Web 2.0 and fragmentation

30 04 2008

I read an interesting posting by Alexander Vanelsas regarding web 2.0 and the problem of fragmentation. He states, quite amusingly….

If anything the current web 2.0 trend is fragmentation. There are thousands of social networking sites out there, each fighting a battle to get users. There are a whole lot of services that let you interact, publish, follow or be followed. There are aggregating sites that aggregate it all for you. There are aggregators that aggregate all the content from the sites that already aggregate content for you. And if that wasn’t enough we now need to take it away from the browser and move each of these services into tiny little desktop application.

How can we expect our teachers to start to explore web 2.0 technologies when techies, such as us, have such a difficult time keeping up with all of the new developments?

I read Techcrunch every couple of days, and I am constantly amazed by the number of new services that seem to be nothing more than repackaging of the same content. How many social networking sites do we really need? Just the other day I had a teacher ask me why she should use a specific bookmarking tool when there were so many to choose from? I can make recommendations, but can I ensure her that a particular service will be still working in a year? 2 years? I can’t. Teachers are already wary to invest the time in technology, and are even more so if they are not sure what they are learning will have lasting value.

As Alexander states later in the same article:

How many people do you know outside your tech community that want to have 25 desktop applications live, running Firefox alongside with 10 tabs open, twittering 100 times a day, reading and commenting articles on Friendfeed, writing a blog post about it, starting riots to get traffic going, AND still have a normal day job and a life after that?

I think he hits the nail on the head. We have to step back and realize that we are the minority in the education world. Most teachers don’t have the time, patience, and interest needed to try out every new service they can get their hands on. Until teachers can understand and investigate web 2.0 technologies on their own, I guess it’s up to us to filter through the hundreds of different services, looking for those real gems that can truly change the classroom experience, and then hope that they stick around long enough to use them!



What software do you install on teacher laptops?

27 04 2008

We are currently working on next year’s image for teacher laptops. Part of this process involves installing software programs that we feel would be valuable for teachers to have, as well as removing as much proprietary software as possible (trial Internet services, bloated image editing and scanning software, crippled CD burning software, software update managers, time-limited anti-virus programs). Other than the MS Office suite and anti-virus software, I usually look to freeware or open-source programs for additional functionality. Some of the software I have included in images in the past includes:

  1. Fox IT PDF Reader
  2. Adobe/Macromedia Flash Reader and Shockwave player
  3. Audacity
  4. Firefox
  5. JRE
  6. Skype
  7. Google Earth
  8. Codec packs to allow teachers to view and listen to divX, mp4, ogg, etc…
  9. GIMP or another photo editor
  10. VLC player

I would really like to hear what others are including on teacher laptops. Do you use freeware programs? Or do you prefer to use commercial products? What software could your teachers simply not live without? And what software causes you (and your teachers) the most frustration?

Untangle – Open-source network gateway

20 03 2008

Always on the lookout for great open-source products, I stumbled across Untangle on Christopher Dawson’s blog on ZDNet. Untangle is a network gateway product that brings together a number of popular open-source security and network applications into one package.

I have been a Watchguard Firefox supporter for years, but Untangle’s feature list gives Watchguard a run for its money. It offers just about everything my Firebox did, including spam filtering, web filtering, protocol control, virus and phishing blocker, intrusion protection, reporting, as well as remote access functionality. Best of all, as Untangle is an open-source product, it is freely available and can be downloaded and installed on regular hardware. A similar feature set on a Watchguard Firefox would cost thousands in yearly subscription fees.

I have put together an old Pentium 4 box with 2 network cards, downloaded the ISO, and I am up and running. I am done with most of the configuration, and so far, it was relatively painless. My current firewall/spam/intrusion solution is still in place, but a number of computers in my test environment are also routing through the Untangle box to test its functionality without compromising security. If it lives up to its claims, Untangle would be providing a feature set that Watchguard charges thousands of dollars for on a yearly basis.

I would recommend trying it out.


Networked Learning and Teaching

15 03 2008

Personal Learning NetworkI am currently in the process of re-writing our technology professional development plan. I was reviewing all of the different methods of delivering training: workshops, drop-in sessions, just-in-time training, online, networked learning. The whole idea of network learning got me thinking about how much I rely on a personal learning network in my own position, although I don’t think I have ever used the term. In fact, I have been using a widely-dispersed group of friends and colleagues for more than 10 years to solve technical problems. It simply isn’t possible for one individual to know how to solve all all issues on their own, but one thing I can always count on is that someone else is muddling through the same problem. Why would I start investigating the problem from scratch? Sites such as Event-ID, Tek-Tips, or ExpertsExchange put me in contact with experts from all over the world who have probably encountered, and resolved, similar technical problems. In some cases, I receive better advice from people on these sites than I would relying on official sources such as Microsoft or Oracle. Even before the Web, resources like email and newsgroups helped people working in technical support collaborate with one another and tackle tough problems as a group. Having worked as a technical consultant before coming to education, I believe this explains why VLNs seem like such an obvious choice when I encounter a problem in the classroom or need a great idea for an acitivity.

Why don’t teachers rely on VLNs? Some do, but the majority I have worked with continue to wade through problems on their own. If they do rely on someone else, it tends to be the same person, or they consult outdated information found in books, journals, or magazines. When they have a problem with software, I find most become frustrated and contact IT Support. They don’t think of asking a teacher next door, or a student, who is easily accessible and probably has the solution. This isn’t just confined to technical support issues. Lesson plan ideas, unit plans, rubrics, educational software reviews… tools and resources for just about any aspect of teaching and learning can now be found online. And yet few teachers I know use this information.

Is is a lack of knowledge about these resources?

Or not knowing how to set up a VLN?

Or a lack of technical knowledge about how to access the resources and use them once they are found?

Or do they feel the quality of these resources is sub-par?

I would apppreicate your comments. Why don’t teachers use VLNs? And how would you encourage teachers to set up their own personal learning network?


Running Moodle on Windows

6 03 2008

Part of what I love about Moodle, when compared to other VLEs, is the active developer community. Users from all over are constantly adding new modules (registration required) that help extend the functionality of the base Moodle package. When investigating a new module, I need a quick way to test its functionality to determine if the module is stable and works as intended. Only then would I consider installing it to my production box.

Moodle for Windows to the rescue! Moodle.org provides a complete installer package using XAMPP. XAMPP is basically a all-in-one program that installs PHP, MySQL, and Apache and provides a simple interface that can be used to stop and start the database and web server, configure PHP extensions, and edit configuration files. It takes about 10 minutes to install.

I try to keep the setup on my production server and my Windows box as similar as possible. It is very easy to dump the data from the production server and import it into my Windows test instance to ensure that my data is in sync.

Although you may be tempted to use a XAMPP/Moodle set up for your production server because it is so easy to use, there is one caveat. Most would say that this set up is not secure enough to run on a server that is accessible on the Internet without some tweaking.


NETS-S: First or Second Edition?

1 03 2008

As explained in an earlier post, an important aspect of my job is to establish standards for technology use, both for students and teachers. NETS standards, developed by the ISTE, and used by thousands of schools in America and abroad, are a logical choice. The standards are not tied to a specific curriculum, allowing us to adopt NETS without significant impact on our curriculum model. The ISTE publishes electronic and print resources to help administrators create a well-balanced IT integration plan. The ISTE publishes teacher competency standards that are associated with the NETS-S student standards called NETS-T.

NETS-S standards are categorized into 6 categoies:

  1. Basic operations and concepts
  2. Social, ethical, and human issues
  3. Technology Productivity tools
  4. Technology communication tools
  5. Technology research tools
  6. Technology problem-solving and decision making tools

Why not just adopt these standards? Late last year, the ISTE published updated NETS-S standards, based on input from schools all over the United States and 22 other countries. The six categories of the second edition standards are:

  1. Creativity and Innovation
  2. Communication and Collaboration
  3. Research and Information Fluency
  4. Critical Thinking, Problem-Solving, and Decision-Making
  5. Digital Citizenship
  6. Technology Operations and Concepts

It would be logical to adopt these new standards for our integration plan as they reflect a fundamental shift away technology operations and concepts (how to create a database, how to search for information on the Internet) to focus on the impact technology has on society (what are the limits of technology, how can we use technology to communicate and collaborate with others). However, the student standards are just one part of the equation. Teacher standards that match the new student standards are currently being reviewed, but will not be published for some while. In addition, many resources are available that incorporate NETS-S first edition standards, but few have been published for the second edition.

Is anyone in the same situation? If so, I would really like to hear your opinions on the matter.


OpenDNS for school web content filtering

27 02 2008


In an effort to help improve web content filtering to remove objectionable material, I am testing OpenDNS. The setup was done in about 5 minutes, and required little more than creating an account with OpenDNS and then pointing our DNS servers to forward any requests not handled by our internal DNS to OpenDNS servers.

What are some of the features offered?

  1. Custom pages that are shown when a user attempts to access a blocked web site or page. Users can choose to send a message from the blocked page if they feel it should be unblocked, and an email will be sent to the account administrator with the details.
  2. The ability to block categories of sites (i.e. gambling, tasteless) or individual sites.
  3. The ability to add specific sites to a whitelist.
  4. Detailed statistical reports showing how many requests were received by OpenDNS servers, at what time, and which blocked sites have been accessed.
  5. Typo corrections. If I accidently type in http://www.wikipedia.og instead of http://www.wikipedia.org, OpenDNS will correct the error and forward the request to http://www.wikipedia.org.
  6. Network shortcuts. I can add a shortcut called “gmail” so that users simply have to type “gmail” into their web browser, and the request will be forwarded to http://gmail.google.com.
  7. Anti-phishing checks. If a site is labelled as a phishing site, OpenDNS will block access to it.

So far, I am very impressed, and we will continue to test the system to determine if it is a viable long term option for the school.