Tim Goree

Connecting Seemingly Unrelated Things

Christian, Husband, Dad, Chief EduTechie, Ordained Deacon, Gamer, CUE Rock Star Admin Faculty, and FSUSD Classified Administrator of the Year

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My Favorite E-mail System is Open Source

As published in the DataBus, Summer 2010 Volume 2010 Issue 3...

When I came to the Norris School District in late 2006, I found myself in a unique position. My reasons for taking the position were more personal than professional. I looked forward to driving only 2 minutes to get to work, as well as working in the district in which my own children attended. Where the adjustment came was in the fact that Norris was almost 100% Macintosh on both the client and the server side. I had worked for 16 years before that in almost exclusively Microsoft environments, so this, I knew, would be a considerable change. 

My e-mail administration experience up to that point had been with Microsoft Exchange 5.5 - 2003. One of my first tasks in the new position became one of unifying two separate e-mail systems. That's right - there were two! Both were administered by our county office of education, but one was for outside communications, and the other was for inside the district communications. Both used different clients, too. It wasn't anyone in our district that was asking me to unify our e-mail, though, it was a task I put on myself. After getting used to Exchange with the Outlook client for so many years, the two e-mail system environment had me completely discombobulated! This was simply a move that I needed to make for my own sanity's sake. I was hoping that our staff would love me for it in the end. 

So what does one do when he has Microsoft Exchange experience and nothing but Macs? I had a big decision to make. Anyone who has worked in a Microsoft Active Directory environment knows that a move to Exchange would ultimately be a move to an Active Directory structure followed by an all Microsoft environment on the back end, and if you have an all Microsoft back end, well, it would seem pretty silly to have an all Mac client environment. That's just how it tends to play out. As comfortable for me as a move like that would have been, I had also always adhered to the idea that standardization of systems on the client side was highly advantageous so long as the people using those clients were satisfied with the situation. In this case, our staff was not only satisfied, they seemed downright giddy to have Macs sitting on their desks, and I wasn't about to move in a direction that would downgrade that giddiness to something less desirable. 

It didn't take long for me to realize, as I learned more about the Mac on my desk, that Mac OS X is built on Open Source Software. It is a very close cousin to Linux on the desktop and works with Linux on the back end very seamlessly. My thoughts turned to Free Open Source e-mail server software, and we soon found a product call Zimbra (http://zimbra.com). 

Zimbra and I found ourselves in an excellent relationship immediately. Being one of the first to use AJAX effectively for its web client produced impressive results. The first time I worked with a demo, I fell in love with the idea that I could have a web client that was nearly as robust and feature rich as the full Outlook client. Obviously, the upside of the web client would be that when we changed systems, my staff and I wouldn't have to install client software on all of our district computers, and our users could have the same e-mail client experience at home as they could at work, regardless of their operating system differences. 

We moved forward and we haven't looked back. Since first installing Zimbra, we have run it on both Mac OS X Server and Ubuntu Server. In that time, its company ownership has changed hands twice, from being an independent company to being owned by Yahoo! (who uses Zimbra as it's engine for Yahoo! Mail) and now VMWare (who sees it as an integral part of its future productivity suite). We have always paid for support with this product, and we've had excellent experiences both with the Zimbra team in that regard as well as our current support team, Revolution Linux (http://revolutionlinux.com/). 

I can say with confidence that Zimbra is rock-solid. From the standpoint of administration, it is worlds easier to deal with on a day to day basis than Microsoft Exchange 2003. Most importantly, however, Zimbra was my first foray into FOSS, and the positive experience has launched our district in a healthy direction going forward. 

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Tim Goree is the Director of Technology Services for the Norris School District in Bakersfield, California (tigoree@norris.k12.ca.us). He has 20 years of IT experience, with 14 of those years being specific to education. As a member of the CETPA Board of Directors as well as the KernCUE Board of Directors, Tim is well known for his ability to bring IT staff and educators together ideologically to produce outstanding educational results.

Games Are More Important Than You Think

As published in OnCUE Summer 2008 Volume 30 Number 3...

What is the first thing you think about when someone mentions the term “educational game”?  Some, like me, immediately equate “game” to “computer game”,  and think of any number of products that we have been exposed to in the past.  Others may imagine what a futuristic educational video game could be like - something along the lines of virtual reality, science fiction style.  I imagine many veteran teachers would think about the types of games, not necessarily computer related, that they use as devices to engage children in the learning process.

I’m a little ashamed to write that the very first thing that came to mind for me was the Reader Rabbit series of computer programs.  Don’t get me wrong, these are fine products that accomplish a very specific set of goals with young children.  I suppose, in retrospect, that I am a little disappointed in the smallness of my own initial thinking.

The fact is, an “educational game” can be all of the things I mentioned above, and much more.  As educators continue to move toward the ultimate goal of preparing students for a competitive work life filled with problem solving, analyzing, and creativity, they will find that “educational games” will become critical to core instruction.  To understand what I am referring to, try substituting the word “game” with the word “simulation”, and let me provide an example.

Ten years ago, I was part of a team of teachers and administrators in the Kern High School District that had the challenging but rewarding task of developing a state wide program called Virtual Enterprise (www.VirtualEnterprise.org).  Many of you may be familiar with this program, since upwards of 200 high schools in California are involved with it today.  The purpose of the program is to teach entrepreneurial skills, and we believed that the best way to do that would be to create a business simulation, in essence, a “game”!

Virtual Enterprise is a window into the future of what education must eventually become to teach what many have termed “21st Century Skills”.  Is a simulation like this completely run on computers?  No, but it is supported in critical ways by technology, which is really no different than the real world of business.  Every class creates a website to sell and promote their virtual products.  Every student uses e-mail and other productivity applications to run their business.  The central office provides a sophisticated web-based banking system to facilitate the exchange of virtual money.  All of these technologies come together to allow students in California to create a world wide virtual economy through communication with similar programs outside of the state.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?  It sounds like the kind of classroom that some educational dreamers have been blogging and speaking about.  You know, those dreamers who really don’t live in the “real world” of education as we know it.  The ones who can’t seem to understand that the politics, the financial constraints, and the established ideas of teaching will never allow this type of classroom to materialize.  Strangely enough, it has materialized in the Virtual Enterprise program, and it started 10 years ago in California.

Virtual Enterprise is fairly unique, but it isn't the only program that seeks to use simulations to create a more powerful learning environment.  However, all of these programs in general are still seen as “fringe” concepts that exist on the outside of core instruction.  Therein lies the biggest obstacle to modernizing teaching and learning.  Believe it or not, I predict that games or simulations will become central to modern instruction in public schools.  With that major shift in pedagogy, we will usher out the static classroom along with state testing in its current form.  With that major shift in pedagogy, we will usher in an environment where teachers facilitate learning, but students actually own it.

The Idea Factory

I recently had a whale of a time at the Computer Using Educators (CUE) Conference in Palm Springs with 3 colleagues of mine.  This is a conference I never miss, but it is primarily aimed at classroom teachers, so if I go without taking some teachers along with me, it feels like I'm wasting an opportunity.  Luckily, 2 of the people I took with me were classroom teachers - Tara Treaster and Christine Whitaker.  The third person was Omar Garcia, one of the computer technicians that works in my department.

Together, we were a small group that is representative of any school district as a whole.  One administrator, one classified employee, and two teachers.  Strangely, this doesn't happen often.  I find myself being the "odd guy" who likes to manufacture this experience over and over again.  I can't help it - this close concoction of mixed school employees thrown in to a special project or work based trip was what changed my ideas about schools, married me forever to education, and shot my career into the direction that it has taken today.  So this idea, this type of experience, is special to me. It NEVER FAILS to create connections that help us educate kids better - NEVER.

We come from different backgrounds and different points of view.  Our ways of looking at the problems that we face throughout the day are very different.  Before we spent some time together, our perceptions of each other were shallow - colored by our own desires and stereotypes.  We put each other in tiny little boxes...

Three days at CUE changed all of that.  We emerged as an IDEA FACTORY.  We found that our goals were the same, and our differences could enhance each other's strengths and minimize each other's weaknesses.  The 4 hour ride home was filled with constant chatter and enlightening thoughts.  Will we ever be the same?

No - and THANK GOD for that.

If only I could manufacture this experience for every employee in our school district.

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Interruptions - The Best Part of My Day

It's easy to get into the rut of believing that interruptions are the things that hold you back from getting "real" work done.  As a technology director, I am one of the most interrupted people in my school district!

I had an interruption recently, however, that reminded me of the beauty of such moments, and their importance to teaching, learning, and generally being needed.

It so happens that an office that I was working in one day is attached to the Kindergarten building of one of our schools.  I had the office door open as I worked on a computer, enjoying the cool breeze that was drafting through.  Then kindergarten recess began, and 7 curious kindies were at my door asking questions.

"Who are you?"

"What are you doing?"

"Are you a teacher?"

"What are you doing with that computer?"

I could have dismissed them to their recess - nothing to see here, kids!  Instead, I took the opportunity to interact during this interruption.  Inviting them in, I pulled out my iPhone and starting goofing off.  We took pictures, listened to music, watched a video, and had a good conversation.  As their teacher rounded them up and took them back to class, I sifted through the pictures we took haphazardly, and the one attached stood out.  A complete accident, but a beautiful picture to remind me of the moment.

I can't really remember anything else I did that day, except for that.  Besides the experience and the picture, there is something else that continues to surface in my mind.  The questions that they asked:

"Who are you?"

"What are you doing?"

"Are you a teacher?"

"What are you doing with that computer?"

While the kids didn't mean them to be, these are turning out to be some pretty deep questions.  Maybe I'll have some answers for them in a later post.  Maybe I'll be chasing the answers to them for a long time...