Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Manaiakalani - the pilot

The last few days have been crazy. Just plain nuts.

The pilot programme - 2 classes - of the Manaiakalani project has just gone live. Huge event for me. This has probably been the most responsibility I've taken for such a project.

At the beginning of next year, we'll be rolling out 2000 laptops amongst students around 7 schools. But that's definitely not the end of it. Given that they're building a community wide wireless network, it'll mean that others will be able to use them as well. Suddenly things like Internet banking becomes avaliable to the parents. When it's not in cash and just a couple of figures on the screen, people are able to think a bit more about budgets and the like.

Apparently we've got others looking on. There's some interest in using this same model elsewhere. Hell, if I could get paid for it, I'd be really happy building and maintaining various images for the various projects.

Anyway, I thought I'd talk about the last couple of days - starting from Friday last week.

I've been developing the image on laptops which weren't actually the laptops which the students would be getting. Pretty damn close, but not the same.

So the laptops arrived last week. On Friday, testing HAD to begin. So I went to do a quick test of the imaging procedure. Unfortunately the BIOS (Basic Input Output System - the bit when you first turn on your computer) flash didn't work though luckily that part of it wasn't my responsibility.

On Saturday, I went to the OLPC group. This group is probably the best software testers I've come across. Their attention to detail and boldness and reporting anything that seems perhaps even a little bit odd lets you iron out issues really quickly. This is an area that programmers really aren't all that good at. As far as we're concerned, it's almost always the users who are at fault, not how the software was designed.

So I hijacked the OLPC's testing to test out the Manaiakalani image. One of the big problems that came out was that "Sound Recorder" wouldn't record sound. Sounds like a small problem right?

Sunday, I needed to get a new image built. All of the problems (at least those that I could fix) found on Saturday needed to fixed. There were a couple of things. I had it sorted in short order. However...


Despite the sound card being a fairly standard one, apparently there are loads of different implementations of it which need customized configurations. Furthermore, the laptops had done away with the 2 audio plugs from last years model (and a usb port) and replaced with with just 1.

Turns out an external microphone wasn't working either. By 5am Monday morning, I'd been working on the sound issue for the better part of the day and had given in and made the image.

Up by 7am for imaging day. 100 laptops, BIOS to be flashed and OS to be installed. 8 incredibly enthusiastic kids (forever known now as technicians). After a few teething issues - some of the laptops had an option in the BIOS for a "Boot Boost" meaning that the quiet boot screen wouldn't show up and it wouldn't respond to the keys we expected it to respond to.

It turns out we had more than 8 kids. We had adults. The kids would go and grab 2 laptops for flashing and hand one to an adult and say "here". That's it. Suddenly the adults were all flashing laptops too.

Then came the BIOS password panic. As a precaution against the possibility that the kids might think it funny to set a password on their friend's laptop and do something like set no devices in the boot order, and most likely forget the password, it was decided that the vendor of the laptop would put a password on the BIOS. Only they are to know. It turns out that there are 2 levels of password on the BIOS. A supervisor password and a user password. So while the supervisor password was set, the user could still get into the BIOS.

After reminding everyone of the original reason for putting the password on the BIOS, it actually came across as a bit of a win. The supervisor password couldn't be changed except if you'd entered in the supervisor password. Brilliant! So kids could still play and explore, but if it did get mucked up, we could at the very least get in there and set things back to sane values again.

The whole thing was streamed over the Internet. I was a little embarrassed when I realised that me having lunch was being streamed over the Internet! Apparently we had had 57 people watching the stream at one point or another.

And finally, Tuesday. The handing out of the netbooks. The kids lined up and gave their teachers the serial number as they got the almost shiny box. A bit of instruction and they were away (except for one poor little girl who seemed almost apologetic for having a brick of a netbook - there were issues with one of them the day before but it managed to slip through the process). I was quite pleased that I decided to put Tux Math on there - it was a huge hit for things to load up first.

Speaking of Tux Math: has everyone reading this played it? The hardest level is ridiculously hard - being a combination of in-equations, integers using the 4 main operators. I recommend everyone put themselves through that particular hell at least once in their lives.

By the end of the day, there were kids holding their netbooks close - like something long lost that they were concerned may leave them again. Unfortunately for them, they had to leave the netbooks at school. The network won't be ready until next year and these laptops aren't actually the ones that the kids are buying.

Anyway, time for some sleep. I'm back at school tomorrow!


  1. Wow, that sounds like a full on few days you have had Nevyn.
    I am going to be teaching at Pt England in 2011, so am very excited to be coming in and learning about it all next week as a bit of a head start.
    Chris Marks.

  2. Kia ora Nev... We were so lucky to have you here @ school today:) The kids had a brilliant day with their beloved netbooks. I can honestly say that they were totally engaged whether they were blogging, google apping or 'playing'. Thank you for your expertise and time. We REALLY appreciate your support. Anyway on behalf of the Year 7's I'd just like to say 'YOU ROCK'!

  3. Hi Nev,
    Thanks for helping the staff and children out. You've done an amazing job!!


  4. Wow! What can we say? -=-Genius at work! Thanks! We are blessed to have you helping!

    Jenny She.

  5. You've done some amazing work Nev, thanks for all you're doing to help our kids get "connected'. It's truly appreciated - even if we don't all understand all those big words you've used! :-)
    Helen K

  6. What an amazing job you have done! Thank you so much for your part in 'connecting' our kids and 'letting their voices be heard'! It was fantastic to have your expertise on hand today.
    Thanks heaps

  7. Holy crapballs on toast! People are commenting. Get some sleep. Little people need fresh and responsive adults!

    I don't actually recognise the names here to my great embarrassment. I'm lousy with names though so there's a very good chance that I have met you :/ If you spot me tomorrow, come and say hi. Let's have a coffee (or tea - though tea's just not coffee :p) together...

    I look forward to meeting you. I'm already looking at how the schedule works out for next year and how to provide the support the other schools are likely to need (though not quite as much as is needed right now given that by then most of the issues should have been sorted out by then). In other words, I'll probably be around next year. Besides which, I don't think Russell and Dorothy are likely to let me go that easily ;)

    @Ms T, Room 10 and Little Voices, Little Schoolars
    I think there's a poster of this in the ICT center:
    It's actually spot on. That's it. The whole process. Of course, occasionally you really do have a little flash of brilliance (or dread) as you realise something. A quick slapping of the forehead later and you're away laughing. This really isn't genius (I don't think). I'm sure there's a post in there. Something about the expectations I place on myself compared to the world at large...

    @Miss K
    The big words could be taken like a sports car - a sign of insecurity. I'd like to think that it's probably my communication issues.
    While a couple of friends and I were setting up Tangleball (, we spent 6 weeks presenting the idea to various groups. We really wanted to get creative types involved as well as nerds and engineers etc. The problem is, the way that we speak is quite different from the various different groups and that horribly telling glazing of the eyes would happen within a matter of seconds.

    I've been involved with some deployments before (though the last time I was having to work 100+ hour weeks and had some rather big teams involved as well) and it's considered really good practise to have "go live" support for a week or so and then a process for BAU (Business As Usual) - so at some stage I'll have to talk to the technicians and figure out how we're going to communicate and how to let everyone know what issues are there and which ones are being worked on.
    In other words, me being there is all on par and is really just me doing my job properly.

  8. Hi Nev

    Sandy from Room 23 here (we met down the hallway, but you probably don't remember). WOW...just read your post and think that you are amazing! Our school is really lucky to have you. I'm with Ms King (don't really get the jargon, but get the gist). Looking forward to hearing more updates from you about the netbooks.

  9. Hi Sandy,

    Definitely don't feel offended if I don't remember you by name. I think so far I've remembered around... 4-5 first names. It usually takes me a while to remember names. Part of that nerd thing where I quite like working at night and thus I'm really quite tired when I come into school (today I just can't seem to concentrate) and so memorizing names is getting embarrassing.

    One of my embarrassing moments at Mairangi Bay was mixing up Janine and Andrea. (Just wait till you get to that post - if you do. It's gotten rave reviews).

    On the plus side, at the school there's labels on the doors. For the most part they're surnames only but with a little concentration I'm starting to remember them.

    It's amazing just how much work there is left to do. We had a full meeting on it on Tuesday. So much to do, so little time. It looks like I'll be working all the way through the holidays to get this ready.

    Still, the struggle goes on...

  10. Hi Nev,
    Colleen here (you know that really annoying researcher you keep meeting everywhere you go!!) I have just found your blog and have enjoyed reading it. The teachers and staff at Pt England and the whole Manaiakalani project are very excited that you are with them. Thanks for what you do, we couldn't do it without you!
    See you in the staffroom!

  11. Ahh brilliant! Here I almost having a moan that I'm having issues remembering names and you've just given me context.

    Anyone else who's reading this: Colleen is a researcher who quite often has to meet with teachers - but given the time of year, the teachers are all horribly busy. Reports have to go out, end of year stuff like athletics (Well done Tamaki Primary), parent teacher interviews. So I quite often bump into Colleen in the staff room while she's waiting on someone and I'm indulging in more and more coffee.

    Dang nang it... Just realised what my next post should be about :/ That makes my 16 for the month (I'm limiting myself to an absolute maximum of 16 posts a month so that I don't spend TOO much time here).