Social Networking

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I recently found another social networking server app through Twitter. As we know Ning recently changed its terms of service and is no longer offering free social networks. This sent a wave of panic throughout the educational technology community, accustomed to having “free” apps at their disposal. People immediately sought alternatives to Ning. Of course they wanted free hosted solutions in most cases in spite of having had the rug pulled out from under them. I contend that those who have not learned the lesson about relying on such solutions are doomed to repeat the same outcomes as any subsequent solution  runs in to similar problems keeping their business afloat while offering free services.

That aside, a new option I had not heard of before, wall.fm, came to my attention. I immediately went to the website and after a little digging around found that the site ran on software called Oxwall.

Oxwall seemed like a straight forward php/mySQL sort of a site, so I went through the server requirements and found that I had to add some functionality to my server. After a quick recompile of Apache, I set out to install it by uploading it, creating a database, then run the web installer. Installation seemed standard until I got to the point that it told it gave me a bit of code to paste directly into the config file (Delete the text already there–that’s not clear). No big deal, but it might put off some users. In the finale step you are invited to install some plugins.

These are the core plugins. There are a few more available on their site. Most are free, but a few cost $20. Like any new software, the offerings are lean. More on all this later.

Upon installation, one has a simple Oxwall site. An administrator has a Customize this page button which brings up a drag and drop widget management environment that allows you to move and customize each widget.

Without going into detail about each feature, the site is pretty bare bones. In the most extreme case, groups, the only functionality is a wall. To be fair, the developers say that more is coming. Other than that you have a simple blog with very basic formatting and the ability to insert an image. There is also tagging and rating. There is similar functionality in the video and link sharing areas. As it stands though, none of these plugins interact with each other. In other terms, you can’t, for example, embed a video in a blog post.

The administrative interface is attractive and has an important feature built in that Elgg’s and BuddyPress’s core installations lack: granular role and permissions control. Having started with a discussion forum as my first social server app, I have been puzzled by the lack of an ACL system in software such as Joomla, Elgg, and WordPress/BuddyPress. In Oxwall, an admin can create a role and assign any set of permissions to it. Users can then be assigned specific roles with specific permissions. This is particularly important for education sites.

One troubling omission from the basic package is a forum. A forum plugin can be purchased  for $20. I understand the developers’ need to make money, but omitting such a basic tool from the default set renders Oxwall of very little utility until someone ponies up the money.

Oxwall software is an alphabet soup of licensing. The core software is licensed under a CPAL “badgeware” license. This means that you must leave Oxwall links and labels on the site to use it unless you obtain permission to do otherwise. The paid plugins are release under a commercial Oxwall Store Commercial License (OSCL), while the free plugins are under a BSD license.

Those not wanting to install Oxwall on a server can create a free community on wall.fm sponsored by the developers. Like Ning, the developers are going to have to find a way to pay the bills. The question is–will it remain free?

Oxwall is extremely new and has been release in an immature state. It will be interesting to see if the developers foster an ecosystem that fosters a development of  plugins. Unlike other platforms, Oxwall appears to want to support developers by selling their plugins through the Oxwall Store. Indeed there are a number of features that appear to promote making money through Oxwall in the wall.fm sites by encouraging site creators to charge for site access.

Three out of nine wall.fm plugins are for monetizing wall.fm communities

While, I like what I see in the administrative interface–particularly the User/roles/permission system, I’m not sure that the commercial nature of this software will be well suited for educators on limited or non-existant resources. I certainly believe that a discussion forum is an essential part of any social network platform and should be part of the free basic installation. Charging for such an elementary feature leaves me skeptical about the direction of this project.

Is Oxwall a Ning replacement? Without a forum, the answer is a flat no. With a discussion forum–maybe, but I don’t think Ning ex-pats would be satisfied with it yet.

I’ll keep an eye on Oxwall, in spite of the commercial edge of this “open source” package. If I come to believe that it has a place in education, I may delve further into features on this blog. I’d love to hear your impressions of Oxwall and wall.fm.

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I recently created another BuddyPress test site and I am pleased with how much the procedure has been simplified. I blogged about the difficulty in the past, so it is only fair that I note vast improvements.

I never fully succeeded installing BP the first time I tried. It involved a long process of manually uploading a variety of files and opening them to edit the code in numerous places, then testing and adjusting. I was able to install BP itself, but I never quite got the forum component bbPress (then in Alpha) to work as it should. Trying again several months later (about a year ago), I succeeded and noted that it had been simplified to to a 13 step process still involving moving files and editing code.

Now BP can be installed entirely from WordPressMu and even plain WordPress entirely through the backend. There is no longer a need to use ftp at all or edit a single line of code. Simply install WP or WPMu then install BP through the plugin installer. One no longer must use ftp to manually move themes to the appropriate folder. Next activate one of the BP themes installed with the package through the Appearance menu. All that is left is activating bbPress by going to BuddyPress–>Forum Set up and basically turn it on.

BuddyPress is now installable to even those with few tech skills. Most shared hosting services with control panels have point and click WordPress installers. Now that WP and WPMu have merged, one could convert a standard installation to WPMu, but that still requires some mucking with code. If one needed the multi-blog functionality, it is probably easier to manually install WPMu than make the conversion. I’m sure that will change with time.

BuddyPress has joined Elgg as a viable replacement for proprietary solutions such as NING. I look forward to revisiting both and reporting my experiences.

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I just finished Day 2 at the NYSCATE Annual Conference in Rochester, NY. I had a great time presenting twice on topics that I am passionate about and enjoyed all our Keynote speakers. I’ve met some great folks and have had wonderful conversations.

Plan on an more active blog as I’ll be writing and reflecting more about the conference. Meanwhile, those interested in media, materials, resources, and links please click here, or hit the presentation tab above. Those who are interested in viewing an online edition of the NYSED State Tech Plan click here. This site allows you to comment on any portion of the document on a paragraph level. Please make constructive comments!

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While I attended the NYSCATE Leadership Summit last week for a variety of reasons, the main motivation was to hear the New York State Education Department’s (NYSED) presentation on their proposed state technology plan. Beyond the presentation there were roundtable discussions to provide input and feedback followed by an opportunity to ask questions.

When the opportunity to ask questions arrived, I raised my hand. I told the them that I hadn’t heard about the proposed tech plan through regular channels, rather through Twitter. Then came the question: Would they consider setting up an account and using Twitter?

The answer: We’ll have to check with our counsel.

Let’s juxtapose this with Goal Two of the Statewide Technology Plan:

Learners, teachers, and administrators are proficient in the use of technology for learning.

Proficiency is defined, in large measure, by standards for desired levels of skills, knowledge and performance. Proficiency encompasses such areas as social networks and internet safety.

Apparently, while NYSED wants students, teachers, and administrators to use social networks, they fear doing so themselves. They seem flummoxed by the same issues that technology pioneering districts and practitioners have been wrestling with for years. The message is that NYSED regards the very activities in which they wish us to engage as legally questionable.

Educators know that good leadership involves modeling the desired behaviors. NYSED knows that and should do the same. Using social networking tools shows that they understand them. They could model what they regard as best practices.

To succeed NYSED needs to help cut through the systemic fear and uncertainty that runs from practitioner to district to BOCES and beyond. Hesitation is the enemy of change and innovation. We need some degree of guidance in what are acceptable practices.

Twitter is a simple tool. It’s a good place to start. The US Department of Education, Centers for Disease Control, and President Obama tweet. NYSED needs to tweet too.

I plan on a number of posts on aspects of the NYS Tech Plan soon. I’m eager to hear comments.

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In honor of the release of BuddyPress 1.0, I trashed my previous installation and created a new one from scratch. The new version of BuddyPress requires WordPressMu 2.7.1 and bbPress 1.0 alpha. The process, while simplified, is still out of the reach of many who are accustomed to the standard, upload, create database, and browser based installation.

It process begins with a standard installation of WPMu. Once that is done, you can install the BuddyPress plugins through the backend: Plugins–>Install New. then activate the plugin. That’s not it though as the web based installer cannot place the BuddyPress themes in the correct directory. To do that, one needs to manually move the themes from the plugin directory to theme directory using ftp or a file manager, then activate the themes.

Integrating bbPress remains the hardest part although it too has been simplified to a 13 step process. You can ignore the warnings about salt this and that failing. Just follow the steps. Unlike my previous experiences trying to integrate bbPress, this all worked the first time through. It involves pasting a line of code into the config and moving a file from BuddyPress into bbpress.

Overall, this is a big step in the right direction. Now that the WPMu framework has been updated, I hope to see more progress with the project. There are a lot a capabilities under the hood that are not yet wired up, much as we saw with the initial release of Elgg. A real concern remains in that bbPress is still alpha. BuddyPress needs a solid stable forum.

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