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Stumbling around in the K-12 space

This week I’m fulfilling a talk obligation that David Nalley and I set up last Fall, to talk about the advantages of bringing a culture of participation to the classroom.  In particular, this is the Computer-Using Educators (CUE) conference, with teachers and technology coordinators from K-12 districts across the country.  K-12 is short-hand for primary schooling in the United States, standing for Kindergarten (~5 years old) to the end of High School (12th grade ~18 years old.)

In this country, there is a stark contrast between K-12 and the secondary schools, that is, college and universities.  K-12 educators are plagued by extremely thin resources, a load of rules and regulations enforcing standards that are a requirement to getting money, and a constantly changing landscape of a real world their students live in.  They remind me of a group of people constantly in start-up mode, doing amazing things with almost no money.

You would think that free and open source software is a perfect fit here, and everyone agrees who understands.  “We cannot get to 1:1 computing without Linux,” Steve Hargadon is saying to anyone who will listen. Unfortunately, getting the attention of the actual budget makers, the school districts and school boards, is much harder.  These are people driven by a higher set of regulations where techology is just a tool, but it must be the right tool from their perspective.  With school boards made up of local business leaders, the focus on what is the right real world solution for students ends up mirroring their business expectation.  Kids are taught to use PowerPoint because the perception is this is a useful life skill.

Due to laws such as the ironically named “No Child Left Behind” act there is a focus on testing and test preparation.  Teaching for this testing takes the path of least resistence, and the proprietary software companies have such traction here they are the apparently frictionless pathway.

But here at CUE are the actual people in the trenches, teaching students, providing techology solutions, so if there is anywhere a grassroots groundswell can start, it is as a revolution amongst educators.

Thursday afternoon I blew in to town a few scant hours before my talk, got settled at the hotel, and made my way to the conference.  My talk, “Using the open source two-way street in the classroom”, was held in the open source pavilion.  This was my first surprise.  Steve and other cohorts had worked over the years from being a small table in a corner to having a huge presence across the back of the conference.  The email garden is running an LTSP cluster of Ubuntu, thanks to Revolution Linux.  The open source pavilion is another set of thin clients, in the same network but separated for control by iTALC, a classroom desktop session monitoring tool.

I got there just in time to listen to Megan from ISKME, which runs OER Commons, an open education resources clearinghouse — good stuff for finding, rating, and reusing open courseware from around the world.  Right away I was seeing there is a lot more support for open source and open content in the K-12 world.  Fortunately for me, Megan revealed that contributing back to the open stream is not as common of an idea, so my talk wasn’t going to be entirely old news.

In the talk, I started with a trick I learned from Max Spevack, to ask about the knowledge of the people in the room, then set the understanding about what open source and free culture are.  From there I explained how the skills used apply to many parts of life, and that contributing and collaboration are much more than code.  Then I gave some examples and ideas for how to turn a classroom from consumers to participants.  My main focus was on a low-barrier to entry open content tool, Wikipedia.  By working their way up from editing to authoring to owning pages in Wikipedia, a classroom can gain a collaborative underpinning while learning, reporting on what they are learning, and doing something that is going to live on rather than be in a shoebox in the attic.

So far, the best things have been having a good discussion with Steve about how Fedora can be involved with K-12 Open Source in other shows, such as NECC in Washington, DC on June 28  – July 1.  This is where the Fedora Ambassadors can choose our own agenda — if we want to focus on K-12 in the United States, we can.  I’m going to talk more with Steve this week, and invite him to come to a North America Ambassadors meeting soon to discuss how we can help him.

Another great conversation was with Benoit St. Andre, of Revolution Linux.  He showed me some of the slicker aspects of their LTSP clustering, and explained why they built in response to real school district needs.  For example, they have a district in Canada that has 5000 desktops running thin client Linux.  Standard LTSP tooling didn’t work at that scale.  Their clustering allows them to have 40 servers provide LTSP services to those 5000 desktops, a scalability otherwise unheard of in LTSP circles.  Fortunately, they are intimitely involve in the K12 Linux project, so all of that code is working its way upstream.

On Friday, I’m going to attend some talks, sit for a while in the open source pavilion, and talk to the many, many software vendors looking for those who are open source or who build on an open source platform.

(This post disappeared from my WordPress instance.  Very odd.  So I reposted it.  Thank you Fedora Planet for having a copy in your feed.)