# Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

## Synthetic Biology

Posted by Patrick on November 30, 2012

Last week, Quirks and Quarks had a segment about synthetic biology [1]: a new branch of science whose goal is to design and construct new biological functions and systems not found in nature. [2]

The explicit assumption of this branch of science is that DNA is a kind of computing code.  Indeed, Canadian researcher Andrew Hessel says that DNA is a “tremendous medium for encoding information: it’s far more robust and compact than even electronic data storage, and it’s really the code of life.  So we’re looking at it through the lens of computing [...], which I think is a remarkable shift. [1, 2:17]  Seen through this lens, these researchers want to reprogram living organisms to make them do new and useful things.  Imagine, for example, “bacteria that breath CO2 and pee straight diesel fuel” [1, 2:58].  These researchers believe that this technology could save the world.

Whether or not you get excited by the possibilities that we may finally live in harmony with nature (by controlling it even more drastically), two things concern me.  The first is implicitly outlined in one of Hessel’s comments:

“I think this is the most powerful technology we’ve ever made.  The only thing that I think compares to it is electronic computing.  And really, we’ve seen how electronic computing has revolutionized and continues to revolutionize the world.  I think this is even more powerful because now we’re talking about programming not electronic processors, but living processors.”  [1, 3:48]

This technology is the most powerful we’ve ever made… Are we wise enough to foresee all the consequences of reprogrammed organisms?  At one level, DNA works like computer code and new (and better programs) can be written, but biological organisms also interact with one another and evolve.  Do we seriously think we’re smart enough to understand all these interactions?  Taken as a whole, this new field would be orders of magnitudes more complex than the entire Internet, which is by no means simple.  This time though, programming “bugs” may be more dangerous than simple computer glitches.

Maybe you think that spreading FUD is not the most compelling line of reasoning.  After all, the same has been said about other fields of science before.  Nuclear physics was supposed to lead to global planetary destruction, and we’re still here.  Fare enough.  Maybe we are (or will become) smart enough…

My second concern is not so much about the technology itself but the legal infrastructure surrounding it: we live in a world where companies like Apple Inc. patent things like “rectangle with rounded corners”. [3]  Patents on software are just as ridiculous and detrimental for innovation since:

[They] block individuals from taking part in [...] development and distribution [...]  This may not seem relevant to most people but it’s the same as the freedom to write a book. Most people will never write a book, but some people will and society as a whole benefits from what is made by the few [...]  [4]

If the evolution of synthetic biology is inevitable, I hope it doesn’t follow the insane route that commercial software and electronic devices have taken.  Exploring such a powerful science requires openness, collaboration, and governmental oversight, not secrecy and commercial control.  If we are going to engage in geo-engineering and massive biological reprogramming, the legal model of the Free Software Foundation [5] is probably the best place to start, if not the only one that will be safe and sustainable.

1. Quirks and Quarks: Using DNA to Save the World,
<http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/episode/2012/11/24/november-24-2012/#4>
2. Wikipedia: Synthetic Biology,
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthetic_biology>
3. The Verge: Apple finally gets its patent on a rectangle with rounded corners,
<http://www.theverge.com/2012/11/7/3614506/apple-patents-rectangle-with-rounded-corners>
4. End Software Patents,
<http://endsoftpatents.org/>
5. Patrick Truchon, Free Software,
<http://ptruchon.pagekite.me/wiki/doku.php?id=freesoftware>

## Math Games: Simulators and Instruments

Posted by Patrick on September 6, 2012

I’m in the process of changing my mind about a topic I don’t know much about: the gamification of learning, in particular, the gamification of mathematics learning.

Here’s my preconceived idea about math games: it’s sugar coating.  There’s something you have to practice; it’s hard, and you’re not very interested. So to make it less painful, we’ll add points you can earn for each correct answer (or better yet, monsters you can defeat by factoring polynomials, with cool graphics and stuff).  Hopefully, you’ll want to sit in front of your computer 10 minutes longer than with your textbook to practice your math.  In my opinion:

• The math in these games has nothing to do with the context of the game (which is often true of textbook questions too mind you [2]).
• These games do nothing to foster internal motivation and appreciation of mathematics.
• They focus on skills, not mathematical and conceptual thinking.
• They are really just fancy worksheets with blinking lights and noise to keep you awake.

I’m realizing now that that idea is a bit of a Straw Man.  In a Webinar [1] he presented back in January, Keith Devlin (@profkeithdevlin) clarifies what math games have been, are, and can be.  He uses the analogy of a flight simulator, or a music instrument to convince us that well designed math games could be invaluable tools to help students investigate abstract ideas in a world that makes them more concrete.  He doesn’t want math games to replace instructions, instead he wants them to be a complimentary tool of discovery, where students can think mathematically without having to worry about the notation.

In one of his previous books, Devlin argues that what makes math hard is its level of abstraction.  The logic is often simpler than that of a soap opera. [3] Now to extrapolate a little bit from Devlin’s presentation, it seems to me that a good  way to teach mathematics would be to:

1. Use well designed games to explore mathematical thinking and logic in a context that is intuitive and non-symbolic.
2. Slowly introduce symbols and layers of abstraction.
3. Practice on synthesizing these two aspects.
4. Repeat with new concepts…

There’s a catch though, which Devlin mentions briefly: It makes no sense to test students on the second part if they are still on the first part.  Can you imagine if part of the assessment process was to have students play a game so we could see what they struggle with?

1. Keith Devlin, Game-Based Learning Webinar Recording
<http://www.instantpresenter.com/WebConference/RecordingDefault.aspx?c_psrid=E955DD80854D>
2. Dan Meyer, [PS] Critical Thinking,
<http://blog.mrmeyer.com/?p=12582>
3. Keith Devlin, The Math Gene,
<http://www.amazon.com/The-Math-Gene-Mathematical-Thinking/dp/0465016197>

## Gender Trap

Posted by Patrick on May 26, 2012

I just finished listening to the second part of CBC’s Ideas: The Gender Trap (Part [1], Part [2])  This series explores the sources of the gender differences we observe.  Are they innate or cultural (or both)?  It’s the old “nature vs nurture” question.

Part 2, however, focuses on a “Toronto family [who] decided not to reveal the sex of their newborn baby. Only nine people in the world know whether baby Storm is a boy or a girl. The parents believe that, like stereotypes about race and class, gender stereotypes constrict individual identity” [2]

Listening to that part, I couldn’t help thinking that these parents were on the right track, but 100 years too early (sadly).  It made me think about this excellent science fiction novella by William Shunn called Inclination. [3]  It tells the story of a youngster who is exposed to a drastically different culture where gender (and much more) is fluid.  It’s a story about self-identity and acceptance.

1. CBC Ideas: The Gender Trap Part 1, <http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2012/04/25/the-gender-trap-part-1>
2. CBC Ideas: The Gender Trap Part 2, <http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2012/04/26/the-gender-trap-part-2>
3. William Shunn, Inclination, <http://www.shunn.net/inclination>

## Digital locks picking

Posted by Patrick on March 22, 2012

<source>

This week on Search Engine, Jesse Brown interviewed Financial Post editor Terence Corcoran, who believes that the Canadian Copyright Bill C11 (now in its 3rd reading) is a step in the right direction. [1] Jesse tried to explain that one of the big points of contention about this bill is that it would make it illegal to break a digital, lock even for lawful purposes.

I’m no lawyer, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but here’s where I think I found this in the bill:

• Section 41.1 says that it would be illegal to break a digital lock. [2]
• Section 29.22 says that it would be legal to make copies of the work you own for your own use, provided that doing so doesn’t require to break a digital lock.  [3]

So there you have it.  One one hand, the bill gives reasonable bounds on what is legal or illegal copying based on intent: personal use is legal, distribution to others isn’t.  But then, it allows media corporations to collapse this distinction through the use of digital locks: no matter what the intent, you can not break a digital lock.

It means that (according to sec. 29.22) if I buy a CD, I can copy it to my computer or my phone, but I can’t give the files to my friends.  But (according to sec. 41.1), if I buy an audiobook encrypted with DRM that will only play on iTunes (as I unfortunately did once), I can’t remove the DRM to listen to it on my phone.  Same intent, different legal consequence.

Jesse tried to explain that distinction to his guest.  As it is often the case with computer-related technologies, they used a “real-world” analogy (a painting) to help their discussion.  I’m not sure how effective that particular analogy was, but I think I might have another one to offer:

My front door has a lock on it.  It is illegal for others to break and enter into my apartment without my consent, but it is not illegal to pick locks (as a hobby for example).  If I lose my keys, it would be legal for me to pick the lock of my own door (if I have the skills).  In fact:

“In Canada, possession of lock picking tools, with the exception of key duplication tools, is legal. Lock pick tools fit in the same category as crowbars or hammers, meaning they are legal to possess and use unless they are used to commit a crime or if it is shown there was “intention to commit a crime” in which case “Possession of tools with the intention of committing a crime” applies [...] Some provinces require a license to carry lockpicks.  [4]

It should be the same with digital locks.  The legality of breaking them should be based on intent: personal use versus distribution.  Notice that this is completely separate from the issue of whether file sharing should be legal or not.  All we’re talking about here is the legality of picking locks, not the legality of sharing files.

There is one huge difference between a door lock and a digital lock however:  A door lock is meant to keep others out, unless I invite them in.  I can open my door for them, even lend them a copy of my keys.  A digital lock, on the other hand,  is meant to keep others out–always–since “inviting them in” (distribution) is illegal.  So the technical problem is this: how can I have a key that allows me to copy my own audiobooks to any of my devices, but not to my friends’ devices?  It’s like asking: could we design a door that only lets me in and no-one else, whether I want them in or not?

Maybe I’m not smart enough to figure that one out, but so far, it seems that no one else has either.  That’s why we’re not given the keys to our own digital locks: because who knows what we might do with them.  Instead, the key is given to particular media players (yes, the box has the key) in the hope that we won’t be able to find it.  But as Cory Doctorow explained in 2007, that scheme is intrinsically flawed.  Not only that, but it kind of blows back up in the face of the those who put the lock there: If I can’t listen to the audiobooks I legally buy on the devices I own because of digital locks, I might as well just torrent an illegal copy that I’ll be able to use on any device. [5]

And so, now we have locks that can be picked by those with enough know-how, but we legislate against picking them (regardless of intent).  The logical conclusion, of course, is that digital locks are the wrong tool for the job, and maybe no other systematic modes of control exist. It is an interesting technological puzzle to solve, but the law, as it is currently being proposed, is flawed: the legality of picking locks–digital or not–should be based on intent so that lawful use should be permitted.

1. Search Engine, Digitally Locked,
<http://searchengine.tvo.org/blog/search-engine-blog/audio-podcast-129-digitally-locked>
2. Parliament of Canada, Bill C-11 Section 41,
<http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Docid=5144516&File=72#16>
3. Parliament of Canada, Bill C-11 Section 29.22,
<http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Docid=5144516&File=48#8>
4. Wikipedia, Lock Picking,
5. Cory Doctorow, Pushing the impossible,
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2007/sep/04/lightspeed>
6. Brent Matthew Lillard, Lock Picking,

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

## Wiki Notes on Free Software

Posted by Patrick on March 3, 2012

Almost four years ago wrote a series of blog posts about free software.  About a week ago, I found myself returning to them with the urge to update them with some of the latest development.  Instead of editing the posts directly, I decided to combine them all into one wiki page that I’ll be able to keep current more easily as I make more connections regarding this huge and important topic.

The topics are:

• What is free software?
• Why is it important (specially to education)?
• How to go about switching to free software?

I’ve also installed a basic comment plugin to the wiki so feel free to comment there (instead of here).

## Driving Me Nuts

Posted by Patrick on February 16, 2012

Yesterday, Peter (@polarisdotca) asked this question:

Why does tying knot in strip of paper form a regular pentagon? Why not 6, 7,…? Why regular? Anyone have intuitive explanation? #wcydwt [1]

Being a rock climber, I like knots; I DEPEND on knots!  Being a math and physics teacher, I like puzzles; I DEPEND on puzzles.  So naturally, this one peaked my interest.  Here’s what I’ve got so far:

The first step was to recreate the experiment, so I started by making a regular knot (actually called the “Overhand knot” [2]) with a strip of paper:

Then, I tried to flatten it as tightly as possible without breaking it:

It’s a little loose at the “exit points”, but we can easily imagine that the “ideal case” would indeed be a regular pentagon (regular because all sides are the same lengths; pentagon because it has five sides).  So now: why is that?

Intuitively, I think there can only be five sides because there are three folds and two exit points, for a total of five.  That’s how the knot is made, by folding the rope three times onto itself:

Here’s what it looks like when unfolded:

Three of the sides are from folding, and two of the sides are just the edge of the strip of paper, which correspond to the exit points.

Why does it have to be regular though?  Is it because that’s the most compact configuration?  Is this shape the solution to some optimization problem (like greatest ratio of SurfaceArea-to-Perimeter, which minimizes some energy function or something…)

My next question was: how would a Figure-Eight knot [3] behave?  I was not only interested in this knot because I probably use it more often than the overhand knot, but because my trick to make it is to start it like an overhand knot, then finish it an extra half turn later (ie. that would add an extra fold in the strip of paper!)  Could this lead to a 6-sided figure?
Here it is loose:

And flattened:

Yeap: four folds and two exit points.  Here’s the weird thing though: one of those exit point is not even “connected” to the other sides:

Why is that?!  Also if I could make it perfectly, would it also be a regular polygon? or is it intrinsically elongated?  Thanks Peter!  This puzzle is driving me nuts!

1. Peter Newbury’s Tweet:
2. Animated Knots, Overhand Knot,
<http://www.animatedknots.com/overhand/index.php>
3. Animated Knots, Figure 8 Bend,
<http://www.animatedknots.com/fig8join/index.php>

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

## Can iBooks do … ?

Posted by Patrick on January 28, 2012

Since the iBooks app [1] came out a few days ago, it’s been hard not to read about it. One thing is for sure, there’s a lot of varied opinions about it, particularly, about the impact (or lack-there-of) that it could have on education if used to its full potential. Personally, I didn’t get a chance to see it first hand until yesterday when one of my colleagues showed me a physics textbook she had bought, and a book she started writing to experiment with it. I have to admit, I thought it was pretty cool. The idea that students could finally ditch bulky textbooks and carry gigabytes of information with them in their tablet, or that teachers could customize and make media rich textbooks for their students, is very exciting. In some geeky way, at least for me, it taps into the utopian ideals of the treky universe: “Computer, what is …?” Now, I know that in the end, books are just books; they don’t (in themselves) revolutionize education (at least, that’s my opinion). I have a few questions, though, about the iBooks app that I think are important (for education).

Looking at the book my colleague is writing, the first string of questions that popped to my mind was : can this be exported as a website? Can students read this on their laptop or their phone? Can I read it on my Android tablet? Or is this just for iPads. In other words : is the format platform agnostic or does it bind us (or worse: our students) into a “vendor lock-in” [2] relationship with Apple? There are different degrees to this question.

At one extreme, programs like Apple’s iWork office suite (Keynote, Pages, etc), produce files that are completely incompatible with other office suites. Documents can be exported as PDFs or other more open file formats, but at the cost of loss of functionality or formatting. In the middle, programs like Apple’s iWeb produce work files that can only be edited with iWeb, but the “publishable” output they produce can be viewed by any web browser on any computer or mobile device. Finally, at the other end of the spectrum are Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) like LibreOffice [3] or NeoOffice [4], which use open file formats [5] that any program (no matter the operating system) can fully support.

In the past, I have argued that as educational institutions, we have an ethical responsibility to use the latter kind of software [6] with our students. For computers, this isn’t so hard anymore since there’s a lot of very good (and arguably better) FOSS out there. For tablet, though, the selection is a little slimmer, which is why I think we should at least regect apps that use closed file formats in favour of those that use open file formats that are platform agnostic. My question about the iBooks app is: where does it fall on this continuum?

I am not a software developer, so please correct me if I’m wrong here, but it seems that something like the iBooks app could easily produce a “book” that any web browser (or modern e-Book app) could read without loss of formatting. Maybe it already does (I don’t know). But I guess to me, the whole point of producing a book is that anyone can read it, no matter what kind of device they use.

The second string of questions that later came up in my mind was: Could iBooks be used by students to produce work collaboratively? At the most basic level, could students easily share their files with each other (like an office document for example)? But to take it one step further, what would it take for a group of students to work on the same project at the same time a la Wikipedia or Google Doc? How difficult would it be to have a wiki-like editor that would allow groups of people to write a book collectively?

But maybe that’s not what iBooks is about in the first place. Maybe it’s about the publishing industry clumbsily trying to survive in the new landscape of digital media. Or maybe, it’s another step closer to the big brother state [7]. Maybe, it’s not about openness and education.

1. Apple, iBooks,
2. Wikipedia: Vendor Lock-in,
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vendor_lock-in>
3. LibreOffice,
<http://www.libreoffice.org>
4. NeoOffice,
<http://www.neooffice.org>
5. Wikipedia: Open File Format,
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_format>
6. Patrick Truchon, Free Software (Part 2: In schools),
<http://ptruchon.wordpress.com/2008/05/24/free-software-part-2-in-schools>
7. Copyfight, Stallman on E-book Evils and Privacy,
<http://copyfight.corante.com/archives/2012/01/19/stallman_on_ebook_evils_privacy.php>

## Censored

Posted by Patrick on January 19, 2012

To oppose SOPA and PIPA, today’s xkcd cartoon is very serious.  It can be found at   http://xkcd.com/1005   but for some reason, https://xkcd.com/1005   (the encrypted version) doesn’t work for this cartoon only.  Part of the message?  Also, using the instructions found on  http://explainxkcd.com  , I opened the picture in GIMP, and increased the intensity and the contrast of the picture to their maximum values to find this:

## CO2 Levels (a depressing story)

Posted by Patrick on November 27, 2011

A few days ago, I listened to an ABC radio podcast on All in the Mind entitled “The case for moral enhancement”. [1] I was expecting the ethical minefield of eugenics to be discussed (which it was), but I was surprised by the turn of the conversation towards the end: 0ne of the reasons why we’d want to enhance our moral compass is because we didn’t evolve to deal with problems that affect the entire population of the planet.  In particular, one of the professors grimly said that “it’s wishful thinking to think that people are going to voluntarily deal with climate change”.  Heavy stuff!

Today it was CBC radio’s Quirks and Quarks turn to tackle the issue of climate change. [2] Again, it was nothing short of depressing.  Very…  Depressing…  One of the guests said that our inability to deal with the problem not only means that we’ll face catastrophic repercussions, but it also says something pretty grim about ourselves: “Can we not deal with an ethical issue about the lives of billions of people around this planet?”

Because I like to understand the information contained in graphs, I clicked on the one posted on the Quirks page [2], which led me to its source on wikipedia [3], which lead me to the source of the raw data [4].  I decided to import that data into a spreadsheet to see what information I could extract from it.

Using two simple functions, and a method called “least squares” [5] to scale them properly, I managed to find the proper parameters that model the CO2 concentration as a function of time.  Visually, the orange graph (the model) follows the blue graph (the data) pretty well, so the model I found is pretty good (within that range of time anyways).

I found the equation of the model (the orange graph) to be:

$\LARGE \text{C} = 270+2.7\sin\big(2\pi(t-0.06)\big)+45 \cdot 2^{(t-1958.208)/37}$

It looks complicated, but there’s basically three pieces to this function, each with their own particular meaning.

The first part is just the number 270.  What it means is that if we go back in time by more than a few hundred years, the average CO2 concentration in the atmosphere would have been around 270 ppmv (compare that to today’s 390 ppmv !)

The second part is responsible for the oscillation of the concentration due to seasons.  The number 2.7 in front of the sine function means that the concentration increases from its average value by 2.7 ppmv in the winter and decreases by 2.7 ppmv in the summer.  So the total variation (of about 5.4 ppmv) is pretty small (compared to the average increase).

The third part is what we’re responsible for.  It says that the difference in CO2 from the ancient average of 270 ppmv will double every 37 years.  This is a bit tricky so here it is again: if you look at the concentration of CO2 today and subtract that from what it was hundreds of years ago, that difference will double in 37 years time.  For example:

• The concentration was around 315 ppmv in 1958, which is a difference of 45 ppmv from 270 ppmv.
• 37 years later (in 1995), the concentration was 360 ppmv, which is a difference of 90 ppmv from 270 ppmv (double the previous difference of 45 ppmv)
• Another 37 years later (in 2032), the concentration should be (if the trend continues) 450 ppmv, because there should be a difference of 180 ppmv from 270 ppmv ( double the previous difference of 90 ppmv)
• And in 2069? 720 ppmv, because it’ll be 360 ppmv more than 270 ppmv…

So according to this model, if the trend continues (ie, we keep doing what we’re doing now), the atmosphere will reach levels of CO2 comparable to that of the Eocene–Oligocene extinction event 34 million years ago (which were around 760 ppmv) [3] in a time scale of a few 37-year periods!  And I thought the podcasts were depressing…  The next graph shows this extrapolation in both direction.  The model (in orange) is graphed (without the seasonal variations) between 1750 and 2100 with the actual data (in blue).  The future looks completely crazy, but other data suggest that the past is actually pretty spot on. [3]

Now, to be fair, the assumption that “we keep doing what we’re doing now” implies at least two things that are very unlikely:

1. Our population will continue to grow exponentially.
2. Our resources of fossil fuels will continue to match our growing demands.

In reality, we’ll either find ways to turn this around, or we’ll suffer from other problems that will curb our population explosion and our ability to consume so much fossil full.  One thing is certain: we can’t let that orange curve go that high.

1. All in the Mind, The case for moral enhancement,
<http://www.abc.net.au/rn/allinthemind/stories/2011/3360688.htm>
2. Quirks and Quarks, The Rocky Road to Durban,
3. Wikipedia, Mauna Loa Carbon Dioxide-en.svg
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mauna_Loa_Carbon_Dioxide-en.svg>
4. NOAA ESRL DATA,
<ftp://ftp.cmdl.noaa.gov/ccg/co2/trends/co2_mm_mlo.txt>
5. Wikipedia, Least Squares,
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Least_squares>

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

## Going one-to-one

Posted by Patrick on September 10, 2011

At the beginning of my second year of teaching in Taiwan, we started implementing a one-to-one Apple laptop program.  In hindsight, I’m realizing now that we moved incredibly fast–maybe too fast–but we were a small school (a dozen teachers with about 70 students in the secondary department), so we tried to adapt quickly.  Since I moved back to Canada more than a year ago, I’ve been meaning to reflect on what we did well and what we could have done differently with this program. This summer, I learned that my new school is thinking of rolling out a similar program next year.  I think it’s time to crystallize all those thoughts together and share them.

I’ll start with by describing the issues that arose with the hardware we chose, and follow with a brief explanation of the philosophy that guided our selection of software.  These are just the nuts and bolts but getting them assembled well is very important.  Finally, I’ll address the (open ended) question of how to foster appropriate use of this technology by the students (and teachers).

Acknowledgement

Right out front, I’d like to thank three former colleagues of mine with whom I had the great pleasure to work with in Taiwan. Their helping me on an early draft of this post via Google Doc felt just like old times!  Thank you so much for all your insightful comments.

Hardware:

The year we made the switch, a little more than four years ago, all classrooms were equipped with an iMac, a projector, and speakers.  At the same time, every student had to buy their own Apple laptop.  Right there, I think it would have been better to wait a year before introducing the laptops to students.  This would have given the teachers time to familiarize themselves with the Mac operating system, and it would have given the IT team a chance to deal with technical issues better.  As David put it, it would also have given us a chance to deal with the “human” factor better, bringing in the parents as partners, for example.

The students had a choice to buy either a Macbook, Macbook Pro, or Macbook Air (when that came out).   We found that all three served our purposes just as well, except that for the money, a simple Macbook with a RAM upgrade was actually better than a stock Macbook Pro.  Today, the white Macbook isn’t sold to the general public anymore, but David tells me that it can still be purchased through the “education” channel for about \$1000.

Students who bought a protective hard shell for their computer were less likely to break their computer than students who used a computer case.  One particular model of laptop case had the zipper at the opposite end from the handle.  A few times, some students forgot to zip their case, grabbed the handle, and sent their laptop flying across the table.  Simple things like that can cause a lot of problem if multiplied by 70 students.

Each classroom also had a few power bars scattered around on the floor.  Power bars with the outlets oriented sideways were best since they could accommodate more chargers than those with the outlets pointing parallel to the bar.  Each classroom had a VGA adapter for the iMac (which also worked with the earlier models of Macbooks).  Over the years, we realized that we needed different adapters for the new generations of laptops so that all students could quickly connect their computer to the projector to show their work.  Now, Kristen tells me that students no longer use the VGA adapter.  Instead, they put the presentation on the server, and project it from the teachers’ computers.

For my classroom, I also bought a few cheap USB microphones for them to podcast or screencast.  I found that even a cheap USB mic gave much better results than the internal microphone since it cut off the noise from the fan.  This is something each student might have wanted to buy with their computer.

Every year, a few unlucky students lost all their work due to hard drive failure.  Our IT department kept a few spare hard drives to quickly fix laptops on the spot and give time to students to buy a new hard drive, but we never managed to implement a successful, campus-wide backup and recovery system for all students.  This was a big miss.

Software

During the first year of implementation, we used the software that came “free” with the Apple computers.  We soon realized that files created with programs from the iWork and iLife suites could not be opened directly on other operating systems.  Some teachers began asking their students to export their files into formats that they could open on their home computers (like pdf).

During the second year of implementation, we began the switch to FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) such as NeoOffice instead of Microsoft Office or iWork.  It was very important for us that files created with one system could be shared and opened with any other system so as to ease collaboration and not bind students into a Vendor Lock-in situation.  It quickly became easier for students (who were used to the Apple software) to use the FOSS instead of always having to convert their work to open formats after.

Kristen tells me that students now use OpenOffice for Mac instead of NeoOffice because it “is apparently much better”.  Whether this is true or not, the beauty of this situation is that documents created with either NeoOffice, OpenOffice, or LibreOffice use the exact same file format and can be opened by all three programs on any kind of computers (Windows, Mac, GNU/Linux).  This is a very valuable kind of freedom we want our students to have.

Over the course of the next few years, I created this wiki page [1] to list programs that should be used.  (The list is a little outdated at the moment, but I’ll try to update it again this year.)  The underlying idea here is that, as an educational institution, it’s more important to be grounded in sound philosophical principles that promote freedom of learning, than to use whatever is the most convenient tool at the time regardless of future consequences. [3]

Appropriate Use

As instances of computer misuse (off-task IMing, torrenting, gaming, etc) started to emerge among the student population (and some of the teachers!), we started debating whether we should add layers of filters to the network and restrictions to the students’ computers to deal with the problem.  For example,  I am told that recently a parent called the school twice to complain that their child’s Facebook page was being updated during class time.

One proposed solution was to block social networking sites (and a list of other popular “non-educational” sites) and turn on some of the parental control settings on the student computer accounts.  Philosophically, we recognized that it was more important to teach students how to use technology appropriately than to turn all Big-Brother on them and enter an endless game of Cat and Mouse with them.

The decision was made not to block websites and restrict computer accounts.  Instead, we started working on ways to scaffold this new type of learning for different age groups and individuals.  Andrea, for example, had a “laptop parking” shelf in her classroom, where all younger students had to leave their laptops as soon as they entered the class (whether the bell had rung or not).  Classrooms became “Academic Use Only” zones even during breaks and lunch to encourage students to be outside instead of playing on their computer.  Parental control restrictions were added to a few specific students’ laptops who were struggling more than others.

It would have been much more effective to role out these policies from the get-go, and they would have been even more powerful if students had had a voice in the decision making process.  Unfortunately, we reacted to problems as we saw them arise, and students saw the changes we made as added restrictions instead of as age-appropriate measures to help them become better 21st century learners.

During my last year there, there was a change in the administration and the one-to-one program was informally put on hold.  There were some discussions as to whether younger students (grade 7 and 8′s) could ever handle such distracting devices in a school setting.  A computer, after all, is both a tool and a toy!  Personally, I don’t believe age is the critical factor (although it is a big one that must be considered carefully).  When I do work, I too get distracted by all the other things my computer has to offer.  The same goes for students, except it’s our job to help them learn how to deal with it.

Since then, the school decided to phase out the program for all new students so as to “lighten the financial burden on families”.  Students can bring their own laptops if they have them, however.  I am not sure what the school’s position is with respect to the larger issue of appropriate use, however.

Conclusion

Although my experience in Taiwan was extremely enriching, I am very curious to see what a fully developed one-to-one program could look like.  I hope my experience can help my new school navigate the new challenges that lie ahead, and I’m excited to see just how far it will take us.

Bringing technology into a school to such a high degree must not distract from the primary centre: student learning.  New tools with old ways of doing things don’t work.  As David and Andrea put it, there has to be systems in place to help teachers not use the technology for its own sake, but to help transform their teaching into project and inquiry based learning.