Having worked in two schools in the past 9 years that are behind significant firewalls run by the government, I feel I have enough experience to write this blog post…. at least from the educational leadership side of the conversation. In surveying the countries around the world that filter and block the internet, Saudia Arabia and my current location here in Shanghai are near the top. In Saudi it was a bit easier to operate as we were able to get some satellite systems put in place to speed our upload and download speeds, and provide our students with access to the information systems that were blocked. A well placed dish behind the A/C systems allowed us just the right amount of access for our little school. There is a different access issue in my current country. But, no matter where you are and what the mission and vision of your school is, there is ways to give your students access to Web 2.0 tools that are now present on the read/write web. Now that g0-0g-le has left the country of my residence, I am getting more and more questions about how we run our student services.
To me it is like playing on the beach with all of that sand, or in your own sandbox. The sandbox, while a bit confined, allows you to build castles, dig holes and feel the grit in your hands just like you do at the beach. That sand is just like that at the beach and people on the outside of the box can reach in and touch the sand too, but whatever is inside that sandbox cannot be blocked by those problematic firewalls. When I have spoken to my community about dealing with the firewall and access issues, I always say, “We are just going to build our own virtual web 2.0 sandbox and give our kids access to similar tools, and access to a global audience.
Thus we have done or are in the process of doing the the following:
- Student email: We established our own domain name which allows us to monitor, administer and maintain a email webpresence. The key is the domain name which, if monitored carefully will not be a problem for the firewall.
- A blog installation at a local level. We currently use WordPressMU and have found great success with the installation. Our school built this from the beginning and now has hundreds of students and teachers blogging as a part of the educational process.
- Web publishing space for teachers and students will soon be the norm. As a Mac school, the students and teachers will begin using iWeb to create their own sites. It is easy, fast and allows for a global audience.
- In place of Flickr and YouTube we have established our own installation to serve and share our own videos and photos. This customize installation was based on some opensource software. The key here is having strong technical support.
- Moodle– by serving this installation on-site with strong technical and educational support has helped launch many classroom programs toward a blended learning environment.
- Social networking alternatives such as Elgg can provide schools with that all important methodology that engage students in an online social environment.
- Up next—our own wiki installation. There a many alternatives out there, but this is something that you will likely want to spend somemoney on to make work well.
- Locally hosted academic databases are the norm, not the exception. This gives the student access to online data but without the challenge of slow or filtered access.
- Locally hosted student information systems and parent communications systems, we use PowerSchool, but there are many alternatives. With the exception of our school’s webpage, everything is hosted locally so we don’t deal with the issues of access and internet reliability. If there is a problem, generally we have only ourselves to blame.
- Calendar servers and internal email systems with more than ample storage. Again, strong technical support is important, but even more important is a vision based committment to providing resources to the professionals in the school.
- Off-site backup and mirroring setup. This seems so natural and important, but interestingly enough this sort of setup is not considered essential.
The key to the list above is targeted staff development with an adopted set of tools. With a variety of tools like you see above, it is about choices, continual support and technical expertise. Living in a firewalled country is a challenge, but I also feel like our students are getting a great educational experience that allows them to learn the skills of web use and practice digital citizenship in our sandbox of tools without the intervention of a government entity.