The 2010-11 school year brings a very new context to The Lovett Middle School. In addition to having the largest enrollment ever, the Middle School has expanded its 1:1 laptop platform to include all students and teachers in the 6th through 8th grades. The sheer scale of that undertaking and observations of last year's 6th grade pilot indicated a need for better navigation and organization tools. A greater sense of structure and community organization was required.
After consulting with some parents, teachers, and students, we began conversations internally about options. Although the allure of academic modules provided by our web designer Silverpoint was high, we very quickly hit a philosophical brick wall. We could invest in a data manager and create a sophisticated and highly personalized solution--with schedules, classroom links, homework, news--for each student. However, in doing so we would do two things: (1) limit teacher's creativity and freedom to organize their online presence; and (2) miss an opportunity for teachers and students to learn how to set up their own web portals with the attendant understanding of RSS.
The announcement last May that Google would be expanding its Education Edition to include apps like Reader and iGoogle sold me on a solution. We were already approved as an Edu partner, but other than a few teachers in the middle school and upper school exploring Google docs, we had not leveraged that platform. Here was our opportunity! I mocked up an iGoogle page using my personal Google account, and I setup mock homework calendars in Google Calendar. After sharing these with the educational technology team and the middle school admin team, we agreed that the middle school would adopt the Google platform. Teachers would be required to post homework, etc to Google calendars and students would RSS those calendars and create web portals using iGoogle. We did keep our commitment to teacher creativity by not requiring standard Google sites for teacher webpages. In fact, teachers were allowed to keep their web pages, Weebly blogs, wikis--whatever they were using to organize and orient their classroom--as long as they had a standard navigation structure and their Google calendars embedded for parents/community to view.
Although we were unable to start the year with iGoogle pages (those apps are just now being made available to the Education Edition), we substituted a Google site template that students used to create Google Site portal pages.
Students will be able to modify these pages with links to their blogs (reflecton) and wikis (portfolios) as well as RSS feeds and other widgets as the year progresses. (We will likely have them move to the iGoogle pages in January which will be more flexible and suitable for this purpose.)
The middle school technology team, including two technology teachers, a foreign language teacher who also supports tech integration, and six teachers designated as tech liaisons, worked closely with the admin team to create screencasts and online resources. Although everyone now agrees it would have been better to give up a block of class time at the start of school for students to get these set up (as opposed to several days of 20 minute pieces during advisory), all students now have these pages set up which launch as the homepage every time they open up their browsers.
I am really proud of our teachers and the middle school admin and tech leaders. Although we have a long way to go to build student understanding of this paradigm, I feel like we are on the threshold of some exciting work and learning ahead!