School Domain Names

For a significant portion of time, school districts in United States lived with crazy domain names. For example, Hamilton City used to have the following domain name:

http://hcs.k12.0h.us

The reasons for this (I think) were:

  1. This domain was free (free is always considered good)
  2. In geeky, folder, index engineering minds this naming convention made a sorta sense (name of district / k12 / state / country)
  3. Who really checks websites anyway?

Email addresses would be a nightmare (zach_vander_veen@fc.hcs.k12.oh.us) and, really, a little embarrassing to hand out on business cards.

District domain naming conventions obviously missed the point. The reason we have domain names is so that people can remember them (as opposed to a series of IP addresses).

Over the past few years many districts have corrected this issue. Hamilton went with three domain names:

  1. http://hamiltoncityschools.com
  2. http://hamiltoncityschools.org
  3. http://hcsdoh.org  (a short domain for email addresses and school portal)

Much easier to remember.

Still, I wonder if there isn’t a lesson here?

When snapping up the old domains, it may have made sense for the time (well, a sort of sense). However, did anyone think to ask what implication it might have 2, 3 , 5 years down the road when “this internet thing” became a bedrock technology in education? Maybe they did. Maybe not.

It’s hard, but we need to do a better job at anticipating future technology trends and their affects on education.

It’s also fun.

Final Thought:

This really is a harmless example (domain names). What about the decision to test all students online in 2014/15?

The Art of Web Design

There are rules, guidelines at the very least. You can’t just create something the morning of class, pick your favorite colors, throw in some clip art or stolen Google image search results and expect magic. Aesthetics matter.

We live in the world of screen. Our students live in the world of interactive, clamoring for attention, screen. Not paper. Paper is increasing quaint. Worksheets in a popular 1990s font detailing the Mar’s rover landing screams, well, anachronism.

And this isn’t change for the sake of change. There are some real problems the guidelines address. Problems that get at the heart of teaching – that is, how do I help the learning process?

This is important. Teachers will always create learning objects for their students (as will students create their own learning objects). Increasingly, those objects will be digital.

It’s good to have context on quality.

Rumblings on Future Ideas for the District Portal

Context: The Issue

An unexpected problem with BYOD (really!) is access to software tools. It’s all great if you have students bringing their own devices to the class, but you now need them to do something with those devices. You get a mishmash of tools spitting out different products (or, sometimes, no product because there are no tools).

The solution Oak Hills has taken is to try and drive all software tools to the cloud. Specifically, the public cloud accessible via the internet.

This means tools like Google Apps for Education and Moodle (the big two in our district)…combined with ProgressBooks (grades) and other such products (WordPress, Study Island, Aviary, Quizlet, etc).

Collecting Web Tools

Once the software tools are determine (both in the public and private clouds), it is important to create a central location that collects those resources. The idea is to have a “one stop shop” place for students, staff, and parents.

For Oak Hills, that place is the portal.

A portal doesn’t need to be complicated. Its main purpose is collect web-based software applications. Some things to keep in mind:

  1. Push your most used applications to the main page. For Oak Hills, that meant gMail, Docs, Sites, and Calendar (as well as Moodle).
  2. Keep in mind aesthetics. A modern design helps.
  3. Also keep in mind that the portal will be accessed from smart phones and tablets. The design should look good on a tiny screen (or you can develop different designs based on different user agents).
  4. We use an embedded Twitter Widget to communicate technology related announcements. This allows us to post messages from any computer and/or phone without having to modify the website.

Future Plan

I’d like to have a responsive and responding portal.

The idea is that our education community (students, parents, staff) hit a login screen and then the portal shifts accordingly. Students view web applications that apply to them. Their email and documents appear in a widgetized screen. Announcements, tailored to them (and their subgroups) appear in a side column.

How?

Docs Gadget

Spitballing here – but to me it makes sense to use Google Gadgets for this (mainly because we’re so rooted in the GAFE universe). Gadgets, composed of

  • XML
  • HTML
  • Javascript

Can be inserted into our own developed webpages (webpages that are responsive). That way students would see lists emails, groups, documents, etc.

Think Big

What would be really cool is to customize the portal into a true dashboard. Not only could students see their emails, docs, and announcements, but they could also see realtime breakdown of their grades and how their doing in class. Teachers could see highly detailed reports on student performance.

Theoretically, we’re supposed to be getting this with Software Answers’ Data Dashboard/Warehouse. Until I see it though, I’ll keep dreaming . The problem, best I can see, is that we’ve got a lot moving parts playing in their own universes (and they don’t talk with each other).

Still, technology keeps making this easier. We’ll get there eventually.

Realtime Data of End of Course Exam

Responsive Web Design

The Context & The Problem

We’re a “bring your own device” district. What this means is that we’ve the wild west of screen sizes. Smartphones, at their best, are 800 by 600 pixels (ignore Samsung’s odd experiment). Netbooks (which we have at the middle schools) are 1024 in width with some goofy height. And then there are the many variations of laptop and desktop screen sizes.

At its root, that means websites function differently depending on what is viewing them.

This is a major issue for online learning. A 3 column Moodle theme will look terrible on a cell phone and drive the end user crazy. Your portal site might lack clarity. Parents and students can get lost looking for important information. Design/screen size contrast takes away from the all encompassing technology goal of “it just works.”

Enter: Responsive Web Design

The basic idea of responsive web design is that you develop a website to “respond” to the size of the screen. For example, a four column layout may, on a smartphone, rearrange to a 1 column stacked layout.

Responsive Web Design Example: Mr. Simon Collison

How?

Typically your website (usually in the header) runs a media query to determine what type of screen you’re using. The required CSS is then served up, creating a responsive design.

Down the Road Ideas

My future interest is how to get the web to be the jackknife application. Because students continue to bring in a wide array of devices, we need a platform neutral framework for delivering tools to students. The web (with its promise of HTML 5) is that tool.

Designing pages to respond to the wide variety of screens will increase functionality.

Time to start redeveloping the portal!