July 2008

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How many times have we heard the excuses and problems? My printer is out of ink. I couldn’t find my flash drive. The software at home/school are not compatible. All are common problems sharing work between home and school, and word processing is probably the bulk of work that is ferried between the two. Wouldn’t it be great to have a server based word processor that allowed students to work from anywhere with the Internet, plus allow them to save their files to the server?

Some would ask what about Google Docs? Yes, it meets the bill in many ways. It is server based and allows users to save to Google’s servers, and even share their work with other individuals. The problems with Google Docs are two fold–the terms of service and data ownership. To sign up for a Google account one needs to be of legal age to enter into a contract with Google. Furthermore, I don’t think it would be legal for a child under 13 to use Google Docs in the United States because of CIPA. The other concern is that the students’ data and personal information would reside on Google’s servers. If we tell students to use Google or almost any other hosted web application, we are telling them to hand over their data, usage patterns, browsing habits, etc. It is one thing to decide to do that as an adult, and quite another to tell our students to do so.

Adobe’s Buzzword is another option. The hosted variant has the same problems faced with Google Docs. There is a browser based alternative that can be embedded in a website as a widget. Students could use that without entering into an agreement with Adobe, but there is no way to save the document to a server. It must be saved to a local drive. That being said, it offers a great array of formats including test, rtf, pdf, open office, and Word.

Another product, AjaxWord, looked good until I discovered that it only worked with Internet Explorer 5 and 6. Their website was inactive when I began to look into the product and at this writing is not available. Drilling down deeper with a SourceForge Search, I found nothing but abandoned projects.

I’m a bit puzzled by the lack of development in this area. I certainly would be an important application for school and other settings. Hopefully, a reader can point me to something that I have missed. Perhaps in the future Google will release the code for Google Docs. In any case, I will continue search for this potentially “killer” app.

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Posh, the open source portal page resembling PageFlakes, comes with a few widgets in its default installation. A handful of other widgets can be found on the Portaneo website. In order to make this software as appealing and as functional as PageFlakes for student, class, or school use, it would be great to have more options. As I discovered there are well over 100,000 options. Google Gadgets and Netvibes Widgets can be implemented as widgets using Posh’s Advanced Widget Wizard.

There is a dizzying array of Google Gadgets and Netvibe Widgets: games, music, video, calendars, clocks, and more. Check them out yourself with the links above. Essentially, they provide little snippets of code that can be added to websites to feed the desired content.

The first step in making the widget is getting the code. First we will look at how to get the code for Google Gadgets. Go to Google’s gadget directory.Note that you can search widgets or browse categories.

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Click to enlarge

Once you have picked a gadget, click on the “Add to your webpage button.” Usually, you are then given options for customization. What needs to be configured depends upon the gadget. The default width for most is 320 px. That is a little too wide for the default 3 column layout, so you probably want to bump that number down a little. Sometimes you need to enter a little information into the code manually, but it is usually clear and simple.

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Click to enlarge

You many preview your customization or get code.

Simply copy that code onto your clipboard so that you can paste it into the Widget Wizard.

Now Let’s go and get some code for a Netvibes widget.

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Click to enlarge

Find the widget of your dreams and click on it:

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Click to enlarge

You may or may not have configuration options. In this case there are none. To get the code. click on the share button. Grab the text of the code and have it ready to paste into the Widget Wizard.

Now that you have your code, log in as admin on your Posh installation. Click on Widgets Management.

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Click Create a new widget.

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The click Add your advanced widget to get this page:

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Simply paste your code to replace the highlighted text on the page above. Click the test button to make sure it works. If you are successful, click add. (Note, there are links to widgets on the page with an alternative procedure which I found confusing). You will be prompted through the next few pages to name and customize the widget somewhat, and you are done. Your new widget will now appear on the list of options. To make things even more interesting, users can do the same, but their submitted widgets must be approved by an administrator.

Posh certainly caught my attention as a slick open source alternative to hosted solutions. I believe it could be very useful as a student or classroom portal. Now that I discovered a nearly unlimited source of widgets. it is more appealing yet and will undergo more exploration. The widget wizard is a nice implementation that may well be suited to other server side applications. Posh appears to be an open source receptacle for open standard APIs.

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There was a request for an online organizer for a special needs student through which assignments and schedules can be managed. It also needs to allow input or interaction by the student’s resource teacher. PageFlakes came to mind with its slick flexible interface complete with calendars, to-do lists, and rss feeds. The interface would be motivating and the students ability to customize would engender ownership. The problem is the Terms of Service requiring that users be over 13.

I had to search for quite awhile before finding anything that meets these needs. I finally encountered Posh, an open source AJAX powered web portal created by Portaneo. Posh installs through the standard download, unpack, upload routine and is attached to a mySQL database through the web installer. I found the SVN in the repository, but it did not appear to be up to date. Installation went fine, although a whole bunch of cryptic errors were thrown when it created the database. I went on anyway and all appears to work fine.

The administrative interface seemed fine, although the French language appears here and there where they missed translating one thing or another. More on administration in a future post.

Posh comes with a default page view that displays all the default widgets (The original clock displayed in French, I had to hack in the English):

Each of the widgets can be moved by dragging and dropping them to various position of the page falling (by default into 3 columns. Mousing over the header bar of each widget brings up options to configure, refresh, or delete the widget. Starting in the upper left column is the Bookmark widget. Click on Add a Bookmark and you get this:

Type in a name, url, and tags, then click add.

Note the pop down menu that lets you find bookmarks by keyword tags. Very handy if you have many bookmarks!

The next notable widget is the calendar–which goes further in that it is more of a planner/scheduler. Click Add Event:

Give your event a title and add a comment if desired. Dates and time can be set simply. Once added, dates on the calendar with events show in gray. Mouse over the date and the event and time appear. Pretty handy for managing long terms assignments or marking dates of tests, etc.

In the middle column, there is a basic notepad, a decent calculator, and a widget to check your pop email account. I didn’t get the email working, but I didn’t try too hard because I am not really looking for that functionality.

The final column of the default layout includes a To-do list that allows one to enter events and a comment. Mouse over the event and you see the comment. It would be nice if the list linked in some way with the calendar.

The is also an analogue clock and a reasonably functional Contact list.

On  the menu bar to the upper right side of the page is an option to “Add Widget.” Click on that and the following box appears on the left side of the page:

As you can see there are options to add widgets from the library, and most importantly to add rss feeds as widgets. Just type in the rul for the feed and click go. It checks for the feed and if successful it offers to add it to the page (click to enlarge):

Once you tell it to add the widget, it appears on the page. Of course, you can drag and drop it where ever you like.

Click on an article and a beautiful rss reader appear on the page (click to enlarge):

It includes options to view in the reader or in a new window.

There are also more widgets on the portaneo site including Weather, Google Search, gmail, an English/French translator, and more.

There is also an enterprise edition of this software. It attempts to be a sort of intranet social platform. While I haven’t fully explored this variant, I do like the notebook feature which allows a user to keep notes or snippets of web pages on a separate window. I could see this useful for online research couple with the bookmarks and feeds.

Overall, I think Posh will meet our needs. It is a little rough around the edges with French appearing in the English version, a few quirks to the interface, and a few items that don’t yet work as they should. Nonetheless, I will be taking a deeper look into this in the future. I have a feeling this could be very useful in an educational setting.

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If you are reading this, you are probably already aware of and excited by the possibilities of Web 2.0 in education. You are probably already sold. But what about the people in our K-12 community: other teachers, administrators, parents, tech committees, and school boards? Mention social networking on the Internet, and they think of is the latest scandalous material that any one of out local teens has posted on MySpace. Blogs are places where people post outrageous materials followed by flame wars in the comments.

Web 2.0 enthusiasts in K-12 settings are often faced with a tough sell. Community members are rightfully concerned about safety and security. Like it or not, we must address these fears and understand that what we do must be in accordance to what is acceptable in the community–like it or not.

First, we need to let them know why this important and valuable. Whether they like it or not, Web 2.0 will be, if it isn’t already part of the children’s lives. My fifth grade student told me that her older sister set up a MySpace page for her. I know her sister, and I’ve heard about her antics on MySpace: very inappropriate, if not dangerous materials and cyberbullying. I guarantee that my fifth grader was not told about safety, privacy, and what is appropriate to post online.

That’s our job. When I was in school, we actually had lessons on safety and etiquette on the telephone. We talk about fire and bicycle safety as a matter of state mandate. It is more dangerous to ignore and avoid Web 2.0 than it is to teach about it and apply it in a safe educational manner.

Furthermore, higher education and many employers expect a certain level of expertise among our students. A few months ago, a recent graduate told me her professor told them to make a webpage as part of the course. When the students protested that they didn’t know how, he told them to find out. More courses are on-line or have on-line components. Students need to know how to blog, collaborate on a wiki, and participate on a discussion forum. It goes without saying that any technological knowledge opens doors to employment opportunities.

One approach I have used to help reassure stakeholders regarding student safety is the use of moderation. In our school website and student blogs, nothing appears on the wide open Internet until it is approved and published by a responsible adult. The litmus test for any web application used to publish to the Internet at large is that it must have a moderation mechanism allowing somebody to act as a gatekeeper. What is allowed to be published must meet the standards of the school community. I’ll talk about that more in a future blog post.

Another approach is a “walled garden” in which access to any materials is password protected. Students may publish freely within this closed community, but are held to account by adults overseeing the site. Students must know the rules and expectations. Adults need to be vigilant, intervene, and remediate when something unacceptable is posted. Students might do something wrong, but education and discussion will minimize such occurrences. One advantage to using a web application for this is that there is greater accountability. You can tell who posted what and when, rather than a “he said, she said” scenario common to physical schools.

For greatest safety, one can combine the moderation with a walled community. Nothing is posted without approval, and that which is posted is has an audience limited to the class or some other appropriate limited audience.

These measures often require you to host and configure software in your own district. Odds are you will not find free hosted solutions that meet these requirements (not to mention the privacy concerns of handing student information off to third parties).

These restrictions may fly in the face of the wide open nature of new Internet, but compromise is sometimes necessary if it is going to play in your school community.

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One important element in Elgg 1.0′s core is Sharing Bookmarks. Shares are Elgg’s social bookmarks. We’ll examine these features along with some screen shots, and discuss features not yet implemented.

Shares, or social bookmarks, is a way to share web resources with with individuals or groups within elgg. When you click on “Sharing” “Bookmarks”on the “Your Tools” menu in the left sidebar you get the following.

Elgg Sharing Menu

Elgg Sharing Menu

A user is presented with the option of creating a share bookmark, viewing share bookmark sent to him, viewing friends’ shares bookmark, or all that has been shared with the whole site. When the developers have more group capabilities in place, there may be more options on the menu. Clicking on “Share Bookmark this” reveals this page.

Elgg Share This Page

Elgg Share This Page (Click to enlarge)

This pages allows you to enter a title, url, and a description of the resource. It also gives you check boxes allowing you to share it with any (or as many) of your friends. Further, you can make it public, private, or available to logged in users. I would expect to see more options once the developers introduce “groups” into Elgg.

The other options under sharing include views of Items shared with you (Shares Bookmarks Inbox), shared by friends (Friends’ Shares Bookmarks), and all the shares you have access to on the site (All site shares bookmarks). They appear much the same otherwise.

List View of Elgg Shares

List View of Elgg Shares (Click to enlarge)

The screen capture above show the list view. It can also be toggled to a gallery view. Note the navigation tabs above the shares bookmarks. Of particular interest is the option to “Get Bookmarket.”

Ellg Bookmarklet

Elgg Bookmarklet (Click to enlarge)

By dragging the bookmarket (Highlighted in red), to one’s browser link bar provides a quick link to the “Share Bookmark this” page illustrated earlier. When you are visiting a resource that you wish to share, simply click on the bookmarket and it will grab the site’s url and bring you to the “Share Bookmark this” page.

Clicking on any individual Share Bookmark brings up the description, any comments that other users have made, and the opportunity to make a comment on the resource. There is also a convenient button to visit the resource.

In the works, as I understand, is a plugin that allows some form of rating. One thing I’d like to see is a small preview of the web resource on the share bookmark page like seen in some other social bookmarking apps.

Overall, as it stands, this is a fine resource that part of the core Elgg 1.0. Another feature that makes us all the more eager for its release!

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