Alexandria Online

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Littered with Literature

Our breakfast table is covered with newspaper; our coffee table with New Yorkers; the news plays over the radio in the evening while I'm making dinner. These media have always been so easily accessible in our house that our kids have grown up reading the New York Times, listening to National Public Radio, and sampling bits of the New Yorker -- at first just the cartoons and then the long prose.

Imagine of all this content were delivered to us digitally -- paper-free. Very green you say. But would the kids have picked it up in a moment of boredom and read it as they do with the print material that we offer them? Would they stop what they were doing and listen to a public radio story if it were not being broadcast through the kitchen? If we relied on podcasts to get our audio news?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Shared Text / The Networked Text

Today, my colleagues set up a high-power projector to connect to our network. Anyone with this projector's address can now direct their video output there.

Fifteen years ago I learned that our state-of-the-art copier could make copies on "transparencies." Now, for you youngsters who don't know what a transparency is: it is an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of transparent plastic that can be written on with erasable markers or copied onto and then placed on an "overhead projector" that shines a light through the transparency and casts a  projection through an overhead prism onto a surface. They are still for sale at staples but are fast being replaced by document cameras and projectors.

I was teaching 10th grade Latin at the time and I bethought myself to copy the entirety of Cicero's Oratio in Catalinam onto transparencies. It was only about 15 pages even with notes. Every day I would darken the room -- something new and eerie for my students -- and project the words of Cicero in huge font onto my wall. Students came up to the projector when called upon and, with a pencil as a pointer, explained the significance of each word in front of their peers.

In the Classics Department of The Episcopal Academy, teachers are still projecting Latin and Greek words onto their walls, screens and whiteboards using computers with VGA connections to projectors. There is a big difference between everyone looking at the same line in their own books and everyone looking at the same word that the instructor is pointing to in huge letters at the front of the class. There is qualitatively more unity of thought, group focus and team-work.

But with this advance into network availability, the wired projector, we are changing the game significantly. Now a teacher can pull up a text, a diagram, a problem on his laptop, place it on the desk of a student (as long as his battery is charged) and ask for what used to be called, "a recitation," meaning -- the student talks and the teacher listens.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

If It Ain't Free Don't Buy It

In a previous post I wrote crankily about waiting for my free e-reader from Amazon, Google or Apple. I figure that when I buy a book, I don't get a separate bill for the paper, ink and binding. It's just one price. Likewise, I want somebody to send me a free e-reader if I agree to buy a certain amount of content each year.

I am going further with my insane demands. I want everything but my content to be free. Someone else has to swallow the cost -- not me. The only thing worth paying for is content.

I just collected over 300 great photographs of my son's championship water polo team in action. Of course, every parent on the team wants to have a copy of the greatest picture of their own son. And they want to download it themselves, maybe crop it a little in order to feature their darling, and print it on an excellent, cheap color printer in the basement office. Why not?

I loaded up these pictures on my Picasa account but hit the limit: one gigabyte. Then I bought 20 gigabytes more for just five dollars a year. Virtually free. The parents are delighted. Everyone has access to full-resolution files collected from all the amateur photographers who have contributed their pictures.

Meanwhile, back at school, we have sunk millions of dollars into our server room, tens of thousands into our industry-standard online course management system, and about a hundred thousand into a media distribution system.
The air-conditioning alone for this capital asset could pay for a lot of cheap consumer products that deliver content: DVD's, a heavy-duty Netflix account, and a lot of free or cheap storage space in the cloud.

When we planned the data and media infrustructure for our campus back in 2005, our plan looked very reasonable. It was the standard model for a technologically progressive school, featuring a hard-core data center with lots of heavy iron in it. Literally: I had to remind the engineers to check the load limit on the freight elevator before they shipped the chasis for our server environment.

Over the centuries, municipal infrustructure has gone through many changes. There was a time when whole neighborhoods in the Northeast were heated by a single steam plant. That model died and now pretty much every house has its own boiler. But schools don't usually generate their own electricity, purify their own water, or treat their own sewage. They rely on the municipal infrustructure.

Will the technological needs of schools eventually be met by some sort of municipal infrustructure? Our website is hosted offsite, as is our online course management system. But our student information system, general ledger software, file servers and email servers are in our server room.

In ten years, if I want to build a school that relies heavily on digital content, whether the content is developed by my teachers or selected and purchased from legitimate content providers, am I going to have to worry about how much air conditioning I'll need for the server room? Will I have to check the load limit on the elevator? And will I have to wring a million bucks out of my donors, who are really interested in educational excellence, not piles of humming machinery?