As I reach the end of my first year at Catlin Gabel, the framework for our school intranet web site is becoming more firm. Having experimented this year, I am convinced that it is better to offer many different online tools an intranet portal than to select one multifunction tool that will meet everyone’s needs as well as possible. I gave the single-tool approach a good shot this year, but found myself adding other tools to provide better services in specific areas. When Moodle’s wiki wasn’t good enough for a class project, I brough in DokuWiki. When upgrading Moodle to v1.8 broke the Gallery plug-in, I embedded it within Drupal. When I needed very usable blogging and podcasting, I turned to Elgg. I call this a “smorgasbord” approach. Another metaphor would be the toolbelt. Either way, the user makes choices among many options for meeting their online service needs. The choice is limited to what I install, and each tool has its strengths and weaknesses.
Here is where I was headed at my previous school:
For Catlin Gabel, I see the key online services as:
– Course web sites
– Electronic portfolios
– Online presentations
– Social bookmarks
– Media gallery
– Discussion forums
– Email access
– Document access
– Affinity groups
What makes this approach the best fit for Catlin Gabel?
1. Similarity to the World Wide Web: Productive WWW users rely on a number of different tools at once. For example, you may have mail at GMail, photos at Flickr, bookmarks at del.icio.us, and friends at Facebook.
2. The highest quality tools: For example, DokuWiki and Elgg provide far better wiki, blogging, podcasting, and affinity grouping functions than Moodle. If we want class activities using technology to be most effective, then we should use the best tools. Using a single tool either limits the quality or number of different tools available, undesirable either way.
3. Highly adaptable, multitasking kids: Our students already use multiple web services at home. There is little reason that school should not also. What about our teachers? Those with the skills may be able to stay a step ahead of their students, but most should adopt a model of distributed expertise in the classroom, remaining the guide for the course goals and objectives and encouraging their students to lead the way toward mastery of each tool.
4. A focus on 21st century skills: A landscape of changing tools encourages students to quickly master new ones. Not only do we want students to become very adaptable to changing circumstances, but we also want them to master the art of adapting quickly.
5. Ubiquitous browser UI: This expectation of adaptability is reasonable. After all, Web 2.0 tools are strikingly similar in user interface and organization. Most have a login scheme, user profile, personal and group content, forms to fill out and submit, user community tools, and so on. It is normally not such a great leap to master a new tool once you understand the fundamental principles undergirding all of them. For this reason, we should focus our instruction of the overarching features of all Web 2.0 tools, rather than providing too much detail of how to operate each individual one.
6. Single authentication scheme: All the tools I have mentioned so far tie into LDAP, likely the most common authentication mechanism in schools. Project authentication plug-ins continue to expand and improve. Though we still do not yet have a reliable single sign-on scheme, one set of user credentials is acceptable. Though some are working on internet-ready single sign-on schemes, I figure that this will be far easier to accomplish within a closed, predictable internet system. My next experiment will be to create a single log-in page, separate from any of these packages, that actually creates the necessary database entries and cookies for all of our web services at once, so that you are already logged in by the time you hit the package’s home page.
7. Network data storage: Let’s reduce the need for file management of student work. With students increasingly producing work within web services, their work is embedded within our databases, automatically included within our backup schemes, and less susceptible to accidental loss or hardware damage.
This summer, I plan to rework our intranet portal to feature these tools and then provide the necessary instruction and support to clearly communicate the new vision and help people adapt to this more powerful model. Wish me luck!