Alexandria Online

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Role of Google and Wikipedia in Schools: Search, Find, Validate

Our librarians strictly prohibit the use of Google searches and Wikipedia for research purposes. Our faculty are split, with puritans insisting on authorized sources only and libertines allowing free searches, Wikipedia, whatever in the research process. They all agree that you can't actually cite Wikipedia in your final draft, and that unauthorized sources are, at best, leads to ideas that can be shored up by good, old fashioned books published by respected authors.

No matter which side of the debate you take, you will be doing your students a disservice if you don't teach them how to use google and wikipedia because they will use them whether you forbid them or not. It's like the old argument against teaching sex education: if you don't teach students what sex is then it will never occur to them to try it.

One problem here is that we are mired in teaching facts and we want to know that the facts come from an authorized source. But education isn't a collection of accurate facts, and research is not the science of how to collect those facts.

Tech support people, engineers, and tech directors have benefitted tremendously from using free searches on Google. Got an error message? Just type it into Google. Worried that the answer isn't right? Just try it. If it works, it's right.

Ever wonder if you could take a picture of your iPhone screen? You can! Just type "take a picture of my iphone screen" into google. Then do what is suggests on the first search result. If it doesn't work, try the next search result. (You won't have to, though. The first one works.)

Or maybe you are curious about binary notation of numbers and you would like to know what two to the twenty-fourth power is in decimal notation. Again, use google. Type 2^24 in the search area and press return. Is it right? Try it in Excel. It's right.

Interested in the life of Alan Turing? There is a great biography of him in Wikipedia complete with dozens of authoritative references in an imposing bibliography. You can't cite the Wikipedia article in your research paper, but you can use those references and cite them.

I once attended a lecture given by a colleague about Ancient Greek pottery. She showed several beautiful images of famous pots. I asked her where she got the images and she told me she just did a quick google search for them. So I challenged her: "How do you know they are reliable." "Because I've seen the real things in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." This is a perfect example of the role of the teacher as validator.

Crowd-sourcing has overturned the old notion that crowds represent the lowest common denominator. Now you can throw a question, problem or project at the crowd and get the attention of the best and the brightest if you are lucky. New drugs have been discovered, chemical weapons identified, and traffic reports have become incredibly accurate thanks to the efforts of anonymous contributors to the common good. Sometimes there is a financial reward; sometimes it is just the satisfaction of being part of the solution.

Nothing can replace trained school librarians. They know which sources are age appropriate, accurate, unbiased and reliable. Our librarians are great at pulling together bibliographies for every occasion. But who will teach kids how to deal with the wild wild west of the Internet? We can either let them learn it on their own, or we can get them started in the right direction. But no matter what we do or don't do, they will be out there, searching, finding, and -- we hope -- validating their sources.

From Pre-K through 8th grade, our kids learn continuously about digital citizenship. It's part of our culture. We know they will have a digital footprint and we know that they will start building it very early. We don't know what technologies they will be using to build that footprint in ten years. So we teach the concept of the digital citizenship and bind it tightly to the values and morals of our community. We make our students resilient and adaptive, ready for the future, whatever it may bring.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Internet: Property of Bell Telephone

Although Bell Telephone was broken up over thirty years ago, we cannot escape its legacy. It worked brilliantly for a long time because it was one giant network using all the same technology and design. Here is a relic straight from my own kitchen that still works.

My grandmother's phone.

Yes, you can still dial someone up on that rotary phone. My kids' friends love to. But check out the bottom:
Written on the bottom of my grandmother's phone
Back in the day we paid for our phone line and then we rented the actual equipment in the house. You youngsters probably don't remember those days. (Paid extra for insurance against damage by roaming dinosaurs too.) If you wanted to move your phone to another room you couldn't do it yourself - had to call Bell Telephone and have a technician come out. After all, it was a piece of equipment on their network even though it was inside your house.

Then came the break up of Bell in 1982. My parents bought this phone from the Bell system on 7/25/83, as you can see below:

Sold to the consumer after the breakup of Bell

Now jump to the Fall of 2014. Episcopal has a fiber optic connection to the internet provided by Sunesys to carry our data, but our voice and backup data line goes over an old-fashioned copper cable carrying two T1 connections.

During construction of the new campus, that copper line was damaged and water leaked in. The cable is rotting, but as long as Verizon can find a good pair of wires that connect they have fulfilled their legal obligation to provide us with phone service.

After a lot of pushing and prodding, we got an additional fiber optic cable. But with no help from Verizon. Our vendor is a Philadelphia company called Digital Speed. I will try to describe clearly how this works

Digital Speed bills us, but actually a company called Windstream carries our phone service and bills Digital Speed. Windstream relies on Verizon to carry our service over the telephone poles, but Verizon must collaborate with XO to get the signal onto campus.

One day a guy from XO shows up in my telecom closet; the next day a guy from Verizon shows up. But when I want to talk to someone, I call Digital Speed.

Nor do I exaggerate when I say they just show up. We had about 24 hours notice that a company was coming to campus to get started on the project of pulling a fiber optic cable from the street to replace the copper cable. Three trucks showed up and drove into the middle of campus. We carefully shepherded them across the campus green, watching out for kids throwing frisbees.

But these guys were just the duct pullers. Verizon subcontracts the job of running innerduct through the ground. The slippery sleeve, called Maxcell, protects the actual fiber optic cable and makes it easier to pull through.

Then Verizon popped in with their trucks to open up the man holes again and pull the cable. Not much warning then either. The XO people called me to ask where to park; I had no idea they were coming. They installed the equipment in the telecom room that receives the signal. A few days later I noticed the door was open to the telecom room and discovered a stranger in there looking at cabling. The Verizon guy had let himself in with no notice.

Why do these guys feel so free to just walk into my closet? It's their house. It's property of Bell Telephone. This is the mentality of people who work on networks. They think they own the street, the poles on the street, the holes in the ground, the equipment in your closet. Unless they have access to every part of the network, it's not really a network.

The Verizon guy took a key out of his pocket and opened a case containing the equipment that receives the signal from the old copper cable, the T1 lines. He has the key; I don't. Digital Speed had asked me once to reseat the cards in the equipment, but I didn't have access. Why not? Property of Verizon:
Verizon's locked equipment

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Coding in the Classical Liberal Arts Education

Singular Plural
1st amo amamus
2nd amas amatis
3rd amat amant

I did it! I conjugated a Latin verb from memory! That's not surprising because I taught Latin for ten years before moving into technology. But I still get a little tingle in my brain when I do it because I am composing it anew.

What was more challenging was making the table you see above in HTML. I composed it all out of my memory without the use of a web editing tool using plain HTML, which lies jumbled in with SQL, Basic, ASP, Scratch and PHP. Just like my Latin, it fades but never goes away. Here's what I really wrote:

Classic HTML, readable in any browser including Netscape 1. See how different it looks from the finished product? Many coders consider HTML a "mark-up" language, not a true computer language. Even so, the mind must twist itself into knots to compose HTML in the beginning, then later it becomes second nature. Just like Latin.

When I began teaching at The Episcopal Academy in 1990, 7th and 8th graders were scheduled into beginning coding classes where they learned LOGO on Apple IIe's. BASIC was offered as an elective in high school, and a few students continued on to AP Computer Science. Latin was required in 7th and 8th grades.

In the mid to late 1990's, until the tech bubble burst around 2000, students were storming the gates to learn code. It was largely a vocational choice. That's where the money was. Many got burned; the tech sector got a bad reputation and fell out of favor. And Latin was required in 7th and 8th grades.

In 2014, our students are coding around the edges of the curriculum in grades K-12. We have a high school robotics team and a middle school robotics club. A handful of kids take the programming course, now offered in Java, and some go on to AP Computer Science. Very few of our students become professional programmers. Latin is still required in 7th and 8th grades.

The classical liberal arts education claims to transcend vocational trends and to develop minds with timeless skills, flexibility and resilience. Learn how to learn and the world is your oyster. Is this notion a vestige of Western imperialist culture? a form of management training? deeply held cultural heritage? magical thinking, or just the only thing we can come up with to teach to kids?

Hard to say. But that's the way we keep doing it. Along the way we tip our hats to vocational trends. Schools have added Mandarin in the past few years, replacing Russian, which was very much in vogue in the '70s and '80s until the Berlin wall fell. Japanese language and business practices enjoyed a spike in popularity and then sank into obscurity along with Japanese business prospects. When the Chinese economy crashes, we will move on to the next power language. (It's looking like Russian again.)

Ironically, when schools try to follow the latest trend in order to make their students more prepared for work, they inevitably prepare them for today's job market, which we know will not exist when they graduate from college. I have a job that didn't exist when I was in school, and I expect my sons to have careers that would be unrecognizable to me now. 

The best preparation for the next economy, now more than ever, will be a classical liberal arts education. In attempting to future-proof the curriculum, schools may be imparting skills that will be obsolete soon. Even coding skills are not immune to the vagaries of the job market.

But now it is time to add code to the classical liberal arts education. People have learned geometry and algebra for thousands of years; calculus joined the math group recently. While code is a relative newcomer, logic, the matrix that spawns programming languages, permeates all aspects of the curriculum while it also differentiates itself from them in this uniquely pure and intellectually demanding form.

More than the classical disciplines, code is everywhere to be learned. You can learn it from a fat book ordered from Amazon; you can pay for an account on; for free you can go to,,, or Every coding curriculum you could possibly imagine for a k-12 education already exists and is in use somewhere. If we could measure the amount of computer science that is being studied in the world, it would probably dwarf efforts spent in any other discipline in schools. The world of K-12 education is ignoring a sleeping giant.

As someone who has spent years reading and teaching Latin and Greek, I am skeptical bordering on contemptuous of introducing utilitarian subjects into the curriculum. The sudden adoption of Mandarin, a very interesting language and culture in its own right, is purely mercenary in the current economic context, but it won't harm anyone to learn it.

Computer science is different. It has ridden several waves of approval and rejection in the culture. The study of English Literature kept pounding at the ivory doors of the academy for generations until, relatively recently, it took its place alongside Classics. Educational pundits have cried out that no child be left behind by the computer science juggernaut, but many people continue to become cultured, richly educated citizens without much digital literacy.

I am a self-taught programmer. There was a need in the school where I worked and I filled it. I built a small database application and it grew and grew. I learned whatever I needed to learn. I copied other people's work. I googled solutions. In the haze of raising a young family, I lulled myself to sleep thinking in code. At first it was a utilitarian decision, but then the stark beauty of algorithmic thinking began to vie with the beauty of Ancient Greek poetry in my heart. The minds of the past - the recent past - those who invented SQL and the other tools I used - they joined the company of authors, musicians, mathematicians, scientists, writers, actors and philosophers who were dear to me.

Computer science isn't the next big thing. It isn't a necessary thing. It might prepare you for the workforce or it might not. It isn't a fad. It has taken its place in the pantheon of the arts and sciences. It is a discipline. It is a classic. It can be tedious, boring and frustrating to learn. It can also be exhilarating to see a piece of code execute perfectly after you have banged your head against a problem for hours.

Kindergartners should write code as they are learning to read English, and teenagers should be griping about their code homework. And all our students should secretly love it, even when its boring or frustrating, because it gives them that tingly feeling.

When I entered college in 1978, Computer Science sat side by side with Classics in the table of contents of Harvard's notoriously ponderous course guide and it continues to thrive in colleges and universities. It is time to see it throughout the curriculum along with language arts and mathematics.

If you have never coded before and you are reading this on a computer, type the HTML above into a simple text editor (Notepad for Windows, textedit for Mac) and save it as "test.html". Then double-click it. You should see the table that you see above. If you don't, you may feel the urge to debug the problem. For this we now have google, the god of answers.

Whether your code works or not, you will feel it: that tingle in your brain as you compose. Frustrated because it didn't work? That's good for your brain too. Failure is a mighty teacher. Keep at it. Don't stop. Give in to the feeling. It is what your brain needs and craves. You are composing code, joining the minds of millions of coders in a rich cultural heritage.

Note: a shorter version of this piece appears in the Winter 2014 edition of Independent School Magazine, the official publication of the National Association of Independent Schools.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Teaching My Mother to Use an iPhone

I'm teaching my 86 year old mom how to use an iPhone for Christmas. It's her present - not the phone, but the "training and on site support" for the phone. After all, I am in that business. In such a situation, it is reasonable to ask the question my mom asks in the video: "how did I get to this place?"


Anyone can hand their mom a phone and wish her well, but it's a little like giving her a new home theater system and then walking away with the junk all still in the boxes. You just gave your ma junk for Christmas.

This week's curriculum was a double-header: making a call and answering a call. I spent last Sunday afternoon setting her up and showing her how to do it. And every day this week I have called her on her iPhone and she has answered; and every day she successfully calls me. She was also able to retrieve, listen to and delete voicemails. We are off to a blazing start.

The first thing I did when I got the phone running was to hide as many of the icons as I could. The idea was simply this: get her to use the device as a portable phone. Her previous cell phone was a clam shell model. She became increasingly frustrated with it. It didn't ring when a call came in; she couldn't get voicemails; she got confused making calls; many many mysterious problems.

So why opt for the iPhone when my mom can barely handle a basic cell phone? Consumer culture. There are many more smart phones sold in the world now than basic models. People just like them more - all sorts of people. So I placed my bet on something a little more complicated but a little more in tune with, and intuitive to the customer.

The problem was that this particular customer grew up and grew old in a non-digital world. She was in her sixties when the internet became available to everybody, and in her fifties when the micro computer landed on people's desks at work. In addition, she never worked. She didn't own a computer until about ten years ago, when she was in her seventies. She had no use for it at home; she had no office where she had to use it.

Pick up your smart phone sometime and watch your fingers as you navigate it, tapping, pinching and swiping. You will begin to feel ridiculous pretty quickly. Ask yourself why you hit this arrow, or swipe up from the bottom to see the dashboard, or tap a triangle to play voicemail.

Try to explain how an iPhone works to yourself. The intuitiveness, the ordinariness, the ease with which we use it every day and every hour, crumbles away beneath you and you find yourself falling down a rabbit hole of lame explanations and bizarre rationalizations. There is a reason it does not come with a manual. Words can't explain.

You have to feel your way through it, close your eyes and "use The Force." You are a rat in a maze, trying avenues, arriving at dead ends, getting rewards for right thinking. Apple and Google are training you to think the way they want you to think. It has become part of our culture.

Culture is viral. People just pick it up like language. You could describe the functions of an iPhone as a language, a visual language, with its own syntax and vocabulary. Like language, a domain of simple elements, like an alphabet, produces infinite semantic possibilities because you can combine them in so many ways.

The language of the iPhone evolved from the language of "tree menus" that we all used to use, or still use, with Blackberries, land lines, thermostats, printers and other devices that have limited graphical interfaces. The tree menus are much more like rat mazes and much more limited than the iPhone interface; nonetheless, hundreds of functions are possible depending on which choices you make on your way down the branches of the tree.

At 86, my mother wants to learn. She wants to participate, be part of the culture. And I admire her for that. She can't climb mountains any more; she doesn't want to take film courses or join a book group; she still reads the entire newspaper every day. She takes very seriously her relationships with her friends and her family and puts a lot of effort into maintaining those relationships. She sees the iPhone as a way to stay connected - and safe - through communication.

And now she is impatient. She is done with simple telephone calls. She wants to text her sons, see pictures of grandchildren, read email from friends, ask Siri how to get to the new restaurant she is taking us to. She will learn what she needs to learn in ways completely different from the way a child learns in school. There is no course for this, no MOOC, no manual.

As someone who has worked in education for 30 years, it is an amazing gift to witness someone who was born in 1928 adopt a technology that was born in 2007. New pathways are opening in her brain as she collides with the new digital language, hieroglyphs that jump, wiggle, slide or open into new sets of hieroglyphs. Sure she gets frustrated, but she works her way over and around obstacles. She reads the glyphs, she swipes, taps, taps again, and talks to the voices on the other end of the signal.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Can't be Satisfied: Adding More Bandwidth to a School

Getting ready to lay new fiber optic cable is an exciting moment for a director of technology.

We already had a 200 Mbps pipe from our main provider, Chesconet. The fiber runs down from Route 252 several hundred yards, through three separate man holes and into our demarcation closet.

The cable itself belongs to Sunesys, which is a major provider of what is known as "dark" fiber, unassigned at first to any particular internet provider. Sunesys then leases the dark fiber to a provider who connects clients to the internet, literally "lighting up" the dark fiber. Here's a picture of Sunesys' cable coming into our building:

That's a tag that warms the heart of technophiles everywhere.

But we have found that one internet connection isn't enough. We want some redundancy. And we chose Digital Speed, another internet service provider, to be our backup.

When we built Episcopal's new Campus in Newtown Square in 2008, Digital Speed got the contract to provide us with our voice communications. Digital Speed ordered Verizon to run copper pairs from Route 252 to our demarc room. Since then the copper cable has degraded and we have had to "switch pairs" which means that the telephone repairman keeps trying different strands of copper inside the big, braided cable until he gets two that are working. Very primitive.

With new technology that is available today, we will retire that corroding, copper cable and run all of our voice transmissions through fiber. And there will still be some room for as much data transmission as we are willing to buy.

If Chesconet has problems with its switching equipment, we will be able to get to the internet through Digital Speed. Our internet routers will have "BGP", "Border Gateway Protocol" enabled so that they can find all the routes they need to get anywhere in the world regardless of which cable they go through.

We will also have redundancy through whatever differences exist in the topography of the two networks. The two fiber cables take the same path to Route 252, but from there they take different paths to the internet. Here is Chesconet's path:

The first step is to pull the sleeve, through which the fiber optic cable will subsequently run. Verizon subcontracts with another group to pull the sleeve, a group that knows nothing about fiber, the internet, or phone service. Pull sleeve and leave.

A couple of big trucks and a van pulled up onto the green, set up safety fences and cones, and started pulling through our underground aquifer (all three manholes are filled with water.)

Final man hole before the cable enters the building

We got the white stuff: "Maxcell". It's a sleeve, not a tube like the orange stuff. Very slippery.

A little persuasion was needed at this hole. He's running a snake.

Sleeve comes out through the conduit here in the demarc room. Other conduits lead to other buildings.

In an age when many of us have fast internet at home, this may seem like a lot of fuss. But consumer bandwidth is nothing like what you get at a school, a university or a big business. Our providers define a minimum speed for 99% of our usage in what is called a "Service Level Agreement." If you read the advertisements for home internet through Verizon, Comcast or others, the wording usually reads "speeds up to..." but there is no mention of what you might actually get from day to day. Nobody really cares as long as they have access and they don't have to wait to stream movies. But when you have 1,500 people on your network using that pipe to the internet, you're going to need a completely different kind of connection.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Devil Needs a Database

In this sentence from Annie Proulx's short story, "I've Always Loved This Place," the devil complains because he has no idea whether the famous painter Signorelli, who did such a lovely job painting The Last Judgment, resides in Hell or not:

"They had to start compiling a database of the damned and their particular niches; it was impossible to find anyone in Hell."

Even the devil, whose very mojo is chaos, needs a database.

But I think the devil, or perhaps Proulx, has it wrong. What the devil really needs is a couple of good Cisco certified internet engineers who can give him the kind of bandwidth and rock-solid wifi that the blessed would enjoy in heaven. That way he can google Signorelli and anyone else he's trying to find in hell.

But good luck finding a top notch network guy in hell. All the ones I've worked with are obviously going to heaven for all their good deeds.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

What Happens When the Network Goes Down?

Short answer: no internet, no email, no phones, no printing, no clocks, no bells, no public announcement system at pickup time, can't adjust the heating/cooling system, can't change the door lock schedule, can't operate the outdoor sprinkler system on the fields. The water still runs and the lights stay on, but everything else is a yard sale.

We learned a bit later that one of our two, core Cisco 6500 switches had experienced a tiny power failure that partially scrambled its instructions without bringing it to its knees. The two switches are redundant, meaning that if one goes down, the other takes over. The problem is that the one did not completely go down, so the backup did not take over.

The Cisco 6500 is one of the great workhorses of the world. It has been around in some form since 1999, at the core of campus networks all over the world, running day and night directing traffic.

This happened yesterday at Episcopal between 12:30 and 5:00 on a beautiful, mild, Friday afternoon in early Fall. As Director of Technology, I was very stressed out. But I was surprised by how relaxed my colleagues were. In fact, there was a bit of a holiday spirit around school.

When I was sure about what had happened, I scurried over to the head of school's office with my heart pounding. He smiled when he saw me. I said, "the network is down." (I didn't say "sir" but I wanted to.) He said "yes, I know" and laughed. He said, "you probably don't know how long it will take to fix. Good luck."

Later in the day EA's assistant head of school stopped by. She too was in a fine mood. A former network administrator herself, she and I had an in-depth discussion of what we thought had happened and what sort of follow up we would need after the system was repaired. She understood my position better than anyone else on campus and shares my passion for getting things fixed and solving problems. To some extent, this is what we live for: putting out fires.

Many other colleagues smiled at me in the halls and expressed support and sympathy. EA is known for its competitive athletics, and I felt like our network disaster and the ensuing effort to restore service was just another contest, another opportunity for everyone to root for the home team.

I am grateful to the good people I work with for their support and understanding.

Maybe someday the students who attended school yesterday, who couldn't go to their writing lab, watch the video, research their projects, get the handouts, will say to their children, "back when I was in school we lost the internet for a whole day once."

Maybe their children will reply, "what was the internet?"