Thinking in Green, the XO

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.
To my surprise, though, the internet was just around the corner. The laptop powered up in about 90 seconds, recognized my local encrypted wireless network, prompted me for the network passphrase, and connected with no further input from me.

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.

A Laptop Left Behind?

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....

Learning Abilities

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.

Job Training Goes Open Source

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
2. Skills relating to conduct (including mode of dress and proper business etiquette)
3. The ability to deal with peers,superiors and subordinates
4. The ability to understand different cultures when dealing with people of different international backgrounds
5. The ability to engage in critical thinking
6. Lateral thinking in problem solving
7. Knowing how to work effectively in a team
8. Overall integrity in the workplace environment

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.

Et tu, Moodle?

I'm not the greatest proponent of Distance Learning coures as they have been developed and implented at many colleges and universities (including NJIT). The idea of expanding a student population without having to budget the expense of building additional classroom space drove administrators and academic departments to shoehorn existing course offerings into a web browser accessible format and register additional "online" students. A result of those efforts was to produce online enrollments that sported (especially for undergraduate studies) drop out rates of about 45%. Oher attempts at improving distance learning courses and content delivery soon produced blended learning (or hybrid) courses that required students to attend classroom sessions that supplemented their online studies. The drop out rates improved and adult-oriented programs like Weekend University began to pick up some academic steam.

The usual notion of distance learning is to have a professor/instructor at some central location teaching students at remote locations, but what if students remainined in a classroom, and the teacher taught from a remote location?

The Spring, that question was asked by Bishop George Ahr High School and Continuing Professional Education provided the answer.

The well-accomplished Latin teacher at Bishop George Ahr High School was leaving for France before the start of the 2008 school year and, while they didn't want to replace that fine instructor, they needed a solution to provide four years of Latin educaton to their pupils. CPE at NJIT, using Moodle as a content delivery platform, provided detailed one-on-one staff training and course content conversion to place the curriculum materials in an effective distance learning format.

Beginning in the Fall of 2008, the Latin students at Bishop George Ahr High School will be able to view multimedia lectures from the classroom, home or any remote location, receive detailed feedback about their performance, participate in real-time chats with their instructor and take their examinations in a protected and proctored classroom environment. The administrators at Bishop Ahr tested this new program at the end of this school year and solicited feedback from students and parents and reported that everyone was excited and supportive of this new initiative for the start of the next school year.

If Web 2.0 technologies can usher in Latin instruction in a distance learning format, what could be next, English?

Summer Camp for Geeks

That's what the flyer (and webpage) called the KansasFest computer conference of July, 2007, a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the original Apple ][ computer.
The Personal Personal Computer

It takes an extraordinary group of people to convene (for the 19th consecutive time) to celebrate a computer platform and philosophy that the manufacturer abandoned in 1992, but the original promotion by Apple Computer touted the Apple ][ computer as the "personal, personal computer," and that idea resonated with millions of people worldwide.

The days of Apple IIe labs and Apple IIGS clusters nestled on Appletalk networks in grammar school computer labs ended in the mid 1990's with Apple's failure to provide an upgrade path from the aging ][ series to the Macintosh. Schools were left with thousands of dollars of terrific educational software and no computer on which they would run. Schools began to move to PC hardware and Microsoft based programs.

Those early Apple computers never stop appealing to a dedicated group of users. Unsupported by Apple Computer, User Groups were created on online services such as CompuServe and Genie and new third party hardware and software continued to be developed and sold.

KFest 2007 was a remarkable mixture of the new and old --both products and people. The conference has actually grown in size over the past few years with oldtimer attendees (like me) meeting and greeting teenage and twenty-something devotees who hadn't been around long (if at all) when the Apple ][ line had been born or discontinued. There were attendees for the US, Australia and Canada with one of the Canadian presenters making the trip to Kansas City from Toronto on a Vespa motorbike.

There were presentations on new software, old hardware and foundation operating systems, there was a keynote address by David Szetela, the first editor-in-chief of Nibble magazine and, later, Apple Computer executive. My own presentation "FreeBSD, the Macintosh Unix" was preceded by Geoff Weiss's excellent presentation of software mapping between Microsoft's Vista and the Apple operating systems.

The real joy of this conference,though - the real reason for attending-- wasn't to make a presentation or watch other talented presenters loose their expertise upon the attendees. The real joy was in hanging out in the dormitories at Rockhurst University where we were housed and watching brilliant people shine. There was non-stop software developing, hardware hacking and on-topic/off-topic discussing all night long. Then, when people needed a quick break, they piled into a 1973 Chevrolet school bus driven from Oklahoma to Kansas City by an attendee to make a 3 AM Denny's Restaurant run. After that fast refueling, everyone was back at it again, hacking and programming and opining until it was time to go to breakfast. The red-eyed stumble became, at least for me, the dance of every day.

The conference lasted about 5 days and it was a little sad to watch the attendees and presenters scatter on the last day. But, even before the end of the conference, Kansasfest 2008 was announced (specific dates pending) and, to a person, the attendees and presenters remaining to hear that announcement were eager to say they'd be back next year.

The old rallying cry of Apple ][ users was "Apple II Forever," now it might be "Apple II Users Forever." The convening of this group of remarkable people every year is now about who they are and who they may inspire to carry the banner of world-class independent software and hardware development to the 20th anniversary of the gathering next year.