14 October 2006
Infonet 2006 Issue 4 Volume 16
ACEC2006 was a huge conference. Over 1000 delegates, 350 Speakers, a Trade Show and 4 days filled with great tutorials, workshops, forums and presentations about computers, communications and information technology across the whole education spectrum. Seven sessions mentioned Open Source specifically in the title or abstract, and many more mentioned it in passing in one way or another.
Back in January I attended the education mini conference attached to the annual Linux Australia conference in Dunedin. You may have read the report in a previous edition of Infonet.
The attendees at the mini-conf were all interested in open source in education, but there weren't many teachers amongst the group. So, we decided we needed to go to the conferences where teachers are. So, I submitted a paper to ACEC2006, based on the one I gave in Dunedin, and was very pleased it was accepted. This just left me wondering how I might get to Cairns to deliver the presentation. Linux Australia came to my rescue with a community grant, covering my airfare, registration and accommodation. (Thanks LA!)
I got in touch with Richard Weideman, Ubuntu Education Programme Manager at Canonical, to get a special shipment of Edubuntu CDs to give to people I spoke to. The Edubuntu Linux distribution is based on the award winning Ubuntu Linux distribution. It's suitable for use on servers, for running thin clients, or can be installed as a stand alone workstation. The Edubuntu Manifesto states that "software should be available free of charge, that software tools should be usable by people in their local language and despite any disabilities, and that people should have the freedom to customise and alter their software in whatever way they see fit."
I also had some Ubuntu LiveCDs left over from Software Freedom Day, as well as a handful of Fedora Core Red Hat DVDs. I was astonished how easy it was to give away these disks, and how interested people were in exploring Open Source alternatives for a range of software applications. I gave away my disks at my own session, at the end of Kathryn Moyle's presentation on "Identifying indicators of open source software suitable for schools" and following Andrew Churches packed-out session on "Digitising classroom practice: ICT, learning styles and tools" in which he highlighted many of the open source tools now available for use in schools.
It's all about great conversations
One of the most valuable aspects of ACEC from my perspective was the conversations I shared with a number of different people. New Zealand featured prominently. Rachel Tuwhangai from the University of Auckland shared the Conference keynote with James L. Smith from Washington State in the US, and Paul Sutton, who has been working on Nauru. I caught up with Rachel on the last day of the conference. Her work with Maori education sounded fascinating and I was interested to hear more. Many of the sessions I attended looked at education programs and activities in indigenous communities in Australia. This really seemed to 'change the script' for what education can mean. For remote indigenous groups, still speaking traditional languages, learning their own language and stories is as important a form of literacy as learning to read, write and count. Rachel spoke about Maori immersion schools where the teachers only speak Maori, she spoke of some such schools where
the principals won't allow computers because it would mean English needed to be used. This was yet another example of the importance of localisation and internationalisation in computing.
VITTA's own Roland Gesthuizen spoke passionately about his Khmer speaking students, and the difficulties they experienced in trying to type in their own languages. I had not realised that .ca, the international code for cambodian, had been hijacked by the catalan language, and this was part of the problem. I was excited to learn however that part of the solution was KhmerOS and OpenOffice.
It has to work, when it doesn't, we all suffer.
I spoke to another teacher over breakfast, she has recently moved back in to teaching senior school after teaching in middle school, and was eager to use more ICT in the classroom. Her school had recently acquired a lab of Apple machines, so she intended to do some podcasting, but stumbled when her students couldn't save to the network because their disk-space allocations were too small. I wondered if she might be able to get around the problem with large USB sticks. She caught up with me later in the conference to say she'd spoken with her school, and that they'd neglected to tell her that the Apple lab had been setup differently to all other computers in the school, and that students were able to save to the local machines
in order to create multimedia products. This struck me as yet another example of a technology let down that didn't need to happen, but none the less happens all too often. How are we to tackle the difficult triangle that connects pedagogy, infrastructure and skills? Skills of teachers and technicians, pedagogy of how to embrace and incorporate technology for learning's sake, and infrastructure that supports and facilitates all the functions of the school as a learning organisation.
Ultimately it seems to come down to the same three things. Time. Money. Will.
Finding pathways for community involvement.
I also chatted with Tim Carrell, from Burnside High School in Christchurch, NZ. He's already using Open Source Software in many ways, so we spoke about some of the limitations around work flow between GIMP, Inkscape and Scribus. This moved on to discussing how to submit effective bug reports and engage with the development community. He was interested in finding ways of getting students to engage with the development community without having to code, and this pointed straight at documentation, bug reporting and bug triage.
I first heard the concept of bug triage from Josh Wulf at Red Hat's Open Source symposium in Melbourne in September. Josh was also at the education mini-conf in Dunedin, so it was good to catch up with him again. He's been working on Fedora, Red Hat's free community based Linux distribution. What he says about getting involved with Fedora by starting with reporting and confirming bugs, and helping to document what software does and how to use it are relevant to all Open source projects.
Connections and conversations, that's what I like most about conferences and workshops. It's easy enough to explore and learn about new things online if the mood strikes, but meeting people, and hearing about what excites them is what really inspires.
I'm looking forward to the VITTA conference for this reason. I hope I'm not too busy running around looking after things and helping out on Day 3. I'd love to sneak in a moment to hear Martin Dougiamas keynote about Moodle.
Open Source for Learning
Open Source is really changing the learning landscape. It's less about vendors and software and more about community projects and finding the right tool for the job.
Linux Australia: Peak body representing the Linux and Open Source community in Australia.
linux.conf.au Education mini-conference
Edubuntu: Linux distribution for education
Fedora: Community facing linux backed by Red Hat.
OpenSuse: Community facing linux backed by Novell.
How to Report Bugs Effectively