Starting things up again, like a new VLE, takes time. More time than even a pessimist like me expected! So here’s a little summary of what we’ve done over the last few weeks and what we plan to do. I’m not sure this will be exciting reading but it may be of use to other people doing something similar and of course I’d love to hear any ideas of things we’re doing wrong or could be doing better. When I say we – I’m talking about Julie one of our network technicians (who got the short straw of helping with the VLE 🙂 and myself.

Before half term we backed up all the useful courses from our old Rickypedia moodle some with user IDs some without. I’m a bit of a hoarder so probably took too much but I wanted some examples to show staff when they are creating new courses and resources.

Over half term I got the domains www.rickypedia.org and www.rickyschool.com pointing to the right places.  (Our new empty Moodle and our new google apps for education sites).

This past week has been about getting accounts and usernames sorted. We weren’t able to sort out any automatic authentication so have been creating spreadsheets with details for user accounts. We’re about 3 sign ons away from single sign on at school (we have different usernames for staff e-mail, network and MIS online portal). Luckily for us we were able to pull a list staff usernames and passwords from one of the existing systems. Although the VLE and google usernames won’t be synched with the existing system staff won’t have to learn a new set of usernames and passwords. If you don’t know anything about Moodle roles and are running a Moodle you need to! They basically set the permissions for areas of the site or the site as a whole and define what each user can see or do. We’ve set all staff as sitewide non-editing teachers. This means by default all teachers can see inside all courses. There’s a blog post here from Our Lady’s Catholic High School in Preston. It explains why you shouldn’t edit system roles. I am ignoring this advice for now as I want teachers to be able to see and explore how other staff are using the VLE and I hope the benefits will overcome any problems with privacy.

Another small thing we have done is to restore the courses backed up from the old VLE – these have started life in an archive category but may find themselves in new places soon.

To do next week:

1. We have already started adding areas for each subject. Each member of staff will be manually assigned the role of course creator in their subject area. This means they will be able to create and edit courses in their own subject area.

2. Creating student accounts. We will be giving students the same username as they have for the school network but will have to give them new passwords initially. Working out passwords that will be usable by students but not easily guessable by other students is something we hope we have sorted out.

3. Starting to play with the look and feel of the site. I’ve previously written about how customised profile fields can make a VLE more personal and social. Our theme and graphics also need updating.

4. Creating a 6th form group of experts. 6th form VLE club is starting this week. I’m hoping these students will in time take on a number of roles. Helping work out a VLE AUP (acceptable use policy) that is relevant and simple to understand. Helping to create content to help younger students stay safe online and to help students search and use information effectively. Helping to create graphics and themes for the site. Helping to run and moderate student areas of the site. And I hope soon, helping to train teachers to use the VLE. That’s a lot and we’ll see on Monday who turns up and what we get done.

Wish us luck and please share your comments or advice.

So a year wiser and another year on I’m about to start Rickypedia again from scratch. Our pilot VLE was set up at the cost of about £40 a year using hosting from Siteground. It did a good job but I lived in constant fear that we would overload the servers and have the whole thing frozen. I think we did overload things a couple of times but our account never got locked up. Technical support also was down to me and all the helpful people at moodle.org.

So now we’re moving on and up in the world and are moving to a specialist moodle hoster. If you want to know why we’re not hosting internally see the previous post on hosting internally or externally.

To decide who to host with I e-mailed all the moodle partners as well as one other moodle hoster with a list of questions. I must thank Sean at pteppic who gave such detailed personal and friendly answers to my questions as well as very reasonable quotes. In the end we chose to go for hosting with Dale at Ecognition mainly from a personal recommendation though the price was good too!

I wanted to make a clean start but this means a while into term and we’re still not up and running. This is the list of things on the to-do list to get our VLE ready and running.

1. Backup all courses and content from the old VLE that we want to keep.

2. Point all the IP addresses to the right place (at the moment our domain www.rickypedia.org points to our old site so we need to repoint it to go to the new one – it only takes a minute to do!)

3. Restore and courses that we want from the old VLE.

4. Customise the basic layout and look and feel of the VLE

5. Convene group of pupils (student e-council!) to help decide on the layout and setup of the page. I hope this group will be able to take on the role of moderators as well as deciding on student rules for using the VLE sensibly.

6. Convene group of teachers who are interested in taking the lead on the VLE.

7. Set up google mail and google apps ready for students

8. Create staff and student accounts on Moodle and Google.

Once we’re actually ready to get going there’s plenty of plans for getting teachers and students trained up and using the VLE – I’ll write about that next time…

Our Rickypedia VLE is still very much a pilot website with only a selection of students and teachers on the system. I’ve added new students and classes as I’ve been ready to experiment with them or as I have had requests from other teachers.

One of our student teachers (or beginning teachers as they are now known) approached me about a month ago to ask if Rickypedia would be able to help her year 7 English class with their non-fiction projects. She was looking for somewhere where students could upload their writing, she could mark up changes and the students could then refine their work and resubmit it for further review. I realised that Moodle wasn’t necessarily the ideal solution (something like Google docs or a wiki may have been better) but it did provide a solution so I explained the system and what it could or couldn’t do. Next step get the class up and running.

The year 7 group in question is also a class I teach for ICT and this seemed an ideal opportunity to get them using Rickypedia for two subjects simultaneously. It also meant that I could use an ICT lesson to get the students started on moodle to make it easier for their English lesson. All students were enrolled in an ICT course and an English course and were given access to the “Student Room” a general discussion course open to all students on Rickypedia. I gave the English teacher a brief lesson on course editing and we were off and ready to go.

It’s always fun starting off a new class on something brand new but I was overwhelmed by the reaction of the class. They loved filling in information on their profiles (see earlier post). They loved their homework to create and upload an avatar. Some of them started exploring other features such as blogging and personal messaging and word spread (especially word about personal messaging). The enthusiasm from students blew me away and when I or the English teacher added something to the site they often discovered it before we told them about it. Students log on at all hours, before school and after school. I’ll try and keep you posted about their progress but so far it has been overwhelmingly positive, a few logging on issues but nothing major. One immediate issue that has come up from the English department is the lack of a spell check on moodle, this is something that I will look into.

Here are a few things that I’ve noticed about year 7s on Rickypedia compared to year 9 and upwards that I had so far added to Rickypedia

1. They don’t mind reading and writing on screen, in fact many of them seem to prefer it to paper – maybe this generation are natural technology users?
2. They love personal messaging each other and often do so about school work – I guess older students have other communication systems that they prefer to use.
3. They are not scared of messaging teachers. I seldom receive a message from older students but get a couple a week from year 7s asking about homework or technical problems – fewer inhibitions or less independent workers?

As I write at 12:30 on a sunny Saturday afternoon my Rickypedia site log shows 122 actions on the site this morning – all by pupils from this class.

Today I rely on RSS feeds to provide me with the information I want when I want. I can’t believe that a year ago I didn’t really know what the point of an RSS feed was. RSS is an acronym for really simple syndication, it provides automatically updated feeds from websites, blogs and news sites which can be imported and read using a range of applications on the internet or on your PC. To use RSS feeds on your VLE is pretty simple.

On Moodle there are a couple of different RSS features. You can add RSS blocks to bring in external RSS feeds and you can add RSS funtionality to your site forums to allow others to subscribe to your feeds. It is the former that I use mostly because I’m still to work out how the second works especially with regard to privacy and security in schools (maybe a kind reader will explain the functionality to me).

So a few RSS examples from Rickypedia

1. The Frontpage
I’ve added three RSS feeds to our frontpage. A quote of the day, news from CBBC Newsround (child friendly news headlines) and a “This Day in History” feed. Each provides a little bit of wisdom or knowledge in one hyperlinked line. You can set how many items appear in each feed and how much information you want displayed, just the headlines or more. (the picture below has been edited). I may well remove some in the future to avoid the homepage becoming too cluttered.

Rickypedia RSS feeds
2. Subject Specific Feeds

You can also add RSS feeds in a block on a course page. For my A-level computing students I added links to Wired and Computing magazine newsfeeds to present a mix of internet and business ICT news.

A colleague who teaches Chemistry added links to New Scientist and Chemistry World feeds and picked specific feeds related to energy. She then took it a step further by setting students a homework using the feeds to research a topical news item. A great use of RSS feeds and a great way to get students to read literature relating to the course and gain a wider understanding of the issues.

Problems: One specific problem I have had is with graphics and in particular advertising on a particular feed. On Moodle you can choose to allow your feed to pull in graphics or not – graphics can sometimes mess up the layout of your site by stretching boxes and moving things around on a page. With one feed even when I turned graphics off it would sometimes pull in adverts from feedburner who provided the RSS subscription. Normally I would ditch a feed that put unsolicited adverts on a site but I really wanted this particular one so I found a rather elaborate way around it using yahoo pipes (ask if you want to know more – I don’t want to bore you with the details).

Let me know how you use RSS feeds in your classroom and I’d also love to hear from anyone who has experience turning on the extra RSS functionality in Moodle.

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There are three things that I ask students to do when they first log onto our VLE at Rickypedia.

1. Change their password
2. Fill in the profile information (see previous post on customising profile feeds)
3. Create an avatar (an online picture representing them)

The instructions I use for students are publicly available here. Feel free to borrow them and if you improve on them (not hard to do) then let me know so I can borrow yours!

I got some of the ideas for creating avatars from Ian Usher’s blog post on the same subject – it’s well worth reading and discusses online identity forming and whether to allow students to post their pictures as avatars. I told students not to use pictures but a few didn’t follow instructions and I’m still undecided what to do about it!

There are hundreds of websites available for creating avatars, just search and you’ll find plenty on the web. You’ll also find that your students know plenty of places already that they have already used for their Myspace and Bebo profiles.

If you’re a moodle user and an admin on your site you can see a great display of user profile pictures by visiting http://www.yourmoodlesite.org/userpix/ Click the picture below to see what my students look like.

student avatars

One neat and simple feature that Moodle has is a glossary. (I’m sure you could replicate this functionality easily enough using other features of other VLEs).

The glossary lets the teacher or students put definitions of words, hence the name glossary. As it’s such a simple and easy to understand tool it’s one I have started classes using early. It also makes for a great homework and it’s easy to explain to other teachers how to use. As with all pupil generated content I’ve found the results mixed and surprising but very positive. Below are a few examples of glossary entries (not all from my classes). As you can see they range from the sublime to the ridiculous. I think the silly entries are just as valid as the serious entries. If my students log on to see the funny entry their friend wrote they are more than likely to take a browse through all of the other definitions and maybe learn something new.

I’ve not put up the inevitable glossary entries with mistakes in. These too are valuable, I can both edit and comment on posts. By leaving a comment with feedback students can learn from their mistakes and improve their entries. Assessment for learning in action!

AS English Frankenstein Glossary Entries – these two are rather impressive

Gothic: A story of terror or suspense which includes reference to the supernatural

Romanticism: Romanticism is a movement that typically refers to the late 18th and 19th century. The period was marked by a rejection of the ideals and rules of the time and new emphasis was placed on freedom of expression and thought.

Romantics were against the monarchy and against the industrial revolution. They thought that the industrial revolution would destroy and pollute nature, and that people would move away from the countryside and nature.
Romantic ideas: nature; the relationship between human and natural moods; experimentation; journeying; power of the female; genius and the power of imagination, spontaneity; and individualism.

Quotes:

  • “Vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes and illuminated the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire.” (p56)
  • “black and comfortless sky” (p40)

Year 9 ICT Entries:

Keyboard :QWERTY or otherwise, it is used to type letters and numbers – wholly useful for general computing.

Hands: the things you find on the end of your arm. They usually have 5 fingers on each

useful for:
1] typing
2] hitting your computer when its being stupid and purposly annoying you
3] throwing things at annoying siblings
4] stealing peoples shoes to put in high places

Year 12 Chemistry:

OILRIG:
OILRIG is the ingenious way to remember that:
Oxidation Is Loss (of electrons)
Reduction Is Gain (of electrons)

Redox is both (Reduction and oxidation squashed together to make one word)

Setting up custom fields on users’ personal profile is really easy. The standard fields in a moodle install are things like skype, msn, icq, e-mail, website. I felt a bit uneasy about encouraging students to put in all of those personal details which I or the school could have no control over, particularly personal websites which may contain personal pictures. So I hid all of those fields (apart from e-mail as an e-mail address is very important for teacher student communication and students can choose for it to be private). Instead I included fields for “favourite music”, “hobbies”, “favourite tv shows”, “favourite movies”, “favourite books” and a more general “about me”. I don’t believe a school VLE will become a replacement for myspace, facebook or other social networking sites (and I’m not sure I’d want it to be) but having these fields does add a much more personal and social dynamic to the site. There’s a little bit of competition from students to see who can have the best profile. It’s also great from a teacher’s perspective to see what students are interested in. Some students have also made great efforts to customise the top part of the profile with photos and animations.

I’ve included some screenshots below of a couple of profiles (one is mine, can you guess which one?) Moodle 1.9 has a new social tagging system but it’s not quite as organised as my solution with just one box for students to write all their interests in, the new features it brings will certainly be interesting to explore.

Nb: Even if standard fields are hidden students can override this or put any information they wish in the top “description” part of their profile – there may be a way to turn this off but it’s probably easier having a set of rules that students need to follow.

profile fields

student profile