By John Spencer
I've written before about my current classroom configuration. Using old (and I mean old!) computers, I was able to speed them up really fast using the xubuntu operating system. (xubuntu.org) I am not a techno-geek by any stretch of the imagination. I simply downloaded a the operating system, burned it to a disk and then burned another eight disks. Within a day I had all 36 computers running on xubuntu.
The Operating System has a few irritating features. For example, it does not run Flash, so you can't show videos or play games (which I find to be more of an asset than a liability). There is a way to run both, but it's more complicated. In addition, if the hard drive is faulty the date and time will fail and so you'll have to change that each time you reboot. Yet, what it lacks in versatility, it makes up for in speed. Firefox runs faster on a first-year iMac running xubuntu than on Apple OS X.
With only a few programs on xubuntu (Open Office, a calendar program, a calculator, etc.) I try
and run everything on the Internet so that nothing has to be saved to the actual computer. Thus I can move students around the classroom and they can work on things at home. For that reason, I have created a list of ten helpful sites that assist in this process.
1 - Google Documents - This versatile site allows students to create, download and upload documents (think Word), Spreadsheets (think Excel) and presentations (think PowerPoint). They can share their documents with one another allowing for group work and collaboration. I can add comments and questions as well. Part of what makes it nice is that it saves every variation every thirty seconds or so. This means I can see how a student has edited work. It lets me "peak" into his or her brain. What this has also meant is that students are not losing papers anymore!
2 - Blogger - I could just has easily chosen WordPress or any other blog. In fact, WordPress has more features, such as building pages. However, I have found that Blogger is very quick and intuitive. Plus, students can create Google Documents and then publish them straight to their blogs.
3 - Google Pages - You can probably tell that I like Google. I like the simplicity of this site, especially when it comes to adding attachments. It's been pretty successful when students create group websites and when they design their own online portfolios. However, about a third of the students have chosen FreeWebs instead. Wet Paint has even more options, including creating discussion boards and wikis within a site. It can become a sort-of social networking site. It's a matter of personal preferance, I guess.
4 - Photobucket - I know that there are other image hosting programs out there, but Photobucket is great for its usability. Many of the students have chosen the online version of Google's Picasa instead, but I found it to have too many illogical components.
5 - PBWiki - Some swear by Wiki Spaces and other wiki sites, yet I have found that students click well with the PBWiki format. In group projects, it allows students to create a wiki that has many interactive gadgets. The range of choices are all easy to use and very intuitive. Plus, students like the side bar that works as a sort-of table of contents for them.
6 - Mindomo - There are many mind-mapping and concept-mapping sites available. What I like about Mindomo is that students learn it quickly. The task bar is similar to that of a document program, such as Word. It is easy to edit the mindmap and move things around. Then, when they choose to insert a mindmap into a blog or a website, it is as simple as copying and pasting a url.
7 - Ning - I am still a little skiddish in creating a social networking site (especially with the negative image of sites such as myspace) so I sent a parent letter home with students in my English Language Development class where I am launching the a social networking site. Ning is very user-friendly and privacy has not been much of an issue. Students, accustomed to myspace and facebook, catch onto it quickly.
8 - Engrade - So far, this has been my favorite site for creating an online gradebook. It is visually appealing, easy for students to use and it has all the features I would expect in a gradebook including attendance procedures.
9 - Proboards - There are many discussion board sites and the one that worked best for me is proboards. It is easy to customize the avatars and create a site that has the right feel to it. Yet, it is not threaded, which can be frustrating for me. One the other hand, it has great security features to keep things private.
10 - Google Calendar - Many students have started using Google Calendars to keep track of various projects. I can share my class calendar and IMPACT calendar with them as well. It's been an excellent organizational tool.
Moodle - It's a course management system that has many of the features listed above. It's great for doing just about anything that is listed in these other sites. For a teacher who is serious about an online platform and does not want to spend time using multiple sites, Moodle is better than Blackboard or WebCT. The only down side is that, though it is free, it is tricky to create.
Gaggle - I'm not fond of it, because there can be a spam problem. Yet, it's designed for students and teachers. There are some great features, especially for younger students. Where this really comes in handy is that many of the sites above require that a person is over the age of thirteen.
Think.com - This site is very teacher-friendly. Teachers control who the users are and can monitor them well. it works great in terms of an all-in-one site with very little explanation or wasted class time signing up. The down side is that students have fewer creative options. Like Gaggle, it is a great site for children under 13 who cannot sign up for many of the Google programs.