December 2007

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WordPress Mu is now installed on our school’s shared server space. It appears to be functioning as I’d like it–now that I hacked together a nice .htaccess redirect making it easier to access individual blogs. Before we actually let the students loose on their blogs, I need to think through security and make sure I can deliver on the promises made at our last tech meeting.

First, can it be set up so that individual students can submit content that will only be published upon administrative approval? The answer is yes–although there are limitations. Let’s explore the roles/permissions system:

  • Subscriber: can view site (only relevant if blog is set to be visible only by subscribers).
  • Contributor: Can write and edit posts, but they are not published until and administrator approves the content.
  • Author: Can write, edit, publish, and delete own posts
  • Editor: in addition to author permissions, can moderate comments, manage categories, edit pages, and other people’s posts.
  • Administrator: Has control over any option or setting in the blog, including moderating posts and comments.

Clearly, in terms of security, students would be best set at the Contributor level. I worked through a post as a contributor–indeed it worked as expected. Just to be sure, I went back to my test post to see if I could edit it as a contributor after is was published/approved by the admin. I couldn’t–that is a good thing from a security point of view. With Joomla, an administrator must change a post’s ownership to ensure that it is not edited after.

Unfortunately, the Contributor setting does not allow a student to customize their website/blog. There really isn’t another setting that would allow adults to moderate posts by students, so there is no other choice. Perhaps a teacher could log in and change their template.

Comment is another area of concern. At first glance, it appears that comment settings must be done on a blog-by-blog basis. Comments can be disabled, held for moderation, or allowed to appear when created. These options may be over-ridden on a post by post basis. At first glance, it looks like we can satisfy the tech committees needs, by moderating comments, although I will be testing this further examining all aspects of the commenting and notification of comments via email.

Registration can be disabled allowing only an administrator to create new accounts. Unfortunately, this requires a unique email for each user. This can be a hassle as you need a working email account to receive WPMU generated password. Not good news for elementary teachers whose students often don’t have email addresses. I will be looking for a hack to change this.

Finally, you have a few means of controlling who can view the site. First of all, each blog post can be password protected–effective in keeping non users out (which I have mixed feelings about). That’s about it if it weren’t for a plugin called private blog. Normally the privacy tab only allows you to keep out search engines. With private blog, you can set each blog be visible to only members of the individual blog, the blog community (by all users of the school’s WPMU installation), or only to administrators. While I feel that blocking the general public from a blog defeats its purpose to some degree, there may be times and circumstances where a “walled garden” is appropriate or the only acceptable option in accordance with policies.

Overall, WPMU appears to provide the security options needed to proceed. In some cases, implementation could be less awkward. I would like to see more of this controlled globally rather than at the blog level. I will be testing it more closely with dummy accounts to more closely examine any potential security problems, and to work through a workflow to administer the site. If anyone would like to help out, let me know!

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Our school tech committee approved student blogs on a limited basis, so I have installed WordPressMU on our school’s shared server space. WordPressMU is a multi-user blog platform based upon the popular WordPress. Hopefully this will meet our needs for blogging at our school.

Like Elgg, there are no automatic installers for WordPressMU, so it requires a manual install. You need to set up a mySQL database and a database user and password. Next, you must download and unpack the latest WPMU distribution on your computer and upload it to the server. Point your browser to the directory to which it has been uploaded and fill in the the fields. If there are errors, the installer suggests resolutions. You may need to work things out with your web-host (or your server settings), play with your .htaccess files, or perhaps set up php.ini over-rides. A beginner may be lucky and get through this with no issues. It can be frustrating though and it can take perseverance to make it through this stage–nobody is going to take care of your problems for you.

Once it is installed, the interface is very similar to WordPress. In fact, it is identical to WordPress with the exception of the Site Admin Tab. Under Site Admin, one can select Blogs, Users, Themes, Options, and Upgrade. Clearly, most of the day to day administrative work would be tackled in the Blog and User areas. The interface is clear and simple, yet I believe more powerful than it appears. Permissions appear to be set at the blog level. Overall, there is a more robustly developed back-end than is found on Elgg. However, like Elgg, some modifications involve hand editing individual files.

Like Elgg, support is scarce. Documentation is sketchy and the mu.wordpress forum is limited. Be prepared to do some digging if you need help or want to make modifications.

The next task is to work out security and administrative work-flows to determine whether or not WordPressMu is suited to the task of managing blogs at our school.

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I just installed Elgg, the open source social networking platform, on our school’s shared server space. I really cannot speak to the feature set as of yet. This pertains to the nuts and bolts of installing, configuring, and customizing the site.

To begin with, automatic installation is not available through cpanel/fantastico, so a manual installation is required. This is no big deal. One begins by creating a mySQL database for Elgg on the server. Next, you need to download the software and unzip on your computer. Next, upload the Elgg folder to your server via ftp and change the permissions on a file and a directory. Point your browser to the Elgg directory and the installer appears. Fill in your database settings, passwords and email information.

With luck, you’ll have no errors and you can get to the configuration page. That wasn’t the case for me because the school web site is on a server with register_globals on. Once that was rectified, I was able to access the configuration.

I installed version 0.9 RC2, so there were a few bugs to be ironed out. It wasn’t any real big deal, but sticking to version 0.8.2 would make things simpler. That being said, most RC2 releases have been more reliable in my experience.

The configuration pages allows you to name the site and change the tagline among other settings. Of particular interest for use by schools are settings to allow or disallow public registration and invitations. Additionally, the setting Walled Garden allows you to restrict access to outsiders. You can also set it to force log-in to make comments.

If you want to customize the theme, you have a couple of options. First, you can upload a theme to the server and over-write the default theme. You can also access the theme files through “default template editor” to edit the page shell and css. This requires willingness and ability to work with some code.

The front page content is edited using the “frontpage template editor” which also involves playing with some basic html code. You don’t have to be an expert, but having a knowledge of html and css is certainly helpful. Alternatively a handy code reference book should give you enough guidance to make the modifications.

Overall, the installation and configuration is more difficult than many other scripts, in which switching themes involves a click of a button and front page content can be edited with a wysiwyg editor. It certainly is much more difficult to set up than a ning site. Support and documentation on the elgg.org site are also somewhat sparse. I wouldn’t recommend elgg to someone new to setting up websites using open source software. On the other hand, if you have some experience and are not averse to some basic troubleshooting, it’s worth a look.

The ability to install the software on our own server offers compelling reasons to look further into elgg. I’ll explore the software features in the near future and posting more information here.

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Fall 2006, we launched our new school website wellscsd.com using the Content Management System Joomla as the cornerstone. I had spent the summer trudging through the ins and outs of its configuration and customization. As with any new project I was excited and energized pouring endless hours adding content once school started. I wanted to show everyone the great things that could be done through the school website hoping others would be inspired to contribute to the site.

The site was popular with the school and community and the number visits grew steadily. That inspired me to keep adding content and learn how to work multimedia into the site. I started adding video clips, slide shows, and podcasts. The hours dedicated to this work kept growing to the point that by the end of last year I was getting burned out.

I kept looking for help and got it sporadically. Unfortunately, I started to feel as welcome as a telemarketer as I hounded people–students, administrators, and faculty–to participate. The kind person that updated the lunch menu was the only exception. As a result, the multimedia diminished and articles were not as fresh often 2-3 weeks between updates with the exception of the lunch menu and automatic feeds from NOAA.

A summer vacation provided time away from school and the website (but certainly not time off). I came back with more energy, but it soon fizzled, especially as I directed my efforts toward my NYSCATE presentation on school websites. I got bored with the tedious entry of information and working with images. Even though a few individuals were submitting articles through the website, they always needed some sort of reworking. Things were really falling apart.

The day before my presentation at NYSCATE, I returned to the school website and saw that even the lunch menu items were missing. I logged in and reformatted and published a few articles in queue and decided to call the school the next morning to get the menu so I could put it in in time for the presentation. I woke up and checked in the next morning and found that the menu had been posted–a sign that things were changing.

When I got back, our superintendent called me into his office. He noticed the lack of content on the site and he understood that the burden was too much for any one person to bear. He set forth and has since implemented several proposals for keeping the site fresh. After this struggle for over 15 months to keep up the site, it took my failure due to a confluence of events to drive home the point that no one can do this alone.

Now the BOCES PR writer hired by the school has been trained to add content directly to the site. Office staff has been assigned specific roles such as entering school menu items, sports schedules, and event calendars. Time has been allocated for some staff training on our next professional development day.

This has freed me to explore some of the great ideas I found at NYSCATE. We are going to set up a parallel site wellscsd.com 2.0 dedicated to student work–writing, photography, artwork, podcasts, and video. We are also going to explore social networking platforms elgg and ning soon. In addition, we will set up wordpress mu, so that students can build their own blogs (or websites as they prefer to call them).

I wonder what I could have done differently to achieve this outcome. I still want to see more students and faculty to participate. Hopefully as we implement and demonstrate web 2.0 technologies they will see the value. I remain hopeful.

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NYSCATE created a social networking space on Ning for the 2007 conference. About 140 conference attendees have signed up and there has been some discussion of the conference and educational technology.

I did a little poking around the Ning site in general and I have found some other social networks that I have since joined. The first was Ning in Education. Ning in Education is a network dedicated to issues pertaining to using ning for educational applications. Issues such as Ning configuration, safety and privacy. It also appears to serve as a conduit for educators to express their concerns and needs to the folks that run Ning. A case in point, is that through the efforts of participants in the network, Ning will take the ads off Ning communities that serve grades 7-12. There are COPPA issues that they are working to resolve for students under 13. Ning in Education also pointed toward other great educational resources on Ning.

Classroom 2.0 is a very active community with over 4000 members. There’s really a lot of good information from other educators integrating technology in education–Web 2.o Technologies in particular. I recommend that you join this particular network.

I also set up a Ning social network so that I could get a sense of what can be done with the administrative controls. I was looking for reassurances that would help placate the fears of our tech committee. I discovered that you could make the site visible only to members and that membership could be on an invite only basis. Furthermore, it permits you to moderate and approve video and image uploads before they are displayed (although not text postings). Finally, as mentioned above, there is a procedure for getting rid of the advertising on school networks.

I will continue to explore the social networks on Ning, examples of school uses of Ning, and the ins and outs of administrating such a site. I will also be installing the open-source alternative Elgg soon and blogging on that soon too.

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