While my brain still hammers around some of the other societal / culture issues around School 2.0, I thought I’d make an attempt at tackling a more concrete piece of the puzzle — the Web Portal.
I am convinced that one of the keys to building School 2.0 is a robust web portal that creates the virtual center of the community online. As much as Google is creating incredible apps, and as much as we can have a few dozen external tools that power our kids’ learning, I think that they / we need a home-based around which we can build and strengthen a community. As one of our students said to Steve Hargadon, "If we had gotten the laptops, but not had the web-site and Moodle, it wouldn’t have changed that much about the way we learn."
At Beacon, the school forums and teacher/student we created gave everyone a reason to check back to the site often. But with the advent of all the Web 2.0 tools, there’s no way I’m going to write the next generation tool we need. I’m not that good a programmer, and that’s not exactly my role anymore.
Here’s a quick critique of the three tools we’ve got installed as potentially major pieces of our core web portal:
1) Moodle — Amazing at what it does. It’s an incredible piece of course management software that gives us our core infrastructure. By creating an online environment for every class, it really serves as the focus of our community. Moodle’s limitations are what it doesn’t it. It doesn’t play outside the "walled garden" very well. It’s blogging functionality is less than stellar, and while my little hack to allow parents to see homework assignments is passable, I wish that there was an easier way to create limited parental access. In the end, Moodle is a fantastic walled-garden course system, but for better or for worse, that’s what it is. (I’m told the newer versions are starting to rock, but we’ll see…)
2) Elgg — Pretty easy to set up and run. Solid multi-user blogging / social networking program. Great for creating an individual-driven, educational networking, but it falls down as a school-driven system because you can’t easily set up classes, nor can teachers easily create course-based RSS feeds. Passable, but really individual-based, not great for a community where at least part of the community is top-down defined — say, as in a course schedule.
3) Drupal — I started poking around in Drupal tonight. Wow. I started playing and turning on various features, and I can see its power. Blogging, podcasting, unbelievably customizable, scalable. I got the sense there wasn’t much I wouldn’t be able to do with it, as long as I could figure it out or be willing to build it into the program. And that was the problem — IF I could figure it out. I’m pretty good at this stuff. I’ve been doing systems administration and computer programming for over twenty years now. (Yee gods.) And I was intimidated by Drupal’s administration. I know if I had a few dozen hours, I could probably figure Drupal out and configure it to do about 80% of what I want it to do, but I don’t have that time. And I could imagine a lot of edu-techies looking at Drupal and running screaming. And as I was poking around, I started to get the sense that even Drupal might have some limitations…
So what’s the tool I want?
One login to a portal that gives members of the community access to their courses, their email, their RSS feeds, their blog and displays the most important parts of that on the front page. (i.e. — you have new mail, 500 new RSS articles, a link to create new blog entry, etc…)
A really robust course management system, ala Moodle.
The bility for teachers and students to decide what is and isn’t public. For example, it’d be amazing if a class could develop a wiki inside the walled garden and then, a teacher could go into an admin function and decide to publish it.
Blogging / podcasting that can be tied to classes. Individuals would all have their own blogs, but if a student published a blog entry by clicking through a course page, the entry would automagically have the keyword or category with the course name built in.
… and therefore, RSS feeds by course so teachers can easily follow student blog entries. (As well as the typical user-based RSS feeds… and site-based RSS would be helpful as well.)
Parent access to whatever pieces of the "walled garden" that teachers allowed, but at bare minimum a system that allowed parents access to all assignments with due-dates and project sheets attached. (I was able to hack moodle to give access to everything but the project sheets that the teachers post.)
And then the piece that isn’t part of any of these tools yet — a strong Student Information System that allowed teachers to collaborate, get information about kids, write narrative reports, track student progress over time, etc…
And again, there are lots of pieces of the puzzle out there. There are rumors of one of the portal companies partnering with a district to create a student portal. GooglePages could provide a more robust portal than most schools already have, but I still believe in the single login killer app that is school-based, community-centered, with a focus both on the user / student / teacher and the class.
(And yes, I’m still pinning my hopes on Open Academic.