education

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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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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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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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Find the widget of your dreams and click on it:

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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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“What would happen if there was no public education?” asked Will Richardson of Clay Shirky in a video interview. (Transcripts available here)

Beyond technology, there would a a huge child care crisis.

I spoke with a motivational speaker that came to our school to present to teachers in our part of a sparsely populated county. I mentioned how technology might replace our physical schools in the future–especially the remotely located schools like ours.

He immediately replied that it wouldn’t happen because of the child care aspect–especially in grades K-8. An interesting thought regarding the future of public schools.

If technology took the place of physical schools, who would be with the children?

Can the functions of child care and education be separated? Should they be separated? Could one imagine a school with para-professionals managing the physical children while geographically independent teachers work with learners online? Teachers certainly need to become fluent in the technology to survive as a profession whether they are physically or virtually present.

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Having installed Pligg, I’ve had an opportunity to give it a trial run as a user. Pligg is an open source social bookmarking application that imitates Digg. Users are able to submit stories or links to share with others with tags and descriptions. Submissions are approved by an admin, then users can vote or comment on the link.

The interface is well designed and doesn’t have a clunky feel that some software can have. There are a number of free and for-pay templates which are installed via ftp. Further customization usually involves editing files with a text editor–adding deleting or commenting out text.

There is some interesting user interactivity built in. As mentioned before, users can vote on a submission. The admin can choose either a “Digg” rating or a 5 star ranking system. It supports tagging.  Ratings impact the order stories are displayed. In addition, an individual item can be commented upon and even discussed. Users can list other users as friends and friends can message each other

I believe this has a number of uses for education. If nothing else, it is an attractive way to manage and display links. The interactivity is easy to grasp and would encourage participation. Users share, discuss, and evaluate links. I could see it used by an individual class, school, or by a larger audience.

To make this work for my district, I would have to make a number of changes. First, registration would need to be disabled. As configured, anyone can create an account. While there is moderation of content, pending stories are displayed in “Upcoming Stories” found in many locations in the interface. We would need to disable the display of content before approved. Since comments couldn’t be moderated, we would need to disable that as well.

Finding help with Pligg is reasonable. There is a good forum, but documentation was uneven and confusing. I wanted to find if I could make the changes outlined above. Using the forum search generally good leads. I have been able to make most of the modifications with educated trial-and-error.

I look forward to experimenting with Pligg at school next year. While the full interactivity would be limited, I believe it will help my students learn to navigate Web 2.0 applications. I will share the modifications when I have double checked them.

Here’s a link to an unmodified installation:

pligg2

And my modified Pligg:

pligg

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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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As I have begun to immerse myself in Web 2.0 for education, I have been struck by the prevalence of using “free” hosted services such as Flickr, YouTube, Ning, and other such sites. I don’t have anything against them for individual use, but I do have concerns about using such services with students–particularly elementary grade students. I feel that many Web 2.0 evangelists have overlooked open source alternatives. I prefer to run my own web based open source software on rented server space for a variety of reasons.

First off, it gives a great deal of independence. If you want to try a particular piece of server based open source software, you can. If you find something that looks promising or interesting, you can pretty much install it immediately and give it a run. I heard about Elgg, so I installed it. I ran into an educational distribution for Drupal and had it up and running within the hour. Prologue appears promising as a private Twitter and I have it going in a few minutes.

It also avoids issues with “free” hosted web services. First of all, we can host content without the issues involving other, often inappropriate, content on the same site. I run our sites without advertising. I don’t have to deal with as many concerns about privacy. Students can get accounts on the site without revealing personal information and details. Furthermore, nobody is monitoring the browsing habits and creating demographic data and profiles of individuals using the sites we created.

Using open source web based solutions can be as simple or as complex as one decides to make it. Many programs can be installed by absolute novices using a control panel that performs the process with a few mouse clicks and keyboard strokes–no more difficult than signing up for a free blog. A simple WordPress blog is very easy to administer–not very different from administrating a hosted blog. As one gains skill and confidence, the options and possibilities grow exponentially.

It also has, at our school, removed obstacles and opened opportunities. If an educator at our school wants to try something, it simply has to pass muster with the tech committee. As long as it is technologically feasible, it can be done without running the gauntlet of BOCES hierarchy and technicians. As an example, one local school wanted to host video through their BOCES run website. BOCES told them that they couldn’t possibly do it because it required too much of their servers and pointed them to YouTube! Our school published video directly on our website with no issues.

Another reason for using rented hosting and open source software is cost. The software is free, although plugins and templates can cost money (many are free). Our school started its website on a $10 per month shared hosting plan. We never came close taxing our server resources to limits. BOCES would have charged us thousands of dollars each year.

There is the investment of time learning how to use, configure, customize, and administer the software. As mentioned above–it can range from simple and undemanding to complex and challenging. In addition, you can pay a little more for a webhost that will take care of some of the set and configuration for you.

Using open source software has been an empowering learning experience. I had very few IT skills other than having hacked together a third rate static html webpage and ftp’ed it up. That was several years ago and I had long since forgotten it all. Once I made the plunge with a cheap shared host account, I immediately discovered the ease of setting up websites through the control panel. Within a few days I had several domains registered, and a few sites launched. As time has gone on, I have continued learning and expanding. I like learning and I have found this rewarding.

I believe there are compelling reasons to consider open source web 2.0 software on private servers. It has been a wise investment for our school and has opened many possibilities. It has been a source of growth and development for students, staff, and teachers alike.

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