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A few clouds darkened on the Internet late last week. According to Cnet, Pageflakes and Revver abruptly went off line Thursday followed by Magnolia on Friday. PageFlakes is an ajax widget based personal portal and Revver is a video sharing site. Both are owned by Liveuniverse. Magnolia is a social bookmarking site.

On Friday, Liveuniverse claimed that the outage was due to a server migration and that they would be back online within a few hours. A few hours turned into several days with Pageflakes finally returning to service on Monday morning. Liveuniverse’s story is difficult to believe. First, if one is anticipating a server migration, then one should warn users ahead of time, or at least publish some sort of explanation while it is down. Liveuniverse did none of that.

Magnolia offered the explanation that they had experienced a severe database failure, and it would be some time before they were back up and that they were unsure how much would be recovered.

Clearly, both sites are on the ropes. Liveuniverse’s mistakes are outlined in Phil Bradley’s blog. A series of outages has users fleeing Pageflakes. Magnolia clearly did not have an adequate backup plan in place something essential to any cloud computing platform.

This gets back to the point of one of my earlier blog posts on cloud solutions. You cannot rely upon them with your content as has been clearly demonstrated by recent events.

What can you do? The first thing I would do as a Pageflakes user is get your stuff off this site while you still have a chance. I guess you could recreate your portal be placing your widgets, links, and feeds to another site such as iGoogle or NetVibes, but who is to say they may not abruptly pull up stakes?

I have another suggestion—do it yourself. Spring for cheap webhosting that does backups. It costs little, is easy to do, puts you in control. Portaneo, a French firm offers Posh, a free open source ajax based web portal. As a Magnolia replacement, consider Pligg a social boomarking platform, again free and open source.

For schools, these failures coupled with privacy issues should be enough to convince educators of the folly of free cloud computing solutions. Low cost, easy to deploy solutions are out there. They are not absolutely free, but neither are the clouds. The cost is the risk of content and loss of privacy.

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Social bookmarking tools allow users to store and share bookmarks on the Internet so that they are accessible from any computer connected to the net. There are a number of popular free commercial social bookmarking sites including del.icio.us, Furl, Digg, Stumbleupon, and others. Of course, my emphasis has been upon open source alternatives to these sites so that students are not exposed to inappropriate content, advertising, and analysis of browsing habits. Of the tools that I have covered extensively on this site, Pligg, Elgg, and Posh have social bookmarking capabilities.

Potential Uses for Social Bookmarking in Education

Students and educators can benefit from the use of social bookmarking. Teachers could create a bookmark category for an individual class. Rather than passing out paper with links, students would be referred to the bookmarks residing on the bookmarking site for easy access by clicking links. Taking this concept yet further, a teacher could allow students to submit bookmarks for sites that they find useful and pertinent to the class.

Collaborative groups could share an account, or create a unique tag so that all members could have access to what the others have bookmarked.

Individuals conducting research could simply use social bookmarking to keep track of useful sites. This will allow the individual to access his bookmarks regardless of location or what computer he is using.

Bookmarking with Pligg

Pligg is a free and open source application designed to function similarly to the commercial social bookmarking service DIgg. Unlike many other options, social bookmarking is central to Pligg’s functionality. It is fully functional social bookmarking software with means of submitting bookmarks with descriptions and tags. It also provides ratings in which, depending on the template, users can rate a bookmark Digg-style with a thumbs up or thumbs down, or with a star rating system.

Here’s a step by step look at how bookmarks are submitted in Pligg. Navigating to the site, once users log in they are given the option of submitting a new “story.”

Once  the user clicks the tab, they will see a page similar to the one below.

From this point, the user needs to pste the url into the field. Note the guidelines to submitting quality bookmarks.You may alter these messages and indeed add more by going into the the admin interface, selecting Modigy Language and change these fields:

An educator who is grading students’ bookmarks might alter this to provide clear criteria by which they will be evaluated. The next step prompts the user to describe, tag, and categorize the bookmark.

Once this is completed, it enters the administrator’s queue to be approved. Once it appears and depending upon how Pligg is configured, the bookmark can be rated. It also can be commented upon, however admins may want to remove that option as the comments cannot be moderated.

Bookmarking with Elgg

Unlike Pligg, Elgg is not specifically a bookmarking application. Rather it is a social networking platform that can include bookmarking if the extension is installed and enabled. In Elgg, there is a different set of options. You can view your own bookmark collection, those of friends and site bookmarks.

Unlike Pligg, bookmark urls cannot be copied and pasted into a field, rather they are handled via a “bookmarklet.” The bookmarklet icon is dragged to the browser’s link bar.

Once you click the bookmarklet, it grabs the Page title and url and sends you to the Elgg site to complete the bookmarking process.

The bookmark can be described, tagged, and sent to any friends’ bookmark inbox. You can also set the access to public, private, or to logged in users.

Once the bookmark is submitted, other users can comment upon the bookmark.

Bookmarking in Posh

While Posh has bookmarks, their functionality is quite limited.

Click on add a bookmark, and you are give a field for the title, the url, and tags.

Evaluating Student Bookmarks

Teachers may require bookmarks as part of a student’s participation in class. One simple way of doing this would require students to submit a certain number of sites. While this is a reasonable requirement, a good evaluation would consider the quality of the bookmark and the resource it references.The bookmark could be rated in part by the quality of the description according to clear criteria (which can be explicitely stated in the software with Pligg). These might include:

  • Evaluation of site’s authority
  • Good summary of the site’s content
  • Valid and rich use of tags
  • Appropriate categorization
  • Ratings and comments from peers

Conclusion

Social Bookmarking has clear value in education. While self hosted solutions lack the potential for world-wide collaboration that the big commercial sites have, they certainly allow for collaboration with a group, class, or school. The open source options will protect privacy and avoid inappropriate content, and they are more likely to pass muster with afdministration and community.

Of these tools, Pligg stands out as the best because of it’s rich feature set devoted to social bookmarking. Elgg, on the other hand has privacy settings and sharing functions that Pligg lacks and comes as part of a broader social networking platform. Both are suitable for use in the K12 setting. Posh, while useful, is rather limited; thus, a convenience, yet a less valuable social bookmarking tool.

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On Tuesday, November 25, I presented Open Source Web 2.0 Applications at the New York State Association for Computers and Technology in Education (NYSCATE). I was very excited to share some of what I have learned in the past year regarding web based applications such as WordPress, Elgg, Pligg, Posh, Gallery, and many others.

I was concerned about the timeslot–the last session on the last day of the conference. I was delighted to find the conference room nearly full when I began to present. I was also pleased to see a few people that attended my presentation last year.

You can hear the presentation Open Source Web 2.0.

Click through the presentation as you listen. (It will toggle between the first two slides until it has loaded. It’s a large file, so give it a minute.)

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Out of the box, the open source portal Posh has administrative controls that make it appropriate for use in a K-12 school setting. An administrator can set the portal so that one must be logged in to view content. In addition, it may be set up so that any feeds must be moderated. By default, visitors cannot register an account. An administrator must create any accounts.

To force a log in to view content, and administrator needs to go to the configuration tab, then select “General Settings.” Simply check the option Portaneo starts with: login screen as indicated below:

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Also of note on this page is the ability to use pseudonyms as opposed to email addresses. This is handy for teachers with students without email addresses.

By default, users can subscribe to any feed that they want. This may not be acceptable for a school setting. This is also easily changed. Again click the Configuration tab when logged in as an admin, then select “Personalize the users’ interface menus.” Simply uncheck “Users can add RSS feeds in their pages” and all feeds that students want to add must be submitted a widget and as such subject to administrative approval.

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As you can see, Posh is simple to secure for use in the K12 school setting. On another note, Posh 2.0 is due to be released this month. I look forward to further refinements to the user interface as well as new features. This tool is definitely appropriate for school use.

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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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