Mid-Semester Reflection

The learning I am experiencing in this course is much richer than I had expected.  I expected to learn a lot about OS programs, and their potential use in educational settings.  I also expected to learn a little about the OS community, but I expected that to be background knowledge for the focus on specific programs.  I had no idea how many concepts from the OS community are relevant to education, and how many connections between the two are relatively unexplored or unexamined.  With this unexpected richness, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the work I have done so far, and the work I plan to do in the remainder of the course.

I will be reviewing an article by Ian Douglas on the relevance of software design issues to instructional design.  Douglas is one of the people I admire, with a deep understanding of technological issues like software engineering and a deep understanding of education as well.  The next few articles will cover the kind of topics that we expected from the outset like the use of Linux in classrooms and districts, and the use of specific OS applications in education.  As I have continued to look over the literature about OS and education, the initial investment in understanding licenses has proven to be time well spent.  I understand the licensing decisions described in numerous articles, and recognize the impacts of less clearly articulated licensing decisions on OS education projects.

I am working through a longer book right now, Opening Up Education (440 pages).  I was not sure I would read the whole thing, but it is proving quite relevant so I will finish it and review it in the next week or two.  I believe the last formally reviewed book will be The Success of Open Source by Steven Weber, although I have picked up a number of other books for continued study (and pleasure reading):  Just for Fun, the biography of Linus Torvalds; Free Software Free Society, essays by Richard Stallman; and The Mythical Man Month by Frederick Brooks.

I will write a literature review to synthesize what I have read and learned, and I will do a small in-class implementation.  I would still like to synthesize some OS concepts in a visual format, probably using VUE, and make a resource list.  The second interview will probably be with a member of the school district’s technology committee, to get another perspective on issues raised in the previous interview.

Finally, I hope to have time to outline an OS project of my own.  I would like to develop a cross-platform reading log, perhaps designed with some educational theory as the groundwork.  The whole project is well beyond the scope of this course, but I would like to lay out the functionality of the project in this course and leave the coding for rainy summer days.

I am enjoying the course immensely, and I hope the rhythm of reading and posting summaries are acceptable to you.

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4 Responses to “Mid-Semester Reflection”

  1. japhyr Says:

    Hi Skip,

    This was my first post using the Firefox extension ScribeFire. It was much nicer than composing in OpenOffice or a text editor, and then fussing with formatting incompatibilities as I paste text into the WordPress interface. What post editor do you use?

    I also have a question about databases, which might help me think about some work for the remainder of the course. You wrote in one of our early communications, “Databases are probably the most underutilized application in K-12 education, so any insights or projects you develop will be very valuable.” I know enough about databases to design and construct a simple, normalized database. I have some familiarity with SQL, so I can query a database for the information I want, either with a set of gui tools or through direct SQL queries. However, I have always been frustrated by the tools available for generating reports. Databases behind a website are easy to work with because you select the data you want and insert it into a web page wherever you want it. But in a database program like Access or OpenOffice Base, we try to arrange the selected data on paper. These reporting tools have always seemed clunky, difficult to use, and I have never been satisfied with the results. It has kept me from using databases more. Are there better tools than Access and Base for creating small databases and generating printable reports from them?

    A simple example might be collecting data about students that you don’t want to bother putting into the district’s formal student reporting database. For example, I might want to make a small database where I store students’ names, contact information, classes, and observations about those students throughout a semester. I might want to print out the complete set of observations for each student at the end of the semester. I have never been able to make this kind of report look reasonable in a program like Access or Base. If a teacher wanted to make this kind of database, what program would you recommend they do it in?

    Thanks,

    Eric

  2. Skip Says:

    Hi Eric;

    Again, apologies for the lateness of this response.

    First things first–I actually used ScribeFire for most of my posts until just recently. If you check my Are We There Yet blog, you’ll see that most of the entries were created with it. I had an issue with changing some blog URLs and ScribeFire didn’t like that, so I disabled it, finally deleted it, and haven’t reinstalled it. But your question has got me thinking about it again–I think I’ll reinstall it and give it another try. I like being able to keep all my blogs under a single editor.

    Now, on to databases. This is something I have been wrestling with for quite some time. Back in the AppleWorks days (which you probably don’t remember), it was easy to create flat databases and to teach elementary students how to form simply queries. I used them extensively for social studies and science. For example–in social studies in 5th grade, my students kept databases of explorers, colonies, etc. When they took unit tests, I’d allow them to use their databases, but they needed to know how to form good queries in order to answer the questions effectively–for example, how many English colonies established before 1700 were supported by trade with Spain… In order to do well. they had to not only keep accurate data, but they had to know how to manipulate it effectively. They loved this kind of thing, and I was delighted with the higher order thinking skills that they needed to muster. (We also used HyperCard for similar purposes–you probably don’t remember that, either.)

    Anyway, when districts started switching to Office, access to decent and affordable database software became problematic if you were working on Macs, since Office for the Mac never included Access and FileMaker was too expensive to deploy. OS alternatives at the time were far too difficult to use and excel didn’t have the flat database features it now has.

    I think that any impetus to use databases in K-12 took a huge hit during that period from which it has never really recovered. We just don’t do it very often. Even flat database possibilities like Excel are passed over–it’s just not in most teachers’ repertoires anymore. That’s a sad state of affairs.

    Excel makes a decent database tool for most purposes, at least in terms of being able to filter information on multiple fields, but it’s clunky to use and, again, you’re dependent on Microsoft. But what has occurred recently with Google Docs has me very excited. As of a day or two ago, Google spreadsheets can be filtered through a “list” view, similar to what can be done with Excel but much more easily and intuitively. It’s still a flat database, and there are some limitations. For example, you can’t filter by degree–e.g., show me all the states with a population of less than 10 million–since you can’t (yet) specify a data range. But it’s still a very effective (free!) tool that can be used to teach query skills before moving on to a relational application. Coupled with Google Docs’ excellent collaborative tools, it’s a powerful way to get students to assemble and mine data for practical purposes and, I think, a good tool for getting across many database concepts.

    I realize that this is a bit off-topic relative to your question, but I feel strongly that we need to use databases in K-12 much more extensively than we do. The Google Docs solution doesn’t produce reports and there is no built-in query language other than simple flat filtering, that’s a lot more than most students get exposde to now.

    More to your question–I have been using FileMaker for many years and I find it a) very simple to use, even at the relational level, b) easy to learn, and c) exceptionally useful at generating reports. It’s obviously not an OS solution, and it’s also probably why I haven’t investigated too many OS solutions as it does what I need very effectively. It is cross platform, and it has a very powerful server app, but it’s expensive. For the expense, though, you get a program that is simple to learn and deploy.

    Hope this helps a bit…

    Skip

  3. japhyr Says:

    Hi Skip,

    I tried to attend the panel discussion you emailed about. I got set up for elluminate the night before, but when I tried to join the panel discussion just as it was starting, it said the presentation was locked. I don’t know if there was a maximum number of participants, or a cutoff time. I never saw anything about registration. I will try to look at the record of the discussion shortly.

    I will see if I can get my hands on a copy of FileMaker. I know it’s in use in the district. As far as OS and closed-source database programs go, I don’t understand why the reporting functionality is so clunky. It doesn’t seem like a terribly difficult programming matter to create simple reports from queries. Is the generalization difficult, or are there just not many competent programmers interested in doing that work?

    On a different note, a teacher at my former school looked at VUE and played with it after we talked about it. She installed it on all the school computers, and is planning to use it in one of her classes this next session (April and May). I will write a separate post later about how students end up using the software in their class.

    Eric

  4. Skip Says:

    I’ve got a few faculty members hooked on VUE. It’s amazing how many people are hungry for ANYTHING that isn’t PowerPoint.

    I was not able to schedule the panel discussion due to class commitments. I don’t know why you were not able to participate. Like you, I’ll probably visit the recorded session when I get a break.

    Regarding databases–I don’t think very many K-12 educators (or K-16, for that matter) have even the most basic knowledge of what databases do and why they would be important for their students. Partly I think this is because most people only use them for simple lists, and spreadsheets do a decent job of this. More importantly, though, is that databases are, for lack of a better term, just data. There is little visual or metaphorical structure to them. Their utility lies in the manipulation and extraction of the data, and that requires a conceptual knowledge of underlying data structures and logic. With a database, much of the work has to be done before the document itself is created, and, once created, any utility comes from being able to create abstractions from the data. A word processing document has a page metaphor; a chart has a picture metaphor. A database is just raw data, and most people don’t have internal references for that. People know they need to write, so they get a word processor. They know they need to make a presentation, so they employ a presentation program. They know they need some basic data management, but their usual inclination is to make a list in a spreadsheet. (I’m not exaggerating on this last point. Our faculty had an absolutely massive set of spreadsheets that they were trying to use to track student data. They were so unwieldy as to be unusable. Most of the data were arranged to be viewed in visually appealing chunks, but that made it useless for sorting.)

    Still, like you I wonder why someone either in the OS community or the proprietary community doesn’t come up with a simpler metaphor. Is it a “chicken and the egg” issue–e.g., no one will come up with a better metaphor until people start demanding usable databases, but people won’t demand databases until there is a decent reason to use them?

    Food for thought…

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