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Initiatives and Proposals



Petition for the Immediate Purchase of MACminis

 September 22, 2010 (Draft)

We are witnessing another wave of change!

There's intense interest from our students for experience with iPhone app development.  John Lambadaris set the stage in May by hosting a 4-day workshop on writing iPhone apps, after which the demand for my 4th year projects involving iPhones and more generally mobile devices skyrocketed.  Now as term begins, I keep tripping over other faculty members that are also starting iPhone-app-based projects.

The problem with iPhone app development is that all development work must be done on a MAC.  Apple policy, no getting around it.  Of course, this raises the issue: Who has a MAC?

There are no MACs in the Systems department. I'm not talking about someone's own personal office machine.  There is no MAC available for undergraduate students to use. 

So, to my knowledge, SCE has at least five projects using the iPhone starting right now. We could all individually buy a MAC for our own students. Or, the department could buy one or two, to collectively support this surge of 4th year projects, and as an experiment.

Is this a fad? In the long run, the computing needs for the department as a whole will have to be considered, and MACs are just one item on a long list.  However, the interest of our students is now, the need is now, the costs are relatively small at $700 for a MAC mini and the potential benefits - in recruitment, undergraduate curriculum development - are large.

Sign up at this link if you think that this venture is worth a try.


CS

CSE Faculty Education Fund (CSEFEF)

 September 22, 2010 (Draft)

Most of us in Carleton Engineering know about CUSEF - The Carleton University Student Eqiupment Fund.  I propose the establishment of a like-minded CSE Faculty Equipment Fund (CSEFEF) for the funding of small scale equipment purchases for the undergraduate program. Think of the CSEFEF as petty cash: A pot of money with relaxed access rules for the ad hoc and experimental purchase of equipment for undergraduate courses. Think of the CSEFEF as an entreprenurial incubator!

Motivation

Traditionally, our labs have been equipped as large-scale expenditures.  My own first experience was SYSC 2003 (Introduction to Real-Time Programming) where Gabriel and I were tasked with buying a new $80,000 lab.  Big dollars. Big decisions, having to pick the "right" platform because the next $80,000 was going to come around for a long time.  Such expenditures rightly demand due process with peer/committee review and departmental consent.

There is another model to equipping our labs, one that responds to the incredible changes in technology (aren't we supposed to be leading that change) and one that fosters innovation. An incremental model, play a little, try out a little, toss in some optional work for interested students. Then, make a formal course change through the D-APC.

We need an arena for experimenting with technology.  We should be awash in technology toys, both for us to try out in classes and for students to use in projects. Why do the staff at EDC have iPads on their desks while most of us probaby haven't even touched one?

USB has transformed the device markets.  Do you know how many devices - sensors, actuators, I/O boards, microcontrollers, DSPs - that you can buy for under $100 that connect right up to USB - plug and play? We don't need to buy into just ONE lab. We can build labs or projects from a hodge-podge of devices without that huge investment in one stationary lab.

Mobile devices - we need to figure out how Android phones and iPads are going to impact our curriculum, beyond a passing fad.
N.B. For other consequences of this mobility trends, see my other proposal: The Mobile Classroom"

Goal

    The primary goal of my proposal is to estabilsh a small-scale flexible funding mechanism for experimental equipment purchases that enables and stimulates the continual growth and evolution of our department's undergraduate infrastructure.

Objectives

  •  Promote continual advancement in our course deployments and in our teaching methods.
  •  Promote interaction, sharing of resources and learning between ourselves, our colleagues.
  •  Let our labs reflect the changes happening to technology. Make them "cool" and engaging.
  •  Create an office culture that welcomes and promotes innovation and experimentation

Example Purchases


Example: Last year, I requested some slush money to try out the use of Arduino microcontrollers in a project in SYSC 3303 (Real Time Concurrent Programming).  There was no change to course content, the course calendar description nor the course outline. Instead of basing an assignment on the TFTP protocol, I wanted to base the assignment on distributed gaming along with a Wii-like controller, simply because I thought it was "cool".  The cost of the Arduiono microcontroller was about $50.  I needed 10-12 of them.  I was invited to the next D-APC meeting. Instead I used my professional development allowance to buy them of them and invited interested groups to do it on an optional basis.  The students had a great time and we celebrated with Game Day at the last class, several of those students have followed me onto the Mech & Aero CUSP project, I have something to show on Recruitment Day and I now know enough to see applications in other courses. Cost? About $500-$600 (or 2-3 pizza lunches). 

Example: There are five groups that are signed up to do iPhone app development. Yet, we don't have a MAC in the department.  For $700, we can buy a miniMAC, set it up with multiple accounts, allow access with RemoteDesktop and we can service the needs of these groups, all the while building in-house experience in app development, potentially a suite of sample apps to be used as part of a future elective course, and potential demonstrations for recruitment.

Example: SYSC 3006 needs re-vamping -- no change in course content, just a modern lab deployment.  I'm experimenting this fall by having interesting students - on a voluntary opt-in basis - purchase a $30-$50 USB-connected development board (with their own money) and adapting the old assignments to the new hardware.  If it goes well, maybe next year, I'll make the transition complete. Other faculty are itching to try similar changes in their own courses but I'll let them speak for themselves.

Arguments

The D-APC

The intent is not to undermine nor bypass the D-APC.  CSEFEF and D-APC serve two differnet functions, the former for agile experimentatal upstarts, prototypes, trials and the latter for committed, endorsed, no-risk projects.  Ideally, the initial purchase through the CSEFEF leads to a full proposal to the D-APC with all the i's dotted and t's crossed.  CSEFEF could be even be administered as a sub-committee of the D-APC.

Funding Sources

  1. Chair: Ultimately, the Chair as our representative for the department has money that can and is given to small upstart projects.
  2. SCE and Recruitment: Back when I used to be SCE Program Advisor and/or Recruitment Coordinator, I had access to budgets to support my tasks, on the order from $5-10,000.  Probably, it's the same for the current advisors and coordinators.
  3. Student Course Fees - I've done a poll of my SYSC 3006 class. The students would be open to a course fee up to $50 if it meant they got to learn on a nifty current microcontroller rather than the old DOS setup.
  4. Professional Development Allowance: I regularly spent good portions of my PDA for my 4th year project students.
  5. Us - If I appeal to the altruist side of everyone, have you ever considered how much we spend on Pizza lunches and departmental lunches?  I'm the last one to minimize the value of social interactions but consider the lack of accountability in the use of this pool of money.  How about we all bring a bag-brown lunch to the next departmental meeting, and give the saved money to me to buy some stuff for SYSC 3303?

Accountability

I see two aspects to accountability - tracking the actual transactions, but also keeping track of the hardware.

With respect to financial accountability: Nowhere should you read in my words an appeal for a free-for-all. Money is money, even slush money.  Responsible use of the funds is of course assumed - there should be a culture of trust in our department that anyone who uses this fund is using the money to support our students.

I would also argue that we don't really have financial accountability now.  No one knows about the money that I spent while I was SCE advisor and Recruitment Coordinator. I bring the stuff to Open Houses and use it to keep First Year Interns busy, but I've never had to account for this money.

It's actually a cultural choice we make.  Do we want a department where every purchase - no matter how small - must be vetted? Or do we want a department that trusts in our professional integrity to work within the bounds and make use of our resources responsibly and towards the betterment of our students. control with fiscal control or we can work together.

With respect to hardware-tracking: I propose an web-based inventory system to be maintained by the technicians.  When something is bought, a photo is taken, the part number, description and URL of the source , and the current location is recorded.  Nothing fancy. Just a simple agreement that when you buy something, you record where it is and make it available to others when you're done with it.

Regulation and Administration

 By definition, CSEFEF is petty cash, slush money, consequently I naturally argue that administration and approval should be minimal.  Delay should be minimal. 

Yet, I recognize that power of money, so I'll simply suggest that approval should be removed from research and administrative biases, if the intent is to encourage change and exploration. For instance, adminstration could be done by our lab manager.

I would also suggest that approval should not necessarily depend on guaranteed success. Innovation comes from taking risks. Like our investment portfolios which should be diversified in risk - maintain capital with GICs but achieve growth through capital - we need to embrace some risk in this department to create some growth.


The Mobile Classroom in CSE

 September 22, 2010 (Coming soon)


The Ottawa Citizen ran an article about a iPhone course being offered by Computer Science on Saturday, September 18, 2010.  The following line resonated with me.

Students are expected to arrive with their own Macbooks, a must-have for programming for the iPhone, Deugo said.

Read more: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/technology/Computer+science+gets+mobile/3544292/story.html#ixzz10GLzadXn.

I've been arguing for a few years now that we need to re-think the way that we equip our labs.  Giving tours to parents and high school students, we show rows and rows of computers in rooms that are admittedly crammed packed during scheduled lab periods but are largely empty otherwise.  And have you noticed how many students work on the computer with their own laptop on the side?

I don't have hard numbers but anecdotally going to university means getting a laptop.

We should be adapting to and taking advantage of this trend.  Simply put, stop stocking our labs with PCs and require incoming students to have a laptop. For a vision of the future, wander around the labs of our own Computer Science department - there's a lab filled with clusters of desks equipped with power and network, but not a single PC in sight.

What about the lab images? How will the students get their software? That's where another trend in computing helps out.  Virtual machines are blurring the line between machine platforms. Our department could distribute online the lab image as a virtual machine.  Babak's suggestion is to distribute a USB key with all required sotware during Frosh week.  There are options!

Obviously there are issues, some of which include:
  1. Supporting the student who can't afford a laptop
  2. Technical support for the laptops - what are our technicians expected to do?
  3. Migration - We still need some labs. We can't get rid of all machines, especially for our students already in the program, and for specialized sofware.
  4. Software licensing.
Other universities are handling these issues just fine. We need to join the movement.

In May 2010, I sent the following summary of a brief survey that I made of how other universities seem to be approaching the issues

1. Laptop Requirement: Simply advise on what type of machine to get (and then we supply the VMs and instructions on how to use VMs)
   Example: Used by Queen's Engineering.
   Example: http://www.law.uiowa.edu/library/computerservices/laptops.php

2.  Rental program
    Example: Dalhousie  http://techu.pcpc.dal.ca/

3. Ownership program
    Example: : http://www.supinfo.com/en/News5a1e1a1f-7eba-49f7-85db-11ef64b7ff5d.aspx
 Note, the partnerships between industry on links 2 and 3.


It would be interesting to have a financial analysis done comparing the cost of maintaining PC labs versus the costs of buying-or-subsidizing free laptops for disadvantaged students (or even for every student). 

Our students are used to mobility.  They are demanding it.  In SYSC 3303, I now have a VM for the Real-Time Linux used in the lab because I got so much flak from the Computer Science students about having to come into our lab.  I simply have to post it on my course webpage, they download it to their own machines, and the lab remains empty except when we meet.

In closing, the Mobile Classroom also involves cell phones and iPad-devices.  Let's get the laptop program going first, and then we discuss apps on another day.

CS


Open and Online Courseware

 September 22, 2010 (Coming soon)

October 21: http://www.uottawa.ca/articles/open-access



The Use of Social Networking in Teaching

 September 22, 2010 (Coming Soon)

  • Witness this page on a site that is linked to my Facebook page. All an exercise in playing with the media in order to envision potential uses in my teaching. I'm the most public-adverse person, yet perhaps it's time for me to move past my own biases and see if there's something of worth in here vis-a-vis connecting and reaching my students.

Proposal for a New Elective Course = An Embedded Systems Project


  • Proposal submitted as a Teaching Achievement Award, October 2010
  • Student Survey Conducted as Background for Proposal (Made through SurveyMonkey)

Subpages (1): Robotics-Cluster
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