Thursday, August 02, 2007

Wikimania, FLOSSE, and Cell Phones

As we start new wikis for the Fall semester in our installation of MediaWiki, I spent more time learning about the open-source software. First, I created a better support structure in case I was not around. I had many pages of printouts on how to start and customize a wiki and condensed them into a wiki page on how to start a new wiki in our own install.

I have to refine these a bit more, and have a team member use them to start a wiki. I always receive useful feedback when others follow my initial directions, which are then improved.

I still have to come up with a better way of automating daily backups. Right now, I'm using MySQL Administrator to copy the databases, but I'm not happy with the backup procedure of the apache documents folder. We also make a mirror of the entire drive each week with NetRestore, which can be restored to a spare computer in about 10 minutes.

One of our CS students is attempting to implement math equation support, but no success yet. This seems a difficult and less-than intuitive process, without clear instructions. If we do succeed, we'd like to document the steps to help anyone else. I had spent a fruitless day attempting to "make" textvc myself, and decided it was an ineffective use of my time to go any further. I had reached my level of incompetency, the student had the misfortune to stumble in my office to return a cable for a friend, and the rest is history...

I was wondering where the upcoming Wikimania was this year, and Google gave me the FLOSSE Posse link. The conference is in Taipei, a little farther for me than the one in Boston last year. I now wish I had attended it.

FLOSSE Posse is a group blog from members of Free and Open Source Software Association (VOPE), carrying out reportage of FLOSS and Open Content in Education, there is some good info on the site.

One nugget was a reference to Knowledge Building, an activity which wikis seem to support very well. To summarize Wikipedia's entry:

"Knowledge building refers to the process of creating new cognitive artifacts as a result of common goals, group discussions, and synthesis of ideas. These pursuits should advance the current understanding of individuals within a group, at a level beyond their initial level of knowledge, and should be directed towards advancing the understanding of what is known about that topic or idea.

The teacher becomes a guide rather than a director and allows students to take over a significant portion of the responsibility for their own learning including planning, execution and evaluation.

One of the hallmarks of knowledge building is a sense of we superseding the sense of I, a feeling that the group is operating collectively and not just as an assemblage of individuals."

Another eye-opening idea I found in FLOSSE Posse is that networked communication, and the Internet, may come to third world countries via cell phones, and not the computer . Over 97% of Tanzanians have access to a mobile phone, though only one in 10 houses has electricity. These cell phones are becoming agents of social change, and are narrowing the "digital divide" more so than computers. This bodes well for technology like the iPhone, which enables one to do more than possible with a standard phone, and is closer to a computer. The cost of these technologies have to dramatically drop to make them affordable in third-world countries (and even in industrialized nations!). Google is now spending hundreds of millions on it cell phone project, there seems to be a bright future in this area.

There is an on-line community and a wiki at Shareideas on the use of mobile communications for social and environmental benefits.

The last good link I will mention found at the FLOSSE Posse was to Open Educational Resources, educational materials and resources offered freely and openly for anyone to use and under some licenses re-mix, improve and redistribute.

We live in an exciting time when it comes to rapidly developing networking and collaborative technologies. It's even more rewarding to use these, and see them used, to improve the way people live, communicate, and learn.

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