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.