The technical set up behind the Idea Hive community has grown and changed into its present form over a few years. I have been blogging with students since 2005 and each year, something gets changed, tweaked, and hopefully improved.
When I first started, I worked with Blogmeister, David Warlick’s excellent service. It was comfortable for me at the time as I could edit and approve everything that my students were placing online. After this article from Cnet hit the internet and gained us a lot of publicity though, we started working with other classes from around the world; most notably, Jo McLeay’s class from Australia. One morning one of my students came to me quite upset and questioned me about why I hadn’t approved and published his post from the evening before. I told him that I hadn’t seen the post and questioned him about when he had written it. His reply: “about 10:30 last night.” He then proceeded to tell me that he wasn’t very pleased with me and that he had an audience who he needed to talk to. “You know,” he told me, “that time of the night here is morning in Australia. My friends were waiting to read that post.”
At this point I realized that I was standing in the way of my students and that I needed to move.
My next move in the educational blogging world was to James Farmer’s edublogs. Another well run service we stayed there for one school year before moving on to wordpress.com. From here, I finally took the jump and registered the ideahive.org domain and started looking after my own website. What is important for me always to remember is the length of time this took. There was (I think) 5 years where I worked with a model where myself and all of the students in my class had blogs hosted by other servers and services. It was a slow, gradual evolution as I learned more and worked towards having my own site.
All along, between all of these jumps, I had a similar set up. I would set up a central blog for me to write at, and then each of my students would have their own spaces. I would post a link on my blog to each of my student’s blogs and they could link to each other (or whatever other school appropriate sites they cared to link to). Between blogs and accounts at various other places such as Youtube, flickr, etc, we were small pieces scattered across the internet.
Taking all of this into account, I eventually felt the need to bring some of these pieces together into one space. This got me to the Idea Hive community as it presently stands. The teach set up behind this community in its present form is:
– I began by registering the ideahive.org website and installing wordpress on it. There are great instructions for doing this on the wordpress site. I’ve been asked before about hosting services. There are many out there and they are worth comparing and looking in to. I use Bluehost and have been very happy with them and their live online chat based tech support. It’s been great the few times I’ve used it.
– The new versions of wordpress have the ability to be cracked open and turned in to wordpress multiuser (or a wordpress network) with only a little bit of coding and some cut and pasting. The instructions to do this can be found here. By doing this, you can have all of the kids in your class have a blog of their own on your domain.
– The next step is to install buddypress. Buddypress is a wordpress plugin that lets you turn your site in to a social network. It gives you the ability to have groups and forums on your site. There are also other plugins that extend buddypress, giving it additional functionality. Here are all of the plugins that are currently running on our network:
Something like akismet for spam protection is essential. Installing and running an achievements plugin and program on the site has been interesting and a worthwhile experiment. Having a wiki available for groups if they need it is a valuable function.
I have also worked through the year to update and increase the number of themes that are available for the students to use on their own blogs. I look for themes that are free to use, that are simple to install and are simple for the students to use as well as affording them some level of customization if they want. I uploaded new ones when I find them and let the kids know. Currently there are 32 different themes available for the students to choose from.
All through the year we’ve worked to improve the site and make it valuable for the kids to use. We added a weather widget for each of our communities. There are links to each of the kids’ own sites. There is a display of the flickr photos from the account that the classrooms share. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with a mymood plugin to see if the kids would use it or find it worthwhile. This is one of the greatest assets with wordpress being the software behind the site. There is a huge international community that is standing behind the software so there is a constant release of new pieces to the puzzle. They are easy to install and try out. If they don’t work or don’t meet your needs, they can simply be deleted.
There are things that have not positive about hosting your own full network:
– the response time on the site has sometimes been very slow. We have occasionally found at times that the site has been unreasonably slow to log in to and I can’t figure out why that is. I am sure a plugin or a piece of code is acting up somewhere, but I can’t track it down.
– running this type of site requires a pretty steady set of updates. The core pieces of wordpress and buddypress are being constantly worked on and improved. This means both for security and functionality reasons you need to keep the network updated. Updates sometimes have unexpected effects that need to be sorted out.
Overall, the technology behind the community is a constant work in motion. New ideas and functionality get added, while things no one is using get deleted. This is simply part of running a network like this. I believe that the time involved has been worthwhile and has allowed us to be responsive to the needs of the students in our classrooms.