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I recently joined Steve Hargadon’s K-12 Open Source Community Ning site. After clicking through resources, related pages, and links, I made the following post on the site:

Okay. We have an open source community on Ning. I go to to the wiki and it is Wikispaces. I click on resources and I am delivered to Google sites.

It seems to me that Open Source fails to meet the needs of its own proponents. Or do we have different definitions?

This is an honest question. Discussion?

Needless to say, this provoked a number of responses—20 in less than twenty four hours—most very thoughtful and well reasoned. It has led to a discussion ranging from school cultures to the definition of open source.

My latest (probably not my last point) was this:

My concern is that people may not even be considering open source for their web based solutions–even ones that are easy to use. I am also concerned that too many of us (myself included) blithely check off the Terms of Service without considering the ramifications.

I also believe we need to think long and hard before sending our students off to the free hosted solutions. I think we need to be concerned with data ownership and privacy. I question whether we, as teachers and schools, have the right to tell students to use these tools as part of school assignments. In essence, we are ordering them to surrender personal information.

If any are interested in server-side open source tools, I’ll be glad to help. I also encourage everyone to give them a shot by renting some inexpensive shared server space and give these great tools a try. Once you have your account, some of the options can even be easier to deploy than you have ever imagined.

No, I am not a purist like Richard Stallman, or even close, but I ask that people take a look (as you clearly have) at the open source alternatives.

I invite you to weigh in on this conversation here or on the Ning site.

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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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I just installed Elgg, the open source social networking platform, on our school’s shared server space. I really cannot speak to the feature set as of yet. This pertains to the nuts and bolts of installing, configuring, and customizing the site.

To begin with, automatic installation is not available through cpanel/fantastico, so a manual installation is required. This is no big deal. One begins by creating a mySQL database for Elgg on the server. Next, you need to download the software and unzip on your computer. Next, upload the Elgg folder to your server via ftp and change the permissions on a file and a directory. Point your browser to the Elgg directory and the installer appears. Fill in your database settings, passwords and email information.

With luck, you’ll have no errors and you can get to the configuration page. That wasn’t the case for me because the school web site is on a server with register_globals on. Once that was rectified, I was able to access the configuration.

I installed version 0.9 RC2, so there were a few bugs to be ironed out. It wasn’t any real big deal, but sticking to version 0.8.2 would make things simpler. That being said, most RC2 releases have been more reliable in my experience.

The configuration pages allows you to name the site and change the tagline among other settings. Of particular interest for use by schools are settings to allow or disallow public registration and invitations. Additionally, the setting Walled Garden allows you to restrict access to outsiders. You can also set it to force log-in to make comments.

If you want to customize the theme, you have a couple of options. First, you can upload a theme to the server and over-write the default theme. You can also access the theme files through “default template editor” to edit the page shell and css. This requires willingness and ability to work with some code.

The front page content is edited using the “frontpage template editor” which also involves playing with some basic html code. You don’t have to be an expert, but having a knowledge of html and css is certainly helpful. Alternatively a handy code reference book should give you enough guidance to make the modifications.

Overall, the installation and configuration is more difficult than many other scripts, in which switching themes involves a click of a button and front page content can be edited with a wysiwyg editor. It certainly is much more difficult to set up than a ning site. Support and documentation on the elgg.org site are also somewhat sparse. I wouldn’t recommend elgg to someone new to setting up websites using open source software. On the other hand, if you have some experience and are not averse to some basic troubleshooting, it’s worth a look.

The ability to install the software on our own server offers compelling reasons to look further into elgg. I’ll explore the software features in the near future and posting more information here.

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Fall 2006, we launched our new school website wellscsd.com using the Content Management System Joomla as the cornerstone. I had spent the summer trudging through the ins and outs of its configuration and customization. As with any new project I was excited and energized pouring endless hours adding content once school started. I wanted to show everyone the great things that could be done through the school website hoping others would be inspired to contribute to the site.

The site was popular with the school and community and the number visits grew steadily. That inspired me to keep adding content and learn how to work multimedia into the site. I started adding video clips, slide shows, and podcasts. The hours dedicated to this work kept growing to the point that by the end of last year I was getting burned out.

I kept looking for help and got it sporadically. Unfortunately, I started to feel as welcome as a telemarketer as I hounded people–students, administrators, and faculty–to participate. The kind person that updated the lunch menu was the only exception. As a result, the multimedia diminished and articles were not as fresh often 2-3 weeks between updates with the exception of the lunch menu and automatic feeds from NOAA.

A summer vacation provided time away from school and the website (but certainly not time off). I came back with more energy, but it soon fizzled, especially as I directed my efforts toward my NYSCATE presentation on school websites. I got bored with the tedious entry of information and working with images. Even though a few individuals were submitting articles through the website, they always needed some sort of reworking. Things were really falling apart.

The day before my presentation at NYSCATE, I returned to the school website and saw that even the lunch menu items were missing. I logged in and reformatted and published a few articles in queue and decided to call the school the next morning to get the menu so I could put it in in time for the presentation. I woke up and checked in the next morning and found that the menu had been posted–a sign that things were changing.

When I got back, our superintendent called me into his office. He noticed the lack of content on the site and he understood that the burden was too much for any one person to bear. He set forth and has since implemented several proposals for keeping the site fresh. After this struggle for over 15 months to keep up the site, it took my failure due to a confluence of events to drive home the point that no one can do this alone.

Now the BOCES PR writer hired by the school has been trained to add content directly to the site. Office staff has been assigned specific roles such as entering school menu items, sports schedules, and event calendars. Time has been allocated for some staff training on our next professional development day.

This has freed me to explore some of the great ideas I found at NYSCATE. We are going to set up a parallel site wellscsd.com 2.0 dedicated to student work–writing, photography, artwork, podcasts, and video. We are also going to explore social networking platforms elgg and ning soon. In addition, we will set up wordpress mu, so that students can build their own blogs (or websites as they prefer to call them).

I wonder what I could have done differently to achieve this outcome. I still want to see more students and faculty to participate. Hopefully as we implement and demonstrate web 2.0 technologies they will see the value. I remain hopeful.

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NYSCATE created a social networking space on Ning for the 2007 conference. About 140 conference attendees have signed up and there has been some discussion of the conference and educational technology.

I did a little poking around the Ning site in general and I have found some other social networks that I have since joined. The first was Ning in Education. Ning in Education is a network dedicated to issues pertaining to using ning for educational applications. Issues such as Ning configuration, safety and privacy. It also appears to serve as a conduit for educators to express their concerns and needs to the folks that run Ning. A case in point, is that through the efforts of participants in the network, Ning will take the ads off Ning communities that serve grades 7-12. There are COPPA issues that they are working to resolve for students under 13. Ning in Education also pointed toward other great educational resources on Ning.

Classroom 2.0 is a very active community with over 4000 members. There’s really a lot of good information from other educators integrating technology in education–Web 2.o Technologies in particular. I recommend that you join this particular network.

I also set up a Ning social network so that I could get a sense of what can be done with the administrative controls. I was looking for reassurances that would help placate the fears of our tech committee. I discovered that you could make the site visible only to members and that membership could be on an invite only basis. Furthermore, it permits you to moderate and approve video and image uploads before they are displayed (although not text postings). Finally, as mentioned above, there is a procedure for getting rid of the advertising on school networks.

I will continue to explore the social networks on Ning, examples of school uses of Ning, and the ins and outs of administrating such a site. I will also be installing the open-source alternative Elgg soon and blogging on that soon too.

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