Sunday, February 27, 2011

Research is critical to our Future

It is amazing what we don’t know.  We take for granted so many inventions.  It seems sometimes that we have become immune to innovation.  Often we see blog posts or tweets complaining about what some new product or service doesn’t have rather than sharing their awe at what it does have.  I too get caught up in “what’s missing” sometimes.  Well, in this post I share some amazing (my opinion) things researchers at IBM are doing.

I had the pleasure of joining about 40 educators and IT directors at IBM Research Almaden in San Jose (Silicon Valley), California.  Almaden Research CenterIt is located on the outskirts of the city on a high hill in its own private wilderness of 690 acres.  Researchers (currently about 800 chemists, computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and physicists) at Almaden have invented a whole host of new processes and capabilities including:

  • relational database architecture (crucial to databases that govern our livelihoods and lives)
  • all sorts of disk drive technologies and 1st for new densities (that store everything digital)
  • first Internet connection
  • first to position individual atoms, one at a time (break through for atomic engineering, medical and material sciences, etc.)
  • cryptography breakthroughs (used for banking, other secure applications)
  • Spintronics to exploit quantum spin properties of electrons (potential for orders of magnitude improvement in computing power)
  • explore and control atom-scale magnetism (could be useful in electric motors, the future of transportation)
  • created software to predict the spread of emerging infectious diseases (like H1N1)
  • developed a “Rehearsal Studio” (to let you practice your job in a 3D world)
  • developing a computer or a holistic intelligent machine based on human brain research
  • developing desalination technology (to address the looming world water shortage)
  • battery technologies (to support electric vehicle adoption)

We met the scientist who invented the ability to pick up and place individual atoms.  We spoke with a scientist working to create iStock_000007647676XSmallrobots that can be remote assistants for us.  We could stay and work at home a few days a week, and remotely attend meetings vicariously through our robot.  It would project our image via webcams and be able to interact with its environment under our control (could be a handy way to reduce commuting…).

We heard from scientists working on a project called SPLASH (Smarter PLanet platform for Analysis and Simulation of Health).  This is an project to help decision makers understand the impact of health choices and initiatives. It is a system that will model complex interactions of systems to better match the real world.  From the presenter “our planet is a complex dynamic, and highly interrelated $54 Trillion system-of-systems”.  We also heard, via video conference, from the lead scientist on the Watson project.  He described the challenges and methods used to create Watson, the computer which recently beat the two best human Jeopardy players – fascinating.  Via a tour, we saw Blue Gene, the fastest super computer on the planet and a bizarre machine used to “grow” quantum circuits in 3D at an atomic level.

I was invited to share our journey creating our my43 learning portal.  Talk about feeling nervous!  I am no scientist and presenting from SNAGHTML18544ae4the same stage in the same theatre as these world renowned scientists just didn’t seem right.  But what an honor to be able to present at this event.  If you’re interested in viewing my presentation, it is available here.

I want to highlight one of the researchers we met, Tom Zimmerman, an IBM Fellow.  He is working on the robotics project I referred to earlier (I sat and talked with him over dinner – a rather rich conversation).  Amazing statistics…  he has over 30 patents covering position tracking, user input, wireless, music, biometrics, and encryption.  He invented the Data Glove which has influenced virtual reality and gaming ever since. 

Tom Zimmerman spoke to us about his volunteer work in poor schools.  He made a statement that “life is one big science fair project” and “don’t underestimate what kids can do if you take them step-by-step through a process”.  His view is that hands-on learning wins hands-down.  He created the LCPA Extreme Science Program involving lab work (experiments), Fab work (building stuff), and Gab time (instruction – minimized to 5 minutes). 

“We want students to experience the joy of discovery and problem solving that is a fundamental component and reward of scientific or engineering work.”

This program offers after school science projects in Aeronautics, Robotics, Dancing, Chemistry, Solar Energy, to name a few disciplines.  He arranges for science colleagues in the San Jose area to commit to a few hours a week to run a project.  Students from this poor school report life changing experiences.  Tom shared statistics showing significant increases in science education (interest and success) due to this program.  You can view his photostream of school projects here.  Notable too is that many of the projects involved very inexpensive materials from Home Depot…

IBM celebrates its 100th birthday this year.  I think most of us are unaware of the contributions researchers from IBM have made to the advancement of our world.  Next time you turn on your iPOD or your Wii or visit your doctor for a scan or fire up your new computer or marvel at some new material, remember the contributions of IBM researchers to the things and services you benefit from!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Parent Spaces

We often talk about the importance of parent involvement in their child’s education and in their school.  I’ve heard statistics that suggest about 10% of parents participate in school parent advisory councils.  I wonder what the statistics are for parents being deeply involved in their child’s learning?  From personal experience, my wife Shelley and I were quite involved in our kids (now 23, 22, and 18) learning but that this customer survey or poll with check boxes on blackboarddeclined as they grew through the system – they were selective as teenagers in wanting our help and to varying degrees, resistant in sharing how they were doing.  We felt informed and involved when they were young but somewhat in the dark about their progress as they became older.  Well, okay, there were the report card events… Wouldn’t it be great to be quietly and electronically plugged into your child’s school and their learning progress?

I presented last week at a District Parent event where about 30 parents attended.  My talk was about technology past, today, and the future.  I included some demonstration of interesting tools, showed some videos of students sharing their use of technology, and speculated a bit about what’s coming.  I also invited parents to provide input into a new idea, Parent Spaces. 

I demonstrated WolframAlpha for parents.  This is an amazing research and study tool for students. SNAGHTML5986d11 It is also a great homework help tool for parents.  You have to check it out and explore the examples and start forming your own questions.  It poses challenges for a system that still tests students on the information they can remember.  Try a math problem like X^2+3X-7 and think about questions you could be asked on an exam like find the roots, describe it’s shape, find its derivative or integral, show your steps.  WolframAlpha will give you all of that…  Or try a test question that compares and contrasts Canada and the US – enter “canada,us” into WolframAlpha, there are a lot of “knowledge” items that you’ll recognize as testable when you were a student…

Parent Spaces are a natural offshoot of Student Spaces (I wrote about this a few months back).  Student Spaces are websites that students can use to complete school assignments.  They would be able to survey people, have discussions, message classmates, blog, use wikis, store and share documents, post videos and audio files.  They could connect external tools (blog, wiki, twitter, google doc, etc.) into their Student Space for ease and convenience of access for teachers to assess and principals to review and monitor.  The degree of flexibility, control, and interface to external tools would vary with the age/grade of the students – a shift from teacher controlled to student controlled, over time.  Student Spaces are a necessary piece to be able to provide a meaningful Parent Space.

Parent Spaces are meant to provide parents with a way to be easily informed of school events, communicate with the principal and teachers, to be informed of their child’s learning activities and their progress.  They could have these services without intervention by their child or their teacher.  Access would be a by product of the learning activities and progress reporting already being performed.  I asked parents some questions to stimulate their thinking about what their space could be.


As I gather more and compile the input parents provide, I’ll update this post with a link so that you can see what they think.

A colleague of mine, Dave Sands, presented after me about Parenting the Net Generation.  He does an excellent job of engaging parents in a conversation about how to safely take their kids online and to support their online “life”.  Check out the resources he shares here.  For more information on this topic, check out another colleague of mine Dave Truss and his parenting resources here.

If you are a parent, and most of you are, please take a few moments to leave me a comment on this post answering the questions shown about for Parent Spaces.  I would really appreciate hearing from you.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Rise of the Network

It is quite profound how over the past 10 years the importance imageof “the network” has increased.  It used to be that you could happily get a lot of work done or communicate with others, offline or disconnected.  In schools if the network was slow or didn’t work, the teacher had a backup plan.  Often the network wasn’t critical to a lesson the teacher designed.  Today things are rather different…

In our School District (Coquitlam, BC) our success in infusing the use of technology for learning, teaching, and administration has now hit imagethe wall so to speak.  The network is our Achilles Heel!  I wrote about this last year in reference to a visit to a Digital Immersion 9 classroom.  Enrolment was forecasted to decline for this innovative school program where all students were expected to bring, rent, or borrow a laptop to use in this class.  I also referred to a consultative process I initiated around Digital Tools and Social Responsibility to uncover some root challenges.  In other words, this challenge has been growing, rapidly, over the past year or so once we reached a critical mass of participation in the digital realm.  What to do?!??

Part of the answer comes in questioning everything (as I did in Why?) to make sure how we’re using the network is sound, and what new imageinitiatives we’re contemplating do consider the dependency and impact on the network (we’ve asked people to go on a “network diet” and to pause computer purchases).  I’ve come up with a three pronged approach where we need to make three investments: (1) Increase bandwidth, (2) acquire and implement network management tools and add staff to run them, and (3) develop and implement guidelines for being digitally responsible.  Our staff development team and I (more them than I)have made great progress on #3 and are now going out to our education partner groups to consult with them on the draft work.  We are also revising relevant policies/procedures to be inclusive of the digital environment.  For #1, I have presented some options to our Board and they are digesting these in the budget process.

For #1, I’ve recommended building a private fiber network.  This is an expensive undertaking but in my view future proofs the District and provides the best value for money to create a network with legs.  Interestingly though, there are those that believe cell wireless networking is the future.  When I heard this I said “huh?”.  The idea as I understand it is that devices (ipads, laptops, netbooks) should be purchased with 3G (or 4G) wireless capability and data plans.  I question the wisdom of this suggestion from a value for money and a pure physics perspective.  A simple calculate for a 30 student set of ipads yields 30 (ipads) x 12 (months) x $30 = $10,800.  Extrapolate to 6000 devices and you get $2.1M / year!  I doubt most families will feel inclined to pay this (would be an inequitable expectation) and why would a school system?  Physics would suggest radio frequencies (wireless) will never compete with light frequencies (fiber) so as demand for bandwidth grows, wireless will tap out.  My assumption is that physical schools with hundreds of, or a couple thousand students and staff will exist into the future so connecting them at high speed, cost effectively would seem to be a reasonable expectation – also cell wireless isn’t ideal for high density (# of people) use.  Would it be appropriate for students to be connected to the Internet with no involvement (protection) from the school system?  That wouldn’t be my understanding.  But, I digress…

This leads me to #2 dealing with network management tools specifically (I won’t write here about the need for more staff).  From an IT perspective this is a fascinating topic.  It is amazing how far these tools have come in capability.  I am aware that quite a number of other School Districts have invested to varying degrees, in good network management tools – we have not (for a variety of reasons and due to other District priorities).  But it is now time!

In our research so far, we’ve (we have a great, although small, team led by Brian Lehmann, in Coquitlam focused on security and networks) discovered that there are a few fundamental components required (besides a good firewall design which we already have):

  • Packet Shaping / Prioritization
  • Proxy and Cache
  • Web Security and Content Filtering
  • Acceleration and Optimization

Our District has 68 school and 3 district locations which all route network traffic to a central data centre for District provided and Internet accessible services and content.  Preliminary advice would suggest that we need to acquire and implement devices as follows:

  • Packet Shaper (at the District core)
    • discovers applications running to/from the Internet
    • we prioritize applications (eg, for something like bittorrent, give it a trickle of bandwidth so it essentially has no impact; give youtube X% if needed but no more, BCeSIS Y%, e-exams Z%, etc.)
  • Proxy and Cache (at the District core and each school / site)
    • cache websites and video streams so that multiple accesses do not go to the Internet or beyond the school (note we have a cache architecture now but it’s old and limited)
    • eg, viewing youtube, educational streaming services without this requires that every person goes direct to the source but with caching, the 1st person does, the rest get it locally – huge reduction in network use
  • Web Security and Content Filtering (at the District core and maybe at some schools / sites)
    • eliminate malware and malicious website content
    • eliminate botnet activities (big problem for us at times due to us allowing personally owned devices)
    • reduce inappropriate content (this is a sensitive one and would need a lot of consultation, thought, and care as we wouldn’t want to filter out anything that is appropriate)
  • Acceleration and Optimization (at the District core and each school / site)
    • speed up applications that behave poorly (inefficiently)
    • cache content, documents, etc. locally and only transmit changes back/forth
    • would have a huge benefit to accessing and using remote files, Sharepoint (my43) content, e-mail and attachments, etc.
    • could allow us to centralize more services, save money on servers / storage, and increase our response time to issues and problems (although our people are really quite good already but users of our services always want more and faster)

One of our challenges, my challenges, is to find an optimal balance between paying for private fiber vs great tools to manage the bandwidth we have.  I see it as a both-and solution where over time, we have fiber everywhere AND are squeezing every ounce of performance out that we can.  We need to ensure that teachers, students, and staff experience no delays in using modern digital learning and work tools and content!

*ADDED TO POST* I presented an update to the Board on February 22, 2011.  The Tri-Cities News reported out on this update here.


After researching network management tools and contemplating the cost for installing fiber everywhere over the next couple of years, we developed and recommended a new option for the Board.  This new option would have us build fiber to our core (larger) sites and implement high performing network management tools at all sites to ensure all schools and District sites receive significant performance improvement in the short and long term.

For any of you reading this that have gone down a similar road, I would really appreciate any advice, cautions, lessons learned, etc. that you could share.  If you’re comfortable sharing brand names of products you’ve implemented and pros / cons you’ve experienced, that’d be awesome too.  Thank-you in advance…

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Future of History

I can’t recall ever enjoying reading about or studying history when I went to school.  It was, well, boring.  It seems that as I accumulate past, present, future, time concept on blackboardmy own history, I become increasingly interested in who and what has come before my time.  I am fascinated with scenarios both historical and future.  For example, key events in history link up to bring us to where we are but what if things were different, even one link in the chain of events?

“Coal gave Britain fuel equivalent to the output of fifteen million extra acres of forest to burn, an area nearly the size of Scotland.  By 1870, the burning of coal in Britain was generating as many calories as would have been expended by 850 million labourers.  It was as if each worker had twenty servants at his beck and call.”, The Rational Optimist, Kindle loc. 3236-43.

I read that and think ‘wow, what if coal and its use had not been discovered?’ Coal has become and continues to be a key ingredient for most generation of electricity in the world.  Consider how our lives have been transformed by the discovery and harnessing of electricity, which depends on us having access to sources of fuel like coal, gas, nuclear, and renewable energy such as solar, wind, and water.

“Suppose you had said to my hypothetical family of 1800, eating their gristly stew in front of a log fire, that in two centuries their descendants would need to fetch no logs or water, and carry out no sewage, because water, gas and a magic form of invisible power called electricity would come into their home through pipes and wires. They would jump at the chance to have such a home, but they would warily ask how they could possibly afford it. Suppose that you then told them that to earn such a home, they need only ensure that father and mother both have to go to work for eight hours in an office, travelling roughly forty minutes each way in a horseless carriage, and that the children need not work at all, but should go to school to be sure of getting such jobs when they started work at twenty. They would be more than dumbfounded; they would be delirious with excitement. Where, they would cry, is the catch?”, The Rational Optimist, Kindle loc. 3291

You see, when I was a young student you could have pointed me to this sort of thought-provoking text and I would have said ‘so what’ or ‘whatever’.  But now I read that and think about how exciting history is, the discoveries and developments necessary to support my life style and overall improvements for all people groups.

If you were to calculate your average consumption of electricity you would might be surprised to hear that “[s]ince a reasonably fit person on an exercise bicycle can generate about fifty watts, this means that it would take 150 slaves, working eight-hour shifts each, to peddle you to your current lifestyle.” (The Rational Optimist, Kindle loc. 3308)

All production or service is based ultimately on energy whether for people or machines.  We rely on coal, oil, and gas for so many aspects of our lifestyle.  These are essentially historically stored solar energy – the earth is like a huge battery for us to tap into.  Before people discovered these sources and began to create machines to do their labour, most work was done by humans, most often serfs or slaves, and animals, that were expendable.  They needed fuel in the form of renewable calories to be able to perform their work.

When you look back in history at the rise and fall of nations and empires, their success and demise often lies in how they were able to source fuel (for people and animals).  Vast tracts of forest were cleared to grow food (sound familiar…) – these eventually ran out or were too far out from the core of the nation and that society became unsustainable (with major environmental impact).  History teaches us that renewable energy sources are often unsustainable beyond a certain point.  Think about this comment:

“Next time you lament human dependence on fossil fuels, pause to imagine that for every family of four you see in the street, there should be 600 unpaid slaves back home, living in abject poverty: if they had any better lifestyle they would need their own slaves.  That is close to a trillion people… You can regret the sinful profligacy of the modern world, which is the conventional reaction, or you can conclude that were it not for fossil fuels, 99 per cent of people would have to live in slavery for the rest to have a decent standard of living, as indeed they did in Bronze Age empires.”, The Rational Optimist, Kindle loc. 3310

In other sections the author indicates that even though several billion people still suffer with hunger and other significant problems, without the progress, in particular by leveraging fossil fuels, made historically they and most of the world would be worse off.  Most of the planet would have to be dedicated to growing food and nothing else!  I don’t know about you but I find this to be profound.  This leads me to the irony we face now and in the future.  Our “green” energy movement is essentially trying to move us back to an ancient way of powering a society, albeit more hi-tech.

History shows a clear linkage between progress / improvement and the interconnectedness of people and their ideas. 

“The secret of the modern world is its gigantic interconnectedness” (Kindle loc. 3782), “Technologies emerge from the coming together of existing technologies into wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts” (Kindle loc. 3791), “The history of the modern world is a history of ideas meeting, mixing, mating and mutating” (Kindle loc. 3806), The Rational Optimist

This speaks volumes to the importance of education, life long learning, in a collaborative way.  Isolated, self-sufficient, or independent learning, isn’t going to get us far.  Collaboration, integration, interdependence, purpose-driven, these are some key attributes for our education system to embed deeply in our children’s learning experiences.

I would love to see history come alive, somehow, in our children’s educational experience.  I wrote about a futuristic history machine previously and about life in 2020 but more practically, I wonder what master teachers of history are doing today to expose kids to a rich and engaging journey through history.  This is important since our future is so predicated upon knowing and understanding our past!  What might you share about your experience with history personally or in teaching it to young people?