Building a learning community is one of the most basic, most important things that teachers do each year. While we are institutions of learning, that learning doesn’t happen within a vacuum. The context of the community needs to be carefully built and structured. That happens in the classroom, but also happens online.
A vital component of my classroom is the digital footprint it has. The space that kids work within and the tools that we use are as important of a component of it as the physical classroom space. This is why I am always careful to think through how we are going to work online and what our needs are. I’m not overly interested in tools. I think our focus needs to be firmly placed on changing our pedagogy to meet the changing needs of our students and of society. But I believe that tools give our learning spaces structure and ability. What we build allows certain things to happen.
This year I am putting the concept of online community front and centre in what I do and I have built that in to the site I am putting together for next year. I have put together classroom blogs in a variety of places over the years: edublogs, classroom blogmeisters, and wordpress.com being a few. But for the past several years, I’ve hosted my own classroom blog at ideahive.org. A simple wordpress install (instructions here) has allowed me a lot of freedom about what this looks like. After an experiment last year, I have decided to take this several steps further for the next school year.
My main classroom blog will continue to be hosted at the Idea Hive site. When kids go to that site, they will see posts that Heather and I have written, pictures, videos, and other things that we want them to see. This will be our space to communicate with our community of learners.
Buddypress Groups and Forums
On top of this wordpress site I have installed buddypress, a worpdress plugin that lets you create a social network. Just as with wordpress, there is great documentation of all that buddypress is, does and how to set it up, all online, and all for free. I experimented with buddypress last year and found parts of it clunky and hard to work with, but the newer version is slick and easy to use. While it does take some playing with to get all of the settings where you want them, I’ve now got set up a full set of groups and forums for use in my classroom next year.
Just as a word of warning to teachers, when you install buddypress as a plugin on your wordpress blog, there are a number of options you are going to want to look at. There are settings for users to be able to make private groups, friend each other online and send private messages between users. These things are very easy to turn on and off, but you need to take the five minutes to set them up in ways that will make you comfortable. Here’s a screen shot of my settings:
Wikis and Documents
With buddypress there are other things that you can install to work alongside of it. One of those things is a wiki. While not a superpowered option, the wiki plugin allows you (or whoever has the power to do so) to make a group (ex. The Book Thief novel) and then create a wiki for the people in this group to use. You can make as many pages as you need for this group to use. A great addition.
A second thing I’ve installed is another plugin that will allow me to upload documents to each group. For example, if a group is studying a topic and they have an assignment that they need to complete, I can upload the assignment to their group so they can have access to it at home. As well, it can work the other way, allowing students to complete their work by turning it in by uploading it.
I’ve always had students host their blogs elsewhere. I simply didn’t want to be bothered with the tech work of looking after them, thinking they were safer somewhere else. But thinking about putting community front and centre, I’m changing my thinking about this. While we still need to go elsewhere for things like photos (we keep a flickr site for example) or youtube for video, I’d like the Idea Hive site to grow into a one stop portal for my classes. This is why I am moving up to a wordpress multi user set up.
While still requiring a bit of coding and behind the scenes work, the newer versions of wordpress make this much easier than it used to be and of course being wordpress, the online instructions and documentation are easy to follow.
Overall, I’m excited by all of this. I’m looking forward to the challenge of running all of this and I’m excited for the students to have the opportunity to have access to all of these tools. They will change what we can do in our classroom. I’ve still got some work to do. I need to do the multi user programming, the blogs are not ready to be set up yet. I need a better theme and I might have to pay for a premium one so that we can showcase all of the content on the site. This one I’m not sure about and willing to listen anyone with advice.
Community. It’s where learning begins.
Credit for the picture at the top of this post goes to Hugh MacLeod: http://www.gapingvoid.com/stay%20ahead%20of%20the%20culture.jpg