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I was satisfied with my trial of the open-source RSS reader Rnews. While it is not perfect, it has a very simple interface that was easy enough for my students learn. I installed the program on our school shared server space and set up accounts for them. Thursday, they started populating their account with feeds from their classmate’s blogs.

Rnews has a very simple, clean, no-nonsense user interface. It is not as cool as some might want it and it does not support themes. Changes of appearance can only be done by editing the css file. Students add feeds by clicking the blue plus sign on the upper right side (see below). There are a few other controls that are straight forward and students are unlikely to get themselves into trouble.

Screenshot of Rnew Reader

One problem with Rnews, is the lack of an administrative interface. To an extent, this program is so simple, there is little need for it. On the other hand, there is no way of monitoring the feeds to which the students have subscribed within the program. This can be worked around by examining the MySQL database through phpMyAdmin–which is fine if you have access. It works for me, although, it would be nice to be able to browse all accounts as an admin. Of course the lack of such features keeps this program nice and lean. Registration requires a secret pass phrase. Student must log in to their individual readers. There is no access without a log-in.

Students thought the RSS reader was very cool because they were able to see all the blog posts at once. After they logged into their readers, I modeled subscribing to feeds. Feed URLs must be typed in. Many students had errors with their first attempts, but soon became much more attentive to details and began typing more carefully. Since each feed required a url for the blog and one for the feed, students got plenty of practice with cutting and pasting shortcuts.

The kids see the utility of the RSS reader. They also like having their own personal account to manage. Between this and their blogs, they feel empowered. Students can publish and control a part of the web plus they can show their friends and parents. Next, I plan to give them some feeds beyond those of our class. I also plan on creating a class RSS reader using a more full featured platform. I hope to demonstrate the benefits of a class RSS reader to other teachers.

Rnews works fine–it gets the job done. I will continue searching for and testing other open source server side RSS aggregators for future applications. I look forward to seeing how this impacts my students.

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Now that the students have blogs, I think they will soon see the benefits of using rss readers. Instead of hunting through blogs that may or may not have new content, a rss reader could deliver any new content to the reader. Unfortunately, all the web based rss readers such as pageflakes and bloglines that I have encountered require a minimum age of 13 because of CIPA regulations.

Alternatively, local computer based readers would not be individualized. The only remaining option I can see is installing a server based rss reader that supports multiple accounts.

I’ve looked into a few possibilities for the open source community. Rnews looks like a good candidate because it has multiple users accounts allowing students to customize the feeds. It must be installed manually in that one must upload the files via ftp, create a database, and run an installer through a browser. The installation went smoothly, but I got a 500 error because of the .htaccess had a php override turning magic quotes off (not Kosher on my server). I tossed it out and all works fine. If I find there is an issue in the future, I’ll run a php.ini override.

The Interface is simple. It does not require an email address or any other personal information. Those wishing to register must type in a pass phrase to create an account. One issue is that it reports a permissions error even after I corrected it. Knowing that the permissions were correct, I hacked the error message oout of the file and it now looks fine.

There is plenty of research and testing to undergo before I settle on a solution. There is also the issue of how it will work with our school’s Internet filtering. Hopefully our filter will block the feeds coming in through the reader.

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I have had the blogs set up for my students for a bit over a week. While I posted a question for the students to respond to on my class blog, I have left them to their own devices for a little while.

Some have really taken to it. One student, Blue Butterfly, has made several posts and leads the pack in terms of writing posts. She has made 10 posts since we got started on January 10 (13 days–she has me beat!). She clearly has access to the Internet at home. She has submitted a journal entry based upon literature that she is reading. I noticed that her writing is somewhat different than it is with pencil and paper, and even different from what she does in word processing or on an AlphaSmart. She has reflected upon her experiences in and out of school. She has also discussed her good friend’s motto: “Be happy.”

Purple Monkey, while not as prolific, has three posts all reflecting on life at school. Purple Monkey is a very social individual and has channeled her energy more into comments on other students’ blogs. This included a remark chastising a classmate who still has “Hello World” at the top of his blog. Again, she is one with good access to the Internet.

There have been a few surprises. One student has unfettered access with multiple Internet connected computers in his home has only worked on his blog with the time given at school. I am puzzled because he is extremely enthused about having a web presence. How do I get him going?

There are others with limited access. Some have to compete for computer time with parents and older siblings. They have managed to make a few posts, yet tend to focus on comments. Many of these are the same students that struggle more with writing in general. Can blogging help them get past their reluctance to write? Obviously, it would be helpful if they had more time.

One student, without Internet at home composed a burst of comments when he was visiting his grandparents. He too is a reluctant writer. It was great to see him seize the opportunity to write–even though they were generally one sentence blurbs. You have to start somewhere.

I am trying to provide more access at school, but it is tough to work the time in when more state test loom in the future. I am trying to provide access to the 30% of my class with no Internet access. Perhaps we can create opportunities after school. I am going to offer a few minutes during recess after their lunch.

Overall, I am delighted with this blogging experiment. Students are writing more and are have a greater awareness of audience. On the other hand, it certainly has accented the inequalities in access to technology.

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My students and I are finding our way through WordPressMU (WPMU). I have worked through security, configuration, and administrative work flow. The kids post and comment. Now we focus more on learning.

Students customized their sites using themes, widgets, and blogroll. I set them to contributor so the posts would be moderated before appearing. Comments are also moderated. It was time consuming and awkward to trudge through each site to approve everything, so I set the blogs to email me any time new content is submitted. The email includes the message and handy administrative links to approve or delete. There is only one glitch–when a new post (as opposed to comment) is created, it is not put into a moderation cue, so I have to either have a contributor tell me when they have submitted content for review, or check through their drafts for content not posted. It appears to be a known issue and I hope to work through the hacks to make it work. I’d love to ask for a fix in the WPMU support forum, but unfortunately it is not a very friendly place and I suspect the response would be that I have no business using the software with my lack of PHP coding knowledge.

Most students have made a few posts. Now they use the blogroll links to visit each other and comment upon each others’ posts. It’s interesting to watch the interaction among the students. Our district superintendent asked for a login and replied to student posts.

Beyond that, I  will shifting my attention from the technology to the teaching aspects of using blogs with my students. Right now, I am watching an on–line community start to take shape among my students.

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My students began blogging today. As mentioned earlier, we are taking baby steps, but baby has taken several steps already. There were a few obstacles and unexpected little glitches, but went very well. The kids are incredibly excited.

To begin, I had to create an account for each child. As a security measure, registration was set so that users had to be created by an admin, rather than allowing anyone to create a login. Users must be created one by one–no big deal with my small class size. Unfortunately, WPMU requires a unique email address for each user. While a few children had email accounts, most did not. Others could use a parent’s email addresses. A surprising number had no access to the Internet at home. I ended up creating email accounts to receive the passwords that WordPress generated. Entering a class of 25 students would be a chore. I’m sure there is a way to do this through the SQL database, but that is beyond me at this point.

Once I dealt with this, all went fairly well. I guided them through the log in process on the class blog. Then we created profiles (after a long discussion of Internet safety), and changed their passwords to something secure, yet memorable. Next, I showed them how to comment upon a post that I had created. After they commented on two posts, we went on to the next step.

Since they caught on so quickly, I created a blog for each student. I had to give them admin access to their sites to allow them to customize them with templates and widgets. For the sake of security, I set the each blog’s privacy setting so that they only could be viewed by me and the individual student. Once done with customization, I will set their privileges to contributor, and open their sites to the world. With this setup. I will be the administrator for their sites and will moderate all posts and comments.

Overall, I think I have the security figured out and I am beginning to establish an administrative workflow. The kids feel empowered and energized. I also have one one of our high school teachers ready to do the same with one of his elective classes.

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