Proposal for Adoption of Blogging Service

by Mr. Sheehy

What follows is a proposal I wrote for my school district proposing the hosting of a local WordPress Multi User blogging system. I experimented with many blogging providers through the last two school years (especially last year) and thought this system was a clearly superior way to proceed. To my pleasure, my district has been supportive of this plan and my concerns, and is trying to help make the blogging within the district more standard, which would facilitate the ease of use for teachers and would make training possible, since we’d all be talking the same language. I also thought it was cool that my district would be willing to contract with James Farmer, a person whose scholarship and work in the field I admire.

I do not presume to be an expert in this area, but I thought this proposal might appear helpful to others, so I’ve published it here.

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During the 2006-2007 school year, I have engaged blogging in the classroom in a thorough test, piloting, experimenting, and constantly reflecting on the pitfalls and successes. I have used with students three different blogging hosts that met basic standards of keeping kids safe even as they aided my creation of relevant and authentic assignments. Via my experimentation, I have formed a number of ideas about where our schools might be able to seize upon the advantages the medium provides.

A description of what was tested
The basic continuum of blogs for students works like the figure displayed below. On the left, a teacher has ultimate control over students’ blogs – approving all posts and comments, creating and maintaining accounts and passwords, which of course means that the left is the most labor intensive model for the teacher. Also there, students have little choice about visual themes for their space and the coding tends to be more complex and less flexible to those who do not know html. The blogging host I’ve utilized that lives close to this end of the continuum is David Warlick’s Blogmeister. As one moves to the right, the students’ freedom increases and the maintenance work for the teacher decreases – as do the risks that make some people nervous about students’ activity on the Web. Increasing with the students’ freedom is their ability to express themselves with their blogs through themes and multi-media content (pictures, hyperlinks, and video can be utilized without knowledge of html code and the range of themes becomes more visually appealing). The item I used with students that captured this was James Farmer’s Learnerblogs service. Between the two lies 21Classes, a new competitor in K-12 blogging that gives teachers the options of controlling accounts similar to Warlick’s Blogmeister, but with a more student and user friendly editor. The design and visual appeal does not match Learnerblogs, however. When the wider range of blogging is considered, the continuum moves much farther to the right, ultimately landing at a self-hosted blog where a user can write her own code and design and customize it in any way her imagination and skill allow her.

Figure 1

The Winner
With my students and with me, the Learnerblogs service outpaced the others by far. Farmer has utilized the WordPress open source blogging software to its potential, allowing students to use “widgets” where they can customize content that appears beside their regular blogging articles and constantly updating the themes available to students, so their pages can be unique. For an example of what is possible, see my juniors’ class blog, which is hosted by Learnerblogs’ sister service, Edublogs. Numerous times through the year, underclassmen would beg to use the “cooler” Learnerblogs WordPress interface, and they based their claim only upon appearance. I would add to their reasons the What You See Is What You Get visual editor, which mirrors what is becoming standard on most web and word processing editors, so that by using it to create content (including hyper- and multimedia content), students acquire critical and relevant computer skills. While the 21 Classes service also uses a similar editor, it falls behind the customizing options and design appeal of Learnerblogs (plus it allots fewer than 50 free blogs). My personal recommendation at this time is for elementary school teachers to use 21 Classes or Blogmeister to utilize the immediate control and teacher-run set up (which platform would be best for their kids would be better decided by them), for middle school teachers to use Blogmeister or Learnerblogs (according to their judgment), and for high school teachers to use Learnerblogs. The design appeal aspect of Learnerblogs sounds frilly, but it is a key part of what hooks students and makes them excited about their online space.

The Problems
Unfortunately, free services come with free glitches, and Farmer’s Learnerblogs often failed for us. On users’ forums, he has explained that his server capacity is periodically overwhelmed, usually at the open of terms when massive numbers of users attempt to register new accounts at the same time. Unfortunately for my students and me, this meant that the blogs were unavailable for a week or two at a time. On three occasions, we were unable to access the blogs for at least two days. Such a block may seem harmless, but when I as a teacher have structured units around the particular communication characteristics of blogs, having them fail removed much of the learning experiences I had created. In addition, Learnerblogs allows only reactive and indirect control from the instructor – if a student posts inappropriate content, the teacher can reprimand, withhold grades, or remove the student from the hyperlink lists, but he cannot enter the students’ account without the student’s assistance. Our district has previously approved such a set up based upon the nature of the blogs’ content, the effectiveness of teachers’ class management, and the high cost of upgrading to a more teacher-controlled system that carries the same advantages as Learnerblogs.

An expensive option
One option offered by James Farmer is Edublogs Premium, where he sets up and hosts a family of blogs for a school and allows the school and teachers to control the blogs administratively. Unfortunately, the service is expensive and it is difficult to see how our district could support wide use of it.

A Recommended Plan
My recommendation would be to host the blogs ourselves and contract James Farmer’s services to set up the WordPress Multi-user system on our server. This would essentially give us the Edublogs Premium capabilities of administrative control over content, but without renting the server space from Edublogs.

Scaling Up the Service to More Users

I would propose starting small, with enough space to host 4 teachers in the English department at one high school (675 students or less), and then a gradual ramp up for interested parties as the district works out the rough spots.

For the second year, we could increase the initial school’s load by 2 or 3 more teachers and to begin a group of 4 at other schools, followed by increases of a few more teachers each year.

If blogging takes off, I envision each 9th grader having a blog assigned to him/her upon entering high school and using it for four years – a type of reflective learning journal that can be used by any content area teacher interested in having students utilize it.

Training

Regarding training, use the strategy of grouping teachers within buildings to form “cohorts” of users who can assist one another in the use of the blogs. Building-level Technology Leaders will also share their expertise more widely when consulting with cohorts of four teachers rather than a limited one-to-one training. Technology Leaders will also be able to create an interactive wiki or forum for local users to interact and trade ideas beyond the building level.

Issues to Consider

  • How much space are we willing to allot per student’s blog? This is an important question when multimedia aspects are considered, like podcasting. Currently, Learnerblogs offers students 50MB per user, an ample amount for them to upload periodic, short podcasts.

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Image Attribution:

Original image: ‘Veerle’s Blog at Starbucks‘ by: David Joyce

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