Linux Tablets, Computer Science, and Version Control

Right now, there is an open source tablet (the PengPod) crowdsourcing contributions on Indiegogo. The fundraising period ends on December 2. Stop reading this post, right now, and get over there and contribute. Then, come back here and I'll tell you why.

Okay. Nice work.

Here's why: we need leading edge devices running open source code in schools. If we are serious about teaching students how to work creatively, and how to use technology as part of that work, they need to understand the malleable nature of the technology we use. The devices we work with every day all embody a series of deliberate choices. When we use a closed device like an iPad, our ability to tinker with these choices is limited to non-existent - unless, of course, you want to blow up your warranty.

With a device like a PengPod, you can give students a tool that can both be used for traditional classwork, and used a central component of a project-based computer curriculum. The source code of Pengpod is freely available on Github, which means that people can access it for free, and that in the process of accessing it, they have the opportunity to learn Git, and, more importantly, how to work productively within a larger community. On a side note, how many computer science courses within K12 teach students how to use version control? If you are, awesome, and if not, well, get rolling and start doing it. Given that a history of code contributions and publicly accessible work are key factors in landing jobs these days (as well as just an essential and transferrable skill) we are doing people a disservice by not teaching them the core skills that will help them develop their skills both inside and outside of class.

Right now, the EdTech world feels pretty app-happy. This (hopefully temporary) myopia can blind us to some of the real potential that we can unleash within our students. The problem with the app-centric mentality is that, even when we are using a closed device like an iPad for creative work, the bounds of creativity are limited by the functionality provided within the app. The message is clear: be creative in the corner, but don't mess with anything outside the corner, because that's too complicated. Kids deserve more, and they deserve to have their vision of the possible uncluttered by arbitrary limits. Let's get open source tools in the hands of kids; let's give them the tools to explore them, and let's see what happens.

Building a Student Portal -- Response to a Question from Miguel Guhlin

Over on his blog, Miguel Guhlin asks:

Anyone have suggestions on how to respond to this question? I welcome all brainstorming ideas...

We are ready to implement a student portal (with teacher and parent portals to follow) for our 1:1 campuses. We would like for this portal to be a web-based, searchable, "pretty"

While "pretty" is subjective, this is one place where spending a little time with either an ID or a graphic designer, or both, will benefit your site. "Pretty" has a frequently overlooked cousin, "Usability" -- sorting out your navigational structures (done in Drupal using the core block and menu items), and making sure your theme enhances these architectural decisions, will often get you both Pretty and Usable, which is a winning combination. Starting with a solid base theme, like Zen, helps you theme your site in a time-efficient way, particularly if you and your team are learning how to design/theme in Drupal. Drupal can be themed pretty effectively via css alone; if you have someone on staff who can work in php, there really isn't much you can't do. Also, if there is one element you decide to outsource, the theme is a pretty good choice.

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