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When Griefers Strike: Community, Citizenship and Rebuilding

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What does it mean to be a community? When disaster strikes, how does a community respond? What does it mean to see real-world consequences of digital actions? When one group’s project was digitally vandalized just a day before it was due, a class of 6th graders demonstrated U Prep’s commitment to community and social responsibility by jumping in to help rebuild.

As an interdisciplinary project in 6th grade, students explore the effects of damming (and releasing) the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula. Students choose to focus their research on a particular discipline such as Literature or Social Studies. In the Science track, led by 6th Grade Science teacher Quynh Tu, students build recreations of the Elwha River valley before, during and after the dam phase in Minecraft. Working with creations of the Elwha River basin pulled from satellite mapping data, students label the effects of the dam and removal on the geography and ecology of the basin. Using a school-run Minecraft server, customized with an educational version called MinecraftEDU, all of the teams create their models in distinct areas of one shared digital world.

The day before the projects were to be presented to their peers, one team logged in to find their work had been extensively vandalized (called “griefing” in gamer culture) using the same tools that students had been using to build their environmental models. Trees were burned, a dam destroyed, a valley was flooded, and the valleys were filled with creatures called Golems which had been created by the vandals. In addition to one group’s models, the common loading area and instructions were destroyed as well.

The affected group took pictures of the damage, and reported it to Ms. Tu. When the class met for their last work session that day, Ms. Tu, Middle School Director Marianne Picha, and Director of Academic Technology Jeff Tillinghast asked the targeted group to describe what happened to the class. The students described how hard they had worked on the project, and how sad they were to see their work destroyed. They were obviously nervous about the deadline to present the next day, and weren’t sure how they would be able to make the deadline.

Without any teacher prompting, the conversation evolved as the class began to brainstorm solutions. Could the server be restored from a backup? The server backed up daily, so the server could be restored to the last image before the project was vandalized. That would mean that all the group’s work for the last day would be lost, though. The targeted group thought about that for a minute, and said that they didn’t think it would be fair for all the groups to be penalized just to save their work. Can the deadline be moved? It might be possible, but with the entire 6th grade ready to present on Friday, and with camping trips and beach day coming up the next week, it would be very doubtful. Finally, one student suggested: Most of us are done and ready to present. Can we help them rebuild?

The class moved into action as everyone logged into the world and begun to build–some finishing their own projects, and others helping the targeted group clean up and rebuild their work. The three students who had originally built the world shifted into project management mode, deciding what could be delegated to others (“There were trees all along this stretch of the river,” or “Drain out all the water,”) and what they had to rebuild themselves (such as their original dam design). As other groups finished their work, they moved over to help the class-wide rebuild. The period ended and moved into lunch, and students ran out to get their food and brought it back to the classroom to continue working. Throughout the rest of the day, whenever students finished work in other classes, they returned to help out, and a large group continued working after school. Finally, by the time the afternoon ended, the project was rebuilt and all the groups were ready to present their work the next day.

The nature of Minecraft, being an open space in which all students build freely, presented a calculated risk that someone would abuse the project or another student’s work. Responsible citizenship is a core value of the University Prep academic program, and these students demonstrated that value in action with their response as a class to this situation.

Helping Students Prioritize through Calendar Naming Conventions

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Last year was our first school-wide use of Schoology as an LMS. While our first year was overall a great success for adopting the new LMS platform and upgrading from Moodle, we identified a few areas that we wanted to rethink for this coming year. One of the biggest conversations we had throughout the year was about calendaring of class events and assignments. Schoology lets students see a calendar view of all of their courses, which students reported was very helpful for them. Unfortunately, the tool isn’t very granular, and it presents all types of assignments and activities as equal on the calendar. We wanted a way to differentiate calendar entries so that students could look at a daily view and be able to prioritize based on the different types of activities that they’d see.

It’s unfortunate that we have to do this manually– the ability to create an assignment within certain categories, and have those categories reflected on the calendar, would make this whole issue disappear. Even better would be a tagging system which would allow teachers and students alike to tag activities and build context around them ( planning for “Homework,” “Reading,” “Needs Extra Time” and “Individual” for example, would be very different than “Project,” “Brainstorm/Planning,” “Skype”, “Tim”). Modern task management systems are rich in context tools such as tagging or smart search.

This speaks directly to one of my large concerns about measuring the health of our LMS and digital tools– balancing and optimizing our information streams so that students can learn to manage digital communication without becoming overwhelmed and ignoring the information that teachers and the school are providing. Seeing a list of activities dated for the next day, for example, could be useful for a student who is skilled at prioritizing and triaging their workload. For a student still developing executive function skills, it could be too devoid of context to be useful. Furthermore, in-class activities may be tagged with a date, which would make them appear on a calendar as “due” the next day, when they have yet to be assigned (and aren’t meant to be done from home). To help us make our calendaring information more useful, Christina Serkowski headed up a faculty focus group at the end of last year and built out some recommendations. Based on those, we’ve come up with what we hope is coding system for teachers to use when entering activities onto the calendar.

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CamStudio = Malware Package

Just a heads-up to people looking for screencasting software options for PC: CamStudio bills itself as an open-source, free alternative to more expensive retail software. It may be that, although it didn’t even work for me when I installed it, but it is also pretty heavily loaded with malware. Read the installation notes closely, click “Advanced” on every dialog box, and make sure you know what you’re doing when you install this. Better yet, avoid it and move on to another option.

In addition to “Optimizer Pro,” which was pretty easy to deal with, I got popped with a nasty little tool called “webget” (description and removal instructions). To be able to get to that removal point first, though, I had to change the service properties for two services (“utilwebget” and “updatewebget”), both of which are by default set to restart whenever they’re stopped. Process:

  1. Change service properties to “Do nothing” when service is stopped.
  2. End the services
  3. Uninstall webget from Programs.

Here’s another report with totally different sets of embedded malware.

Students Share Quiz Study Guides

Creating online study resources and sharing them via Schoology

Cross-posted May 20 at http://blogs.universityprep.org

Creating online study resources and sharing them via Schoology

Creating online study resources and sharing them via Schoology

Knowing that a test was coming up soon, two students in 6th grade Integrated Science created an online study guide using Quizlet and shared it with their classmates through the Schoology Updates tool. This was all student-generated: no teacher input or prompting. They also invited their classmates to contribute to the Quizlet deck so that they could all benefit from each others’ work. Collaboration and self-directed learning in action!

The next morning, 6 other students had already used the study guide

The next morning, 6 other students had already used the study guide

Minecraft vs MCEDU: Choose Your Weapon

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(image: minecraftedu.com)

Minecraft had been in medium range on my radar for a few months now, but a teacher project idea has pushed it into “go time.” Minecraft is definitely one of the hot discussion items of the last year or so and is still gaining steam for school development. Much of the classroom use is based on a variant of Minecraft called MinecraftEdu, meant specifically for classroom implementation. I spent most of a day researching and wrestling with the two variants, and trying to determine which was most appropriate for us. In the end, our decision came down to two large factors: the server options and student accounts.

Six of One, Half-Dozen of the Other?

MinecraftEdu has a long way to go in its marketing to convincingly sell the difference between the two versions. While their wiki points to “features” which are supposed to help classroom management, it doesn’t delineate what those features are. It also advertises a lot of features which seem to be useful (plugins, WorldEdit, mods, etc.), but are in reality accessible to either Minecraft or MinecraftEdu. There are a few interesting additions to the Edu toolkit, including:

  • Teleporting all users back to you when its time to gather a class together,
  • Distributing “assignments” in the form of mass messages, and
  • Special “Do Not Build” blocks to limit places where students can’t build.

After consulting our resident Minecraft guru (12th Grade Help Desk Intern), he confirmed that pretty much all of the special features of Edu could be implemented with additional plugins and mods to the core Minecraft program. The key sell of MinecraftEdu is that these features are pre-activated and much easier for an administrator to control. For the average teacher setting this up for their class, that ease of use and setup equals valuable time and energy, and shouldn’t be disregarded. It was less of a selling point for me, though.

MinecraftEdu also has a fairly simple system for applying restrictions to users and settings in order to “lock down” the game. While I can certainly appreciate why that would be an appealing option, U Prep defaults on the side of an open experience as teaching tool, rather than preventative restrictions. Having many of these options removed at the server level eliminates some of the powerful digital citizenship lessons that can come out of an environment like this. While the end result in terms of user experience may end up being very similar, starting from a more permissive environment and modifying it to a comfortable level (i.e. core Minecraft) seemed to be preferred rather than starting too tight with built-in software-level restrictions and not being able to eliminate hard-coded functions within MinecraftEdu.

To Serve, or Not to Serve

A key point for us was where to host the application itself. As we continue to shift our infrastructure to cloud-based and vendor-hosted services rather than locally-managed devices, hosting with one of a variety of commercial Minecraft hosts fits with our overall IT philosophy. Furthermore, if this is going to be tied to school activities, we want it to be accessible both at home and at school. If that sounds contradictory, a key tenet of our device program is that students should have access to their learning from anywhere, at any time. A recreational game (which some students did operate last year) is fine within the space of school walls, but when it becomes a project or class activity, students need to be able to connect to that at any time. Opening up an additional port in the firewall just for purposes of accessing the server requires a little more IT work and management than hosting remotely.

The catch is that we could not find a commercial host operating MinecraftEdu–only Minecraft. Therefore, if we wanted to use Edu, we would have to host internally and deal with the ramifications of setting up an externally-accessible server. While there are lots of vendors providing online hosting of Minecraft (AllGamer is the most prominent), it is possible to install MinecraftEdu on a remote host, although it’s not the cleanest process.

The Clinching Factor

At this point, I was leaning towards the core Minecraft package for two main reasons:

  • Ease of procuring a externally-hosted vendor,
  • Ability to recreate any useful options of MinecraftEdu by using mods and plugins, and
  • More open environment closer aligned to our program philosophy.

The catch that turned us back towards MinecraftEdu was in the licensing: To provide Minecraft to students, we’d be buying accounts for individual students, which could be used for any Minecraft purposes: logging into school-provided servers as well as any other free play servers available outside of school control. This seemed to be a bit of an over-reach to us– the idea that we’d buy totally open versions of the game and give them to students for purposes which occasionally would be school-related just didn’t seem to fit within our program philosophy.

In contrast, buying MinecraftEdu doesn’t purchase software licenses– it purchases user licenses. Furthermore, the licenses are specified as “active user” licenses. In other words, the basic level of 25 licenses only relates to 25 simultaneously logged-in users. This is a huge advantage to deploying this different teachers or classes down the road– one class might use Minecraft for a project in March, while another can use the same licenses in June. We don’t have to deal with managing or limiting concurrently-installed software.

Much Ado About…?

In full disclosure, I’ve been working with our installation now for about two weeks. During installation, I came away with a different impression about the level of student restrictions within Minecraft Edu than I had coming in to the project– I simply turned off all of the restrictions in the installation process, and I think that we have a relatively equivalent level of “openness” in the Minecraft world than had we gone with a core installation. Once the students get totally immersed, we’ll have to see if we run up against “Why can’t we…”

In short, while I found precious little going in with which to compare the two versions of Minecraft side-by-side, I think we arrived at the correct conclusion in using Minecraft Edu even in light of our earlier concerns.

What I Want You to Know About… Notetaking

Notability for iPad

(picture: Cult of Mac)

Today I’m hosting a roundtable discussion about notetaking with our faculty. I’ll be asking them to share three questions:

  1. What are your students doing with notes that works well?
  2. What are their challenges?
  3. What available technology support/tools are your students (or you) using?

The purpose of the discussion is largely for all of us, myself especially, to get a sense of what is happening in our classes and learn from each other’s strategies and struggles. Current practice aside, though, there are a couple of things that I think are important to keep in the forefront of our discussions about notetaking. Read more

Installing MinecraftEdu on a Remote Hosted Server

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After comparing Minecraft and MinecraftEdu, we decided to go with MinecraftEdu. While we had our own criteria for making this decision, ironically it wasn’t because of one of the biggest selling points of MCE– that teachers could run it on their own machines and set up a local server on the fly without IT involvement. While that applies for many teachers experimenting with Minecraft on their own, I was ready to support one of our teachers with a dedicated server for a couple of classroom projects. Over the last couple of years, though, we’ve been consciously moving most of our server infrastructure to external/hosted solutions. We didn’t want to create a local server which was counter to that strategy. Also, our teacher felt strongly (and we agreed) that her project would be best served with students having access from home. With that in mind, we decided to host MinecraftEdu on a new server through Blackmesh, our existing provider. Here’s how we installed and configured our server for the first time in a remotely-hosted environment.

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NAIS Trendbook: Augmented Reality

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The NAIS Trendbook 2013-2014 summarizes current research in a variety of topics relevant to the independent school community. I’m exploring some of the topics discussed in the “Education Technology Outlook” chapter.
Citing the Horizon Report, the NAIS Trendbook 2013-2014 indicates that Augmented Reality is one of the important upcoming trends in Ed Tech. Certainly PLN discussions and conference sessions bear this out– AR is becoming a frequent discussion topic, especially using Aurasma (iOS, ???). While the technology certainly creates some fun and impressive results, I’ve remained skeptical of the learning benefits presented by AR given its setup time required. The way that AR is presented in the Trendbook has highlighted a key benefit of AR that I hadn’t considered before, and it’s one that definitely changes my perception of the technology: the capacity to create self-directed learning opportunities outside of the school boundaries. Off-site learning may be the killer (and under-discussed) feature of Augmented Reality.

A Hallway MaKey MaKey Drive-by

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We now have a handful of MaKey MaKey units to be used between our Sandbox Makerspace and 7th/8th Grade Project Science. After playing around for an afternoon with them, I decided to put them someplace visible and open-ended to invite people to use them. I was looking for a combination of advertising for the makerspace, easy-entry programming task, and high-visibility play for the school. After a couple hours of experimentation, I had the Pie Plate Programming Platform: a combined demo of MaKey Makey and Scratch that had Middle School and Upper School students laughing, engaging and asking (along with the Faculty) “Are you going to leave this here for a while?”

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Personal Knowledge Management and Student Process

@KimKierkegaardashian - A mashup of Soren Kierkegaard and Kim Kardashian. Demonstrates understanding of irony?

How do we learn and process vast amounts of information in the digital age? How do we practice filtering and deep thought in an information deluge? Why do we have such rampant disagreements on whether the Internet is a “good place to learn?” For many of us it’s an exciting time to be in education because of these questions. Pedagogues and thinkers from diverse fields are combining their expertise to form a new set of learning strategies that reflect both the myriad sources of information available via networking and the ease with which anyone can demonstrate their thinking and learning for examination, critique and sharing. Going by terms such as “connectivism,” or “personal knowledge management,” many attempts to build a framework of digital-age learning share common threads which highlight the essential skills and processes of a modern learner. Regardless of any particular preferred framework or methodology, these common threads reveal general stages that we can practice, develop, model and instruct. Read more