Saturday, March 29. 2008
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.
Wednesday, March 26. 2008
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.
Tuesday, March 25. 2008
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
Saturday, March 22. 2008
If computer keyboards were musical instruments, I'd type on a xylophone. --a really Big Xylophone.
I realized that shocker a week or so ago when my XO at long last arrived and I had the failed (but inspired) idea that I could write a post about my new XO on my new XO. While I'm sure that the nimble fingers of the child that received the other XO I bought have no trouble pecking up and down the slick green keyboard, my clumsy American fingers have all they can handle to click-away at a moderate speed on the sizable keyboard of a MacBook Pro.
The XO certainly had some distribution problems. I ordered my pair of XOs in late November, 2007. Christmas and New Year's Day rolled by without my XO. All of January disappeared and I still had no XO. I sent several e-mail messages to the people at Laptop Giving and received responses promising that I'd be alerted when my XO was ready to ship but those responses came a week or more after each inquiring e-mail I had sent.
The last e-mail I'd received (about February 20th) was an offer from the Laptop Giving people to refund my money if I had gotten too tired of waiting for my tiny computer. I resisted the urge to cancel the whole thing and, unannounced, a week or so later, I received the XO. And a week after that, I received the promised shipping notification and tracking codes. The FedEx tracking information assured me that I had already received my XO a week earlier. It was all worth the wait.
The XO came with printed instructions about how to install the battery. Beyond that, the XO adventure was left to the user's personal devices. There are, of course, internet instructions about how to use the X0, but it seemed as though I was very far from the internet at that point.
The XO supports both conventional wireless networking through a gateway to the internet and it also supports mesh networking. Mesh networking allows a group of XO machines to connect to each other even when there is no route to the internet. Resources can be shared among the connected computers on the mesh network: ideal for instruction in an isolated classroom environment.
The XO has many creative features designed for primary and secondary instruction but it also sports the flexibility of the Linux Fedora 6 operating system as its backend operating system. From the built-in terminal, I was able to add the telnet utility program and connect to networks that don't support the included secure shell protocol, connect to remote servers and perform administrative tasks, redirect the displays from remote servers to the XO and display alternate desktops like KDE.
The XO that I donated was shipped to a child in Mongolia. I don't think that the child in Mongolia's first exploration of the XO will include remote access and remote display forwarding, but I just don't know. The XO doesn't limit any user to just programs and utilities in a child's computer's toolbox. With its remote access and networking capabilities, you get the keys to the whole factory.
Wednesday, November 28. 2007
Ken wrote about it. And I did it.
I ordered a pair of XO laptop computers from the One Laptop per Child project folks last weekend -- one for me and one for (hopefully) a child in a village somewhere whose name I can neither spell nor pronounce. Not only am I looking forward to playing with my new Green Toy, but I'm eagerly (and anxiously) anticipating where the "third-world" road that this technology is paving is going to lead.
Not all noble efforts are without controversy and the OLPC project is no exception. There have been polemics posted about the hardware and pricing of the units and reviews and announcements of competing products that didn't have broadcast pieces on 60 minutes The Eee PC by Asus appears to be a formidable competitor in the micro laptop market, but it remains to be seen if it can achieve the support and distribution network of Nicholas Negroponte's OLPC Foundation's product.
Beyond the technical abilities of the XO or the Eee PC to bring higher technologies to economically underdeveloped areas, many questions remain. I have to wonder if the new technologies will spawn thoughtful interconnected communities among people in diverse cultures, or if we will bring the joys of spam, gambling, prescription-free pharmaceuticals and escort services to a new population.
More to come after my new toy arrives....
Wednesday, August 29. 2007
In the Great Depression, national unemployment was estimated at about twenty-five percent of the total available workforce. In the 21st century the employment rate of disabled adult Americans is estimated at about twenty-six percent.
But, now, there is a work training program that aims to achieve an employment rate of 100% for that same adult-disabled population.Funded by a grant from the Kessler Foundation, NJIT's Continuing Professional Education began the two year EmployMe! program in May of 2007 by enrolling 15 students in an 18 week employment training program that began with five weeks of employment soft-skills training and continued in two specialized tracks to web-based technologies and computer system administration. Over 120 students are expected to complete the entire program and join the workforce by the Spring of 2009.
In addition to the daily job-skills classroom training, students participate in weekly seminars and discussions hosted by NJIT's Career Development Services and the Business Advisory Council. Using these professional resources, students are exposed to real-world employment opportunities and working environments. Paid internships in businesses and professional organizations are available to graduating students as a way to transition into (or back into) the workplace.
Its a funny thing about people with disabilities --they are just like everyone else. Anyone who is told over and over that their personal limitations are too great to overcome might begin to believe that story. And the candidates who applied to this program in early 2007 had to participate in basic computer assessments, and personal interviews at a university facility --a daunting task for anyone who had been convinced that they didn't belong in a mainstream environment --and many were initially intimidated by those surroundings. But the main criteria for admittance into this program were: the desire to become employable, and the fundamental belief that personal limitations could be overcome. Aided by the most basic of adaptive technologies --adequate mobile space for those in wheelchairs, computer monitor magnifying or screen reading programs for the visually impaired, interpreters for those with absent or reduced verbal communication skills-- the students began their studies.
On September 6th, 2007, the EmployMe! program will graduate its first class. The students who were first enrolled in the program as adults with limiting disabilities will graduate as adults with enhanced abilities. They will have the ability to perform jobs in the many fields of web-based technologies; they will have the ability to perform jobs in Unix system administration they will have the set of skills required to become a functional, effective and valued employee. And, most importantly, they will know that they have the ability to overcome the limitations that other people have set for them in the past and may also set for them in the future.
Monday, August 27. 2007
In December of 2006 NJIT was awarded a grant to develop freely distributable course module curricula to support job-market specific training for the financial sector workforce. The New Jersey Regional Economic Innovation Alliance (NJEIA) and its associated industry partners have identified segments of the financial services industry that would benefit from potential employees who have certain enhanced skill sets when hired.
Developed to close the apparent gap between the skills that high-school, community college, and four year institution students were graduating and the needs of employers in the growing financial services workplace, the program, IPI Financial, is a collaboration among educators and IT professionals to develop and package effective training courseware archives.
At an IPI meeting last week, two NJIT professors from the School of Management, Asokan Anandarajan and Katia Passerini, presented their proposed training curriculum for the first of the financial training packages. Included in their presentations was commentary from financial institutions about the types of skills that were needed, but lacking, in potential employees and newly hired personnel.
Financial institutions such as commercial banks, the Federal Reserve, and Goldman Sachs, had no strong interest in requiring educational institutions to provide greater technical skills to potential employees. Those institutions provide their own technical training to master day-to-day job functions once an applicant is hired. The skills that those institutions were most interested in improving or establishing were employee "soft-skills," in the workplace. Focus groups identified the following needed areas of improvement:
1. Communication skills, both oral and written
Does this sound like the need for liberal arts education to anyone?
The IPI Financial group expects to produce these training curriculum archives in a freely available and downloadable form by Spring of 2008. These course archives are expected to complement and supplement the educational resources that already exist in schools and will include lecture and study materials generated by subject matter experts in the specific employment areas that are targeted. Each course archive will be a self-contained learning environment that will require a computer with an unzip utility, a web-browser, a PDF document viewer and a multimedia client program to study the curriculum content.
The format and type-content of the individual course archives for this financial services training model is expected to be applied to other targeted industries where similar learning skills enhancements are needed for the future workforce.
Original content in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons License