Archive for Software/web

Which Google Apps Support Group Sharing?

We launched a Google Apps domain for our school with the promise that it would offer more value than using personal Google Apps accounts. In reality, some apps offer terrific collaboration features for domain users, and some apps operate no differently from personal accounts.

Docs: +++
Docs has the most powerful network features. It is fully group-aware: share a doc with a group, and the system sends each user a group invitation. Edits are marked with usernames in real time. Revisions show who wrote what. Group members can participate in chat and discussions about the document. One may share a collection just once and then place documents within it, rather than sharing each document separately. One may also make a document available to everyone at one’s school but not visible to the world.

Chat: +
Administrators may assign Chat privileges to different organizational units in the domain. Authentication appears to work, and directory search will find people within one’s organization. Otherwise, there’s not much to report here for this one-to-one communication tool.

Calendar: – – –
According to Google’s documentation(1, 2, 3), one can easily share a calendar with a contact group, organizational group, or Google Group. The only problem is that email notifications for group sharing do not work, meaning that you actually have to send your group members instructions to manually add an incredibly long calendar email address to their calendars list. Do you think that all group members will do it? Me, neither. This problem is acknowledged on Google’s “known issues” page.

Video: –
Video may contain group sharing features, but it does not much matter, because only faculty and staff may upload video, the number of uploaders is limited to 100, and an administrator needs to individually specify who can upload. Go figure. Video staff should go talk to the people who own YouTube.

Sites: + +
Sites gets high marks for network features: you can make a site private, share with a network group for presentation or collaborative editing, publish it to the school community, or make it public. School users can browse sites made available to everyone at the school, but most sites end up in “uncategorized.” The most serious limitation is the Sites tool itself, whose editing features and templates feel dated compared to other freely available tools.

Blogger: + +
Better blogging systems exist, but none have such easily usable network group features as Blogger. One user can create multiple blogs without administrator assistance and invite others as contributors to create a group blog. The blog owner can limit the visibility of the blog to the authors or to specific people or groups. The group selection tool is itself not network group aware, but click “select from contacts” to gain access to network groups.

Maps: + + +
This should be a big winner in schools. Maps is a multimedia authoring environment. Click on a placemark, and you get a mini WYSIWYG editor that can insert text, links, and photos. Maps supports group features, so you can share a group with others for the purpose of presentation or collaboration. Combine these two feature sets, and you get a powerful geographic multimedia authoring tool for your class. Maps distributes sharing privileges by URL, which is not technically full network group support but  is still functionally sound.

YouTube: – – –
YouTube is hardly integrated with Google Apps for Education at all. YouTube requires a dedicated username linked to one’s Google account — you cannot just log in with your domain credentials. Once you are logged in, YouTube in an education domain functions just like an individual YouTube account. I was hoping for network-specific features such as listing favorite videos within our school and collaborative playlists.

Reader: – –
Items you add to Reader are private by default. You can mark specific items “shared.” It is easy to share items publicly, difficult to share items with built-in Google Contacts groups, and very difficult to share with network groups.

Bookmarks: – !
Google Bookmarks appears to be network group aware. Items you bookmark are private by default, but you can create lists and then share them with individuals, your own groups, or school network groups. You can even grant editing privileges so that others may add to shared bookmark lists.

The only problem is that the group sharing feature appears to be broken! Share with a network group email address, and you get the following error. You cannot even share with custom groups in your contacts list. Is this feature finished?

If this works, the bookmarks feature may become a better tool for documenting research sources than we have had before. Students could create bookmark lists and share them with teachers to assess their progress. A class could build a list of shared resources together for a research unit. Teachers could set up shared lists with each other for professional development purposes. A school could build shared lists of resources together. The only feature missing is a way to search all of the shared bookmarks within the organization. Wouldn’t it be great if students first searched the school’s bookmark collection rather than heading straight to Google search?

Picasa Web Albums: + + +
Picasa offers working network features very similar to those in Bookmarks. One can set up a photo album and open it to others for the purpose of sharing or contribution. The only downer there is the 100 photo limit on each album. I also wish that one could conduct a search restricted to the photos shared within an organization.


What else have you learned about group sharing in Google Apps? Is any of this information inaccurate or outdated? Please leave a comment below.

Assessing Group Work

Google Apps will make it easier for students together in groups. The Google Docs revisions feature will make it possible for a teacher to see each student’s contribution to the final work. That’s useful, but how else may we teach and assess collaboration?

Teaching the skill of collaboration and using varied assessment methods provides a more complete learning experience. Individual contributions tell only part of the story. What else should we consider? What expectations did we communicate for how they would work together? Did we teach collaboration or just put students together in groups? How did we structure the groups to maximize student success?

Preparing to work
What group norms did students establish before starting project work? Did each group member adopt a definable role? Did students identify a way to ensure equitable distribution of work?

Doing the work
How did students coordinate tasks and keep on schedule? How did they communicate with each other during the project? Did they do their work gradually over time or all at once? How did students resolve disagreements during the project?

After the project
Ask students to write about the project after completion. How did the experience go for them? Was each person’s input included? Did the group stick to the norms they chose at the start of the project?

Further Reading
Designing Groupwork (Elizabeth Cohen)
Enhancing Education (Carnegie Mellon University)
Assessing Learning in Australian Universities (Centre for the Study of Higher Education)

Google Apps, Right Side Up

I offered our first Google Apps training to faculty and staff members yesterday. I was really pleased with the questions from our workshop participants:

  • How do students keep attention on their own writing while others are editing?
  • When should we use Moodle, Google, or Word?
  • What does it mean to be in the cloud?
  • How can I invite others to edit a survey?
  • When should I use the Outlook or Google calendar?
  • How can I subscribe to the Catlin Gabel calendar in Google Apps?
  • Could students use Docs for lab reports?
  • How can I edit our daily bulletin from home?
  • What security and privacy issues exist?

We are launching Google Apps primarily as a collaboration platform, not necessarily a replacement for our Office productivity suite and Moodle course management system. It will be the obvious choice when people want to work on a project together and a less obvious choice for online file storage, personal calendaring, and class websites. I have tried to keep the focus on learning and operations management rather than the tool itself, and so far the approach is working.

Moodle 2.1 – Google Apps Integration

I installed the fine Google integration plugins for Moodle today. We are only interested in single sign-on and repository integration, so I did not tackle the GMail block or user synchronization. The Moodle instruction page is excellent. The related Moodle discussion forum is also good. The corresponding Google Code page is out of date for Moodle 2.0.

It took me a while to navigate the git repository and download the latest packages. I learned to click “snapshot” to download actual files I wanted from a portion of the tree. Generating certificates and configuring the Moodle and Google single sign-on settings went quickly.

We are using Google Apps Directory Sync to create user accounts on Google Apps. That way, any teacher, staff member, or student with an AD account automatically gets a Google Apps account. Our Moodle installation only creates user accounts the first time that the user logs into Moodle.

We have a few small issues to resolve. Redirects do not always work, so that it is more convenient to start at Moodle and then go to Google Apps than the other way around. We need to modify the terms of service to account for student users and the “binding contract” requirement. Also, the account conflict data migration feature fails on login at the moment. That is, users who have a personal Google account with their school email address cannot automatically migrate that data into their school Google Apps account.

Here is more information about the data migration question. Will you let me know if you have encountered it before? When a user has a personal Google account using the institution’s email address, Google presents the user with options to resolve the conflict. One option is to migrate data from the personal account to the institutional account. The process fails at this step when it attempts to auth via Moodle SSO. The error is “Notice: Undefined index: RelayState in /home/web/inside/html/moodle/auth/gsaml/auth.php on line 295.” When the user returns to Google, the message appears “The required response parameter RelayState was missing.”

Next week, I will hold two trainings to orient the first batch of interested users to Google Apps. We will focus on Docs, Calendar, Maps, Sites, and YouTube. It will be exciting to enable teachers and staff to take advantage of the new collaboration features we will now have! We had considerable use of Apps last year without a domain. I anticipate a lot more use with everyone on the same system and some schoolwide communications on the topic.

Moodle 2.1 Upgrade

I upgraded our Moodle 1.9 site to version 2.1 today on our Debian HyperV server. The process went rather poorly compared to my test upgrades in the spring. In May, I copied our entire site to a different server and upgraded it to 2.0 without difficulty. This time, I ran into more issues but got there by the end of the day. I gather this was largely due to changes in the installer itself from version 2.0 to 2.1.

Converting the database engine to INNODB as suggested slowed performance way down, and changing database collation to utf8_general_ci led to “mixed collation” database errors during upgrade, and I had more success with the original MYISAM engine and utf8_unicode_ci collation. I will need to find out how important those settings are to long-term site performance.

With these problems solved, the upgrade script could actually run. The first time through, it failed partway through, and the course files did not get converted. This caused all file links to break, so delete database, delete data directory, duplicate old site, and try again! It went smoothly the next time. Apparently, Moodle has changed the way it stores uploaded files and had to reshuffle all of the existing files to fit.

I am not so pleased with Moodle theme choices. My two favorite potential site themes so far are Accentuate and Créatif, but I wish I had more good choices. Do you have any? I may just install a few themes on the site and add Theme Selector so that people can make their own choices. It will be interesting to see whether the benefits of customization outweigh the potential confusion caused by people seeing so many different Moodle looks. Currently, our pages are very recognizable.

After I activate our new Google Apps domain, I will install the Google-Moodle integration plug-in and activate the Google Apps repository so that users may use the file picker to select Apps documents. Then it will be time to rewrite the assignment calendar plug-ins for Moodle 2.0 (or convince the school to adopt a commercial solution!).

Mobile Theme: WordPress vs. Drupal

How to enable a mobile them in WordPress

Install WPTouch. Congratulations, you are done! You automatically get a cleanly designed theme with dynamic drop-downs, a comment counter per post, and “mobile theme” toggle at the bottom.

How to enable a mobile theme in Drupal

Research various approaches. I decided go with the mobile theme option.

Select the most stable, current modules to support your approach, in my case Mobile Tools and Browscap.

Select a mobile theme. I have tested a number: A Cloudy Day, Adaptive Theme Mobile, Fusion Mobile, iUi, iWebKit, Mobile jQuery (not to be confused with jQuery Mobile), and Nokia Mobile.

Realize that these themes are pretty bare out of the box, and you have a lot of custom theming in your future!

A Cloudy Day

Fusion Mobile

Mobile jQuery

What is the problem?

I understand that it is easier to develop a mobile theme plug-in for WordPress, because content is managed in just one way. You have pages and posts, and a mobile theme just needs to organize them. Our Drupal site has many custom content types, views, blocks, and regions, and no mobile theme is going to automatically display them correctly out of the box. However, I had expected the theme designs themselves to be more mature than this.

I also find it totally unclear how to modify regions and block visibility in our Drupal site for the mobile theme. In our single-theme Drupal site, the theme template controls when and where certain regions exist, and the block system determines when to display block content within page regions. I want to organize the home page completely differently for the mobile theme, but now I have to learn how to define page regions and block visibility separately for the mobile theme. I will try to create a home page template in my new theme with unique regions and block content, but something tells me that this will not be easy. Or I could install modules to make display configuration more dynamic, but I do not want to add performance overhead for our non-mobile users.

Dear Drupal Themers

If you would like to submit a modest proposal for mobile theme development, please write me at kassissiehr (at)

Moodle 2.0 Test Migration

I successfully migrated a copy of our Moodle 1.9.9 site to version 2.0. We will go live this summer. The upgrade process took a couple of hours, including dealing with the following issues. The basic site functionality is working great, suggesting that the migration should be smooth.

Delete archive courses
Not required, but it was a good opportunity to delete three years’ worth of past courses. This sped up upgrade course conversion.

Truncate sessions2 table
To my surprise, Moodle had not been deleting old session entries, because PHP’s garbage collection was not running properly on our Debian server. As a result, it was taking a long time to migrate our 2GB database! I truncated session2 manually to reduce the database to a few hundred MB. We will have to restore automatic session trimming on the new web server.

Database Collation
Our database tables were set to utf8_unicode. I followed some helpful instructions at to convert to utf8_general. Moodle 2.0 requires a compatible utf8 format in order to upgrade.

My favorite new feature. I have activated Dropbox and Google Docs so far. Dropbox is broken, but Google Docs works now and should work even better if we point Moodle at our new SAML single sign-on system.

Theme Selection
As usual, this is going to be a challenge. Moodle has suffered for not providing enough choice in professional-quality themes. I found one I like (Créatif by Rolley Design) but am having difficulty restoring the three-column course view. The theme wants to cram all of the blocks into a single, right-hand column. I still have to run this by some users to see whether they like it. I also might want to use a theme that says “school” rather than “candlelit dinner.” I am considering providing a choice of themes and allowing user switching, but then I’ll have to troubleshoot issues across a number of themes instead of just one.

3,700,000 Session Records

Hey, Drupal fans! I would like to alert you to an issue that I encountered today. While doing some unrelated database work, I found that our sessions table had grown to over 3,700,000 records. While not posing any immediate danger to the website, this may have been slowing down backup and just isn’t tidy. Drupal relies on PHP garbage collection to cleanup session tables, but apparently this does not happen properly on Debian systems. Solutions include setting PHP defaults to encourage garbage collection and installing the Session Expire module. The problem is fixed in Drupal 7 through php.ini overrides.

I chose to install Session Expire on our Drupal 6 site, feeling that Drupal should clean up its own garbage. It also has the advantage of providing a choice between deleting anonymous sessions, authenticated user sessions, or both. The module is extremely simple and could be implemented on a Drupal 7 site if one would prefer to delete old sessions that way. The module took an hour to delete 3.7m records on a test copy of our site. You might prefer to just truncate the table instead, though this will log off people currently using the site.

The Best Social Media Tool for the Classroom

What is the best social media tool for the classroom? Blog? Facebook? Wiki? Twitter? Chat? Surprise! It’s the discussion forum. Really? How can a discussion forum be best suited to the classroom, when newer social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter receive all of the hype? Let us look at the desirable features of a classroom setting and how they match up to social media tools.

Classrooms are democratic.

Students continue conversations started during class. They have an equal opportunity to raise their voice — one can speak without interruption in a discussion forum. Students who require more time to process ideas or formulate thoughtful responses have equal access to forum discussions, whereas face-to-face discussions reward quick thinkers and strong verbal processors.

Classrooms are collaborative.

A discussion thread is the combined product of everyone’s contributions. It is not “owned” by any one user. A community of learners work together to make decisions and achieve common goals. In a project-based class, a forum provides equal input to the decision-making process.

Classrooms are private.

Students deserve to take risks and express themselves within a small, trusted group of teachers and peers. While publishing to the world serves a specific pedagogical purpose, it is typically not the standard for all classroom activity. One can make any social media content private, but forums are often private by default.

Classroom work is topical.

In most classes, students engage with a series of topics or projects toward broader learning goals. Discussion forums are by default organized by topic. Any student may create a new topic, which becomes a discussion thread separate from the others. When students reply to each other, the discussions retains its topical organization. Forum tools allow for the creation of categories or multiple forums, allowing the teacher to further organize discussions by topic.

Classrooms are multi-modal.

Like other social media technologies, forums support multiple media: text, links, images, movies, documents, publications, and more.

Classroom activities are diverse.

The forum is an extremely versatile tool. I have seen it used as a news feed, peer review system, debate center, homework club, writing tool, and more.

Is something wrong with other social media tools?

Not at all! Each tool organizes group communication differently and has its place in the educational process. One may argue that new social media tools are better matched to new forms of learning, especially independent study. However, the communication environment of a forum most closely matches a typical classroom learning environment. Let us take a look at the qualities of other social media tools.


In a blog, author(s) write, and then individuals respond. Authors have greater implicit authority than commenters. A comment thread has the potential to become a discussion, but comments are often hidden behind a link, and page views typically far outnumber comments. Most readers just read and do not comment. Blogs are well-suited for the public or community presentation of well-developed work.


In a wiki, participants have equal opportunity to contribute content and organize a shared information resource. A wiki is great for the co-construction of shared knowledge, such as a class review sheet or topical information resource. However, the process of negotiating ideas is hidden behind the “history” and “discussion” links. A wiki emphasizes the final product more than the discussion process.

Photo and Video Sites

Students may publish photos and videos for community feedback. Social media sites also serve as another information resource for research or project work.


I am not aware of strong student learning communities based in Twitter. Teachers have had some success using Twitter as an information source and learning collective.

Online Word Processors

Google Docs is terrific for small group collaborative work, such as when two students develop a paper or presentation together, or as a class document repository. Live, simultaneous editing of a single document does not scale well to a full class of students.

Social Networks

Students are on Facebook, but classrooms should not necessarily go there! The primary distinguishing feature of a social network — curating friend lists — has no place in a classroom.In a school, the learning groups are already defined. Facebook’s photo and video tools are very easy to use, and learning management systems would do well to improve theirs. While popular press about Facebook would have you believe that 100% of students have a Facebook account, in practice one finds that some students have opted out to avoid the distraction or the social scene. Finally, students deserve to have a private, social space separate from adults and classes.

Where can I get a forum for my classroom?

Most course website systems have a forum tool (e.g., Moodle, Blackboard, Haiku). Many social media tools have it, too (e.g., Ning). Standalone forum software also exists, both self-installed and hosted (phpBB).

Versatility: Some Examples

Forum as class discussion

The teacher posts a prompt, and students posts replies, responding both to the original post and building on the comments of classmates.

Class Blog

In Moodle’s “social” site format, one forum is featured on the course site front page. This teacher has added news feeds to the left and right columns for information and inspiration.

Peer Review

Peer review is a key part of the writing process. The author posts her paper, and two peer reviewers write response papers. The original author posts a revision, and the process repeats again.

Single, Public Response

The teacher posts a prompt, but unlike the class discussion, students submit a single response on their own. This is like collecting an assignment but in a public space, so that students may see each others’ responses.

Class Warmup Activity

When students arrive to class, they log into the class site and independently complete the first activity of the day.

Professional Learning Community

Teachers discuss articles with each other in a dedicated forum, having discussions that might not otherwise take place among teachers from different divisions and departments.

New York Times on my phone

I think I will be able to continue reading the New York Times for free.

On our smartphone and tablet apps, the Top News section will remain free of charge.

The home page at and all section fronts will remain free to browse for all users at all times.

Letter to Our Readers: Times Begins Digital Subscriptions

I am actually curious to experience the subscription request page for the first time. How long will it take?