“Cox gives laptops to eighth-graders”

Kudos to Cox. This morning’s Advocate reports on Cox’s latest effort to address the digital divide and offers a brief overview of continuing efforts in Lafayette to address the issue.

The company announced Thursday that it will donate 350 Dell netbooks to select eighth-graders who have no access to the Internet at home. The donation also includes free home Internet service for a year.

This isn’t Cox’s first donation—they did something very similar back in ’08 supporting The Early College Academy. This time through:

[Cox] will donate 350 Dell netbooks to select eighth-graders who have no access to the Internet at home. The donation also includes free home Internet service for a year…

The 350 students will be identified through the district’s GEAR UP program, an early college-awareness program that targets middle-school students.

This initiative resembles a suggestion made late last year by the cable industry. At that point the NCTA—the industry’s support and promotion arm, suggested that a good way to use some of the broadband stimulus money was to support its “A Plus” program; that program was broader but less generous with Cable’s resources. It suggested that:

(1) digital media literacy training; (2) discounted computers that can access the Internet; and (3) discounted home broadband service to households that do not currently receive a broadband service.

Cox is also renewing support for the Boys and Girls Club, this time donating an expansion of their computer lab to the Jackie Club.

These generous donations join other Lafayette-based efforts to ensure equity in accessing the internet. In ’09 Je’Nelle Chagois’ Heritage School put 200 computers into the hands of students at Faulk Elementary. The Heritage School is also a participant in a $5.3 million stimulus grant request with LUS that has a similar, student-based purpose.—A second grant for $3.5 million has LUS and LCG partnering to build and enhance community computer centers that serve a broad range of citizens.

It’s all good stuff. Kudos to Cox on this one.

UPDATE 7/13/10: The Advertiser logs in with a substantially similar story this morning, except theirs doesn’t discuss other Lafayette efforts to bridge the divide…

“City seeking $9.2 million in stimulus grants to address digital divide”

The Independent blog reports that LUS and LCG have submitted a pair of stimulus funding grant applications worth 9.2 million dollars that are directed at reducing Lafayette’s digital divide. This has been a central issue in Lafayette for a long time and this is the first attempt to move beyond lower prices for better services as a way to close that divide. (See LPF digital divide coverage—LPF also offered some background on this grant application back in February when the authorizing ordinance was proposed.) The Library, the Housing Authority and Je’Nelle Chargois’ Heritage School of the Arts and Technology are also partners. The grant money would come from the second round of BTOP (Broadband Technology Opportunity Program) stimulus grants. LUS won a first round stimulus grant for its smart grid program back in February.

BTOP provides separate programs to fund broadband infrastructure, public computer centers, and sustainable broadband adoption projects. These two applications are for the computer center and the sustainable broadband adoption sections.

The coalition has applied for $3.9 millon to build out or expand public computer centers in the library, senior centers, and the Housing Authority. The money will be spent on new computers and personnel.

The second grant is focused on “sustainable broadband adoption.” That’s bureaucratese for finding ways to help folks who are not currently getting service or who underutilize service available to get up to speed. That one is worth $5.3 million and:

would go toward 55 direct or indirect jobs in providing 35,000 hours of computer training and 1,000 new PCs, as well as pay for two-year subscriptions to high speed Internet through LUS Fiber for graduates of the program.

Details on the plans for the training program would be very interesting.

The Independent is also the first local news source outside this blog to mention the community broadband survey that will be providing supporting evidence for this grant. Hopefully we will soon see the release of the study and the supporting dataset.

Acadiana “Program aiming at tech gap”

If you missed the story Je’Nelle Chargois and her computer rebuilding project then you need to take a look at the story in the Advocate. The project exemplifies all those grassroots, community-driven public/private ideals you hear about so often—and so seldom see in full-blown action. Here’s the gist of the story; one that will hopefully drive you to read the whole thing—and maybe even contribute to the project at hand or start one yourself:

Through a partnership between community organizations and local businesses, at least 200 computers will be placed in the homes of Faulk students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to the technology outside of the classroom.

“We’re trying to close the digital divide and give them to the tools to compete,” said Je’Nelle Chargois, manager of KJCB radio and coordinator of the Heritage School of the Arts and Technology, partners in the project.

The group has worked with the school to match 137 students with computers. By next month, the group will have reached its goal of placing 200 computers, Chargois said.

The computers have been donated by area companies and, as needed, refurbished by volunteer computer technicians.

Those students who receive a computer and their parents must attend computer literacy workshops. The parents also agree to get more involved at Faulk.

There’s more, of course; there’s a neighborhood center involved, Vision Community Services, founded by Sessil Trepagnier, a computer analyst with Halliburton. I’ve worked with Je’Nelle briefly on a rebuilding project a couple of years back and can testify that she’s devoted to doing this right.

If this sort of thing interests you and you think you’d like to help out or do something similar I’ve got a meeting you might want to attend: the League of Women Voters of Lafayette is bring together a group of folks who have previously expressed an interest in starting projects in Lafayette concerning both computer rebuilding and community computer centers. That meeting is next Monday, Jan. 25th at 5:30 at AOC (Main at Lee downtown). Both Sessil and Je’Nelle will speak as will a number of others ranging from League membe Thetis Cusimano reporting on research on current community center resources done by League members to Sona Dombourian of the Lafayette Library.

Internet Good for Teens? And US not getting enough?

Apparently, the geniuses over at the McArthur foundation spent a lot of time studying the internet use of teens and how it affected them.

Surprise: apparently hanging out online isn’t really bad for for the under-twenties. In fact it teaches “important social and technical skills.” Touble is, the parents (roll eyes) just don’t get it. (You can get more on this from the source, or read the study, or, hey, more appropriately: watch it on YouTube

So it’s been since the world began: kids hang out together and do weird things, the adults grumble and sputter and it turns out that it really was a good thing “developmentally.”

“The social worlds that youth are negotiating have new kinds of dynamics, as online socializing is permanent, public, involves managing elaborate networks of friends and acquaintances, and is always on.”

So, if it’s good to hang out and geek out on the internet then what about this finding that US kids don’t get as much interenet as kids from, say, the Czech Republic…are we falling behind in the geeking out on obscure interests and hanging out with friends on the net competition?

Probably. 😉

ToDo: Google Sky

Saturday ToDo…

Here’s the latest in the occasional, usually Saturday, “ToDo” series: Google Sky. It’s been awhile, I know.

We all know Google Maps are among the greatest things on Earth—if you want to find anything (except Dick Cheney’s house) or fly through the Grand Canyon the internet cognescenti click over to Google Maps. But until recently I was only vaguely aware of Google Sky.

If you liked having the whole earth available at the click of a mouse button you’ll love Google Sky. It’s utterly nifty, completely addictive, and well worth poking around some. Traveling the universe with a 12 year old has got to be one of the most gratifying things around. If you don’t have one of your own go out and adopt a niece or nephew.

Here’s a place to start: Kepler’s Supernova Remnant, aka SN 1604…The Kepler’s link takes you in at a starry sky with a brilliantly colored dot in the center. Fly your spaceship toward it in a couple in a couple hyperspace jumps (or just mundanely click into the location as you would in maps…) and a gorgeous cloud of gas emerges. If your 12 year old (or inner child) wants to know more Wikipedia will provide a simple explanation (and is the source of the image pictured). But you can also get a dramatic rendition…and the electric explanation for the irridescent colors.

Should the vastness of space prove a tad disorienting you could always take the kids to Mars (and if you thought flying through the Grand Canyon was grand, try a canyon as deep as Mount Everest and so long that it would stretch from Los Angeles to New York [available in HD–I want my fiber])…or excite them with the human drama of Apollo 14; people walking on the moon.

The net is a pretty neat place to play. It’s too nice outside today to justify playing this way today in Lafayette—these cool days won’t last. But after night falls and the mosquitoes come out I’ll see what else I can find.

“Laptops key in students’ learning”

Mike forwards the URL to an Advocate story that adds some meat to yesterday’s excursion out to the intersection of Educational Theory, Ubiquitous Computing, and Interface Design. The article, Laptops key in students’ learning, looks at the “Turn on to Learning” program that has seeded laptops in 54 school districts.

Louisiana’s laptop initiative, “Turn on to Learning, Critical Learning Tools for the 21st Century,” was funded by a $5 million legislative appropriation and has put an Apple MacBook computer into the hands of more than 3,500 sixth-graders and 150 teachers across the state.

One of the more interesting things about the program is that it isn’t focused solely on laptops; it also included digital tools that offer a more robust way to interact with the world using the computer:

Each classroom also gets supporting equipment and software valued at almost $3,000, including a storage-battery charging cabinet, wireless access station, printer, data projector, an external hard drive, digital camera and a digital microscope.

The wireless access station, coupled with the built-in WiFi N that built into macbooks emulates the connectivity that the OPLC laptops discussed in yesterday’s post offer. (The macs could even more closely emulate that model by flicking a switch in its WiFi preferences that would make each laptop to also function as an access point the way OLPC computers do by default. The kids could then remain connected to each other via an ad hoc network while doing fieldwork at a museum, for instance.)

The projector makes it easy to cast a screen image big enough and bright enough to be used as a common teaching tool; the equivalent of the blackboard. Providing such analogs to established practice are essential to the benefits of teacher’s existing teaching skills. Good for Apple and the Lousisiana program.

The camera and microscope are nice additions and its easy to see how a sixth graders could use them. (In the realm of capturing images, each macbook has its own built-in video camera, low res admittedly, but more than adequate for the sorts of video-enabled interaction that I dreamed about in yesterday’s post. I once helped work a fun project in a community center in Delaware that used cheap digital cameras to help tie school learning to the life kids live at home. Some amazing stuff is possible using such tools.

The West Feliciana tech director mentions the differences that such technology can make in the way we teach children. Changing the assumptions that drive educational practice has proven hard; technology’s greatest gift may not be anything intrinsic to the technology but that it provides the excuse to begin teaching the way that we have known we should for more than a century.

“This whole process is going to change the way we go about educating children,” West Feliciana Parish school technology Director Jerome Matherne said.

“Under the one-to-one concept, the teacher will no longer be the ‘sage on the stage,’ dispensing information. The teacher will be more of a facilitator because students now will have access to the information themselves,” Matherne said.

“You may have heard the saying, ‘We’re drowning in information, but starving for knowledge.’ That’s going to be the (teacher’s) challenge,” he said.

It’s all very interesting and Lafayette’s participation in such program still seems to me like one of the more obvious ways to leverage the integrated fiber/wifi network that we are currently building. We’d be smart to encourage the kids to learn how to use our shiny new network fully. They’ll figure it out a lot faster than us old fogeys (by which I mean — roll eyes — the over 12 set). Once they get it, they can teach us.

It’s an interesting world we live in.

Laptops in Schools: A tale of two cities

The Gist: Regional cities are getting laptops to school kids. Both in Birmingham, Al and in Alexandria, La. I’m envious.

If you are interested in the intersection of computers and education the big news this week is that Birmingham, Alabama has announced its intention to buy 15,000 OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) computers for its elementary and middle school students.

That’s right, the struggling steel city a few states to the east.

The Dream — OPLC and Birmingham
The OLPC program, attuned readers will know, is a product of the fertile imagination of Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab. It’s the famous “$100 dollar laptop” that has been widely touted in the media. It’s been grandly promoted as a project to put a computer in the hand of every child in the world. The purpose laid out on the website is only a bit less grandiose:

OLPC is not, at heart, a technology program, nor is the XO a product in any conventional sense of the word. OLPC is a non-profit organization providing a means to an end—an end that sees children in even the most remote regions of the globe being given the opportunity to tap into their own potential, to be exposed to a whole world of ideas, and to contribute to a more productive and saner world community.

It’s not just a nifty computer we’re talking about; it’s a nifty networked computer—which is an entirely different animal. Each machine is capable of using wifi and creating a node in a mesh network—the machines create an ad-hoc network that extends any user’s connection to all the other computers in the neighborhood. That opens up large areas for collaboration with local users and potentially with any internet user world-wide. Spend a moment thinking about that. Of course the reliance on ad hoc mesh networking introduces both speed and reliability issues that the OPLC people don’t talk about. But the integration of networking into the core makes applications which were previously impossible to consider because of the lack of infrastructure pretty easy. Kids won’t need to go offline to work together.

Negroponte’s TED talk is worth a watch if you’d like to get a flavor of the project..and the man. While the ideal of building a machine for every child is a bit grand, less grandly, the OLPC laptop is a tour de force effort to make networked computing technology affordable, durable, power efficient, usable and cheap. In a phrase: a cheap utilitarian commodity. The computing industry hates it. They’re too close to a commodity already.

OLPC also offers a frontal challenge t0 both the software industry and the educational community. The radical software innovations start with the operating system. In contrast to the “modern” desktop and document metaphor popularized by the Macintosh the “Sugar” interface operates on a social-activity metaphor (see guidelines) where the central visual organizer is organizing ongoing activities around the child. (Literally central–the image at right with the child in the center of their ongoing set of activities is the equivalent of the desktop in the Sugar interface.) The challenge to the educational community is embodied in that metaphor—the organizing principle of the educational arm of the project is that learning consists not in storing facts but in successfully joining ongoing activities. (Just for the record: this is NOT far out; Most modern educational frameworks for learning theory since the the 1890’s take a version of this stance. It’s practice that has lagged.)

Looked at in that way one has to wonder whether the florid global ambitions of the OLPC aren’t, in fact, a way to distract observers from the really ambitious project that lurks in the background: to transform modern computation and software so as to drive a fundamental change in educational practices–in learning– in the 21st century. (Now there is a really grandiose, if noble ambition. If that is the hope, then putting the idea that they want to give every child a laptop front and center is a way of being modest.)

That’s what the city down the Interstate is getting into.

The Dream—Alexandria
Now laptops in the schools are not new…Apple, in particular, has a long history of pretty aggressive marketing into schools and once produced a set of rugged laptops (example, emate 300 at right) tricked out with kid-driven software and extensive online support. Maine was an early adopter has had a successful laptop program for years. (Negroponte was associated with it in the early years.)

That legacy lives on. Now it has come to Alexandria, Louisiana.

A recent Town Talk editorial lauded a Louisiana/Apple program that has put Macintosh laptops in local schools:

“Turn On” has put laptop computers into the hands of children in 54 of the state’s public schools. In Central Louisiana, Bolton High School students received laptops at the start of the school year. Now Cottonport Elementary School and Mary Goff Elementary School sixth-graders have received them.

Twenty years ago, computer literacy was optional. Not any more. Today it is fundamental to the working world and to an individual’s ability to succeed.

…It is no surprise that Gov. Kathleen Blanco has helped to get the “Turn On” program going in Louisiana. Blanco has been out in front of significant technological initiatives during her tenure, including the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative and the Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise Center.

The Problem
Lafayette prides itself on being a progressive city…going for something like this seems an obvious addition addition to a city-wide fiber and wireless build. Programs like Maine’s, Birmingham’s, and the one in Louisiana use laptops because they give each child learning tools both at school and at home. Apple’s program requires that schools have a good internet connection in order to be considered—one of its few real requirements. Where these programs run into trouble is with having easy, fast access at home. No school system can mandate that homes have an adequate connection; there is not only the cost, but some homes or apartments in every district simply cannot buy, at any price, a reasonably fast connection.

But bandwidth is essential to the vision. And not having a fast connection available in every home has been THE major stumbling block in pushing the use of network-based learning.

Nation-wide folks like Apple have simply had to compromise the vision. No comprehensive assignments can be made for completion at home. No teacher can assume that learning, practice, and reinforcement are available anywhere but in the school itself. That limitation keeps anyone from seriously designing programs that really encourage the habits of life-long learning that a dynamically changing society has come to demand.

Testing the idea of pervasive, always-on learning hasn’t been possible.

OLPC’s ad-hoc mesh networking comes as close as anyone has to proposing a viable solution to the lack of universal, always-on broadband service. A laptop taken home wouldn’t be assured of a connection to either their fellow students or the internet. Mobile Ad hoc mesh networking only works even half-reliably in the confines of a small area–like a school. Because it implicitly relies on one connection to the larger internet it is limited to dividing the available bandwidth (usually a small fraction of wifi’s potential bandwidth) it is, on its best days, slow. Video “show and tell” using cheap, built-in cameras like those found in Alexandria’s Macintoshes isn’t possible–and a whole range of program and screen sharing capacities are but theoretical dreams given those limits. But the OPLC implementation of networking is the best solution for collaboration that I can imagine without comprehensive support from the surrounding community. After all the OPLC was designed for use in third world countries where the village simply doesn’t have any way to provide connectivity. Some of the laptop’s most widely praised features result from its not being able to count on reliable electricity; in those places local networking can only come from the computers themselves.

But here, in these United States, electricity isn’t an issue. We could provide robust pervasive wireless access. If we had the will. That is what the wireless municipal dream has been about. (While I have critiqued the simplistic version of that dream it was never the dream I distrusted—only the suitability of the tools to realize it and the unwillingness of some promoters to deal with the weaknesses of their plans.)

A Solution; The Dream — Lafayette
Lafayette will soon have a functional fiber-optic network in a every corner of the city. A wireless network hooked into the fiber at every other node will closely follow that build. At the end we’ll see the nation’s first integrated fiber-optic/wifi network with speeds on both sides funded by 100 megs or more of bandwidth. Each wifi node could, if we chose, distribute 50 megs of bandwidth to its local area. That’s enough to provide more than enough bandwidth for all the kids on the block to use good quality mpeg-4/H.264 video for their collaboration–even at home. Lafayette’s kids could do screen sharing and use whiteboarding applications.

It would be easy to lock a code into the laptops that would give them special speeds and access privileges to school-provided programs. The school system and even individual classes could tunnel their own VPN’s (Virtual Private Networks) to provide tools and security. None of this is technically difficult. Access control and provisioning have all been more than adequately developed on university and large corporate campuses.

There’s grant money going begging and imaginative projects that lack grant support only because no one can imagine where the bandwidth to use them will be widely enough available to justify helping out.

With the essential, fast, universal infrastructure in place, the only limits for Lafayette would lie in our imagination and in our willingness to boldly use public assets for the public good.

Worth thinking about, don’t you think?

Saturday ToDo: Stealth Programming for Kids (& You)

Ok, so it is late on Saturday for a Saturday Something ToDo posting. So sue me. 🙂 If you’ve got some kids in the youngster to adolescent range to entertain over the long Memorial Day weekend you might really want to give this one a try.

And it is a great one: A new addictive Educational Toy called Scratch. It lets kids (and adults who are young at heart) build nifty animations. You can draw your own characters with some included tools or import a photo to use as an avatar. Then put as many as you like on the same “stage” and animate them. If you like what you get you can always upload it and share.

Oh, did I mention? It’s a free download.

While all that is cool, the real secret is that it is all driven by a pretty complete programming language. (Don’t bother to tell the kids, they won’t be impressed) It’s a dead easy way for kids, or anyone, to really get a feel for programming and standard programming structures. And that, actually, is the point. (Again, no need to play this point up with the kids.) The program is the brainchild of Mitch Resnick and his “Lifelong Kindergarten” lab at the MIT Media Lab. It is an inheritor of other nifty software devices like logo, lego-logo, mindstorms robotics (also recommended) and squeak. They all focused on giving kids easy access to fundamental programming tools in a environment that made learning a natural product of activity rather than an exercise is abstraction and memorization.

I could try and explain how it works but it’d be much more effective for you to go to the BBC article and play the video found there. (You can read the excellent story too, but that is less immediately informative than the demonstration.)

Then travel to the Scratch website and poke around. If you’d really like to get a picture of the motivation behind Scratch then play the Real Media file that tries to explain the purpose of the program.

Download the program (OSX or Windows, Linux upcoming). I mentioned that it’s free, right?

Play. Give it to kids to play with. Sit back and watch them tinker a new little world into existence.

Obligatory bandwidth/philosophy plug: Being able to generate, trade, and interactively collaborate on making things–not just consuming them–is one of the best reasons to want real bandwidth. It’s our kids who will live in the promised land. We will only catch a glimpse of the world they will be able to create.

[Thanks to both the friend and the son-in-law who pointed me to this one over the last week.]