An Interview with Andrew Dobbie


Andrew Dobbie is a teacher with the Peel District School Board.  To get his attention, all that you have to do is express an interest in sustainable activities or reusing computers for the benefit of students.  I had the opportunity to interview Andrew.

Doug:  Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Andrew.  My first question is always the same; do you recall the first time that we met in person?

Andrew: Thanks for inviting me to chat Doug! My memory is fading in old age🤣 but I believe we first met when BIT was held in Toronto before the shift to Niagara Falls.

Doug:  We’ve been following each other on Twitter for a long time.  Why would you want to follow me?

Andrew:  I thought it was pretty obvious why people follow you, Doug.  You help me sift through current media and provide me with useful, sometimes actionable resources each week🙌

Doug:  Your passion for sustainable things is very evident to anyone who follows you on social media.  Can you give us a sense of where your passion is with this?

Andrew: The root of my passion for sustainability is in providing learners with a quality education through equitable access to computers in their classrooms.  My students needed help, so I researched a way to help them. Then, my students and I agreed that we should help everyone else.

Granted, the supportive team working with us exists throughout North America, Europe (in its infancy) and Iceland. We all work together to help achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Doug:  My interest in following you comes from the conversations and interactions that we’ve had online dealing with Linux.  You use it to breathe new life into old technology, often discarded. My interest was personal. I just wanted an alternative to Windows 10 for my 2010 Sony Vaio laptop. 

Do you use Linux personally?

Andrew: Yes! I use Linux every day with my students. I am also well versed in Win10 and MacOS too🤣  I need to be comfortable with all operating systems because some of my students bring in their own devices and I need to be able to assist them with daily operational challenges/troubleshooting.  I also dabble a bit with Android OS too just for fun. More along the lines of experimenting with converting different computing devices into hybrids running other operating systems. I’ve built some ChrMacbooks, converted old Windows computers into Linux devices, and even built one of the largest Android boxes using a massive desktop computer (as a joke- and it continues to be in operation today🤣).

Doug:  Now, when a person dips their toe into the world of Linux, it can be a bit frightening.  Long time Linux users go back to working the command line. apt-get, sudo, etc. Did you start that far back?

Andrew: I remember when I first tried terminal coding. I had no idea what I was doing. I have no formal training at all. Just YouTube, blogs, and Google Hangout guidance from a Linux expert, Aaron Prisk👍  

Aaron continues to be a very patient and supportive teacher. He listens to my coding frustrations and helps me to find parallel understanding between our common language and that of terminal coding. I started to learn the verbs of the language and it helped me learn how to install, move, package, and assembly Aaron’s student-tailored Xubuntu OS.  I still haven’t met Aaron in person. All our work has been completed remotely via Hangouts, Facebook IM, and now mainly via text message. So, yes. I use raw code in the terminal when constructing Linux FOG Servers and student-tailored Linux workstations.

Doug:  Linux comes in many flavours.  My first distribution was Ubuntu 4.04 and then the Edubuntu fork.  What was your first?

Andrew: Oh wow! You’ve been at it a little longer than me. I started with Cub Linux and Lubuntu initially because they were packed so small and could fit on a 2GB USB for installations.  Then, as I started dabbling with install on many different systems, I worked all the way back through history to Ubuntu 10, BSD, Linux plop, and all flavours after Ubuntu 10. Over the past 3 years, I have used and installed dozens of flavours to learn more about their unique strengths and differences but followed Aaron’s lead in using Xubuntu 16.04 for the first version of the student-tailored workstations.

Doug:  Since that time, I’ve changed my allegiance and now run Linux Mint.  What’s your favourite distribution?

Andrew: My friend Ryan, who is a data analyst and Linux junky, loves Mint too but my favourite continues to be Xubuntu because it provides me with all the necessary packaging tools to create the Linux student workstations.

Doug:  You talk about using Xubuntu.  Why this distribution?

Andrew:  Aaron Prisk introduced me to Xubuntu (a developer version of Linux) because he was already using it to create his own districts’ student image for all of their computers in Pennsylvania.  Lucky for me he was working through the process when I showed interest in learning it, and he took me under his wing (so to speak).

Doug:  It’s golden when you find someone with that amount of interest and patience. If someone else was interested in getting started in this area, how do they get started?

Andrew:  If anyone wants to learn how to install any Linux operating system, then I would suggest beginning with the USB installation technique.  We created a gForm to walk new learners through the process:

bit.ly/reimagewithlinux

It’s a little dated but it will help guide a new learner through the process.

Doug:  I like the way that you’ve used the Google Form as a tutorial for the end user. Well done.

You’ve forged a number of partnerships over the year, especially with Renewed Computer Technology of Ontario (RCTO).  How does that work?

Andrew: rcto.ca is an outstanding not-for-profit business who provide learning facilities with free desktop computers.  Initially, I needed computers in my classroom because our school didn’t have the budget for them and I couldn’t afford to buy them. RCT Ontario helped us.  We were lucky because they had tons of available computers back in 2016 when we first asked. They also had lots of LCD displays, which are a hot commodity and not easily available currently.

Essentially, if any learning facility needs free desktop computers, then they need to go to rcto.ca and request them. You will need to fill in a few online forms but be sure to request the free computers. They do offer some very affordable paid computer options as well (including a 1 year warranty), so they are a much better idea than buying new.  The first batch of 150 desktops we received for free in 2016 is STILL in service, supporting student learning needs in our classrooms!

RCT will also be happy to answer your questions by telephone too, so if you need help just call them.

In September, I was asked to assist their IT department in establishing a Linux line of free computers, so I created a Xubuntu 16.04 FOG Server clone, and a Xubuntu 18.04 FOG Server clone. Both of which can deploy the student-tailored Xubuntu operating system on any computer 10 years old or newer.

Doug:  One of the stumbling blocks that some might have with school districts is putting non-district computers on the network.  How have you handled that?

Andrew: All school boards have always been open to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy, so we explored and found success with multiple school boards by signing Linux computers onto board networks as BYOD devices. I was invited to York Catholic and Toronto Catholic boards to show their IT department heads how this process can work, and at that time (in 2017-2018 I believe) I created FOG Server clones for them to more efficiently deploy the student-tailored Xubuntu operating system onto their computers. 

I think it’s important to note that all of this is free, and always will be.

Doug:  That’s always been the claim for Linux and there are so many talented people driving that ship. We could always remind them that the Chromebooks that people buy new are running ChromeOS which is based on the Linux kernel!

How do you address concerns from teachers that running Linux doesn’t given them all of the applications that they would have on a Macintosh or Windows computer?

Andrew: Most teachers and students are running cloud-based programs these days anyway.  My students never have a problem using Linux to run any gSuite, Office365, or any other web-based tools like Scratch, Robocompass, Explorelearning.com, you name it.  They all work!

Some teachers have asked for special photo editing tools, so I showed them how pixlr.com runs perfectly through Google Chrome, and is easy for students to use.

Essentially, if an educator is resourceful enough, then he/she will find a comparable and free software tool that will run on their Linux systems. Yes, Minecraft too👍

Doug:  Your plan also involves your students.  How much training do they require before they are experts?

Andrew:  Experts? Hmmm. I’m not an expert and they would say they aren’t either, I think.  However, after having about a month or 2 of troubleshooting exposure and experience within our Tech Stewardship program, our Stewards are able to repurpose old computers easily.  In fact, 3 of our newest Stewards just repurposed a teacher’s old laptop this past week and they just started in the program in September.

Granted, our Xubuntu FOG Server does make the repurposing process extremely easy to transform multiple computers into Linux machines with only a few key strokes.  

Doug:  What is the minimum requirement for a computer to be refurbished for your purposes?  Do you limit it to old Windows computers or have you put Linux on Macintosh computers?

Andrew:  Current minimum requirements for excellent performance running our Linux image would be 4GB RAM and about a 2.4GHz processor (not that much really). It will run fine with only 2GB of RAM as well but 4GB RAM and learners WANT to use Linux instead of brand new computers because they are faster.

Also, I recommend installing our Xubuntu student-tailored operating system on computers 10 years old or newer.  Older than 10 years and we usually run into compatibility issues with hardware drivers and hardware begins to fail at times.

At this point in time, we have FOG Servers that can deploy Linux onto Windows computers easily.  Regarding Macs, students love ChroMacbooks the most, and I used to hand code each one because the FOG server wasn’t designed for Macs😓. Each student-tailored ChroMacbook took about 2 hours to code about a year ago.  Now, I simply open up the Mac. Remove the hard drive. Put the Mac hard drive into a windows computer. Change the hard drive to Linux using the FOG Server, then put it back into the Mac👍 Only takes about 15 minutes depending on the build.

Doug:  You will be doing a session at the upcoming Bring IT, Together Conference.  Can you give us a sneak peek?

Andrew: A sneak peek😕 

(FREE COMPUTERS!)  

On Wednesday morning, I will be bringing some of my special FOG Servers to make FOG Server clones for anyone that wants one.  You just need to bring an old laptop (that turns on🤣) with you, and stop by. I will even show you how easy it is to use it. You can use it on site to repurpose any other laptops you bring with you🙌

When I’m not teaching the process, I can repurpose up to 50 computers an hour by myself. So, if you just want some help repurposing your laptops for student use in your classrooms, then bring them by on Wednesday morning.

I will also be sharing some of our work highlights at IgniteBit2019 on Wednesday evening, so feel free to connect with me there too👍

If you can’t attend the Wednesday session, then my students will be joining me on Friday morning to help attendees repurpose their computers with Linux too. So, we can build you a FOG server or student-tailored Linux laptop at that time as well.

Finally, I believe I will be bringing lots of free mini desktop computer towers for attendees to take back to their classrooms for their students to use.  These mini desktop towers have been donated by rcto.ca and will include the tower, keyboard, mouse, and power cords (but unfortunately not LCD monitors due to short supply at the warehouse).

Doug:  Wow. Come to Bring IT, Together and leave with a free computer. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with us, Andrew.  If people want to follow you on Social Media, where would they turn?

Some great ways to start connecting:

Having it all


I’ve mentioned before that I use Symbaloo as one of the start tabs on my computers.  It’s a great way to have links to a lot of resources.  Here’s one of my home pages.  If you care to, go ahead and psycho analyze my browsing habits!

These webmixes can be created and shared with others, if you wish.  The nice thing about finding a great one is that it reflects a great deal of curating that someone has done on a particular topic.  Add their efforts to your Symbaloo account and you’re enjoying the benefits of their work.

It’s almost like a super Google or Bing search where every result is relevant!

Where would you find a need for something like this?

Well, let’s say you wanted a collection of resources for the iPad.

Just enter a search….

and sit back to enjoy the results.  Here was one webmix that provided some interesting new resources to explore.

Recently, I was showing a friend Ubuntu and demonstrated how the same principle can be applied there to grab Ubuntu resources.

When you are able to cobble together resources on a theme, it’s a powerful way to put them all together in one spot.

As a launch pad for students, just consider how easy it is to describe a button and have the student click on it and they’re there!

Don’t forget also that Symbaloo has an iOS application as well! Download it from here.  And there’s an educational program.  Could you ask for more?

Check out the top 10 most popular educational webmixes here.

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So Smooooooth


There’s so much about Google Chrome that I like and it’s been my main browser for quite a while now.  There was one annoyance that happened when I sat at my desk, using a full keyboard and a scroll mouse.  The scroll action to the mouse just didn’t always seem right.

It seemed slow and jaggy at times.

But no more.  I read about and installed the Chromium Smooth Wheel Scroller.  There is a smooth scrolling option available if you’re brave enough to ignore the warnings and go to chrome://flags/ and experiment.  Sadly, as of the current release, it’s not available for the Macintosh.  However, this extension has you covered and more

Install the extension and then right click to head to the configuration options.

Scroller

 

Then, quite frankly, it’s just a matter of adjusting the sliders until the scroll wheel does what you need.

The cool thing about Chrome is that you install the extension in one installation and, with synching turned on, it appears on them all.  So, I installed it under Linux where I use the scroll wheel and shortly thereafter, it appeared on my Macintosh.  I had spent some time configuring it under Linux and got it just right.  Fire up the Mac and Whoa!  It takes a little while since the trackpad has a different level of sensitivity so it was back to the sliders to get it just right there.

It was worth the time and effort.  Scrolling is even smoother on all the machines now.  It’s so nice.  There are other little niceties like having the screen bounce when you reach the bottom like iOS.

All in all, I just have to recommend this extension if you’re looking to customize your scrolling experience.  Be prepared to spend a little time adjusting it until it feels just right.  Once you get the knack of it, hide the button and never look back.

 

Still Relevant


Part of my regular Saturday routines involves maintenance to my computers.  On this machine, it’s the one day that I reliably boot into Windows.  That lets me grab any/all of the updates from Microsoft from the past week; run a defragging utility; I update my anti-virus; and I scan the computer.  Thankfully, all goes well and I move on.  Last week, instead of rebooting into Ubuntu, I put it to sleep in Windows 7.  Later on, I awoke the computer and gave a “oh no” as I watched the computer struggle to awake.  Just like a boot into Windows, the ol’ hard drive is going like crazy awaking everything that was either sleeping or hybernating.  It took quite a while and was a reminder why the computer spends most of its time in Ubuntu.  When I wake it from sleeping, it’s almost instant on.

I’m still not at the point where I would move it to Ubuntu fulltime and forget about Windows.  There is software on the Windows side that I paid for, there’s software that I’ve spent half a lifetime learning and mastering, I play around with C# there, and I just like to keep my hand in it when I get asked a question.

But life in Ubuntu has spoiled me.  I’ll confess that I do most everything on the web now so really I just need a good acting web browser.  Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox get workouts regularly.  I’m a fan of both products.

As it happens, I read an article recently “Never been convinced by Linux? Here is a challenge for you.

I shared it with Twitter which is my place to share interesting articles with others and a temporary holding place for me so that I can go back and read the article thoroughly when I have the time.

Later that day, I did in fact re-read the article.  It was one that had me nodding my head in agreement.  I recall when I first tried to work wtih Ubuntu – it was just a curiosity that took up some time in a summer.  However, the more I used it, the more I liked it.  I wished that I had taken the advice from this article sooner.  I think I would have become a regular Ubuntu user much sooner than I did.

I chuckled as I read some of the replies to the post.  Some talked about Vista and Windows XP doing just a fine job for them.  Again, I chuckled.  I wondered – why aren’t they talking Windows 7 or 8?

Then, this dummy confesses, I looked at the date on the article.  It was December 23, 2007.  I guess that Zite had just picked it up because of a recent revision or something.  I was just dumbfounded.

I think that the advice in the article is even more relevant today than it was in 2007.   Actually, it’s probably more relevant.  Ubuntu and Windows have certainly both become better products since then.  If you’re using the web for your work, browsers absolutely have become so much better.

Reading and experiencing the article is time well spent.  Reading the replies (170 pages of them) can take a while but there’s a world of education in the replies.  Of course, as one would expect, there’s your share of Windows-bashing or Linux-bashing but in between some very good reading.

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Badge Me


Seeing Peter McAsh at the ECOO Conference last week jogged me to a blog post that I had started to write but never finished.  That’s on the order today.

In our hall closet, there’s a big picture frame and inside there are things from my youth.  Underneath the glass covers are all of the badges I earned from the Wolf Cubs and Boy Scouts and swimming awards from the Red Cross, Royal Life Saving Society, and the Canadian Lifeguard Service.  Every time we do a thorough house cleaning, the question is posed “Why are you keeping this stuff?”  My response is always the same “I don’t know but I worked really hard to earn those.  I just can’t bring myself to throw them away.”

In fact, I bought an extra Bronze Medallion and Award of Merit when I earned them.  They remain with me all the time on a chain around my neck.  (except, of course, when I remove them to take a picture…)

Some of the other badges/awards just don’t follow me around like those two do!

Probably the one that I had to work the hardest for was the Bronze Medallion.  I remember that I had to take the course twice.  I failed the first time but got it on the second.  It smartened me considerably that success wasn’t just the in-pool work but that the RLSS took the academic knowledge part seriously as well.  Given the change in mindset, the Award of Merit was mine on the first try.  These two and all of the other things I’ve collected mean a great deal to me.

The concept is similar to education.  You learn; you pass a test; you win or lose, pass or fail.  Except that in education, we have different levels of passing.  By assigning a number to the work, we somehow quantify “how well” someone passes.  I wonder though – does that really matter?  I recall a number of students who wouldn’t be satisfied with 99%.  They wanted 100% for everything.  “Sir, it’s no sweat to you…just change it”.  I usually did.  It never happened but I often wondered how I could justify a “low mark of 99” to a parent or a “high mark of 99” to a principal!  After all, maybe the assessment was about proficiency of the IF statement.  How do you quantify that?  Isn’t it better that learning how to use that statement was an accomplishment and you could either use it or not use it?

It turns out that this type of logic is shared is other places as well.  In fact, the more you think about it, the more sense it makes.  In the “real world”, whatever that means, you learn various tasks and the test for success is whether or not you can do it.  Recently, I just took the Google Power Searching course online.  It was one of the better online courses that I’ve taken.  I actually signed up for the course earlier this summer but didn’t have the time to complete it.  I made a concerted effort the second time around and passed.  The result?  I have a certificate.  In order to be successful, I had to be able to demonstrate that I knew the concepts before passing.  Fair enough.

Some more examples…

Ubuntu Accomplishments
The description of this lays it out very nicely.  “The Ubuntu Accomplishments project is designed to provide a means in which you can be awarded trophies for different types of accomplishments in the community and elsewhere. The project is designed for Ubuntu’s needs, but actually supports any community and project.”  In this case, trophies are given for contribution to the community which is at the heart of the Ubuntu philosophy.  Or, there’s another alternative that I’m enjoying doing.  As you learn how to do things in Ubuntu, you’ll earn a trophy!

In this case, I learned how to change the desktop wallpaper.  Got me a trophy!

Edmodo Badges
This was where Peter came in.  He and I had had a discussion about the use of badges for achievements in courses offering all or some of the course in this learning environment.  Edmodo comes with pre-designed badges or you can create your own!

Mozilla Open Badges
The folks at Mozilla, which gives us Firefox and Thunderbird, have a really interesting concept in the Open Badges project.  By participating, you have an “Open Badge Backpack” to store the badges as you earn them.

I think that there’s a great deal of merit in the approach.  In fact, most skills are ultimately judged by whether you can do them or not.  Why can’t assessment be a celebration of the fact that you’re able to do something instead of trying to assign a number to everything.

Finally, it you’re an Ontario Edublogger, why not add an Ontario Edublogger badge to your blog.  I think it’s another good example.  If you’ve elected to become a blogger, that’s it.  There’s no percentage of posts or anything else required to be a member – just do it.

Finally, as I’m writing this entry, I dodge into my Diigo account and see that I’ve also bookmarked a site called badg.us.  I’ll admit that I haven’t used it to any great extent.  The whole concept of do something – get a badge really intrigues me.

Plan B


One of my favourite television shows of all time was “The Practice“.  It was a show about lawyers and one of their strategies was “Plan B” which would be used in certain occasions as part of the defense strategy.  It made for great drama and I remember the phrase “We’ll Plan B them” just as if I’d watched the show last night.  I’ve adopted the term myself and use it to represent alternative plans.

If you know me, you know that I’m a big Minnesota Vikings fan.  I’m not a Favre-come-lately.  In fact, my first purple football jersey was purple and featured the 44 of Chuck Foreman.  That bring backs great memories of Fran Tarkenton and Bud Grant.  Last night, the Minnesota Vikings had to kick in their own “Plan B”.  With the winter weather, we’ve all seen the collapse of the roof of the Metrodome, the playing home of the Vikings.

So, what was their “Plan B”?  They hopped onto an airplane and played their game instead at Ford Field in Detroit, the home of the Detroit Lions.  As we now know, this strategy was not friendly and they lost badly.

Last week, the Western Regional Computer Advisory Committee hosted its annual Symposium for technology leaders in the South Western corner of Ontario.  We hold it in the heart of Ontario’s snowbelt where it’s not uncommon for huge storms to pick up the moisture from a yet to be frozen Lake Huron and dump it on places like Grand Bend, Strathroy, and London!  It has never happened but what would happen if a keynote speaker that we invite from warmer places was unable to attend?  Well, we have our own “Plan B”, a closely guarded secret that would implemented if necessary.

In both of these cases, “Plan B” would be less effective than the original.

In the use of technology in schools, I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t stuck in a perpetual “Plan B”.  My Faculty of Education students recently came back from their placements and expressed their frustrations with their teaching environments.  At the Faculty, we work with dual boot iMacs with the Mac OS on one side and Windows 7 on the other.  On each partition, we have access to the entire suite of OESS licensed titles.  Everything that’s available is installed and functional.  The machines are also equipped with an area that allows us to install things on the fly, if necessary.  A good example of this would be Microsoft’s Small Basic which wasn’t available in time to ask the technical to have available for us.  But, we needed it for a recent practice lesson and so the student teacher mounted a sharepoint on the instructor’s computer and we all accessed the installer from there and were up and running in seconds.  There’s a “Plan B” that worked.

Is that the norm or the exception in a typical K-12 classroom?  Hardly.  The reality is that you need to plan at least a year in advance for the use of technology and then hope that all is good to go when you need it.  If it’s not, do you have the ability to put a “Plan B” in motion?  If not, why not?

Typically, the answer lies in the way that technology is managed in schools.  Rather than having realistic support levels, we generally have enough support to just get by.  In my previous post “Time to Consider 2.0“, I made reference to a posting that helped you discover if your technical support was 1.0.  I just received a rash of emails from folks who wanted to try this or that and were unable.  Like my faculty students, they had planned their lesson at home or read about it and wanted to try it in their classroom and were unable.  So, what’s their “Plan B”?

Maybe it’s time that we revisit the original plan.  Plan A?  As long as we continue to purchase industry equipment equipped with full-featured operating systems designed for every conceivable option, we’re going to be locked into this perpetual loop of doing things.  Is it realistic to use a computer and network so bloated and locked down that even the process of booting requires alternate entertainment?  I’m really intrigued with the instant boot and full access to technology that iPad and now the Google CR-48 provides.  Somewhere along the line, we’ve had to modify expectations about what computer technology can do for the classroom.  I can’t help but think that we need to be rethinking and regearing to reflect a more usable and reliable experience.  I’m really enjoying reading of the successes that people are having with iPod and iPad pilot programs.  The CR-48 is too new to have reports but it may well be a viable solution that gets students up and running and on task.

Imagine a educational technology world where “Plan B” isn’t necessary!

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Five reasons not to fear a $200 Linux PC


http://news.zdnet.com/2100-9584_22-6227419.html?tag=nl.e539

You sure hear enough in certain places about the joys of these less expensive computers. How much longer before they become mainstream and students show up at your doorsteps demanding to use them in their classes. How long can an educational system say no?

Want to try it out? Before you throw our your old outdated computer and spend big bucks to upgrade at home, get yourself a Linux distribution and throw it on the machine.

My old MDG machine which was getting progressively slower and more sluggish with Windows Home Edition is like a brand new machine with Edubuntu on it. It’s got my required suite of applications: Flock, FirstClass, OpenOffice, NVU, Python as well as lots of other things that I use on a rotating basis.

The cool thing is that there is no shortage of support should you need it.

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