Puzzle Pieces

Can you Puzzle, by I'm Your Pusher on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/seseskiz/2282360004/I have three interesting requests from teachers for projects they want to do. These are innovative and appropriate uses of technology. Here’s what they want (note that these are separate requests):

  • One teacher wants to create student portfolios online. Ideally, student writing samples and other examples of exemplary work would be showcased, and teachers would be able to comment (publicly or privately) on them. Peer review and commenting would be nice, but not required. These portfolios would transcend any particular class, and would document the student’s work throughout high school (and possibly before).
  • A media specialist would like to set up a system where students can create a social network of fictitious or historical figures. Do you think Abraham Lincoln would friend Hamlet? What would Jay Gatsby’s Myspace page look like? It’s a creative and fun project, but probably a short term one. A student might not mind playing the role of Wilbur Wright for a couple months, but he or she isn’t going to want to do that for years.
  • A middle school teacher wants to use social networks with his students.  To quote him, “I assume we would be discouraged strongly from setting up a group on Facebook, what about a site geared towards book lovers though?    What about something like Twitter?  I have thought about at parent teacher night asking parents who want homework assignments to sign up and then they can get tweets, again I have decided right now this is not worth my trouble, but would this be frowned upon?” Interesting questions, and the more we discussed it, the more we leaned toward student blogging, either with everyone able to read and comment on student posts, or just people within the district able to do so.

Now, one approach is to use external sites to meet these needs. I’m sure there’s some portfolio site out there that we can use. And we can certainly set up student blogs on an external site. But in most cases, we would be violating the terms of service by letting minors do this, especially if they were setting up social networking profiles under fictitious names. There are also a lot of local policy concerns, including the need to filter Internet access and the need to be able to directly associate content with a particular student. In short, while this could all be done, I’m hoping there’s a better solution.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to wrap my mind about these various pieces:

  • We have a Moodle server set up. Every student in grades 6-12 automatically has an account, because it’s tied to our network accounts. A few teachers use it and like it. Others claim it’s too time consuming to learn and use, or just aren’t interested.
  • I installed Mahara last fall and tied it in with Moodle. The idea was to use this for student portfolios. But everyone I’ve shown it to says it’s too complicated and cumbersome to use.
  • We have a Google Apps for Education account. Right now, we’re just using it for some staff, and most of them are just using it for the calendars. But we could potentially add all of our students. That would give them the office productivity package, collaboration tools, calendars, and (if we wanted) gmail accounts. The down side is that it would also give them access to shared resources that are now only available to staff members. We might be able to fix that with groups. I’m haven’t looked into it that closely yet.
  • MoodleRooms is working on integrating Google Docs with Moodle. This would mean single sign on between the two applications, allowing students to move back and forth between them seamlessly without needing to log in.
  • We’ve been using WordPress for the last three or four years. We let teachers have blogs. We could let students have blogs, too. It would probably be set up on a different server with different rules, but it wouldn’t be that much different from what we’re already doing.
  • Buddypress would allow WordPress to function like a social network. That’s on my short list of things to play with.
  • Using WordPress Multiuser, students could potentially have more than one blog. They might have one that’s a portfolio, one that’s a regular blog, and one that’s Amelia Earhart’s, for example.
  • We’re running Mediawiki and have it tied to our network accounts, too. I love running a wiki server. I hate using wiki markup language.
  • This really nifty tool makes WordPress interactive and collaborative. I haven’t tried it yet, but it opens a lot of doors. We could also use something like this to mimic Twitter with WordPress.
  • I also just set up Elgg on a test server. I don’t think it’s the holy grail. And if people didn’t like Mahara, I don’t think they’re going to like Elgg, either. But I want to at least let a few people kick the tires with it before dismissing it.

So where do I go from here? How do I set up a suite of applications that is flexible enough to do the kids of things my teachers want to do? How do I make it easy to use, and scalable, and cool enough to encourage some innovative use? Which application is the center of the wheel? Do I start with Moodle, and tie everything to that? This road would imply that everything’s pretty locked down. You need an account to even get into Moodle. All of the content is protected. But from there, we could tie to Mahara, Elgg, or something like them. We can (theoretically) connect with Google Docs. And there’s blogging built in, but it’s very limited.

On the other hand, I could put WordPress at the center of the wheel. It’s pretty flexible, and would support a lot of the stuff we want to do. But it doesn’t tie in well with Moodle. Plus, it’s very open by default. While we could lock it down a bit with some plugins, the idea is that most of the stuff is public. That would probably raise some concerns.

There’s also a whole pile of policy issues behind this. We’ve traditionally blocked access to external social networking sites, and we don’t let students use email accounts at school. I’m not ready to jump into that list of issues, yet. Right now I’m focused on the best way to actually build this.

So what do you think?

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Author: John Schinker

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1 thought on “Puzzle Pieces”

  1. Too many choices 🙂

    We have WordPress for class and group sites, Moodle for classes, and Buddy Press for social networking.

    For projects like the SN for fictional characters I setup an Elgg installation and let the students just register with their school email.

    I haven’t come up with a good solution to Twitter. We do have Prologue running, and I’m sure I could track down some email plugins to mimic a lot of the functionality of Twitter, I just haven’t had a chance to try it yet.

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