Creating Dynamic, Engaging Online Learning Experiences

Copyright 2008 Miguel Guhlin


“Creating a dynamic and engaging online learning experience is no easy task,” shares Dearborn Schools Educator, Chris Kenniburg (Source: http://tinyurl.com/6o7275). “Often times, the new Web 2.0 websites allow objectionable material or allow students to get into website content not appropriate for education.” As video creation tools proliferate on the Web, students and educators are looking for ways to publish those online for a wider audience. While blogs, wikis, moodles are being pressed into service as publishing platforms for student work, some districts are jumping straight to the Web and YouTube.

Manor ISD, site of a New Tech High School, has created its own YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/ManorNewTechHigh) to publish student-created videos. Students explain in their own words what Manor ISD's New Tech High School is about. And, their videos are compelling. Though students, parents and teachers access YouTube when not at school, many school districts still block YouTube. In lieu of using YouTube to reach a wider audience, how could a school district enable students and teachers who are creating videos as part of content area instruction to reach a wider audience?

Students, educators and parents know these Web 2.0 tools (e.g. blogs, wikis, Moodle) exist and want access to them in the school environment. School administrators bar the way to them, so to speak, with a flaming sword. How can school administrators become enablers of students and educators? This article discusses 3 responses to consider you can take advantage of to enable YouTube-like video sharing in your school district.

While there are obvious benefits to providing students and teachers access to YouTube and other video sharing tools, the challenge is the access to objectionable material. Since many school districts would rather not have those conversations, different options have to be considered. How does one set up their own video-sharing service in their district? Here are a few questions to consider and start the conversation:

  1. If my District does not want to deal with hosting video-sharing sites, what can it do instead?
  2. What do I have to have in place before I consider hosting online videos?
  3. What Web 2.0 tools are available for me to use to enable video-sharing?

Response #1 - Hosted Video Service
"I don't have the time to maintain our own Web 2.0 solution, much less a complex video-sharing site. What can I do instead?" Hosting online video can be a tough job, especially when you have to maintain Web 2.0 tools on your own server and network. Essentially, one more thing to support and be concerned about. While YouTube is often blocked because of its content, consider empowering educators to use other educator oriented services such as Edublogs.Tv, TeacherTube.com, and SchoolTube.com. On the SchoolTube.com web site, you will find a description that all these different services want to live up to:

...provides students and educators a safe, world class, and FREE media sharing website that is nationally endorsed by premier education associations.

While not all the services are endorsed by premier education associations, although they each have partnerships with other organizations, each has its own benefits. What are some of the distinguishing factors for the other services? One of those factors is what types of documents--in addition to video--can these other services accept. For example, many schools are now podcasting and creating audio content. In the past, you had to take advantage of free or low-cost services, such as the Internet Archive (archive.org), Podomatic.com, Gcast, and GabCast, each coming with its own set of issues and concerns. Some are advertising based, include adult content, have space limits. Now, even some video-sharing sites are also open to hosting audio as well. This is one of the reasons I prefer Edublogs.Tv as a video and audio hosting site for education purposes and widely encourage its use in K-16 education, not to mention it eliminates another obstacle that school teachers often encounter--advertising.

Online advertising appears on many sites, and depending on the level of content filtering in your district, may make such sites inappropriate or un-usable for schools. I discovered the inappropriateness of GoogleAds on my own blog, as I documented the process of adding GoogleAds that were education focused. I removed them when another Canadian educator (Dean Shareski - http://ideasandthoughts.org ) pointed out an ad that was inappropriate for education. A home-grown Texas solution, TeacherTube.com displays GoogleAds, and though some might find this objectionable, it was one of the first, if not THE first, education video-sharing solution! (Listen to the podcast interview with the TeacherTube founders from Melissa ISD here - http://mguhlin.net/2007/04/exclusive-teachertube-founders.html ).

Another challenge is that most video-sharing sites enable teachers, not students, to post content. This means that your students are not able to post their own video-generated content. While this may be a positive in some situations, as our students become content-creators, they will be seeking places to publish that content. Would you rather have them share it via YouTube or on a district-managed site so that you can seize teachable moments, whether for celebration of student work or learning appropriate use grounded in a real life example?

The greatest challenge, though, can be overcoming your own school district's restrictions. If there is not formal way to engage those responsible for the network in a learning conversation, it matters little whether you want to place content on free services or set up your own video/audio-sharing service on a district server. It is critical that such conversations be had immediately with the focus being on how important it is to publish student creations online. If you need access to guidelines for publishing content online, or if you have some guidelines you are particularly proud of, contribute to the community of Texas educators online at http://mguhlin.wikispaces.com/sharethis

Response #2 - District-Hosted Requirements
"What if I want to host teacher and student-created video, audio on school district servers? My technology department is supportive and wants to help. What do I need to do next?" Hosting your own content can be rewarding because you have complete control over the negative factors--if someone posts a video you do not consider appropriate, you can address the issue by removing it, checking to see who placed it there and following up with a conversation that facilitates a deeper awareness and practice of digital citizenship principles.

There are several web-based tools you can use to set up your own video-sharing site. However, setting them up can be challenging. As many districts embark on blogging and Moodle experiences, as well as many other Web 2.0 tools available, they are learning about the fundamentals of MySQL/PHP. For the uninitiated, setting up MySQL/PHP can be daunting, even though the process has gotten much easier with time and there are many tools available. In fact, while writing this article, I installed XAMPP on my computer to review the process. It was a painless installation but the vocabulary may put some folks off at first.

While some recommend you should set up MySQL and PHP separate on an Apache web server--all 3 items work on Mac, Windows and GNU/Linux, and is free open source--to ensure better security, you can also use tools like XAMPP for Windows, Mac, or GNU/Linux to automate the setup. XAMPP describes itself in this way:

XAMPP is an easy to install Apache distribution containing MySQL, PHP and Perl. XAMPP is really very easy to install and to use - just download, extract and start.The philosophy behind XAMPP is to build an easy to install distribution for developers to get into the world of Apache. To make it convenient for developers XAMPP is configured with all features turned on.The default configuration is not good from a securtiy point of view and it's not secure enough for a production environment - please don't use XAMPP in such environment.

Of course, XAMPP web site (http://www.apachefriends.org/en/xampp.html ) provides some instructions on how to secure the installation, and some Texas districts have reported that they have done just that without incident. Another similar tool--if on a Windows server--is WAMP (http://www.wampserver.com/en/ ). One private school network administrator wrote in an email to the Technology Educator Coordinators Special Interest Group (TEC-SIG):

We've been running Moodle (and several other applications) on XAMPP for about 2 years with no problem. (We're running the production server on a Win 2k3 server. I run test systems on XP and Vista.) The biggest upside for me is that it's easy to do the backup and easy to do a restore to another system when it crashes. (We've tested the process.) It's also easy for me to take a copy of the backup and put it onto another machine for development testing, upgrade testing, etc. There are some well-documented steps that will lock down an XAMPP install.

As you can see from this representative response, school districts can now turn to TCEA Special Interest Groups like TEC-SIG (for leadership regarding about getting the conversation started with district administrators) and SOS-SIG (for how-to tips and support on installing software). As school districts build capacity, there are also a growing number of educators who would be happy to hire out as consultants. Some districts are also turning to third-party consultants to make hosting of these tools easier (e.g. SiteGround.net for a variety of Web 2.0 tool hosting, Remote-Learner.net for Moodle). In short, as the Economy takes a down-turn, educators are turning to free open source tools to power Web 2.0 in schools to facilitate collaboration and sharing online. However, it is possible to host your own solutions.

Response #3 - District-Hosted Requirements
At the recent Technology and Learning TechForum Southwest 2008, Scott Floyd and Mike Gras (White Oak ISD) shared several plans for hosting video and audio for school district students and staff (Note: You can access the presentation content online at http://snipurl.com/tf2008 and enroll in the Moodle course there with an enrollment key of "forum2008").
In that presentation, he mentioned the use of two tools that districts--if they are willing--can set up on their own school district servers. My introduction to one of these tools was at a virtual keynote I delivered to Michagan educators earlier this year. After giving the keynote, the Skype connection was left open and I participated in the subsequent presentation by Chris Kenniburg, whom I quote at the start of this article. Chris works for Dearborn Schools in Michigan and has embraced free, open source tools as the way to power Web 2.0 in his district. Obviously, Chris is talented to provide sole support to a school district like Dearborn.

You do not realize how talented he is until you try to implement one of the solutions he advocates for, such as PHP Motion. PHP Motion is one of two tools available for sharing videos via your school district servers:

PHPmotion Media Sharing CMS - PHPmotion is a free video sharing software that also has support for other types of media such as audio/mp3 sharing. The Content Managent System or (media cms application) will allow you to create and run your very own Video Sharing website, Music Sharing Site, Picture Sharing Site. With very little knowledge required you can now have a website just like youtube.com , dailymotion.com, veoh, hi5 and best of all, its 100% free to download and use.

Although PHPMotion can be installed, I can tell you from first-hand experience that it is a tough installation. I do not recommend embracing PHPMotion unless you are willing to spend money on support or you have someone on staff who is adept at installing the additional components and modules PHPMotion needs. In fact, while PHPMotion itself appears easy to install, it is the additional modules that make installation painful. However, it is possible and surely some of the Strategic Open Source Special Interest Group (SOS-SIG) members will respond to a call for help!

A second option that Scott Floyd shared in his presentation was a Danish video-sharing site, OSTube (http://www.ostube.de/en/ostube ). One of the challenges Scott shared was his District was trying to find someone to provide support for OSTube. As you can see, while tools like Wordpress for blogging and Moodle for course management have gotten incredibly easy to setup on school district servers, video/audio-sharing continues to be a challenge that, no doubt, only a few will want to tackle.

A third option does not involve using a YouTube like interface. It involves using existing solutions that many districts are now embracing, such as WordPress and Moodle. Of the two, Moodle offers powerful video and audio sharing capabilities. While exploring those capabilities is an article in itself, I encourage you to read a blog entry (http://mguhlin.net/2008/10/unknown-podcast-challenge.html) I wrote introducing a Podcast module for Moodle. With this module, you can upload audio/video to Moodle and have it appear. Since Moodle has built-in RSS feeds, you can display that content via other web pages in your site fairly easily (read this blog entry for help on how to do that - http://mguhlin.net/2008/10/delicious-linkroll.html )

CLOSING THOUGHT
Creating a dynamic and engaging online learning experience for our children can be tough, even using traditional tools. For now, many school districts may opt to use the simpler video/audio sharing tools built-into existing Web 2.0 applications--like Wordpress and Moodle--rather than embark on hosting video/audio on their own servers using YouTube like interfaces. As more conversations are had about learning and teaching in a connected world, and as our understanding of how to best use these tools in education evolves, we can rest assured that a free, open source community of developers will be working to make these tools easier for us to use.

About the Author

As director of instructional technology for a large urban district in Texas, past president of the state-wide Technology Education Coordinators group in one of the largest U.S. technology educator organizations (TCEA), Miguel Guhlin continues to model the use of emerging technologies in schools. You can read his published writing or engage him in conversation via his blog, Around the Corner, at http://mguhlin.net