Times Ed: Exc-el is leading the way in effective web use by schools

TESSThis week’s Times Education Supplement Scotland (Friday, April 6th 2007) includes a feature we’ve been awaiting with interest on the use of social software in schools. Sue Leonard, the author, set out to investigate recent events where public web sites had been used to post anonymous comments on teachers. As part of her research, she contacted East Lothian to hear how we were using these tools.

You can read a cut-down version of the article on the Times Ed site. It’s in two parts, and the on-line version provides about 3/4 of each:

  • THE BAD – a discussion of problems arising from the use of a US-based site by students to make comments on teachers in Scottish schools. Perhaps inevitably, and despite inclusion of supportive arguments from the site’s founder, it paints a dark picture.
  • THE GOOD – a review of Exc-el, based on interviews with Don Ledingham, Lynne Lewis and Barry Smith. In addition to the on-line text, there’s coverage in the full article of the Pencaitland Primary blog and Preston Lodge High School’s Active Learning Partnerships (ALPs) programme and the student learning logs.

I’d been a bit worried that the article could so easily have painted a negative picture. It’s a relief to find that Sue’s interviews with some of the Exc-el community have provided more than just an abstract sense of balance: they’ve provided a tangible example of an alternative, positive way to view, and use, social software. I hope that’s helpful to people making decisions elsewhere.

It does make me think, though, we’ve got a much stronger story to tell, though, than can be covered in just a couple of pages. Although we’re trying to share what we’re doing via blogs, for example, we know that – by their nature – they’re preaching to the converted. They also tend to focus on a short time period; what we’ve done today, or this week, rather than what we’ve achieved over 6 months or a year.

There’s a gap here. We need to find ways of making it easy for people new to Exc-el to quickly get their heads round not just what it’s all about, but to find stories about successful examples they can build on.

Law Primary’s blog: 670 comments in under 5 weeks

If you’d like an example of how powerful an easy-to-use, interactive blog can be as a school web site, have a look at the Law Primary blog. This site was created on 23rd February 2007, so it’s not yet 5 weeks old – but has attracted 670 comments already. As always, there are surprises. Who’d have thought aspiring stars in the school show would use the blog to share their thoughts on the auditions?

Earliest writing on the web?

Don’t know about you, but I don’t have any of my jotters from my Primary 3 days. The Primary 3 children at Haddington Infant School are in a completely different situation. Now that they’re writing regularly on their individual blogs, they’re publishing not only to a global audience that’s separated by geography, but also to a an audience separated by time – which could well include themselves as adults.

I’ve now shown these blogs to a few people, and it’s clear there’s something very special about seeing such early writing on the web. No doubt there’s more of the same elsewhere, but I haven’t seen it. Here’s an example from Erin of P3-8.

Super School

If I was Minister for Education I would get new chares for the teachers beacause some off them are riped and all the fluf is cuming out.I would get new bookes for the cumputers sweet beacause some of them are scrubeld on.Then I would put a new carpets in the classroom beacause thay are dirty. Link

This formative assessment project has moved into another stage now. The children have learned how to comment on one another’s blogs, and are starting to leave comments.

To make that easy, we’ve provided each child with a Blogroll consisting of links to every other P3 pupil’s blog. (An earlier post explains how we did that.) This means they can easily browse not only the work of other children in their class, but also that of pupils in other P3 classes in the school.

This is enabling peer feedback between children who aren’t working in class at the same time. Perhaps this places more importance on reading and writing than would take place if the peer feedback took place using jotters, between children who could supplement the reading and writing with verbal communication?

We went for the giant blogroll because we felt it important at this stage to offer one-click access to the peer blogs, and not tuck the list away, or break it down into class-sized chunks.

If you go to any one of these blogs, you can use the Blogroll to easily browse the others. I’m sure your feedback would be appreciated on their work to date. The first one on their blogroll list is Aaron’s blog.

Keeping Bubbleshare-ised blogs loading quickly

Bubbleshare Albums, such as those on the Pencaitland Primary Blog, are a great way to illustrate blog posts. But the blog can become slow to load if there are lots of Bubbleshare albums visible on the front page.

[bubbleshare 118790.b2ad07edbb5]

(If you’ve not tried this, activate the Bubbleshare plugin, then add a pointer to the album to your blog Posts – or Pages – like this: [bubbleshare*118790.b2ad07edbb5] (replace the * with a space) where the code part is album’s ID, easily visible from the URL.)

The reason for the slowdown is that each album contains a number of images, which visitors can play in-situ using a slide-show. Continue reading Keeping Bubbleshare-ised blogs loading quickly

New Exc-el-wide Recent Posts widget

Any Exc-el blogger can now display the latest posts from the whole Exc-el blog system. All they need is a Sidebar Widget-friendly theme. (You can check themes for widget-friendliness here.)

It’s done with Skcsknathan001‘s WPMU-Recent-Posts widget.

You can currently see it working in the right sidebar of this eduBuzz pilot blog.

P3 “Personal Learning Plan” bloggers migrating to Exc-el

Robert Whiteside at Haddington Infant School has around 80 P3 bloggers about to migrate to the Exc-el blog system. This work is investigating at exploring the potential of blogs in formative assessment. Aims include:

While we were still cranking the starting handle of the Exc-el blog system in August these blogs were set up on learnerblogs.org. I met with Robert today to discuss migrating the blogs over. Continue reading P3 “Personal Learning Plan” bloggers migrating to Exc-el

Exc-el blogs: Event calendar plugin added

Firetree.net’s Event Calendar has now been added to the Exc-el blog system. It’s ideal for posting details of future school or class events, such as parents’ nights, homework due dates, test dates.

To add an event, you just create a Post for it in the usual way, so you can provide plenty of details. The only difference is that once you’ve enabled the Plugin, you’ll have event start date/time and event finish date/time fields you can complete at the bottom of your Write Post screen.

You can see it working here at the Education ICT News blog here: https://www.edubuzz.org/eduictnews, where it’s installed as a SideBar Widget.

Quick guide to setting it up:

    Activate the Sidebar Widgets plugin if you haven’t already (you’ll need a Widget friendly, eduictnews is using 3K2)
    Activate the Plugin but don’t try to view your blog yet!
    Activate the Event Calendar Widget plugin.
    Go to Options / Event Calendar, and choose a Category for event posts, say “events”.
    Set any other options, details here http://wpcal.firetree.net/options.

Full details are at http://wpcal.firetree.net.

WordPress: Google Analytics Plug-in installed

Robert Jones has enthused before about Google Analytics. He includes a screenshot.

At that time you needed to put a bit of code into your blog, which put it out of easy reach of Exc-el bloggers.

If you’ve an Exc-el blog, things have now become easier. Log in to your blog, head for the Plugins menu and activate the Google Analytics Plugin. You’ll need to register with Google Analytics, tell that your blog’s full URL, and get a User Account code. (It’ll look like UA-123456-7, and is in amongst the HTML snippet from Google.)

This awesome resource will enable students to see quite clearly what country their visitors are from (geography, modern studies…), which parts of the blog are popular (literacy, marketing, art, design,..) and also gather statistics for everything from pages read to links clicked (maths, numeracy, information handling…). There’s a lot of potential for collaborative work.

Freshy theme: good choice for students?

Freshy could be a good theme choice for student blogs. For formative assessment purposes, it’s good if visitors to a blog can comment not only on Posts, but on any Pages the student has created. We’ve learned that not all themes support Page comments. For example, Craig’s All About Birds page is enabled for comments, but in his current theme, 3K2, we don’t have an option to leave one.

We already know too, of course, that students value the ability to change their own header image.

This morning I noticed that Mark, a student at MGS, has adopted the Freshy theme for his blog. He’s found that you can add your own header image by providing the URL for the image – it’s in the Advanced Options for Freshy. Thanks Mark!

Combined with Freshy’s support for comments on Pages, this means Freshy is a good choice for student blogs where comments on Pages are important.

Student Blogs: How to handle comments?

We’ve now a growing number of student blogs. These haven’t been given a high profile. Partly, this was to let them get established, and build up their confidence, before encouraging others to comment. Also, we wanted to be confident that we had appropriate arrangements in place for dealing with comments.

Because Craig and Fraser have been doing so well with their blogs (see previous post) we now want to let them start building an audience. That’s why they’ve now earned the first Student Blog links on the Exc-el Home Page.

What have we done about comments? These are often a source of concern. Ewan‘s experience from Musselburgh Grammar School’s blogs  showed that problems are very unlikely, with only a handful of problem comments out of thousands posted.

Because these are the first Exc-el student blogs to have a public profile, we’ve added some additional monitoring. As well as automated protection against comment spam, we’ve arranged that a copy of every comment left will be automatically emailed to a member of staff at the school as soon as it is left. That teacher has full rights on each blog, and can moderate or delete any comments held for moderation.  The flexibility of WordPress MU is proving valuable.