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I have had several requests for the Higherwalls plugin with out the walled garden functionality. I decided to make the plugin with two flavors.

The original version also overrode the owner’s block so that the links to create RSS and OpenDD feeds were deleted. I created another version that retains the ability to click on the links to get the feeds.

Again, to totally disable the feeds, you will need to go to your elgg/views folder and delete the rss and opendd folders.

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Some early users were disappointed by the lack of features upon Elgg 1.0′s release. What they didn’t realize is that the new Elgg was designed as an extensible core engine to drive plugins and interact with other social platforms. Elgg 1.0 developers are starting to release plugins that extend the basic Elgg 1.0. What has started as a trickle appears to be picking up momentum. There are already many great plugins.

As mentioned earlier, the full version of Elgg 1.0 includes a spartan set of features. While it is easy enough to modify this popular wysiwyg editor, many are uncomfortable editing a little code. Furthermore, many have been trying unsuccessfully to make embedded content such as videos and video sharing. A couple days ago, developer Lee Teague released Tinymce Advanced.

Tinymce Advanced is simple to install: download, unpack, and upload to your server’s elgg/mod directory. You simply activate it in  Administration–>Tools Administration. That’s it provided you like the way it is configured. Refer back to my post on hacking Tinymce if you want to change the feature set. Depending upon the desired results, it may be easier to modify this than the default Tinymce.

Lee Teague’s Tinymce plugin is full featured, adding several formatting features including alignment, fonts, colors, indents, and tables. Best of all the media button really works allowing you to embed several popular multimedia formats. It also can embed YouTube and other video sharing when you insert the code snippet into the post using the html source editor.

If you use this plugin, it is recommended that it only be available to trusted and accountable users because these tags can make the site vulnerable to attacks. While not yet developed, it would be great if it could be configured so that trusted logged in members could have access to an extended editor, while others has access to a leaner tool set. In a shout back to me, developer Dave Tosh suggested extending textarea to include links to user’s or friends’ file uploads.

Another great plugin puts Spotlight to use as an RSS reader. ThinkTank Studio created a Magpierss reader that displays the latest articles from your favorite rss feed in Spotlight.

Download, unpack, and upload to your server’s elgg/mod directory. Activate it in  Administration–>Tools Administration. It requires a bit of hand coding to configure. Don’t let that thwart you. Just keep a back up copy of any file you edit in case you make a mistake. If the site breaks, just upload the backup so it overwrites the errant code.

Once uploaded, use your ftp client to access the file elgg/mod/magpierss/views/default/page_elements/spotlight.php, then find this (it’s easy to find):

<!-- !! START MAGPIERSS !! -->
<!-- I put the title of the feed here -->
<!-- you can lay things out all pretty with divs or tables or something.  This is just a quick and dirty example -->
<strong>Discovery News</strong><br /><br />
<?php
    require_once('magpierss/rss_fetch.inc');
    $url = $_GET['url'];
    $num_items = 3;
    $rss = fetch_rss( 'http://dsc.discovery.com/news/topstories.xml' );
    echo $rss->channel['title'] . "<p>";
    foreach (array_slice($rss->items, 0, $num_items) as $item) {
        $href = $item['link'];
        $title = $item['title'];
        $description = $item['description'];
        echo "<b><a href=$href target='_new'>$title</a></b><br>$description<br>";
    }
 ?>
<br />
<br />

All you need to edit is the blue text: a title for the feed, the numbers of items to display, and the address to the feed. Overwrite the original file and if you did it properly, you should see your feed displayed in Spotlight. The example illustrated above it the simplest. You could use formatting such as tables in the above code to change the display. The developer has thrown this out hoping others will build upon it.

Finally, there is the Default Widgets plugin. Out of the box, Elgg delivers a new user to a blank dashboard without widgets and a link to edit the page. The profile is also empty. Default Widgets built by Jade Dominguez and Chad @ NCR at the Google elgg developer group populates both the dashboard and profile with a preconfigured set of widgets. Again, download, expand, and upload to your elgg/mod directory, then activate. As configured a new user sees this dashboard:

The profile:

Widgets can be configured differently, but that involves editing code. Open elgg/mod/default_widgets/start.php and look for:

/*
	the add_widgets function only executes if the user has permissions to add widgets to his profile/dashboard.
	Since there is no user yet logged in, we need to artificially login the new user
	*/
	$log_user_in = login($object);	

	if($log_user_in){
		$profile_handler = array("friends", "a_users_groups", "messageboard", "filerepo", "status", "river_widget", "river_widget_friends");
		$dashboard_handler = array("river_widget_friends", "friends", "status", "bookmarks");

		$profile_column = array(1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3);
		$dashboard_column = array(1, 2, 3, 3);

Edit the values highlighted in blue using the the guidelines from readme.

More Elgg 1.0 plugins are available and even more in the works. As I try them out, I will feature them here. It appears that the trickle may soon be a steady stream.

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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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I was satisfied with my trial of the open-source RSS reader Rnews. While it is not perfect, it has a very simple interface that was easy enough for my students learn. I installed the program on our school shared server space and set up accounts for them. Thursday, they started populating their account with feeds from their classmate’s blogs.

Rnews has a very simple, clean, no-nonsense user interface. It is not as cool as some might want it and it does not support themes. Changes of appearance can only be done by editing the css file. Students add feeds by clicking the blue plus sign on the upper right side (see below). There are a few other controls that are straight forward and students are unlikely to get themselves into trouble.

Screenshot of Rnew Reader

One problem with Rnews, is the lack of an administrative interface. To an extent, this program is so simple, there is little need for it. On the other hand, there is no way of monitoring the feeds to which the students have subscribed within the program. This can be worked around by examining the MySQL database through phpMyAdmin–which is fine if you have access. It works for me, although, it would be nice to be able to browse all accounts as an admin. Of course the lack of such features keeps this program nice and lean. Registration requires a secret pass phrase. Student must log in to their individual readers. There is no access without a log-in.

Students thought the RSS reader was very cool because they were able to see all the blog posts at once. After they logged into their readers, I modeled subscribing to feeds. Feed URLs must be typed in. Many students had errors with their first attempts, but soon became much more attentive to details and began typing more carefully. Since each feed required a url for the blog and one for the feed, students got plenty of practice with cutting and pasting shortcuts.

The kids see the utility of the RSS reader. They also like having their own personal account to manage. Between this and their blogs, they feel empowered. Students can publish and control a part of the web plus they can show their friends and parents. Next, I plan to give them some feeds beyond those of our class. I also plan on creating a class RSS reader using a more full featured platform. I hope to demonstrate the benefits of a class RSS reader to other teachers.

Rnews works fine–it gets the job done. I will continue searching for and testing other open source server side RSS aggregators for future applications. I look forward to seeing how this impacts my students.

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