How’d you get here?
At Dearborn Public Schools we have been building what today would be called a learning “Stack”. Back when we started out down this path we called it “meeting needs and solving problems” using web software called “open source”. With open source the price was always right: free. However, what we quickly discovered is that free isn’t always the best solution. There were some things that we just couldn’t live without no matter how good of a deal we had on server space and software. We needed an easy way to access and begin using the tool (Single Sign On) and low barriers to getting started with the tool. There is also the real need of providing a benefit to teachers and not just a different way of doing business. The good news is that open source tools are quite capable of meeting and exceeding our expectations. This is a recap of our journey of using, contributing, and promoting open source tools in K-12 education.
What were some of the things you wanted to do when looking at open source tools?
- Support and community to enhance features and solve problems
- Single Sign On
- Easy to manage, train, operate, and support with over 2000 teachers and 18,000 students
- Easy to manage, update, and maintain core software with LIMITED resources
- All the bells and whistles of other tools that cost our peers thousands of dollars
- Ability to control our own destiny in educating our students without fear of losing a tool due to price hikes or a company going out of business
- Consistency for teachers. We own and operate the tools on our servers. The tools are not going away.
We want every staff member to be able to have their own website (or two, or a dozen of them!) for every class or program they might teach. We do not want to limit better communication and creativity! We want every student to be creative, reflective, and thoughtful as they build portfolios and digital assets that can be used throughout the educational process. We want a single tool that teachers can focus on mastering that meets most if not all needs for blended learning. The blended learning tool should be powerful and robust with capabilities to share and collaborate with other teachers to share success and hard work. We want a tool that can provide classroom assessment and instantly transfer grades to our student information system. Most importantly the learning stack must provide a single username and password for all the various tools. In order to make the tools easily accessible to teachers there must be minimal restrictions to use. Meaning, if they are inspired on a Saturday to create new online course they can simply login, push a button, and create a new online course or website for students. No barriers or waiting for training or approval should hinder access to picking up the tool and using right away.
What is at the core of the open source learning stack?
At the core of our learning stack are several very robust tools: Joomla, Mahara, Moodle, BigBlueButton, and WordPress. We have over 1800 individual classroom websites, over 1000 moodle classes with over a half million quiz questions, and almost 30,000 portfolio pages! Teachers and students can roam from tool to tool using their district credentials. The key here is that we are in control of the tools our teachers use everyday to educate the children in our community. We can provide consistency and work to build depth and mastery of the tools. We have a long ways to go but it is nice to know what we are working with is the same now as it was 5, 6, 7 years ago at the core. This is a consistency with our approach that eliminates the fear that the rug will be pulled out from under you just when you got comfortable using a tool which is often the case in K-12.
Let’s take a look at each tool and what we use it for.
Joomla – The district website
We use Joomla to power our main district website. While we could have easily chosen to use WordPress for all of our websites but we wanted more power and ability that is not built into WordPress out-of-the-box. Joomla provides a nice platform for creating special staff and student only pages where authentication is needed. It is more complex than WordPress but not more complex when you are dealing with users and special permissioning. It also handles widgets and modules much nicer.
WordPress – The multisite communication tool
There is no better tool paid or otherwise to quickly generate and begin communication on the web than WordPress. We utilize the multisite setup which allows for hundreds and thousands of websites to be operated from a single server. Wordpress has one of the most active and powerful community of users and developers for everything from plugins to themes. We deploy several key plugins found on https://premium.wpmudev.org/ which streamlines the management and usage of our wordpress sites. Within 5 minutes I can publish an emergency post on every school and classroom website and reach thousands of parents via site newsletters.
Moodle – The learning management system
The number one LMS tool used in every part of the world is right at home in Dearborn Public Schools. It takes time and effort to really cultivate a useful and robust learning management system. Yes, anyone can start a discussion or collect a writing assignment using Google Classroom but it is no match for a well trained teacher harnessing the power and features of Moodle. Our Moodle site has a variety of plugins that help facilitate many useful learning experiences for students. The H5P plugin provides interactive, shareable content such as: Interactive rich content timelines, memory games, formatted document builder, and even interactive videos. We continually enhance and change the features of our Moodle site to meet the needs of our teachers. Just yesterday I helped a first year teacher build her first final exam on Moodle. It involved importing over 200 questions from her textbook from six chapters. We handpicked a few questions from each chapter and then let Moodle pick random questions from each chapter to generate unique tests for every student. We started at 1pm and the teacher was walking out by 2pm with a quiz that covered important topics and was also slightly randomized for each and every student drawing from over 200 questions for a unique test. And instead of grading and entering the final exam grades manually this teacher will be pressing a button to instantly publish the grades into our student information system.
Mahara – Collect, organize, and reflect with portfolios
Mahara is tightly integrated into our Moodle LMS. Users from Moodle click and button and they are transported into Mahara where they can build unlimited pages, write resumes, create journals of learning, and set goals. Students have absolute control over who can see portfolio pages as well as for how long if desired. This drives some teachers crazy as they don’t have control over the portfolio. Rather, this is a tool for the student. The teacher can set expectations and grade the end result but they cannot control the process. This puts the reflection and way the material is presented in the hands of the students. Quite a bit of a mind shift for K-12. In Moodle, a teacher can create an assignment which requires a student to submit a portfolio page from Mahara. Upon submitting the portfolio page it is instantly locked and cannot be changed or deleted by the student. Once the teacher reviews and grades the page it is returned to the student and they regain control. It’s powerful when you combine the portfolio assignment grading with rubrics!
BigBlueButton – Communication at your fingertips
Teachers working in a blended environment have a real need for communication and BigBlueButton is a fully featured web communication tool with real-time whiteboard, presentation, video, audio, and chat options. It is fully integrated with group/class/period support for conference rooms in Moodle. Teachers can even record the meetings. The reason BigBlueButton is so valuable is the way it integrates and respects user permissions in Moodle while meeting in the BigBlueButton conference rooms.