[Edu-sig] Too much money in schools considered harmful

Dinu C. Gherman gherman@darwin.in-berlin.de
Thu, 02 Mar 2000 18:03:06 +0100

Hi all,

yesterday night I had an amusing two-hour phone conversa-
tion with a former high school teacher of mine and he was 
keen about telling me the latest developments in that school 
concerning computer science teaching. This is a story about 
how too much money combined with a high dosis of incompe-
tence can make things worse than they were before.

This teacher of mine works now for about 20 years as a bio-
logy and computer science teacher for all age groups from 
10-19 years in Heidelberg, Germany. I'm long out of that 
environment, but I'd say he did an excellent job in getting
people motivated about CS and programming, resulting in va-
rious off-curriculum working groups producing stuff like a 
very interesting simulation software for Plate Tectonics!

For some time now I'm trying to drag him into using Python,
which turns out to be somewhat difficult because I'm rarely
physically present to give a demo or so. It's also a bit 
hairy, because he belongs to those who've grown up with a
warm feeling for Assembler and don't think there's so much 
bad about C++. He went that far to say that he was using 
C++ sucessfully for years in low grades, teaching it with 
some sort of Logo-like graphics simulation environment, that 
actually *produced* C++ code which was then studied and mo-
dified to to slightly different things. Now he's using more 
Java, I think.

As I was rather insisting he finally started to give Python
a try and has some people now participating in what I would 
call an (off-school) evaluation phase, getting himself more 
familiar with Python, and doing simple things for the only 
reason of seeing how it can be done in Python.

This is the end of the good news! On the phone he was almost
depressed when we came to speak about resources and support
by the local or regional/federal authorities. Ironically, he
said last year was a very good one in terms of financial 
support and that's exactly the basis of ongoing trouble.

What happened? The school got lots of money for improving
computer resources and internet access. Previous teaching
rooms were turned into computer teaching and practicing 
pools. Many Wintel PCs were bought. Everything was wired in
a Novel network on top of which there was implemented some
magic "zero-administration" software, that is actually try-
ing to centralize all software installation and maintenance
issues giving control to a single individual, declared to
be the "administrator". Unfortunately, this person has to 
be a high-ranking school administration officer. In that 
case this is the one who has chosen this particular admini-
stration software. I leave it as an excersize to imagine 
how much this person understands about computers or even 

Now on this network all new software has to be somehow "ex-
amined" and "adapted" for security reasons by the admini-
stration software's vendor who then has to come by and phy-
sically manipulate the system to do the update (which is 
likely forming a huge part of their revenues). The PCs can-
not simply be disconnected from the network because the
next time they are reconnected their hard drives will be 
nicely reformatted to conform with the system as conceived
by the tool vendor.

So the kids can now use Netscape, some office suite, a C++
compiler (only to edit and compile, not to execute code!)
and some rather useless other programs. The software that
was developped previously will not be running anymore with-
out great headaches resulting from convincing the "admini-
strator" to get it installed. The old PCs will vansish. 
The tool vendor will not care to prepare other software in
their system without the majority of their clients crying
for it.

This is where one realizes that "zero administration" means
"zero flexibility" which is a marriage in heaven for high
school administration officers, responsible for the network.

And it is a lesson to all those who believe that great so-
lutions are to be expected once the sacks of money arrive.
It is not the money alone, it is also full control over how
it is to be spent, that will teach kids something new and
useful that they can hopefully benefit from for the rest of 
their lives. Sadly, this is not by definition what you should
expect nowadays from all teachers and school officials.

This seems to be principal problem that has no easy solution,
has it? Isn't it that always when large amounts of money are
assembled there will be immediatly individuals popping-up and 
trying to appear very concerned and responsible in using it 
to the best of their knowledge and the benefit of those the 
bucks are actually meant for? To me at least it seems that 
too often these individuals are simply enjoying the pleasures
of having power over spending money and controlling things 
that others are affected by and that they rarely understand

Well, all that said, we tried to figure out ways to by-pass
the system, which I'm going to outline in a follow-up message 
as this one has already become way too long... 



Dinu C. Gherman
"The thing about Linux or open software in general is that 
it actually tries to move software from being witchcraft to 
being a science," [...] "A lot of the programs you see today 
are actually put together by shamans, and you just take it and 
if the computer crashes you walk around it three times... and 
maybe it's OK." (Linus Thorvalds, LinuxWorld 2000, NYC)