February 2008

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As I have begun to immerse myself in Web 2.0 for education, I have been struck by the prevalence of using “free” hosted services such as Flickr, YouTube, Ning, and other such sites. I don’t have anything against them for individual use, but I do have concerns about using such services with students–particularly elementary grade students. I feel that many Web 2.0 evangelists have overlooked open source alternatives. I prefer to run my own web based open source software on rented server space for a variety of reasons.

First off, it gives a great deal of independence. If you want to try a particular piece of server based open source software, you can. If you find something that looks promising or interesting, you can pretty much install it immediately and give it a run. I heard about Elgg, so I installed it. I ran into an educational distribution for Drupal and had it up and running within the hour. Prologue appears promising as a private Twitter and I have it going in a few minutes.

It also avoids issues with “free” hosted web services. First of all, we can host content without the issues involving other, often inappropriate, content on the same site. I run our sites without advertising. I don’t have to deal with as many concerns about privacy. Students can get accounts on the site without revealing personal information and details. Furthermore, nobody is monitoring the browsing habits and creating demographic data and profiles of individuals using the sites we created.

Using open source web based solutions can be as simple or as complex as one decides to make it. Many programs can be installed by absolute novices using a control panel that performs the process with a few mouse clicks and keyboard strokes–no more difficult than signing up for a free blog. A simple WordPress blog is very easy to administer–not very different from administrating a hosted blog. As one gains skill and confidence, the options and possibilities grow exponentially.

It also has, at our school, removed obstacles and opened opportunities. If an educator at our school wants to try something, it simply has to pass muster with the tech committee. As long as it is technologically feasible, it can be done without running the gauntlet of BOCES hierarchy and technicians. As an example, one local school wanted to host video through their BOCES run website. BOCES told them that they couldn’t possibly do it because it required too much of their servers and pointed them to YouTube! Our school published video directly on our website with no issues.

Another reason for using rented hosting and open source software is cost. The software is free, although plugins and templates can cost money (many are free). Our school started its website on a $10 per month shared hosting plan. We never came close taxing our server resources to limits. BOCES would have charged us thousands of dollars each year.

There is the investment of time learning how to use, configure, customize, and administer the software. As mentioned above–it can range from simple and undemanding to complex and challenging. In addition, you can pay a little more for a webhost that will take care of some of the set and configuration for you.

Using open source software has been an empowering learning experience. I had very few IT skills other than having hacked together a third rate static html webpage and ftp’ed it up. That was several years ago and I had long since forgotten it all. Once I made the plunge with a cheap shared host account, I immediately discovered the ease of setting up websites through the control panel. Within a few days I had several domains registered, and a few sites launched. As time has gone on, I have continued learning and expanding. I like learning and I have found this rewarding.

I believe there are compelling reasons to consider open source web 2.0 software on private servers. It has been a wise investment for our school and has opened many possibilities. It has been a source of growth and development for students, staff, and teachers alike.

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I teach in a remote Adirondack school in which elementary classes typically have 10-12 students. While this may seem ideal, there are benefits to having larger groups with which to collaborate. With such small groups relations can become static. The same students have the same classmates year after year. Hopefully on-line interaction will lead to face to face collaboration as well. I hope to broaden students’ community of learners.

I have contacted the fifth grade teacher in a neighboring school district with a similar situation and we plan to explore ways for our students to work together using Web 2.0 tools. I’m considering a variety of tools:

WordPress using the Prologue theme gives a quick, clean, easy-to-use, microblogging format that makes communication spontaneous and fast moving. Students can figure it out immediately and dive right in. I think that it may be particularly useful in quickly creating discussion–especially with small groups as it keeps all discussion in one place. I’m not sure that it has all the functions that one might want for extended collaboration, although the tagging helps. It would be great to find microblogging within more comprehensive packages.

I’ve have tinkered with Moodle for several months. Moodle provides a wide variety of tools: forums, wiki, blogs, quizzes–a wide variety of tools. I think it might be too confusing for beginners. Yet Moodle is a great LMS and has a lot of collaboration tools built in.

I just created a new Elgg installation using version 0.9.1 . I’m experimenting with the user interface. It is more like the traditional social networking software with friends, personal spaces, etc. While the interface may be more complex, I think it may be more familiar to users already familiar to social networking software. I’ll post more about elgg soon.

Wiki represent a degree of collaboration I hope to obtain. It could be free standing, within Mooddle, or Elgg. I am most familiar with MediaWiki.

To begin, I’ll probably stick with Prologue/WordPress. We have relatively few participants, so the microblog might be an easier way to keep a critical mass of comments flowing. Whether we progress to Elgg or Moodle depends much upon my experiments with Elgg in the near term.

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My students now have a Prologue microblog that they are using actively. I thought that I would also set up a microblog as a companion to this regular blog site for my own use and that of others.

Unlike the student microblog, this one is open for public viewing and comment. In addition, I set it up so that anyonce can register and post as well. I’ll leave it this way unless there are any problems.

Take a minute to view the Prologue counter-part to this site. Feel free to register and post yourself, if you would like to get a feel for microblogging.

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I remain enthusiastic about using Prologue for school “twittering.” I was disappointed when it came to my attention that a regular self hosted version of WordPress did not have the option to keep the blog private by requiring a login to read. This is an important function for privacy of students in a school setting. I found a way to hack the wp-blog-header to make this possible. I tested it on a WP 2.3.2 installation and it works great. If you go to the blog’s url, you are presented with a login screen. Once a user has logged in, it brings them to their backend. While, I’d rather it bring them to the frontend, all they have to do is click the prominent “View Site” button. I’ll see if I can change that at a later time. Simply download the file wp-blog-header.php.zip, unzip it, and upload it via ftp to the blog’s main directory (public_html/wheveryourblogresides/

I also changed the Prologue user interface a little. The build I downloaded had a number and an “e” next to the title of the post. The Number reflects the number of responses. You have to click on the number to make a comment–not very obvious to my fifth grade users. I modified it so the word comment or comments appears next to the number. The “e” stand for edit. I simply changed the file to say edit instead. Download index.php.zip, unzip, and upload to public_html/wheveryourblogresides/wp-contents/themes/prologue. Make sure don’t put it in the main blog directory because it will overwrite the wrong file.

Another hack to create a more appropriate opening message was mentioned in the previous post.

Here’s a link to the files and the zipped Prologue. Just push the log in as guest button and the next screen will have links to the files.

Please let me know what you think. If there is interest, I’ll package the whole WordPress set of files up. I’ll also to continue to look for more ways to make this great theme work even better for those in a school setting.

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I got my students to try out the Prologue installation today. They really enjoyed it and took to it instantly. Conversation was wild and somewhat unfocused at first. Before I knew it, there were twenty odd posts. I directed them to feel free to socialize, but I’d want them to avoid totally frivolous posts that would be of little or no interest to the “community.”

As I see it, there are two ways to respond–either by creating a new post, or by creating a reply. They all started by just creating new posts until I pointed out that they could click the comments button to respond. Now that I reflect upon what has been done so far, I’m not sure what is best. By creating a new post, all information is right there on the page–more like twitter itself. By using comments, more “starting posts” are visible and you can click on comments if they interest you.

I look forward to seeing how much it is used after school and on weekends , and how the usage evolves over time. Of course, I will prod it in certain directions.

Here’s the promised zipped file of Prologue. It is the latest update. I will try to keep it reasonable current until it becomes generally available in this form.

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