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Reading and writing and operating systems

Religion, politics, and operating systems – three things sure to start a spirited discussion.

By January 2016, when the Houston Independent School District’s latest tech initiative hits full stride, the district will issue laptops to every high school student and teacher in the district. All 65,000 of those laptops will run Windows 7 and cloud-based Office 365. For Microsoft, that’s sweet news: a solid little victory in the digital war for global domination.

As every tech geek knows, Microsoft, the world’s third-largest technology company, is embroiled in a three-way war with the first- and second-largest, Apple and Google. Each of those behemoths hopes to establish its own computing ecosystem as the world’s digital default, to be the system that everyone everywhere just seems to use on the fast-growing array of devices that connect to the Web. (Coming soon: Dog collars! Home thermostats! Cars!)

In the last two years, elementary, middle and high schools have been among the war’s hottest fronts. In part, that’s simply because K-12 education is a fast-growing, largely untapped market: According to analyst Phillip Maddocks of Futuresource, a research and forecasting company, only about 25 percent of U.S. students and teachers are currently equipped with devices such as laptops or tablets.

But that number is bound to rise. Last year, President Barack Obama announced the creation of the federal ConnectEd program, with a goal of making high-speed broadband available to 99 percent of American students by 2017. In January, Obama’s State of the Union address included a call to bring American classrooms up to date. Soon after, a group of private tech companies, including Apple and Microsoft, committed to donate $750 million in devices, software, training and Wi-Fi – as well as to offering deep discounts.

For those tech companies, such efforts are one part altruism, one part gold rush. As the remaining 75 percent of American students obtain devices and Wi-Fi, their hardware, software and habits are up for grabs.

“The scale is what’s so new,” says Cameron Evans, chief technology officer at Microsoft Education. “Before, there were always five computers in the back of the classroom. Until 2012, that was acceptable.”

As the story notes, Apple has been the leader in this space, but they’ve been vulnerable lately thanks to the high profile flop in Fort Bend and some embarrassing security failures in Los Angeles. Both were more due to design and implementation flaws than anything else, but they still look bad. Microsoft and Google have been competing on price and on compatibility, and have made some inroads. I know this is somewhat heretical to say, especially for an IT guy, but to some extent the OS and hardware don’t really matter. Basic concepts, about things like security and programming and how to use various apps, don’t really change that much from one device to the next. Of course, from the vendors’ perspective, they’re trying to lock in preferences. From my perspective, I’d like to see kids get experience with multiple platforms. Mostly I hope they get a solid curriculum that really takes advantage of the technology available to them. We’re still figuring out how to do that, so I hope we stay flexible and open-minded about it.

Digital textbooks are on their way

HISD is on the leading edge.

HISD is the first of Texas’ large districts – and among the first large districts in the nation – to radically rethink the way it buys new high school instructional materials, shifting from printed textbooks to digital materials accessible from school-issued laptops.

“Our rule is that, each time state dollars to buy instructional materials come in, we no longer procure physical textbooks,” says Dan Gohl, the Houston Independent School District’s chief academic officer. “We’ll do that every year until we reach a new balance between electronic and physical materials.”


For HISD, the switch is possible because the district is in the midst of a three-year project to equip every high school student with a laptop. This year, students at 11 high schools were issued laptops they could take home. In January 2015, students at 20 more high schools will be similarly equipped, and by 2016, every high school student in HISD will have one.

The new generation of textbooks, HISD officials emphasize, must be more than just scans of the print versions. “It’s not enough to say ‘digital,’ ” says Gohl. “A pdf isn’t enough.”

Last October, in a meeting with publishers that serve the Texas market, Gohl described the kind of digital textbooks that HISD intended to buy – starting with this year’s purchases for science courses. (Next year, the district plans to follow suit with social studies and math.)

“There should be embedded links and video,” Gohl says. “It has to be editable; teachers must be able to use just portions, without taking the whole thing. And it must share some degree of connectivity.”

Yeah, that’ll be different, all right. Benefits include lower costs, more flexibility, and of course better outcomes in the classroom. How much of these benefits HISD ultimately reaps remains to be seen, since we’re still on the first steps of this journey. There’s a lot to look forward to, that much is for sure. See here, here, here, and here for more on the laptop program that underlies this for HISD.

Rolling out the laptops

I look forward to seeing how this goes.

Tens of thousands of local students will receive taxpayer-funded laptops or tablets this month as the Houston and Clear Creek school districts join the national movement toward digital education.

School leaders say dispatching the devices can help bridge the gap between rich and poor families and lead to more engaging instruction, though some recent trials elsewhere were plagued with problems.

As the nation’s seventh-largest school system, HISD will be closely watched as it becomes the latest big-city district to experiment with giving students personal technology devices to use in class and at home.

By the end of January, the Houston Independent School District plans to have distributed laptops to roughly 18,000 students at a quarter of its high schools. At the same time, Clear Creek ISD expects to deploy about 6,000 tablets to all its ninth- and 10th-graders. Both districts intend to dispatch many more devices over the next few years.

“This project is not going to go without bumps,” said Lenny Schad, HISD’s chief technology officer. “But I’m confident when those bumps do occur, we’re going to be able to react very quickly and move forward.”


Research into whether personal technology programs – typically called one-to-one initiatives – lead to improved student achievement has yielded mixed results. While some districts and states started giving devices to students on a small scale more than a decade ago, few of those efforts have survived, largely for budget reasons.

But as cell phones and computers have become ubiquitous, technology experts say schools need to take public education more into the digital age.

“It is irresponsible for any school district not to be moving to creating 21st century learning environments. I think it’s criminal,” said Leslie Wilson, who co-directed Michigan’s $40 million school laptop program in the early 2000s. “But it’s also criminal to go about doing that without doing it right.”


Clear Creek voters approved the technology plan as part of a bond referendum last May. By the fall of 2015, the district expects to dispatch about 30,000 tablets to students in grades 4 through 12. The cost per device, including software, a case and extended warranty, is $541, according to the district.

HISD officials say leasing the HP laptops is cheaper, at about $260 for the device and software, excluding the case.

In both districts, the students ultimately have to return the devices.

So far, HISD has funded its laptop program with federal dollars designated for low-income students as well as professional development. For this school year, the district has budgeted more than $8.1 million for the devices, teacher training and other expenses. By January 2016, HISD plans to dispatch nearly 65,000 laptops to all its high school students.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier has said he eventually would like to give devices to younger students as well.

See here, here, and here for the background. I agree that school districts need to make modern technologies available to their students. How else do we expect students to learn about them? It’s also vitally important for districts to have a solid plan for deploying laptops or tablets or whatever, to have a strong training program in place for teachers, and to track results and make adjustments as needed. There’s not enough long-term research available yet to provide clear guideposts, but we can at least learn from the failures of others. I’m excited about this and I hope it produces great results.

It always comes down to the IT guys

The joint processing center that’s on the Harris County ballot this year will need a new computer system to fully realize its gains.


The so-called “jail management system,” which the Sheriff’s Office hopes will be up and running at least a year before the processing center would open, will allow the jail to track the tens of thousands of inmates it books every year electronically, in one main system, rather than with paper and stand-alone databases.

“We process inmates primarily using stacks of paper,” said Capt. Greg Summerlin, who helped write the request for proposals seeking vendors to operate the system.

That means that when an inmate’s paperwork is stuck in a stack at the fingerprinting station and he or she needs to be seen in court, pre-trial services, or the medical ward, the inmate – and everyone else – has to wait.

“It’s very inefficient, it’s very cumbersome,” Summerlin said.

Several vendors have responded to the request, Summerlin said, and staff hopes to recommend one to Harris County Commissioners Court for approval before the end of the year.

Under the new electronic system, the paper index cards currently used to keep track of inmates will go away.


Officials estimated the processing center would take about three years to complete.

Asked whether there is concern about the jail management system rolling out on time, Summerlin said they are on track to select a vendor before the end of the year and that the system should go live within 12 to 18 months after a contract is signed early next year. A review committee is overseeing the implementation of the system, he said.

They ought to have the time to get the new system in place, and unlike some other high-profile IT projects that have been in the news lately, they won’t have a hard start date. Big IT projects are always messy and take longer than you expect, and I’ll be surprised if the new system is running smoothly by the time the new facility is completed, assuming the referendum passes. Just remember as the inevitable bugs get worked out that it’s always like this.

Laptops for fewer, at least for now

HISD’s proposed laptops for all proposal has been scaled back from an 18 school pilot to a ten school pilot in response to concerns that they weren’t quite ready yet for anything bigger than that.

Lenny Schad, chief technology officer for the Houston Independent School District, told the school board via email this week that consultants recently concluded HISD’s technological capacity wasn’t yet sufficient to dole out that many laptops. The review, he said, found that the bandwidth was lacking, and current staff wouldn’t be able to support the increased network demand.

In late April, Schad told the board that he hoped to start the laptop program at up to 18 high schools, but that the number depended on further analysis of the district’s readiness. Schad said he and his staff agree with the consultants’ recommendation to scale back to 10 schools, which would amount to more than 17,400 laptops for students and teachers.

The proposed campuses (at least one in each trustee’s area) are Sam Houston, Kashmere, Chavez, Bellaire, Sharps­town, Lee, Austin and Madison high schools, the all-boys school and the all-girls school. The single-gender campuses, which serve middle school students, already have a one-to-one technology program, according to HISD spokesman Jason Spencer.

“Implementing at 10 high schools will provide HISD with a good user base to ensure our plan and strategy is tested,” Schad said in his email to the school board.

This will likely knock the initial price tag down from $10 million to something smaller, though HISD did not provide a figure at this time. In my previous entry on this, I got some feedback asking how HISD was going to be able to service all this new equipment; I think we now have an answer to that concern. Better to start a little smaller than you originally hoped than too big and not be able to handle it.

HISD to begin laptops for all program

Starting small, and presumably growing from there.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

Houston ISD officials announced Thursday that they are prepared to give students at up to 18 high schools their own laptops next school year, becoming among the first big-city districts to launch a one-to-one computing program.

“This is a way of transforming what and how we teach,” HISD Superintendent Terry Grier told the school board.

Grier first pitched his laptop idea to the public during his State of the Schools speech in February. His chief technology officer, Lenny Schad, confirmed to the school board Thursday that the district is ready to proceed with the first batch of high schools next school year, doling out the laptops to teachers first semester and giving them to students in January. Schad’s team is finishing up an analysis of the high schools to see exactly how many are technologically ready to get the laptops next year. The number won’t be more than 18, he said, emphasizing that the district doesn’t want to rush the roll-out.

See here for the background. Starting with this pilot program would address one of the concerns raised in February by board President Anna Eastman, who was concerned about rolling out a program like this all at once. It’s not clear yet where the money will come from for this – the story estimates the price tag at $10 million – but I’m confident there will be grant money and/or partnership opportunities out there for it. HISD is not the first school district to propose something like this, so there will be examples to follow if need be. I look forward to seeing the results of this experiment.

Laptops for all

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier would like to bridge the digital divide in HISD.

Terry Grier

Superintendent Terry Grier said his goal is to equip all 130,000 students in grades three through 12 with a laptop and hopes to start with at least some high schools next year. He will try to rally community support for the concept during his State of the Schools speech on Friday and plans to submit a formal proposal to the school board in coming months.

Details, including the price tag, are still being worked out, though one estimate puts the first-year cost for leasing hardware and software for high school students at roughly $10 million. Students would return the laptops when they graduated or left for some other reason.

“Technology is not something of the future. It’s here,” Grier said in an interview this week. “It’s not about teaching kids how to use computers. They already know. It’s about how we teach. It’s about how we engage students.”


HISD’s recently approved bond measure includes $100 million for technology infrastructure such as wiring. Grier suggested at a recent school board retreat that some funding could be diverted from textbooks. The HISD Foundation also is willing to try to raise money to offset some costs, said executive director Krista Moser.


HISD board president Anna Eastman said she wants to see a plan that would phase in the technology or start with a pilot program.

“At face value, giving every kid a laptop is potentially really exciting – the thought of a kid not having to lug around a lot of textbooks, teachers being able to access open-source,” she said. “That said, it’s really expensive and it would be an ongoing cost.”

Such technology efforts fail when schools don’t plan enough and don’t focus on the lessons they want students to learn, said Howard Pitler, a technology expert at Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

“At its worst, (districts) bring in a laptop or an iPad for every student, just using it to take notes. Don’t spend $600 on a spiral notebook,” Pitler said. “At its best, the computer changes the focus of learning from teacher-directed to student-centered.”

As we know, the McAllen and Fort Bend ISDs have been distributing iPads to their students. It’s too early to know how well that’s going, I think the potential of such a program is clear. Eastman’s concerns are valid, and Pitler’s caution should be heeded, so we’ll want to have a plan before proceeding. But I think this is a good vision for Grier to have, and I’d like to see it happen.

CompSci in the curriculum

HISD Trustee Paula Harris coauthors an op-ed in the Chron advocating computer science to be part of the standard school curriculum.

Paula Harris

While STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education is a hot topic in education circles these days, only math and science courses are required for graduation from high school. The few computer science courses that are offered are categorized as electives, not as core courses students need to graduate, so they do not receive the same emphasis as their higher profile STEM counterparts.

We need to start working with students at a young age to spark their interest in technology and computer science. Our children should not just know how to use apps and video games, they should know how to create apps and video games. Some very popular and very profitable apps have been designed by high school students.

We must elevate computer science classes to be part of our core curriculum. We need to train more teachers who are qualified to teach modern state-of-the-art computer science courses, and to find innovative ways to recruit and keep these teachers familiar with the latest technology.

According to Computing in the Core, a nonprofit coalition that advocates for K-12 computer science education, “By 2018, current government projections show that more than 800,000 high-end computing jobs will be created in the economy, making it one of the fastest growing occupational fields.”

We need the support, input and commitment from technology companies to help us educate technology-inspired, innovative thinkers to both fill available jobs and pioneer in the field of computer science.

I agree that computing should be a required part of the curriculum, but I’d like to see a proposal of what’s being required first. There’s a lot more to computing than programming – hardware, networking, mobile computing, security, etc etc etc – so my first question would be what exactly is it that we want to emphasize? What do we really think students need to know? Remember that unlike, say, math, what’s relevant and important in computer science changes rapidly, and sometimes radically. I mean, when I was in college, there was a debate over whether APL or Pascal was the right introductory language to use for programming concepts. How can you ensure that the curriculum you’re designing today will still be worth teaching by the time you’ve finished designing it? Sure, there are plenty of basic ideas in computing that are enduring, but if the idea is to prepare students for the job market, then being up to date on what’s in demand is critical. Are there other school districts already doing something like this? You get the idea. I like this idea and want to see discussion on it. What do you think?

Computer recycling

As a state, we do a pretty lousy job of recycling old computers and computer components.

Texas ranks last in recycling computer parts among states that require manufacturers to take back their electronics, according to a report by an Austin environmental group that tries to keep computers and other electronics from landfills.

The report, by Texas Campaign for the Environment, compared recycling on a per capita basis in Texas with other states that have “computer takeback programs.” Under the Texas takeback law, computer manufacturers doing business in Texas must provide individuals and home businesses with free recycling options for used desktops, laptops and monitors.

Computers contain components with lead, mercury and other harmful materials. Environmentalists say burying computers in landfills or burning them in incinerators is unsafe.


In 2009, computer manufacturers in Texas recovered a total of 15.2 million pounds of used electronics for recycling and reuse, or about 0.62 pounds per capita, according to the report. Minnesota, by contrast, had an estimated collection rate of 2.78 pounds of computers per capita in the first year of its takeback law. Manufacturers in Minnesota face a fine if they fail to collect a percentage of the pounds they sold, according to Schneider.

The bright spot in Texas might be Dell Inc., which is responsible for about 85 percent of the computer recycling in Texas and provides convenient spots for consumers to drop off their computers, according to the report.

An executive summary of the report is here, and the full report is here (PDF). I recall that the last time I had a computer to recycle, which was before the Take Back law was passed, I took it to the Westpark recycling center. I asked if that would have been counted in these stats. This was the answer I got from Zac Trahan with Texas Campaign for the Environment:

Nope, this report is only measuring the manufacturer-based recycling results for last year. So why aren’t manufacturers responsible for recycling computers taken to Westpark and other local government drop-off locations? During the legislative session we argued for that exact provision, but to no avail. We’re hoping the City of Houston, and many other local governments, will join us in pressing state lawmakers to amend the law to fix this and many other shortcomings; if we’re successful the answer to your question will be yes in 2012. After all, cities and counties shouldn’t be paying to recycle electronics — the manufacturers should.

Seems reasonable to me. Anything that can boost recycling is worth pursuing. Hair Balls has more, and the TCE’s press release is beneath the fold.


Space travel: Not as high tech as you might think

It may be the final frontier, but that doesn’t mean we’re using bleeding edge technology.

[The International Space Station’s] 44 primary computers that do everything from guide the station around Earth at 17,000 mph to monitor for fires are powered by Intel 386 processors, first built in the mid-1980s, with a clock rate of 16 megahertz. To put that in perspective, today’s processors are measured in gigahertz, a speed increase by a factor of 1,000.

Needless to say, the task of maintaining the network of computers on the station humming along is more difficult than, say, putting together a home network.

I suppose it isn’t exactly a trivial matter to do upgrades on it. Funny how this sort of thing was never a problem on Star Trek – “Open a channel, Lt. Uhura.” “I can’t, Captain, their version of Skype is totally incompatible with ours.” Gives me hope that we’ll get this problem licked one of these days.


Ah, memories.

As hot new servers have grabbed more attention, mainframes have been plugging away behind the scenes. For decades, they have been the technological backbone for banking, finance, insurance, defense, health care, education, government and other industries.

“The perception is we’re old and gray,” said Jim Porell, an engineer who works on mainframes at IBM, the only company that still makes them.

Lately, more software has been written for mainframes, and they support everything from ATMs to Web-hosting to cell phones, not exactly ancient technology.

But while mainframes are evolving to handle more applications, the number of mainframes is shrinking, said John Phelps, the lead mainframe analyst for technology research firm Gartner. IBM has lost more than 75 customers who left mainframe platforms, and it has gained about 50 new ones. Mainframes are operating more efficiently, handling more MIPS — millions of instructions per second — year after year.

“The actual number of mainframes has shrunk, but the capacity has gone up,” he said. Better efficiency has become more important as users’ sensitivity to electrical usage, both for financial and environmental reasons, has increased, he said.

I haven’t used or supported PROFS in a decade, but I could still split a message file if I needed to. And don’t tell anyone, but the expense statement program we had on VM back in the day was easier to use than any of the PC and web-based programs I’ve had to use since then. There are many things about this environment that I don’t miss. But it had its good points, too.

Close enough for computer work

Very cool.

Engineers have long lived by a simple, seemingly obvious rule when designing new computers: The machines have to deliver correct answers.

If asked to compute two plus two, a computer should answer four. But what if computers didn’t always have to answer correctly?

Nearly a decade age, a Houston computer scientist posed this heretical question. Today, it’s led to a movement dubbed “probabilistic computing,” which he believes will revolutionize the future of computing.

On Sunday, Krishna Palem, speaking at a computer science meeting in San Francisco, will announce results of the first real-world test of his probabilistic computer chip: The chip, which thrives on random errors, ran seven times faster than today’s best technology while using just 1/30th the electricity.

Just think: One need never again worry about draining an iPhone battery in a day or even a week.

“The results were far greater than we expected,” said Palem, a Rice University professor who envisions his chips migrating to mobile devices in less than a decade.

And hopefully some of the companies that will arise to design, manufacture, and use those chips will be located right here. Regardless, this is an exciting development.