succeed without a degree. There are some careers that just aren’t options if you don’t have a relevant degree (such as medicine and law). But I believe that anyone who is capable of completing a difficult course such as medicine or law (or any other career that has legal requirements for a degree) is capable of being successful without a degree in many other fields. So comparing the wages of a doctor or a lawyer to an average person doesn’t make sense, it makes more sense to try and compare their wages to someone of similar skill who didn’t have such a qualification.

Conclusion

It seems to me that the question is, of the people who had great learning opportunities when they were young and who wanted to succeed, would they have earned much less if they hadn’t attended university?

The next question is, of the people who might earn significantly less without getting a degree, would that salary difference really have mattered, or would it just be a matter of earning some luxury money when they are too old to really need it?

Effective Computers for Schools

Sam Varghese has written an article that is very skeptical of the educational value of the OLPC project [1].

Are Laptops Any Good for Schools?

Sam cites an article in the New York Times by Winnie Hu about schools removing laptop programs due to a lack of success [2]. Winnie’s article gives an example of a school shutting a program because of getting new teachers who lacked computer skills and some examples of schools which had issues with the repair cost. The solution to that would be computers that are more robust and easier to use – by all accounts the OLPC systems are solidly constructed and easy to use!

It is claimed that using laptops doesn’t increase test scores. Using only test scores to compare educational methods is a way to lose, probably any school which does nothing other than try to increase test scores is worth avoiding. One example from Winnie’s article is a report by Mr. Warschauer of “students at a middle school in Yarmouth, Me., who used their laptops to create a Spanish book for poor children in Guatemala and debate Supreme Court cases found online“. What value can you place on having students develop books for poor children in other countries and debate Supreme Court cases? If this sort of program became popular then it would lead to the countries which do it becoming better places to live in future decades!

Mr. Warschauer also claims that “If the goal is to get kids up to basic standard levels, then maybe laptops are not the tool. But if the goal is to create the George Lucas and Steve Jobs of the future, then laptops are extremely useful“. I would go further than that, I think that providing the educational environment that involves international charity work and analysis of important court cases would lead to students having the skills to become good engineers, designers, and artists who work for people like George Lucas and Steve Jobs. No matter what you might do the vast majority of children will not grow up to be like George Lucas and Steve Jobs, there is a very limited number of positions for such people. But those people employ a huge number of creative people who do interesting and enjoyable work for good pay.

I don’t think that Winnie’s article supports criticism of the OLPC project. I don’t think that Winnie’s article even contains sufficient evidence to match the headline.

Playing Games

Sam also cites an article about the misuse of school computers for playing games [3]. Of course there are ways of limiting access to games based on time etc. For a Linux system you could have a root cron job that runs chmod on /usr/games at various times, and preventing users from easily running programs that they install isn’t difficult.

Not that games are all bad, the flash-based games on www.physicsgames.net do teach kids some things about physics – although I admit that much of that could be learned by playing with balls, skate-boards, etc.

The Problem with the OLPC Project

I think that the policy change to make OLPC systems only available to disadvantaged children was a mistake. The “give one get one” program was a great idea, maybe not the most effective way of getting funding but good for getting developers. While the new Sugar on a Stick project to put the OLPC GUI on a bootable USB device [4] it doesn’t compare well to having dedicated hardware IMHO.

Minimal Use of Computers

I have previously written about the weight of school bags and how laptops can alleviate the risk of health problems related to carrying heavy text books [5]. Since that time ebook readers and tablets have become incredibly cheap. Ebook readers are really light and the recent tablets are also very light (particularly the smaller ones). It seems to me that every school should at least be moving towards every student having an ebook reader and to use ebooks for all books that are part of the curriculum.

At the moment there are a bunch of tablets on sale for about $150, that includes tablets that can access the Internet via Wifi or via 3G – and a cheap 3G plan costs less than $150 per annum. If tablets were used for some of the computer tasks related to schools then a lot of the difficulty of repairing hardware would be removed. Tablets don’t offer as many options for messing up the software configuration and if the hardware breaks it’s easy to transfer the data onto a new tablet from the cloud – with a maximum cost of $150 to replace the hardware.

Also a cloud-based computing model could permit students to access all the same data from school and home while using desktop computers at both locations.

Current Success

Natalie Craig wrote an interesting article for The Age about “The Lab” – a drop-in computer center for kids on the Autism Spectrum run by Dale Linegar and Stefan Schutt [6]. The fact that kids who have communication difficulties can find it easier to communicate electronically should be fairly obvious to everyone in the free software community, but the creation of an organisation to support such kids is noteworthy – I think that such centers should be funded by the government and run in every city.

Salman Khan gave an interesting TED talk about his project the Khan Academy [7] which is an online video-based teaching system that evolved from some Youtube videos he produced to tutor his cousins. Salman pointed out that his cousins said that they would rather watch his videos than have him teach them in person, it seems that they liked being able to pause and rewind the talk as well as avoiding the pressure of human interaction. The Khan Academy has videos in Adobe flash format, but conveniently they have download links so those of us who don’t have the Flash plugin can still view the content [8].

One of the interesting things about the Khan Academy is that in school use the videos are being assigned to kids as homework and the class time is used for teaching children to do worked examples – what has traditionally been homework.

So it seems that there are real examples of special-needs kids and average kids benefiting from different types of electronic learning.

Conclusion

I think that almost everything about the education system is broken. I also think that in many ways the education system has reached a local maximum, so there is no small way of improving things, and adding computers without making any of the significant changes needed to fix the big problems probably can’t do a lot of good. In spite of this computers can provide some real benefits and I expect that those benefits can be better than the benefits of other potential ways of spending the money (IE it’s worth the opportunity cost). I also have no doubt that almost anything can give a negative result if done badly enough, so I don’t interpret examples of computer use failing in a school as anything other than evidence of a failing school.

While the Khan Academy has some results that seem very positive I think that’s only the first step of what needs to be done. It also seems to be based around users who have good Internet access which often isn’t the case in places where the OLPC is being deployed. This implies that we need to get systems like the Khan Academy designed to operate in a disconnected manner, maybe with a remote server that’s not connected to the Internet. This should be possible if funding is available.

Sam suggested that there needs to be a scientific study of the effectiveness of the OLPC. I think that every project which involves significant amounts of public funding should be researched to ensure that it’s an effective use of resources. 400,000 laptops is going to cost something more than $40,000,000 so it seems reasonable to devote a few person-years of research to determine how effective they are and which of the possible ways of using an OLPC will give the best results.

I am confident that a good study of the effectiveness of the OLPC would demonstrate that it provides real educational benefits when correctly incorporated into an educational program. I also expect that such a study would show some significant differences in the effectiveness of various ways of using them. But we shouldn’t be relying on confidence, we need some test results.

Open Source Learning

Richard Baraniuk gave an interesting TED talk about Open Source Learning [1]. His project named Connexions which is dedicated to the purpose of creating Creative Commons free textbooks is a leader in this space [2].

He spoke about Catherine Schmidt-Jones who wrote 197 modules and 12 courses on music [3], that’s a very significant amount of work!

He also mentioned the translation of the work into other languages. I wonder how well the changes get merged back across the language divide. We have ongoing disputes in the free software community about whether various organisations do enough work to send patches back upstream, this seems likely to be more of a problem in situations where most of the upstream authors can’t even understand the language in which the changes are written and when the changes involve something a lot more subtle than an change to an algorithm. This would be particularly difficult for Chinese and Japanese as those languages seem to lack quality automatic translation.

He mentioned Teachers Without Borders [4] in passing. Obviously an organisation that wants to bring education to some of the poorer parts of the world can’t have a curriculum that involves $250 of text books per year for a high school student (which was about what my parents paid when I was in year 12) or $500 of text books per year for a university student (which might be a low estimate for some courses as a single text can cost more than $120). Free content and on-demand printing (or viewing PDF files on a OLPC system) can dramatically lower the cost of education.

It’s widely believed that free content without the ability to remix is cultural imperialism. This is apparently one of the reasons that the connexions project is based on the Creative Commons Attribution license [5]. So anyone anywhere can translate it, make a derivative work, or collate parts of it with other work. I expect that another factor is the great lack of success of all the various schemes that involve people contributing content for a share of the profits, the profits just don’t match the amount of work involved. Philanthropy and reputation seem to be the only suitable motivating factors for contributing to such projects.

One of the stated benefits of the project is to have computer based content with live examples of equations. Sometimes it is possible to just look at an equation and know what it means, but often more explanation is required. The ability to click on an equation, plug in different values and have them automatically calculated and possibly graphed if appropriate can make things a lot easier. Even if the result is merely what would be provided by reading a text book and spending a few minutes with a scientific calculator the result should be a lot better in terms of learning as the time required to operate a calculator can break the student’s concentration. Even better it’s possible to have dynamic explanations tailored to the user’s demand. To try this out I searched on Ohm’s Law (something that seems to be unknown by many people on the Internet who claim to understand electricity). I was directed to an off-site page which used Flash to display a tutorial on Ohm’s Law, the tutorial was quite good but it does seem to depart from the free content mission of the project to direct people off-site to proprietary content which uses a proprietary delivery system. I think that the Connexions project could do without links to sites such as college-cram.com.

One of the most important features of the project is peer review “lenses“. The High Performance Computing Lens [6] has some good content and will be of interest to many people in the free software community – but again it requires Flash.

One final nit is the search engine which is slow and not very useful. A search for “engine” returned lots of hits about “engineering” which isn’t useful if you want to learn about how engines work. But generally this is a great project, it seems to be doing a lot of good and it’s got enough content to encourage other people and organisations to get involved. It would be good to get some text books about free software on there!

A School IP Project

The music industry seems fairly aggressive in taking legal action against children when they break the licence terms of copyright material. I think it would be good to teach children about how the IP industry really works.

It seems to me that you could have a school project that involves an entire year level (maybe 100 students depending on the size of the school) each of whom can produce copyright material (everything they do in art and English classes would be suitable as a start). Then they could register their work (make digital photographs and then store them in a school database that records the entry date) and sue anyone who infringes their work.

Every student would receive licence fees for their work, but if they are sued for infringement they would have to pay all revenue plus damages. Other students could work as lawyers and take a portion of the proceeds of any successful law suit, and finally some students could run recording companies and spend their time hunting for infringing work for the purpose of launching legal action.

In terms of the licence fees paid, this could be done by just allocating a fixed value per item to each student as a way to get the system running without regard to the fact that some students just aren’t able to create good art. It could however have a large portion of the value coming from what other students choose to spend, every student gets to “spend” $10 per week on art and they can choose from the database what they want to “buy” copies of. The most popular art could then be printed on every notice-board in the school as an incentive for students to vote with their play-money for something that they don’t mind seeing all the time. It’s obvious that popularity would be a significant factor in the success of some artists, but that’s OK, a casual review of the chart topping music reveals that it’s quite obviously not created by the world’s best musicians so it seems that rewarding popularity rather than skill just adds some realism.

One possibility would be to allow the students to elect representatives to create their own IP laws. It would be interesting to see how the IP laws voted on by representatives of the students (who are all in some way involved with the process of creating, buying, selling, and distributing artistic products) differ from those which we have foisted upon us in the real-world. Also an interesting possibility would be to allow corruption in the election process and observe how the results differ from year levels where corruption is not permitted. I expect that teaching children how political corruption works would be a little controversial, but it’s nothing that they can’t learn from reading news reports about what the “entertainment” industry is really doing. Really being a corrupt politician for a school project shouldn’t be as bad as playing a murderer in a school play!

Naturally this couldn’t be done with real money, but giving higher marks at the end of the year to the students who accumulate the most play money would be quite reasonable. I don’t think that there would be a problem with giving higher marks to a student who succeeded through political corruption – as long as they gave a good written report of how they did so and the implications for society.

Please note that I am not suggesting this for a subject that is used for university entrance, I think it would be a good project for years 8-10 which in Australia have no relevance to university entrance. So the marks would just be letters on a bit of paper that might make parents happy or unhappy and otherwise mean nothing.

I anticipate responses from people who believe that educating children about how the world works is not appropriate for a school. Such people are never going to convince me, but if anyone thinks that they can make a good point to convince some of the readers then I encourage them to write it up in the comments section if it’s short or on their own blog if it’s longer.

School Reunions

I’ve never understood the point of school reunions. The past students association of a secondary school can potentially be of some use when you are looking for your first job, but once your career gets started it seems to be of minimal benefit. But apart from that there is no direct benefit.

I didn’t enjoy school and I feel sorry for anyone who regards high-school as one of the best parts of their life – the rest of their life must be sucking quite badly.

Of the people I knew from school, I am still in contact with the ones I want to know, there are a bunch of others that I feel fairly indifferent about, and many who I would only want to see in an obituary.

For the ones I feel indifferent about, if I was to meet them then I would probably find that I have even less in common with them than I did 19 years ago (for high school) or 25 years ago (for primary school). I could easily attend a Meetup.com meeting that is related to something which interests me and be in a room full of people with whom I have something in common. I have been much easier to find via Google (and previously Alta-Vista or Yahoo) than most people I went to school with, so I presume that everyone who I have not been in contact with has not been interested in finding me for 19 or 25 years.

But I’m not trying to discourage anyone from making contact with me. Anyone who I used to know (from school, university, work, or elsewhere) who reads my blog and thinks that they have significant things in common with me is welcome to send me an email and suggest a meeting. I occasionally receive email from random people who read my blog or my posts to various mailing lists and want to meet me, I sometimes meet such people at LUG meetings etc.