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Punk Learning

One man. One old laptop. Three subjects. One year. This is a DIY adventure in Punk Learning.

Week 2: Iterations in difficult circumstances

The laptop was dead.

It turned on but froze before getting to the operating system's login screen. Nothing worked - waiting, rebooting in safe modes, stern looks, desperate sighs. I couldn't find out what broke, so I couldn't go about fixing things.

It was time to start over, and that's what I did. I formatted the hard drive and replaced my operating system with a fresh installation. I went with a 64-bit Xubuntu flavor this time - seeing that any attempts to re-install Lubuntu from the USB drive didn't seem to work.

The install went well, and I was soon able to start over. A blank slate, again (mostly), and hopes for a better ride this time!

There were several thoughts running through my head as I prepared to reboot my Punk Learning setup. Here there all are, in no particular order.

1. Backup should be a right, not a privilege

I was lucky to have access to other computers, and means of getting back to speed. It only took me 30 minutes to download and prepare the other operating system - I knew where to look, my broadband was quick enough to download it, and I had the second computer on which to do it all. After that was done, I could log in to my Standard Notes quite quickly, to pick up where I had started with my notes etc.

Not every learning situation is this privileged. And I'm aware that this could have gone much worse. Without backup, my laptop would probably be dead for a long while, and I'd struggle to get it running again - and even if I were to succeed, I'd still have lost the data.

This matters to everyone, but I think it matters even more to learners. Here's why.

2. It takes a lot to start from scratch

If this were to happen three months down the line, I'd probably be tempted to give up on this project. Even with the backups, I would feel like progress was slipping through the net, and I'd be anxious about losing something that wasn't backed up.

It could still happen. The laptop didn't magically become more reliable - it's still old and fragile! And when it does, it's a pain to start anything over again, or to try and find the place where I can pick up my learning.

Learners need encouragement and reassurance - no matter their age, location, or social context. Learners in privileged context can rely on this, sometimes (although it's easy to mistake the heady brew of always-on connections, notifications and badges for actual support). Learners who aren't so fortunate may need to find other ways to seek this out - or to build their own support networks. How could this be addressed?

3. Absolute minimal solutions still save the day

Even before I formatted and re-installed Xubuntu, I was already able to access my computer using one last trick - sort of. And I was super pleased that I could try this out.

TAILS is short for The Amnesic Incognito Live System. It's a pared-down Linux variety with extremely strong privacy protection. Loaded from a USB stick, it allows users even more privacy, encrypted web traffic, and lets you use computers without leaving many traces of your activity.

It worked on my fried-up old laptop. It connected to the internet via Tor. It allowed me to do the bare minimum. If this was an emergency, I would be able to get online, notify someone, and get organised / supported while I try to resuscitate my machine. At a pinch, I could probably even write and submit an essay for a last-minute assignment.

I was happy with this; I realised that very few other solutions would be able to still run on a computer in this state. I knew a re-install would be necessary, but I wanted to see if Tails would be workable, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was.

This is not everyone's cup of tea - Tails would come across as overkill, precisely because it's being marketed as the super-cautious, strongly protected operating environment. I think, though, that a different type of messaging could be possible - and that providing operating systems which help less privileged users / learners out of a tight spot (while also being privacy-focused and secure) could be the way forward. If, as a learner / teacher, I knew such solutions existed and could easily be employed, I'd be less worried about my hardware.

4. Still starting mostly from scratch

So, there we are. I didn't want this to be a blog about Linux adventures, but my computer made me blog about this again :) I hope it's not going to happen soon for a while.

Chess is going really well - dozens of Lichess games help me see patterns more clearly, and I'm actually more confident in making my blunders, losing with flair and rolling on to another game. Some of them I'm beginning to win :)

Everything else will need to be re-started this weekend.

Stay classy -

Vic

My Punk Learning Stack: what hardware and software will I use to learn?

I know I enjoy writing blog posts like these, and I also know that I often get distracted when writing them. So I decided to share this one early on, and get to learning as soon as possible, without spending too much time on the details of my gear and apps! Of course, I will post an update whenever a new gizmo gets added to my inbox.

I'm not posting any links below - feel free to search for these on the internet. In time, I will possibly do some in-depth demos of the more relevant apps or setups.

1. Why I use what I use

There are probably seven computers at my flat right now. I say "probably" because, frankly, I've lost count.

Some are currently in use. Some see intermittent use - there's the gaming / video editing desktop PC. Some were sent to us by the companies we used to work with, and never got picked up. And one or two of them are seemingly too obsolete to be of any real use.

This laptop used to be one of these "fossils". Now it's back in service. I'm not doing this because I have to. My other machines could probably handle my learning projects with relative ease. There are two big reasons why I chose to use the older laptop.

The first reason has to do with what educational experts call "learning in challenging circumstances." My interest in education and lifelong learning has often meant that I was busy chasing the latest technological breakthrough, debating the pros and cons of the newest EdTech solutions, and so on. This, in turn, often meant that I was blind to the other portion of the learning landscape. Learners and teachers who are not (or cannot be) early adopters of cutting-edge technology may sometimes feel confused and disorientated by the newest learning or teaching tools. Many of them aren't as privileged as this household; they cannot switch from one device to another, cannot order a new tablet on a whim, and may think hard before purchasing some new software. And for many more, even this level of access would be problematic.

I use what I use to remind myself that learning doesn't need the latest gadgets, and that it can (and sometimes must) happen with the use of tools and solutions which are far from perfect.

The second reason is the brighter side of the first. Curiously, it was best described in the context of Nintendo's tech philosophy! In designing early versions of the game consoles and peripherals which we now all know and love, Nintendo was resolutely rejecting the pursuit of the latest, priciest components. Game Boy could have been a more modern piece of kit - but because of its older components, it was able to sell at a lower price, and game programmers were quick to launch games which used the solutions they already knew and felt familiar with. This "lateral thinking with withered technology" was what inspired me to start the Punk Learning project in the first place.

I use what I use to discover and remember valid and effective uses of the technology already at hand, and to think about successful learning in the context of low-tech, familiar and affordable solutions.

I promise I'll come back to the two points above one day. For now, let's leave theory for another day, and introduce you to the tech at the disposal of the Punk Learning project.

2. Laptop: HP Compag 6820s

This used to be my wife's work laptop. I am sure that she already had it back in 2008, so it's at least 13 years old. A quick eBay search tells me that I could get a similar model today for about 100GBP - although maybe some of it is already collector value?

My wife used the laptop for her translation and photography work. For both these tasks, the laptop was a great choice - the screen is taller than in most modern models, which means you get to see more side-by-side text, or a bigger preview of the photo you're trying to edit.

The laptop's been given every reasonable upgrade a few years ago, when the idea was to use it as "backup" which we never needed in the end. As such, it now has 4GB of memory (the most it can handle) and a new solid-state drive.

It's never been the most portable of beasts - the size of it is quite unwieldy! But all that is moot, since the battery must have gone missing and never got replaced. It only runs from mains power now. This helps with temperature, but it's annoying when the power cable pops out of the machine (which it did on a few occasions).

There is no webcam. The speakers are so-so. It's got Bluetooth. It has wi-fi, but the connection procedures are arcane; I ended up using my phone as a tethered connection point, or an Ethernet cable.

The biggest problem so far will probably be the audio capabilities. The laptop is barely able to handle recording and editing a single Audacity track - and I know that the memory and processor won't be able to handle much. In short, the technology is so "withered" that my thinking when it comes to making music will have to be very "lateral" indeed :)

The most annoying thing about it? Too many cables sticking out at the side. But I suppose that's the beauty of old technology.

3. Operating system: Lubuntu 18.04 32-bit

This was one of the first decisions I needed to make. There was no way this laptop could handle modern-day operating systems (don't get me started on this; it's definitely a topic for another rant). And I was resolutely against using Windows or any other proprietary system. It had to be Linux for freedom's sake - and a lightweight distro for the tech's sake - and probably an older version of the distribution, for the sake of the laptop's age.

I'd tried Xubuntu and Lubuntu before, and decided to give Lubuntu a go. This replaced an existing Windows 10 installation on the laptop. The results were very promising - Win10 was slow and sluggish on this machine, whereas Lubuntu 18.04 is just about enough to get the most features for not too much hassle.

There were probably better choices when it came to the operating system, and part of me was keen to try out several options before settling...but here's the problem with this course of action: you end up comparing operating systems for weeks on end! I was determined to install something, check that it does the basics well - and then get to work, as an average learner would. This isn't a Linux learning adventure, it's a learning project which happens to use Linux. Well done Lubuntu for being hassle-free.

4. Other software and apps (more to be added soon)

For this step, the choices were simple: I wanted something as open-source as possible, as free as possible, and respecting my privacy as much as possible. This isn't a new preference; this is how I try to do my work. Many of the choices, therefore, were either already confirmed - or were about to be decided very quickly.

Of course, this list is just the starting point. I will be adding more tools to the repertoire - I feel that the music / composing area will need the most head-scratching!

4.1. Tor Browser

Tor Browser is meant to work just like any other browser, with one exception: instead of sending your web traffic directly from the requested server to your computer, it masks your activity and directs your traffic through a series of nodes located around the world. (I know it's not a strictly accurate description, Tor experts; it will do for now.)

Tor isn't perfect. As a browser, it has its quirks; as a privacy measure, it is probably not 100% sufficient. And it's not Chrome - which is especially annoying when I try to use online synthesizers (they all love Chrome and hate Firefox, which Tor is built on).

I am still determined to use Tor for as much of my research and work as I can manage. The reasons are outlined above, and there's a third argument joining them: the need for privacy. I believe it should be legitimate, possible, and valid to learn in a way which is 100% private. As such, this project will be a voice in support of such efforts. Tor it is.

4.2. Standard Notes

Probably the best note-taking app in history. It works on each of my devices, and syncs across them without a hitch. It's encrypted, open-source, and customizable. Best of all, its "Extended" (meaning, paid) version allows me to publish my notes directly to this blog.

Everything about Standard Notes encourages me to use it more, and I love it. The Extended payment was made several months ago, so I guess you could say I "inherited" this paid perk - even without it, I think I'd still use the app for note-taking purposes.

4.3. KWordQuiz

My Linux distribution doesn't, so far, let me run Anki. And I need a flashcard app to test and review my Japanese vocabulary. For now, I'm choosing KWordQuiz.

The interface is sparse, to say the least - but this makes the flashcard editor one of the easiest programs to master. And I like that it gives me several options to review my vocabulary. I've used it on a few occasions so far, and it does its job well. I wish there was an audio feature - fortunately, there are few difficulties with Japanese pronunciation...

4.4. Liferea

An RSS feed reader is a beautiful thing: it delivers webpage content to my machine without the need to start up a web browser. This means fewer distractions, more focus, and a more lightweight experience.

So far, I've started on my collection of Japanese learning blogs - there are several which I'm already liking. I have also subscribed to my favourite ambient and new-classical music mixes, to help me study and concentrate! Again, the interface is minimalistic - but I get the text and the sounds with no problem, and I enjoy having control over what reaches me.

4.5. Audacity

This audio recording software is an old favourite, and I'm pleased to report that it does the job pretty well on this laptop. I've managed to work it out much quicker than other, more robust tools (I've got Ardour 5 for editing / mixing, but its time will come).

Audacity lets me carry out the basic operations on my sounds, and doesn't get in the way too much. I am excited about the recording process already.

4.6. Bristol, Hydrogen, etc.

Today marked a small victory: I have managed to get Bristol and Hydrogen to play back audio! Bristol is a synthesizer emulator with several legendary synths to choose from, and Hydrogen is a drum kit software. These are both free, open source, and nimble enough to run on my laptop.

The list of synth / music software is likely to grow. I wouldn't want this to become the main focus of this project - but the appeal of finding just the right sound among all the 70s/80s nostalgia is strong, I must admit :)

4.7. Lichess.org

This is a free, open-source, web-based chess service. It works in Tor, and is my main source of knowledge about chess these days.

I couldn't imagine a better website for all things chess. The great grandmasters use it alongside complete beginners like me. There are puzzles, studies, streamed games, and lots of variants of chess to pick from. There's even a useful analysis model, which I'm not on speaking terms with lately ("...what do you mean, ALL my moves are blunders?!").

5. Digital piano: Yamaha YPT-255

This is an entry level digital piano, with several nice-sounding presets and some useful beginner-friendly tutorial features. A few years ago, I managed to pick it up in a UK discount supermarket.

It doesn't have a USB or midi output, so connecting it to the computer will possibly be a big problem. For now, I'm planning to use it to actually learn how to play music - making sounds and composing with the use of the laptop is one thing, but feeling the melody and rhythm with my fingers is another.


That does it, I think! There are some other apps and gadgets which may join the list at some point. But for now, I'm happy that I've managed to get this old laptop to do most of what I need - without spending money, and without compromising my preference for privacy.

I hope you've enjoyed this quick list. If you have questions or comments about my choices, feel free to get in touch - there should be a way to contact me on the "About Vic" page.

Take care, and stay classy!

Vic

Week 0 - the Whys, the Whats, the Hows and the Whatsits of Punk Learning Class of 2022

I.

My wife's old laptop, which I pulled out from under a bookshelf, had a spider sticker on it - the cover art from MCR's "Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys". It also had an actual spider on it. It was an old HP model (the laptop, not the spider); no webcam, not a lot of memory, a measly 2-core processor. My highest achievement was being able to complete Diablo 2 on it, a few years ago. These days, Windows 10 struggled to run. Connecting to wi-fi was problematic. There was no battery, or if there ever was one - it went flat and AWOL.

It was perfect - not just as a spider halfway-house, but also as a tool for the project I had in mind.

A few hours later, Windows 10 was replaced with a lightweight Linux distribution. I kept the sticker spider, plugged in the Ethernet cable, and installed a few apps and upgrades. I fished out a music CD (!) and managed to persuade the CD drive to play it (!!).

As I write these words, I am determined to use this laptop for a project which, until a better name comes along, I'll be calling "Punk Learning 2021-2022". It's a personal learning adventure, and a professional crusade, too. Here's what it's all about.

II.

When I started BRAVE Learning, nearly 10 years ago, I was keen to explore foreign language learning in its every aspect. I was teaching English back then, and managing a language school. My interests have changed since then, and this blog evolved with them. In 2020, alongside there was a lot more focus on lifelong learning on the blog, and on productivity, too. I was happy with where this blog got me, but I felt I could use a fresh challenge.

Then, in 2020, Covid hit, and it hit hard. As everyone around me scrambled to make sense of the new rules for living, working, teaching, and learning, I decided to put the blog on hold. I'd published three books and courses earlier on that year, and I watched them lose their relevance (or so I thought) almost day-by-day. I mothballed the blog, and decided to focus on other areas.

Quite right, too. Educational publishing, which used to be my bread and butter, was struggling to find its place (not to mention, its profit margins) in the New Normal. I still don't think we've arrived - but along the way, I found myself changing jobs and employers much more frequently than I was used to.

With every new project and every new educational enterprise, I was lucky to witness first-hand a range of possible responses to the brave new world of post-pandemic learning and teaching. Some changes were heart-breaking (so many closing language schools!), some were heartwarming (so many creative teachers!).

When it came to organising online learning, to my dismay, I've found teachers, learners, clients, users, parents, managers, authors, and content providers all defaulting to the same few "choices". The quotation marks here are justified; the solutions were rarely a matter of actual choice to begin with (people just picked whatever helped them sort out the crises), and ended up being permanent as a result of inertia.

Schools, classes, learners and teachers flocked to Big Tech. Google and Microsoft products were now used even more widely to organise courses, manage day-to-day delivery, share information and content. Zoom calls were now the norm. Whatsapp groups for parents and students were set up.

III.

All of the above meant that several things happened all at once, and very fast.

First of all, the technical demands placed on learners of all ages increased almost overnight. Your child needed its own laptop, and a webcam. Your spouse needed to get up to speed with Microsoft Teams for her training course. We all joked about learning to unmute. We bought up all the gear we needed. And those of us with no gear, or no idea - well, we fell through the cracks. "Catch-up learning" would be offered in some state education, for kids. For adult learners, the expectation was that they'd catch up on their own. Paying university students were expected to keep paying.

This sudden acceleration was a reaction to the virus disrupting our everyday lives. Work changed; so did leisure, and relationships, and travel. It was logical that learning would change, too. But just as with work and all the other walks of life, learning and education was seen by many international tech companies as "ready for disruption", and 2020 was the turning point. Before the pandemic, very few people heard of Zoom - now it was ubiquitous. Before lockdown, schools may have experimented with Google Classroom - now, for some, it was mandatory. When I was in sales, it used to take me several conversations to convince English language school teachers to try out some interactive whiteboard software. After the virus hit, digital materials were suddenly an obvious choice. This was the second sudden change.

The last change is a corollary of the first two. It's about the learners / teachers we leave behind, the inequalities which we see created when it comes to learning, and the skills we ignore or abandon. As I mentioned before - the heroic work around the switch to online learning led to some great and quick wins for many. Learners and teachers who adapted, continued learning and teaching. However - even before the pandemic, access to education was already an unequal playing field. It's still difficult to gauge the impact of the lockdowns on learners globally, but one thing must be safe to assume: the "digital have-nots" missed out on even more learning opportunities, and the new demands mentioned above must have meant that even more learners and teachers found themselves unable to keep up their work.

I will come back to these three ideas later - I don't want this to be any more ranty than it needs to be. All I'm going to say now is this: I became frustrated and pissed off at the direction of travel for learning and teaching. It felt like huge chunks of human experience - connection, memory, discovery - were being sold out to Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Zoom - as if they needed any more helpings of these! At the same time, it felt that the conversation around resistance - emphasising privacy, freedom, anonymity, and ease of access - gets swept under the roomy carpet of The New Normal.

I was not OK with this. I still wanted to learn, but I wasn't going to set up another Google account or another Teams instance. I was going to keep learning new things, but I would do it my way.

IV.

I think it's time to introduce Punk Learning to you in more practical detail. Think of it as a one-person online school, and these are the rules and objectives.

There are three learning goals in this year's edition - all connected to things I was keen to learn anyway. These are all to be achieved by September 2022.

  • Goal 1: Learn Japanese to the point of being able to hold a CEFR A2-level conversation. No reading / writing, and no kanji - this is focused on vocabulary, listening, and speaking only. The goal is connected to a trip I'm likely to make in October next year. I'm a complete beginner when it comes to Japanese, but a pretty good language learner in general.
  • Goal 2: Learn chess to the point of being able to win at least 33% of my games. I'm a near-beginner when it comes to chess. I know how the pieces move, but I'm definitely lacking 99% of the skills needed to strategise my way to a win. It's possible that I'll revise the wording of this goal later; for now, what with my abysmal win record, it's ambitious enough :D
  • Goal 3: Learn digital music composing, recording, and production, to the point of being able to publish 10 tunes / songs. Again - I'm a near-beginner here (had a few false starts with acoustic guitars).

Sounds good so far? Here's the catch. Actually, it's a list of catches.

  • I will avoid using solutions offered by big tech companies, such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc. - this involves all aspects of planning and learning.
  • As far as possible, I will use libre / open source software for all my learning.
  • As far as possible, I will use the Tor browser to access materials, research, and share information.
  • As far as possible, I will use open formats to access and share learning content.
  • There is no budget restriction here - but as far as possible, I will rely on resources which do not cost money.
  • As far as possible, I will use anonymous learning, and will not allow services / apps to track me. I will only set up an account when it's absolutely necessary.
  • I will use one old laptop (HP Compaq 6820s) to access all my learning. I will also use an entry-level digital Yamaha piano for the music.

This week, I'm setting up my laptop and my blog, and making first steps towards actual study. I hope you stay tuned for more updates. I will share as much as I can with you - it's important for me to show you all that learning can be free, private, low-tech, and still fun and effective.

Hope to get another update to you soon, with the details of my tech setup. Until then, stay classy!

Vic