Did the next wave crest yet?

I knew that I had read an article a few years ago in The Chronicle that used the term "open everything." Thank goodness for Net search. I found it online and it turned out to be from 2004. It was "The Next Wave: Liberation Technology" written by John Unsworth. He was saying that colleges were being faced with choices for things like CMS and enterprise systems between "monopolies and the open approach."

I reread the piece and it feels a few years old, though many of the choices are still there. It's easy to look at articles that talk about the next wave a few years on and see in retrospect that the wave never did crest. I did some surfing in my youth and you often saw a swell behind you and started to paddle to catch the wave only to find it gently roll under you. No crest; no curl; breaking on the beach like all the others.

What has changed, for me, the most since that article was written is open source thinking moving beyond software. I have been writing the past half year about open everything here on the blog, and it continues to be of interest to me. Unsworth addressed that idea briefly at the end of his article:

Open-source methodology has already spread well beyond software development: In the world at large, the Human Genome Project is a famous example. Over the coming decade we're certain to see this new mode of production locked in mortal combat with older methods and the legal and ideological commitments that they entail. It will be interesting to see whether, at this critical juncture, the university comes down on the side of freely shared ideas.

The online resources included with the article in 2004 were given the headline "open everything" and the list has some waves that are still big, but some have already hit the beach.

Too Cool for Words

A few days before his graduation in early March, one of the top students in the Web Technologies track of the EmployMe! program at NJIT showed me his final project page. He came into my office and typed the URL into a browser on my workstation and watched while a completely blank page loaded. Puzzled by the non-page, he told me it worked fine on his machine in the computer lab. We sat down at his computer in the lab; he opened a browser and typed in his URL, and there it was, a slick, completely Flash-animated introduction to his personal web site with embedded links to the static pages he had skillfully created. Now pleased that his web page worked exactly as he had planned, he was still puzzled about why it didn't display at all in my office.

I told him, " I don't use Flash."

His eyes narrowed a bit and I could see his impression of me was quickly morphing from Techno-Wizard to Web-Neanderthal, so I asked him to move to another PC that had JAWS installed, then to a Mac that had VoiceOver running. Both computers were configured to allow visually impaired students to fully use the computer --including the use of a web browser. His Flash page crashed the PC and, though the Mac didn't capsize, it still just repeated the title of his page over and over and never spoke a word of content. Even on a Mac, his page was too cool for spoken words.

All of the student web pages are routinely checked for W3C compliance. The students are learning to be web-designers and it is fundamental that they learn to design standards-compliant pages. But websites now need to be far more than just W3C standards-compliant, they need to be accessibility-compliant, too. And those standards come in two varieties: 508 compliance and WCAG.

You may hear me groan all the way from Newark, NJ to wherever-you-may-be, but you can check the 508 compliance, or the WCAG compliance of Serendipity35, and to share the pain a bit, you can check the accessibility compliance of any URL, here.

There are resources available for developers and designers to learn how to design accessible content, but the adoption of the techniques has been very slow in coming. For obvious reasons, it can be expensive to rewrite old websites that were designed without complying to any standard. Some sites would have to be two completely different sites --one with just text, one with all the bells and whistles-- both to stay compliant and keep the website owner happy. New sites, however, are still slow in building compliance into their structures. It is just too tempting to use all the new tools, programs, and protocols to build that killer cool site and the voices of those who need adaptive technologies to participate in all this techno-beauty may remain just as unheard as that Employme! student's web page was on the Mac.

Open Source Alternatives

A friend sent me a good post that's all about "sweat of the brow" and collects 50 open source alternatives to proprietary programs in categories such as web design, office tools, and graphics.

Not all those alternatives are as fully-featured as the proprietary commercial products, but some programs (Photoshop and Flash, for example) may be more fully-featured than you actually need!

Some of the attraction to open source has always been the free no-pricetag, but those who are really committed to open source are committed to the open and collaborative nature of the software development and growth.

Here are 10 that I have some experience with:

  1. You probably use Adobe Acrobat to create .pdf files and the free download of PDFCreator also creates them from any Windows program.
  2. I don't know if you would be as bold as to abandon Windows XP or Vista OS to move to an open source OS like Ubuntu since installing an operating system is normally pretty difficult for the average user to install, learn, and operate - though advocates say that Ubuntu is easy to use. You can buy a Dell computer with Ubuntu already installed.
  3. The chances are much better that you might try an alternative to Internet Explorer like the Firefox browser. Some readers might say, "But IE is already free." True, but free is not the same as open source software where users have more control over how that software works. Don't even try to rip into the IE code to use add-ons like Firefox encourages.
  4. Microsoft Office to OpenOffice MS Office gets bigger, more expensive and sold in more versions than ever. Google offers Gmail, Google Docs, Google Presentations and more, but it's not true open source. OpenOffice is an OSS project that includes everything you’d find in Microsoft Office except the email client.
  5. MathWorks MATLAB to Scilab MATLAB is a highly used application for numerical computing. It provides a programming language that allows users to work with numbers in any possible way imaginable through visualization. Scilab is the open source alternative to MATLAB, and it provides visualization of numerical data just as MATLAB does. Scilab is partly compatible with MATLAB, and both tools are suited for Windows, Linux, and UNIX.
  6. Adobe Illustrator to Inkscape Illustrator is a great program, but, like Flash & Photoshop, a lot to take on for educators and students. Inkscape is a vector graphics editor similar to Illustrator, CorelDraw, or Xara X and it uses the W3C standard Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) file format.
  7. Adobe PhotoShop to GIMP Next to Flash, PhotoShop was the top program that I used with faculty that just was too much - too much to learn & (when the grant ran out) too much to buy for them. GIMP may provide you with all the power you need for your photography and graphic design needs. GIMP stands for Gnu Image Manipulation Program, and it’s the solution that comes closest to emulating the Photoshop environment.
  8. Adobe Dreamweaver to NVU Dreamweaver is a powerful WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get)HTML editor that I have used for a long time. NVU (pronounced N-view, for “new view”) is a web page program for Linux and Microsoft Windows users that stacks up pretty well against Dreamweaver and very well against FronPage. No great technical expertise or knowledge of HTML required - though it certainly helps.
  9. For Macromedia Flash Professional, they recommend OpenLaszlo Developers use Flash creates multimedia ojects and entire sites on the Web. OpenLaszlo applications developed on one machine will run on all leading Web browsers on all leading desktop OS.These applications, like Flash, provide animation, layout, data binding, server communication and more.
  10. Microsoft Frontpage to Bluefish Inferior to Dreamweaver, Front Page is widely available on campuses through their Microsoft licensing. Bluefish is recommended but there are a number of HTML editors available.

Granted, Technology Makes Better Writers

"Granted, Technology Makes Better Writers" was the title Greg Fallon and I used for the presentation that we did at the NJ Best Practices conference last week. It's a mashup title because we were discussing our Writing Initiative (Title V grant) and focusing, for that particular presentation, on the technology components of our writing initiative.

Of course, what we were glossing over - the idea that technology actually improves writing - is not without controversy.

The presentation slides are on Slideshare (where you can download etc.) but what doesn't come through there is our discussion. Though we are certainly trying to add some online technology (Do we need to say Web 2.0 anymore? Yawn...) to our writing improvement initiative, it's not just to be doing the new thing.

Actually, at least half of our efforts are very much in the traditional sense "course redesign." The main thrust of the initiative is to create 25 Gen Ed (core) courses that are writing-intensive across the curriculum over the next five years. So, our efforts include the redesign by the piloting faculty member, a reference librarian, English department faculty member, writing center coordinator and myself.

The initiative touches on a number of movements in writing that are not new. Writing-intensive courses and writing across the curriculum, for example, are well established at other schools. Building a physical Writing Center at Passaic County Community College is an effort long past due. Our Library 2.0 efforts are in keeping what many libraries are doing now.

The workshop week we'll be doing this June will work with 20 of the faculty and redesign team members that will be involved in the initiative. The sessions will address other areas that are primary in our approach: critical thinking & writing, assessment, learning objects & learning outcomes, standardized rubrics, holistic grading, ePortfolios, eTutoring, Gen Ed standards, using course management systems for writing and incorporating streaming media objects. (There are about 25 topics for this blog in these lists alone!)

One of the presentation slides that we used listed our two broad technology aims: Consortiums & Collaboration, Web 2.0 & Online Applications. I'll talk more about all these in the upcoming months, but the one I'd like to pump right now is consortium & collaboration.

We are involved in several consortiums already (there's more on ePortfolio.org and etutoring.org in the presentation and to come), but we would love to work with other schools that are moving in the same direction or are already there. You can find my contact information in our LibGuide and on the image above - and maybe you'll discover LibGuides at the same time. Hope to meet some of you on the road.

Be Cool With The Code

When someone you know, or some article you are reading, mentions Ajax, do you think they are referring to a doomed Greek from the Iliad? Does the phrase "Stronger than Dirt!" immediately cross your mind? If the context is Web 2.0 programming and not the madness of Achilleus or the stains on your white camisole, you might have some use for Google's Code University.

Drawing from the expanding library of open source licensed lesson materials and full course curricula, Google Code has packaged reference material and tutorials in IT subject areas. While currently limited to a handful of topics, the courseware is available free-of-charge for online study. The current selections range from programming languages, web security, MySQL database structures to distributed system management. Some of the content is built upon Google's internal infrastructure and some, like the entry on Introduction to Problem Solving on Large Scale Clusters contributed by the University of Washington, are full college courses. Google Code University also supports a "Group" area where educators can discuss issues relating to the online learning format and even upload content as a shared resource in the forum.In addition to the ready-made courses, there is a CS Curriculum Search that provides keyword searches to educational resources that are available on the web but outside of Google's Code Universities environment. Google, though, isn't the only player in the open source curriculum field and that field is not limited to computer science topics.

First described in a post last August, NJIT has partnered with industries, community colleges and high schools to produce jobskill-specific courses and training materials that support potential employees in targeted markets. Initially supporting employment opportunities in the financial-sector, the program has expanded to include the pharmaceutical job-market and IT industries. Working with the national Wired project in the NorthEast Region, the course materials have been made available for free download on Curriki and direct links will be published on employment information sites such as New Jersey's State Employment Training Commission employment information website, New Jersey Next Stop.

Distance Learning has come so far from its roots in mail-order education that it seems impossible to have gotten where it is from where it had begun. The Solid State Electronics correspondence course I took in the summer of 1975 from DeVry Technical is a relic of a past millennium. That summer when semi-conductor hole-flow and field-effect transistors carried my every day, and mighty Ajax was still stronger than dirt.

Random Madness

When Chris Steffner, principal of Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, New Jersey, was asked at a March 19th meeting at Manasquan High School if the intiative she supports to implement random drug testing in schools across America included the random drug testing of everyone in the school building, she fell back to the Major League Baseball defense of its actions, or inactions, concerning drug use and testing prior to 2005.

"The NJEA [teachers union] will never agree to it."

Ms. Steffner skillfully makes a case for random student drug testing in public schools, but just as ineptly ignores the social context of failed drug policies. In the presentation at Manasquan High School, Ms. Steffner referred to her 30 plus years of experience in education. She stated that through that entire time there have been drug problems in public and private education in the United States. She went on to say that once one travels down the path of drug abuse there is little chance of self-initiated recovery.

I don't know of any sources that dispute the presence of a drug problem in schools in the US over the past 30 years (and longer), but the notion that anyone touched by the drug-culture and thereby inoculated against self-control in using those drugs is far less established.

Drug treatment facilities based in New York State and in Connecticut claim that the path from drugs is difficult, if not impossible, to follow by oneself.

"You have probably heard this:" I will do it by myself" "I am not addicted". Unfortunately, if detoxification would be an easy step. Drug and alcohol would not be one of the biggest problem in our society. When a person addicted makes an attempt at detoxification and to stop drug use without the help of a professional , the results do not last long. Scientific research into the long term effects drugs and alcohol addiction has proven that changes in the way the brain functions are staying long after the addict has stopped consuming drugs. Realizing that an addicted person who wishes to recover from their drug problem needs more than just strong will power is the key to a successful recovery. Fighting not only cravings for their drug they are using, environment triggers, etc.It is no wonder that quitting drugs without professional help is a really hard battle." --connecticut-drug-rehab.com

If, however, we assume that the arguments about inevitable long term drug abuse for anyone using drugs at any time in their life are true, then the problem of drug use by students in our schools become the systemic problem of drug abuse for anyone in society. There is no exemption for status or position. Any member of a board of education, administration, cafeteria, teaching or custodial staff may have the same types of problems as the students.

The obvious difference between the professional staff of a school and the student body in a K -12 school environment is the age of the two groups. Professional staff are presumed to be adults who are able to make adult choices in life; the students are, often, teenagers who can make puzzling and/or poor choices about almost anything of which a parent can think. If the drug problem is indeed entrenched and systemic, every member of the educational institution must participate in any site-wide initiative. Choosing to randomly test students, alone, leaves a leadership vacuum that excludes the professional staff and may lead to resentment of the entire program. The students may believe that while their alleged drug use is under daily scrutiny, any drug use by school staff is not considered at all. One way to overcome objections by professional staff organizations to organized testing is to make the testing completely voluntary. Participants in the program could be publicly thanked for their commitment and leadership efforts and the results of their random tests would remain as private as any student's test regardless of the result. But even that vision of universal testing falls short of the goal of random drug testing.

While it is true that the student random drug testing programs are very careful about avoiding extensive punitive measures for students who test positive, there are consequences in their family relationships. There are few statistical comparisons between the subjective nature of a strong family relationship and the objective nature of testing and empirical evidence.

According to a White House drug policy study, social leadership, and strong family relationships --not drug testing-- have changed the drug abuse landscape:

"Compared to a generation ago, most of today's teens are thriving. Drug, alcohol, tobacco, and teen pregnancy rates are all down. But recent surveys show that among the Nation's 12-17-year-olds, each day 3,430 try marijuana for the first time; 7,500 try alcohol;3,900 try cigarettes; and one in five teenage girls has at least one birth by age 20. In a typical high school class in America today, the number of students engaging
in risky behaviors is staggering: seven out of 30 kids are using drugs; 13 drink alcohol; six smoke cigarettes; and 10 are sexually active. Indeed, new data also shows that more than four in 10 adolescents have been offered drugs and about one in four have been offered drugs at school." -- whitehousedrugpolicy.gov

Even regional groups have objections to the nature and efficacy of proposed student random drug testing. At a January, 2008 meeting of the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey and the Northern Valley Regional School District, these objections were recorded:

"In addition to presenting to around 100 parents and students in Northern Valley and providing them with materials such as the booklet
Making Sense of Student Drug Testing: Why Educators Are Saying No,
and the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement opposing student drug testing, DPA New Jersey collected student testimonials from Christopher Lauth and Allegra Stout against drug testing and sent these letters to the Superintendent of Northern Valley and the Substance Abuse Task Force members. DPA New Jersey also sought and received support from a New Jersey pediatrician who wrote a letter to the school district urging them to oppose drug testing." - www.lindesmith.com

Ms Steffner's presentation at Manasquan High School further indicated that alcohol was not one of the substances that the random drug tests were designed to detect. These tests make no attempt to record or predict the use and abuse of alcohol in the school and in the workplace and, indeed, such data gathering and manipulation is beyond the scope of the tests. A recent (March 10, 2008) report by ScienceDaily describes parental supervision as the leading factor in preventing High School age drinking from becoming a problem in college. Regarding the effects of random testing, the Journal of the Society for Adolescent Medicine published in November, 2007 the SATURN (Student Athlete Testing Using Random Notification) study which inconclusively concluded:

"The researchers conclude that because some predictors of drug and alcohol use increased and past one-month use did not change with random testing, more research should be done to examine the policy of drug and alcohol testing." -- Medical News Today

An international survey of 420 teenagers found that while 15 percent used drugs, 60 percent used or had used alcohol and 20 percent had a problem with alcohol.

Testing teenagers for drugs --randomly or on a schedule: voluntarily or compulsory-- can't solve the problem of drug and/or alcohol use in schools. While in some instances it may give us firmer statistical numbers on how large the problem may be, few people believe the problem is small. The studies that have been done that show promise of avoiding potentially destructive behaviors all seem to focus on powerful leadership from role models and in the family unit. And is that such a big surprise? Should we be shocked that teenagers left guided by their own adolescent radar get into trouble with drugs or alcohol?

Of course not.

Neither should we ever be so short-sighted and shallow to believe that testing a student to discourage a behavior will have any long term change in that behavior. We will only create a more forbidden fruit to pluck.