by Donald Jenner
Copyright © 1999 All Rights Reserved.
It was in February 1998 I received a call from the Reverend Martha Overall, at St. Anns Episcopal Church in Mott Haven, the heart of New Yorks South Bronx. Don, she said, we have some money to build a new computer learning facility. Can you help us? I knew I was in trouble; I knew I was going to get hooked. Martha Overall is persuasive, and she has persuasive associates. But why not go take a look; anyway, it is hard to say no to Mother Martha.
We sat down: Martha, her Literacy Launch director, Nelly Espina, and Nellys number-one, Sam Massol on one side; me on the other. We were in the computer room a large, bright room probably initially set up as a church parlor when the building was built around the time of the 1st World War. Folding tables and genuine computer furniture worked around the edges of the room, supporting a collection of late-80s type personal computers.
We talked about the program. We talked about goals. We talked about all sorts of things. Time passed, and Martha invited me to walk round the corner with her to one of the two elementary schools from which most of the children in St. Anns Afterschool and Literacy Launch programs come. I accepted.
The kids were waiting, and Martha introduced me to one, a fifth grader name of Crystal: Dons going to be working on the computer lab. So, what do you want it to be like? says I. Says Crystal: I want the Internet.
I was hooked. I was netted. I was flopping around like a properly caught trout.
I came to the project at St. Anns with a rather checkered background. My academic degrees are in philosophy. My teaching experience is with undergraduates of various kinds and ability most recently, teaching management and marketing, followed by a still current stint teaching computer technical support at The Chubb Institute.
On the other hand, I have long operated a consulting practice on the use of small computer systems for various kinds of businesses. I have substantial expertise in the applications of this technology to design and graphic arts and the like, having written professionally on the subject for the trade press and published a well-reviewed popular book and some manuals on related topics.
Still, this was terra incognita, insofar as it was an educational application of small-systems technology.
A couple things were clear:
I spent most of March, April and May playing with the children and getting a sense of what they wanted, and what they would do, and what they would simply not stand for. They were, actually, remarkably articulate. Some were then (and remain) key players in working out the design of the whole operation. Crystal remained a leader here; interestingly, her sister, Amanda, became a strong presence as well; over the course of the ensuing six to eight months, about eight of the children became sufficiently adept that they can actually manage much of the day-to-day operation of the facilty they helped through their ongoing suggestions and involvement to design.
The first thing, after looking at what was going on, and after visiting at some length with the more actively involved children, was to junk any idea of going for end-of-cycle (hence, less costly) equipment. It was absolutely clear that whatever was put in place, the children would quickly take as far as it would go, and maybe just a bit further.
For example, among other things I did to test limits was to bring some of my equipment to St. Anns. Various input devices like graphics tablets survived quite handily and interestingly, uncorded styli didnt disappear. Notebook computers were used both in the computer room and out in the churchyard; I was delighted to see that fairly delicate machines were well treated by the children, and shared effectively most of the time.
The second thing I concluded early on was, the computer room itself was as important a part of the planning process as its contents. A technology-only approach would not work. Fortunately, I had some experience and rather definite views about what made for good facilities.
The St. Anns computer room is sort of fun. There is not a right-angle anywhere in the room. The ceiling is pitched, not flat. As it was when first I saw it, the floor was tile, the ceiling was plaster and the noise was dreadful, even when the children were being quiet. Carpeting and acoustic tile figured largely my plans.
So did paint. At one point, I asked the children, what color should we have the place painted. Pipes up Crystal: Purple! The notion caught on, and even the adults were soon on board having agreed that purple is spoken in several senses. [Martha Overall made the final choice of shade and the color is a lovely pale, bluish, purplish blush of a color.]
Rather than try to suspend a ceiling, we applied the accoustic tile directly to the plaster. Shelly and Tony, St. Anns sextons, spent a good couple weeks on this process, working on scaffolding (the ceiling is a good sixteen feet plus high), affixing tiles with industrial adhesive and the odd nail (the plaster is not entirely smooth anymore ). Edges were nicely trimmed with molding painted to match the walls.
Finally, Shelly and Tony laid carpet squares; we bought enough to allow for replacements as needed down the road.
The room was beautiful.
Kids at work. These are Intergraph TD225s set for multimedia work.
The original plan was to have built in bench space along the walls spaces, with an administration station and a conference/work table in the middle of the room. Practical considerations lead to a shift to heavy-duty work tables. Nine six-foot long tables served our needs well, and worked with the nicely upholstered gas-lift office chairs we were able to secure at a local furniture discounter.
From the beginning, I had decided to use PC-family machines in this facility. First, the children were familiar with that kind of machine. Second, I was more familiar with it. Third, I preferred the options it offered; Macintosh equipment ties one to a single vendor.
Also, it was clear that networking was a requirement. First, this would allow greater flexibility when deploying software. Second, Internet connectivity without an intranet would prove too costly and too unmanagable. We would start with 10baseT ethernet, but I specified 10/100baseT NICs and category-5 cabling, permitting a move to 100baseTX with nothing more than a hub change. The cost difference was negligible, in any case.
The specification for the computers proper included three machine categories:
Quotations were solicited from four vendors: One is a local whitebox builder of good repute, from whom I had secured satisfactory systems from time to time. Two different VARs were consulted: One was approached with the idea the firm would bid Toshiba equipment, but chose instead to bid Compaq (probably a mistake on the VARs part). Another bid whiteboxes, but did not put together a serious quotation.
Finally, I asked for a quotation from Intergraph. I was particularly interested in seeing what could be done with this vendor of graphics-oriented workstation-class computers, as I have a particularly good opinion of the company and the equipment it builds. I was far from sanguine, however; Intergraph equipment should command premium prices.
[Intergraph is a complex of companies based in Huntsville, Alabama. They sell both hardware and software, focused on the high-end computer graphics market. Formerly purveyors of proprietary Unix workstations, the company created the first serious workstation-class PCs. Intergraphs low-end PCs tend to begin where other companies top-end model lines sit; what Intergraph calls a PC passes for a workstation in a lot of other product lineups. Having been long involved in computer graphics, I am familiar with the market, and I am an Intergraph fan. Visit them at http://www.ingr.com.]
Notice the interaction among kids, and with a peer tutor. This is the computer room at its best.
As it turned out, Intergraph was the low bidder. They offered good quality and a solid discount and made the purchase decision an easy one. That initial impression continued, by the bye, throughout the entire purchase process. St. Anns is clearly not going to be one of Intergraphs larger customers; we were nevertheless treated as if we were, from beginning to end. That included air-freighting our systems to us, when the shipping date was missed, at no extra charge. After-market support (what little there has been) has been equally impressive; it is also no small matter that Intergraph maintains its own factory-trained staff and a complete service-and-support capability, with a field office only a short distance from St. Anns.
What arrived was first-rate, too. The integrations were flawless; one machine had a processor that had come loose in shipping fixed in minutes (thank Heaven for easy-access cases!). We plugged the systems together and all the lights lit up and we were in business.
It was summer, and our plans called for air conditioning. This got caught up in a couple of site-related problems. Both the electrical contractor and the air conditioning contractor were tremendously helpful, but St. Anns is landmarked. The compressor is external. The Landmarks Commission required assurances that the compressor installation would not impair the views of the building. St. Anns received generous assistance in providing that assurance, from commission member Carlyle Morris, who came up to the church, climbed out through all sorts of tight spaces, and prepared a report favorable to the project. Since the computer room is hot in Summer, and computers throw heat as well, the completed installation of effective cooling was a crowning event. It also contributed mightily to the computer rooms popularity .
I specified Windows 95 for these systems. Part of this is a general distaste for Windows NT; part of it is practical. Quite a lot of software sold for children educational and otherwise is Win95 compatible, but it is not properly certified for the 32bit Win95/98/NT environment. Much of it seems to retain 16bit elements, or direct-to-hardware control that would not be tolerated in a WinNT environment. It is troublesome even in the more forgiving Win95 environment.
Specifying Win95 imposes limits. While peer-to-peer networking is admirably supported, network-management tools are rudimentary. In particular, user profiling is extremely limited, and security is strictly share-level. That has proven to be only a limited problem, but it is real.
In order to insure downline compatibility with the Internet, the network was configured using TCP/IP as the local protocol. Initially, I hardcoded the addresses; later we added DHCP (dynamic host configuration protocol) software, and still later, this was included in the proxy server implemented for managing Internet connectivity.
Because of the timing (we were into the St. Anns day-camp season as we finished) the first round of software purchasing was carried out by Literacy Launch staffers Nelly Espina and Sam Massol. The array of selected products spanned obvious drill software in educational basic skills and typing (computers have keyboards), to a repertoire of fairly neat games. The game software included computer-specific offerings (various simulation programs) and computer versions of old-time board games (Monopoly, Scrabble). We also secured copies of IQ/Aptitude testing software, hoping to develop an independent scoring system to track students.
The first discovery: Educational software ISVs think educational computers should not be networked. We have multiple licenses for products we use; we tend to be scrupulous in such things. But we would really like to manage the way in which things are played out across the net. But noooooool the Ed-ISVs think they know better.
In fact, we have worked out drive-aliasing procedures that let us do some network sharing and management for some software packages. Others will not share any element across the network (Disney-branded products are particularly a problem); we will purchase fewer of these packages (Magic Schoolbus and Ready-to-Read, as well as various games and ethnic-pride programs) because of this.
The second discovery, already noted: Ed-ISVs write dirty code. Actually, it appears that the code being used is generally not current code, but includes substantial amounts of legacy, 16bit code, often tied to display or audio preferences. About half the time, these legacy libraries do not correctly return the system to status quo ante. Windows 95 does a fairly good job accommodating these badly behaved programs, but the results are heavier maintenance costs and regular system crashes.
The third discovery: The children were very willing to carry out drills, and actually found the game-like ways this stuff is presented acceptable, though (predictably) boring after a certain number of iterations. On the other hand, even seemingly well-crafted software, presented nicely in an entertaining way, but involving what was clearly a test, was not well received. Even non-threatening tests are a threat in this neighborhood; this appears to derive from the way testing is presented in the public schools, as a way of determining not what children know, but where they lack. The flaw, in short, rests in the normal colleges.
About six months after the initial software purchase, Mrs. Jenner and I, along with Auria Gaston (who serves as lab tech in the computer room), took a group of children on a second software shopping expedition. After a light lunch, the children paired up with adults and spent the budget leftovers on new software. Interestingly, two-thirds of the packages selected were educational in character; the other third was strictly entertainment. The educationally oriented software paralleled and expanded on what the computer room had, and was nicely thought through. The games were interesting and reflected both creative interests (graphics and design products) and plain entertainment.
In short, the kids, ranging in age from 9 to 13, did as good a job as the adults, when it came to software-picking.
The last piece of the puzzle has been Internet connectivity. This is still in progress, actually; we are waiting to see what DSL connectivity will cost, as opposed to ISDN dial-up. But the basics are in place, and working rather smoothly.
Remember, I chose to set up the local area network as an intranet. From the very outset, St. Anns had internal TCP/IP and we used a simple web-server to manage pages. This paid off handsomely; connecting to the Internet proper was a matter of dropping a proxy server into place on the machine hooked to the outside world.
The testing was done using a connection to my personal account. I dropped a simple Lucent Technologies modem in the box (the kind real computer types dont like for good reason!) and ran a wire around the wall to hook into the phone line.
Then I installed Software602s 602pro lite proxy server. This may be the best deal going in small-system Internet connectivity. For $50., you get a piece of remarkably stable software that runs nicely under Win95/98/NT (your choice, and it knows about running as a service in all environments ). This software manages the connectivity to the Internet completely. It manages dial-up (DUNS or RAS). It manages HTTP, FTP, TELNET and even RealAudio connectivity. Want to cache locally? It caches locally. Want not to cache? Thats OK too. Want security? The software is a SOCKS server, and an IP firewall. Want to protect your charges from the wrong connections? The software lets you create a list of prohibited URLs. The software is a World Wide Web server; use it to manage your intranet web, or if you have a live, full-time connection with your own permanent address on the web, use it to serve pages to the world. Using CGI? Thats taken care of, too. Want to keep an eye on where the kiddies are surfing? The server sets up logs. Want to add stations ad hoc? 602pro is also a DHCP server (that is, it automatically supplies TCP/IP addresses to your local machines. Administer the software on the server machine, or remotely via the Web; the whole thing can be protected with id and password.
Perhaps the best thing about 602pro Lite is that it is not something requiring a degree in computer science to operate. This is software-for-the-rest-of-us typical of the Software602 product line (they have some low cost forum software that strikes me as really keen). It installs easily and with little fuss. The documentation is very simple, and perhaps a bit too sparse in places; my experience was that Software602 tech support answered e-mail quickly and accurately; they are just as good over the phone.
Not bad, in short, for $50.. [For more information, go to my website's first page (http://home.interserv.com/~jenner/ or look at the page-bottom if you're reading this from my site) and click on their banner.]
The kids went wild on the Internet at first. Things quieted down, in part because they have yet to spend the time really searching out the nets special offerings. After all, once youve gotten past the lyrics of the latest from Puff Daddy, where can you go? Now it is used in more sedate, and sometimes overly prosaic ways. We are still looking to see what can be done to make the Internet come alive for these kids.
One hope is improved e-mail connectivity. Having first secured a suitable ISP account of its own for St. Anns, I proceeded to begin the web-hosting search. The hosting service I selected provides a good service (somewhat weak on the first-level support; getting straight answers involved escalating questions, usually), with multiple e-mail addresses as well as a location for the St. Anns website.
Using Paul Smith Computing Services VPOP3 software inside our intranet, those host-provided addresses are able to serve the entire St. Anns afterschool population. VPOP3 is a full-service mail server, effectively. It can connect through the proxy server, or it can connect independently. It is designed for small businesses, in situations where there may be only a couple e-mail addresses, and mail management includes using using additional information to distribute the mail from those few addresses to a number of users. VPOP also adds a number of nice local management tools, and supports local area mail. This is a simple solution, easily managed by (relatively) less technically oriented staff; where Software602 has sparse documentation, Paul Smith Computer Services supplies prolific documentation, remarkably clear. Since the company is in England (the wonders of the Internet; I can get great software from England in minutes!), telephone support is an issue, but PSCS, like Software602, is superb at answering e-mail. [Find out more about VPOP and other PSCS solutions at http://www.pscs.co.uk.]
E-mail software tends to be priced per seat an issue on the St. Anns budget. VPOP3 is not cheap, but legitimate educational bodies are entitled to a generous discount. Pay the bill by credit card; PSCS gets its money in sterling and you get billed in dollars and everyone is happy.
With the Internet software chugging along merrily, the current step is to create individual login accounts for St. Anns afterschool participants. That is, using the Win95 User Profile capability, I create a separate account for each potential user, assigning them to a particular machine. When they log on, among other things, the profile will show only age-appropriate options in the Start menu. Outlook Express will pick this information up and show only the logged-in users mail settings, which I am customizing so that the users mail is deposited to a specific mail folder.
At the end of the current maintenance cycle, when this is in place, effectively each child will have a custom station effectively, the child will have her or his own computer.
There are difficulties:
In my own view, the last item is the key. If this cannot be cracked, the whole effort may prove an elegant failure. Without any question, as has been shown in so many highly sympathetic studies, it is the lack of connection that crushes people in communities such as Mott Haven and quite a few other, not so obviously desperate places. Pass a certain point in one's personal history of not belonging-together-with, and the disconnection is probably irreversible. The decisive moment seems to occur early on, perhaps before entering teen-age.
If this problem is cracked, then the programming will change, and that will be the sign of the real floruit. We shall see.