Tech Adventure 2007

I’ve become shy in my use of the word “irony,” nowadays, what with the Grammarati so trigger happy in pointing out its misuse. So let’s just say that, as the word is commonly understood, my current situation is the very definition of ironic:

In less than a month, I’ll be making a case to the math department, then the leadership committee, and then the faculty for integrating 21st-century educational technology into our high school.


At a department meeting last week, talk came around to our currently under-utilized server space. Only three teachers on campus keep class pages, a statistic which we all thought was kind of a shame, given the tech resources we have sleeping on our couch over there.

So everyone’s like, let’s buy some more server space and some publishing software and hold an inservice on how to update HTML files and upload them.

At this point, long-time readers will have no trouble imagining my conflict. I know about these blog & wiki things y’all enthuse over so much. I have a good sense of my faculty and I know that buying traditional web publishing software and teaching our veterans how to use an FTP client would be the equivalent of hocking a loogie into a gale force wind. (I don’t update my own HTML content. It takes too long, even for a savvy kid born of bits-and-bytes like myself, and it can’t talk back to me.)

I know all these things but I’m so protective of my class time (see first link above) and so suspicious of technology for its own sake.

But I pipe up. I rattle off a few broad notes from Karl Fisch’s presentation. I tell them I can do us several turns better and easier than static HTML pages. I ask them for a release day to do my School 2.0 homework and outline a presentation.

After a couple days, they hook up a release day and tell me to have my presentation ready for the next staff meeting, and now here I am, bogged down in what may or may not be irony. You guys win. All of you.

So I’ve got Friday — all day Friday — to run through Drupal and Elgg. (Moodle‘s main page kinda grosses me out so I’ll be stepping lightly over there.) Over the course of the day, I’ll be poring over the text and comments of Eric’s Killer EdApp post. I’ll be revisiting Darren’s fine work integrating tech into his math classrooms. I’ll be soliciting thoughts from anyone willing to part with them.

To that end, here’s the personal ad:

SWM HWNP in search of content management system for LTR to enable:

  • inter- and intra-department collaboration,
  • electronic delivery of assignments and handouts,
  • meaningful parent & student communication,
  • multimedia assignments (cf. Darren’s Flickr assignment, Vicki Davis’ YouTube group),
  • comment moderation,
  • calendar scheduling,
  • cross-continental collaboration.

If you find this premise even remotely interesting — a skeptic coming to terms with the object of his skepticism — I promise it’ll be much more than that. I’ve become obsessed by academic salesmanship lately and have, myself, been an extremely hard sell on this point. Please believe me, then, that the product of this month will be as accessible and jargon-free as any you’ve seen. For my own sake, it has to be. Also, given my nigh-romantic fixation on graphic design, it’ll be pretty if it’s anything.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Peter, we’ve got 80-something teachers on staff.

    Chris, thanks for the links. I dig the vibe coming from Drupal’s way even though I’m not exactly sure what it does or how it does it. (The Handbooks section has been intimidating me for a week.) I guess that’s what Friday is for.

    Anybody else got anything else? I basically love WordPress and would love a system that gave me and my students that kind of ease of publishing. If it was just me, I would simply set my students up as users on, but that system would be too complicated to scale school-wide.

  2. I wish that I had experience with either Drupal or Elgg – I am the consummate tinkerer with web applications, although my coding skills are limited to html, php and minimal mysql (and I’m darned lucky that so many open source folks cater to exactly those packages!). I have installed Moodle multiple times, and find it to generally be an extremely straightforward installation; beyond that it’s very modular and has a huge support base.

    Since we’re a K-8 school, our cms needs are a little bit different than yours; our cms is called Site@School and it’s used by hundreds of primary schools all around, particulary in Europe (the team that runs it is based in The Netherlands).

    But if I can offer any encouragement, it would be to NOT have anyone mess directly with html (unless teachers like you want to tweak something). Heck, I don’t even barely touch the bare html in my own teacher pages, since I get a richtext editor (our teachers still think that somehow I named the editor after myself…). My holy grail of cmses would be a truly WYSIWYG, drag-and-drop editor, unrestrained by html’s image layout, but I don’t know where that cms is yet. In the meantime, about 40% of our teachers actively maintain their teacher page(s). Active means at least once a week, us middle school teachers often edit ours daily with hw assignments (which of course YOU would not need to worry about!).

    I’m a little uneasy with somehow justifying getting a bigger server or more drive space, to somehow act as a catalyst for more teacher usage. That sounds sort of like supply-side technology to me; I prefer to grow to the point where our usage of a given item (web space, video projector, Smart board, etc.) is causing enough folks to want/need it, that we then need to purchase more. On the other hand, web server storage space is not horrifically expensive, although I don’t know exactly how your school obtains it (on the open market from web hosting companies? do you run your own server? does the school district provide space?).

    One final thought – I waffle back and forth about my desire to keep all of the content within the confines of my own school website, vs. linking from our pages to other free resources like wikis, blogs or YouTube. The control freak part of me (I was a technology coordinator for eight years before transitioning to math, and I’m still the school’s network admin) wants to have 100% of the stuff going on within my own site. That means that I have to get MediaWiki up and running (which I do right now), WordPress (which I do) and some sort of video hosting (which I definitely do NOT do). But gosh, there are so many free, even banner-less, resources to use out there that I sometimes feel like passing off the headaches of running the back ends (databases, security, etc.) off to the folks who really DO know what they’re doing. So the purpose of this paragraph is just to encourage you to consider outsourcing some of your needs, at least as you grow up the faculty to be more 2.0’ers, until someday you find that they’ve got 72 YouTube accounts, 54 accounts, and so on, so that then there’s some real justification for hosting it all yourself.

    Darned if I’m not rambling way too long; I’m sitting in a library at the college where my brother is presently teaching his Intro to Ethics class, so I have far too much time on my hands. Sorry!!

  3. Dan,

    I’ll be releasing a site out that will get you most, if not all, of the way there.

    Feel free to get in touch — I’ll be glad to show you some of what’s possible in Drupal.



  4. Let me just say that we’re about to launch Drupal here, and we’re a bit intimidated too. It’s an INSANELY powerful tool, which is awesome, but it’s also an INSANELY powerful tool, which makes it a bit overwhelming.

    One of my concerns is that we have suspended using Elgg right now because it wasn’t meeting our needs, but because Drupal seems so overwhlelming, we’re not blogging as much as we should be.

  5. Dan,

    As far as ease of use, I like Elggspaces (that way I don’t have to install and configure the software myself):

    As far as a complete solution, I’m still holding onto Joomla for now (you’ve seen my brief review, I think, and I’ll be adding a post soon about “must have extenions” for Joomla).

    I looked into Drupal before I ever started with Mambo/Joomla and decided it was too complex for some things, and not customizable enough for others. It may have changed since then … I haven’t been back lately.

    Our current solution =

    Joomla for social networking, forum discussions, and as a “home base” to link to other things (using the Community Builder profile extension)

    Wikispaces for the wiki component (though Joomla does a nice install of MediaWiki software, too … I just prefer the ease of Wikispaces over MediaWiki).

    Elggspaces for individual student blogs (and they list their blog URLs on their Joomla profiles, so they can find each other there or through the elgg site directly)

    SchoolFusion for homework management (and this is school-wide … which you can look at through the “courses” page on; it’s also NOT free).

    I’ve been emailing with Bill Fitzgeral about OpenAcademic. His plans look pretty amazing, so I am watching that closely.

    I would recommend setting up a few options and letting some of your more tech-savvy students play with each. See which one they respond to best, compare that with your personal preference (since you’ll be managing it), and go from there.

    I know you have a Friday presentation deadline, but can you present this: “We’ve found X number of possible solutions that seem most appropriate. We’ll be doing some testing over the next few weeks with students to see which solution works best and will then implement it.”

    At any rate, tough choices. Good luck! Feel free to get in touch if I can help.


  6. Hi Dan: It sounds like you have quite an undertaking here. I wish I could add something substantial to your quest, but I am still wrapping my brain around a lot of this, learning from those above me (as in literally in this column of comments) who know a lot more about it than I do.

    So, in the absence of real expertise on specific 2.0 ed apps, I will instead make some more philosophical type suggestions: keep the decision makers in your school from committing to a single solution for the sake of having a single solution. Eric’s comment above rings true. Get students involved in helping develop a solution. From what I’ve been hearing, the so-called 21st Century skills include adapting to new situations and problems. This is one. Most likely whatever you choose will not be a permanent solution.

    Another considering involves student writing. Some of those sites, like Moodle, seem like they are really geared best to support school work and the like. That’s great. But that doesn’t mean that’s the best pedagogical approach for encouraging authentic student writing through blogging. If you want students to use blogs in a natural, organic way there needs to be some kind of distance from making it feel like a homework requirement. That may be an argument for coming up with a solution that is not just one killer app, but many, just as Bud Hunt and others have commented on Eric’s post.

    Finally, there has been an interesting, if not meandering, thread about this topic that I’ve taken part in that you may find helpful –

    Anyway, good luck with your presentation. I enjoy reading your blog, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with.


  7. Eric, thanks for the trove of leads you drop up there. Luckily, Friday is only my research day, not the presentation itself, which goes down a month after that.

    Same to you, Bing. Both you and Eric put the answer in a variety of sources and recommend that students drive my R&D. Which is a little scary, frankly, though my fear and the lack thereof on both of your parts is unsurprising.

    Your priority is the best, most effective, student-centric product. That’s great. Unfortunately, at this point, the complexity of that solution means that only the most 21st-century committed teachers will jump aboard while the rest will have no trouble writing that solution off as too time-consuming and too classroom-specific to work for them.

    My priority is that every teacher find an accessible inroad for ferrying technology into their classrooms. Which means whatever web portal I end up rocking here has to be easy to access and update. And it should be, right? After some initial set-up, WordPress just requires a log-in, from which jumping-off point I can do anything. I’m positive I could sell my faculty on WordPress. I won’t try, simply because I have no idea how to scale it to district-size.

    So our priorities are different. I’ll put in any amount of initial configuration and set-up if it’ll eradicate inevitable complaints that “this would take too much time” / “this would never work with my students.” That might constrict my focus to one or two apps. That might mean students are merely the beta-testers rather than the developers. Those are both bummer losses, but such are the priorities.

  8. Of course, it will take a while to overcome tech-angst no matter how simple the app, and we’ll ultimately never rid the world of nay-sayers (which ain’t necessarily a bad thing).

    Anyway, I double-checked your want ad and considered your last comment. I’m also assuming your looking for free or free-ish solutions. So, revised thoughts:

    Simplest Single Solution: WordPress MU won’t do all the things you listed in your want ad, but it is probably the easiest.

    Most Complete Single Solution: Moodle does most of it, and you can make it prettier, but it’s always left me kinda … meh.

    Best Compromise: If I had to pick only two apps, and ease of use from the teacher end were my priorities, I’d go with Elggspaces and Wikispaces. Wikispaces for “course pages” (and perhaps later, student collaborative projects) and Elggspaces for the interactivity, individual blogs, community, podcasting, file sharing, etc. Both are easy and customizable (more so if you’re hosting the elgg software yourself). You won’t get the calendar feature with this solution, but dropping in a communal Google Calendar isn’t that tough.

    Best Hope: I’m still thinking OpenAcademic might end up being the solution, but it’s just not ready yet.

    Hail Mary: I’ve kicked the tires of, but never given it a test drive, so it might be completely wrong for what you’re after.

    There may be other solutions, but if there are, I haven’t met ’em yet.

    Once again, good luck.

  9. Dan,
    I think it is great that you are trying to move my alma mater into the 21st century. You sound like you are on the same track as myself and John Simms as we try to keep Aptos Junior High moving forward. This may be a long post but I feel that just a few months ago I was in your shoes. So here is my advice. Please understand that I am not trying to sound like a know it all, it is just that John and I have been trying to move people forward with tech for the last 5 years and it is a slow, slow process. Our biggest accomplishments over the last 5 years are consistent use of email, virtual calendar appointments, homework center online, online grades, a fullybooked computer cart and the fact that many of our teachers now take the lead when it comes to trying out new technology.

    I am assuming in my comments that your staff is mildy interested in technology.
    I am not familiar with most of the applications that people are talking about in the comments. I know WordPressMU because we are running a blog over there called and it seems to be working. I just threw something up on googledocs today and I am waiting for results. So my comment will mainly be directed at the approach to the presentation.

    If i read you right you only have 3 teachers currently maintaining class pages, correct. My first question would be why? To hard, to easy, what is the benefit to having a class website. One of those is probally Boomer. He must be like 80 something by now. Anyways, find out why people don’t think that it is effective to have a class page. After all you yourself stated that class time is valuable, so what are the teachers going to get out of this new venture? What makes this better than posting my homework on the whiteboard or putting up student work in the back of the room.

    Second, get buy in from some people who you know are respected and are a lock to at least try it out. Doesn’t have to be veterans, just someone who everyone respects and knows is doing a good job. It sounds corny but believe me you only need to get a few people moving in the right direction before everyone jumps on board. If you are brave enough, try to get one crank on board to, someone who you know will just try to destroy your presentation. That will also pay dividends. It is risky but getting a naysayer to even think about it is huge.

    Third. Limit the techno babble (you probally already know this but I will say it anyways). Tech savvy and non tech savvy people will glaze over if they hear to much of what is going on in your comments. Make things concise, accurate and specific. Give concrete examples of why these things will work and ways that they are working.

    Fourth. Present only two or three programs. You don’t want to overwhelm your staff. Remember the KISS philosophy especially when starting with technology.

    Fifth: The takeaway theory: Make sure that your staff goes out of the meeting with a “takeaway”. It is the key to all tech staff development. A step by step cheat sheet, screen shots, passwords, examples the whole 9 yards. Spoon feed it to them so that as soon as they walk out of the staff meeting they can turn around and sit down at their own computers and follow your instructions so they are able to recreate your presentation. Then a follow up email so that they know you are still thinking of them with the offer to help any and all comers.

    Lastly. If you can do it in a computer lab where they can “play” as you demonstrate. Oh boy, that is fun. It really helps out and helps the teachers learn.d
    And really lastly, if they trust you and they feel that what you are doing is really best for them and not just a “tech show” then you should do great.

    Thanks for reading (listening) I really hope it helped. Part of me wishes I could be there to hear your presentation.

  10. I think you find success by finding a good balance between flexibility and ease of use. This is probably a retro solution in this day and age, but for my school we’ve had great success with MovableType. The “courseware” apps are neat, but complex and overwhelming for the vast majority of staff. So I didn’t even look at them. We just need little sandboxes where collaboration can happen.

    I will say you are on the right track with whatever you choose; a weblog-type cms is a great way to go because it releases people from organizing files. Plus they benefit from port 80 not being filtered by our district’s firewall. This means people can work on their slice of the website anywhere at anytime. When I chose to implement a weblog cms last summer, I investigated WordPress, WPMU, MT, pMachine, ExpressionEngine, MediaWiki–you name it. In the end, I went with MovableType.

    I did this for three reasons:
    1) Sandboxes. The idea that each person/group/department/project gets their own place to use that won’t interfere with another.
    2) Flexibility. The great thing about a complete set of template tags is that you can roll out new sandboxes that are customized to meet the needs of the audience/users. This means the complexity of the sites teachers interact with can change as they become more confident in their abilities.
    3) Static files. Our last solution was based on dynamic publishing. When the database went down or whatever, so did the site. It’s hard to “break” serving static files. Although there are trade-offs to this one.

    For the success of our school and getting people to maintain an active web presence, number 2 was key. I’ve been able to scale the website along with the staff’s abilities just by editing template files. Our online homework customized so it is drop-dead-simple for teachers to use. It took about an hour to develop by tweaking templates.

    Right now, it’s mostly teachers, administrators and office staff that publish online. Since we’ve acquired a laptop cart, I’m now attempting to get students publishing to the web for a new/different audience than their teacher. If all goes well that will come to fruition next week. (fingers crossed)

    Last bit (I promise!). Last summer, WPMU wasn’t baked yet, so I reluctantly crossed it off my list. But in managing a WPMU installation outside of school, I’m glad I did. In my WPMU installation I have to worry about splogs or fake users appearing; not so in MovableType because I’m in charge of blog/user creation. Also in MovableType there are site-wide views of posts and comments so I can see what is happening across all the sandboxes at once. This is important when considering that I have a desire to see everything without visiting each blog for comments. One downside is that I can’t force a site-wide rebuild of the static files (the aforementioned trade-off).

    Now I’m sure someone can come along and say well WP/WPMU can do that, too. It probably can, but I have personally found MT to be easier and faster to manage. As a math teacher that moonlights during one period as the “Tech Guy” that is important to me.

    John Simms

  11. Eric, thanks for bothering to refocus your recommendations vis-a-vis my wishlist.

    Brian, if I was the sort to foster wikis, your comment would be the first edit of the Best Practices for Teaching Teachers Wiki. Just a lot of good words there on how to approach any group with any sort of persuasive speech.

    It’s worth noting here that my experience with 21st-Century Education has been largely frustrating, my reading weighted heavily on enthusiastic jargon and lightly on practical implementation. (Comments here excepted — thanks a mil, team.) Part of this is the relative infancy of the technology but whatever the case, this presentation will be as you describe it. My skepticism and manic insistence that this be worth our time makes me somehow an ideal presenter.

    John, thanks for dropping such a detailed post. I find myself falling quickly out of my technological comfort level here, but I’d rather be inundated than dry.

    To anybody else with something to contribute, please do. You’ve gotta see this for the sound investment it is. Whatever presentation I put together will be fully remix- and remashable. I have no interest in keeping it. Moreover, if I can work up even a fraction of the enthusiasm y’all seem to possess, I’ll ply my limited motion graphics skills towards a Machine Is Us/Ing Us / Google Master Plan – style video along the same lines.

  12. Hey Dan,

    After reading this and your two subsequent posts, I’m an intrigued with your situation as much as I empathize with your challenge. Where do you start?

    The first step may be finding comfort in the fact that you will almost certainly not hit a homerun. It sounds as if you are hoping to A) find the best learning environment B) map out the process through which it will be built C) convince the faculty that it provides the type of learning experience that is worth their time.

    The discussion regarding the solution to “A” revolves around the personal preferences of the teachers who use them the most. The Drupal, ELGG, Moodle, Joomla, merry-go-round may be not unlike the platform fight; people go with what they know. The key for Moodle is a virtually flat learning curve. The ratio of time invested to tools gained for the teacher-user on Moodle rocks. Personally, I don’t want to talk to teachers about training, I want to talk about the best lessons for forums, wikis and blogs. Creating the collaborative environment is small change, the powerful learning experience that utilizes it is the payoff.

    Although I am tired of hearing, “Are we going to get in-service days to be trained for this?”, I developed a qualified sympathy for these folks. The tools should be so easy to use that they shouldn’t need training. What they should be doing is lesson planning.
    You are absolutely right about HTML, and my days of promoting the ease of FrontPage are over. Believe it or not, I even avoid the “T” word, all this stuff is “communication and information tools.”

    For the record, our chosen environment is Moodle, which is attached to ELGG. Students can forward their work directly to an e-portfolio in ELGG.

    As for the “B” of mapping out how it is created, that should not be your job any more that it is the job of the teacher to learn the coding necessary to create the forum or wiki they are going to use.

    And lastly, to tackle “C”, have you considered establishing the necessity of creating a learning environment that includes collaboration and information management tools? Perhaps such a motivational approach that will not take up a great deal of your time, but you can show how the Scientific Revolution, Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment are a direct result of humans’ change in their relationship with information resulting from the printing press. If changes on that order of magnitude happened from printing, what is going to result from our current change in our relationship with information? Saying that here is preaching to the choir, but you must take that message to the masses as well.

    Good luck, you are not alone

  13. I know I sounded decisive before and all, but for the flat learning curve you mention (and which C. Lehmann affirms), I’m going to poke at Moodle some. A lot of our faculty have been griping about the rather halfassed work our students put in on their senior exit portfolios. This Elgg export could be a good selling point. Thanks for the advice on my pitch.