Sunday, February 24, 2008

Voicethreads, Flash, and the Problem with GPOs

The best laid plans...
After a few brave colleagues were kind enough to help us troubleshoot last fall, we finally have everything working from within school. It involved a change in the proxy server settings, and the installation of Firefox, since there are know issues with Internet Explorer not playing well with Voicethread.

Two weeks ago I met with each grade level team to show them there wheres and whys of us spending much of this second semester using digital media applications with their students. It was fun to meet with the teams, celebrate that our students are doing so well on our current outcomes that we are able to add these highly engaging digital media applications to our curriculum. After giving them an overview of Windows Movie Maker, Voicethread and podcasting, I asked them to schedule a meeting with their tech integration teacher before the end of the month so we can work with them to integrate these technologies into their classroom curriculum in appropriate ways. Then I said I'd send them the links to the Voicethreads along with a calendar to help us plan.

Well, going on a week later, they still don't have those links. The first teacher I met with asked me to drop by that afternoon to show his class Voicethreads. When I did so I found that yes, the staff machines do now have Firefox, but because it was installed after the main build, the Adobe Flash plugin wasn't installed. On my machine, because I am local administrator on my machine, when the Voicethread site directed me to the Adobe Flash plugin download page, I followed it and was easily able to install the flash plugin and get down to business. This is not the case on my staff and students machines.

Being a Very Large Organization, my school uses GPOs to control groups of users on our Windows XP system. Currently, these GPOs do not allow .exe files to be saved to the My Docs or servers. They do allow saving to the C drive, but to do that with the Flash plugin requires skills that a number of my teachers don't have. And I don't want to teach my students to install on these computers.

As a result, I had to ask the IT Department to create a packet of Firefox with the Flash plugin installed, and then use SMS to push it through the system to each computer. Our IT Department is top notch and despite having a million other things to do, they did this for me.

I scheduled to occur during the school day because my busy teachers have a terrible time remembering to leave their computers on at night. The first day we ran the update, it didn't finish and it encountered many failures. I asked them to run it much earlier the next day. My assistant and I walked to ever computer to make sure it was turned on. We had a much higher success rate, but we still have around 20 computers that failed for some reason.

Walking through the building turning on every machine isn't a great use of our time. (Yes, the engineers should be able to turn the machines on remotely, but one brand of computers we have won't wake remotely.) Spending more than a day pushing updates through and tracking failures isn't a good use of our engineers time. And having staff without the skill to easily download a plugin to the local drive and install it is also a problem. If they can't do that here, they probably can't do it on their home machines either.

Those are just a few of the many reasons we are looking at making teachers local administrators of their work computers. IT Departments are always walking the narrow line between keeping the network stable enough that people are willing and able to use the technology, but open enough that it isn't a hindrance to getting their work done. It is time, in our organization to open things up a bit more.

Our current GPOs have done a great job of protecting our system. I think it has been remarkably reliable. However, it is now causing too many conflicts with software and with web sites. So much educational software is poorly written from a programmer's point of view. It breaks the rules of good coding, saves files in inappropriate places, and does a bunch of other things that make it not function with our GPOs. The software is worthwhile, just not well written. We experience this the most in our primary school which uses many educational games, and in our high school which uses many department specific types of software, such as foreign language software, science probes, CAD programs and smartphone software.

We've done some trials and loosening the GPOs is solving those problems. Since we are not making students local administrators, we will still have issues with some software titles. Hopefully, these changes will not greatly compromise the integrity of our network.

If this change is to be truly successful, it will take good teacher education. Some staff already have the skills needed to back up their own documents, run the anti-virus software each week, and make responsible decisions regarding what they install. For many staff members, frustrated that they can't update their iTunes software and constantly running out of space as they try new technologies, the change will be welcome.

For others, it will be a bunch of responsibility that they don't want for no tangible benefits. I see benefits, such as them learning how to do these things here so that they can also do them successfully at home. Part of being a professional educator is keeping their skills up to date. In this day and age, some of those skills involve technology. If they can't back up their files or run the anti-virus, is it likely that they are able to integrate technology in meaningful, rigorous ways? Possibly, but I think not likely.

Where is your school network on this continuum of safe but locked down, or open but more vulnerable? If yours is open, do staff back up their own personal files? Has it made your system less reliable? I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

It's No Longer My Blog (And That's a Good Thing!)

I've been writing lately about our first elementary blogging project at my school. Because this was our first attempt, I've been very hands-on. I have been teaching the lessons while the teacher assists both in class and by tracking down permission forms. We scheduled one extra lap visit per week so I could teach the introductory lessons, help edit blog posts, assist with publishing the first posts, approve the posts and moderate the comments.

I'm happy to say that the classroom teacher is gradually taking over. First, she figured out a rotation schedule for their silent reading time. Each day, x number of kids rotate through using the four classroom computers to write posts, reply to comments, and leave comment on our blog pals' blogs. No longer do they need to spend lab time blogging.

Today I took the next step and changed the blog email address from mine to hers. Now all comments will come to her to be approved. I'll also show her one more time how to approve blog posts, and then the system will be hers to run.

Thus far, she seems pleased with her students' excitement and their eagerness to read and write blog posts. This project is now supporting her classroom curriculum. I hope all my other integration projects go so well this term.

If you are a tech integrationalist, are you being successful at gradually releasing control of projects? Do you have any tips to share to help the rest of us do this well?

If you are a classroom teacher, what steps can tech integrationists take to help you feel more comfortable assuming control and responsibility of integration projects?

Kids, Comments, ClustrMaps and Clocks

On Monday the third graders were exuberant in their delight at finding comments on their blogs. At the start of class I reviewed how to find their post using the category list, and then how to open their comments.

I warned them that the teachers who visited their blogs over the weekend might never visit again, so any replies we left for them might never reach their intended audience. To my surprise, that did not daunt the children. They still wanted to reply before working on their new posts. As is typical with this great group of kids, most put quite a bit of thought into their replies. They have the makings of fine bloggers.

Unfortunately, I am not doing as well. I did finally get the Clustr map working on our site -- I'd love it if a few people would now visit the blog so it would start registering visitors. However, now I can't even get the Widgetbox widgets to work on the site.

I had a clock working before, but took it out because it was so ugly. However, since my attempts to make other widgets work failed, I wanted to put the ugly clock back on so our blog pals could compare their time with our time. No such luck.

I have watched the videos in Learnerblogs that shows how to insert widgets. The problem is caused by many widgets using javascript, which isn't allowed in Learnerblogs; it will break them. So, the video shows you how to paste the code from the Widgetbox widget into a text editor and extract the panel ID. That is what I did last week that worked so well. Now, the widget code doesn't have a panel ID when I paste it. It has a different ID and that one isn't working when pasted into the widgetbox widget holder on the blog. I am NOT amused.

Non-Widgetbox widgets need to be inserted in text widgets in Learnerblogs. However, if they contain javascript, Learnerblogs automatically strips it out. Google Gadgets all seem to use javascript. Does anyone know where I can find a well behaved javascript-free clock?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Kindness of Twitter Friends - or- My PLN Saves the Day Again

All but four of the third graders have published their first blog post. They are eagerly awaiting comments. Unfortunately, I know that the person coordinating the project in Bangkok has been out of town, and our Pennsylvania group hadn't started blogging, so our blog pals would not be visiting our site for a while yet.

Knowing how disappointed the children would be to come to class on Monday and still have no comments, I sent out a quick tweet on Twitter asking for people to comment on the blog posts. Then I went to bed.

When I checked Twitter the next day. I had a message from one kind teacher who had already left some comments. However, I had message from a number of other helpful teachers saying they had tried to leave comments, but were told they had to log in first.

Then I remembered that we had ticked the Learnerblog setting that required people to login to Learnerblogs before they could comment. We had done that to prevent spam, but it was now preventing legitimate comments, so we decided to change that setting.

After a long search, I finally located that setting again, and then I sent out another Tweet. In short order, numerous teachers had left comments for EACH student. Some of the teachers had lived in Singapore or visited Singapore so they were able to personalize their comments to address experiences the children are likely to have had. One of the commenters had attended our school as child, and later had taught at it. All in all, their comments were the thoughtful, well-written type that will serve as powerful models for our students as they comment on other blogs.

Even more importantly, when they visit my lab tomorrow, every single one of those bloggers will feel the thrill and validation that comes from having connected, at least briefly, with another person via their writing. THANK YOU to each of you who made it happen. Know that you have made a difference.

Overcoming Commenting Problems with Learnerblogs

Last week our third graders published their first blog posts. Then they visited our blog pals site and started leaving comments. After I modeled how to leave a comment, they were very eager to begin, (and very intrigued with the need to type the code they saw in the comment box to prove that they are a human and not a spambot.)

Other years, with other classes on other blogging platforms, I had run into the issue of some blog sites not allowing very many consecutive posts from the same person within a short period of time. I assume that system is in place to prevent spambot attacks.

I had hoped to get around it by having my students used linked Gmail accounts as the address they used when posting comments. (If you aren't familiar with linked Gmail accounts, read Kim Cofinio's great post about them here.) However, after about 10 minutes, the students started receiving screens telling them to slow down on their commenting. The linked Gmail addresses weren't solving the problem.

Next, the teacher and I ran around entering first our school email addresses and then my personal address, but that didn't solve the problem. Evidentally, the system was tracking our domain or IP addresses, not the email address.

I don't know how to get around that, except to only have a few students comment per session. That makes it seem like commenting could best be done by a few children at a time in the classroom rather than the entire class in the computer lab.

Another solution is to have more than one class blog to visit. Fortunately, we are in position to use the latter solution. Since this blogpal project has begun, we have added classes in Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin to our blog roll.

Another minor problem we encountered involved comment moderation. We have not paired up the students in this project. They don't have one blog pal; they are free to comment on posts by anyone in the other class. This avoids the problem of students not getting on well with their partner, or of prolific writers being paired with less enthusiastic writers. However, it leaves open the possibility of some children not receiving many responses. Our class decided that we would try, at least this first time, to make certain that every one of our blog pals received at least one comment.

It was a noble goal, but since both class blogs have enabled comment moderation, we couldn't tell which blogs had already been commented on by our class, so we quickly abandoned that strategy. Fortunately, before we had begun commenting, I pointed how how to navigate their blog using the category links and the calendar, so hopefully students whose post was no longer visible on the front page also received comments.

Now we just need to wait for their teacher to approve the comments, and for them to visit our blog.

What I've Learned So Far Using

About a month ago, Kim Cofino blogged that she was looking for a simple, writing based, collaborative project for her third graders. I was just thinking about the online pen pal project I'd done with a third grade class last year, so I Skyped her. In about 20 minutes, we hashed out the preliminary details for a blog pals project.

We both wanted a project that would encourage reading and writing, and we didn't want the technology to get in the way. We decided to use a free, multi-user Wordpress blog from This allowed each class to have one student login, and one place for the other class to visit, making it easy for the students to find their way around. Making a category for each child allows visitors to quickly view all of that child's posts, making it look like each child has their own blog.

Kim developed an excellent set of preliminary lessons that we used with both classes. This time spent up front was well spent. By the time students finally got down to writing, they were very eager to begin and well-informed. I wouldn't change a thing except to possibly add one more day where they can read blogs. We read blogs the day we researched common blog features, but they really wanted to read the posts, not skim the pages looking for commonalities.

Last week the children wrote their first posts in Microsoft Word and then pasted them into the blog. I didn't like how small the font was on the blog so I did a bit of research. First I tried other themes, but each had its own problems, so we returned to our original theme.

Next I looked for plug-ins. I didn't find very many for this multi-user platform. However, one I did find was a more full-featured text editor. It included a button that makes it easy to paste text copied from Microsoft Word. I've only had the chance to use it with a few students, but their posts came in at a more reasonable font size.

I also wanted to customize the header to a Singapore-related image. In the Creative Commons section of Flickr I found a number of panoramic Singapore skyline photos that included the durian-shaped Esplanade building, our most-distinctive building.

With those two changes in place, I only have two more wishes. I want to add clocks that show the local time of each of our blog pals (we now have blogpals in Pennsylvania and Florida in addition to our original Bangkok blogpals.) I can successfully add Widgetbox brand widgets, but none of these have the look I want. When I try to add any other widgets, I am unsuccessful. I also want to add a Clustr map. I subscribed so we have a map that we can use, but I'm not having any luck getting it onto our Learnerblog. I can get them to work on Edublogs, but not Learnerblogs. If you have added non-Widgetbox widgets to a blog, I'd really appreciate hearing from you.

If you would like to make a group of third graders really happy, drop by and leave them a comment. And be sure to mention where you are writing from, since the Clustr map isn't working yet.