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November 08, 2006

Building a Web 2.0 school Web site

Class 3C Henry VIII

In my spare time I'm chair of governors at a local primary school - Newbridge Primary School.  Being a school governor is very worthwhile (I'd recommend it to any parent) particularly for anyone (like me) who is interested in seeing how ICT gets used in practice in the UK schools sector.

Newbridge Primary was only formed at the start of this school year.  It was created from the amalgamation of two existing schools, an infant and a junior school, that were previously on the same site.  One of the consequences of the amalgamation was that the existing schools lost their Web sites.  As a new school we were offered  a new domain name and some space on a South West Grid for Learning server - space, but not a lot else as it turned out.  No content management system or anything and only ASP for server-side scripting.

For various reasons, I ended up taking on the task of trying to put together a site for the new school.  Once I sat down and thought about it, I decided I should put my money (or at least my effort) where my mouth was - using external Web 2.0 services to manage the more dynamic parts of the site.  This decision was partly pragmatic.  With only ASP to play with on the server, a language I didn't know at all and one that I don't have a particular desire to learn, I wasn't really in any position to build anything complex from scratch myself.

In design terms, the resulting site is pretty basic - I wanted it that way - not least because as a new school we are still going through the process of choosing a logo and so on.  My only criteria really were to stick to the school colour, red, to use standards (XHTML and CSS) throughout, and to make the resulting site as accessible as possible (though I've probably made some mistakes in this area).  The site is a mash-up of content pulled from Google Calendar (calendar entries), Flickr (images), Blogger (blogs),  Del.icio.us (links) and Google Maps (maps).

How does it work?  Well, all the images on the site are pulled in from the school's Flickr account - the idea being that any teacher will be able to upload and tag images as and when they want.  Links to external sites are managed using Del.icio.us - again with the idea that teachers will add and tag sites that they use or want the children to use.  Entries in Del.icio.us are tagged by educational level (using the tags 'ukel1', 'ukel2' and 'ukel3' taken from the proposed list of UK Educational Levels) and curriculum area.  The school calendar is managed on-line using Google calendar.  The lists of school newsletters and other news items are managed in a blog.  Finally, each class has been given a blog of its own - the idea being that children will be able to write their own entries on their class blog.

The server-side and client code needed to make all this hang together is surprisingly light.  A Javascript object here or there to pull in the Google and Flickr stuff.  A simple ASP script and XSL transformation to process RSS feeds from Blogger and Del.icio.us into XHTML.  Not a lot else.

It's interesting though that pulling this stuff together is surprisingly simple, yet very powerful.  Six months ago I was wondering whether the Eduserv Foundation should look into the possibility of funding work around content management systems for schools.  Now I'm thinking that's the last thing a school needs - hiding all their content inside their own system.  Much better to manage and build their content out there on the Web, where it is widely accessible and, more importantly, where staff and pupils can more easily add to the content in whatever way they see fit.

Imagine if every school in the UK managed its links using Del.icio.us, using a consistent tagging convention for curriculum areas and educational level.  Now that would be very powerful.

I have to confess that all of this is very experimental at this stage.  The site is very new and we haven't even tried to get staff or children up to speed with the tools listed above.  That will come in due course.  It'll be interesting to see how well the site works in practice.  There are still significant gaps in site content at the moment.  And, of course, none of this is really about learning... yet.  But you've got to start somewhere and I'm hopeful that using these kinds of services in this kind of way will help to inspire at least some of the teaching staff to experiment more with these tools in their real learning and teaching activities.

Image: Henry VIII by a year 3 child at Newbridge Primary School, UK [October 2006]


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That sounds really interesting! I understand you! I had a membership in something like that! I have to say that the site script is one of the most importaant things for a site!

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