educational technology

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I have been on the Internet for many years now and I have noticed many changes. As a teacher I have watched resources that were once free become for pay. Now when I search for resources that are specifically geared to education, as often as not, I click on a link to find that the item is available by subscription only.

Having read Karen Kasimpaur’s blog post responding to my admittedly provocative post Is open source too difficult? I focused on the second part of her post referring to open content. Karen asserts that focusing on open content may be more important and more successful than a focus on open tools.

She envisions the open sharing of educational resources through digital technology. Open knowledge is a topic I am passionate about myself and one that I have explored in an entirely different domain—tie-dye.

Several years ago, my children enjoyed a tie-dye project at our town’s summer recreation program. I decided that it would be great fun to try to do this on our own. Naturally, I turned to the Internet to find virtually nothing. I also turned to a tie-dyer at a craft fair. I soon found out that tie-dyers are a tight-lipped group. Finally, I found a tie-dye discussion forum run by an individual who broke ranks with other tie-dyers producing a how-to video.

While this forum no longer exists, this release of knowledge and the collaborative forum opened the gates to knowledge that was not in the public domain. A desire to keep this knowledge in the public domain led to my first ventures in Web 2.0 (using open source software) when I created a new tie-dye forum and wiki. These venues now get considerable traffic and offer a great body of knowledge that was once unavailable or available only for pay. Everybody who visits these venues has become a better dyer because we bypassed the owners of the knowledge.

We educators need to do the same thing. Just as the tie-dyers became better by sharing, so too should teachers. Educators need collaborate and share high quality content as a means of bypassing the owners of knowledge—the textbook companies and other for pay content providers. This is a bottoms up model that can revolutionize education by working outside the educational bureaucracy.

Our new technologies and collaborative tools gives us the ability to draw from a global tool of talent  and build an informal community without an overarching power structure and investment of capital. We have the promise of improving education for everyone by making quality content universally available. We have the collaborative tools. This is our chance to make real change bypassing the painstakingly inert institutions that many of us find so frustrating.

Just as everyone can become a better tie-dyer because of the aforementioned resources, we can all become better educators by actively sharing any quality resources that we have created. This is definitely a tide that when unleashed can raise all boats.

More to come on this topic. What are your thoughts?

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New legislation passed unanimously by the US Senate and headed for the President’s desk mandates schools to provide instruction about safety on social networking sites. The language was appended to S.1492 bill Broadband Data Improvement. While the thrust of the bill is improving broadband Internet access to Americans, SubTitle A: Promoting a Safe Internet for Children includes :

(iii) as part of its Internet safety policy is educating minors about appropriate online behavior, including interacting with other individuals on social networking websites and in chat rooms and cyberbullying awareness and response.

What better way to teach them than to use social networking software in instruction, rather than lecture them about online perils? A closed environment monitored by teachers would give students real life practice in a safer environment. It would add relevance and authenticity to instruction. Discussion of appropriate online behavior prior to actually using social networking software would have a positive impact on student learning and is more likely to have a lasting effect on student online behavior. Mistakes would have lesser repercussions than on a site open to the world at large. They could be powerful teachable moments.

I plan to use this to bolster my case for the use of social networking software in our school. What impact do you think this may have on schools and their potential use of social software?

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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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I need to moderate all posts and comments for my students’ blogs. Out of the box, WPMU has a good system for taking care of comment moderation. Post moderation, while possible, is difficult to administer without a great little plugin.

To activate comment moderation you need to go to: Options –> Discussion. Under “Before a comment appears:” Check “An administrator must always approve the comment.” You can make your life easier and moderate posts via email links by checking both the “E-mail me whenever:” options. It works great–you are notified by email, through the dashboard, and the “Manage” tab that there are comments awaiting moderation.
As installed, you get no notifications of new posts. Instead one must go to the backend of each individual blog: Manage –> Posts. At the top, one must toggle status. If any are in queue for moderation, the option “Pending Review” Appears. Click the filter button and those pending review are listed. Click edit on each one to review and approve.

This is incredibly awkward and time consuming. No fewer than 8 clicks from navigating to a blog to approving a post. Initially, I couldn’t even distinguish those awaiting moderation and drafts. I honestly thought it was a bug.

Finally I found a great plugin: Peter’s Collaboration E-mails for WordPress. A new post submitted for review triggers an email with a link directly to the edit window of the post. Click the email. Click the link. Click publish. Done. No ferreting through blogs looking for new posts. It appears that most technical and administrative difficulties have been removed. At last–viable work-flow!

I’d love to discuss anyone else’s experiences using WPMU in a school setting for a technical or learning point of views. I haven’t found a place dedicated to WPMU and Education, so I set up an area on the Moodle portion of this site with a forum and a wiki dedicated to WPMU.

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