The open-source-and-education fun at NECC started even before I hit the conference. On the shuttle from the airport, I sat in front of a bone marrow transplant delivery man and next to Randall Samstag, an environmental engineer from Seattle who (as it turns out) had some questions about We quickly got into a discussion about sanitation systems, designing waste processing plants for the developing world, and the difficulties of breaking into the field of appropriate technology and the difficulties of changing a large-scale entrenched system when customers want to throw money at the problem and be done with it rather than taking the time to get involved with the design needs of the community they're serving. This sounded pretty familiar.

A lot of sanitation projects are large-scale government-backed operations, and getting the technology in place was harder than inventing it - he told the story of his friend, the inventor of a 3-chamber sequential flow gravity-fed wastewater treatment system designed for Venezuela that was a huge improvement over the prior "dump 'er in the lagoon and the bacteria will break it down" method (which works, but you need a lot of lagoon space for a lot of people; this system was much smaller). It worked like a charm. Then the Cubans came. They wanted sanitation everywhere (a noble goal) but didn't understand this newfangled 3-chamber system - they knew lagoons. So the new tech sat unused and the lagoons got dumped in and the harmful effluents in the water supply increased by an order of magnitude... and there was no way to share the information, the design, the knowledge of how to use it, so there wasn't much anyone could do about it.

I brought up the idea of open design repositories such as Appropedia (where Chris Watkins has been doing work on sanitation), and how they serve as knowledge bases and watering holes for projects like IDDS as well as ways for potential future sanitation engineers to get involved without the high entry barrier ("must have experience to get experience") that makes it tough for folks like Liz and Chris to break into the field. Randal was intrigued.

What does this have to do with open source and education? (more below the fold, for the sanity of Planet aggregator readers...)

Talking with Randal immediately pre-NECC got me in the mindset of seeing this as more than just an education problem, more than a technology problem... the mindset and practices of open source communities are a system, and this system can cut across multiple disciplines on many, many scales to solve a ton of systems problems.

That stayed with me throughout the conversations later that evening - whenever someone mentioned a problem that they wished they could fix, instead of jumping (as I usually do) to "let us make $foo to solve that!" (technology == solution!) or "all we have to do is teach them X!" (training == solution!), I could pause and think about what the system was that, rationally proceeding, would result in problematic outcomes (like "you can complete your college CS homework without needing to think"). And how to find out what that system was when you didn't know. And then what kinds of tiny things might start to tip that system over.

It was a good start.

The shuttle dropped me off at EduBloggerCon's afterparty, where all the food had already been consumed by hungry teachers. Andy Pethan and Evan Morikawa came out to tell me that one of my high-school friends was here, and I was still completely mystified when April-Hope Wareham came flying out of the corner. April-Hope was one of the founders of the IMSA OLPC chapter; I first met her as a high school senior from my alma mater, and she's gone on to study CS at university (sophomore at UIUC next year). So she's quite well-versed in the "open source for K12 learning" space - but told me that now she wants to bloody well fix undergraduate engineering education too - we've both been spoiled by learning in open-source communities and filling out rote textbook problem sets has lost its appeal. I told her about POSSE and iFoundry and she started jumping up and down.

Then she took me to a table where people were making "education anarchy! subvert the system!" headbands (mine: "svn checkout anarchy" on the front, "iz in yr anarchy" on back, with picture of cat). And this is how I met Randy Orwin, who, with Steve Hargadon, is wrangling the Open Source Pavilion at NECC. But only for a moment. Because a photographer motioned to me, April-Hope, Andy, and another fellow named Tyler and told us to stand together and smile. We obediently mugged for the camera in our red bandana headbands.

"Do you know why I took a picture of you?" the photographer asked afterwards. We shook our heads. "Look around. You guys are the digital natives. Everybody else here-" and we realized with a start that most of the attendees were old enough to be our parents - "is a digital immigrant. You guys are natives."

We looked at each other. "Wellll, we had computers," Andy said. "But not so much the internet," I said. "Oregon Trail!" April-Hope said. Everyone under age 25 nodded and started talking about hunting pixelated buffalo. I reckon I could be a digital native (or at least a digital very-young immigrant) - but a networked native... that's more like my younger cousins - the kindergarten blogger, the (then) 12-year-old who decided that the best way to get classmates to lower their carbon emissions was through tracking them on a social networking site, the 3rd grader who taped her Girl Scout cookie pitch on YouTube... compared to them, my bahasa digital is the slightly more formal lexicon of someone who's worked through grammar books to gain that last gasp of almost-native fluency.

The night had started to wind down (I'd come in an hour before closing). Met Jennifer Ashby and Lois Smethurst, two teachers from Australia who were blogging with kids as young as 5. I was enthralled by their stories of how excited the kids were to have their work be world-readable. They used it as a portfolio of sorts, Lois explained. But it was hard to keep track of because they had one blog for the entire school, so tracking individual kids was a tough manual process - they couldn't keep separate blogs on a finer granularity than grade level, because kids within a grade would be redistributed among differnent classes for that grade each year. Could you have an individual blog for each kid and then a Planet aggregator for each class, and just redo the .planet configuration files once a year? I asked. Individual portfolios that could stay with each student throughout all 12 years of schooling, but easy access to everyone in Mr. Johnson's class, or the 7th grade, or the entire school, with one click. "Wow," said Lois. "That sounds perfect." Now I need to see if there are Planet install instructions that can be followed by a non-technical person (like a teacher...)

Took Mike Lee to dinner (generic Chinese restaurant) where he obtained a very appropriate fortune cookie - Mike is the driving force behind the OLPC DC Learning Club, and he caught me up on the brand-spankin'-new Sugar Labs DC and a host of other things - like educational technology being a systems problem not just for kids in school, but also for seniors (Mike works for the AARP) and others on the far side of the digital divide. Almost nobody's doing stuff for them. Kids with laptops look much cuter in press photos, maybe.

We were pretty exhausted. I didn't even check my email when we got to Mike's house (though I did, to his fascination, pull out and use all my anti-RSI equipment to unkink my arms). Just patted the dog, texted Luke, crawled onto his couch, and was out almost instantly.