The Farmhouse and the Internet

Posted by Michael Simkins on May 21, 2007

One summer, I visited some friends who were spending a few weeks in a farmhouse in rural Germany. What a neat and peculiar house it was! It had begun many years before as no more than a small cottage. As children were born and elderly parents needed care, a room was added here and a room was added there. If there was any particular plan to these additions, it was indiscernible.

The result? A fascinating maze of a house. Though it was a single story, it spread out all over the place. I’d actually get lost. And one of the most intriguing aspects—and sometimes an embarrassing one—was the fact you generally had to walk through one or two adjoing bedrooms to get someplace. Or else you just reached a dead-end and had to retrace your steps.

I thought of that house as I read recently “Researchers Hope to Scrap the Internet, Start Over Again.” The Internet of today has grown in much the same way as that German farmhouse. What was first a fairly straightforward network for communication among a trusted group of scientists and researchers has grown by accretion into a sprawling, global maze of digital synapses firing and misfiring millions of time per second. As one of the professors is quoted as saying, the Internet “was designed for completely different assumptions…It’s sort of a miracle that it continues to work well today.”

I don’t know about you, but every time I try to send a simple e-mail and get a message such as “591: your host is blacklisted by” or “relaying prohibited; you should authenticate first,” I think the clean-slate folks may be onto something.


IT, ET, We-T?

Posted by Michael Simkins on August 27, 2006

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a technology department is a technology department is a technology department. Or is it? In many school districts, especially larger ones, “information technology (IT)” happens in a different part of the organization than “educational technology (ET).” The former is the province of people who know how to set up and administer secure networks, get e-mail from one place to another, keep spam at bay, warehouse data, and install and remove programs, among many other complicated and arcane tasks. The latter is home to people who know how to use all the tools the IT people provide in the service of learning—among many other complicated and arcane tasks.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for these two groups of people to work in isolation, and even at odds with one another.

Richard Quinones wants to do something about that. Richard is director of the Educational Technologies Network at the Los Angeles County Office of Education. He’s started a working group of California educators to take a look at this problem. For openers, the group seeks concrete examples of school districts that have done an effective job of articulating and coordinating the efforts of their information and educational technologists. Got a good example? Write to Richard at



Posted by Michael Simkins on June 15, 2006

I just turned off the radio. I couldn’t concentrate. I’d been listening to NPR while reading my e-mail, and Open Source came on. Blogsday 2006 was the program, and it was timed to coincide with Bloomsday, which Wikipedia says (at least at this particular nanosecond in time) is “observed annually on June 16 to celebrate the life of Irish writer James Joyce and commemorate the events in his novel Ulysses.” (Geeze, I should have known that; I’ll never get on Jeopardy.)

The bottom line is: I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t multitask. The content of the program was too absorbing. It was a collection of excerpts from blogs all over the Internet, chosen with obvious care, and deftly read by two actors. It sucked me in. I couldn’t just let it happen in the background. Nor could I let my mind ping pong between it and my other attentions. Am I a digital immigrant? Perhaps.

I’m very interested in the concept of multitasking. I multitask all the time—I think. But I also know there are times when things demand 100% of my attention. In this case, I was so taken by the eloquent and moving things people wrote in their blogs, I couldn’t keep my concentration on anything else.

But then, I’m the idiot that sits in the movie theater after the film is over and watches all the credits. Go figure.


My computer crashed.

Posted by Michael Simkins on March 31, 2006

“My computer crashed.” How many times have you heard those unsettling words? Most of the time, I’m skeptical. I figure it’s user error and smugly go about my life. But yesterday, those words came out of my own mouth–accompanied by a few other choice words as well.

It was 4 PM. I was leaving the next morning for the ASCD conference in Chicago. After that my next stop was Sacramento. Everything I needed for my ASCD presentations and my workshop in Sacramento was on that laptop that had clammed up and would tell me nothing, let alone do my bidding. Coarse expletive.

Thanks to Andrea and Doug, our Santa Cruz County Office of Education tech support gurus, I’m here in Chicago sitting relatively pretty. I have a loaner laptop. I have VPN access to the county office server. I’ve been able to get hold of nearly all the files and documents I want for the next few days. I’ll get by. But what a royal pain.

And what an eye opener. I’ve been lucky. I’ve been “computer-dependent” for years and have never had a major crisis. Yeah, I’ve been inconvenienced a few times, but nothing major. We’re talking sending my laptop back for a keyboard replacement while I went on a ski vacation. Hardly counts as a serious incident (even though when I go skiing, I do tend to spend as much or more time on the computer as on the slopes).

The bottom line? I now have new appreciation for the teacher who says, “I don’t do more technology integration in my lessons because the technology I have is just not dependable.” In the current situation, my worst-case scenario was simply to be required to talk to 100 people without benefit of PowerPoint slides. What if I had 33 fifth graders in the final stretch of a 6-week long multimedia project and the server storing all their files crashed? Pandemonium.

Technology can be a magical thing, as long as your wand works.

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