21 February 2013

My School has a Fantastic IT Department


Do they work with you or against you?

Networked computers are a fact of life in the modern classroom. However, many schools put barriers in the way of a teacher who wants to try new software or add new features. Most schools I know of have a "locked-down" policy for their school issued computers. Any new software or modifications of features requires official permission. Some schools will process requests with glacial speed and others schools will  so in a few days. One district in my area erases and then completely re-images the hard-drives each evening. I know of one teacher who was almost fired because, in his enthusiasm to share with his students the neat things that could be done with an iPad and Vernier's Video Physics software, downloaded a $3 app without prior approval (fortunately his principal came to bat for him, but I am sure that there is a "letter in his file").

Each time I hear about another school's restrictive policies, I am grateful for my school's IT staff.

Trust the Teachers

I have just finished installing Linux on my newly-issued MacBook. This is the third school-issued computer that I have done this on. Each time I have asked permission from the IT head, expecting a polite refusal, but the only restriction I have received is that they would not be able to give me support for it. It does help that the IT head is something of a penguin-head himself and knows that there is a world beyond the Win-Mac duopoly. 

Geek Hero Comic – A webcomic for geeks: FOSS Windows

Why Linux?

As someone brought up with the Unix ethos of hack-able software (in the original sense), I have valued FOSS (free and open-source software). Linux is built on that ethos. I try to show my classes that philosophy also. When we do linearization of data using spreadsheets, I demonstrate with Gnumeric. When we study sound, I show them what Audacity can do. If I have enough time, I like to use Audacity to show how to rebuild a sound using only sine-waves (a reverse FFT). To do that, I had to take the source code and make a minor modification. Had that code not been available, I would be at the mercy of what the programming team thought I wanted to do. Here is the ethos at work; here is my work, use it, improve upon it if you want. 

graph displaying the relationship between Freedom and Responsibility

With Freedom comes Responsibility

Since I am trusted by my school's IT head, I do not want to betray that trust. So there are certain things that I could do that I will not do with school computers. I would love to jail-break my iPad to circumvent Apple's "do it our way or no way" mentality, but that might expose our school to legal problems. The same with using "abandonware". OK, once I used some cracking software on my laptop to recover a forgotten administrator password, but it was with an unofficial blessing, otherwise my computer would have to have been completely re-imaged, wiping out all the added programs and customizations.

It is more work for them

I am sure that a totally locked-down approach to school-issued technology would make my school's IT department's job much easier. But they have adopted the philosophy of letting the teachers deciding how they want to use their technology. We are then able to show what we have discovered with not only our students but also with fellow teachers. This policy lets us be more spontaneous and innovative teachers. For that freedom, I am thankful.

17 February 2013

Why don't you have a New York Public Library card?

Why don't you have a New York Public Library card?

 Ebooks are becoming a feature in the classroom. And libraries are a good source. While my local public library system has made it easy to get ebooks (and to search for dead-tree books and to have them sent to my nearby branch), it is somewhat limited. At a recent meeting of the Western New York Physics Teachers Alliance, I learned that I have another resource.

Do you live in New York State?

If you live in NYS, you are eligible to get a New York Public Library card. While you may not get to visit an actual branch, you can download from their large ebook collection. The shot below is the beginning from a search for "quantum". Many books are on the graduate student level, so the selection is deep.

The actual process of getting the card will take a few weeks.  You first request one on their website and wait a couple of weeks until it arrives in the mail. You then need to send in a picture that proves you reside in NYS (unless you want to drive to Gotham and visit one of their branches). Wait a few days and when you get an email confirming your acceptance, you are set to go. It is free, so why are you waiting?

If you are an iPad user, the Overdrive Media app allows you to access the NYPL and read books on that device.