April 2008

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I was considering a number of wiki engines for my classroom. Having a strong bias as state in this article, I was looking for a self hosted wiki. I put a call out for suggestions on Classroom20.com. PmWiki and Docuwiki were suggested as well as MediaWiki. Ultimately I chose MediaWiki for a number of reasons.

First off, I am familiar with MediaWiki. I didn’t have to learn another wiki markup syntax. Wikis markup vary considerably. I decided that students were best off learning the same markup as used in the Wikipedia which also uses MediaWiki. In addition, MediaWiki is very extensible. While it barely has an administrative backend, it is easy modified by copying and pasting snippets of code from the MediaWiki site. There is also a large collection of extensions that can be used to customize the look and functionality of the site.

Installation of MediaWiki is straight forward, but it usually isn’t among the programs that can be installed automatically using a Control Panel. You need to download it from MediaWiki then upload it to your server, unpacking it at some point along the way. Alternatively, if you have shell access and a SVN client on your server, you can install it by logging into your account, amaking a directory, navigate to that directory and execute:

svn co http://svn.wikimedia.org/svnroot/mediawiki/branches/REL_12/phase3 .

(Don’t forget the space and period at the end!) In either case you will need to continue by setting up MySQL database, then running the floow the browser installer’s instructions.

MediaWiki is not ready for student use out of the box. Access to the wiki and ability to edit is open to the world as configured. You will need to go to MediaWiki User Rights section and paste in the code Under the “Default Rights” setting and paste it into the body of LocalSettings.php. Simple change the true/false statements to meet your needs. You can customize the configuration in a number of other ways. Look to MediaWiki’s Conguration Settings page. You can also find more customization options in the Extensions Matrix.

I configured the wiki to keep the public out:

// Implicit group for all visitors
$wgGroupPermissions['*' ]['createaccount'] = false;
$wgGroupPermissions['*' ]['read'] = false;
$wgGroupPermissions['*' ]['edit'] = false;
$wgGroupPermissions['*' ]['createpage'] = false;
$wgGroupPermissions['*' ]['createtalk'] = false;

I had create account configured as “true” until all the students registered themselves, then I changed it to false. Otherwise I left group permissions as default. This way only the students can read and edit the wiki. I also toggled upload to true in $wgEnableUploads in LocalSettings.php so they can upload images. The only thing I have not configured is an extension that helps prevent simultaneous editing called Edit Warning. I’ll give it a try when I need it, but it is fairly complex to install. I’d certainly make sure I had everything backed up before attempting to install it!

Now the students are beginning research on their topics. Soon they will be starting to organize their headings and subheadings, then filling in their content. I’m excited to see how the writing process takes place as the students work on their sections of the Wiki. I’m sure I will be learning as much as they as I observe the process.

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One problem with administering multiple programs on several websites is keeping all the software up to date. Sometimes there seems to be an endless string of security updates and it can add up to quite a chore. It is easy to fall behind and leave scripts outdated and vulnerable. This site is a case in point.

I decided to finally get around to updating my WordPress installations. I was getting ready to go through the process of downloading the new version, unpacking it and uploading the files to the server as the instructions dictate. While looking through the WordPress Site, I ran into “Installing/Updating WordPress with Subversion.” This has totally changed how I manage websites.

Let’s start with some background information. SSH is an abbreviation for Secure Shell. It is a way to access a server using a command line interface through a terminal. If you have a Mac or Linux box, you already have this installed. If you have Windows you can download a terminal such as PuTTY or some other such software.

In order to use SSH, you need an account with a webhost that allows SSH access (I would definitely make that a consideration when selecting a host), or a server allowing such access. You launch the terminal and type (don’t type the $–that just indicates a new command):

$ ssh username@ipaddress

If all goes well, you will be prompted to type in a password and you are in your root folder. From that point you can navigate to folders and execute functions using simple commands.

Subversion is a revision management system that many open source communities use to manage different versions of a particular software package. In order to use subversion, a client must be installed on the servering hosting your site (again, if I were looking for a webhost, I’d want that feature).

Once all the requirements are in place, installing software is a cinch. Log into the server as shown above. Navigate to your public_html folder:

$ cd public_html

Create a new folder:

$ mkdir newsoftwarefolder

Go to that folder:

$ cd newsoftwarefolder

Install from subversion server:

$ svn co http://whateverthepathistotheversion/ . (you need the space period and the trailing slash)

You many be prompted to log in–if so login as anonymous with password. That’s it. Instead of downloading, extracting and uploading, you just transferred the files saving much time and effort. Proceed with the rest of the install (ie set up the database and run the browser installer). You can have a site up and running in less than 5 minutes.

The best part come next–future upgrades. If you want the new files of the same version, just navigate to the directory and type:

$ svn up

It then will upload any change files. If you want to upgrade to a newer version just navigate to the directory and type:

$svn sw http://whateverthepathistothenewversion/

Again, it will only update change files leaving your custom files, themes, and plugins alone.

The article linked at the top also outlines how to change an existing installation to a subversion installation. I have applied the same idea to software other than WordPress with great success.

Now this is not for the total novice, but if you are already upgrading software manually, as opposed to using a cpanel to do so, you are probably proficient enough to do this. You’ll save a lot of time and effort, freeing you to concentrate more on teaching!

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