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:
- Google Sites is ugly as sin and hasn’t featured a realistic update in forever (this makes me nervous).
- You’re facing the challenges of multiple signons for different sites.
- You really can’t build apps in Google Sites¹.
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.
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:
- Do not pick shared hosting. It’s the cheapest option. And dangerous for security reasons.
- 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.
- 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):
- 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.
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:
- Login into Cpanel
- Go to Softaculous. Find WordPress
- Tell it what directory to install the applications (for example: wordpress.mydomain.com)
- 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.
- CentOS as its operating system (Linux)
- Apache for a web server
- MySQL for a databse
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.
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.