Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Archive for the month “June, 2006”

Joomlarized

One down, three to go. Upgrading and updating various domains is fun to do but time consuming. When the old Visionplateau went down I ended up with a backup of my Open Source eLearning site, but without a lot of knowledge to restore it at the new hosting location. And, maybe that was good as well. I started building the site in Mambo, only to realize that about a month after I did that, the developers team of Mambo moved away from that project to start Joomla. Aaaarggghh!

This is one of the things I do dislike about open source development. The open source developers say that projects can always continue because the source code is there to use for everyone. That is considered better because with closed source a company can always decide to stop and you end up with nothing. Uhm, wake up call…… For people like me and tons more: when the developers stop supporting the open source project it’s the same thing, because we can’t code. We use software.

Another troublesome trend has been developing in the open source community, namely the lack of continued support for the not-so-sexy-but-vitally-important applications. With tens of thousands of packages that need to be developed and maintained (and with thousands of developers wanting to scratch their own itch instead of helping the other) there are always some projects that get more attention and are considered more important like, let’s say GCC or drivers. I still remember the discussion in the Firefox team where one developer stated he was basically the only one doing the work. Firefox? The love baby in the fight against Internet Explorer Domination? Only one developer? Come on.

Okay, let me be clear: I reallly, really, really appreciate the open source community. All those guys and girls coding their behinds of to create and improve software. It’s a social movement in the digital realm without precedent. But can’t we just prune a large proportion of the development and start helping out to improve what is already there? Less ego, more cooperation.

Back to Joomla. I got it up and running. And, what is more, I am impressed with the ecosystem. There are tons of free extensions available. Again I see duplicate projects, differing the one extension only slightly from the other, but the rating system does help people like me out. Only one week later I receive the notification of a critical security update. Noooooo, not again. Luckily the upgrade went smoothly yesterday. It looks like Joomla is here to stay. I am Joomlarizing all my websites in the coming weeks.

I hate teachers!!

Well, not all of them of course, but today…..
Recently I was asked to give an expert opinion/review on two final thesis by a university. Both documents were sorely lacking evidence of skill, content and the necessary scientific identity that you might expect from students on this level. And I know what I am talking about after 2,5 years as a project manager in educational innovation, 7 years experience in higher education and 5 years as project developer and strategic manager. Our 25 person organisation takes up 20 students each year for practical training and I personally counsel three or four students when they do projects/research at our organisation. So, when I report back to the university that the documents are no better than a 4 on a 10 point scale, I do believe that such judgment deserves merit.
Well, it did have merit in one case, because that student was not allowed to graduate. I had a good discussion with both the teacher and the student and offered the student help for the make up exam.
Yesterday I was called by my boss, because he was invited to sit in on a final defense discussion with the other student. Students are required to argue their final thesis before the teacher and the expert, but only after the thesis has been approved by both. My boss can’t make it today, so he asked me to take care of it. Surprised? Shocked? Furious? Sure, all of it. Especially when I heard that the teacher gave the student an 8 score and that my boss went along and gave a 7.5 score.
What was the teacher’s rationale? He was sorry for the student. She worked so hard on the documents, became pregnant during her studies and because of her minority background she already had so much problems…. Is he crazy? I have been working with minority students all of my career and I can assure you that he is not helping them by lowering quality standards. The market place where the student is going to compete is sometimes brutal. It expects results, not effort, not pity.
Now we have a new professional on the labor market that leaves university with the impression that she performed well, but that we won’t hire because we know she does not have the minimum standards of performance. The girl will suffer, where it is the teacher that should be fired.

One laptop per child: another fish in Lake Victoria?

The last few days I started to ruminate about an interesting discussion during my university years. I studied Societal History in the late 80s, early 90s and decided that I needed something to really round of my education. And so I embarked on a major in Development Economics in order to learn and understand the finer points of social and economic planning in developing nations.
Societal Histoy in those days was firmly rooted in modern dialectics and I believe it is not easy for any student of history to remain the idealistic optimist when looking at mankind’s track record. The students at Development Economics where economy majors, optimists that honestly and seriously wanted to better the world by employing their skills, talents and energy. A lofty goal.
In one of our first classes we dealt with one of the key issues in social and economic problems: that of choice and constraints. In order to develop a society you need investments in agriculture, industry, services, education, health care, to name just a few. And all those investments are linked in one way or another. Idealistic as my fellow students were they decided to go for health care and education. I must confess that I didn’t really argue with any sense of tact, but my arguments boiled down to this point: “Fine, so now you saved the children from dying of small-pox and the flu. Now they die of hunger.” The words “heated debate” doesn’t even describe what happened after that.
The teacher allowed the discussion to continue for almost an hour. He then made my argument final by saying that in developing nations every choice in this regard will have dire consequences. People will die no matter what choices are made. The transition is never an easy process and with the lack of resources…. Well, you get the picture. We had a great year and a half after that with a superb group of students. I enjoyed every moment of it.
I had to think back about that discussion when I read again about the one laptop per child project. In itself it is a remarkable project: to put a cheap laptop in the hands of young children in the developing world. Red Hat will provide the OS, but Microsoft and Apple wanted to deliver it as well. This alone would preclude the notion that only altruistic motives are involved in the project. It seems such a good idea. Countries can buy those laptops for $100,– a piece and the children have a solid OS with a bunch of great open source applications. But…. every choice has it’s dire consequences.
What could be the consequences for developing nations? For one, even today there should not be a lack of resources to invest in education at large: proper building, proper school books, properly trained, motivated and paid teachers. However, a large proportion of the annual budgets for many developing nations goes to (1) defense spending and (2) debt reduction. Where does that money go to? Of course, the western world. The small amount that goes into education might well be diverted into participating in this pet project, reducing the pace of innovation the education sector.
This reminds me of an example that we discussed in Development Economics, the case of the Victoria bass in Lake Victoria. It seemed like a good idea as well: introduce a fish with more proteine and fat than any other fish. One thing was forgotten: our new friend had no natural enemies in Lake Victoria and a healthy appetite. The ecosystem was destroyed and it took ages for the people around Lake Victoria to adjust to the new situation. Progress? Not really.
I am afraid that the one laptop per child project will prove to be just that. A big fish in a weak educational ecosystem.

Tried and tested?

Two parts of the OpenSource eLearning site were installed today: Joomla with a few extensions (Joomlaboard, Community Builder, DocMan, Zoom, eWriting and CivicCRM) and Dokeos. Fortunately the previous templates still functioned, so the sites at least look familiar.

Joomla and it’s extensions is mostly stable stuff. As stable as open source development will allow that is, but Dokeos is a challenge in itself. I am using the community release which is the cutting edge of the cutting edge. I want to install Dokeos 1.8 later this year. The developers have some interesting features in the pipe line (http://www.dokeos.com/features.php) and it will definitely be an asset to the Open Source eLearning site. I think it will make it easier to add and manage rich content.

Rich eLearning content, that is what Open Source eLearning is all about. There is plenty of text based information about open source software, but when it comes to multimedia materials….. Oh, you can buy your materials from LinuxCBT (and they are very good), but they lack a certain ‘joie de vivre’. And the materials from Lynda, VTC, Trainsignal, Total Training and CBT Nuggets are very good, but also very expensive. And they don’t deal with open source software. Open Source eLearning wants to change that: to create multimedia training tools to help migrate to open source software, build and developed using open source tools.

How to get yourself a writers' contract.

About a year ago I decided to create my first life plan. After reading up on Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and listening to audio recordings by Anthony Robbins and Jim Rohn, I decided that this was definitely the way to go. Why? Because my resume would give you the same impression as watching a drunken sailor getting back to his ship in a foreign harbor covered by thick fog: it was going everywhere without going anywhere. Oh, my personal goals were solid enough and I have been able to achieve my personal goals as far as volunteer work based on my religious beliefs were concerned. Professionally it was a minor disaster.

Being 38 years of age I could look back on a wide variety of jobs and experiences. In education, in welfare, in IT. With a broad and respected knowledge used for strategic planning, project development, training, coaching, research and management. But, it lacked structure and an overall direction.

One of my goals for 2006 was to write my first book, preferably on IT but I did not rule out fiction as well. I have been writing for the last three or four years and I started doing that in order to structure my dabblings in IT. I started to write for my computer users group, which has a bi-monthly magazine reaching 8.000 readers. Here and there I tried to make a small impact in the digital realm as well.

Earlier this year, the digital newsletter by HCC (www.hcc.nl), the mother organisation of my computer users group with 180.000 members, had a small advertising requesting writers for a new book on Linux. I wasn’t about to let this opportunity slip by and so I found myself with a group of other prospective writers in a meeting with representatives from HCC and Academic Service. They told us that there was room for two or three authors only. A beauty contest would be held to determine which three would get a contract. Beauty contest, you might ask? Don’t worry, you won’t be confronted with me in a bathing suit pleading for world peace. We all had to write an article on Linux and some applications, so they could determine our writing abilities and style. And so we did.

Now, the three of us (Jos Herni, Dennis de Leeuw and myself) will have six months to complete a book on Linux for Windows users. We got our contract and I achieved one of the goals of my life plan. The lesson: plan your succes as if it is already your own.

Off to a new start

When is a good time to start a blog? Is it ever a good time to jump on an already overcrowded bandwagon? Why would I complicate my life even further?

For me, there is but one reason to start this. I am about to embark on a very exciting year. In the coming year I have the opportunity to write my first book. Together with two other authors, but still. At the same time I will be involved in a great building project. That should be enough for most, but there is more. I have two main online projects that need a lot of work.

First, my wife will start a new career in teaching and she wants to do some freelance work with that. That is website number 1, together with a complete business- and marketing plan and simply helping her out with this adventure.

Secondly, I still have my Open Source eLearning project. Health issues kept me back from fully devoting my time to that one. I need to rebuild the site and get some projects going.

That makes four major projects that I am excited about. Besides that, there are a lot of thoughts and ideas that flow through my mind. I need some space to set them free, make them public. This blog will have to be that space.

Today is a great day, it is the first day of the rest of my life.

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