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