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My fifth grade class will begin blogging next week. Once our New York State English Language Arts Tests are over on Wednesday, we will focus on real learning as opposed to test prep. I’m pretty satisfied that I have WordPress MU figured out well enough to get going.

We will start with a class blog in which I am the administrator and the students are authors. I will set it up so it is viewable by the the public, but only blog members (my students and I) can comment and they will be moderated. We’ll start by working together on the “look” of the site by choosing a template, customizing it, and placing the widgets. I will model creating and commenting on a post.

We’ll start by asking the students to reflect on the NYS ELA test that they just took. After that, I’ll have them respond to a book that I am reading to them: Running Out of Time.

They are excited as am I. Once we have it up and running, I’ll post a link.

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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 returned from the NYSCATE 2007 Conference reinvigorated with fresh ideas as to where to take my class and our school in terms of education and technology. I felt ready to renew my efforts to incorporate podcasting and wikis with my students. I had done some work with both of these in limited, halting ways in the past. Yet there are a couple new areas that we have not ventured into: student blogging and use of “social networking” such as found in Ning and the open source Elgg. This required a sign off by the tech committee, so I called for a meeting.

We convened last Tuesday after school. The committee was interested in the Smart Board technology, the on-line AIS (Academic Intervention Services for children failing or at risk of failing state tests) possibilities. The tone changed when I started discussing students creating content for the Internet.

I started by saying that my fifth grade students really wanted to create websites and that I thought blogs would be the way to go. The mere mention of blog made several in the room cringe. They chimed in with the usual objections:

  • What if they create inappropriate content?
  • What if they post personal information?
  • There are bad people out there…

I assured them that we can install WordPress MU (Multiple User) and it could be configured so that a teacher would have to approve content before it is published. This helped quiet some fears, but they still wanted to keep the blogs password protected so that only select individuals could view the blogs.

I protested that one of the most important motivations to a writer is a sense of audience and that cutting off access would defeat the purpose of this exercise. Furthermore, I wanted to enable comments so that students could see the reactions of their audience and interact with readers. Again, the same objections were raised. I asked that if the comments too could be moderated by a teacher would it be acceptable. I got grudging skeptical acceptance with the qualification of “Don’t expect me to have any part of this.” I continued saying that we already allow students to submit material to our school website that is published upon administrative approval.

Fortunately, our school superintendent was supportive and felt that with these precautions in place that this would be a great idea. He was able to see the power of ownership and audience that this would provide for the students.

So, over the next few weeks, I will be setting up WordPressMU on our hosted web account, learning the ins and outs of users, permissions, and administration. My next obstacle may be parents to whom I plan to send a very carefully crafted letter. I fear that a few may object. I guess I can offer to password protect the directory in which their child’s blog resides.

Of course, my next proposal–social networking software drew even more objections and fears–some that I had more difficulty answering. I’ll discuss that portion of our tech committee meeting in an upcoming blog.

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NYSCATE 2007

I enjoyed this year’s NYSCATE (New York State Association for Computers and Technologies in Education) Conference last week. It was great to hear and see what other educators are doing with technology. For me, the highlight was presenting.

My presentation was on using open source server software and commercial web hosting to create educational websites. I had never presented before and I was a little stressed, but I feel that it went well and I had the feeling that several attendees walked out with information that they would be using at their schools.

Those interested in more information about the presentation can visit the Jumpstart course on this site where you will find a Quicktime Movie of the presentation, the handouts in pdf form, as well as links to some of the resources I referred to (a work in progress). There are also a few discussion forums that I hope will draw participants whether or not they attended the presentation.

I also particularly enjoyed Will Richardson and Gary Stager. I saw part of their final keynote discussion and saw the rest via podcast. I also attended one of the one hour session presented by Gary. I have to say that I now feel rather inadequate in terms of my integration and use of technology in education. I have to hand it to both Will and Gary for their discussions and their willingness to get up close and conversational in their one hour sessions. Unfortunately, I could not attend Will’s as I was presenting at the same time.

I’m going to work in earnest to incorporate some of the new ideas into my life and instruction, as well as redouble my efforts to implement things that I have done already more frequently. I just installed a WordPress Blog on this site and will be customizing it and adding technorati and digg style tags to the site as soon as I get my head around the concepts.

I look forward to future such gatherings and plan to present again, and perhaps expand upon what I have done in the Jumpstart session. I also might go to the Hudson Valley Conference this March in Hoosick Falls.

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