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Posts Tagged ‘tech’

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.

Links

  1. Apple, iBooks,
    <http://www.apple.com/ipad/built-in-apps/ibooks.html>
  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),
    <https://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>

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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.

All of our staff was already using Gmail and we had all students who didn’t have their own account get one so that we could use Google Apps with them for collaborative work.  We found it worked really well.  Google Doc was an excellent way for students to work together, or to share work in progress with their teachers.  Some teachers also set up Google Calendars for their classes, etc.  Two details are important to note here however.  First, the students’ Gmail account was their own and was in no way managed by the school.  This was so that students could easily bring their “cloud” work with them after they leave our school.  Second, it was tempting to go all out, embrace the cloud completely, and use Google Apps for everything  (instead of locally running software for non-collaborative work), but this increased dependence on the network and would have created more problems when the network was slow or not functioning properly.  More importantly, we needed to be critical of how much we should trust third party companies such as Google with our information.  Here’s an excellent interview about this that I found later from CBC Spark. [2]

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.

Links

  1. Patrick Truchon, Wiki Notes: Software,
    <http://ptruchon.pagekite.me/wiki/doku.php?id=software>
  2. CBC Spark, Full Interview: Siva Vaidhyanathan on the Googlization of Everything,
    <http://www.cbc.ca/spark/2011/05/full-interview-siva-vaidhyanathan-on-the-googlization-of-everything>
  3. Patrick Truchon, Free Software (Part 1: The Philosophy),
    <https://ptruchon.wordpress.com/2008/05/18/free-software-part-1-the-philosophy>

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The Best OS for my Parents?

Posted by Patrick on February 12, 2011

source [1]

Five or six years ago, I gave my parents one of my old iBook G4 laptop (running OS 10.3) to replace the (very) old desktop computer (running Windows 95) I had given them years before that.  Despite Apple bragging about their OS being the most user-friendly, the switch wasn’t all that easy because change is just… well… uncomfortable.  With OS X having a new version out about every two years, my parents successfully went through two major upgrades without too much trouble (10.5 being the last to support the PPC architecture).  Granted, I was the one doing the actual upgrading, and making sure that everything worked “like before”, but they were the ones having to get used to things not being quite the way they used to be.

I believe the tension between keeping up with change and having things the way one is used to having them is a key issue for many people who are not comfortable with computers.  How would the ideal OS solve that problem?  And which is closest to solving it so far?

People like my parents want computers to just work, of course, but more specifically what they need is:

  1. A computer already set up and customized to their specific needs and tastes.
  2. A computer that takes care of updating everything continuously in one coherent way.
  3. An easy way to share new programs with others without breaking the law.

Realistically, I think the only way to satisfy the first point is for kids like me to help out their parents from time to time, which is fine.  I don’t mind going through an extra upgrade every two years and cleaning things up a bit on my folks’ computer.  But every time I did, I also had to provide a bit of tech (and moral) support to help them deal with the new features.  Again, I don’t personally mind, but I know they do, which brings me to the second point.

The ideal computer should always be updating (and upgrading) its programs so that all the changes are spread out over time and divided into smaller chunks.  With a two-year release period, different versions of OS X definitely feel different from one another.  Ubuntu splits this difference into four with its six-month release periods, but upgrading twice a year is four times more annoying for me than once every two years.  Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE) [2] tackles that problem excellently with its continuous updates/upgrades.  The OS automatically and uniformly updates itself and every single program I’ve got installed on it, at the exception of a few java programs and custom scripts I’ve got running.  Knowing that my OS and all my programs will always be up-to-date without my having to do anything–ever again–is extremely satisfying.   And from a usability perspective, the small, incremental changes that LMDE goes through are almost unnoticeable.  I think this is the type of OS my parents would really like in a long run.

Windows and OS X users have a habit of swapping files and sharing cool new programs with each other (often with their crackware).  Sharing is natural, we all get that.  With its simply Software manager, GNU/Linux systems like LMDE allow this sharing to be freely, easily (and legally) done.   The Software Manager lists, categorizes and indexes thousands of programs, packages, and drivers and makes them available for installation with a few simple clicks (and an internet connection).  Sharing a program with someone else, then, is as easy as simply telling them what to try.  And of course, all of these are automatically and constantly being updated by the system.  Why would anyone want to do it any other way?!

I’ve been toying with various distributions of GNU/Linux for quite a few years now.  When Ubuntu 10.04 came out almost a year ago, I felt that it was finally as user-friendly as OS X.  Now, on top of that usability (which only got better), LMDE also solves the problem of introducing too much change all at once after upgrades.  It is by far the best OS I’ve used so far.

It used to be that GNU/Linux could only be used by geeks, while non-techies were left with the default options: Windows or OS X.  Since LMDE, I really believe the table has turned.  There is still room for improvement, of course.  For example, the installation process is not as smooth as the main Linux Mint distribution (which is based on Ubuntu), and restricted drivers are not as easy to install either.  However, once properly installed and configured, it is extremely user-friendly and completely carefree.

I guess when I buy my next computer, my parents will inherit my GNU/Linux laptop and go through their last major OS upgrade.

Update (July 5, 2011): Looks like they’re fine tuning this balance by introducing the option to have monthly updates that have been tested by the community instead of just the continuous, untested updates, which may break things. [3]  This still retains the biggest advantage of never having to upgrade the entire OS all at once.

Links

  1. MS-DOS 5 Upgrade, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from 29158681@N00’s photostream
  2. LinuxMint Debian, <http://www.linuxmint.com/download_lmde.php>
  3. Introducing Update Packs in Linux Mint Debian,
    <http://blog.linuxmint.com/?p=1781>

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Math Wiki

Posted by Patrick on January 22, 2011

During my four years teaching math in Taiwan I’ve been spoiled in many ways.  Our school was a small 1:1, with every student having their own Macbook.  I spent countless hours developing activities using spreadsheets for things like statistics, and GSP [1] for everything from geometry and algebra, to calculus.  Because our school was committed to giving students as much freedom as possible, we decided to use free software whenever possible.  Although LibreOffice [2] / NeoOffice [3] have a great word processor and spreadsheet program, I hadn’t found a GSP alternative yet.  We also wanted students to share their work online so we had setup blogs for them.

For math, that last point has always been more technically challenging.  I needed something that would allow me (and students) to:

  • Write mathematics online in a convenient way.
  • Embed interactive (GSP-like) graphics and animations.

Finally, after four years of searching, I believe I found something that pretty darn near does the trick.  It started with discovering Geogebra [4], a free and open source geometry software very similar to GSP.  A big advantage that Geogebra has over GSP is that it is completely cross platform and can even be installed on a USB key.  At the school I’m at now, it’s nearly impossible to get anything new installed on my own office computer (let alone on all the lab computers) so Geogebra’s installation flexibility is a big bonus for me.   The feature that scores the most points, though, is its ability to export its files as html code.  I think GSP has this feature too, but in the four years I’ve worked with it, I never managed to get it to work.

So here’s the basic setup I have currently running:

  • I keep my old iBook G4 permanently connected to a wired internet connection at home and I run pageKite [5] on it, which allows me to use it as  a web server with a fixed web address even though the IP is dynamic.
  • I installed LaTeX [6] on the iBook to typeset mathematics.
  • I installed Dokuwiki [7], which is a WYSIWYM [8] wiki platform.
  • I installed the Dokuwiki LaTeX Plugin [9] to allow Dokuwiki to use the LaTeX engine and typeset math equations.
  • I installed Geogebra on my USB key to create the demos, which I can then export as html code and embed in the wiki pages.

This semester, I’m testing this platform in my classes with wiki’s [10] I’ve created to host Geogebra demos [11] and math derivations we might not see in class.  I also invited my students to collaborate to the construction of our class wikis by adding their own explanations and creating their own Geogebra demos.

Now that I can write math online and embed interactive demos conveniently, I would like my students to also be able to do the same.  For that, I would need:

  • Support from the school to install the necessary software on their server.
  • Support from the computer science department to offer teach wiki syntax, LaTeX syntax, and basic Geogebra skills.

To be continued…

Links

  1. GSP, <http://www.dynamicgeometry.com>
  2. LibreOffice, <http://www.libreoffice.org>
  3. NeoOffice, <http://www.neooffice.org>
  4. Geogebra, <http://www.geogebra.org/cms/>
  5. pageKite, <http://pagekite.net>
  6. MacTeX, <http://www.tug.org/mactex>
  7. Dokuwiki, <http://www.dokuwiki.org/dokuwiki>
  8. Wikipedia: WYSIWYM, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WYSIWYM>
  9. Dokuwiki LaTeX plugin, <http://www.dokuwiki.org/plugin:latex>
  10. Patrick Truchon’s Cegep Wiki, <http://ptruchon.pagekite.me/cegep/>
  11. Patrick Truchon’s Geogebra Demos, <http://ptruchon.pagekite.me/webfolder/Geogbra>

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Different Time Zones, Different Kids

Posted by Patrick on May 29, 2010

In this RSA talk [1], Professor Philip Zimbardo explains how we think differently because of the different “time zones” we live in.  He starts by identifying three “time zones”, each subdivided into two:

  1. Past: good times  vs  bad times
  2. Present: hedonism  vs  why bother planing
  3. Future: plan for later  vs  act for a better afterlife

Interestingly, different cultures tend to lie at different points on this continuum depending on external factors like seasonal variation in weather: people closer to the equator tend to be more present hedonist, while people living in places with greater seasonal changes tend to be more future oriented.  The fact that external factors can affect our “time perspective” has deep implications to education.  Zimbardo mentions that we all began life as present hedonist, and that depending on the culture we live in, one of the purposes of schooling is to make us more future (or past) oriented.  But one of the problems we have in education now is that “analog” education is not interesting to kids anymore because growing up in the digital world “wired” their brains differently.  I personally don’t like that catch phrase. Kids today don’t think differently because their brains are “wired” differently, they think differently because the culture they grew up in is different.

So, since our kids culture is so different than our own, and since these differences affect their time perspective, how should we teach them?  Should we adapt our teaching methods to yield to their needs for greater control and faster feedback, or should we continue to try to help them become better at delaying gratification and planing for the future?  Talking about math education, Dan Meyer [2] explains that one of the problems students have today is they are very impatient with problems that can’t be resolved quickly.  The solution he proposes, however, is not to go “back to basics”, or simply accept that that’s how kids are today, but to use whatever tools he has to help them shift their time perspective.

In the world of EdTech, I see two dangerous extremes: technology is the source of the problems we see today and kids need less of it so it has no place in schools, and kids are digital natives, and we, the digital immigrants, need to embrace what they do and use “their” technologies to teach them.  The truth is that although they are different because of the world they grew up in, kids are kids and they need our guidance.  Whether we should use technology or not to provide this guidance shouldn’t be the primary focus.  Dan’s use of a real life water tank (instead of a fancy digital animation of some kind) is a good example that our goal is not to use technology for its own sake, but to pick the most suited tool for the task.

Links:

  1. RSA Animate, The Secret Powers of Time, <http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/2010/05/24/rsa-animate-secret-powers-time>
  2. Dan Meyer, Math Class Needs a Makeover , <http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_meyer_math_curriculum_makeover.html>

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OS on a Stick

Posted by Patrick on May 11, 2010

Yesterday, Canonical unveiled a preview of Ubuntu Light, a small OS designed for quick use of simple apps. [1] The idea is that computers would come preloaded with a regular OS (like Windows) and Ubuntu Light on a second partition.  If you simply want to browse the web or quickly use a simple app, you’d boot Ubuntu Light instead of your regular OS and be on your way in a few seconds.

Although I like the idea of a simple OS to do simple things, it would be much more convinient to have it installed on a USB stick instead of on a second partition.  For one, people who want to use it wouldn’t have to go through the potentially complicated process of setting up a dual boot system.  The real advantage, however, is that it would be portable.  A simple USB stick could transform a friend’s (or public) computer into your own.  Recently, I’ve been experimenting with TinyCore Linux [2], a very small GNU/Linux distribution (~10MB) that runs entirely in RAM.  In addition to being really fast, it’s kinda cool to carry it your pocket and boot it on different computers.  Unfortunately, it’s not as user friendly as Ubuntu Light is.

This idea of a portable OS could also have great applications in education.  Sugar on a Stick [3] is an OS specifically designed for education, which “aims to make it easy for children, parents, or local deployers to provide each student with a small device that can starts any computer with the student’s personalized Sugar environment.”  The advantages here are obvious: students don’t need their own computer to work on their own computer environment.  Sugar is a very educationally targeted OS, however, and might be too restrictive for older students.  Ubuntu Light, used in this way, could have potential.

I’m sure someone will figure out a way to hack this together soon enough.  I’ll be looking for it!

  1. Ubuntu, Canonical Unveils new ‘Unity’ Desktop <http://www.ubuntu.com/news/unity-ubuntu-light-instant-web>
  2. TinyCore Linux, <http://tinycorelinux.com>
  3. Sugar on a Stick, <http://wiki.sugarlabs.org/go/Sugar_on_a_Stick>

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Backup

Posted by Patrick on April 24, 2010

(Photo by natetherobot licensed CC By-Nc-Na.)

The Hard Way

We all know that we should backup our files regularly, but most of us don’t.  Who wants to spend half an hour every few days sifting through folders and copying important files on an external hard drive.  Of course, one way to not think about this process is to simply copy everything, but that takes a lot of extra disk space and a time.  Thinking this way about backing up is the same as thinking about cleaning your desk: it takes precious brain resources, and time.

The Automatic Way

The thing is, though, that backing up is not at all like cleaning a desk.  We’re not good at doing repetitive work, but computers are; all they need are clear instructions: what to backup, and where to back it up.  There are lots of free backup utilities [1] to help give those instructions, but not all of them are that good.  Here are three basic features a good backup utility should have:

  1. The first time you use it, it should help you decide what you want to backup, then it should be able to do its job as often as you need it to without bugging you again.
  2. To save time, it should be able to know which files changed since the last backup and which didn’t, and only copy those that changed (instead of all of them).
  3. It should keep different “versions” of your backups so you can travel back in time when needed.  But to save disk space, it shouldn’t duplicate the actual data of different versions when it’s the same.

What I Do

I searched a long time for a utility that could do all of this, but found that most of them added too many unnecessary features or were too “user friendly” by forcing me to use an automatic recovery procedure that made the whole thing kind of cryptic.  If I ever need to recover a lost file, I don’t want to just press a button to recover the whole thing, I want to navigate to my file and recopy it to my computer.  Not wanting an “auto-recovery” feature may seem like a step back, but I have two reasons for this: first, most of the time, when I need to recover files, it’s because I made a mistake by deleting them, not because my system crashed.  But even in the event of a system failure, I would probably use the “opportunity” to install a new system, so I don’t necessarily want to recover all my files.

In any case, what I wanted was a backup utility, not a recovery program.  So finally, after failing to find what I wanted, I ended up writing my own backup script using rsync [3] and cp -al [4].  Here is what it does.

  1. First, I need to tell it what I want to backup and where.  I do this (only once) by editing the script.
  2. When I’m ready to backup, the first stage of the process copies the files.  The program rsync looks at the folder I want to backup and makes itself a list all the files in it (with some details like their size, date of last change, etc.).  Then, it does the same thing with the backup folder.  Finally, it compares the lists, deletes the items from the backup folder that are no longer on my computer, and updates the ones that have changed.
  3. Finally, the program cp -al (on GNU/Linux) or cpio (on OS X) makes what seems to be a copy of the entire backup folder and adds the date.  The important difference is that it doesn’t actually copy the files, but created hard links [5] instead.  What that means is that even though it looks like there are two folders containing the same data, they are actually two folder names sharing the data.  When I make a new backup, the recent folder will be updated (in step 2), and a new hard link copy will be made.  Each time, the hard linked copies share the data that hasn’t changed, but possess their own versions of the files that are different.

The Result

The only thing I have to do is press on a button to load the script, enter my password, and watch the whole thing go.  At the end, I get a new version of my backup sitting along side the previous ones. If I check the size of each of these folders, it looks like they are all about 170GB in size.  In truth, though, all these folders share most of the data.  When I use a different way to look at the size, I see that the first backup has the biggest size, and the newest backups are smaller since they only contain the “difference”:

ptruchon@Home:/media/HD$ sudo du -shc *

93G BackUp_20091113_030205
81G BackUp_20091206_095256
12G BackUp_20100105_103154
4.3G BackUp_20100120_064439
7.3G BackUp_20100203_064727
6.9G BackUp_20100209_202706
795M BackUp_20100301_063811
659M BackUp_20100312_152826
788M BackUp_20100322_232813
9.8G BackUp_20100329_093746
1.3G BackUp_20100401_105604
1.2G BackUp_20100415_093503
3.0G BackUp_20100418_063632
878M BackUp_20100421_224022

At School

At our school, we also give all our students 3GB of server space to store their files or post things online.  I’ve adapted my script so that every student can backup their school folder (not their entire computer) to their server space easily.  Here’s a quick introductory video demonstrating the procedure in Quicktime or ogg Theora format.

To use these scripts, you need to be using GNU/Linux, or Mac OS X (sorry Windows).  Simply download them from my Webfolder [2] and read my Wiki Notes [6] for more information.  I will probably add more detailed instructions later, but feel free to email me if you have any questions.

Links:

  1. Life Hacker: Backup Utilities, <http://lifehacker.com/tag/backup-utilities>
  2. Patrick Truchon’ Webfolder: Bash Scripts, <http://dl.dropbox.com/u/3896319/WebFolder/Bash_Scripts/index.html>
  3. Wikipedia: Rsych, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rsync>
  4. Wikipedia: Cp, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cp_(Unix)>
  5. Wikipedia: Hard link, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_link>
  6. Patrick Truchon’s Wiki Notes: Shell Scripting, <http://ptruchon.byethost32.com/doku.php?id=shell>

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TiddlyWiki

Posted by Patrick on April 6, 2010

“TiddlyWiki is a single html file which has all the characteristics of a wiki – including all of the content, the functionality (including editing, saving, tagging and searching) and the style sheet. Because it’s a single file, it’s very portable – you can email it, put it on a web server or share it via a USB stick.” [1]

That’s the technical intro to TiddlyWiki.  On the educational side, TiddlyWiki allows us to take notes in a non-linear way.  Although I’m still on the look out for potential uses of this tool in my (math) classes, I can definitely see how this could be useful in Humanities and Language Arts classes.
I’m running a little experiment to see how it could be used to take reading notes.  As I’m reading Alan Story’s book [2], I’ll be taking notes on this TiddlyWiki [3] trying to figure out how best to organize those notes as I go along.  I’ll report back later…  In the mean time, feel free to give me suggestions.

Links

  1. TiddlyWiki, <http://www.tiddlywiki.com>
  2. Alan Story, An Alternative Primer on National and International Copyright Law in the global South: Eighteen Questions and Answers, http://bit.ly/9PdExb
  3. TiddlyWikiCitizenShipReadingNotes, <http://dl.dropbox.com/u/3896319/WebFolder/TiddlyWiki/DigitalCitizenshipReadingNotes.html>

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iPads for a 1:1 School?

Posted by Patrick on April 3, 2010

A Recipe?

I’ve been giving a lot of thoughts lately about what the “best way” of implementing a 1:1 laptop program is.  Thinking about questions like:

  • What kind of computers and OS should students use?  Should they all use the same or one of their choosing?
  • What kind of applications should students use?  “User friendly” but non-free?  Free (and Open Source) but less convenient?
  • What constitutes appropriate (and inappropriate) use of technology?  When?  On campus only?  Anytime and anywhere when it’s online?
  • In a remix culture, what does plagiarism mean?  Can a line be drawn between collaborating, re-mixing, and plagiarizing?  How?

Not surprisingly, I’m coming to the conclusion that there is no ready-made recipe to navigate these “problems”.  They simply have to be acknowledged as real, important and consequential issues, and then addressed by the whole school community.  These are the type of questions that a special school committee (that includes students) should grapple with for the good of their own school, not the type of questions that have pre-digested answers for all.

Creativity

Keeping that in mind, I’d like to suggest a definite “non-answer” to the first question: the iPad is not a good device to use for a 1:1 school.  One of the reasons (which I won’t expend here) is that the iPad is incompatible with ideals of digital freedom.  Even if it had promising educational uses, it’s one of those things that we should avoid as much as possible. [1]

Apart from that issue, I think the iPad is simply not a device conducive to unforeseen creative uses.  I am *not* saying that it can’t have any creative use what-so-ever.  If creative teachers can find relevant uses for mobile phones or portable media players, surely they can find something for the iPad.

Jeff Utecht focuses on the creative aspect of the iPad when he writes:

“Apple’s own iPad website states: “The best way to experience the web, email, photos, and videos.” That might be so, but what’s the best way to create web pages, emails, photos, and videos? […] That’s the device I want in the hands of my students!” [2] (emphasis is mine)

Although he’s right, I think he’s being too gentle by leaving out the unforeseen part.

Generative Technology

In his book, The Future of the Internet, and How to Stop it, Jonathan Zittrain develops the concept of “generative technology”.  Such technology invites people to tinker with it.  Its creators may have had an idea of how it would be used, but they left it open to the users to come up with their own applications.  Zittrain contrasts two devices from Apple, thirty years apart:

  • In 1977, the Apple ][ was a blank slate.  It quickly became popular two years later when VisiCalc (the first spreadsheet program) was written by an independent programmer.  Apple had no way of knowing that this would happen.  “They had their hunches, but, fortunately for them, nothing constrained the PC to the hunches of the founders. Apple did not even know that VisiCalc was on the market when it noticed sales of the Apple ][ skyrocketing.” [3, p.2]
  • Thirty years later, “[t]he iPhone is the opposite. It is sterile. Rather than a platform that invites innovation, the iPhone comes preprogrammed. You are not allowed to add programs to the all-in-one device. Its functionality is locked in, though Apple can change it through remote updates. Indeed, to those who managed to tinker with the code to enable the iPhone to support more or different applications, Apple threatened (and then delivered on the threat) to transform the iPhone into an iBrick. The machine was not to be generative beyond the innovations that Apple (and its exclusive carrier, AT&T) wanted.” [3, p.2]

In that respect, the iPad is not much more than a bigger iPhone.  But isn’t the difference outlined by Zittrain only relevant for programmers?

Beyond Expectations

As a teacher, it’s always my hope that my students will go beyond my expectations.  The type of tools they use implicitly tells them something about the height of those expectations.  By giving them a computer with a list of possible programs they can download, install, and use to complete a project, I’m telling them: “be creative and impress me”.  By giving them a tool that can only run certain applications, I’m telling them: “this is how I want you to do this”.

Cory Doctorow puts it well when he writes:

“Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals. […] The real issue isn’t the capabilities of the piece of plastic you unwrap today, but the technical and social infrastructure that accompanies it.  If you want to live in the creative universe where anyone with a cool idea can make it and give it to you to run on your hardware, the iPad isn’t for you.” [4]

In my classroom, I want my students to be creative in ways that I might not have foreseen.  On the surface, the iPad may solve problems of “inappropriate use of computers” (or not), but it doesn’t deal with them.  And then, students loose on all the potential for creativity that a blanker slate offers.

Links:

  1. Patrick Truchon, Just Because it Works…, <https://ptruchon.wordpress.com/2009/09/30/just-because-it-works>
  2. Jeff Utecht, The iPad: Not the Right Product for Education, <http://www.thethinkingstick.com/the-ipad-not-the-right-product-for-education>
  3. Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it, <http://futureoftheinternet.org/download>
  4. Cory Doctorow, Why I Won’t Buy an iPad, <http://www.boingboing.net/2010/04/02/why-i-wont-buy-an-ipad-and-think-you-shouldnt-either.html>

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Dropbox Webfolder

Posted by Patrick on March 25, 2010

Public Web Folder

A few years ago, I started working at a one-to-one laptop school where every student has their own MacBook and classrooms are equipped with iMacs, projectors, sound systems, etc.  Our server also hosts our Moodle [1] site,  and provides us all with some server space to set up individual websites.

One of the tasks I wanted to accomplish (often, quickly, and easily) was to share files with my students.  The obvious (and most annoying) method of delivery was to email everyone.  Another possibility was to upload the files on Moodle and use my course pages to organize these resources.  I found both these methods, however, too time consuming.  Finally, I decided to use my little corner of the school server to set up a Web Folder [2] where I only had to drag and drop files.  To allow the public to browse these files, I wrote a Bash script that creates index.html files to list content.  I’ve been finding this method very convenient, but always kept wondering how it could be adapted for people without access to a server.  Then, came Dropbox. [3]

File synchronization

Dropbox is an online tool that allows users to sync a folder online and across multiple computers automatically.  If you are regularly using different computers, this can be an excellent productivity tool.  I keep all my work files in the Dropbox folder on my three computers.  That way, it doesn’t matter if I’m at school or home, my work is always there and up-to-date.  This also provides me with the added safety of backing up my work: it’s on three computers + the Dropbox server.

The Public Folder

Dropbox also provide a few extra goodies, one of which is a public folder.  To share big files with others:

  • simply put them in your Dropbox/Public folder
  • right click on the file and select “Dropbox” -> “Copy Public Link”
  • email this to a friend.

Exploiting this feature, I adapted my Bash script (for GNU/Linux and OS X) so that others can easily use it.

First Time Setup:

  • Create a Dropbox account here [3], and set it up on at least one computer.
  • Create a folder named WebFolder in your Dropbox/Public folder
  • Create a folder named webpix in your WebFolder
  • Download the icons from here [4] and put them in your webpix folder
  • Download index_redirect_javascript.html from here [5],
    • rename it index.html
    • edit it with your own website address (if you have one)
    • place it in your Dropbox/Public folder (just outside your WebFolder)

    This index.html file is used to send people back to your main website when they reach the root of your Dropbox/Public folder.  It is not necessary.

  • Copy your Dropbox Internet address by right clicking on the index.html file in your Dropbox/Public folder by selecting “Dropbox” -> “Copy Public Link” (you’ll need this for the next step)
  • Download dropbox_webfolder.sh from here [5] onto your Desktop and edit the first few lines.  In particular, paste your Public Link into the $ADDRESS section, making sure to replace the “index.html” part by “WebFolder”.  You’ll see my information as an example.
  • Make the dropbox_webfolder.sh file executable: Open a terminal and type:
    sudo chmod 755 ~/Desktop/dropbox_webfolder.sh
  • Ready!

To use it:

  • Simply put files and folders you want to share in your WebFolder
  • Open dropbox_webfolder.sh with a Terminal (it should ask you for your password)
  • Wait a moment for Dropbox to synchronize the files with its server.
  • Done!

The Result:

  • The public at large will be able to browse your WebFolder
  • But it won’t be able to browse files in your Public folder that are outside your WebFolder (unless they know the name of the files)

Links

  1. Moodle, <http://moodle.org>
  2. Patrick Truchon’s HIS WebFolder, <http://secondary.hisdomain.hdis.hc.edu.tw/users/truchonp/classes/index.html>
  3. Dropbox, <https://www.dropbox.com>
  4. Patrick Truchon’s Personal WebFolder icons, <http://dl.dropbox.com/u/3896319/Webfolder/webpix/index.html>
  5. Patrick Truchon’s Personal WebFolder Bash Scripts, <http://dl.dropbox.com/u/3896319/Webfolder/Bash_Scripts/index.html>

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