Monday, October 28, 2013

One Tablet Per Child in Redlands?

Rwanda's OLPC vs. LAUSD's iPad initiative vs. Redlands USD's Dell Laptop decision.

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) policy is the foundation of what Rwandan President Paul Kagame hopes will make Rwanda into a tech hub of Africa. If Rwanda can provide one laptop per child, shouldn't we be able to do that in the US? And if laptops are being replaced by tablets, shouldn't we be able to provide one tablet per child?

Redlands Unified School District board just voted to purchase Dell Laptops, deciding laptops are the best solution for this district. As a member of the Finance Committee at Sacred Heart Academy in Redlands (a private school), I'm taking a sharp look at the OLPC and OTPC (One Tablet Per Child) movements.

First, Rwanda's program is not without criticism. They are struggling to deal with issues of theft and student distraction. OLPC program officials want the devices to go home. However, to prevent theft and to deal with parent complaints that laptops are a distraction at home, some teachers lock up the laptops at school. Still, kids have been caught playing video games like "Doom" during class.

Los Angeles Unified School District entered into a contract with Apple to purchase iPads and special education software for all students and teachers this year. The rollout of this initiative has been plagued with problems.

LAUSD's Problems

Here is a list of some of the problems that have arisen to date in LAUSD:

Is Apple Enterprise-Ready?

Apple famously flopped in the business computing market with the Apple III. There has been a long-standing contempt of the business market at Apple, that started changing in recent years due to their success with iPhones and iPads. However, recent iPad sales have been declining, precipitously. Apple may have reached a point where competitors, like Microsoft & Samsung, take the market from them, just like Android took over the smartphone market that the iPhone created.

Therefore, Apple has never catered to enterprise-wide deployment of their devices and software. And it shows. The iPad security issues in the LAUSD (and even the keyboard issue, I believe) are a symptom of this problem. Schools (including colleges and universities) that have attempted to integrate Apple products into their enterprise network have experienced a number of problems. One of the most discouraging, for me, is the inability to re-issue textbooks to new students each year.


Locking down the devices

  • Yes, we should attempt to lock down the devices. However, even more important than preventing kids from browsing the Internet and playing games, we need to do our best to keep the child's information secure. This is information that could be abused to harm a student, potentially from a predator outside the school system, a bully inside the school, or a malicious school employee.
  • Signed Agreement - have the parent (for legal reasons) & student (for psychological reasons) sign an agreement regarding the use of technology. The parent should understand that they are responsible for how their child uses a device and they should understand what they need to do to keep their child safe and productive. In corporate environments, signing an agreement about how technology can be used is common.
  • Devices can be physically locked down, stored in a cart where they can charge overnight, and kept securely in the classroom. (At least as securely as anything else in the classroom - there will be break-ins).
  • Reward the hackers, don't punish them. If a student is clever enough to hack the device, and they report the vulnerability to the district (and don't publicize the exploit), they should be rewarded. The reward should be attractive, especially as the system becomes harder to crack. We should expect a student to hack the system, to gain access to teacher or administrator passwords. The trick is how we deal with that.
(There is a good fictional example of a High School student hacking a laptop, and of student information being abused by malicious school employees, in Cory Doctorow's novel, Little Brother).

Cloud Computing

Cloud computing has security concerns. They are concerns the industry is dealing with every day, but the biggest security concern is always the person who is accessing the system. Putting responsibility on the student to use a complex password, to remember it and keep private, may not be workable. Biometric security is not advanced enough to be secure (as I discussed in an earlier post on the iPhone 5S). So, the cloud should be used carefully.

Working with web/based apps and storing class projects in a Cloud that is accessible from home could be great. However, sensitive information about that child needs to be kept secure. Essay's may reveal private information about a student. Requiring tertiary authentication might be a requirement (like a home banking system where you are presented with a picture, etc.). So, the parts of the cloud accessible from home may need to be limited compared to what's accessible from the classroom.

Look to Windows Laptops & Tablet/Laptop Hybrids (coming soon)

  • Laptops have keyboards (critical for compliance with Common Core curriculum and testing), and there are a number of good manufacturers of Windows laptops. They also have USB ports.
  • Tablet/Laptop Hybrids, like the Surface Pro 2 and Samsung Ativ tablets, either come with or integrate well with keyboards and run Windows. The Tablets sometimes run a special version of Windows 8, and TrueCrypt does not yet support any version of Windows 8, but these Tablet/Laptop Hybrids bear close watching over the next couple years.
  • Microsoft has long dominated the Enterprise Software market, and they have great tools for centrally managing all the laptops. This includes tools to quickly set up new hardware (i.e., "imaging" a new laptop to install all the software automatically), and tools to centrally install new software for existing laptops on the network, and to centrally push out software updates, such as security updates. Even a laptop that is turned off can be automatically awakened to apply such updates.

Work out the E-Book licensing issue

One of my biggest reasons for wanting tablets is to eliminate those heavy, bulky, and often outdated textbooks. I've been concerned for years about the health impact of carrying heavy textbooks. However, there needs to be a good solution to the licensing issue. If books need to be reissued to students every year, buying a whole new license for every student is just too costly.


Technology is not a solution to biggest problems facing education today, because it doesn't directly address the problem. The problem is Poverty. This is from an NPR interview with Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education:
Where there are low test scores, where there are higher dropout rates than the national average, is where there is concentrated poverty. Now, we cannot, obviously, wipe poverty out overnight, but there are many things we can do to make school a stronger equalizer than it is today. One of those would be to have reduced class sizes in the schools that serve the children of poverty. Another would be to have universal pre-kindergarten. We should have a strong arts program in every one of these schools, because children have to have a reason to come to school other than just to be tested.
Poverty is definitely an issue in the LAUSD, as it is in the high-profile Philidephia School District. Putting technology in schools is something I believe in, but there are some very basic funding issues in schools that I think we need to deal with first, and laptops will not reduce the need for more teachers and more staff in these poverty-stricken districts. Laptops can be part of a solution, but it's not going to miraculously revolutionize public school education without spending money on a lot of other areas. This is likely also true, if not more true, in Rwanda.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Scientific American Restores Blog Post

Good for Scientific American for restoring DNLee's blog post. The insult she is responding to is egregious. It is more than just a personal attack - and most personal attacks are probably best ignored. This is about taking a stand against sexism and racism. Such reprehensible behavior should not be tolerated. I think it was brave of DNLee to respond publicly and applaud her for doing so.

When DNLee's blog post was taken down (within an hour of being posted), it was looking like Popular Science turning off comments on their site due to Trolls. Now that the post is back, I see this as empowering science, and a show of support for women and minorities in science.

There is a lot of science controversy lately. Ultimately, I think it is good for science to get this level of scrutiny. It gives the public the opportunity to dig into the issues facing science and make it better. We should not have blind faith in science, and we should not be asked to. We should always be critical.

On the same day as DNLee's post, NPR covered the rise of "cheating" in science (e.g., faked experiment results), and the efforts to crack down on cheating. This is another example of science policing itself, like I mentioned in a recent post about shady scientific journals.

While the Popular Science actions were disheartening - like science was losing the war against trolls - cracking down on cheating and bad science journals is very encouraging. The scientific community is cleaning house

Monday, October 14, 2013

Credit Approved (Flash Fiction)

When I worked for Arrowhead Credit Union, we used a supplemental credit score in addition to the FICO Score as part of our loan underwriting (approval/denial) process for consumer loans. One of my projects was to provide data to Fair Isaac (a.k.a., FICO) so they could create a new custom score based on our own data. 

This story, "Credit Approved," is about your online data being used by lenders to approve or deny your loan application, as postulated by Kate Crawford (a principal at Microsoft research) at MIT's EmTech conference. This story is not a prediction, and I do not know of any specific plans to use online data in this way, but Fair Isaac has been offering scores using "Alternative Data Sources" and also offers "Big Data solutions" on its website today.

Credit Approved

The caller ID said it was the Credit Union, so I answered it right away.

“Hi, Rick,” said the familiar voice of Nial, the loan officer. We expected him to call.

The appraisal already came in $5,000 over the purchase price. The rest was supposed to be a formality.

“I’m afraid there’s a problem. Remember how your credit scores were good, but not great?”

I felt my heart turn to lead and sink into a sour ball in the pit of my stomach. “But you Pre-Approved us.”

“It’s these new loan requirements from Freddie Mac. When your scores are in a certain range, we have to get a supplemental score. It is listed on your credit-approval letter.”

I almost pulled up the letter, but Nial went on.

“Your FIDPO came in too low. It rates your digital profile.” Nial read the denial reasons that came with that score.

“That can’t be right! What can I do about this?”

“You can submit proof they are false, and it’ll take 60 days. Maybe it will raise the score enough, but you’d lose the house by then.”

Pat was going to freak! We’d finally found the perfect house, after a two-year search.

“I know you have more in savings, so I had them run the numbers with larger down payments. Still, the only option is a portfolio loan. The Credit Union would be the lender, but you’d need to double your down payment. We can’t go over 80% Loan To Value. But at least you wouldn’t have to pay for Mortgage Insurance.”

“We needed that money for furniture and stuff.” But it was the best Niall could do.

Pat would just have to understand. We loved the house, and at least we could salvage the deal this way.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Amazon, Home Banking Not Secure Anymore?

Great episode of Science Friday on Encryption last week (with Phil Zimmermann, creator of PGP).  Main takeaway: NSA is weakening security for everyone, making it riskier to do online banking and shop online, and even creating security and legal risks for American businesses. 

Many people don't realize that they use encryption every day. Those who think "I've got nothing to hide" actually do want to hide their bank account numbers, usernames, and passwords, and medical records. Encryption has become so easy to use that it's virtually transparent (just lock for the "lock" symbal, and make sure the web address says "https"). The very technology that makes online banking and shopping secure is the encryption that the NSA and other government agencies have been working to weaken or find ways to just bypass. 

We hear about private data being breached all the time. Last week it was Adobe, the maker of Photoshop, Acrobat, and Flash (still common on web pages, despite Apple's past claim that it was irrelevant). The passwords and credit card numbers that were stolen from Apple were encrypted, but when the NSA works to weaken encryption, they threaten US businesses. Federal Laws mandate that businesses protect information, like your credit card numbers, medical records, etc. Weakening that encryption exposes businesses to the risks of being compromised and possibly of being out of compliance.

This week, NPR is doing a series called Your Digital Trail. I'll be following this series closely and listening for mention of "Meshnet" or "Darknet". Both are alternatives to the Internet, that may still use the Internet, but might allow for better privacy. I recently heard someone on NPR mention "Meshnet" in response to the NSA compromising encryption certificates, but it was just mentioned fleetingly and not fully explained. I also cannot find any story on the NPR web site that mentions Meshnet or Darknet.

A darknet features prominently in Cory Doctorow's Homeland (the sequel to Little Brother, which also essentially has a darknet called "XNet"). A darknet also appears in Charles Stross's Rule 34, but it was used as a black market.

However, it remains to be seen that a meshnet/darknet solution can be made as easy for end users as the kind of encryption the average person uses today.

Update - Other stories in the Your Digital Trail Series:

Friday, October 4, 2013

Bad Science Journals Feel The Sting

Some people have a strong distrust of science, and yet others have a strong faith in science. Neither is good. Scientific research always needs to be looked at skeptically, thought about critically. A big part of my undergraduate education in Anthropology involved critiquing the science in published scientific articles. The ability to critically evaluate science, I believe, should be at the core of science education.

This is why "Peer Review," the practice of letting other expert scientists review and give feedback to a researcher before their paper is published, is such an important practice in the scientific community. This is a process that improves the paper that is published, and filters out bad science. But even flawed research can make it through this gauntlet, and the criticism and debate continues after publishing.

Popular Science recently announced that they were shutting down comments on their site because some comments from the general public can be bad for science. The uncivil and inflammatory comments were not critiquing the science and they were muddying the water.

But there is another trend in scientific publication muddying the water: a growing number of new journals that either don't do peer review or do a poor job of it. Kudos to John Bohannon who writes in Science today about the sting he conducted to root out a bunch of poor quality journals. A surprising number of the new breed of journals he submitted a bad paper to actually accepted it without catching some glaring flaws. When confronted with his findings, at least one journal was closed down by its parent company.


Above is a snapshot of a very cool interactive map showing the locations of the journals, or where there IP addresses were, or where their bank accounts were, which was often suspiciously obscured in the paper submission process. (Green indicates rejection, red represents acceptance of the bad paper).

Journalists who specialize in science often do a good job of thinking critically about the science they report. However, other journalists often do a poor job, even on respected news outlets. Just last week on NPR's Fresh Air Terri Gross showed her poor understanding of genetics/evolution with this question to her guest, Daniel Lieberman:
Oh. I see what you're saying. Because you've already reproduced, so any adaptation that you make as a result of the disease, it's too late to have an effect on reproduction.
Lieberman should have corrected her misunderstanding by explaining that you simply can't make adaptations to yourself. You have to be born with an adaptation.

The process at work is this: If you have a genetic trait that causes a disease, but it doesn't kill you before you reproduce, you will pass on that trait. Also, the people who adapt a trait that prevents that disease are not significantly more likely to reproduce. The trait doesn't have a significant impact on genetic fitness.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the 18th century biologist, famously theorized that organisms could acquire traits during their lifetime and pass them onto their offspring. This was eventually disproven by Mendelian genetics. This is a core concept in genetics and evolution.

However, Lieberman responds, "Yeah, well, this is an important topic, obviously." Perhaps he just wasn't listening closely, because he goes on to make another point entirely.

Clearly, we've got a long way to go when it comes to fostering critical thinking in science education and journalism. Scientists doing a better job of policing each other is a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

General Assailability: Last/Best Chance to kill Obamacare During Launch

General Availability (GA) - In traditional software life-cycle, this is the version of a software application that is released after beta testing is all done and the product goes live. I like to call it General Assailability. Now everyone can try out your product and criticize it.

Obamacare launched on October 1, and it was plagued with technical glitches. Should we have expected anything less? Health Insurance is extremely complex, there are multiple providers, a challenging deadline, and there are a huge number of captive end-users (they will be required by law to either purchase insurance or pay a fine). Technical problems were inevitable because the web sites are new. I would be more surprised if there were not glitches. But it definitely creates an opportunity to enemies of Obamacare to criticize it.

Is Obamacare just a victim of its own success? Those who actually learn about Obamacare find many reasons to like it, and once it is fully implemented, it may become too popular to fight. In fact, if it were brought to a vote in the House today, it might pass.

So, now is the time to fight it. Once the bugs are worked out and people see the benefits, it will be too late.