Thursday, January 18, 2007


Those of you who live in places where it actually gets cold are going to laugh, but San Marcos Texas has been basically shut down for five days in a winter storm.

It started early Saturday morning with torrential rains and a tornado. It tore up some guard rails and roofs, but no one was injured. Then it just kept on raining and the temperature kept on falling until we were under a blanket of ice. Tuesday was to have been the first day of Spring classes, but they canceled, and the weather didn’t let up so they canceled again yesterday.

We’re thawing out today, and classes are underway. Every tree and cornice and overhang is drip drip dripping.

Sure, I could have been working from home. But if you haven’t heard from me, it’s because I was greedily soaking up some unexpected time with my wife and son.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Big Tickets

Here are the five things that Texas State needs the most out of me in the next month:

  1. Sakai 2.3 in production (and finally convert our tables to InnoDB while we’re at it!)
  2. Document everything in our installation that deviates from stock (providers, scripts, a couple of tools, etc.)
  3. Solve once and for all the synchronization problems with our eccentric registrar data.
  4. Catalogue and prioritize the known loose ends (i.e., every time I said “I should really go back and fix that.”)
  5. Bring a couple of programmers up to speed on the Sakai universe.

Looks like I need good luck and caffeine!


New New Year

Happy new year, denizens of the Web and the Sakai-related. A new year brings in a new outlook and a clean slate. So far (the middle of the third day), I have managed not to do anything I regret. In the spirit of newness, I am happy to announce that I have formed a company called Aeroplane Software LLC and I will be leaving Texas State at the end of January to strike out on my own.

Texas State has been very good to me, but I have been jonesing to work for myself ever since I started my career. The great thing about working for a state institution is that the risk is very low. The downside is also that the risk is very low. I’m ready to find out if I can fly under my own steam. Whether I thrive or fail it will all be on me.

Effective immediately, I’m available for moonlighting: nights and weekends, small projects. Starting in February, I’ll be firing on all cylinders. I look forward to a whole lot more Sakai in the coming year.

Friday, November 10, 2006


NACOL wrapup

I gave a talk about Sakai on Tuesday at the North American Council for Online Learning conference in Plano Texas.

The organization’s focus is K12, so I was a little out of my element, but it was interesting to see the similarities and differences. I came away with the impression that K12 is much less autonomous and much more driven by policy than higher ed, even public universities like Texas State.

The theme that echoed in the conference was that the world is changing faster than our ability to adapt our education strategies. There was also a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the way our schools apply technology in education is to buy a lot of hardware and software and then see what happens. I won’t deny that that’s often exactly what we do in my department.

We heard from Tim Magner, the director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. He depressed me. In a nutshell, it was “We’re truly unprepared for the educational needs of the next generation, and the federal government can only give talks and make pictures because my department has, like, no money.”

I wish I could be optimistic, but this is a hard problem. Technology is such a great fit for say, accounting, because it’s one of the problems that can be mechanized. Your ledger is either balanced to the penny or it’s not. The root difficulty in education is that we don’t even know what success means in this domain. We’re talking about brains and cognition and emotion and motivation. Standardized testing does not reduce this to a binary equation, in spite of what its proponents may say. I believe we need to be free to experiment, to run thousands of skunkworks and find out what sticks. I like what Grace Hopper said: “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” Sakai happened at Texas State because we just put the damn thing up and got to work.

A couple of highlights: An organization called TakingITGlobal builds communities of young people from around the world to learn about global economic and social issues. They create content that educators can use for free, like this game in which you assume the roles of members of a family in rural Haiti and try to overcome their economic hardship.

I also loved hearing Bror Saxberg from K12, Inc. talk about some of the findings of cognitive science and how they may be applied to education. I believe if we don’t start making a concerted effort to apply science like this to our instructional technology projects, then we’re doomed to continue building solutions in search of a problem.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


A Modest Proposal

I have often said that the software that the Sakai project ultimately produces is not as important as the opportunity to forge an entirely new way for institutions of higher education to collaborate, to build something together that is greater than the sum of its parts. This new way is an exciting alternative to the old buy vs. build dichotomy.

The basic problem right now is that we have a requirements gathering process, but no organized (or better yet, self-organizing) system for getting the work done. Even though the Sakai Foundation oversees the project, they’re not “the boss.” They can’t force anyone to work on anything, because we’re a coalition of volunteers. That’s good, in the sense that we are the masters of our own destinies, but it’s bad because if no one drives the boat, it just sort of drifts. There is no shortage of resources: institutions have people and money, and they’re ready to use it to get software that helps them fulfill their missions. Among all the institutions in the Sakai community, there amounts to rather a lot of people and money.

There is a gap between what we want and what we get. It’s nobody’s fault; This is a hard problem. We need a (metaphorical) machine that takes people and money as inputs and emits world-class software. At select organizations, this is achieved by world-class software teams. To take it to the next level, we need a means of spawning meta-organizations — purpose-built working groups that swarm to a specific problem and produce great work. This happens now by dint of tremendous effort, currently embodied by the recent Resources work by Jim Eng, Clay Fenlason, and the folks at Unisa. We’ve got to find a way to bottle this up. Wouldn’t it be better if our best people had the mandate and the money to solve community problems full-time, instead of heroically squeezing it in between dinner and Conan O’Brien (I’m looking at you, Aaron Zeckoski)? I personally get frustrated that I can only put in a couple of hours a week to help make Sakai’s data interchange first rate.

I worry that we think this is going to iron itself out. The fact is, crossing institutional boundaries is fairly unnatural, and it’s going to take an intelligent template and a force of will to make it work as well as it should. Our problems are not technical, they’re organizational. Solving them is worth it because we stand a chance of closing the gap and getting what we need and want out of our systems, on our terms. Anybody interested?

Thursday, October 12, 2006


NACOL Conference

I've been asked to give a presentation about Sakai at the North American Council for Online Learning conference in November in Plano Texas. It's a K-12 organization, so I'm going to try to give it the right spin[1] for that audience. This will be my first chance to use Keynote! Why yes, I am a shameless Apple fanboy. How could you tell? [1] Not, in this case, a euphemism for lying.


Data snafu in Samigo

We recently had a problem with Samigo that looked like a crisis at first. A professor had just given his second test of the semester, a timed essay — just one question. The trouble was, Samigo showed all scores from the first test and submitted them to the gradebook as such, so students were seeing scores that didn’t make any sense, and since the professor couldn’t see their responses to the new test, he thought they were gone which would be muy malo.

Luckily for us and this modest effort to migrate to Sakai, the test answers were not gone, just weirdly mis-recorded. It’s not easy to debug this, because it involves a lot of digging in Samigo’s tables, which are big and numerous and kind of inscrutable. For instance, there’s two of everything: the template version and then the published version. But the foreign keys that refer to things will just say, like SECTIONID. How do I know if that’s the SAM_SECTION_T or the SAM_PUBLISHEDSECTION_T? A little bit of context and a lot of trial and error.

It turned out that the responses for test 2 had been recorded with the wrong assessment id. I didn’t figure out how this could have happened; I just fixed the data.

The other thing that was wonky is that the rows in SAM_ASSESSMENTGRADING_T all had a submit date, but did not have an attempt date, which caused all the students to have “No Submission” show up next to their names. Once I figured that out, it was easy to fix, but again with the trial and error.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Screencast: Mirror Up

People have been asking me what the process of staying in sync with Sakai code is like, so I made a little screencast. It's about seven minutes long, and you'll find it right here. I also created a diagram that I hope illustrates what happens when you do an svn merge. You'll find that one right here. Let me know what you think!

Thursday, October 05, 2006



I still don't know why my JVMs crash, but they seem to always become unstable after I have updated one and restarted it. And it's not only the one I updated that becomes unstable. Jeff and I were talking about it this morning and he suggested that it may be a problem with server affinity and sessions. I'm doing an experiment today where I just update one instance of Tomcat and then watch and wait. It bugs me how this problem has made me gun shy about applying patches to our production servers. In happier news, my technique of using is working very well. My production boxes are getting all the changes made to the 2.2.x maintenance branch up to and including r15678.

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