March 07, 2006

Class blogs and moodles - a request for suggestions

OK here's my wish list. This is what I'm thinking of doing starting a month from now, and I'm posting here hoping readers with more experience can give me the benefit of their wisdom.

Basically, I want server space where I can host
a) moodles for the (up to 12) classes I'll be teaching from April.
1) These classes will be blended learning, i.e. the bulk of the classwork will be in class (with no computers), and I'll have them access the Moodle out of class for homework (because I'm not entirely sure that ALL students have access to computers at school or at home, and while I MAY be able to book ONE class period in the computer room from time to time - like once a semester - I also may not).

2) I also do NOT want on the Moodle front page things like "Click here for University A students, Click here for University B students, etc", ie. advertising to all comers exactly which other universities I work at (perhaps this will require separate domains for them?) Is it possible for my students to just type their password and get sent directly to their moodle module?

3) I plan to put pretty much the same stuff into each Moodle module for each class, at least initially till I get a better idea of what their various levels and needs are. What I plan on putting there are:
i) a forum for announcements from me (assignments, etc) and where they can discuss and read each others' responses to the assignments (individual blogs may be better for this part, tho).
ii) Assignments/quizzes which will include short sound files (possibly hosted on my domain if enough space, otherwise links to the outside), graphics, photos

b) I also would like a community blog for my department. I've started it one on edublogs.
The idea is to celebrate the achievements and work of the department members, and to have all members able to write posts and upload files, etc. Is edublogs the right medium? I notice, for instance, that I can invite only people who are already edublog account holders, so that means each staff member will first need to create their own edublog then tell me their user name then I invite them, right? Trouble is, only a couple know what a "blog" is at the moment, and the others have I don't know what level of computer skills so I'd like to make this as easy as possible for them.
I may want at some stage to move this blog over to my own domain, if/when I get one, and I hope this is not hugely impossible.

c) I also want to have, separate from the Moodle, a blog of my own which will be a general "my blog for my students" blog, general info for all my students, such as stories, profiles of students doing interesting things, upcoming events of potential interest, internet resources. Due to the fact that all my students are (false) beginners in English, I'll need to be able to post stuff in their native language sometimes (Japanese).

Last year I made 4 separate blogs for 4 different classes, but I found that a lot (but not all) of what I was writing on there was relevant and of potential interest to all the students, so I started wishing I'd made, or had separately, a main blog for such general stuff. One thing I did, for instance, was to post to the blog student responses to homework assingments (after removing all their names) so that they could read each others' homework and my comments to them, and hopefully respond/comment on those (only a small minority commented, tho rather more did read the posts).


As it seems that student use of computers is going DOWN (a purely subjective impression at the moment), while every student has a cell-phone, I'm thinking of using a Japanese-based blog host which allows cell-phone access to the blog (you can read it on your cell-phone, also post to it, send photos to it) via something called the QR-code (don't know if this exists outside Japan). Go here and scroll right down to the bottom and you'll see a little black square with squiggles in it in the LH sidebar. That's the QR-code. Anywhere else using this?

d) Finally (?) I would like to get an informal dialogue going with my students by having either a class blog or them making their own individual blogs, linked by RSS. I'm assuming an outside host would be better for this than using the Moodles (can you have blogs in Moodle?). I haven't made up my mind whether I want something completely public like eslblogs/uniblogs/elgg or something like Blogmeister (which I haven't played with at all) or Drupal?. Is there something halfway between the completely open and public and the "walled garden" of Moodle? Something like My Space (but not MySpace) where you can't SEE the blog unless you're a member of the community? My reasoning is that some of my students may be intimidated (at least at first) by the completely public nature of an "open" blog, which may prevent them from participating in this part of my program.

Oh, and the Moodle AND the class blogs will need to have Japanese language capability.

Whew! That's it (for the moment). Any suggestions? Comments? Words of wisdom or warning... etc.

8 comments:

EFL Geek said...

I would recommend Site5 (if you use them click my link as I get a kickback) 12 classes is really small and you'll definitely have no problems.

2) I don't think this is entirely possible, but to be sure check with the moodle forums though setting up multiple domains or subdomains would definitely be easy to do you would end up with multiple installs of moodle. Alternatively you could just name the courses something generic so that you don't have to identify which university is using which course;
Engineering English
English firsthand 1
Focus on News

or some such thing

All the other things you want to do are easily accomplished - and when moodle 1.6 is released it will have blogs built in, though you may have to wait till next semester for that.

If you want more info or help of any kind with this project let me know via email. eslteacher at gmail dot com

Rudolf said...

Basically, I want server space where I can host moodles for the (up to 12) classes

A single Moodle install can handle a lot more than twelve classes. To set up Moodle, you'll need a host that gives you PHP/MySQL, though. Check the feature list of your hosting plan before you jump.

I also do NOT want on the Moodle front page things like "Click here for University A students, Click here for University B students

You can tweak the code and make it behave in non-standard ways. This might require some effort though.

(perhaps this will require separate domains for them?)

You could set up as many Moodle instances as there are employers you work for. You'd need a separate database for each install, though, and databases are a scarce commodity in basic hosting plans. (Maybe you can use table prfixes and install several Moodles into one database -- you'd have to ask the Moodle folks if that's possible.)

And, technically, no -- you wouldn't need a separate domain for each separate install. It should be possible to run different Moodles in different subdomains or simply in different directories.

Is it possible for my students to just type their password and get sent directly to their moodle module?

You'd need to hack the Moodle source for that, most likely. Ask technical questions like these on Moodle's forums.

I also would like a community blog for my department. I've started it one on edublogs.
The idea is to celebrate the achievements and work of the department members, and to have all members able to write posts and upload files, etc. Is edublogs the right medium?


Edublogs is not a medium. Edublogs is a site. The site runs on Wordpress Multiuser, the same software that that Wordpress.com runs on. You could use Wordpress.com instead or run your own instance of the software -- same difference, mostly, except your own instance would give you admin control over the whole thing.

I notice, for instance, that I can invite only people who are already edublog account holders, so that means each staff member will first need to create their own edublog then tell me their user name then I invite them, right?

Right.

Trouble is, only a couple know what a "blog" is at the moment, and the others have I don't know what level of computer skills so I'd like to make this as easy as possible for them.

Consider Textpattern. It's what the Mie Journal ran on -- it's got a very well-designed admin area from which you can sign up users and give them different levels of permission -- they will get sent their login via e-mail, and they'll never need to deal with anything that's new or unfamiliar -- except for Textile, which is a handy set of HTML shortcuts.

A possible downside to Textpattern is that most people find its default look too barren and there's no "theme engine" yet that would allow you to just plonk in a fancier prefabricated design.

I may want at some stage to move this blog over to my own domain, if/when I get one, and I hope this is not hugely impossible.

Not sure what you mean by "this blog" -- but all of the major blogging tools have import scripts that allow you to pack up your stuff and move it to the other place. That never fails to generate a decent amount of linkrot, though, so I'm not sure I always recommend the practice.

Due to the fact that all my students are (false) beginners in English, I'll need to be able to post stuff in their native language sometimes (Japanese).

All major blogging apps now support Unicode (UTF-8), so you can basically post in any known writing system.

I'm thinking of using a Japanese-based blog host which allows cell-phone access to the blog (you can read it on your cell-phone, also post to it, send photos to it)

Join the JapanBloggers mailing list on Yahoo -- they've got a bunch of geeks there who have been tinkering with their cells -- and they don't mind sharing their expertise.

Something like My Space (but not MySpace) where you can't SEE the blog unless you're a member of the community?

Drupal has very elaborate and customisable permission management, although I've heard novices find the posting interface confusing and overkill.

Elgg would support this -- Apcala.com is an Elgg install that's intended for general users (as opposed to the educators on Elgg.net) -- you should be able to define a group and let weblog posts be visible only to group members.

Oh, and the Moodle AND the class blogs will need to have Japanese language capability.

UTF-8. In some places people may be using superannuated browsers that can't handle UTF-8 yet (that's why Japanese Web development shops still cling to their silly old national character encodings) -- but I don't think that's a practical concern any more.

EFL Geek said...

Rudolf,

honestly I don't know of any host that limits the amount of databases you are allowed. in the past that was the case but now it is pretty much unlimited databases wherever you go.

Anyhow everything else Rudolf said is good solid advice.

Rudolf said...

Myself, I'm sorted for hosting and haven't been keeping up on the market, so I'll take your word for the unlimited databases being "standard" now.

Still, a Shared 1 account at Textdrive is limited to six databases and a Basic Pair.com account mentions neither scripting languages supported nor (number of) databases offered.

But whatever. If you plan to run Web apps on a shared hosting account, you shouldn't sign up before you know which scripting languages (and which versions thereof) are supported and how many databases you can use. If the hosting plan specs aren't explicit on those points, send a message to customer support and ask.

Is all I'm sayin. :-|

Rudolf said...

Wait a sec.

They explicitly state that an Advanced account at Pair.com gives you five MySQL databases, meaning you get none if you opt for a Basic account.

EFL Geek said...

Wow that's really crappy! Very expensive for almost nothing. Well anyhow when I was looking back in May (chose my latest host then) all the hosts I looked at had hwat I wanted.

Marco, as Rudolf said at a minimum you'll want a host that has php 4.4+ installed probably a good idea to get 5.x installed as well as the latest versions of mysql and perl (though I never use perl scripts)

Marco Polo said...

Thanks for all the advice, guys. Rudolf, I'm curious about Textpattern and the Mie Journal. Textpattern website blurb says content management system. How is it different from a blog? What else does it support? Do you use the other features (if so, what are they)? And why did you choose Textpattern rather than say blogger or WordPress?

And the Mie Journal seems to be drawing to a close. Is/Was it a class blog? Do you have class blogs? If so, how do you manage them, ie what happens to the blog once the class is finished? The student writers on that blog all seem very good English speakers (or writers, at least!). Most impressed.

Rudolf said...

Blogger, Wordpress.com, Typepad and the like are "hosted weblogging" services: you get an account that allows you to do whatever it allows you to do, and that's it. The place itself is run by someone else.

Applications such as Textpattern, plain-vanilla Wordpress, Movable Type or Expression Engine (which EFL Geek runs on) -- or Moodle, for that matter -- are programs that you download and then upload to your own server space. These applications give you complete control over everything; you've got admin control over an install and if there's something the program doesn't do, or fails to do the way you want it, you can modify the source code.

Plain-vanilla Wordpress is a blogging tool; if you want to use it for something else, you're working against its grain. Textpattern is a bit behind Wordpress when it comes to the latest blogging toys, but it's far more flexible in terms of what you can to with it: it's a CMS rather than a blogging tool.

What else Textpattern supports? Textpattern itself is a lightweight core that performs all basic content management and has a "plugin" framework that allows programmers to write additional features as needed. There are lots of such plugins -- too many to list here.

The Mie Journal was a reiteration of the first Tawawa project I started in April 2003 and that originally ran on Movable Type. The English may be a bit above average for Japanese university students because I put the entries through an editing queue before they went live.