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Why Digital Literacy? A bit of thought analysis…

2 Nov

As we’ve begun writing and advocating for greater investment in digital literacy we’ve challenged ourselves to step back and think, does digital literacy really matter?   Should all young people really be forced to take a programming class? Should teachers teach the basics of Internet architecture?

For some, the answer is a resonant yes.  But, it’s not obvious.

We don’t, for example, teach young people how to build houses or cars at school, though it’s clear that both physical architecture and the basics of combustion engines impact our every day lives.  We don’t even teach many young people the basics of the stock market, investing, or simple money management.

Why then is digital literacy different?  Is it different? Or is this just another case of tech-exceptionalism….

As we’ve explored the blogosphere it’s become clear that those who advocate for digital literacy are motivated by many different visions and world views. They also attack the challenge from different angles.

For many policymakers and professional training advocates, digital literacy is about empowering the next generation of workers and students with the skills needed to compete and add value in today’s market.

For Mozilla and other free speech advocates, this drive is about creating a “web-literate planet.” It’s about enabling anyone and everyone to understand what’s “under the hood” on the Net and empowering individuals to build upon, understand, and manipulate the “operating system” of our lives.

And for many start-up community advocates, digital literacy is seen as a basic pre-requisite for managing programmers and cultivating the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Yesterday, Fred Wilson, a New York VC who is starting to invest in education projects like Code Academy and Skillshare, wrote a post on the importance of basic coding skills. Therein he posted a striking quote from media theorist Douglas Rushkoff.

Of everything I’ve read, Rushkoff provides one of the more eloquent and compelling justifications for investing in digital literacy:

When human beings acquired language, we learned not just how to listen but how to speak. When we gained literacy, we learned not just how to read but how to write. And as we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them. In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software. It’s really that simple: Program, or be programmed.

We’ll be refining our own views and justifications over the coming months, but for those fighting the good fight on digital literacy today, hopefully these thinkers both inspire and put a few more arguments in your arsenal.

Many Faces of Open (infographic)

31 Oct

At the Open Video Conference in NYC this fall we had a discussion about the dimensions of “openness.” This infographic provides a summary of that conversation. Thought it was a nice way to start off this blog.

I recommend you click on the image to enlarge it. Enjoy…

visualsforchange.com

 

Re-Framing the NYTimes Edtech Messaging

27 Oct

In a recent article in the NYT, Matt Richtel shared the story of the Waldorf School in  Sillicon Valley, which avoids use of any technology as a teaching aid. The writer highlighted this fact in order to consider whether indeed education technology is an effective teaching aid and supports better learning results. We believe the discussion needs to be better framed. The growing onslaught of anti-edtech articles is confusing the edtech debate and harming both industry and students.  Here are the key issues, as we see them:

1. Parents’ aversion to screens and digital devices.

This is the true topic of the NYT article. The Waldorf “trend” relates to parents’ concerns about childrens’ over-exposure to the “digital screens.” Parents are concerned about their kids watching TVand spending endless time with devices.  This topic has nothing to do with education technology, though eliminating technology in schools can be one answer to this fear.  Yes, one can have schools with no edtech – but such schools are ignoring the reality of our digital life.

2. Effectiveness of Edtech in schools.

This is an important topic that requires a deep assessment of the different technologies used by schools. Edtech should be used as an efficient, interactive means of delivering high quality, personalized educational content. Edtech does not replace the need for high quality teachers, though it may standardize the level of content delivered to students.

3. The use of Edtech to achieve Digital Literacy.

This topic relates to the use of edtech in enabling digital and technology literacy. It is our firm belief that edtech should be used to promote exposure to new, exciting technologies and digital communications tools. However it is also important that students do not use technology as though it were a “black-box”. In the same way students are encouraged to analyze digital works, schools should “open” up new technologies and discuss their composition.

What level of digital literacy should we expect students to obtain within schools? This is the main topic of our upcoming post.

Edtech Investment is Essential For Tech Literacy

20 Oct

The discussion about investment in educational technology should focus not only on learning results but also on its contribution to the digital literacy of future generations.

As school districts across the US enter 2012 planning, there is an increasing debate about the value of educational technology investments. For some, “edtech” is a way to reduce costs and increase operational efficiencies in schools. Others express an almost messianic faith that edtech investment will support teachers and drive learning results in core academic subjects – reading, math, science.

On the learning results front, the latest news looks bleak.  As the New York Times recently reported, education technology companies and advocates have grossly inflated the software report card.

In a nutshell, “schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning. This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements.”

Yet, educational investment is about more than just spurring existing learning goals through new means. Classrooms of the future will play an essential role in ensuring that the next generation of students acquires the basic digital skills needed to succeed in today’s world- from computer programming and online research to analysis of social data and basic web publishing. Furthermore, in a country that continues to suffer from a great digital divide, the classroom remains one of the few places where students who lack computers, broadband connections, or smart phones at home can reliably access these tools.

We are now in the midst of an economic recession, with increased uncertainty upon us. While significant numbers of high school and college graduates live in areas where job opportunities just don’t exist, many more workers are unnecessarily unemployed because there remains a tremendous mismatch between skills and market needs.

It’s time we in the US acknowledge the digital skills gap and define a “Minimum Standard of Digital Literacy,” a standard that every high school and college student should reach by graduation. 

Should we demand that every high-schooler know how to write a basic computer program? Should they know how to analyze a Wikipedia article and decipher it’s sources? What about editing a video or deconstructing a commercial?  We will have to work to define the standard, and there is room to debate the balance of hard computer skills vs. critical thinking abilities.  But the need is there.  Once we establish the Minimum Standard we will then have a rubric from which to design new edtech products, investment in infrastructure, assess student performance, and analyze the value of our tech investments.

We think that the digital literacy of children is an essential frame through which the ROI on edtech investments should be assessed.  In future posts we will propose a Minimum Standard of Digital Literacy and look forward to collectively debating and agreeing on this standard.

Open Platform vs. Open Content. The Big Debate at Educause 2011!

19 Oct

In listening to the announcements by both Pearson Education Inc. and Blackboard Inc. this week, we were intrigued thinking through which might have more appeal to educational institutions.

1. an open and potentially free learning platform – this is what Pearson is suggesting, leaving Pearson to focus on its core content business.

2. a proprietary learning platform through which educators and institutions will be allowed to share content under a creative commons license, allowing Blackboard to focus on its core proprietary software business. Blackboard’s suggestion.

There are several challenges to both models:

First, in order for the Pearson platform to be truly open, it would need to guarantee its long term openness, ideally by making the platform available under an open source license. We also wonder about the extent to which institutions, instructors, and even other content companies will agree to allow Pearson to play an even more central role in the educational content game.If the Openclass vision rings true, Pearson will become not only the dominant provider of educational content but also the central “content filter” for education.  If Openclass were truly open, there would be limited risk as other content providers could compete as well without risking potentially harmful taxes or filtering. If Openclass is not truly open, then there is room for concern.

Blackboard, by contrast, is interested in maintaining the proprietary nature of the platform (its main business). It assumes that an open content model would have broad appeal, adding to the value of the Blackboard platform and making it all the more “sticky.”

Whether schools will trust Blackboard as a vehicle for content sharing is still an open question. If the content will be truly open, then schools can gain a valuable repository of open content that can be used outside of Blackboard as well. This would create a tremendous public asset.

So the contest begins: Open Platform vs. Content. Two of the largest players in education have each placed their bets. Now we’ll wait and see how “open” each is really willing to be…

The Future of “Open Source” Licenses

19 Oct

Over the past decade we’ve seen increasing adoption of open source technologies, both by software companies, as part of their platform development, as well as by businesses and consumers who purchase open source products. In addition, governments and educational institutions are increasingly promoting the adoption of OS technologies.

In recent years, particularly in the start-up sector, we’ve also seen companies use what we call “Commercial Open Source” licenses. These licenses restrict the use of the software and charge consumers, yet they provide open source code access and allow companies to create derivative work.

In the wake of this rapid evolution and promotion of open source technologies, there is rampant confusion about what constitutes an “open source” project or “open source” license.   The definition is important because each type has different implications about the promotion of innovation, freedom, distribution, and use of software.  Our goal here is to promote a discussion on this topic and suggest an initial hypothesis.

What is open source?

It is currently accepted that in order for software to be defined as “open source” or “free” software, its license should not only allow access to the source code but also permit distribution that is free, unrestricted, and allows creation of derivative work. In order to be considered “open source” there needs to be a guaranty that openness cannot be revoked.

It is interesting to consider different licensing schemes and confront them with this definition.

Pure Open (MIT) and the like GPL and the like “Commercial” Open Source
Source Code is made available
Derivative work creation permitted
Ownership of Derivative Work
Restrictions on redistribution of Derivative work
No restrictions on software use and distribution
Guaranteed public access to source code

The GPL license (which allows source code access, free usage, and creation of derivative work, but insists that any derivative work, when redistributed, is also released under the GPL terms) is actually restrictive, as it requires redistribution of derivative work under a specific license. From an innovation standpoint, this license protects early developers from being “exploited” by others who build on their work but do not redistribute. Yet, in restricting later stage developers and preventing them from using the business models and licensing schemes of their choice, it inhibits downstream innovation. (see also a license to kill innovation).

Licenses such as the Apache License and the MIT license truly meet the broadest open source definition: they guarantee openness, allow for source code access and creation of derivatives, and they do not include meaningful restrictions that might inhibit the motivation of downstream developers (except for requiring attribution for example, which is not a real restriction).

Commercial Open Source licenses restrict usage based on $$ but provide source code access and permit derivative work.  These licenses would not traditionally be considered “open source” because they restrict distribution, but they do an allow companies “to build on the shoulders of giants”, which is one of the original rationales of open source licensing.  That said, under Commercial Open Source licenses, once companies develop new innovations, they cannot sell or sublicense the technology outside of the predefined commercial terms (ie. # of users, servers, etc.)

Commercial Open Source is not a broadly recognized category; however, it is an extremely interesting one from an innovation standpoint. Downstream innovators are motivated to develop derivative work. They can own it, and they can redistribute it. Still, these licenses cannot really guarantee the openness of the source code or its availability to the public. Typically the source code access in this model is subject to confidentiality.

Further analysis is needed, but thus far our hypothesis is as follows:  if the key objective is to guarantee the openness and availability of the software to the public, open source licenses are the right choice. If the key objective is to promote innovation, promoting commercial open source licenses is an extremely valuable path.

Why Write

9 Oct

Open Technology is a blog started by Michal Tsur and Leah Belsky.  We are two people who’ve traveled a varied path between the worlds of tech entrepreneurship,  business strategy, and academia.  We came together at Kaltura – a New York tech startup launching the world’s first open source media platform.  We were also both fellows at the Yale Information Society Project – a research institute focused on the future of the web and to understanding the way new technologies can be a force for positive change in the world.

Over the past 3 years at Kaltura we’ve brought to market an amazing video platform that has transformed the use and vision for media within top broadcasters, educational institutions, and enterprises. We developed a unique open source business strategy, and also founded an open advocacy organization, the Open Video Alliance, with Mozilla, PCF, Google, and others.

Yet, as we’ve grown Kaltura, we’ve become increasingly aware of how limited the discourse is between the tech community and the more academic worlds from whence we came.

For us, this blog is an attempt to bridge that gap- to connect BIG ideas about innovation and open technologies to industry and to the practical lives of entrepreneurs trying to start and grow companies. Most of all though, it’s a place for us to think and learn, within a community, and to refine our ideas in this time of change.

We will focus on a few key themes:

  • Open source tech and open systems -  What is the future of open source technologies and the open web, particularly in an age when web services, tech-activism, and social networks are rapidly changing the way we use and interact with the Net?
  • Digital Education – The education system today is crashing. Students are shouldered in debt. And generations of workers and graduates lack the skills needed to succeed in a digital world, and in a world with more complex technologies and industries. What is the future of digital education and how do we use digital literacy to empower the next generation of entrepreneurs?
  • Startups, Innovation, and Entrepreneurial Communities - We’ve both studied innovation academically and had the privilege of working in growing entrepreneurial communities in New York.  We’d like to use this blog to share some of our insights and lessons learned.

We’ve also had the privilege of working with many amazing friends, entrepreneurs, co-founders, and thinkers over the years, so you will likely see a few guest posts from them as well.

Welcome.