Thursday, November 13, 2014

Rural Internet FAQs

Working in rural Alaska for a number of years I have seen the bandwidth to schools and homes increase exponentially, been present for teleconferences across the globe (I just missed the VTC to outer space in SWRSD), and now have a cell phone with data faster than my first satellite based ISP! 

With all this change the question is still asked of me: "Why is the internet so terrible in the Bush?" or "Is there anything we can do to make it faster?"

Faster is a difficult concept to nail down though. Let's start with some vocabulary. 
Bandwidth a measurement of bit-rate of available or consumed data communication resources expressed in bits per second or multiples of it (bit/s, kilobit/s, Megabit/s, Gigabit/s, etc.)
Latency a time interval between the stimulation and response, or, from a more general point of view, as a time delay between the cause and the effect of some physical change in the system being observed

If you need help understanding, let me put it this way: You are in the typical village in Alaska trying to Facebook chat, listen to Pandora, and download a movie on iTunes for entertainment later tonight. Your movie started out with a 3 hour download time, but after you clicked on Facebook and opened the chat window it slowed and now it says 3 hour and 15 minutes. This is your bandwidth. Once you launch Pandora you click on your favorite channel and it takes forever to load... this is both bandwidth and latency. You're frustrated, so you chat your friend to tell them the internet is too slow, but the message is delayed and it's hard to explain to your pal in Los Angeles. Thinking it better to just call them, you pause Pandora and Skype them. The connection bumps your movie to 5 hours now and your connection is grainy and pixelated. There is an echo when you talk and a big delay, this is latency.  

In the case of satellite-based internet we have two more issues to understand. 
Packet Loss - the loss of data segments in the transmission (caused by programming, decoding, or physical irregularities)
Jitters - the loss of signal due to environmental influences (something is in the way of the dish, obstructing the path of the signal

An example of this follows the earlier one except your download times out even though Pandora was streaming the whole time. This was an example of jitters, or an unexplained drop in the connection, one that didn't even register with Pandora, but caused your Skype to go offline for a second and error your download. 

So if satellites are so bad, why not try something else? Alaska did just that: they ran a fiberoptic ring around the state and where they couldn't run cable they linked microwave towers. This system produces a signal more reliable, less dependent on weather, and with a faster connection.  How much faster? Well the ISP for LYSD currently the has a 1000-1900ms latency, or time from one village to Anchorage (and the outside world) and back. The alternative is generally closer to 30-60ms. We're measuring in milliseconds here, so don't go crazy just thinking of the numbers... 

This terrestrial system is limited by the weakest point in the ring, which I am often asked about as well. Many villagers, myself included, are residential customers of this service. Our signal drops, the access goes down, and sometimes even the transmitter/tower in town needs replacement. This is not a break in the service to the village, though. We are experiencing a failure in the delivery of the service from the mainline to our home via cellular transmission towers. The backbone is still up though 99% of the time. The microwave towers and fiber are extremely reliable. 

"But if the fiber ring is dependent on microwave transmitters/receivers, aren't those just physical dishes, just like the satellite systems of other ISPs?"

This is a little complicated. Yes, in a way, but no, resoundingly, they are not the same. Transmitting a signal across a nearly line-of-sight is nothing compared to two trips through the atmosphere. Think about that for a second. You click a link and send a signal to an orbiting satellite, floating around the planet, then bounce it to Eagle River, AK which receives the signal and passes it on to the rest of the world... The server on the other end sends you back a signal in the same way and you enjoy the webpage or action expected. That's pretty amazing in itself, rght?! The real question here is how fast is a microwave transmission.

"[New York-based networking company] Strike, whose ranks include academics as well as former U.S. and Israeli military engineers, hoisted a 6-foot white dish on a tower rising 280 feet above the Nasdaq Stock Market's data center in Carteret, N.J., just outside New York City. Through a series of microwave towers, the dish beams market data 734 miles to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange's computer warehouse in Aurora, Ill., in 4.13 milliseconds, or about 95% of the theoretical speed of light, according to the company. Fiber-optic cables, which are made up of long strands of glass, carry data at roughly 65% of light speed."

The bottom line is ISPs in the Bush will always have a monumental challenge on their hands. For users, the only option is to appreciate what you have, use it to the fullest, and have a backup plan when things are not working.

I hope this all made since and that you do not disagree with my analogies. If you have questions or corrections, please email me.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

5W's of Downloading Media From the Web & How

It's been a while since we've addressed this topic, downloading media from the internet, so I thought I would revisit and update things for 2014. The last post I made on this subject was 2012 (click here) and it is still one of my most requested and most viewed postings on this blog. The Bush hasn't changed much since then (or in the last 10 years to be honest), and satellite internet and insane latency is still a problem. To avoid bandwidth draining, ceaseless buffering, and annoying outages, I recommend always downloading materials from the web to host locally on your computer. 

Let's start with who: everyone... I can't tell you how many keynotes or presentations I have sat through that took me to a link, sometimes in front of hundreds in the audience, only to buffer awkwardly or not play at all. Heaven forbid your favorite YouTube example of the comedy of a telephone conference get taken down the night before your big meeting... All this is to say that everyone (teachers, businesspersons, students, and anyone who appreciates a good online resource) should follow these instructions/advice. Let's try it out: Visit the download site now
(Yes, it's for Firefox, so download it first if you haven't already.)

If you are still wondering why this is necessary stop and consider the last time you were in front of a group of people. Maybe you're a classroom teacher preparing a lesson for tomorrow and you're worried if you to filter will be blocked at your school. Maybe your business person traveling to another office and you're not sure if you will have Wi-Fi or not. Or maybe just have a particular video that you use so often it would be silly to click the link for the thousandth time. You never know when an author could be flagged by YouTube or take down their content for reasons unknown to you. I'm not suggesting you break a copyright laws, but I do recommend you build your own repository of media locally on your machine. I have numerous videos from over the years. Video Download Helper is just my favorite application, but there are many. 

When you download these files isn't all that important, only that you do it before your presentation. The beauty of this application video download helper is that you can stream media and download it simultaneously. With it running in the background on your Firefox browser it takes almost no extra effort to rip. Simply click a button type in the title he was to say that I was given the location and you're done.

I prefer to click the dropdown of the spheres in my browser > select "medium" file sizes > download.

You can get as high or as low quality of videos as you prefer, limited, of course, by what is posted by the creator.  Ready to give it a whirl? 

If you want to try it with me, you can actually download this video with Video Download Helper:  

What you download is up to you. The default of the Video Download Helper addon to Firefox is that it can capture numerous filetypes, including YouTube Videos, for download. The default is only a few common file types like mp4, flv, and mov. These are a great start, but what about audio or shockwave flash items? I personally capture the following: mp4, mpeg4, m4v, mov, rbs, divx, movie, rar, mp3, asf, wmv, ram, rm, avi, mpeg, flv, mpg, and swf. If there is something on the page I want and VDLH doesn't see it, add it! 

Right-click the VDLH spheres > preferences: 

Click "capture" > Network Tab > then type in the files you wish to rip. 
Use the file extension without the dot in the front. For example, for Shockwave Flash Video files, type "swf" and you will see the "file.swf" available for download. 

Where should you keep these files? I suppose you could upload them to your own dropbox or YouTube, but that won't do us any good without an internet connection. You could save them on your computer, but then you might get lost in all the other junk on your workstation. The best advice I can give is embedding them in the presentation itself. I'll stop there and ask you to refer back to my 2012 post mentioned above. Of course the application is irrelevant. You can use anything from Notebook, Keynote, to PowerPoint: 
PowerPoint > Insert Ribbon: Media > Movie from File...

Select your file.

And there you have it. A video in .ppt format that follows your favorite presentation wherever you go. This will of course make the file massive, so break up presentations heavy on the multimedia so you don't lock up the application in front of the crowd (been there, done that). 

Well, I think that about covers it. If you need more help learning how to download music and video from the internet, let me know, I'd be happy to help or at least point you in the right direction. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

ARD Unix Command Lines

I have been in the Bush and working with Apple computers since 2006. If I had to choose one area to which every school district is deficient across Alaska, I would say it is student workstation management. With simple tools like Apple Remote Desktop available, I think every teacher who interacts with student computers should have a tool to manage their classroom. Lots of companies make management tools like this: SMART Technologies, SourceForge, and CognitiveEdge to name a few.

When it comes to the specific interactions between teacher and student in the state of Alaska, then you are probably talking about Apple computers. Let's take a look at a simple example of using UNIX commands in the classroom. Don't work, there is no programming, coding, or even a terminal interface involved.

First things first, open ARD. I use ARD 5-10 times daily and still don't keep it in my dock. Click the spotlight finder and type "rem" and you should get it fast. If you don't yet have ARD, you can download it at the app store and if you work for me, just ask for the redeem codes. Now that you have opened the application, select the users you wish to make a change to. There are UNIX codes for all kinds of things ready to go or you could write your own. Be careful, though, you are about to make some serious alterations to the device in question.

To begin with a simple example, click the user you wish to send the command to and click the UNIX button:

Now you will see a dialog box and several options. Click the radio dial for user and type "root."

In the dialog box, paste the following command: 
chmod a-r /System/Library/QuickTime/QuickTimeUSBVDCDigitizer.component/Contents/MacOS/QuickTimeUSBVDCDigitizer
chmod a-r /System/Library/PrivateFrameworks/CoreMediaIOServices.framework/Versions/A/Resources/VDC.plugin/Contents/MacOS/VDC
chmod a-r /System/Library/Frameworks/CoreMediaIO.framework/Versions/A/Resources/VDC.plugin/Contents/MacOS/VDC

Assuming you have a connection to the user, you should now see the effects of your command: 

The users iSight camera is now disabled. The iSight camera is used in lots of applications, so be careful to turn it back on later when you are through. Someone who is not familiar with your actions may mistakenly think the computer has been damaged. 

If you have any comments or questions, please add them below.

Remote Desktop 101

If you have been around computers for any amount of time you have probably wanted to access, control, or test things on a different machine. I often find myself wondering how a feature or application will run on Windows instead of OS Mavericks. Other times, I want to test a feature on an older OS or even iOS device. How you accomplish this is a matter of personal preference, but I thought I would talk briefly about the simplest options in the next several posts.

In this post I will take you through my preferred method of remote desktop (and iOS) interaction. I'll give you some pro's and con's and why I choose to use them. If you have any trouble with these methods check the FAQs then send me a message via email and I will try to help you out.

Apple OS - Apple OS
Single User
Screen Sharing in Apple is as simple as a check box in SysPrefs>Sharing. With this tool enable, simply open your Finder window and CTRL+click (right click) on the shared computer. If you know the admin password, click share screen and authenticate. It's just that easy. Send files, interact, or just watch. 
  • Cumbersome, Saving authentication tricky, only interaction and sharing. 
  • Free 
Multi User
Nothing beats ARD (Apple Remote Desktop) for any number of users you wish to interact with. I am probably running this application 70% of my average workday. 

  • Download from the AppStore a bit costly.
  • Hands down amazing! Unix commands; multi-user observation and file sharing; control features including drag-and-drop between desktops; scheduling of tasks; saved authentication; history; bandwidth adjustments for efficiency
  • The list goes on and on... 

Apple OS - Windows
Single User - Emulation
VMFusion is hands down the best product I have used for running a Windows environment on a Mac. Parallels has been problematic for me over the years, and my current working configuration is Mavericks/VMFusion6/Windows7

Multi-user - Emulation
SourceForge CoRD. I have been using this product for about 4 years now and even with Microsoft Remote Desktop for Mac available, I still prefer CoRD. For managing several devices, VMs, etc, CoRD is flexible and simple to set up.

iOS - Apple OS
My favorite method of remote control is SplashTop Desktop 2. I have it installed on all of my computers so I can remotely manage from any WAN/LAN with Google credentials. If you are curious about displaying iOS to OS, see my other posts on iBooks and Reflector App.

iOS - Windows
Doceri Desktop, but SplashTop is great on Windows, too.

Agnostic - Control/Collaboration
Team Viewer

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Avaya Handset Reset

LYSD uses VOIP telephone systems in all of it's schools. Basically, this means we supply each school with a handful of analog phone lines and split them digitally into enough lines for every room in the building. If you have any trouble at all with these units, please inform your tech department.

To begin with the most common problem, this post will address how to reset the unit to factory defaults.

At any point you can follow these keystrokes:
Mute > 2 > 5 > 3 > 2 > 7 > #
Clear all values > # (yes)
Are you sure > # (yes)
Phone begins reconfiguration.

If you cannot reach a normal configuration, you can always "press * to program."
# (next) > repeat until you see no new values.

The phone has been reset which will perform the same way as though a user has logged off of their own extension.

The phone will say enter extension and press the # key. At this point, simply log into the phone with the extension you wish to use. The last step is to press "login" on the LED display.

If you need further assistance, see the following video:
Avaya Reset
Avaya Documents

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Edmodo for LYSD

Well it's been a while since my last post and I do apologize for the delay. This year my job as director of technology has been a wild ride to say the least. Much better than last year where one third of my sites like connectivity for months at a time, this year I have only had to deal with a complete failure of the active directory Windows server infrastructure. Rebuilding the entire model and topology of the network from scratch, we have finally caught up and are able to do things more educational in nature. 

This year as in the past I will be hosting a weekly meeting to assist teachers with technology related issues. Far from being just for certified staff, though, these meetings will attempt to bridge the gaps of understanding and lead to innovation among all staff members. With an educational technology coordinator now on board for LYSD, I feel comfortable saying this year will be the best in terms of support and professional development. I have always done a blog video series and weekly VTC training called Mr.B's Tech Corner, but this year I will rebrand and make the concept more generic. To do so I have chosen the platform of Edmodo.

If you have not heard of Ed Moto I strongly recommend you look into it. In a nutshell it as a learning management system designed to be an educational version of Facebook. I love the concept and I have enjoyed use of the platform for several years now. If you'd like to play along with this blog please make an account now at

First things first start to create an account by clicking on teachers and then entering an email address and password you would like to use and then sign up for free.

If you would like to use the district office here in Mountain Village as a school please do so. Otherwise type in the name of your school.

Fill in the appropriate information and click next step.

You can make your profile as detailed or a simple as you would like.

Once you're in you can start doing things like adding groups. If you would like to join the tech corner group click on the + next to the word groups, under your name, from the homepage.

Click join and enter wukmze.

Now that you are in, poke around a bit! I've loaded tons of content for you already. All of it is LYSD specific, and all of it meant for you! 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Back to the Basics

Why? Why do I do what I do? Why am I in education? I love the moments in life when these questions are answered and when I am challenged to reorder priorities in life. If we don't ask ourselves "Why?" often, we risk getting caught in the How's or even worse, the What's! 

Confused? See the Golden Triangle concept and my blog post on the subject

Okay, now that we are all on the same page, let's talk "Why." This week was nothing short of amazing. Arranged by the district's CTE Director, LYSD hosted a weeklong career camp for high school students from around the region. Applicable in every way, students who attend the week chose from a law enforcement/public safety course, carpentry, welding, and my computer course. Students who joined me for the week learned about computer components, trends and innovation, and career choices in technology. 

As a surprise, the Tech Dept reimaged several iMacs for the students to use while at the camp and then take home with them as a first step down the path of a technology career. Making a choice to learn about software applications and futures in the industry is a great start, but without the right tools, these young people may not make very far. 

Taking the reigns of a classroom again felt amazing! This week was full of smiles, a-ha moments, and genuine achievements. Students learned about computer components, network components, and hardware repairs through habds on practice and a tour of the school. They also met with various colleagues at the District Office and discussed job opportunities in their villages and the school district as a whole. 

By working as a team, this amazing group of young people found successes in a wide variety of challenging situations. Problem-solving skills, decision-making activities, and goal setting projects throughout the week have prepared this bunch for a promising future. Whether or not they choose to persue a field directly related to technology, I am confident they will succeed. 

Interviews with industry leaders and professionals in the field were planned daily. The students listened intently and asked some great questions. We spoke to engineers, managers, owners, designers, artists, and technicians from a range of backgrounds. Communicating via Skype, our guests were from the East Coast to Alaska sharing a wealth of knowledge pertaining to life choices and their own experiences. 

One thing is for certain: the future is bright and these young people have what it takes. Should they choose to expand their minds and accept the challenge, they will have plenty of help along the way. Thank you to those who made this camp possible and for giving me the chance to lead young people toward positive adult lives. My gratitude is simply not enough for the guests that joined us, and I hope some day they will see the fruits of their labor in the future success of the young minds they helped to shape. Have a great summer, this is the official end of the 2013-2014 school year.  

Monday, May 19, 2014

Educational Technology in Alaska

Below is a note to Dr. Robert Whicker, a friend and mentor of sorts. He is a role model for many educators, administrators, and technologist from Alaska to Hawaii, myself included. Bob asked me to share a vision for educational technology in Alaska and here are some brief thoughts:

I never hesitate to discuss technology in education with those from whom I have learned so much over the years. Inevitably, these types of conversations lead to me gaining more than I share, so please offer all of the feedback you can. Before beginning, I must also say your leadership in our state is nothing short of foundational for my career and, I am certain, hundreds of other Alaskan educators.

To begin with, it is important to identify outcomes and goals we educators wish to produce. As with any standard, these benchmarks must be measurable, relevant, and attainable. My goals are fairly concise: I want to change the way teachers teach and the way students learn. It’s not difficult to deduce from the last 30 years of Alaskan (and American) test scores that something has gone wrong in education. Students are dropping out far too often (especially in minority and alarmingly so in Native populations), schools struggle with funding, teachers are frustrated, and students are disconnected. I would like to see students engaged and learning in more natural settings.

The differences between “education” and “school” are broadening with every moment. Asynchronous learning, blended learning, and place-based education models are sound in any setting, but particularly of import to Alaska. The geographical separation of schools in our state combined with the unique struggles of rural districts (on and off the road system) make providing quality local education daunting, at best. Challenges are noted, but I believe they can be met with technology.

In my experience, nothing bridges the gaps (physical or academic) like technology. Starting with broadband access (like the proposed 10meg minimums the governor proposes), schools in Alaska should all have enough access to support the browsing, file transfers, and video traffic needed in 21st Century education models. Video teleconferencing, for example, comes in all shapes and sizes. Desktop clients or appliances, these tools allow for qualified teachers to connect with students regardless of where either lives. Opportunities for enrichment like digital field trips can introduce mainstream concepts familiar to the outside world but as foreign to Bush learners as ancient Egypt!

To leverage desktop clients and supplement existing resources, I recommend the 1:1 model of education. Students with devices will grow into the digital learners the future needs. We must stop thinking in silos of content areas and create holistic ecosystems of personalized learning plans with plenty of student-directed experiential learning happening. My thoughts on 1:1 are such that first through fifth graders should experience the iPad. The iOS platform offers the management, app suites, and historic experiences of thousands of educators to provide a multimedia rich experience for young touch-ready learners. Projects in Hawaii and Maine, among many others, have proven not only the efficacy of this endeavors, but the real-world application possibilities. In the higher grades I have personally seen the benefit of personal computers (portable computers/laptops).

This model of education enables students not only to have a more authentic voice in the way they share their knowledge (multimedia; audio; video; project-based assessments), but also opens a wealth of new delivery options. Differentiated instruction, in today’s terms, is completely intertwined with technology.  Too often the focus is to assure minute standards such as dates, definitions, etc. to dominate our lessons. I believe theorems, empathy, and problem solving skills are more valuable than dates in history and that the ability to locate and analyze the validity of an answer on the internet more useful than memorizing definitions from the glossary. Learning agility, or the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn tasks and solutions to complex problems, is the key to being a successful adult and productive member of the globalized world. It should also be noted that the core academic areas are not the end-all-be-all for student achievement. Digital citizenship, digital literacy, and social media awareness are all components of our adult lives.

To focus the lens through which I envision technology in education, I would summarize a successful Alaska as such: K-5 iPad 1:1; 6-12+ laptop 1:1; 10-20meg liberally filtered access per school site with flexible schedules for a variety of learning environments (after school, etc.); and teachers supporting each other by teaching inside and out of their physical classroom (from central locations, home, and inter-district cooperation). All this, combined with the PD to enable educators and the sustainable funding from NGOs and government agencies, will yield young adults capable of meeting the demands of the modern world.