Saturday, November 20, 2010

The 2010 Sloan online teaching survey

I recently summarized the 2009 Sloan online teaching survey. Now lets take a quick look at the 2010 survey.

Among other things, the survey found that online instruction is growning fast, federal regulation aimed at curbing financial aid abuse at for profit schools would impact other schools, but to a lesser degree, the market is competitive, and most academic leaders think online instruction is as good as face-to-face. Here are a few sample results:

  • Sixty-three percent of all reporting institutions said that online learning was a critical part of their institution’s long term strategy, a small increase from fifty-nine percent in 2009.
  • Over 5.6 million students (nearly thirty percent) were taking at least one online course during the fall 2009 term -- an increase of nearly one million students over the number reported the previous year.
  • The twenty-one percent growth rate for online enrollments far exceeds the less than two percent growth of the overall higher education student population.
  • Over three-quarters of academic leaders at public institutions report that online is as good as or better than face-to-face instruction (compared to only 55.4% of private nonprofits and 67.0% of for-profits).
  • Nearly one-half the institutions report that the economic downturn has increased demand for face-to-face courses and programs while three-quarters report that it has increased demand for online courses and programs.
  • The economic impact on institutional budgets has been mixed; forty-seven percent have seen their budgets decrease, but twenty-seven percent have experienced an increase.
  • For-profit institutions report a potential negative impact from proposed Federal rules on financial aid on their enrollments at more than twice the rate of other types of institutions (33.9% compared to 12.2% for public institutions and 10.1% for private nonprofit institutions).
  • A majority of institutions continue to report that there is increasing competition for online students.
  • Public institutions report more pressure from the for-profit sector than do the private nonprofit institutions.
  • Reported year-to-year enrollment changes for fully online programs by discipline show most growing, but with a sizable portion seeing steady enrollments.
  • Virtually all recent growth in online enrollments has come from the growth of existing offerings, not from institutions new to online starting new programs.
It's noteworthy that public school leaders are most likely to consider online as good as or better than face-to-face instruction and they are also most likely to offer online courses. This raises the causality question -- are they more likely to offer online classes because they feel they are effective or vice versa? Regardless, will the growing proportion of online courses come to further differentiate public and private education?

It also makes one wonder how to judge the effectivness of a course. Is it scores on an objective exam, student satisfaction levels on a survey, the quality of interaction with fellow students, experience of the values and enthusiasm of a teacher, etc.? As stated in our review of the previous Sloan survey, hyrbid courses, which can offer some of the advantages of both modes of instruction, seem to be the best solution for some schools and some classes.

Immigration and future technology

Last Sunday, the LA Times had an article about a high school science project competition sponsored by Siemens. High school juniors were competing for scholarships and a chance to progress to the national competition.

The article described several projects and gave the student's names: Akash Krishnan, Matthew Fernandez, Ryan Chow, Eric Huang, Eric Wu, Hanna Lee, Angela Zhang, Jacqueline Wang, Lesley Chan, Edward Huang, Bonnie Lei, Sean Wang, Scott Zhuge, Abhishek Venkataramana, and Andrew Liu.

The names made me smile and feel optimistic about the US. It also reminded me of my father, who was the second of six kids born to immigrant parents in a three room house with no plumbing or electricity.

The entries focused mainly in biology and IT, and the contest winners demonstrated (and patented) a technique for classifying emotion in voice recordings. Being relatively open to immigration has its costs, but we should not overlook the benefits to our economy and culture.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Online classes -- hybrids? Large lectures? A growing elite education gap?

An article in today's New York Times looks at online university classes. The article presents a number of anecdotes and examples -- some supporting and some criticizing online undergraduate teaching.

Students like the convenience of online classes and universities hope they will save money (though not all do). On the other hand, some students and parents want contact with faculty in relatively small classes. The Times gave the example of Ilan Shrira, who teaches developmental psychology to 300 students. He said he chose his field because of the passion of a professor who taught him as an undergraduate, but he thought it unlikely that anyone could be so inspired by an online course.

Good or bad, online classes are taking off. The Sloan Survey of Online Learning reported that 4.6 million students took a college-level online course during fall 2008, up 17 percent from a year earlier. More than one in four higher education students took at least one course online.

The article and report reminded me of the tension between classes in large lecture halls with teaching assistants and those in classrooms with a professor. Many online classes are replacing large lectures, and we need to differentiate between that and replacing small classes.

I was taken by professor Shrira's comment. I believe that in my small classes I connect with and make a difference to one or two students a semester. Since students take many classes, the odds of one or two such connections during their time in school are good. I would hate to see that dimension of education eliminated, so:

Perhaps we should be focusing our online efforts on the lecture hall, not the classroom.

Another finding from the Sloan Survey caught my eye. Jeff Seaman, co-director of the survey, said that a large majority, about three million of the 4.7 million online students, were simultaneously enrolled in face-to-face courses, many in community colleges. That indicates that we are not doing as much "distant education" as we might think -- most of our online students are local, which leads me to wonder:

Should we be leaning more toward hybrid than pure online classes?

Finally, the Sloan survey showed that students at large, public universities are more likely to take online classes than those at small, private (expensive) universities. With steadily growing income inequality in the United States, the move to online classes may widen the gap between mass and elite education.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Internet in K-12 schools, an Educause presentation

I recently attended the Educause conference. (Educause is a professional society focused on educational technology).

One of the more interesting presentations was by Julie Evens, CEO of Project Tomorrow. She reported the results of their survey of over 300,000 K-12 students, parents, teachers, administrators, and teachers in training.  The survey sheds some light on the preparation and proclivities of our future students.

Evans began with the student vision -- what students want and envision for themselves in their future education. The essential elements of their vision are that education should be socially based, untethered and digitally rich.

1. Socially based

Students want to use communication and collaboration tools to create personal networks of collaborators and helpers. They want to teach each other and learn from outside experts, online tutors and their teachers.

2. Untethered

Students envision technology-enabled learning that goes beyond classroom walls. They already have smart phones, tablets and laptops and want to use them in school. They want to take online classes and learn at their own pace.

3. Digitally rich

They want relevant, interactive teaching materials and self-administered tests -- for their eyes only. They also want digital tools so they can be content developers as well as consumers.

Evans says many students are "free agent learners." The survey profiled a typical middle school student as follows:

  • 37% have searched online for self-directed learning
  • 23% have found podcasts/videos to learn about something
  • 18% took an online test or assessment on their own (my italics)
  • 17% used cell phone apps to self organize
  • 14% used online writing tools to improve writing skills
  • 12% found experts online to answer questions

The survey also compares the views of students and administrators with those of teachers in training, concluding that teacher training needs to move beyond Microsoft Office:
While these future teachers have a desire to integrate the technology to support socially-­-based, digitally rich curriculum in their classroom, they are primarily being taught to use technology for word processing, spreadsheet, database tools or multi-­-media presentations. Less than 25 percent of these future teachers are being taught core skills which will enable them to leverage the power of technology for student achievement with online assessments, the use of student achievement data to inform instruction, or facilitate collaboration amongst students using Internet-­-based tools (such as blogs, wikis or social networking tools). Even fewer are learning how to teach online classes (4 percent).
You can read or download the slides from Evan's talk or a copy of the survey report.  The survey is done annually, and the 2010 version is online now.


While these results are thought provoking, they are biased. Survey participants are self-selecting so they are already online and clearly interested in the topic. The work is funded by Blackboard, which has a clear interest in online education, but I have no reason to think they influenced the results in any way. Finally, Project Tomorrow grew out of the Net Day organization so they are probably fans of the Net -- that may have shaped the survey wording a bit.

In spite of the disclaimer, the survey results shed light on the future, and educators and prospective employers of today's kids should keep them in mind.

Follow this link for more on the preparation and expectation of today's university students.

An example of collaborative writing at Educause 2010

We frequently write collaboratively on the Internet.  Writing a composite document, where each co-author is responsible for his or her own section, is relatively simple to organize, but finding a way for many people to collaborate on a more integrated document is difficult.

The organizers of last week's Educause educational technology conference were faced with a large collaborative writing challenge.  They wanted to create a white paper synthesizing the presentation highlights from the sessions concerned with research on teaching and learning. The problem they faced was that there were 23 50-minute sessions spread over three days. One person could not have attended, let alone documented every session.

Their solution was to seek collaborators among the three to four thousand attendees, many of whom would attend one or more of the 23 presentations.  They created a simple survey form (using Google Docs) and asked those who attended the sessions to answer four open-ended questions. The report will be written by an Educause staff member using the results of the survey.  We will follow up when that report is published.

Related links to:

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Student skills at Arizona State University -- create content and collaborate

Arizona State was a pioneer in "cloud computing" by and for students. They were early adopters of Google Apps and cloud computing.

That was four years ago, and they are now graduating their first "cloud class."

They consider the move a success.

Sam DiGangi, ASU's associate vice president of university technology and an associate professor of education says:

I think this is the first generation that will graduate with a foundation not only in knowledge and expertise of a specific content area, but also in tool skills--the ability to collaborate, to edit, to revise one's work, to dynamically incorporate input in writing and in designing.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Own your connection infrastructure, use netBlazr

A while back I wrote an article and blog post stating:

The question is not whether we are going to deploy new infrastructure; the question is “who will own it?”
The article discusses several alternatives to ownership by the current telephone and cable companies: local governments, cooperatives, small ISPs, and home and building owners.

I know of two trials in which home owners purchase their own links to a backhaul point -- similar to what we now do with our sewer and gas lines, and one wireless access company called Fon.

Fon claims 1,726,336 "members." Members purchase an 802.11n base station that is augmented with several application-layer programs for $99 or €79 and share bandwidth with other members. There are eight Fon installations in my zip code, but only two have been active during the last hour. After several years, Fon deployment is not dense enough to provide a viable alternative to the cable and telephone ISPs in my area, and I don't expect it ever will be.

But, technology and business models improve, and a new company, netBlazr, hopes to sell small business owners equipment for forming a network. The $299 equipment package contains three 802.11n radios and a fast router. Fiber backhaul is supplied by netBlazr. The basic service is free, but they also offer a premium service and dedicated circuit plans with guaranteed speed for small businesses.

NetBlazr's technology and business model are different than Fon's. The extra radios and faster router should improve performance in densely populated areas -- the extra routers let netBlazr change the network architecture on the fly if something goes wrong. The network architecture and backhaul provisioning lead them to deploy in highly local areas. They pick a backhaul point then sign up customers they can reach from that location. They started in a small area within Boston, and will expand from there as demand and density allow. If things go well, they will expand to service office buildings in other cities.

Will netBlazr catch on and scale up to provide a viable alternative to the incumbents? It may be a long shot, but companies like Google or Craig's List seemed like long shots at one point. You never know -- improving technology is on their side and their competitors are not used to competition.

Appended link:

Here are the slides from netBlazr founder Brough Turner giving a talk on the advantages of WiFi over Wimax and LTE and introducing netBlazr.

Update 6/12/2015

Fon announced today that they have over 15 million people sharing Internet access over their personally owned open hotspots. Since WiFi range is limited, the value of a Fon membership increases with dense coverage, and as shown here, most of the "Fonistas" are in Western Europe.

In addition to signing up individual users, Fon is making deals with Internet service providers. In the US, cable companies are rolling out their own versions of shared access as is Google Fiber.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

ICT energy consumption -- in the data center and at home

We usually think of IT as saving energy, as being green. For example, we speak of the substitution of communication for transportation -- teleconferences replacing airplane trips. IT would save energy if all we used IT for was teleconferences, but our appetite for IT is growing rapidly.

This slide was taken from a Network World IT Roadmap talk by Frederic Chanfraou, Senior VP of IT at Schneider Electric.  (Schneider is an energy management company).

As you see, the production of data is growing rapidly and the cost of computing is falling rapidly. That leads to increased data center demand, and data centers consume a lot of energy. Chanfraou estimates that IT consumes 4% of our electricity today, and, if we do not increase efficiency, it would be 40% by the year 2030.

The problem goes beyond the data center. How about your home? What percent of your electric bill goes to information processing devices like TV sets, radios, computers, set-top boxes, DVRs, and chargers, as opposed to appliances, heating, lighting, and other uses?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Excellent customer support from SurveyGizmo

From time to time, I encounter noteworthy customer support. That might be excellent customer support from a company like Zoho or bad and wasteful customer support from a company like Verizon.

I am happy to report another example of excellent customer support from the online survey service SurveyGizmo.  They have tutorials and webinars on their Web site, and instead of customer forums, they offer email support.

I recently asked a technical support question, and, as you see below, received a cheerful answer in 51 minutes and an answer to a follow up in 68 minutes. Even better -- mine is a free account. If I were paying, I could have called on the phone with my question.

Here is the actual email exchange:

Larry Press
Sep 08 09:31 pm
Is there a way to delete a group of responses -- those before a specified date?

Sep 08 10:22 pm
Hi Larry,
We don't actually have the ability to delete groups of responses, but this is a great idea. I think you should add this suggestion under our green Feedback tab on the right side of your account. This would be very useful!

Larry Press
Sep-08 2010 10:22 pm.
Thanks -- is there any way to delete them other than viewing and deleting them one at a time?

Sep-08 2010 11:30 pm.
You can only delete all responses or delete them one at a time.
Sorry for the inconvenience!

The cost of differentiated services

We have seen ways in which the information-service business model is enriching cable and telephone companies at our expense.  Charges for text messaging might be the most egregious example of a service that is priced much higher than its cost in spite of supposed competition among cell phone companies.

The author of a recent New York Times article calculates that at 20 cents per text message, cell phone companies are charging $1,498 to transfer one megabyte of data.

But, if you send a lot of text messages, you would probably switch from a metered plan to an unlimited plan, which is typically $20 per month.  We average about 500 text messages a month, according to Nielsen, the media measurement firm.  A $20 unlimited plan would drop the price of a text message to 4 cents, or $300 a megabyte.  Nielsen says teeneagers average about 104 messages a day. That drops the charge to "only" $47.62 a megabyte on a $20 unlimited plan.

Contrast these prices with Apple's music distribution, which uses the vanilla Internet.  Apple sells a song for $1.29.  If they had to pay $47.62 per megabyte to transmit that song to the user, it would cost them about $180 per song.  At 20 cents per message, it would cost Apple $5,486 per song.

If you read the New York Times article, you will also see that the cell companies are moving traffic from the cellular network to WiFi -- the same thing we consumers are doing.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

How does Twitter select Trending Topics?

This morning around 6 AM, PST, I noticed that the newly announced Samsung Galaxy tablet was at the top of Twitter's world wide Trending Topics list.  It was also at the top of the United States list and number two in the UK.

But, it was not even listed in the top 10 for Los Angeles.  I figured that was because it was early in the morning, so I checked New York and London.  Nothing.

It turns out that the Samsung tablet was not listed in the top 10 of any of the cities listed by Twitter:  Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, London, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Francisco, Seattle, São Paulo and Washington, D.C.

Half an hour later, the Galaxy had replaced Stephen Hawking as number one in the UK, but it was still not in the top 10 for London.

Twitter says they will sell the 11th spot on the Trending Topics list to a term that is in the top 1-200.  Do they also sell spots on the top 10?  If they are selling Trending Topic spots without identifying them as paid, will their credibility be undermined?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Electronic text books

Monterey College of Law is distributing Apple iPads to all students enrolled in a supplemental curriculum program that helps them prepare for the state's bar exam.

The program is motivated by the desire to save time for busy night students who typically work full time and have families, not cost. However, technology improvement coupled with new business models will eventually drive the cost of electronic textbooks well below that of printed textbooks, as shown in this cost breakdown.

Electronic book sales have already passed hard cover sales at Amazon, and the cost of a Kindle reader is down to $139.

In addition to cost and time savings, electronic textbooks will have new features including capability for social or collaborative reading. It is too soon to know what those features will be or how they will work, but check the Institute of the Future of the Book if you are curious about the possibilities.

Would you prefer electronic to printed textbooks?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Soluto, a cool program/service, measures boot time. Solid state disk wins big

When I got my new laptop with a solid state drive (SSD), I ran benchmarks comparing it to my old laptop and desktop with their hard drives. Windows 7 was faster than Vista, 64-bit was faster than 32-bit, and, most important, SSD was faster than a hard drive.

I've now run a final benchmark using Soluto, a program and service that analyzes and times the boot process. My new laptop, running 64-bit Windows 7 on an SSD loads 61 applications while booting in 36 seconds. My old laptop, running 32-bit Windows 7 on a hard drive loads 55 applications while booting in 2 minutes 32 seconds.

The SSD speed advantage makes for a qualitative improvement. SSD boot time is less than 25% of hard disk boot time, and it launches applications almost instantaneously. The responsiveness is relaxing. (The Soluto tag line, "enjoy your PC," is appropriate).

Soluto is a cool program/service. It shows all the programs you launch during boot divided into three groups: those you should not launch, those you may or may not want to launch and those that must be be retained.

You install Soluto locally, but it has a program description database to help you decide whether to drop a program. It also displays the percent of users who have decided to keep or drop a program. Finally, it keeps track of what you have taken out of the boot group, so you can add a program back with a single click if something unforeseen occurs.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Digital manipulation in politics and culture

The Internet demands skepticism. Anyone can publish any "fact," and sites like these:

help us separate fact from fiction.

Media can also be manipulated. For example, Fox News broadcast excerpts from President Obama's recent West Point speech, then accidentally posted a version with the applause removed on their Web site. (Some claim it was not an accident, but the poor quality of the editing supports Fox' assertion -- they would have done a better job if it were intentional).

Images are easily modified. These photos of President Bush reading a book upside down on 9-11 and John Kerry at an anti-war rally with Jane Fonda are Photoshop fakes:

Or, Consider these before and after shots taken from an eye opening Dove soap commercial:

As the commercial shows, makeup plus Photoshop can drastically alter an image. (Stretching her neck is the coolest step).

One might argue that the first examples are the most important -- in a democracy we should be able to trust our news media. But the second has social implications as well -- it sets unrealistic goals for appearance.

Can you find other examples of deception on the Internet?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A novel application -- drone helicopter with streaming cameras merges real and virtual worlds

Parrot, a French company, demonstrated an iPhone-controlled drone helicopter ("quadricopter") at the Consumer Electronics Show.

As you see in this video, the iPhone is used to control the drone and to view streaming video from its on-board cameras.

This is a novel application, using the iPhone to control a physical object and augmenting reality by letting you see what the drone sees -- it blends the real and virtual worlds.

This demo used an iPhone, but Parrot promises to port the application to other phones and tablets -- their goal is to sell the drones.

A few caveats -- Parrot refused to speculate on the price, but my guess is that it will be pretty expensive since it requires a lot of computing and mechanical hardware. The iPhone and the drone use WiFi to communicate, which limits its range. Power requirements will also cap flight length.

Lest those caveats discourage you, recall that the Wright brothers first flight lasted 12 second and covered 120 feet. It only took 66 years to get from that flight to a safe return flight to the moon, and information technology improves faster than aviation technology.

What sorts of devices will you be controlling in five years? What sorts of cameras and censors will be feeding data to your portable device?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Singapore is installing fiber to every building

This figure is taken from a an ITU study on the Internet in Singapore that I worked on several years ago. It depicts the government role as an equity investor in the ISP industry. (The government has played a similar role in the oil, finance, shipping and biotechnology industries).

Continuing that policy, the government of Singapore is investing in fiber to every home, school, government building, business and hospital. Their Next Generation Plan is for 95 percent of buildings to have access to a 1 Gbps connection by 2012.

They will also follow the model of competitors using open, shared infrastructure, which seems to be working well in Stockholm and other cities.

There are caveats. Singapore is a small, city nation, and a very high percent of the population lives in apartment buildings. That makes this plan relatively cheap. Retail connectivity prices are also a question mark -- will there be sufficient competition over the shared infrastructure to keep them low?

If the network succeeds, and 1 Gbps connectivity becomes ubiquitous, what applications might they develop? What would you use a 1 Gbps link for?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

64-bit Windows 7 upgrade -- disk reads are 25% faster

In a recent post, I mentioned that I had a new Dell laptop with a solid state disk (SSD) instead of a rotating magnetic disk (HD). I discussed the advantages of SSD and its relationship to Internet connection speed, and presented some rough benchmarks of disk speed. It was about twice as fast as my desktop computer and 4 times as fast as my old laptop with a hard disk.

Today I upgraded the operating system from 32 to 64-bit Windows 7, and re-ran the ATTO disk benchmark. As shown here, writes are about the same speed, but reads are 25% faster than with 32-bit Windows 7. I did not benchmark application load or boot time with the 32-bit operating system, but it feels noticeably faster now.

Your brain on the Net -- enhanced productivity and pleasure or wasteful distraction?

We discuss the affect of the Internet and information technology on the way we work and our brains.

The New York Times recently ran three articles highlighting some of the psychological research showing negative effects of our use of information technology: The Risks of Parenting While Plugged In, An Ugly Toll of Technology: Impatience and Forgetfulness and Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price.

The latter article focused on Kord Campbell, who seems distracted by information technology while working and during family and other activities. This photo shows his workstation.

The Times also published some online tests of one's ability to switch focus and a video showing Campbell's eye movements while he works.

Articles like these raise questions about our productivity when multitasking and about addiction. Does the Internet make you more productive? Does your attention dart around as rapidly as Mr. Campbell's (see the video)? Where do we draw the line between relaxing play or being in a productive state of "flow" while working and harmful addiction?

Essential ban on new public power companies and projects barely fails -- will public Internet infrastructure be next?

California voters narrowly rejected proposition 16 yesterday. Had it passed, it would have essentially banned new and expanded municipal power projects, by requiring 2/3 majority support from voters before local governments could form or expand municipal utilities.

Pacific Gas and Electric (the power company portrayed in the movie about Erin Brockovich) spent over $46 million on the campaign.

PG&E's non-stop ads claimed to be protecting our right to vote, but blocking competition from municipal power companies was the clear motive. Had their goal been thoughtful debate on proposed public power projects, they would have said so in their ads, and called for a simple majority rather than a prohibitive 2/3 majority.

This was a close call, and it illustrates the political power of a wealthy corporation.

Large ISPs like Verizon and AT&T fight vigorously against public Internet projects by lobbying at all levels and in court. Might we one day see a proposition on the "right to vote on public Internet projects?"

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Twitter writing style improves quickly

I started a Twitter stream for my class on February 17th, and have posted about 125 tweets.

This graph shows the moving average of the length of the previous ten posts. As you see, the average length has grown over time, approaching the 140 character maximum. The average length of my latest ten posts is 139.2 characters, the shortest is 136 characters, and six of them are 140 characters.

I spend about two minutes rewording each post, and find that I can typically get two or three statements or questions into each.

Long posts are not necessarily better than short ones, but in this case I am summarizing and linking to longer articles or other documents. I can help the reader decide whether to follow the link by saying more in my summary.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

FCC survey of home and mobile connectivity -- most people don't know their connection speed, but they are satisfied

An FCC study shows that 80% of US home users do not know their Internet download speed. This is nearly unchanged from the 2006 Pew Internet study on Home Broadband Adoption.

Breaking the FCC survey down, men and young people are more likely to know their home download speed than women and older people:

  • 71% of men do not know their speed.
  • 90% of women do not know their speed.
  • 73% of those between the ages of 18 and 29 do not know their speed.
  • 88% of people age 65 do not know their speed.
There were somewhat less pronounced differences among different races and income groups.

The survey also inquired as to satisfaction with both home broadband and mobile Internet speeds:
  • 50% of home broadband users are very satisfied.
  • 41% of home broadband users are somewhat satisfied.
  • 33% of mobile users are very satisfied.
  • 38% of mobile users are somewhat satisfied.
Regardless of how you slice it, most people do not know how fast their Internet connections are and most people are satisfied with their connectivity, though mobile users are less satisfied than home users.

An important caveat is that they are satisfied with respect to the applications they now use. Would an email and Web surfing user be satisfied if they started uploading videos to YouTube, watching hi-definition movies or sporting events, playing multi-player games or holding family meetings over the Internet?

Do you know your connection speed? Are you satisfied with it? Going beyond your individual need for speed, how might society benefit from higher speeds?

Monday, May 31, 2010

An ineffective email conversation

We cover the importance of precise, conversational writing on the Internet.

The following is the start of the transcript of an email conversation about ordering laptop computers that lasted more than nine months. The conversation eventually involved nine people. It was frustrating and ineffective because the people did not heed the basic guidelines we have suggested for Internet conversations -- they did not carefully read messages, did not respond to specific requests, did not meet commitments, and failed to quote previous messages to maintain context.

Many people wasted time in this exchange, and the funds were poorly spent. By the time the laptops arrived, the vendor had introduced a newer model.

The transcript begins as a conversation between me (LP) and the School administration (SA), School purchasing department (SP), and the University purchasing department (UP). It began in mid August 2009, when I informed the SA that my laptop warranty was about to expire, and I needed to replace it. The first reply was positive, but the commitment made in it was subsequently forgotten and ignored.

From: SA
To: LP
Date: Mon, 17 Aug 2009 23:26:44 -0700

I talked to the dean about getting a laptop for you using the grant money. The answers are as follows:
...You should get a new one no later than Oct. 1
...Your laptop should be no more than $2,200 as budgeted

Based on this, I sent a note to UP:
From: LP
To: UP, SA, SP
Date: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 2:21 PM

I would like to purchase a laptop combining funds from my foundation account and the $2,200 allocation from the Dean.
I would like to move ASAP because the warranty on my current laptop expires in a couple of days. Sorry for the rush.

And received this reply:
From: UP
To: LP, SA, SP
Date: Tue, 18 Aug 2009 14:29:52 -0700

1. Send the configuration from the Dell web site. [SP], can you forward a Req with the % that you are paying from the Stateside.
2. Also forward a PO from the Foundation

Then SP took responsibility from UP -- they said they would handle it.
From: SP
To: LP, UP, SA
Date: Wed, 19 Aug 2009 15:24:20 -0700

Thanks for the information. Also the grant is not processed via the Procurement Office (you are off the hook), this is a Foundation purchase. We have a Dell rep we work with on these types of purchases.

Also I have not gotten the information on the account being established. Once that is done, I will notify you and send you information on how to contract the rep so you can request an equote. I'd have you do that now but the equote has an expiration date.
I was worried about the warranty expiring, so asked if I could speed the process up by configuring the laptop sooner:
From: LP
To: SP, SA
Date: Wednesday, August 19, 2009 3:34 PM

> Once that is done, I will notify you and send you information
> on how to contract the rep so you can request an equote. I'd
> have you do that now but the equote has an expiration date.

Could I contact him or her now and start the process? I am in a rush because the warranty on my current laptop is going to expire in a few days, and I am *highly* dependent upon it.

I did not get a reply from SP, but did get a reply from SA:
From: SA
To: LP, SP
Date: Wed, 19 Aug 2009 19:13:07 -0700

Larry - let me look into the situation and I will handle

SA followed up with:
From: SA
To: LP, SP, UP
Date: Thu, 20 Aug 2009 17:57:08 -0700

On Tuesday I will check and see if there is some money in a grant I have that I could use to purchase a laptop for Larry.

A week later, I followed up with SA, quoting his earlier message:
From: LP
To: SA
Date: Thu, 27 Aug 2009 12:39:19 -0700

>On Tuesday I will check and see if there is some money in a
>grant I have that I could use to purchase a laptop for Larry.

I have a configuration ready to go -- are the funds available now? My current service contract has expired, and that is worrisome.

And received this reply:
From: SA
To: LP
Date: Thu, 27 Aug 2009 14:03:02 -0700

No the funds are not available - we have not yet received the grant approval - I expect to receive any day.

But, nothing happened, and my warranty had expired, so two weeks later, I followed up with SA, again quoting his earlier message:
From: LP
To: SA
Date: Thursday, September 10, 2009 4:16 PM

> No the funds are not available - we have not yet received the grant
> approval - I expect to receive any day.

Has there been further news on this?

And SA replied:
From: SA
To: LP, SP
Date: Fri, 11 Sep 2009 17:38:09 -0700

News on what?

This was just the beginning, eventually nine people were involved in the conversation, which stretched out over nine months. I got the laptop in June, 2010.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

SSD: faster storage; faster Internet

I got a Dell laptop with solid state storage (SSD) instead of a rotating magnetic disk drive (HD). As shown here, the SSD is about twice as fast as my desktop computer and 4 times as fast as my old laptop with a hard disk.

These benchmarks are not 100 percent comparable (the machines had different configurations and operating systems) nor realistic (they only test raw read/write speed), but they show a clear advantage for SSD.

The speed difference is confirmed by my subjective sense of the SSD machine -- program load times feel much shorter.

The SSD should also consume less power and be more reliable than the equivalent HD.

It is interesting to consider the trade off between running network applications like Google Docs versus local applications like Microsoft Word as storage and Internet speeds increase.

Today I have a 3 Mbps link to the Internet at my home, so my old laptop storage access is about 100 times faster than my Internet connection. With SSD, that jumps to around 400 times, favoring local applications.

If, as the (conservative) FCC plans, I can upgrade my Internet connection to 100 Mbps, the pendulum will swing back toward network applications. If Google's vision is realized, and I can connect at 1 Gbps, network applications will look still better. Furthermore, once an application is "fast enough," additional speed does not matter.

On the other hand, SSD performance is also improving -- it will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

Which applications are already fast enough on the Internet that you choose them over local applications? Which are close?

The Zen of Internet reading -- a bad example

Much Internet writing is conversational, requiring careful, mindful and often critical reading. This example illustrates hurried, thoughtless reading.

An enthusiastic, but rushed administrator at our university recently sent the following message to the university president and vice presidents, with a copy to our dean and faculty:

Subject: CSUDH Ranking...

Hello All… FYI on this news that CSUDH was ranked #9 by Forbes Magazine as a Best Buy in Online MBA Degree Programs.
You can
I followed the link to learn more, and it turned out that Forbes had not ranked us or any other school -- they merely posted a press release from a company called on their news wire.

GetEducated maintains a database of online degree offerings and their cost. We were listed ninth cheapest among non-AACSB schools. This is indeed an accomplishment, but it is not a #9 ranking by Forbes Magazine.

The person sending the message had not read the Forbes post carefully.

After checking GetEducated, I sent a clarifying message to the same people who had received the initial email.

Subsequent to my message, they sent 19 emails congratulating us on our ranking by Forbes. The people sending those messages had quickly glanced at the initial email, felt good about it, and expressed their feeling. They did not follow the link in the initial message or carefully read my message.

This is an example of the problems that can arise when one is not a critical and mindful reader on the Internet. The problem is exacerbated when the reader uses a phone -- they will be less likely than desktop or laptop users to follow links and carefully read longer posts like the GetEducated press release.

Positive results using Twitter and a wiki in a collaborative writing assignment

Last semester, I used Twitter and a wiki to illustrate collaborative writing and the writing of short documents in a Network News assignment. The student response was positive, so I will repeat the experience.

I started a class Twitter stream for links to current events relevant to our class. I told the students to follow the feed, and posted about 125 items during the semester.

The writing assignment was near the end of the term. Each student selected a particularly interesting post, and summarized it and its relevance to the class in a short document. Once the summary documents were polished, the students added them to a wiki page, creating a collaboratively authored Network News report for the term.

For more detail, see this post on the assignment and survey results.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ward Cunningham on the invention and role of the wiki

Ward Cunningham invented the wiki to facilitate discussion of programming technique between himself and some colleagues. (His original wiki is still evolving).

Moira Gunn recently interviewed Cunningham and a colleague about one of his current projects, ZoomAtlas, a geographical wiki with the ability to draw as well as write.

I edited the interview, excerpting Cunningham's comments on the invention of the wiki, his motivation, and role of wikis (7 min 44 sec).

As you hear in the interview, Cunningham invented the wiki to solve a problem he had, and he decided not worry about permissions and authorization, because he trusted the members of his community to be responsible.

He sees wikis as doing things that could not be done another way. For example, one could not have created the Wikipedia by paying experts, but it has succeeded as a volunteer community wiki. (The Wikipedia founders first tried to create an online encyclopedia by conventional means and failed).

Friday, May 07, 2010

Intel Light Peak -- goodbye USB?

We have seen many examples of early prototypes of devices that eventually became main stream. Intel hopes to replace your USB cable with an optical link they are calling "Light Peak."

Here you see a demonstration of a laptop streaming two simultaneous HDTV programs to a television set. The black box between the laptop and display will eventually disappear, leaving a USB replacement.

Today's USB 2.0 connections have a speed of 480 Mbps, while Light Peak connections will begin at 10 Gbps in both directions. With mass production and engineering refinement, speeds would increase well beyond that. This is a common pattern -- one technology approaches its limit, and is then leapfrogged by a new technology.

This also seems to happening as electronic flash storage replaces rotating magnetic disk drives. Many portable devices already use electronic storage, and flash is beginning to be used in laptops and servers. (I've ordered my next laptop with flash storage).

If Light Peak succeeds (and it may not), it will dramatically alter the speed relationships between input/output and storage devices and memory, resulting in significant system redesign.

Can you think of other instances in which a new information technology has replaced an older one? What did we use for storage before hard drives?

Friday, April 23, 2010

The LA Times uses Facebook and others for registration

I received an email from the LA Times saying they were cancelling my online registration in nine days. But, not to worry, I could register on their new, improved site, which was also free.

I wondered why they did not just transfer my old registration and carry on without bothering me, but clicked on the link to register for the new site. That took me to a page that asked me to register using my Gmail, Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook, AOL or Myspace account for authentication.

It said that if I did not have an account with one of those services, I could still register. But, when I tried to do that, it took me to Facebook so I could open an account there. I had to join Facebook if I wanted to access to LA Times articles and newsletters.

What's up with that? Does the LA Times get a kickback from Facebook and the others? What does it cost Facebook to be the preferred subscription agent? Does the LA Times get access to things I tell Facebook and vice versa? This all feels a bit creepy.

Newspapers are hurting financially, but this seems like a bad idea even if does generate some revenue. What does an association with Facebook (Spambook) do for the LA Times brand? What happens if I never log onto the Facebook account they forced me get? What if I want to get LA Times feeds through my email or RSS?

Will Facebook or Google or Twitter or one of the others end up being your primary Internet identity point? Do you mind having the choice made for you?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Good support from Zoho

My last post was about a bad customer service experience with my ISP, Verizon. This is a story of good support by the folks who run the Zoho Creator database service.
I wanted to add two capabilities to a database I had created using their service, but could not see how to do either. I posted queries at their technical support site, and had answers to both within a couple of hours.
The answers came from Zoho employees, not contractors, and both were perfectly responsive.
One of my problems was solved with a somewhat obscure workaround and the other could not be solved at present. They said they were planning to add a feature to take care of the second problem, and I suggested a user interface change to make the first clear.
It felt like a conversation with a knowledgeable employee of a responsive company.
Have you had some good experiences with customer service or support at some Web sites?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Government AND private industry can be inefficient and bureaucratic

As a California State University professor, I see a lot of waste and bureaucracy -- government organizations can be very inefficient. But so can private companies. Consider my experience with my ISP, Verizon.
Last week I ordered 7 Mbps service from Verizon, but, after they switched it on, I was only getting about 1.5 Mbps. I assume there were tons of re-transmission errors due to an overly aggressive modulation scheme.
When I called to complain, a Verizon "technician" kept me on the phone trying one thing and another for nearly an hour before he gave up and got his bosses permission to schedule a "truck roll" to come to my house and fix the problem.
The minute the driver arrived, he told me that, at 9,000 feet from my central office, there was no way I was going to get 7 Mbps. He checked the line, and concluded that I could reliably run at 4.2 Mbps, but, unfortunately, Verizon only offers 3 and 7, so I could only get 3 Mbps.
They could have easily told me at the time of the order that 7 Mbps was not available at my house, saving an expensive truck roll. The technician who scheduled the truck roll when I called customer service to complain could have done the same.
The driver told me he does about five calls per day and three are typically fruitless. He added that he was happy with the system because it gave him job security. What a guy.
When he left, I had to make yet another 30-minutes-on-hold call to Verizon to change my order to 3 Mbps. The driver could not change the order automatically.
Verizon information is walled off in "silos." The truck driver can determine the distance of my house from my central office, but cannot change my service order. The ordering system can sign me up for a service, but cannot determine my distance to the central office to see if it is feasible. The customer support technician cannot do anything except, eventually, order a truck roll.
In chatting with the driver, he also confirmed the Internet rumors and leaked memos saying that Verizon was not installing new FIOS fiber, but focusing on increasing the take rate on what they have installed already. So much for me getting fiber from them any time soon.
(I wonder how much Verizon has extracted from the California Public Utilities Commission in return for "promises" to install fiber. For more on Verizon's broken promises, see this book by Bruce Kushnick.)
What has been your experience with customer service from your phone company or ISP?



I continued limping along with 3 Mbps service, hoping for FIOS, when my bandwidth dropped to just over 1 Mbps. When I called to complain, I was told that I was so far from the central office that I could not get 3 Mbps service, so my rate was lowered. I explained that it was working fine at close to 3 Mbps, but that did not sway them.

I gave up on FIOS and switched to Time Warner cable. FIOS is still not available in my neighborhood.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The FCC and Google want faster Internet access

After a year of public hearings and input via the Internet, the FCC has released their national broadband plan.

The FCC wants to bring 100 Mb/s download and 50 Mb/s upload speed to homes and 1 Gb/s to schools, hospitals and government buildings. They also advocate converting wireless spectrum used for TV broadcast to Internet access, with the goal of giving the US the fastest and most extensive wireless access in the world. They hope competition will lead to relatively cheap Internet access.

To put this in context, relatively low cost 100/50 Mb/s access is available in a number of cities and nations already.

More context -- Google plans to roll out 1 Gb/s fiber to between 50 and 500,000 homes in a test network.

Google hopes their test network will pressure on the FCC and the ISP industry to be more ambitious. Faster speeds mean a better Internet experience, which means more users and more Google ads. One hundred megabits per second sounds pretty good today, but it won't seem so fast in ten years.

They also hope to spur innovation. We have seen that researchers often develop applications for technology they expect to be available in the future. For example, Ivan Sutherland, shown here, built prototype image processing software with a graphical user interface in the early 1960s, using a very expensive computer. It was over twenty years before similar programs like MacDraw and AutoCad became economically viable.

Google hopes that, like Sutherland's expensive computer, their gigabit per second network will be used for new applications. They also hope to develop advanced technology for building fast networks.

How does 100 megabits per second compare to your current home Internet connectivity?

What sorts of applications would a gigabit per second connection enable?

Congress hoped to bring about competition and low prices for Internet access with the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Did the act succeed in spurring competition and lowering prices?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Three reasons the iPad will succeed. Whoops, make that two.

The Apple iPad was announced January 27. After years of hype, people were generally disappointed. The trade press carried many articles like this one listing ten missing features. It can not play Flash movies, the aspect ratio is not 16:9, AT&T is the only carrier, the battery can not be changed, the operating system cannot multi-task, there is no camera or HDMI interface to a TV set, etc.

For me, the most important missing feature is a microphone with accompanying speech recognition software. I want to be able to input marginal notes, email addresses, etc. without typing on a glass keyboard.

In spite of all of this criticism, I expected the iPad to succeed for three reasons.

The original Macintosh had 128 KB of memory, only a floppy disk for storage, and a tiny, monochrome screen. Still, its operating system and simple applications for image and word processing had graphical user interfaces (GUIs). The earlier Apple Lisa and Xerox Star also had GUIs, but failed because they were too expensive. By the time the Mac was delivered, technology had improved, and they had engineered a minimal system that was just good enough to get people excited and succed in the market. The timing was right.

As technology advanced, Apple upgraded the Mac, adding memory and a hard drive, followed by a larger screen, color, etc.

The same will happen with the iPad. Features will be added as technology improves. I am confident that Apple has a multi-year plan for iPad improvements, and it has the potential to become a significant device for consuming content -- games, books, periodicals and video of all sorts.

I was optimistic for a second reason. Apple understands that the device is only one part of a system that includes the application store, content deals, and synchronization with the desktop and Internet. Apple learned this lesson with their ill-fated Newton, the first pocket computer. The Newton failed because the hardware was not powerful enough, and, more important, because it did not synchronize with desktop machines.

I am confident that Steve Jobs and his colleagues are negotiating with TV, movie, book, newspaper, and magazine publishers for content deals as I type this.

The third reason I was confident was that Apple had legions of software developers who, because they had developed iPhone applications, were ready to go on the iPad. Their iPhone applications would run with little or no modification on the iPad, and their programmers were up to speed on Apple's software development tools, their software development kit (SDK).

Apple might have learned the importance of the developer community by watching Microsoft. Microsoft wooed independent software vendors (ISVs) from day 1. Since the early days of MSDOS, they invited ISVs to conferences, provided them with excellent tools, set up a developer's organization, etc. Apple has taken this a step further with their application store -- they also provide a distribution channel at a reasonable cost. They removed the "V" from ISV. Independent developers were just developers, not vendors.

That is the good news (for the iPad). The bad news is that Apple seems to be blowing off the developer community. To use Apple's SDK, a developer has to agree to draconian terms. For example, they can only sell through Apple.

At some point, Microsoft could have afforded to ignore the ISV community -- Windows had a monopoly -- it was the only game in town.

Unfortunately for Apple, their developers have alternatives -- Google's Android, Microsoft's mobile version of Windows 7, and Palm's webOS. Google seems to be the biggest threat. They just released a new version of their SDK, which is provided to developers without restriction, and they offer prizes for outstanding applications.

I am still betting on the success of the iPad, but the odds have dropped. Apple's high handed attitude toward developers could be the chink in their armor.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Pew Survey on the Future of the Internet

The Pew Internet in American Life Project conducts a biannual survey on the future of the Internet, and they published the
results of the 2010 survey last week.

Pew surveyed 895 Internet experts and stakeholders, asking questions in these areas:

  • Will Google make us stupid?
  • Will the Internet enhance or detract from reading, writing, and rendering of knowledge?
  • Is the next wave of innovation in technology, gadgets, and applications pretty clear now, or will the most interesting developments between now and 2020 come “out of the blue”?
  • Will the end-to-end principle of the Internet still prevail in 10 years, or will there be more control of access to information?
  • Will it be possible to be anonymous online or not by the end of the decade?
Note that we discuss each of these topics in the "Internet implications" portion of our class.

The survey is formatted as a series of 5-level Likert Scale questions with open-ended explanations of one's answer. The report summarizes the respondent's consensus on each question, and includes many quotes selected from the open-ended explanations.

I recommend this report to anyone interested in the implications of the Internet for individuals, organizations or society.

The survey is part of Imagining the Internet, a larger Elon University/Pew project on the history and future of the Internet. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I took part in the survey.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Who came up with top-level domain names like "com" and "edu," and what was the early Internet culture like?

The Internet was developed by a group of people at various universities and companies with contracts to work on the project. Decisions, policies and technical specifications were worked out informally in conversations, email, and documents called "requests for comment" (RFCs).

Many of the original developers and users of the Internet still contribute to discussions on the Internet History email list. You can gain insight into the history and also the culture of the early Internet by subscribing to the list.

For example, there was a recent discussion of the choice of the original top level domain names like "com" and "net" on the list. I have selected a few messages from that discussion to give you a sense of the way decisions were made. (The messages refer to "Jon" -- Jon Postel, one of the key Internet developers and policy makers).

This question was posted January 20, 2010:

Does anyone know why .com; .edu and .gov were chosen? I know it seems
simple, but why .com instead of something like .biz?
There were many replies, and I selected a few which help capture the process and culture:
I recall seeing those TLD names on Jon's white board at the time. I feel
quite certain that they came out of Jon's head, but were ratified by
discussions with Paul.

Bob Braden

Some years ago, Jake Feinler said that there was a persistent, non-converging
debate in the community about the TLD choices.

She asserted that there was finally some small face-to-face discussion where she
ran out of patience and declared that the choices would be com, net and org.

I have a somewhat more vague recollection of her acknowledging that the
question, then, was whetehr Jon would concur, and that he did.

Dave Crocker

perhaps the point has been made but the motivation for these TLDs was
to parse the responsibility for registration into very distinct
categories so that the work could be delegated without too much
dispute over jurisdiction but still covered the range of then-foreseen
participants in the use of the Internet system.

Vint Cerf

I don't know but it happened between April 1984 and October 1984.

In April 1984 Postel and Reynolds distributed a draft of what became RFC 920.
In that draft they used Grapevine-like naming, so ERNIE.CS.CAL.UC for a
site in the University of California system.

In October 1984, when RFC 920 came out it specified GOV, EDU, COM, MIL and
ORG. NET came later (Dick Edmiston's and my doing).

I wish I had copies of the email discussions between April '84 and October '84
but I don't. My guess is that the discussion was in NAMEDROPPERS but I
only have a very limited archive of old NAMEDROPPERS email.

Craig Partridge

Hi Bob!

I also have the feeling that Jon put the list together, since as I
recall he was the only one of us organized enough to deal with such

As to why that initial list was chosen, my recollection is that it
simply reflected the demographics of the emerging "Internet community"
at the time. There were lots of governmental entities and lots of
schools. The "rest of world" were commercial, or companies.

Plus it was likely that someone from each TLD subgroup would step up and
volunteer to be the coordinator/arbitrator of name etiquette within that
subgroup. You couldn't have a TLD unless there was someone willing to
manage it.

The nascent Internet was very US-centric, again reflecting the
demographics. Gov meant US government. Com was US companies, weighted
toward government contractors such as BBN or Linkabit - I can't recall
any non-US companies being involved until later in the game.

I think .com originally was derived from "company" rather than
"commercial". The .com's weren't thought of as "businesses" in the
sense of places that consumers go to buy things. They were companies
doing government contract work. The Internet was not chartered to
interconnect businesses - it was a military command-and-control
prototype network, being built by educational, governmental, and
contractors. If anybody had suggested that businesses were to be
included, it would have raised flotillas of red flags in the
administrative ranks of government and PTTs. Hence .com -- not .biz.

I don't recall anybody ever thinking we were creating an organizational
structure to encompass hundreds of millions of entities covering the
entire planet in support of all human activities. And it certainly
wasn't supposed to last for 30+ years, even as an experiment. It just
happened to turn out that way.

IIRC, there weren't any major debates or counterproposals or such about
TLDs. The TLD list just wasn't that big a deal (at the time). The
Internet was an experiment which, like all experiments, was supposed
to end. CCITT, ISO, and such organizations were inventing the official
technologies for the future of data communications. We know now how
that turned out Whatever TLD list and such was used in the Internet
wasn't supposed to last long. So a specific logistical decision like
the TLD list wasn't all that important - at the time.

I agree that whatever discussion happened was almost certainly carried
out mostly on the email lists which served as the primary way for
everybody to interact between quarterly meetings, and then Jon and crew
most likely put the initial list together, and there wasn't any real
opposition so it became real.

It's very difficult to identify who "invented" anything in those days.
There was lots of discussions, ideas, and strawmen passed around in
emails and then eventually somebody wrote the document or wrote the code
to capture the "rough consensus" of the discussion.

Jack Haverty
You can find these messages and the others on the thread here. I've also included snapshots of the people participating in this discussion -- they may also help give you a feel for the culture. (Which one is Jon Postel)?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Concept videos guide new products like the Apple tablet

The long rumored Apple tablet computer is expected to be announced tomorrow.

People have high hopes for the Apple tablet, speculating about its features and applications like watching video, reading full color books with dynamic illustrations, and playing multi-player games.

We will know the details tomorrow (if it is announced), but we might get insight into the hardware, applications, and design goals from concept videos like this clip showing how one might one day read a magazine on a tablet.

Concept videos are similar to the futuristic concept cars displayed at auto shows. They offer a concrete, long run vision and provide general goals and direction.

Perhaps the most famous concept video was Apple's Knowledge Navigator, which was created in 1987, and foreshadowed networked communications in support of collaborative work. The future developments shown in these 1993 AT&T ads have pretty well been realized. Here's one on a possible future of the cell phone.

How much would you be willing to pay for content like movies, TV programs, books, periodicals and games downloaded to a tablet computer like the one shown above?

Which of today's applications and capabilities were predicted in the Knowledge Navigator video? Which are not in today's products?