Open Education Resources | Thoughts and Ideas

Ohio’s Education Technology Conference wrapped up this past week and my mind is buzzing with a good number of ideas and questions (always a sign of a good conference). I had the good fortune to sit on a panel to discuss Open Education Resources and, fresh off the fun conversations carried with other smart educators, wanted to brainstorm ways to make OER work in the education field. To some extent, tech conferences are about spotting trends (negative or positive) and my sense is that OER is beginning to really gain steam.

First, What are Open Education Resources?

Open is the key word here. As in, resources are not restrictive. The internationalist in me likes the Cape Town Open Education Declaration:

“Open educational resources should be freely shared through open licences which facilitate use, revision, translation, improvement and sharing by anyone. Resources should be published in formats that facilitate both use and editing, and that accommodate a diversity of technical platforms. Whenever possible, they should also be available in formats that are accessible to people with disabilities and people who do not yet have access to the Internet.”

Licenses and copyrights run a range. Being good law abiding educators, we need to pay attention to those licenses and copyrights on materials we use to teach students. Open Education Resources make this possible. More importantly, OER allows us to build on what others have created.

But OER has some Challenges

OERs are not a panacea to education. I’m particularly struck by the following challenges:

  1. Quality Control
  2. Searchability and Indexing
  3. Portability
  4. Funding

Before Pearson cribs those talking points and starts having lunch with legislators, I wanted to explore those issues in greater detail and suggest some solutions.

On the Issue of Quality Control

Why a textbook? Sure, it’s nice to have resources. But our rockstar teachers are constantly curating and creating resources to fit the academic needs of their students. They don’t necessarily need a publisher’s textbook. So why buy them?

We buy them for quality control. For beginning teachers or teachers who struggle in the profession, textbooks provide a uniformed experience for students. These experiences might not be super rigorous or engaging, but at least the materials have been vetted by experts and are common.

Because OERs can and are created by anyone, they don’t necessarily have a quality control mechanism built in. That open textbook might have been written by a writebot gleaning information off a reddit page. I’ve seen a lot of shoddy OERs (usually with bad clip art and lots of Comic Sans, which is odd).

comicsansAethestics matter. Comic Sans will always raise quality control flags.
Source

Now ideally and fundamentally, a teacher provides the quality control for their resources. They’re the expert. Trust them. And I do. Most teachers I work with are incredible.

But teachers are also overworked. Sometimes they’re trying to get a quick worksheet fix before 5th period (I’ve been there). If there was a way to ensure quality in OERs, it would be a great help.

Solution Ideas

Define Authority

Nothing new here, just a need to define “who” the authority is for reviewing an OER (beyond the teacher). The authority should have some type of credentials or proof that they are, in fact, an authority in the content area of the OER.

In Ohio, a number of organizations come to mind. InfOhio, ITCs, ESCs, various school consortiums, even (fingers crossed) the state.

When authority is defined, some type of system also needs to be put in place to verify an OER is reviewed.

Wisdom of the Masses

On the opposite side of defining authority is using the wisdom of the masses. In this type of system you have the masses up voting or down voting resources based on their quality. Similar to reddit, amazon reviews, or Digg.

This solution has its own challenges. First, you need critical mass to leverage the wisdom of masses. An OER watering hole where educators hang with fellow nerds. Second, sometimes the masses aren’t very wise (see Jaron Lanier’s Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism).

bridge

Maybe the masses know something I don’t?
Source

A Hybrid

The best solution would likely be a hybrid of sorts. A collective place to share and vote – but giving extra-weight to authority. Or possibly a curated collection of highest voted OERs. Wikipedia and BetterLesson have elements of this as well.

Searchability & Indexing

How do I find quality OERs? Google isn’t necessarily the answer. Where do I direct teachers to find open education resources?

To some extent, InfOhio has laid some groundwork in this area with their iSearch feature (although this doesn’t necessarily search for OERs). Other organizations such as OER Commons and Search Creative Commons are making solid strides as well.

Personally, I would like the next level of searchability with an open API that allows districts to tie their curriculum platforms with a robust OER search engine.

OER Portability

The largest issue I face as a technology director is the silo effect of systems. School districts are complex organizations with many moving parts. The parts need to talk with each other. Frequently they don’t.

The last thing I want is OERs to add to this complexity. Districts use different Learning Management Systems, Student Information Systems, Devices, Operating Systems, and personnel with different skill sets. OERs need to be as agnostic and portable as possible to account for these different conditions.

The question is how?

Solution Ideas

This is not a new problem and others have put forth some solutions. SCORM, IMS Global, Tin Can API: All are possible approaches to a portable “unit” of learning. The geek in me really likes them. The pragmatist in me gets that their complexity prohibits widespread adoption. Your average teacher (much less technologist) is going to interface with an API. The problem is that this is very much a difficult problem to solve without complexity. That said, we can look at popular models to get some ideas on how we might grow OERs.

Take OverDrive as an example. When I want to read Thinking Fast and SlowI follow this procedure:

  1. Login to my library account
  2. Click Overdrive
  3. Select Thinking Fast and Slow
  4. Pick how I want to read the book.

Step four is key. I’m given simple options: Amazon Kindle, ePub, web, PDF. While not exactly platform agnostic, the creator/publisher does pick the top 4 platforms (three of which are pretty open) to allow 95% of the market access to their content.

tfast

Human Behaviour Really isn’t Rational

Were I a betting man, I would bet the development of OERs using web standards (especially with the recent announcement of the merging of the two major consortiums W3C and IDPH). Then the issue becomes how to “extract” an OER made with web standards into whatever flavor of platform a school or district uses.

One idea worth exploring (future post!) is a Git for OERs (and yes, I do realize I’m beginning to venture into complexity land here). The rough outlines of this idea:

  1. An organization (lending credibility) hosts a git repository. Let’s call it gitedu.
  2. Educators post their OERs to the git.
  3. Other educators can contribute to the OER git. Report issues. Suggest corrections. Etc.
  4. Or they can “fork” the OER into their own repository and take the OER in an entirely different direction.
  5. The key is the OER inherits the same copyright and/or license.

While I get (pun intended) the software model of using Git with OERs might be a bit of a stretch (especially in education circles), there are definite function features within Git that would readily support the growth and adoption of OERs.

The key is keeping OERs as open as possible in their original form. I might create a Word Document worksheet and give it a Creative Commons License. It’s technically an OER. But if I want to build on that worksheet I really need to own Office. (This is a bit of a gray area. Microsoft would say that docx is technically an open XML format. But I’ve had many a Word Doc blow up when trying to open it with any other program other than MS Office).

Funding Model(s)

Can OERs make money if they’re open? Or a slightly different question, can people creating OERs make money?

I would say yes. It requires a different view on revenue.

First, I should point out that many of us who work on OERs are funded by tax dollars. You can (and I do) make the case that OERs are the expected results of government investments. I personally think local, state, and federal governments would do well to invest into OERs through employing quality educators. It’s a better return on the dollars spent.

All that said, another model for funding would be to copy popular open-source platforms.

Take WordPress as an example. Anyone can download and run WordPress (for free). Yet WordPress has created a booming economy for many small and large businesses. It does this by:

  1. Allowing businesses to provide support (revenue in labor).
  2. Allowing businesses to offer “premium” add-on features.
  3. Allowing businesses to offer “customizations”.

Say a future hypothetical OER Amazon begins to dominate the field. If OERs are open (anyone can use them), how does OERAma generate revenue to fund continual growth? They could:

  1. Offer to host OERs on their own customized platform. Districts pay for access to the platform – the hosting if you will.
  2. Offer customization on already existing OERs. Don’t like the cover image on an OER title? Pay $5 to update it to your school logo.
  3. Offer scope of work to develop an OER from scratch. A district gets an OER at the of the work (with an open CC license), but they’ve paid for the labor of developing the OER.
  4. Offer a subscription service for an OER. By joining the service, districts get updates on the OER (and a degree of support).

The Wrap Up: Why OERs?

Our own generation enjoys the legacy bequeathed to it by that which preceded it. We frequently know more, not because we have moved ahead by our own natural ability, but because we are supported by the menial strength of others, and possess riches that we have inherited from our forefathers. Bernard of Clairvaux used to compare us to punt dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.

John of Salisbury

Open is good for education. It allows students and teachers to build on previous knowledge without encountering the walls of proprietary knowledge silos. It allows districts to adopt and adapt resources to the particular needs of their students and communities without some of the worries that arise from copyright.

OERs certainly have questions and issues that need addressing. It is my hope that the education community will work towards developing solutions that support their growth.

Filed under: Tools

Teacher Spotlight: Allison Perkins, 1st grade Riverview Elementary


Allison Perkins, a first-grade transition teacher at Riverview Elementary, has transformed her teaching and students’ learning with effectively implementing technology across the curriculum.  Perkins isn’t the kind of teacher who lets anything get in the way of connecting her students with great resources and tools.  While some teachers shy away from using social networking and technology in their classrooms, Perkins embraces this opportunity and is looking forward to having more access to the devices as HCSD prepares to go 1:1 in the near future.  Below are some insights from Mrs. Perkins about the impact she has experienced.

“This was the first time I felt like it went really smooth, and there was no problem with the internet!!  Now that Google Classroom allows you to choose specific assignments for specific students I was able to post all of the tests on my Google Classroom and choose only the students responsible for taking each specific test.”
Mrs. Perkins has been using Google Forms for many different assessments throughout the first part of the year.  Just with everything else, she had to find the most effective and efficient way to use the forms with her students.  She first started using the sections in Google Forms to provide differentiation for the different levels of abilities in her classroom.  Based on the students’ responses to the questions, the sections allowed her to provide different pathways to met individual needs.  Even though this is a great way to differentiate and will most likely meet most teachers’ needs, Perkins decided to create a different form for each ability level in her classroom. She liked the way the results and data were separate in the forms when creating different forms.  Using Google Forms for assessment and differentiation is definitely a much-needed tool for teachers at all levels.
“Like any skill or concept, you want your students to learn it’s going to take time.  You have to model a lot and provide them with multiple rich experiences to practice.  You can see in one of the photos the little boy in my class was using the text to speech add-on.  His specific test was on word problems, so he was having them read aloud to him.  Before using Google Forms, I had to constantly walk around and read word problems aloud to students based on what test they had, and it was really tiring and not efficient.  I am so glad to have this tool now to help me help the students. As you will see in the pictures as well, I allowed the students to use their whiteboards and/or the needed manipulatives to aid them in finding their answers.” 
Technology tools in the classroom are not meant to replace the teacher; it is meant to enhance instruction and give teachers the tools to be more efficient with their responsibilities.  Time is not our friend in education, so finding the tools to give us more time for instructional purposes is a necessity.  On the other hand, we will need to take the time to model these tools with our students to condition them to the online environment.  The time spent will definitely reap the benefits of increased instruction time, achievement, engagement, and motivation with our students.
“I am so happy to see the students becoming more independent with their computer skills.  On this test, they were all able to log in, access Google Classroom,  open and turn in their assignments independently!  Then this week again after they all had finished their math tests, I pushed out some interactive math games for them to practice previously learned skills.  They loved it!  I cannot wait till we go one to one so I can use this more frequently throughout the day! ” 
Did she say, primary students “becoming more independent?”  Why, yes she did, and yes, they can!  With patience and guidance in developing a routine, the students will become more independent and have fun learning in different ways.  Perkins is using the Share to Classroom feature to “magically” force all student screens to automatically load a certain site to supplement or reinforce student learning.  Students are excited to see what will come up on their screen and become instantly interested in a new and fun way to practice what they have learned.
 
“Thanks so much for all your help this year teaching me how to do all of this!  I would have never thought my students would be doing anything like this or would be capable of such skills at a young age.  But I always push my students and never underestimate their abilities.”
Technology is all around us and embedded in our culture.  It makes sense to take advantage of it in the learning process.  We underestimate our students when we think they’re not going to get something and limits our own growth when we lower our expectations.  Teachers are amazed at what their students are actually capable of when interested and engaged in learning.  Using tools such as Google Classroom, Share to Classroom, Google Forms, and game-based web tools at ou disposal effects great learning and teaches our students to be independent thinkers and problem solvers.  Given the chance, just as Mrs. Perkins has given her students, they may surprise you.
 
Filed under: Uncategorized

Abre – An Open Platform for Education

An Open Platform for Education

Designed for schools who use the web as a platform

Abre is an open platform for schools who want to have a creative portal for their staff and students. Abre holds a collection of web apps. It also provides a framework for developers to create standalone web applications. Abre is licensed under a GNU General Public License (Version 3). Contributors welcomed.

Relevant Modules

We’ve a few modules in development. Modules vary in their complexities. Some modules incorporate other well known open source applications. All are open source.

Streams – Curated content. Each stream has a theme (example: social studies). A unique twist on the RSS feed. Any RSS feed will work. We use magazines created in Flipboard and render the magazine into our streams.

Cards – Cards are mini-web apps. They display summary information. Currently Abre features cards for the core Google education apps: Gmail, Drive, Calendar, and Classroom.

App Canvas – A canvas for collecting external web applications. Basically a simple icon based page with links to external web applications and sites.

Assessments – A quick and easy way to build AIR like common assessments and track student progress and understanding aligned to standards.

Students – A module for understanding analyzing and understanding information stored in your student information system (SIS).

Guided Learning – Works with the Abre Chrome app to serve as a locked down browser for delivering a focused lesson.

Curriculum – A curriculum module that contains all curriculum maps as well as model lessons.

Directory – A directory module used by Human Resources to track those who work in the district. Includes license information as well as evaluations.

Books – A module for collecting and hosting online textbooks. Allows students to either read their books on the Abre platform or download to their own device.

A work in progress

We started by creating a strong foundation for developing educational web applications. We will continue to develop Abre by creating additional modules that will increase the functionality of the platform.

Filed under: Uncategorized

The Importance of Daily Video Announcements

An Introduction to BluTV

When we began BluTV 4 years ago, our goal and overall vision of what it should be was simple.  Provide announcements in a visual format rather than over the PA system.  

We surmised that students either didn’t listen to, or couldn’t hear, the announcements when they were conducted over the PA.  Either they were tardy to school or the teachers and/or students talked over them.  It simply became white noise for many of them.

The PA system proved to be rather inefficient simply because it came and went, with no record of what was said other than the the announcement forms sitting next to the PA.

We decided to create a media journalism course that gave students the opportunity to write, film, edit, and upload video based news each day.  It is a 50 minute elective course that kids can take as Juniors or Seniors, however some exceptions are made.  Next year, we are looking at possible expansion to multiple periods and a bigger scope of responsibilities (web development and graphic design).

Unintended Consequences

Shortly after we began production, we noticed that the news was being watched by more than just people at Hamilton High School.  Each broadcast was uploaded to youtube (seasons 1-3) or vimeo (season 4) and then hosted on our Hamilton High website so anyone could watch it.

Parents and community members were also watching on a regular basis.  Parents appreciated the direct access to information such as form deadlines, scholarships, and college fairs.  Community members used it as a resource to promote job openings as well as see the variety of opportunities available at HHS.  We promote fairs and festivals happening in town, as well as discuss volunteer opportunities for kids in the building.

One thing we heard from both students and community members was, “I didn’t know we had that…or I didn’t realize HHS was…”  In a school of our size and scope, it is impossible to know all of the clubs, groups, and projects kids are involved in.  The news become a centerpiece for the promotion of all things Big Blue as well as all things Hamilton.

Expanding Our Programming

We are always thinking of ways to expand our ability to reach outside of the walls of HHS.  One year, we began broadcasting a few live sporting events.  We do not do this often due to time and resource constraints, but it is something that could definitely be done within the structures of the OHSAA at the time.  We had recent graduates watching games from their dorm rooms to watch their friends and siblings play.  We also had elderly men and women unable to get to games watch their grandsons and granddaughters.  

We let each season of students create their own vision of what BluTV can and should be.  It is basically like starting from scratch each season, which has its own pluses and minuses.

It fosters a sense of community in the students.  They are constantly bridging gaps between school and the town as well as within their own school.  Grade level, as well as social gaps, began to shrink.  I think it created a sense of civic pride in the students.  It gives them voice and power.  It gives them agency and allows them to become an advocate for their school as well as typically marginalized groups.

There is the old stereotype that if it isn’t football, basketball, or baseball related, it doesn’t matter or no one cares.  We help minimize that.  We do promos for anime, Harry Potter, and WWE club as often as we announce basketball results.  We helped get the first Gay Straight Alliance underway by promoting and talking about the group with students.  We recruit for our career technical education programs and our show choir.  In essence, anyone that wants to submit an announcement and get their voice heard, is able to do so.

We put the responsibility on our audience to provide us with content.  We simply do not have the time to create/generate the news along with everything else.

One of the biggest fears we had in allowing anyone to submit announcements was that there would be inappropriate messages submitted.  However, in all of the years I have been doing this, there has never been an issue.  And even if there was an issue, we vet each story before airing.

We air signing days and community breakfasts.  We post stories to the blog and tweet important events.  A few weeks ago, one of our special education students turned 22 and graduated, so we aired a six minute long birthday and graduation message for him.  Maybe unsurprisingly, our most popular videos each year include the homecoming parade recap and homecoming court profile videos.

Bringing Blue 2 You

In Season 3, we decided to expand our community and HHS relationship.  It seemed that everywhere we looked, people had an impression of who we were and what kind of kids we had enrolled at HHS.  The narrative surrounding schools is one of failure and dangerous youth.  We decided to control our message.  We didn’t want people focusing on the 3% of our students that caused problems or got in trouble.  We wanted to focus on the 97% of our students that were simply doing the right thing day in and day out.

We created a segment called Blue 2 You, where once a month we profiled a staff or student that represented the best of what we have to offer.  We covered CTE programs, community service groups, burgeoning artists, and special education students.  We then sent these videos out to the community and beyond via social media.  Anyone from the mayor to the president was tagged.  We wanted everyone to know what we were doing.  We wanted everyone to know that we were more than test scores and report card ratings.  We wanted to bring Blue 2 You.

Where Do We Go From Here

We are already in charge of the school’s web site and twitter account.  We are hoping to expand into more web production and programming as well as more features and promotion.  We will be creating promotional content for all of our elective and career tech programs that can be viewed on the web site for course selection purposes.  We also want to expand our community partnerships.  Ultimately, it comes down to always exploring and growing within your space.  We never settle for what we have.  We know that we can always do better.  We are all works in progress.    

Appendix and Resource Links

Creating a Broadcast

BluTV Skills and Application

BluTV Material List

BluTV Workflow

BluTV Resources

 

Filed under: Uncategorized

IPDPs, PD, LPDC…Oh My!! Lost in the Acronym Forest- OETC 17

Summary

Teaching licenses are an essential credential educators must have to be able to teach in public schools; however, the process of obtaining and upgrading licenses can be confusing and difficult to manage.  The Hamilton City School District has created an open source comprehensive solution that allows districts to simplify the process in a useful and relevant way at a minimally low cost.  This new semi-automated system has reduced costs for the district, proven to reduce and prevent errors, saved time and increased efficiency.  We will share the process that only costs a district about $250 a year to manage and maintain with participants.  This is NOT a vendor session.  All resources are strictly open source, and we are not looking to gain any profit in any way.  We are simply educators looking to provide a platform for districts to use to make tracking professional development and renewing a license more efficient and manageable.

Presentation

Presenter Information

 Tricia Smith  Chris Rose
 Technology Instructional Coach  Technology Integration Coordinator
Hamilton City School District Hamilton City School District
@TriciaSmithHCSD
[email protected]
@HCSD_Rose
[email protected]

 Supplemental Resources

Handout

Code available for Formidable Pro and MyCred to work together

Evaluation

Thank you for your participation.  Please take a moment to fill out the evaluation form below.

Filed under: OETC

Five+ Free, StraightForward, Formative Assessment Tools to Use in a Flash- OETC 17

Five+ Free, StraightForward, Formative Assessment Tools to Use in a Flash

Summary

Most teachers are pretty cognizant of the level of their students’ overall knowledge and understanding. The power of incorporating formative assessment, however, is that it helps us to take our classroom one step further—to really find out how each of our students is doing and then adapt our instruction accordingly.

Education has long been plagued with far too much to do and far too little time to do it. We should be on the hunt for technology tools that can speed up the formative assessment piece of our work.  In the process, we are likely to uncover ways to better engage students, to improve our feedback, and to help expand and deepen their learning.  The operative word here is “time.” Teachers are constantly looking for resources and materials to address these standards. Searching out and locating effective formative assessment tools demands time, which is a luxury that most teachers can not afford.  

Well, the hunt is over!  This Educational session will cover 5+ web-based formative assessment tools to use in the classroom.  Attendees will be able to use the resources presented in their classroom immediately giving back time to planning and delivering effective instruction to all students.

Presentation

Presenter Information

Tricia Smith

Instructional Technology Coach
Hamilton City School District [email protected]

Tricia serves as the Instructional Technology Coach for the Hamilton City School District. This is her 4th year in this position. Before becoming a coach, she worked as a classroom teacher in grades 3-8 for 21 years.  She has spent her entire career of 25 years in the Hamilton City School District.

Supplemental Resources

OETC17 Handout Five+ Free, StraightForward, Formative Assessment Tools to Use in a Flash

Evaluation

Thank you for your participation.  Please take a moment to fill out the evaluation form below.

Filed under: OETC

Creating Online Workflows for Education

Workflow Solutions in Education

Intro | Define the Problem

Any complex organization will feature many processes of branched decision making. Substitute requests, vacation leaves, textbook assignments, payroll changes, are all common examples of process we face in education. As much as possible, we’d like to automate these processes in order to create efficiencies and simplicity.

Also, we’re nerds and like to tinker. Any solution we use has to be open-source.

This session will feature a framework for creating workflow solutions using open source applications. Note that while these applications are open, they do cost a bit of money.

What’s needed

A web server running WordPress. WordPress is the kitchen sink of the web running many a website. This session doesn’t cover how to setup and run a WordPress site, but there are thousand of tutorials that detail how a school can implement WordPress as a content management system. If you’d like to tinker with a simple WordPress install, I recommend Digital Ocean or Cloudways.

As a quick primer, WordPress consists of the following:

  1. Core WordPress files. The guts.
  2. Themes. Themes dictate how your website looks and appears.
  3. Plugins. Mini-applications that run on WordPress.

For this demonstration, we’re using two critical plugins:

  1. GravityForms. This plugin creates forms in WordPress. Think of it as Google Forms on steroids.
  2. GravityFlow. This plugin controls the “flow” of form information and allows users to provide inputs to the workflow.

While not critical to this session, I always recommend a WordPress install have a few additional plugins.

  1. Some type of backup plugin. I’m a big fan of UpDraft as it’s free and can backup to your Google Drive.
  2. Login with Google plugin. If you’re a Google Apps district, this allows your staff to login with their GAFE credentials (and you don’t need to maintain separate user accounts).

Sample Costs

  • WordPress = Free
  • WordPress Hosting = $15-$20 a month (but can vary)
  • GravityForms = $39
  • GravityFlow = $97

Example Scenario

In this scenario I’m going to create a leave request WorkFlow. The objective:

  1. Teacher logs into our WordPress site use their Google Suite for Education Credentials
  2. The complete a form requesting leave.
  3. Once completed, the form follows a sequence of approvers. After final approval, teacher is notified that leave is approved or rejected.

Teacher’s Perspective

Approver’s Perspective

Forms and form approvals can all be done via the website. However, we’ve configured approvals and rejections to be activated via a person’s email.

For example, if a principal needs to approve a leave, they don’t necessarily need to login to a website to approve. They may click “approve” in the email.

All entries and data can be exported as a CSV or accessed via the backend of WordPress.

Resources

GravityFlow has a number of screencasts on how you can create various workflows. Additional resources are as follows:

Filed under: OETC

Why Streams?

Abre features streams as a core feature. This is a purposeful decision. We believe (and evidence backs this up) that learning has a strong social aspect. We’re trying to create an online metaphorical water cooler.

Sharing relevant content and having conversations about the topics create wonderful opportunities professional growth.

For that reason, we’re asking folk to subscribe to at least 3 streams. Pick what interests you. Join in the conversations. Favorite article you may want to remember for future use.

Our hope is that streams will become a go-to tool in our professional toolbox.

streams2.png

Filed under: Uncategorized

The most important part of the toolkit.

As districts invest in Chromebooks and BYOD solutions they should not forget a most important aspect of developing good instruction with technology.

Districts need a web server. A web server in their control.

Chromebooks and BYOD gravitate towards using the web as a platform because applications become device agnostic. This means applications will run as long as they have a browser and an internet connection (although modern browser technologies are actually allowing you to run web apps without internet connection).

The central question becomes where do we host these web apps? Where’s our canvas for creating instructional applications?

Square peg, round hole (and usually ugly)

Quite a few educators have cobbled together a hodgepodge solution to the question of hosting apps. Given we’re pretty much living in the Google Education universe, the most popular solution is to launch a Google Site and throw up a bunch of hyperlinks to the other websites and applications.

This presents challenges:

  1. Google Sites is ugly as sin and hasn’t featured a realistic update in forever (this makes me nervous).
  2. You’re facing the challenges of multiple signons for different sites.
  3. You really can’t build apps in Google Sites¹.
Does the job, but not easy on the eyes.
Does the job, but not easy on the eyes.

Other solutions exist. Districts can create wiki pages, use Blogger or Squarespace, hire a company to develop a solution for them, etc.

But districts lose control. They cease to be able to create what they need. And if we’re going to recognize the value of 21st century learning and the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, maybe we educators should do a bit of practicing what we preach.

With a web server, you can create any application, host any site, and grow.

Who?

Let’s pause for a second to consider who can or should set up a web server? I think most teachers not to mention curriculum directors find the process intimidating. Plus educators are constantly swamped and who wants to add one more item to the plate?²

That said, web hosting companies run the gammit on making this process drop dead easy to moderately challenging. And again, given the direction districts moved with Chromebooks, it really is a necessity.

The key to simplicity: deciding on a web host with an easy to use control panel. Most folk can stumble through the process with a control panel. No need to learn command line or how to use a terminal.

How? (A primer)

I recommend any district give this a try. The costs are minimal, at least for a starter project. Assuming a district is happy with the results, they can easily scale up a server to account for increased use.

Step 1: Pick a Web Host

Technically a district can be a web host. They need a server and the know-how. If they’re an Ohio school district, they can always contact their ITC to set up a web server.

We found it easier to simply buy hosting with one of the millions of hosting companies. In matters of control and having a nice cPanel, standard, run of the mill hosting was just easier. Do a bit of research. Most companies will give discounts if a district purchases a year of hosting up front (verses month to month).

A few things to keep in mind:

  1. Do not pick shared hosting. It’s the cheapest option. And dangerous for security reasons.
  2. Do pick Virtual Private Server (VPS) or a dedicated server. Cost and performance is the big difference with a dedicated server costing (usually) more money.
  3. Make sure to get a sense of the support provided from the hosting company. If the web server goes down, who can a district reach for support?

Some big names for hosting (not necessarily a recommendation):

  • Dreamhost
  • Bluehost
  • Godaddy
  • A Small Orange

Step 2: Get the basics right

What, exactly, is web hosting? A real basic explanation:

  • An operating system installed. Typically the choices are Window’s server or a Linux flavor server. Pick Linux. CentOS and Ubuntu are the most popular.
  • On the operating system we have a web server. Apache is the most popular.

Two additional software items are key: A server side language and a database. The most popular are PHP and MySQL.

The Model T of web hosting is called “LAMP”. Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP. With it we can pretty much do what we want.

Nearly all web host providers come with a Control Panel. The post popular are Cpanel and Plex. We’ve found Cpanel easy (both to explain and run). Cpanels let a district install software with one or two clicks. We can create databases and view the databases with a few click. In short, control panels make life easy.

In addition to Cpanel, look for a tool that automatically installs software applications. The most popular is an application called “Softaculous”. Take a look at all the apps that can be installed with 1 or 2 clicks.

An sample of some of the scripts.
An sample of some of the scripts.

I cannot emphasize the ease of using a Control Panel and Softaculous. For example, to install a WordPress Blog or Moodle (to name popular apps) the process is:

  1. Login into Cpanel
  2. Go to Softaculous. Find WordPress
  3. Tell it what directory to install the applications (for example: wordpress.mydomain.com)
  4. Click install

The entire process takes 90 seconds.

Step 3: Pick a domain

A district needs a way to find your web server. Domains point to the web server. Most companies will provide a domain with hosting. A district might already have a domain available. If not, I always recommend finding a similar domain and use that with hosting. For example, Hamilton owns:

  • hamiltoncityschools.com and hamiltoncityschools.org
  • hcsdoh.org (our primary) and hcsdoh.net and hcsdoh.us
  • hcsd.me (used for shortening URLs).

Domains are cheap. Typically $15 a year.

Step 4: Determine what you want to run

We now have a function web server but don’t have any applications. Perhaps a district would like to run WordPress as its content management system. We would install WordPress in the root directory.

Or we may want to create a simple and clean “landing page” for staff and students. A mini-portal. We would code an HTML page and upload the page to the root directory.

At this point we have a functional canvas for creating applications.

Big Picture Example

Hamilton uses a dedicated web server to run our key application: Abre. I’m not looking to get into what Abre is with this post (those curious can view our transformation to Abre here and take a look at the code here), but I do want to explain how we use web hosting with Abre.

Abre uses:

  1. CentOS as its operating system (Linux)
  2. Apache for a web server
  3. MySQL for a databse
  4. PHP for server side scripting. HTML, CSS, and Javascript as well.

In short, it’s a pretty basic configuration. But with that configuration we’re able to create a slick, easy to use platform for our teachers and students.

Final Note: Security and Backups

I haven’t really explored security and backups in this post. Suffice to say, both are very important.

Backups are pretty easy. Find out how a web host backs up the server and then find a few additional ways to backup your data. We backup our important web applications 3 different ways. We’re a bit paranoid, but data storage is very cheap.

Security is a difficult beast. It’s always about degrees. To what extent has your web hosting company secured the server? This is an important question to ask when considering different providers. They can do a few different things to make a site more secure than other.

In Summary

With a web server, districts have the ability to create useful, creative, and effecient applications. It is the most important part of an instructional toolkit, the framework for developing applications to deliver strong instruction.


¹Not exactly true as you can build “gadgets” which are widgets of code running in the Google Site. This is a hacky experience though and you really don’t get much control over what you can do with the data.

²But again, context is required. Technology is about gains in effeciences. Sometimes you need to invest in the learning in order to get the gains. Education is full of people doing a lot of work because it’s how they’ve always done it.

 

Filed under: Tools

OMG! Share to Classroom— Where have you been?

You may have noticed a new icon was installed on your computer in the upper right corner of your screen.

share-to-classroom-chrome-extension

 

We have made this tool accessible to all students and staff due to the power it will have in your classroom.  Imagine all of your students working on different assignments in your classroom, but now you want them to all come back together to a certain activity or website instantly.  If you are using Google Classroom, this tool will allow you to do just that.

I have been using this tool in many classrooms around the district.  I must say I am super excited about this tool.  The extension makes it easy for teachers to send all of their students to the same website during class.  The teacher can simply open a website and “push” it to his or her students, triggering that website to open on the students’ devices as well.  It also works the other way— students can “push” websites to their teachers as well.  The teacher can then approve the website and in turn “push” it out to the entire class.  I see this as a great opportunity when students are researching and finding evidence to support their answers on a specific topic.  Students can acquire other students’ thoughts to see if the evidence is good enough to support the task at hand.

How about using after guided instruction and independent practice to “push” out a Google Form as a formative assessment to help guide instruction for the next class period.  It could be any digital formative assessment tool.  Using this extension also allows for you to think on your feet and opens the door easily to those “teachable moments”.  I was in a classroom recently where the students were discussing events going on around the world.  I realized quickly that students were not aware of where the events were taking place.  I was able to “push” out a map in proximity to where we are instantly.  Yes, you could project it on the screen, but the intimacy of having the information directly on each device allowed students to explore on their own, hear clearly, and watch repeatedly  It also levels the playing field for ELL and students of different backgrounds so everyone starts literally on the same page.

As teachers, we never feel we have enough time to do everything we want with our students.  The new Share to Classroom extension gives us back those few minutes it takes to get students to the same place and makes learning about investigating , not about navigating.  The uses of this extension are endless.  This is one of those things that you will say how did I ever manage with out this extension.

 

Filed under: Uncategorized