Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Director of Facilities

Kyle from Facilities and I have sent a few e-mails back and forth, the goal--help me understand 'code' in preparation of finding a working solution. As I mentioned towards the end of a rather lengthy previous post, 'code' isn't easy find. Here is some additional info:
  • Can't use plastic gang boxes as a built-in power strip (maybe if it were a metal gang box?) Looks like we'll be needing to purchase and install off-the-shelf power strips.
  • Cables need to be suspended using their own supports. You can't touch anything used to support other components of the structure (like hanging tiles). Thus, our split PVC channels which supported the cables had to go.
He recommended that I don't proceed until further consultation with the Director of Facilities, Clyde. Clyde called Wed. morning while I was waiting for my daughter to exit from surgery (mouth stuff--not too serious)--cell phones are amazing. He also appears to come from a problem solving approach and I'm again thankful for this--it is in his power to do as the FM did and 'just say no'. We will meet Monday morning during my prep period to try to find solutions.

My goal is to find inexpensive solutions even though the district has offered to put special electricity outlets into some of the rooms. I don't want this approach--I'm looking for the low-impact solution, one that can be done inexpensively in many rooms.

On Friday, my wife and I removed all the wiring that Fred, Alberto and I had so carefully installed. Oh well, 3 steps forward and 2 backward...I connected the 3 tables on one edge of the room in preparation with the talk with the Facilities Director on Monday as hopefully a launching pad to an acceptable solution. It's not ideal from a teacher's point of view as I may discuss later if this solution becomes accepted. But, I think it is workable. I'll post more as I learn more.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A mystery: where did they all come from?

Out of curiosity I checked hits after posting the drawings in the previous post (I posted just the drawings first.) The reality of the web hit home then, for some reason there was about a 4000% increase in hits on Saturday. Yea weird. I can only guess that there was a mistake or more likely someone whose blog gets read by a thousand people posted a link to my blog for some reason. Either way it's strange. For those of you who don't do 'google analytics' here are screen shots showing the origins of the hits from Saturday, both a world view above and a more detailed US view below.
Anyone have a clue to what might have happened?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Parallel progression

On Saturday morning five of us gathered in my room at Roosevelt high school. Unfortunately I didn't get around to taking a picture until after two people had left, nonetheless, here's Don and Fred, still able to stand at 1:30 when we left.A challenge of this project is that there are many interweaving threads that must be developed in parallel, with much interdependency between them. Some of these threads include: assembling the computer embedded tables, laying cables from tables to switch, importing student users into the server, getting computer lab management software, implementing student management software, installing the special software for students, setting up classroom printers on the network, getting the virtual machines running on the Web server which is connected to the district's Internet backbone at 807, installing server software from scratch and then transferring the 4 currently running Plone CMS instances as well as the Cmap server software to it, and more! OK, lots to do.

Don was the first to show. He has souped up his 16 line script to 360 some lines script to import users. He aims to create a simple yet clear menu-driven program to help non-technical users import students into their classroom. He worked on it all morning, perfecting it and in the end imported my hundred something students! It's so exciting to finally have a student accounts working!

Brandon worked tirelessly on making iTalc work on a thin client setup -- not something it was specially designed for though it does work on them. This software will allow me to control student computers in the classroom, observing them from afar, chatting, controlling and sharing screens, all actions necessary for a teacher in a computer enabled science classroom. With just a few final tweaks this thread too will be done! Conner is working on the student management software called Sabayon, though he was unable to come today.

Jack came by and worked to get Plone installed (remotely of course) on our new district Web server. Things appeared to be going swimmingly when all of a sudden an error message popped up saying the virtual machine didn't have enough memory! Of course the machine has plenty of memory -- for some reason we just couldn't access it. We tried to contact Brian who is the VM man but to no avail. Jack left to greener fields but with the promise that he would return when possible. I really need to make sure that both Jack and Brian are present at the same time when Plone work is attempted.

Finally, Fred showed up after dropping his wife off at the airport. In the relatively short time he was there he succeeded in assembling another computer enabled table! Not sure how because in the whole time I was there I didn't even complete one table assembly, albeit my table required a somewhat more involved procedure since it didn't use the new HP monitors.

Sweets from "A Baker's wife" and coffee were imbibed by all.

Thanks for your help, gentleman.

Anyone up to coming in at 1:00 this Wed November 26th? No school that day so I'll be there, working to assemble final tables and starting the wiring. Let me know and I'll stop by A Baker's Wife before I get there...

Friday, November 21, 2008

A wiring solution

Here is a birds-eye view of the class layout with the front of the room being at the bottom of the page and lab space w/fixed lab 'islands' (drawn as squares) starting at the top of the drawing and going off the page w/2 more rows of tables--OK so this drawing is pretty unclear. Ignore the drawings crossed out at bottom. The idea is to tie the left column of 3 tables together so as to make a single structure. Then, tie in that triple-table to the square-shaped, built-in lab island behind it. Each table would have a power strip w/a sufficiently long cord to reach back, threaded under each table and along the 2x6's connecting them, to an outlet in the lab island. This solution would be repeated on the right side of the room as well. The solution for the middle tables is explain a ways below.Directly above is a picture of the system to connect 2 adjoining tables. The 2, 2x6's sandwiched in the middle serve as spacers for the 2x6's coming from the tables. There would be a 12 inch gap, then, between the table legs from adjoining tables.

Getting connectivity between tables 4 and 5 in the middle would require a different solution. The side view drawing below shows that the tables would be about 3 feet apart, and a cord protector would span the distance on the floor where both power and data cables would travel. Again, the back table would be tied in to the middle lab station. This is not a heavily trafficked area.
Below is an attempted perspective drawing, standing at the front of the room looking towards the back not showing any of the classroom computer embedded tables, just showing the lab islands in the back. In the upper left-hand corner you can see the classroom switch and the network cables coming from the right hand triple tables. The idea is to use Plenum data cables so that they could be above the hanging ceiling panels.

You can also see the network cables coming from the middle island and the far left island. Cord protectors would be on the floor, spanning the short distance between the lab islands and moving on to the wall. Upon reaching the wall the cables would travel up to the switch (this is not shown in the drawing).
Cody came up with an interesting solution where we wouldn't have to run so many network cables to the switch. As seen in the drawing below there would be an 8 port switch hidden in each one of lab islands. The gigabit port would then be connected to the built-in wiring in the lab island which would connect to the main switch in the building tech closet. The building wiring is Category 5e, unofficially rated up to gigabit speed. I'm not sure how well this would work in a thin client environment however, but I'll find out.
A few points remain to be investigated:
  • Can we have the built-in "power strips" inspected instead of buying and installing after market power strips?
  • If this were so, then we would simply cut down the length of the power cord and still be able to use the nicer built-in solution.
  • Is it true that the length of cord on a power strip can not exceed 25 feet?
In conclusion, the fire marshal, when asked by the district IT people for information on safety code only offered a link to a page with, "suggestions". It was in these suggestions that I found out that you can use power strips as permanent wiring as long as they're not daisy chained. It ambiguously stated that, "power strips are often found in lengths less than 25 feet." What does that mean? I trust that this combination of solutions will relieve the fire marshal's concerns.

I can't help but wonder if instead of using orange power cords for our power strips we had instead used white ones, would the fire marshal have been so upset and instead worked with us to find a solution?

Finally, big thanks to Fred, Cody and of course Christen for their help in taking down all of the previous wiring that Fred had so beautifully installed. Thanks too, to Judy the school secretary and the building engineer Ramon who helped in getting us the 8 foot ladder without which, of course, nothing would've gotten done!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tag Cloud

Thanks to Kevin Keating for this useful tag cloud on the right side of this page. By following his directions on this page I was able to add a tag cloud to this blog, useful now that I'm tagging my entries.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Blog growing

I've been feeling the need for quite a while to comment on aspects of GCoS beyond just its physical creation. That need has been growing and has now burst into this blog! So now I'll start to use tagging to categorize the entries.

I was directed to this entry from an entry in Jon Stahl's blog. When I tell some people about the GCoS project, some people get it right away and others don't. I've had the tacit understanding expressed in that entry but didn't really get the need to be explicit about it.

To me, when I think, "Web 2.0 tools in the classroom" I'm thinking, "Wow, think how these tools will allow the students and I to network--to create connections". It's not about computers, about the internet, or the network. It's about increasing the quantity and quality of the network --the networking-- between the people, ideas and things that constitute a community.

I wonder, what are measures of the quantity/quality of a community?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The next big thing: "Formative" vs. "Summative" assessments

I was trying to figure a useful angle for this post :-).

Our district is currently exploring and emphasizing the value of formative assessment. For those outside the ed world, formative assessment is basically when a teacher assesses a student's knowledge during a unit being taught. A summative assessment is a test at the end of a unit.

The purpose of a formative assessment is to further student learning: if you know what a student knows and doesn't know you can fine tune your teaching to help that student learn more.

A summative assessment, on the other hand, is used for evaluation: good job bad job or somewhere in between, in other words: this is your consequence -- good or bad -- of your efforts, this goes in your permanent records. Time to move on.

Both of these kinds of assessments fit with different worldviews, really. Both are important in education and in life. Both are important on an organizational level. But... would you want your child's teacher to put more emphasis on the formative or the summative? Do you feel an entrepreneur, an innovator, would care more about one or the other?

Soooo... the Fire Marshal walked into Christen's room last week, glanced around at the organized distribution of cables hanging from the ceiling and said, turning away, "Every cable has to be removed from this room by tomorrow." This, I would say, is a great example of the negatives of a summative assessment: some things were observed, a judgment was made, a consequence assigned.

He has the power, he has the responsibility. Safety is at stake. Seems like he was just doing his job. Kind of like a teacher: the teacher looks at the student's lab writeup, compares it to the standards, makes a judgment and assigns a grade. There is a winner or loser. Just doing our job. Time to move on.

However, I'm proud to say the people in charge at our district, while respecting the fire marshals proclamation, are looking at this from a formative perspective. Facilities are investigating (expensive) electrical modifications. Yes, money is a problem, however, they are searching. Our IT leader is looking at installing for us special power strips while we're looking at longer-term solutions. These leaders are looking at the same information as did the fire marshal, however they are looking to improve the program, not simply okay it or delete it.

One could easily say that the fire marshal was just doing his job. Having done a good bit of construction on my house over the last few years and thus working with different city code inspectors I know that this is not the only perspective available to an inspector. If they choose, they can take an extra five minutes, answering questions, looking at details, considering alternatives.

This experience is a reminder to me that we all owe our community, be they students in our class or schools within our jurisdiction, the gift of our expertise not just a judgment from our power.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The network develops further

Fred said, "That's when the Install-fest is set to happen". Conner had said yes. Jack said, "Why don't we meet at the install-fest (not Roosevelt) to work on 'the project', everyone will be there." People said, 'yes', so we did.

I got to TIES in St. Paul around 10:00, the generous host of the install-fest, lead and organized by Brian Dolan-Goecke. Even with Fred and Brian's help, it took almost an hour to unload, transport, setup and successfully start my technology. That the server sat in the trunk overnight didn't help, and it took 3 restarts for the server to actually start--hard drive with thermal expansion/contraction issues, I'd guess.

I was relegated (and wisely so) outside of the main room to the entry/break room due to the noise pollution caused by my server. At least, that's what I tell myself ;-). So the first thing that arriving Linux people saw was my multi-computer setup. This lead to some helpers! Conner was working on creating a script that would import users based on a csv text file. Don joins us and then he and Conner talk about parsing, bash, Perl etc. Well, by 4:00 Don's basically finished this import script (it will be on the Ubuntu wiki soon). Conner, besides adding ideas/insight to the script has done repeated battle with the buggy saboyan program on the server, a key component of the classroom software management system. More on that, soon, too, I hope!

Parallel to this is the effort of first Brian and then Jack. However, Brian can't start till I can get a VPN connection to the MPS web server, and for some reason the VPN didn't work inside the TIES firewall. Luckily for us, Dan the Network Man for TIES was to arrive in the afternoon. Upon arriving he dives into system logs, looking for clues as to why we can 'tunnel' into the MPS intranet (not to worry! I've got permission...). He finally finds a solution and Brian does his Virtual Machine thing and then Jack starts configuring our MPS Plone web server and then he has to go, but, many miles of the thousand mile journey has been traversed today! Additionally, Dan troubleshot the Switch issue, something about spanning tree links. yea. That info will end up on the wiki, too.

In the afternoon, Brian's wife and 2 kids showed up and were hanging around, playing around, and watching dad do his thing. This is nice. It reminded me of when Erika would come to my class when she was a kindergartner and clean the overhead and play with the snakes and guinea pigs in my classroom. She's 17 now, getting ready to head off to college... We talked a bit about choosing schools--her youngest is about to head to school, and it reminds me how parenting is sometimes about managing our kids transitions to bigger arenas, and that it takes a community to do this. Ubuntu...

The concept map at the top of this post shows contributors--to see the depth of what they've done you'll have to read my blog :-)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Right. Why didn't I think of this earlier?

Last night I jumped onto the irc channel, #edubunte, using the software Colloque 2. (I think these irc channels might also be know as chat rooms) Anyway, I asked a question--how can you import a bunch of users into an Ubuntu server. Without much hesitation stgraber replied. Here's a screen shot of this part of the conversation:

This is a perfect example that effort in communicating within a community can be more powerful than working hard in semi-isolation (ie I've been searching Google for a good bit trying to answer this question to no avail). Here's a link to his business' site in Quebec: