Friday, May 23, 2008

All We Wanted Were Book Club Forums

Last night was one of THOSE nights, the type where you start on what you think is a simple task and many hours later, you are still trying to accomplish it.

All we wanted was an online venue where the elementary summer school students could have ongoing, asynchronous book discussions. Our school has a Blackboard CMS so it should have been no problem. However, this summer our Blackboard will undergo major changes which will take it off line during part of the summer school session.

I wasn't heartbroken to realize that. Neither this teacher nor most of the students are experienced Blackboard users, and I find elementary children often have trouble navigating Blackboard. The forums are especially confusing since when you try to read a post, the header fills the entire screen, so children can't see the body of the post unless they scroll down, and children always think they should save rather than submit the post. As a result, it never shows up in the forum.

My next thought was to create a private Ning. I knew of other elementary teachers who had created the student accounts using linked Gmail accounts. Unfortunately, despite numerous attempts throughout the day and evening, these were failing. I could send the invitation, but when I clicked on the confirmation link in the Gmail message, it would say I was ineligible no matter what the birth date was. I know plenty of other teachers who have used linked Gmail accounts to create Ning accounts, so hopefully it was just a technical problem.

(And yes, I did say "birth date". Ning was out of compliance with COPPA since some elementary children were participating in networks. Now Ning is needing to gather birth date data so they can not allow users under the age of 13 to participate in Nings. (Steve Hardagon has some updated information and possible work arounds on his blog. However, using a Ning was becoming impractical.)

Next I tried Wetpaint, since they have great forums, but I couldn't make the wiki private, and linked Gmail accounts didn't work.

So I asked my PLN what to try and one tweet suggested Imbee. I hadn't checked out that site before. It is a social networking site for children. It is an interesting site and has safe guards in place to make it a healthy environment in which kids can learn to be responsible social networkers. The site has teacher materials and encourages classroom use, but I didn't see any way to make a private network within it, and the teacher doesn't want everyone in there to be able to be part of the book discussions.

Finally I decided to try pbwiki. I think that was the very first wiki platform I ever used. I knew we couldn't use actual wiki pages for the forums because only one person could edit a page at a time. However, I was pleased to see that each page now has a comments tab. I played around in there and it looks like it will work for book discussions.

I was disappointed to see that having the invite key is no longer the only thing you need to access a private pbwiki. I tried using a different browser and going directly to the wiki. A login screen appeared, but in addition to entering the invite key, I had to enter my name (so people can track my revisions) and an email address. It no longer lets you skip adding the email address.

Next, I sent an invitation using a linked Gmail account. That worked just fine as long as I entered the wiki via the link in the email. Otherwise, I need to enter an email address, name and invite key to enter. We can have children do that using the linked Gmail address, but it is a bit more putzy.

I'll show the entire system to the teacher next week to see if it meets his needs. If it doesn't, what suggestions do you have for a free, private venue for online book discussions, that works with linked Gmail accounts for the email addresses?