Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Few Encouraging Signs

I was already on the opposite side of the Bay when I got the call. I was scheduled to work with a school on "cloning," a procedure to rapidly install software on a large number of computers, without carrying around a stack of CDROMs. Cloning also ensures a consistent experience for students and teachers, so it is one of those "best practices" schools need to learn about and adopt, to ensure that learning is not interrupted by one-of-a-kind glitches and that technical support does not become a black hole of pain. However, this call had to take priority.

It was the school librarian. (This was a public school, but times were better then.) "You have to come right away! All the computers in the library are infected with a virus and it is erasing our hard drives!" I was skeptical, since I knew the library computers to be Macs, but malware infestations on school networks can spread faster than head lice, so I could not ignore the risk. "OK, I will need to cancel my other appointment first, but I can be there in about an hour. Meanwhile, unplug all the computers from the network and turn them off."

When I arrived, the mischievous looks on the faces of several students were my first clue. However, booting up a few of the computers did not show anything obviously wrong, beyond that they were disconnected from the network. I started checking to verify that there was antivirus software installed.  I asked a few questions to find out if anything else had been changed.  Then, the first symptoms kicked in. Even I had to suppress a laugh. These students had managed to bypass the desktop security and install the "Bad Dog" screensaver! In case you have never seen it, the first few minutes of this YouTube video, demonstrating the Windows version, will give you the gist. Besides wasting my day, these students had enjoyed a terrific joke at the expense of a somewhat technophobic educator.

The fear of looking foolish in front of technologically savvy students is one of the great challenges educators need to overcome. This energy and interest in tinkering can be given a positive outlet, by offering students the opportunity to become the modern equivalent of the "A/V kid" (you know, the geeky one who used to thread the filmstrip through the projector). I have also noticed that high technological expertise -- once a social stigma for youngsters -- now seems to increase social standing. I see this as a very encouraging sign.

There are other encouraging signs, suggesting that adoption of innovative technology may be starting to take hold and perhaps even starting to matter. One reason is that so many amazing things are now either incredibly lower in cost than their previous counterparts or they are entirely free.  Other trends I cannot explain but they seem to be positive ones.  Here are a few of my current personal favorites.

  • Netbooks, FlexBooks, eReaders, iPads, iPhones, Droids
  • Creative Commons
  • Google Docs and Apps (Cloud Computing in general)
  • GAVRT (Lewis Center for Educational Research): Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope
  • Our Courts (Sandra Day O’Connor)
  • High Performing Charter Schools
  • Parent Volunteerism; Millennial Students
  • Robotics, including cheap sensors

It might be a coincidence, but it also occurs to me that we not had to deal with a school emergency involving a virus infestation for a very long time.  The threats are real, but growing numbers of schools seem to have finally  adopted some best practices, such as installing modern firewalls and keeping virus definitions up-to-date.  I'll have more to say about these and other encouraging signs in future posts.

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