Correspondence with Quest Academy

September 24, 2011 Justin 3.2: Diffusion of Innovations

I’ve adjusted the following emails slightly to flow better as a standalone document, and I’ve removed irrelevant parts of the narratives and adjusted some grammar, but the pertinent content is reproduced verbatim.

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From: {Quest’s Technology Coach}
To: Justin Reeve
Sent: 8/12/2011

Was it a lot of money to get all of Weber School District on the same system for blogs. I love how ours (WSD) are WordPress and universal. Right now at Quest, everyone that has one just uses a different type of blog and it does not look uniform to me and that would be hard for me to train them, where they all have a different type. So, I told my principal today, how wonderful you are at that, and said I’d chat with you to see if it is possible for Quest to get something like that. I also told her that you would do some side jobs for her if we needed it, she was very excited. Let me know what you think and how we get started with that…if it is hard or easy or what you suggest. THANK YOU.

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From: Justin Reeve
To: {Quest’s Technology Coach}
Sent: 8/13/2011

I’d love to do that for them! And no, it’s not hard at all. WordPress is ridiculously easy to set up, and you can tie it into most authentication schemes (e.g. LDAP, ActiveDirectory, Novell, email). It’s free, too, so all you’re paying for is the server space (and possibly the domain). If there’s no extenuating circumstances, I could probably have it up and running in one day, with a full compliment of themes and “essential” plugins.

You’ve already discovered the common problem in many other schools and districts outside Weber: non-uniformity. It’s VERY common for other schools to not have consistent systems across teachers. Dave Brooks had the foresight to standardize on all our tech systems, since it allows our techs to become experts on a smaller array of tools, allowing them to support more teachers in a single day, rather than spending the entire day trying to figure out whatever obscure apps each teacher decided to use.

I could be completely wrong about this, but I have a feeling Academia West is hosting their web sites for them. I don’t know how much flexibility they have as far as their web servers go, but I’m sure we could help them figure something out.

Feel free to skip over this next part if it bores you to death, but it should give you some ideas on what’s involved on the technical side. Basically, here’s the initial things I’d want to find out.

1. Determine how much space they need on the blogs, and if their existing server(s) can support it. As far as I know, they don’t have a media-sharing site like WeberTube (do they want one?). Remember how I made you stop uploading your videos to the blogs a few years ago, and switch over to WeberTube? Well, in the absence of a media-sharing site, Quest’s teachers may need to upload videos directly to the blog space, which means the server would need to be able to accommodate this. The alternative would be to use a third-party site like YouTube or TeacherTube and embed.

2. Make sure they have a system that ties in all teacher logins. Having multiple usernames and passwords gets absurd very quickly with the more software/web applications you add to your school setup. I would need to know the “connection details” to authenticate against this.

3. QuestAcademyCharter.org is, frankly, kind of long. They should really look into registering a shorter domain if they expect parents to be visiting teacher blogs often, e.g. questac.org, or questblogs.org, or even qblogs.org. (QBlogs is kind of catchy sounding, don’t you think?) Those are all available domains.

That’s pretty much it. WordPress is fairly straightforward to install and set up after that. WordPress does run a little better on Linux Apache servers, rather than Windows IIS servers, but it’ll work either way.

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From: {Quest’s Technology Coach}
To: Justin Reeve
Sent: August 16, 2011

I met with our tech at our school, and he is in the process of talking to the people that work on Frogtummy (web host) to get some answers for us. He thinks that it is a great idea. I will keep you posted on what I find out. Of course, when I was showing WeberTube to my new principal, she thought that was amazing. I do not want to copy everything from the district, but she just wondered how hard that was to set up. I do not mind having her teachers upload to TeacherTube and Slideshare and all that, but of course having one central location to upload all types of documents appeals to her, and she wants to be current where our school is “technology” centered. Just let me know if that is a small project to attempt or a big one. Once we get all this figured out she talks it to the board to get their approval and then we set something up to get you paid. I really really really appreciate your help on this!

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From: Justin Reeve
To: {Quest’s Technology Coach}
Sent: August 16

There’s no reason to not use a tool just because Weber does it. Tools like blogs and media-sharing/video streaming sites are consistently growing trends among many schools and districts…we’re certainly not the only one with a WeberTube. For example, see http://dearbornschools.org/dtube, http://media.muhlenberg.edu/ and even http://sagetube.sage.edu/ if you want to see a familiar look. I’m always looking at what other districts and universities are doing, but more importantly, examining current educational market trends, to try to stay on top of things. In my opinion, a technology-oriented school shouldn’t just try and copy what others are doing, but become the innovators and lead the technology trends.

Anyway, our WordPress blogs and WeberTube site just use open source apps I’ve set up. Except for servers and minor maintenance, it’s a zero total cost of ownership. Our advantage is that we’ve also been able to customize our tech tools to suit our needs. Embeddable WeberTube Documents was a custom feature I built that, incidentally, also uses entirely free/open source tools. A media/document-sharing site similar to WeberTube would be a little more time-consuming to set up, due to the custom features, but it would be fairly straightforward. Probably 2 or 3 weeks at most, with time for testing and debugging.

It would probably help most if I just sat down and talked with you guys, and/or emailed Lani Rounds and you directly. All these projects can be as small or as big as you guys want, and I’d be willing to devote whatever time is needed. Blogs should be a fairly small project. “QuestTube,” probably a little more involved, though it entirely depends on where you want to take it and if you want to customize it.

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From: Justin Reeve
To: {Quest’s Principal}
Sent: Sat 8/20/2011 2:15 PM

I know {Quest’s Technology Coach} has been talking to you about me, but I’d like to take the opportunity to introduce myself.

I’m Justin Reeve, and I’m the web manager for Weber School District. I’ve devised, designed, created, and/or implemented most of the major web systems our district uses, and I administer all the web servers to accommodate them. I’m also one of the founders of Venture Academy, and helped implement the school’s technology. Plus, I’m the technology consultant for the Utah ASCD. I’m finishing my Master’s degree in Educational Technology from Boise State this December, and earning my graduate certificate in online teaching at the same time.

I have a passion for educational technology, and I was thrilled when Nicki told me what she’s doing for you and your staff at Quest. I’m always interested to know what other schools are doing. What kind of vision do you have for technology integration at Quest, and what would you like to see implemented eventually? She mentioned your interest in setting up a central blog network, but I’d like to know how your teachers are using blogs now. At Weber, most teachers just post their syllabi, homework assignments, and occasional updates. But some, like Nicki (we call her the “Widget Queen”), have gone above and beyond and turned them into a complete extensions of the learning environment, posting photos, videos, projects, encouraging students to leave comments and develop language skills, and giving parents a window into the classroom.

I’m also interested in what ways your students use the technology you introduce. I have a few friends who’ve put their children in Quest, but they haven’t been able to give me much feedback on how the technology is integrated. I’m not surprised, since parents aren’t always aware of the inner workings of the educational system – they just want results. But the quote on your technology curriculum PDF (https://questacademycharter.org/Docs/technologyCurriculum.pdf) is directly from Laurie Dias’ article “Integrating Technology” (http://ttc.coe.uga.edu/files/IntegratingTechnology-Dias.pdf) in which she describes an extensive constructivist-based instructional approach, rich with collaboration, situated learning, reflection, and experiential and discovery-based learning. I’d be excited to know if your students engage in these kinds of activities on a regular basis, because it’s so seldom seen on a school-wide level.

I’d love to hear back from you, and hear about what you’ve been doing at Quest, and if there’s any way I can help you reach your goals!

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From: {Quest’s Principal}
To: Justin Reeve
Sent: 8/22/2011 5:44 PM

Thank you for the email. {Quest’s Technology Coach} speaks very highly of you and your skills. I know you are very busy with your Weber SD gig, but Quest is very interested in the possibility of contracting with you for things that we are unable to complete in-house.

We have a database administrator (and a network administrator on-site. In past years we have contracted most of our services through outside vendors. This year, they are attempting to tackle many things on their own. I am very lucky that they are quick learners and excited to take on the many challenges thrown at them. I have budgeted money to allow us to contract with “experts”, such as yourself.

Currently our web page and email are hosted and maintained through Frogtummy which is the company that Academica West, our charter-school management company, uses. We don’t have the knowledge to manage and maintain email and web pages. Many of our teacher have fabulous web pages or blogs that they link to Quest’s web page. These are mostly used to post syllabi, homework, newsletters, and slideshows of classroom activities. I would love for teachers to expand their use of web pages or blogs to include videos and/or Powerpoints of recently delivered lessons. I know through Frogtummy we are able to offer teachers a sub domain and some teachers have opted to use this while others are using a different web hosting site.

This is Quest’s 4th year of operation, and my second year as the administrator. We are a dual platform school and provide students equal access to Macs and PCs. We have two labs (one PC and one iMac) and seven COWS (computers on wheels). We use an online booking program which allows teachers to reserve lab space or a COW. We have a lot to learn and a long ways to go regarding the integration of technology. Many teachers are still trying to figure out the curriculum while others are ready to tackle the fine art of integrating technology in the classroom, and still others are using technology daily to support and enhance student learning. Teachers have Mimios, Elmos, MacBooks with VMware and Windows, and access to Turning Point Clickers, Lego Mindstorms,Wii Fit,  Flip cameras and digital cameras. We have site-wide licenses for many programs including  IXL, Raz Kids, Adobe Suites, Pearson SuccessMaker, STAR Assessment, Super Star Online, Brain Pop (Jr. too), Spelling City, and Type to Learn 4. We have e-editions for most textbooks and our 8th grade Spanish class will use K-12 Spanish 1 to enhance the classroom experience. Most students use PowerPoint (Keynote), Word (Pages) and Excel (Numbers) in some fashion or another. In addition, students also have access to the iLife programs such as iWeb, iMovie, Garage Band, iPhoto, etc. Some teachers are better than others at having students use these fabulous Mac programs to enhance their learning.

I would love for you to sit down and meet with the team to see if there are ways that you can help Quest truly create a “challenging, technology-rich environment” which enables our students to become better prepared for the real-world.

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From: Justin Reeve
To: {Quest’s Principal}
Sent: Sat 8/23/2011 2:15 PM

I think it’s fantastic your teachers have access to all these different technology tools to engage their students. I’ve long believed that technology in the hands of a good teacher only makes that teacher better, but that the focus should always be on the pedagogy and how teachers can improve their own teaching skills. This lays the theoretical framework for a technology-oriented curriculum, which then becomes a natural extension of the learning environment. Technology-oriented classrooms should transition from the “lecture, memorize, homework” mode to the “guide, collaborate, create ” project-based learning method. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but it’s exciting what can be accomplished with good, well-trained teachers and the right tools.

Out of curiosity, how much time does a typical student (in varying grade levels) spend in a computer lab each week in your school? Have you given thought to incorporating thin clients in each classroom to give instantaneous computer access to more students? I realize “using a computer” doesn’t necessary equal “technology integration.” But if your classrooms have enough network drops to support mini-computer labs, it can ultimately be an extremely cost-effective measure to increasing the number of computers in your school, with minimal maintenance required, and huge savings on licensing fees. There’s vendors which provide these thin clients, but there’s also ways you can just use outdated/donated computers, remove most of the essential parts, and use Windows ThinStation (http://thinstation.sourceforge.net) or K12 LTSP (http://www.ltsp.org) and set up a scalable thin client network for the cost of a server. The difference becomes buying a single server to support 50 thin clients, then using cheap or donated equipment vs. buying 50 brand new computers (see http://blog.wsd.net/jreeve/the-thin-client-advantage/ for a practical example on cost savings). Even your existing labs could save on software licensing this way.

As far as preparing students for the real-world, one thing that has worked for many schools is encouraging student portfolios. Do you already do this sort of thing? You can set up a system that allows concrete, shared work to be collected and displayed for each student. Some schools just use blogs for this, in fact…so teachers have their blogs for class instruction, and students have their own blogs for artifact sharing and reflection on their learning. If you can get parents to sign off on it (best to avoid safety issues), portfolios can go a long way in empowering students and giving them something they can maintain themselves (especially the older students), be proud of, and share with their family and peers. In many cases, they’ll be able to carry over their relevant portfolio work to high school, and can even use it when applying for jobs, scholarships, and other opportunities.

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From: {Quest’s Technology Coach}
Sent: 8/23/2011 8:44 PM

I have had my kids create digital portfolios using wiki spaces, but what program to you think is best to use for that? I totally love the idea of digital portfolios – I did the wiki one three years ago with my 2nd graders.

Aalso I noticed on our tech standards that 5th and 6th grade are supposed to create their own blog. I wonder if there is a special kid type blog that is good for them to use – have you heard of any?

One more question, have you heard much about ePals… i would like some of our grades to Skype with other classrooms – like have pen pals —what are your thoughts on that?

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From: Justin Reeve
To: {Quest’s Technology Coach}
Sent: 8/23/2011 10:30 PM

There are tools like www.edmodo.com, www.edublogs.org, and www.kidblog.org which let you do just that: let your students blog. But in all honesty, you can address both of these things by just using WordPress and tweaking with custom enhancement or plugins to allow greater teacher moderation, a simpler, kid-friendly dashboard, and extra privacy control as necessary. Wikispaces is awesome, but the advantage here is that students also have opportunities to reflect on their learning, or share their own insights. Plus, even after the kids leave Quest, they can simply export/import their blog to WordPress.com, or set up their own blog on a personal webhost.

Also, if you’re concerned about privacy and safety issues, it’s often better to self-host student work, anyway, so you’re not trying to go through third party software administration if a student posts something inappropriate, or too-personal revealing content leaks, etc. The last thing you want is, for example, a troubled student to upload compromising photos of a classmate, and the Edublogs dashboard to be temporarily offline for “maintenance” so you can’t do anything about it.

Additionally, if you host these tools yourself, you’re not locked into licensing fees. Now I’m not saying the following will happen…but when Lani mentioned all those tools and web sites Quest licenses, right after thinking “wow, that’s great!” I couldn’t help but think of the surprising number of schools that start down that road and find that after several years, they’re paying massive licensing fees just to maintain their repertoire of tools, and finding it difficult to budget upgrades for their existing systems, or new computers, or to fix faulty hardware — you know, paying for the basics. Granted, I have no idea what Quest’s technology budget is like, but I’m of the opinion that it’s good to save on software where you can — investing in self-hosted open source solutions when they rival or exceed the commercial alternatives — and free up money to spend on better hardware like servers and physical tools like clickers, interactive whiteboards, (possibly) student laptops, etc.

As for ePals, yes I’m familiar with it. I’m a big fan of class-to-class collaboration. (I’m glad you brought it up, in fact…because if you hadn’t, I was going to.) There’s a number of projects like this going on around the world. Look into Julie Lindsay and Vicki Davis’ “Flat Classroom Project” and “Digiteen” projects for example: http://www.flatclassroomproject.net (though I think they might be limiting it to high schools for now). Here’s a good example of an elementary classroom doing exactly what you’re talking about, though: http://learningismessy.com/blog/?p=432 Make sure you look up Skypito, too: http://www.skypito.com. I’ve used it with my 8 and 6 year-old before and it’s rather nice. OoVoo (http://www.oovoo.com) is pretty good, too, if you can get the other classroom(s) to use it, as the interface is a little more kid-friendly (in my experience) than regular Skype (my oldest was able to master it when she was 4).

I think if you’re going to get your students collaborating with other classrooms, then you should really get them collaborating on meaningful projects. Not merely talking back and forth as pen pals, but engaging in very real, socially constructivist learning throughout the year. For example, you could contact the Shanghai American School and organize transpacific interviews about Chinese vs. American culture. Each one of your students could be assigned a foreign partner, and together they collaboratively create an Animoto video, or a Prezi, or author a Google Doc, or any suitable group project, and share photos of their hometowns, experiences, insights, etc. Then they can co-present to both classrooms at the end of the term. Something like that would be rather exciting for students (though it might be better to find a classroom that’s in a closer time zone).

If you want me to help you get in touch with some teachers to collaborate with remotely, I can certainly help there. There’s many teachers in my personal learning network willing to do just that, to varying degrees. Just let me know what grade ranges you’re looking for.


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