safety

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As I ramp up our school’s WPMU blog platform, I look forward to rolling out the new 2.7 interface. I have updated and tested my favorite plugins. DSader’s More Privacy Options, and Peter’s Collaborative Email still work. To make things even better I found a pair of plugins that will make our configuration more secure and give greater control over user privileges.

First off, there was a security hole wherein students could view pending comments that have not been approved by an administrator. Dean Matteson discovered this flaw when he realized that student comments were appearing without his having reviewed them and wrote about in his blog. He came up with a plugin that blocks access to the comments page.

Looking for new plugins for our school site I found the WPMU Menus plugin that not only solves this problem, but it allows you to enable or disable not only comments, but almost every other function in the dashboard interface. Site Admin Options reveals new choices.

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The screen shot encompasses only half the options available. Beyond security, this allows administrators to greatly simplify the back end user interface making it easier for younger students to navigate.

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This takes care of the comments security issue. I tested it further by appending edit-comments.php to the blog backend urls. I was still unable to access the comments page and it redirected me to the profile page.

The next plugin of particular interest is Role Manager. Role Manager is not a WPMU plugin. It must be enabled and configured on each individual blog. Role Manager allows you to change the permissions on any existing role or group of users. It also allows you to create new roles as well. Go to Users–>Roles.

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While logged in as admin, you can also configure the permissions of an individual user by accessing their profile.

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Of course, if you give a user the permissions to access a feature, you also need to enable access in the Menus.

I look forward to relaunching our school blogging platform this March with a fresh new back-end interface, greater security, and a simplified dashboard for our students. If anyone has any input regarding use of WPMU for the K12 setting, I’d love to hear from you!

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Sometimes I think I am becoming unpopular on some educational technology websites. I have a keen distrust of free hosted services that are touted by so may web evangelists and those that frequent such sites. Some edtech sites almost seem like clearinghouses for free Internet based services. I have often challenged the use of such site citing student privacy and (less often) data control and ownership.

Today I came across a link to a provocatively worded blog post condemning these free cloud services offered so widely today. Before you click, I want to warn you that this post uses strong language. Jason Scott is an archiver of old BBS data and producer of a five hour documentary on Boston area Bulletin Board Services. He clearly has a larger historical perspective than most who use the Internet today.

Jason warns:

You are going to have to sit down and ask yourself some very tough questions because the time where you could get away without asking very tough questions with regard to your online presence and data are gone.

We increasingly rely on online repositories for our work and can no longer do so thoughtlessly. He isn’t talking so much about data you have so much as data you have created—our photographs, blogposts, videos, etc. Many are relying on cloud sites to store this data. He further states:

Because if you’re not asking what stuff means anything to you, then you’re a sucker, ready to throw your stuff down at the nearest gaping hole that proclaims it is a free service (or ad-supported service), quietly flinging you past an End User License Agreement that indicates that, at the end of the day, you might as well as dragged all this stuff to the trash. If it goes, it’s gone.

The larger perspective shows us that these services have abruptly disappeared in the past and that relying on these services puts our data at peril. Jason Scott does not say we shouldn’t use the cloud, rather we should not rely upon it to store our only copy of content that we created. They let you store your stuff for free in their cloud. Why should they put themselves in legal peril by guaranteeing the safety of the data?

This issue of data safety will be exasperated by our current fiscal climate. Banks and large financial institutions that appear solid one day are collapsing the next. Liquidity is drying up and investors are reluctant to risk money in businesses that do not have a reliable revenue stream such as firms that offer free Internet services.

I’ll go a step further than Jason in regard to the license agreements on such sites. Not only do these sites relinquish responsibility for the safety of the data, they often also tell you that you are giving up the ownership of your data.

This all is made even worse when teachers have their students rely so heavily on these cloud solutions for storing their content. Both students and teachers have begun to take these resources for granted with little regard for the safety of using such sites. Is this the behavior that teachers should model?

The solution is to take responsibility for your data. In most cases that means paying, either for a service that provides a guarantee and a clearly articulated back up plan, or for inexpensive server space that you personally back up. Anything less is folly.

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Will Richardson expressed exasperation with a school leader in a recent post as he tried to blame parents for student misbehavior on FaceBook or MySpace. He proposed the schools need to play a big role:

There is a solution to this, one that we all know, but one that for some reason few seem willing to implement other than in the guise of a “parent awareness night” or some type of scary Internet predator presentation by a state policeman. For the life of me, I can’t understand what is so hard about opening up the first and second and third grade curriculum and find ways to integrate these skills and literacies in a systemic way. If you want kids to be educated about these tools and environments, then maybe we should, um, educate them.

He suggests that we not just talk to them about the dangers of the Internet and social networking, rather we integrate these tools in an age appropriate way from an early age.

As I posted earlier, using social networking is valuable for teaching Internet safety. These new literacies are the reality of our kids’ world and future. They are not going to disappear. Like the books we read, they can be used for good or evil. We need to harness these technologies for learning and promote their use as positive forces.

While parents should play a role, many simply do not understand these technologies. Congress has just passed a bill mandating instruction of social networking safety and cyberbullying. Since we must do it, we should do it in a way that is real and relevant, and in a way that teaches new literacies while harnessing their potential.

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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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Elgg 1.1 is arriving soon. The project is maturing with more plugins and themes becoming available. It’s time to plan for deployment in the K12 environment. I have been mulling over several special issues in deploying Elgg in a K12 public school setting. I invite you to join the K12 Elgg group on the Elgg Community Website. I am also considering Web publishing and educational technology issues in my Educational Technology Policy Site. Policies need to be in place for working with Elgg and other Web 2.0 applications.

The first thing we need to consider is security. In our situation we will need to have a walled garden. Our school requires anything that is open to the world on the Internet be moderated. Since we cannot moderate in the Elgg environment, all content will have to be kept in house.

The Walled Garden plugin from the Elgg developers does much of what we will need. It disables registration so that  any user accounts must be created by the admin. This prevents outsiders from registering and gaining access to student content. It falls short in a couple ways. As configured, users can choose to make content available to the public under the access controls. In addition RSS feeds could allow outsiders to view content if they obtained the appropriate urls.

In response to my concerns expressed in the K12 Elgg area of the Elgg community, Dave Tosh offered some solutions. He pointed to engine/lib/access.php as the place to eliminate the “Public” option. Students will only be able to select permissions for access to people within the site: private, logged in users, or any collections of friends. I plan on creating a plugin offering this functionality soon leaving the core intact for easy upgrading.

With RSS feeds, Dave suggested that I eliminate the options to subscribe to an RSS Feed and Syndicate OpenDD from the owner’s block menu, then delete RSS and and OpenDD views in the views directory.

Dave is looking into administrative options to toggle public access OpneDD and RSS feeds from the administrative interface. I think this is a good idea that will make it more appealing to the K12 audience out-of-the-box.

If we allow students to work in Elgg without moderation, we need a way to monitor what the students are doing so that they are accountable for their behavior on the site.

Elgg offers several tools to this end. There is the log browser with the ability to refine the results by username and by start/end dates. As admins, we can click on a user’s avatar menu and explore their log. There is also the user option to report content to the administrator.

Use of the log options require active searching and the logs have a lot of entries not related to content. Are there ways to filter out some of the non-content related noise making it easier to monitor students? Would it be possible to create plugins to make this process easier?

These are just a couple areas of concern that I will need to address with school administration and tech committee before deploying Elgg. I hope to have answers to the questions that I know I will face. I’d like to hear what others have to say about these matters. Please comment!

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