Greg DeKoenigsberg Speaks

4th grade math: an update

Posted in Uncategorized by Greg DeKoenigsberg on March 31, 2009

As with all new projects, uptake is slow but steady. The mailing list traffic looks pretty good for its first month of life; we’ve got a few people who are working on various math-related activities; there are nibbles of interest.

Pulling all of this interest into a coordinated effort will be a continually ongoing exercise.

The next real milestone, I think, is to really flesh out the Math4 teams. Putting together a few strong teams that consist of at least one developer and one teacher will really help move us forward.

Another important goal for me personally is to ramp up my recruiting efforts — which means refining the pitch and finding as many opportunities as possible to make the pitch to interested people. There are only so many hours in the day, and I’m pulled in a ton of different directions, but pitching the vision is probably the most important activity I can be engaged in right now. Which means that my time for hacking Mongo is somewhat curtailed. Alas. I suck as a coder anyway. :)

Anyway. There’s lots of efforts out there to “help kids” using free software. I sincerely believe that helping to fill out the 4th grade math curriculum is one of the most immediately actionable things we can do as a community. Tell your friends — especially your teacher friends. Join the fight.

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Calls for radical transparency are everywhere.

Posted in Uncategorized by Greg DeKoenigsberg on March 24, 2009

Even in the sports world.

Anywhere you have:

1. Massive amounts of data that is publicly visible;

2. Enough geeks who care about collecting that data;

3. Enough geeks who care about manipulating that data;

…then you have the prospect of a data-driven revolution based on radical transparency.

Bill Simmons says “hey, Houston Rockets ownership, I know you’re collecting proprietary data about ‘how many blocked shots actually create a change in possession’. Why not open that data?”

There is a follow-up question that Mr. Simmons does not ask, but it is an obvious question, especially to us in the open source world. And that question is, “why aren’t stat geeks watching the games, recording these stats themselves, and sharing this data?”

The fact that these sports stats geeks are now gathering to hold these discussions at MIT is fascinating to me.

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Dear Lazyweb…

Posted in Uncategorized by Greg DeKoenigsberg on March 23, 2009

…I’d love to keep some of my daily task info on my local machine, so that I can keep track of it all offline — but then update corresponding pages on the Fedora wiki with a simple script. Can anyone point me to some dead easy scripts in Python/Perl/PHP that takes local content, logs into the wiki, and shoves that content into the right place?

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Still looking for professors: tell your friends!

Posted in Uncategorized by Greg DeKoenigsberg on March 20, 2009

Red Hat wants professors to participate in open source projects for a week this summer, and we’re willing to put our money where our mouth is.

We are accepting applications for this program right now. There have been some nibbles, but no formal applications yet.

The deadline for professors to apply is Friday, April 3rd, 2009. If you know any professors who would like to participate in an open source project for a week this summer, please tell them about this program. And if you have any questions, feel free to ask me.

That is all. :)

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Mongo 0.000001 is in git.

Posted in Uncategorized by Greg DeKoenigsberg on March 17, 2009

Yaaay! Now I can pretend I’m a developer!

The code is a straight up hack of Mines of Elderlore, as I talk about in more detail here.

So. The code is here. And there’s a bunch of TODOs, which I’ll be working on in whatever spare time I have.

Patches welcome. For real! Now I can say that and actually mean it!

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Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Posted in Uncategorized by Greg DeKoenigsberg on March 11, 2009

Look, the mechanisms that are used to derive Fedora’s usage statistics may not be perfect — but they are completely transparent.

Simply put, I fail to understand why other Linux distributions cannot provide the same data. It’s just not that tough.

I guess it’s easier to say “we’ve got a jillion users”. Math is hard.

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HUP HOLLAND!

Posted in Uncategorized by Greg DeKoenigsberg on March 11, 2009

All right, since Adam gets to talk Dutch baseball, now I can. :)

Because the game between the Dutch and the Dominicans was on ESPN Deportes and therefore not available in my area, I was forced to “watch” the last two innings on the internet. As a longtime follower of the Baltimore Orioles (“fan” would be a bit strong, but let’s say I have contacts), I’ve long been familiar with both Eugene Kingsale and Sidney Ponson — two of the three ballplayers on the Dutch team with MLB experience. Neither of them were that good. So to see the Dutch beat the mighty Dominicans — not once, but *twice* — was an amazing thing. I wonder if the Dutch even know they have a national baseball team. I myself was jumping up and down in my living room when the little blip on the webcast representing Kingsale moved from third to home for the game winning run in the bottom of the 11th.

My big question: why isn’t Andruw Jones on this team? I mean, I know he’s not been great the last couple of years, but still, he’s pretty much the greatest Dutch player in the history of baseball.

Thanks, Armen. Now I’m totally famous!

Posted in Uncategorized by Greg DeKoenigsberg on March 10, 2009

Thanks to Armen Zambrano, who conducted this video interview with me at SIGSCE in Chattanooga, along with a whole bunch of others. Seven interviews in all, and well worth your time to watch them. Together, I think they give a pretty good overview of what we’re trying to accomplish by bringing together the worlds of open source and higher education.

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Hello, friends from TeachingOpenSource!

Posted in Uncategorized by Greg DeKoenigsberg on March 5, 2009

Chris Tyler, you are the man.

Now we’ve got a great bit of infrastructure for educators who are trying to teach open source to their students. What are we going to do with it?

Funny, I just spent a day with friends in Chattanooga at SIGSCE. A room full of professors and industry folks, all of whom care about exposing students to open source. We had some amazing discussions. My agenda was to find out why, exactly, more professors aren’t already engaging their students in open source. Some big obstacles, and some ideas about what we might be able to do about them:

1. Tenure. Wow, is this a big one. The way tenure works at universities really makes it difficult for junior professors to engage in any open source activities at all, and I’ve heard enough excited professors hammer this point, again and again, over and over, that it’s starting to sink in. We really need to figure out how to help profs solve this problem.

Some ideas here, briefly. One, create an academic-oriented open source conference with peer-reviewed, juried papers. Two, create an academic-oriented open source journal with peer-reviewed, juried papers. Three, work to convince professors that “peers” in computer science don’t have to be professors — that when Alan Cox says “yes, this paper at OLS is good,” it should have as much clout as the opinion of any professor. Four, focus on bringing research money to the actual creation of open source projects; nothing sells tenure boards like cash in the university’s hands.

2. Having bite-sized projects. This is a huge problem. Every time a professor thinks “gee, I’d like to find a project suitable to have my kids work on” and then goes to Sourceforge to find this project, a kitten dies and a professor loses his/her mind.

This is actually a very broad problem. Every sizeable open source project faces this problem — the problem of identifying on-ramp mini-projects that (a) are not so critical that they will harm the project if they Do It Wrong, (b) are small enough to be easily handled in several weekends of hard work, and (c) have artifacts like, oh, use cases — artifacts that professors need because they’re trying to teach this stuff.

Google Summer of Code does the open source community the great favor of *forcing* open source projects to articulate these kinds of mini-projects. For every project that Google approves, they turn down two. (More or less.) Figuring out how to leverage this work so that professors can pick up the projects that Google leaves on the table could be *tremendously* useful — and Leslie is thinking about it, so that’s good. :)

3. Having course materials. Lots of professors are doing lots of good stuff, but it’s spread out all over creation. Identifying all the CC-licensed CS curriculum stuff in the world and aggregating it somewhere would be great. Like, say, at teachingopensource.org. That would be awesome.

So. A productive couple of days, and lots of good ideas. Now comes the hard work of turning these ideas into reality — but the establishment of TeachingOpenSource.org is an important step down this road.

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4gm: Getting down to it

Posted in Uncategorized by Greg DeKoenigsberg on March 1, 2009

Having presented fourth grade maths as a rallying cry, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to discover that Karlie and David have taken me up on it — to spectacular effect. David has XOs at the ready to hand out to the faithful, and Karlie has convinced a professor in Rochester to connect students to the project.

Guess it’s time to figure out what that project looks like, in a bit more detail than we’ve heretofore offered.

First order of business, though: if the notion of creating Sugar activities that connect directly to a larger educational framework and offer content, activity and skill assessment, all in self-contained modules that can be used for self-directed and self-paced learning, then join the Sugar mailing list for fourth grade maths.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way: what should we be *doing*, exactly?

Let me tell you what I’m doing, and why.

* * *

I’m working on a Sugar activity I call “Dungeons of Mongo”.

See, I’m a sucker for Rogue-like dungeon games. Always have been. Dungeons of Mongo will be a fork of a game called “Mines of Elderlore,” which is a Python-based Rogue-like. I’m just getting started, and it’s slow going, because for one thing I don’t have nearly as much time as I’d like, and for another, I don’t know Python nearly as well as I’d like.

So what’s the point of this fork, then, anyway? Simple. Unlike MOE, Mongo will have an educational twist (albeit an admittedly corny one): you fight monsters with knowledge. Aw, yeah! BRING THE KNOWLEDGE! “You dare to attack the domain of the Fraction Troll, puny weakling human child? Well, riddle me this: in the fraction 3/4, what is the DENOMINATOR? 4, you say? Ack, that’s correct! Fie, I am stricken! Woe unto me, now I die!”

Brilliant, right? I know! Okay, maybe not. But it’s a start. One thing I do like about the dungeon metaphor is that it’s got that immersive, exploratory element to it — which is why I played so much Rogue and Nethack and Larn when I was younger. Sure, it’s no Second Life or WoW, but it hardly needs to be — and to run on a cheap netbook, couldn’t be anyway.

Somehow, I’ve got to fit the following four elements into this activity.

1. Content. One can imagine the Six Tomes of Fractions. (“What’s a tome? Oh, it’s a fancy word for book? Cool.”) Each tome has content that teaches a lesson, and each tome builds on the lessons taught in previous tomes. Maybe it’s words, maybe it’s pictures, maybe it even spins off an Ogg player — but I’m sure we will start simple. This is obviously where we’ll need the most help from teachers.

2. Drill. Practice, practice. Level grinding in an RPG can be pretty boring, but you do it because you want to see what comes next. What’s the next monster? What’s the next treasure? What cool thing is waiting on the next level? You’ve just got to know, so you fight enough monsters to get to that next level — and if you’re anything like me, you stay up until 3am to do it. Why shouldn’t drilling math concepts work the same way?

3. Assessment. In the end, does the kid know what 3/4 + 3/8 is, and does he know how to get there? In the classroom, that’s what tests tell us. Now, the thing about a pen-and-paper test in the classroom is that you give the same test to 25 kids exactly once, and the overhead of creating that test, administering that test, and grading that test is what takes a significant chunk of any teacher’s time. Doing it repeatedly is all but impossible, so if a kid falls behind, there’s no time to help him catch back up. But for certain classes of tests — especially math tests — the questions can be infinitely variable, administered by the Boss monster, and instantly graded pass/fail. If you slay the Big Boss at the end, you win! And if you don’t understand how fractions work, the Boss kills you, and you start over. What kid wants that?

4. Alignment. Remember: all of this stuff should align with a useful curriculum framework, or educators won’t have any incentive to use it. We’ve chosen to work with a derivative of the Massachusetts 4th grade math framework, so dungeon level one could be all about 4.N.1 and 4.N.2, and dungeon level two could handle 4.N.3 and 4.N.4, and so on.

5. Customizability. Ultimately, Mongo should be a simple game to model some simple ideas. If they are good ideas, then people will either customize Mongo or build their own games with similar ideas. If we do it right, it should be a trivial matter to plug in different content, different drills, and different assessments. Of course, because all content and code is open source — that’s the point, after all — people are free to rip off these ideas and move forward with them. And boy, do I hope that people do exactly that.

Needless to say, patches welcome. I’ve got a hosting request in the pipeline with fedorahosted.org to host Mongo; as soon as that goes through, I will upload what I’ve got so far. (Which, fair warning, isn’t much.)

A couple of other wrinkles I’m thinking about:

* I don’t know nearly enough about Moodle, but I should. The quiz data formats are especially interesting. Standards make life easier for everyone, and it would be nice to be able to take content from Moodle, or any LMS, and drop it into Mongo. My first targeted question format for Mongo will, in fact, be the Aiken format used by Moodle for simplified multiple choice questions. Human readable, easily parsed, somewhat brittle. I can live with that for now.

* I haven’t even bothered to Sugarize my work on Mongo yet, and because I haven’t tried to write a Sugar activity in, oh, two years, I don’t even know where I’d start. I hope that the instructions for Sugarizing a simple Pygame-based activity are clear and easy to follow. And if they aren’t, that’s obviously a worthy project for someone to undertake.

Anyway. That’s what I’m working on.

* * *

Now, what should *other people* be working on? There are basically two options. Option 1: help me with Dungeons of Mongo. Option 2: start another activity project aimed at fourth grade math, maybe with a completely different approach.

Notably, Mongo does not yet align directly with any of the fourth grade math framework objectives. The questions and content, for now, are placeholders. Someone could certainly work the content side in parallel.

If some enterprising people want to start another project, that’s great. The principles should be the same: modular activities that encapsulate content, drill and assessment, that allow a self-directed learner to demonstrate mastery of a particular unit of knowledge that is aligned to the 4gm (that’s my acronym for fourth grade math) curriculum framework. With a strong preference for Python, since that’s the heart of the Sugar principle of hackability. Python activities can be brought up in Pippy right now. Java applets can’t, and neither can Flash activities.

Whatever you do, potential contributor, don’t overthink it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Working code and loose consensus: that’s what moves open source software projects forward. Let’s get out there and screw something up. It is very dark, and if we don’t move forward, we are all likely to be eaten by grues.

(Don’t forget to join the list, where will be talking more about this in detail, and soon.)

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