Monthly Archives: April 2014

Moodle

I’ve posted about open source software in the past. One of my favorite pieces of open source software is Moodle. I’ve been working with Moodle for several years now. It keeps getting better and better. It is a very powerful tool. However, that power sometimes leads to a bit of confusion. The barrier to get going can be intimidating for some teachers.

I’ve been busy working on some projects that revolve around Moodle and making Moodle easier to use and understand. Some of these projects are public and some private. But all of them involve making Moodle easier to use for teachers.

I’ve been working on some tutorials for teachers that take the Common Core Standards and apply them to lessons within Moodle. The focus on these lessons is currently middle school lessons. The idea is that teachers can use the lessons directly, adapt them for their classroom (or grade level) and learn how to use Moodle along the way. This way, they can then implement their own lessons within Moodle as an expert. This is taking a lot longer than I had originally anticipated. However, it is not necessarily a bad thing. I continue learning and growing on implementing blended learning experiences. I’ve had the opportunity to teach in a blended learning situation. I also get to talk to teachers to learn exactly what their struggles are.

For some teachers, the basics are Moodle are confusing. I’m spending some time developing materials that should help teachers better understand the what and how – the main guts – of Moodle better. This leads to teachers having a deeper understanding and being more confident in using Moodle. I believe that this will pay off in spades in the long run.

I’ve also had the wonderful opportunity to be in a student role using Moodle. This refreshing point of view really helped me sharpen my instincts as to what can make Moodle easier to use for students. This, in turn, has encouraged me to continue pushing a couple of projects that will hopefully bear fruit soon.

I’m really fortunate to be able to work with a Moodle Master. Plus, I’ve made some other connections that are extremely valuable in learning how to use Moodle for instructional purposes. The idea of developing that support system is crucial to all. The sum is greater than any of the parts. For those that continue to help, support and push me, I’m grateful.

Open Source- Part 1

Open source software is software that is free to use, modify, copy, distribute and more (actually, one could charge for open source, but the licensing means that the code must be freely available). Open source software has a big place in technology and our world. I’m a big believer in open source software. It is something that hits at our altruistic nature. But it really is more than that.

How can something that is free be any good? How can it be sustainable? How can it be trusted?

Quite frankly, I’m usually suspicious of things that are free. After all, there is no free lunch (at least that’s what my mom taught me). I worry about a lot of free services that educators “buy” into. After all, in most cases, if you are paying for it, you are the product. Some of these work out fine. Some don’t.

Let’s take a look at some free and some open source software.

Google Model

Although Google software isn’t usually open source, it is free. Google wants to keep you on the web. They make money be selling advertising. The more you are enculturated to spending time on the web, the more money that they make. Thus, trading services for your habits works for them. This is a similar model to television for much of the life of television (though that changed a bit with cable TV). (This also leaves out of the discussion entirely the concepts of privacy and how Google may be sifting through your data). For the most part, this is a trade off that people are satisfied to make. People trade seeing ads for free email service. People trade seeing ads for the ability to upload and watch videos.

Nings

Nings were very popular at one point. Nings provided a social aspect combined with blogs. Lots of people spent considerable time and energy developing communities that were tied to Nings. Only one problem, the owner of Nings needed to pay the bills. They decided to switch over to a pay model. Currently, Ning is still around. For $25 a month, you can get a basic plan.

Others

There are lots of free sites out there for teachers to use. However, all of them have bills to pay, server fees, hosting fees, and more. Some make money like Google by selling advertising. Others sell products or other services and use the free portions as their own type of advertising. Some are free now and will convert to a pay model once they have enough users (see Ning above).

Open source

So how does open source work? Well, generally, open source works on a couple of plains. Number one, the code is shared. Thus, even if the originator or original company wants to make a profit from the product, others can still use it for free. Others can continue to modify and develop the software.

Open source- model one – extras

One model of open source provides for the basic functionality of a product. If you want extras, you can pay for them. This is great model and people can try things out and decide if they need the advanced features or not. It also allows for users to become used to using things and decide on their own that they want additional features. This model is also useful in that people with highly technical skills (or the willingness to learn) can use the free version, but those who want someone else to do the work can simply pay for the service.

Open source- model two – altruism

A second model of open source is something that is developed and given to the world. This is one expression of altruism. These are frequently shared by many experts. Many of these products drive our world today. Things like Linux, which most web servers run, and Apache, another web server software piece, have been developed to make the world a better place.

Open source – model three – support

Sometimes businesses realize that they can make money off providing support and training for the software instead of the software itself. This is roughly analogous to music bands that really make their money by touring and doing live shows.

Many times businesses realize that their business is improved by contributing to open source software. Thus, some very large companies will actually provide employee time to continue to work on and develop open source software.

Examples

Below are a few examples of open source software that I use. This is not a comprehensive list. These are things that I actually use.

LibreOffice – This is a suite of software tools that can replace MicroSoft Office.

OpenOffice – See LibreOffice.

Calibre – eBook management. Also very useful for converting ebook files from one format to another.

Moodle – Learning management. You’ll need access to a server to use this. This is a very powerful learning management system.

GIMP – image editor package. Similar to Photoshop.

Optimism

PenniesThese really are exciting times that we are living in. Never before has it been possible to reach so many students in so many ways. As humans, we are very visually oriented. We respond to what we see. We make sense of the world by looking around, making judgements, decisions, based on that information that we perceive.

This is one reason that many classrooms have been so teacher driven. Teachers can provide a focal point. A good teacher directs the attention of the students when and where it is needed. Teachers used the tools at hand to do just that. A blackboard allows for all students to see the same thing at the same time. This eventually morphed into the overhead projector. This allowed the teacher to focus the attention of the students while maintaining eye contact. The teacher was able to direct the learning and evaluate as the lesson was under way. What a powerful concept. However, that doesn’t scale well. It lead to teaching to the middle.

Carol Tomlinson and others made a push for differentiated instruction. Who could argue with that? Well, at least until it came time to actual differentiate instruction. Turns out that creating multiple pathways for students can take a time. A lot of time. A really, really lot of time. That wasn’t time invested, it was time spent. Teachers who do a really excellent job of differentiating instruction (and there are some out there), tend to put in a lot of time. Now, most teachers put in a lot of time. I’m talking about 6:00am-8:00pm at school kind of time. It just isn’t a model that seems to be able to be spread far and wide successfully. Yet, I’m excited about Blended Learning and the ability to differentiate instruction. Why?

Blended Learning allows teachers to leverage work. It still means a lot of work. However, it is work that is invested. Not just in the kids in front of the teachers right then, but invested into the future as well. Blended Learning allows teachers to reuse, remix, share, steal, borrow, leverage, etc, the work of creating resources. This work isn’t just for that one class (or one student), but becomes a resource for future classes and students as well.

Blended Learning classrooms now allow teachers to use video easily. This feeds the visual needs of students. The students who need to see the presentation again, can do so. It has never been as easy as it is right now to create video recording that are available for students. And it will only get easier. This allows teachers to create those resources and provide them to the students. This has been a generating force for “flipped classrooms”. But it really goes beyond that. Visually, we can now easily video conference (and this will get even easier). That means that we can take students to places that we never could before. They can see what a place looks like. They can talk to students from other places with the full visual queues that humans instinctively rely on. It also means that we can use video that others have created.

Blended Learning classrooms can do so much more than that. But that focus alone is super powerful. Creating visually intensive opportunities for kids. Grabbing the attention of a student. Focusing their attention in a biologically supported way. All these are powerful options.

Yes, we are on the precipice of fundamental change. These are exciting times. There will be some struggles as we move forward. But just think about what we can do.

History

The world is certainly a different place. Not better, not worse. Different. I visit lots of schools. I love looking at schools. At what they have posted on the walls. At the student work. At what is highlighted. I’m fascinated by the different ways that schools are laid out. The difference between newer schools and older schools can be profound.

School Building.

School based on Independence Hall.

Security is an issue that is very obvious. In the building that I was fortunate enough to serve as a principal, the office was on the interior side of the building. Furthermore, there was no “security trap” (a second set of doors where you can contain people after they enter a first set of doors). Nope. Parents walked through the main doors, crossed through the hallway, and then entered the office. The building itself was beautiful. It was modeled after Independence Hall. The history of the building was fun. It was built in 1929. The most obvious feature was (and is) the central clock tower. (This was recently replaced. The original was all wood and filled with carvings and tools. The new version is fiberglass.) But when the building was constructed, there were no plans for security cameras, buzzers, etc. Furthermore, the building had additional construction at least three times. The additions jutted back from the ends of the building. This made the building into a basic U shape. After 9-11, there was an edict to lock all doors. The problem with this at my building was that we used the “exterior hallway” for traffic flow. That is, the kids would exit from one side of the building and enter the other. That meant leaving those two doors open all the time. Great for kids. Great for traffic flow in an overcrowded building. Not so great for security.

Many of the buildings feature portraits of previous principals. These portraits always interest me as well. In addition to the clothing, background and posture, I usually look at the plate that indicates the years that the person was principal. Many of these are measured in the decades. Lots of principals served as least 10 years with 20 not being unusual. These principals were an integral part of the community. Parents knew them. Parents may have attended that same school as a student with the same principal. Now, principals are moved around frequently. Principals may be in a particular school for three years and then move to another one. It is starting to become rare that a principal spends many years in one school.

All of this leads to the profound shift from place based to person based. Libraries used to be rooms (well, they still are, but that seems to be changing). Libraries are quickly becoming the web. More specifically, sites on the web. Community was built around a geo location – where you lived. Now community is based more around interest. For example, as my kids grew up, their friends tended not to live in the same neighborhood, but participated in the same activities.

The world is certainly a different place. Not better, not worse. Different. Are we preparing our students and children for this new landscape? Are we preparing ourselves? There is no point in living in the past. The present is here. It certainly is different.