Our district would like to set-up a teacher blog site for each teacher to post a daily classroom summary. Initially, we would like for the blogs to be accessed by the admin and teachers only – not available to the public. What is the best way to approach this?
Here are several options I’d recommend, in prioritized order. Any of these can work, but they each have different drawbacks and benefits. This is a great question and could easily be a full-day workshop in its own right! I’ll try to summarize here but also point out some of the important considerations to keep in mind with each option.
OPTION 1: SELF-HOSTED WORDPRESS BLOG
Setup a WordPress blog with an ISP like Siteground. You will be able to register a custom domain (like myschool.org) and the yearly cost will vary by how many months or years you pay for in advance. You shouldn’t pay more than $100 per year, Siteground is $84 for 1 year currently. Shop around carefully if you go with another ISP, check not only how much storage space you get but also your monthly bandwidth allocation and the supported applications. Bob Sprankle uses and recommends Bluehost as an alternative. Make sure your ISP supports Fantastico, which is a browser-based installer that you can use to setup WordPress with just a few clicks. Set up your WordPress blog as a team blog and grant access rights as desired. To make the blog a closed community, under settings for MEMBERSHIP make sure “Anyone can register” is unchecked and DO check “Users must be registered and logged in to comment.” With these settings, your blog can be publicly viewable but no one else (except those you invite and add yourself as the blog administrator) will be able to register, post, and comment / participate in the discussion. That is how I’d recommend you setup the blog initially if you want to limit participation. It will be VIEW ONLY to the public, but that is good in my view… You can make posts private at the time you write them, but that defeats many of the purposes of blogging IMHO. If you really want to keep things private and never make them public, consider setting up a private portal using a tool like Drupal. Content on blogs should be intended for a public audience in my view. If you to limit those who can post and comment you certainly can do this, but I think it’s best to not make all posts “private” within WordPress.
At some point if desired, you can open the blog up for others to be able to comment, and even add students as “contributors” who can write posts but their posts have to be approved by an editor. In our litigious U.S. society I encourage all school personnel setting up a blog to be careful and maintain some level of moderation control over content that is posted. It is very interesting to compare differences between blogging environments in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries compared to the United States. My observation is that the environment can be more open in other countries, due largely to differences in how litigious the society is. I’m not condoning this aspect of U.S. society at this point, but just pointing out it is real and no one wants to have a blogging project “blow up” with a bad incident. WordPress under the “Users” tab lets you assign different access rights. You’d want to set up teachers as “authors, and students (at some point) as “contributors.” Alternatively you might consider making all teachers “editors” on the blog, but granting those more expansive access rights to teachers unfamiliar with WordPress and blogging (which is probably 99% of the teacher population) may not be a great idea. It’s safer to setup all teachers as authors (who can directly publish to the site without moderation) and then have a more limited group setup as editors and administrators. Only administrators are able to moderate comments.
One thing to note is that WordPress is setup for each user to have a unique email address. If students in your district don’t already have free and teacher-moderated email accounts, I’d recommend setting them up (for free) through ePals. Sue Waters has written a nice post on how to use a single GMail account to setup student blog emails, but be aware of the COPPA age restrictions in the U.S.
Be sure to configure your commenting settings in WordPress as desired. Again for U.S. schools particularly, I recommend having comments moderated to ensure you don’t have objectionable content and links posted to the blog by registered users. It is very straightforward to do this, and WordPress does provide a variety of options in terms of comment moderation. With a team blog, I highly recommend you have multiple teachers setup as administrators so comments can be regularly moderated.
I recommend WordPress because as a fantastic open source blogging platform I think it offers the greatest degree of flexibility, customizability, and scalability for school blogging projects. Your district can self-host a WordPress blog on your existing servers, of course, but you’ll need to have IT support staff with at last basic comfort levels with mySQL and PHP. I would recommend going with an ISP like those I’ve linked above, if your district policy permits content to be hosted off your official servers, because you can get great commercial support service for your site at a very reasonable cost. By hosting your blog on your own unique domain, you should be able to get the entire domain “whitelisted” on your school’s content filter to permit access. If your school blog is on a subdomain of your main school site, of course it should be accessible in your school/district. With the other options I’ll address below, you may run into more issues/problems with content filtering. Having your own registered domain for your school blogs is the way to go, in my view, but again you need to make sure you check with your local board policies to ensure this is permitted. (If a group of teachers in my students’ home school district in Oklahoma were to attempt a setup like this, I think officially they would either be shot at dawn or burned at the stake by the flagpole after the 3 pm bell. Make sure your formal school blogging activities have the blessing and approval of your campus administration as well as your district’s IT department to avoid consequences like these.)
OPTION 2: MANAGED WORDPRESS BLOG
I am a big fan of WordPress, so my second recommendation (if you don’t want to self-host as described above) is to go with WordPress but get more assistance in the hosting and configuration of your blog. Edublogs provides free blogs for teachers and students, but I don’t think they have a domain for teacher team blogs. Perhaps you could set up a team blog as a single teacher blog on EduBlogs. I bet you can. Support blogging has lots of links for teacher blogs as well as other education blogs, but I don’t think it currently has a category for teacher-team blogs. Instead of Edublogs, you could setup a teacher team blog with WordPress.com. With WordPress.com, however, you are going to run into the issue that in some cases to unblock your WordPress blog sub-domain your IT administrator or district content filter manager may say they have to open ALL of wordpress.com on the content filter and that would open up children in the district to objectionable / offensive content.
If you get this answer, it is time to get a new content filtering solution for your school, after investigating further to see if that is REALLY the case. I know of cases where teachers have been told (in the context of our Celebrate Oklahoma Voices learning community on Ning) that it was NOT possible to simply whitelist that subdomain, when it fact it WAS possible but the IT person in the district didn’t want to admit they didn’t know how to do that. Again, this is why option #1 above is the best choice if you can do it. (You just whitelist the entire domain.)
OPTION 3: BLOGGER
Darren Kuropatwa has used Blogger sites with his math classes in Winnipeg for several years with great success. Blogger CAN work very well for team blogs, and has the benefit of Google handling your user account management for you. COPPA applies here, however, and legally your students under age 13 will not be able to get their own Google Accounts in the United States (as far as I know) and therefore this isn’t a good option if you’re going to want elementary students at some point to have an account on your blog.
For all blogging options, I recommend NOT having “anonymous” commenting enabled. Accountability is important, people often act differently when they perceive they are accountable for their actions.
Miguel Guhlin is a great resource on this question of how to setup teacher and student blogs, and I commend his wiki site “Creating the Walled Garden: Setting Up Web 2.0 Apps on School District Servers” to you in this context. (I’m not just recommending that site because Miguel quoted me at the top, either!)
ADDITION: Miguel corrected in his post “Edublogging Solutions” the links above with his newer resources “Walled Garden Apps that use PHP/MySQL backend” and “Walled Garden Apps that DO NOT use MySQL backend but do use PHP.”
Overall, I am a big fan of server-based blogging tools which provide contributors as well as consumers with web-based access to the blog on any Internet-connected computer. I do love iLife on the Mac, but as a client-side application iWeb is much more limited and less powerful than blogs which use platforms like WordPress or Blogger. I know Miguel is a huge client-side blog application fan (using Thingamablog) as is Kevin Honeycutt who uses iWeb. Both these educators create and produce wonderful educational content with their respective tools, but I stand by my recommendation for a server-based blogging platform for the reasons I’ve outlined here. For a teacher team blog, really you don’t have a choice, because it would be ridiculous for all your teachers to use the same computer to do all their blogging.
You also want a blogging platform that has VERY effective and robust anti-spam commenting functionality. Just like email spam, blog comment spam is prolific and can be nasty. Besides a cyberbullying incident happening on your school blog, the second worst-cast scenario is probably having offensive comment spam posted there. We’ve had lots of trouble in the past year on both the Google ITM blog (which is unfortunately still down as a domain, for some reason) as well as the TechLearning blog with blog spam. I use the free plugin Akismet on my own WordPress blog, which handles most blog spam and comes pre-loaded in default WordPress installations, as well as the free plug-ins Comment Timeout and Simple Trackback Validation. An updated list of the WordPress plug-ins I use is on my blog “about” page.
Hopefully that is helpful. I haven’t updated these resources in many months, but I do have additional links and resources related to educational blogging on my wiki page “Safe Classroom Blogging to Improve Student Writing.”
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