20 January 2012

Public Schools & iBooks

Apple's plan to transform textbooks into electronic format absolutely brilliant.  This new approach creates fantastic interactive devices that can not only make learning more entertaining but also help us to retain information faster.  Books that change their approach based on your learning style with videos and games to reinforce the experience is absolutely the future of learning.  The question now is: When will we see these in the classroom?

In higher education these features can be implemented immediately.  College students already need to buy high tech devices and spend hundreds on textbooks every term so this is a no-brainer.  Publishers release new editions on seemingly a weekly basis and students are forced to make those investments.  In elementary and secondary ed the tail of education reform is far longer where we are still battling with the adjustments of No Child Left Behind.  It could take a decade before this sort of feature becomes common.

The primary challenge in this transition is financial, as others have already pointed out.  Annually the public education system spends in the neighborhood of $10,000 per child.  Admittedly, it should be double that amount for our population to properly compete in the flat world we live in but we will save that discussion for another day.  Textbooks are (unfortunately) often used for decades despite the fact that the material changes every few years and this problem is especially acute in less wealthy districts because the cost of this material is ridiculously high.  Given the choice of hiring additional teachers to reduce class size or buying new text books the school districts usually pick the teachers.

We often confuse the expense of these books with the manufacturing process but that part of the equation is irrelevant.  Most of the dollars go toward the process of building the information, testing the learning experience, hiring the best authors and educators -- these things are expensive.  When we move to this new model of electronic books these companies will have exciting new options to improve the education experience but that will easily eat up all of the book manufacturing costs that they had previously.  In other words:  In the best case scenario, these new electronic books are going to cost just as much as the physical ones we used previously.  That's the good news.  The bad news is to do this properly school districts will need to dump all of their physical books and re-purchase their entire school library of materials.  You cannot imagine how expensive a proposition that is to a school district.

One of the big advantages of an electronic book is the ability for them to easily be updated by the publisher without shipping out new books.  This is another huge opportunity for education since the material will never go stale, provided the school district continues to write checks to the companies producing the new editions.  This means, ongoing, the budget for books at the school district is potentially much higher than it was previously.

Unfortunately, the problem gets worse.  In order to use these materials every student is going to need a high end iPad will be needed because these books require gigabytes of space each.  While these tablets are wonderful learning tools, Apple makes them obsolete annually with their new versions because they are still evolving so quickly which could mean five years or more before we have stabilization.  Even a bigger concern is that fragility of this hardware with kids.  Textbooks can handle being tossed on the desk or used as a frisbee in the hallway but an iPad will not fare well.  Technology hardware is tested for a three years lifespan, excluding obsolescence, so let's assume it matches that timeframe and assume a case can protect it.  In this best case scenario we can expect a thousand dollar expense per child - not including the price of the textbooks.

Another problem is the continued need to purchase a computer.  Some may argue that students could learn PowerPoint, word processing and spreadsheets on a tablet but those of us in the corporate world would say otherwise.  Perhaps with Microsoft's upcoming release of Office for the iPad the need for putting laptops in the class will change but, as it stands today, a tablet is not going to cut it.  When you consider the investment many school districts have already made on these devices, you can bet many of them just want Apple to release this new iBook model for Windows / OSX computers so they do not need to buy additional hardware.

Personally, I am really excited about what Apple is doing because they are pushing the envelope of education.  Our school districts should have the additional funds to make this investment (plus lower class sizes, freedom to innovate without stifling testing requirements, etc) because I definitely believe it would improve how our kids learn.  I have no doubt that these new electronic books will be the greatest text books ever made - the question is when our school districts will be able to afford to implement them and what they will have to cut to do it.

16 January 2012

Why all the hate?

I have been happily volunteering as a legislative chair for the PTSA at my kids' school.  It is this political goulash lumping everything I love and hate about politics all rolled up into the same overwhelming experience.

The representatives from each PTSA get together annually to set the agenda for the Washington State PTA (WSPTA) at their assembly.  The process is dripping in parliamentary procedure and coffee stains as the most meaningless dribble is debated to no end.  Sure, that is terrible, but the people there are genuinely enthusiastic about doing everything possible to improving safety and education for our kids, even if they cannot agree on how to accomplish the goal.  We talked about having consistent school signs for motorists (duh!), shifting focus away from standardized testing, getting more funding for our school districts and ... Charter Schools.

You know how nationally our political parties love America, want to help the citizens and are there to worth together to improve our country?  They do.  But they also seem to want to kill each other in the process.  That same thing happens all the way down the political chain including within the education advocacy group.

A measure to have the WSPTA support charter schools and the vote was ridiculously close - so close that they had to close the doors and hand count every single vote.  The measure passed by less votes than can be counted on two hands.  The result has been non-ending war between PTA members everyone in the Evergreen State.  They beat each other up in forumsmeetings, blog posts, message boards, email lists - you name it and you can find them hating each other.

It all highlights the thing I cannot stand about politics: Absolutes.  It is either my way or your way and screw you for thinking there is a middle ground.  If you lose one battle why is it necessary to then question the process that brought that result?  Why not accept the result and try to focus energy on (a) finding a way that it can work or (b) work constructively to fix the situation that brought a result you did not like?  Instead we have never ending discussions questioning the credentials of individuals, institutions, money trails, voting procedures, motives -- it just never ends.

Despite all of my whining, we are truly improving education for our children and recently won a Supreme Court ruling in our state that will guarantee additional funding.  It is an amazing victory that I am proud to be part of .. I just wish these otherwise wonderful advocates would do more celebrating and less hating.

15 January 2012

Planet Protest

Time Magazine honored "The Protestor" as person of the year for 2011 and rightfully so.  Throughout the world there were daily uprisings appearing seemingly overnight as individuals in a particular country decide to take to the streets in protest.  Some resulted in governments toppled, most resulted in countless individuals in jail (or worse) and many taking place in the United States were simply labeled annoyances by the jewel encrusted evening news jockeys.  While there were plenty of clear distinctions, it is also clear their similarity:  Regional protests impacting a particular location.

It is hard to say when, why or how it will happen but some future date will usher in a planet-wide protest that will test us all.  The communication methods being used to cause local unrest have been, to date, focused on issues with a geographic epicenter.  Given the right situation at the right time, one can imagine citizens flooding to the street in nearly every country for a single issue.  It would need to be a socially motivating problem that requires immediate and critical need, but when that wedge comes to the surface it is certain to bring unrest world-wide.

Will it be an economic divide?  Environmental catastrophe?  Coke changing their original formula again? And how will the world community react to having their typical routines curtailed by these protests?  Who knows, but within the next five years it seems highly likely we will find out.

Convert iTunes Library

Let's get this straight right from the start:  iTunes has problems.  It can get the job done but, compared to MusicMatch from 1999, it is a pathetic excuse for a music library database.  The most basic functions, like using a networked drive of music, are a hassle to get right.  Still, we use iOS devices so we have to use it, so for nearly ten years my music listening habits have been collecting in a Windows iTunes library.

I now spent most of my time outside the office in OS X and you might think the parent company who made iTunes and had all of these lovely commercials about switching to the Mac might make the process extremely easy.  They did!  It only took me months to figure out how to do it.

There are a number of sites that talk about ways to copy all your music to the Mac or editing the iTunes library file and Google will help get you there.  My problem is that we have 100+ gigs of music on a networked drive and I have rated every single song.  While that might seem over the top it has actually been extraordinary for keeping all of my favorite songs on my iOS devices or copied over to the Amazon cloud by just using the four or five star rated music.  However, editing the library file would never work cleanly and simply pointing it to the new music location results in starting that three week process of rating every song all over again.  Not.  Gonna.  Do.  It.

My trick was to use fields that are stored in the music file itself to set the rating.  I placed the star number in the "disc" field and I put any information on which playlists the songs belonged in within the comments area.  I highlighted all of the one star songs, selected "get info" and set the disc field to "1".  Then highlighted the two star songs, selected "get info" and set the disc field to "2".  Continued this process until all of the information I wanted copied over was in those fields.

I then hopped on the MacBook Air and pointed iTunes in OS X to the music library and it spent the night settings up the database. After that was completed I added the "disc" and "comment" fields to the columns listed items for all songs and sorted by those fields.  Then it was just a matter of highlighting all of the "disc 1" items and selecting "get info" and setting the rating to 1 star.  I continued that process until all of the rating was set and I re-created the playlists for the music based on the information in the comment field.

I finally had my iTunes library converted.  I did lose the play count in this process but that was a small price to pay.

Note to Apple: It is pretty silly that this was the process you have to follow to simply convert an iTunes library from Windows to the Mac.  Most of your customers would just start over with only the geeks figuring out a way to get this done.  We should simply be able to copy over the iTunes library and tell it where the music is now located and - boom - the process should be done.  If you get bored this would be a great feature to add to your already bloated software.