Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Temporary Stop ...

Taking a Break
I have come to a stopping point for my Google Sites and coding exploration. My goal has been to create a class site for my high school freshmen on Google Sites with CSS coding within the pages to personalize them. My students will use this site throughout next year to share work with each other and a larger audience (for example, they will present original poems and recorded recitations of them) and to complete group projects (for example, they will work with partners to research and create a page on the site about a Holocaust topic).

Overview of my Work and its Theoretical Underpinnings
I am not saying I have come to an end because I plan to continue to grow this site with my students next year. I have developed it enough with this project to know what I can do with CSS to customize it for what I want for my class, while also know that it is a better site than my prior class Wikispaces site. I have created my homepage and two genre pages, and I want to stop here because I want to create the other pages next year with my students’ input. I do not want to present them with a fully “done” site that therefore seems closed off from their participation in creating it because of the specific theories I am applying in my development of this site.

First, I am seeking Marshall McLuhan’s concept of cool media, that is a medium that requires active participation of the user (39). I am looking for participation from my students, not just absorption of content, and allowing them to help create the site is the first step to achieving this. Google Sites is also a cooler media than Wikispaces because it allows different venues of participation, from the comments at the bottom of each page to the more detailed design options for creating one’s own page. Outside content can also be more readily inserted into the pages, from videos to Google documents. The multiple forms of media will allow me to help my students move away from the constraints of the literate culture into the “harmonious balance of the senses” that comes with a tribal society (Playboy). Please see my post all about tribal and literate to understand this aspect of McLuhan’s theory.

I also set out to explore five of our course key concepts. First, Gane and Beer:
  • Archive:  I hope to create a jointly-developed digital class archive of our year. This is where Google Sites will be useful, since it allows for active participation so my students will be able to add to our archive as much as I do. Google Sites wiki capabilities are also more robust than Wikispaces, as I learned through designing my two text pages this semester.  So the students will have more choices in layout, fonts, uploads, and navigation, when it comes to the presentation of what they are adding.
  • Interface: I am looking to find the right interface for my goals: one that does not disappear (I am following McLuhan here too where I know the medium will always be the message) but instead engages and excites my students to create. My class site for the past few years has not been effective as an interface. My students actually actively dislike the way Wikispaces’ navigation forces you back to the homepage as well as the way it controls how they put in content; they find it clunky at best and impossible to do what they want at worst.  This is where CSS comes in particularly because of its personalized design capabilities. I hope to create an interface that draws in my students with design choices I have specifically made, such as font and a custom footer.  I hope this then makes the site more intriguing and easier for them to explore. This is where the affordances of Google Sites come in with making their work on it easier.
I also explored three of the new media canons from Brooke:
  • Performance: My site will be a constant interplay among my students, the outside audience, and me. This is another reason I want to leave the site undone: so my students feel they are truly part of the performance and not passive users of a complete site.  It is also what I am considering with privacy settings, as I want it open to outside audiences to at least a degree.  I have not fully worked out what I will do with this, and I discuss this below when I explore FERPA.
  • Pattern: My students will focus on the arrangement of their own creations on the site, and my initial arrangements can be a guide for them to study its pros and cons. This is where CSS is a great tool, as I can make design decisions thinking ahead for what I am going to ask them to do. My table on my poetry page is a good example of this, as I will ask them to categorize a fair amount of information too, and they can mimic my table.
  • Persistence: I use this class site as a replacement notebook for my students, one that allows for more readily retrieved information plus more connected information. Both of these are digital skills of memory. I have chosen to add certain things to this class site that have not been on my Wikispaces site to achieve this goal. The first two are on the short story page: class notes and the vocabulary list. By having copies of these online, students can check their own notes to be sure they have everything they need – a step in persistence. I want to continue to focus on persistence when I develop the rest of the pages next year, talking with my students about how they are using the site and what they therefore will find most useful for developing their persistence in the course. 
Ultimately, I have designed the site to have enough to start our year with easily. Since this is my freshmen’s first year in the laptop program, I need to ease them into digital tools. My 17 years of teaching freshman and 10 years of teaching in a laptop program have taught me one most important lesson: one thing at a time means they feel more confident and less overwhelmed. I also want to leave enough undone to have new content and designs added to the site throughout the year to keep it fresh and engaging and to allow them to participate when they are ready.

Creating the Site

Let me move into the creation of the site and all I have learned. I want to start with the choice of coding language. After exploring CSS, I know it is a language that wiould help me with the design of my site, a key rhetorical focus I wanted to have since the design of my current class site has been weak at best and confusing at worst. I have been working within the strictures of Wikispaces, and CSS coding will allow me to make Google Sites do more of what I want it to do.

Before I show the site I have created, I want to walk you through my learning process. I have chosen to make a screencast video because it is the best way that I can show you the specific places where I have made choices, run into problems, and found great success. So, if you have not already, you might want to read my two reflection blogs that show my process of creating my site: here I am making the site for the first time and here I am coding to make my personal design choices. Now play the following video before you read on.  The first one is the bulk of my learning, and the second wraps it up.  (I learned something here too: I can only upload videos of 15 minutes or less to YouTube, so my 19:43 video is now two videos -- I learned how to split my SnagIt video in Windows Movie Maker and upload through Windows Live.)

Reflection Part I

Reflection Part II
Privacy and FERPA

I hope you enjoyed that walk through the creation of my site.  Another step in my process was researching FERPA to be sure I understand how what I ask of my students online is affected by this law. As I reread FERPA, having been very familiar with it when I was a college counselor and followed FERPA closely in my counselor recommendations, I was struck by this sentence in the introduction to the law: “The law applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education” (“Elementary and Secondary Education…”). This made me wonder if my independent school has to follow FERPA or just chooses to for the rights of our students. I talked with my Head of School and learned that my instinct was right: FERPA does not apply to us.

However, I still wanted to understand the law. I found it interesting that FERPA clearly delineates the information protected as that which is in a student’s official educational record. This made sense to me, as my college counseling files were always kept separate from the official files until a student graduated. Then their test scores were transferred to their official file, and the rest of my file was shredded. We did this to ensure the confidentiality of my counselor recommendation, as it was imperative to our relationship with colleges that it be a recommendation that students and families did not have access to.

All of this made me think that, even if my school was required to follow this law, FERPA has no application to my students’ online work, as this work is not part of their official educational record. I looked into this more to be sure I was not off-base, and I found agreement. For example, “FERPA was never intended to place students into the box of a physical or online classroom to prevent them from learning from the public. Rather, FERPA requires schools to maintain control over certain student records (Fryer, 2009). These records include medical information, social security numbers, and grades” (Orlando). This makes sense to me, particularly with the online policy that my school follows. We do not allow students to use their full names online until junior year; then they have a choice to do so or not. We set up their school blogs, for example, with their initials, the school’s initials, and their graduation year: snfa15. We want to ultimately give them the option of using their full names to create a positive digital footprint, but we never require a student to attach a name to online work.

There does seem to be one expectation though with online student work not being applicable under FERPA, and that is that parents need to know about the work. The Queen Anne County Schools’ “Acceptable Use of Electronic Networks Policy” is a good example. Parents of students from kindergarten through senior year are required to sign their awareness of and compliance to the school’s technology use ("Acceptable Use of Electronic Networks Policy”). My school has an acceptable use policy that must be signed by the parents as well for Middle and Upper School students.

Ultimately, the issue seems to be that a teacher needs to balance the educational benefits of public online learning with students’ rights to privacy. I do this in multiple ways already with online work, all of these happening after students and parents have signed the acceptable use consent form at the start of each year.
  • Students prior to junior year do not use their full names on our school blogs and do not upload actual pictures of themselves to their profile. 
  • When students respond to other students’ blog, they do not name the students. 
  • I do not use a student’s name when I comment on his or her blog post. 
  • Freshmen use only their first names in the public wiki we use and do not upload actual pictures of themselves as their profile pictures.  
  • I never post assessments or grades in any online forum. 
  • In the private social network that I use in one of my classes, I moderate all requests for membership and never approve an outside person. Students use their full names and actual pictures of themselves if they wish to in this network. This network is used with seniors and thus complies with our policy of upperclassmen using their full names even though it does not have to because it is private.
Even though I do not have to follow FERPA, I think it asks teachers to think about important safeguards for students. So, for my new classroom Google Site, I want to consider having some of it open and some of it private where students could do more in-depth thinking and work without the concern of it being viewable. However, I was stymied by this when I learned, through the Google Sites Help (“How to”), that, even though Google Sites allows page level permission controls, the highest level of permission on a page overrides any other controls. So, if I want some of my pages public, any controls I put on other pages might as well not be there. As I read further on Google’s blog though, I learned that this would not apply if I made my page public only to people with the link (“Official Google Enterprise Blog…”). This level of permissions would allow me to share the link with families so they can see their students’ work and to keep some pages open only to invited people. I have not done this as of yet on my page because I want you and my current students to be able to explore it all.

Finally, before I decided my page is done enough for now, I asked four of my current 19 freshmen to view it and compare it to our current class site. All four said it was better than our current site and that freshmen next year should definitely use it. Their comments were great for me to read because they were responding to conscious decisions I had made without knowing anything about my design process for the page.
  • “I like the look of the new website better as well because it is has pictures and you are able to see pictures that relate to the topic that you are working on.” 
    • I was thrilled to read this because I had wanted to use visuals more effectively on this page.
  • “I think that the things that were good about the new website were that it was easy to navigate because everything was very clear and you could tell where you should go depending on what you are studying.” 
    • This means that my choice to have the left-hand navigation bar and not have the navigation at the bottom of the page is working well for users of the page.
  • “I find the new site easier to navigate because it is more visual due to the pictures, the directions are clear, and it is more organized in terms of the neat list of navigable links, goals, class overview, etc.” 
    • I do not include my class overview on my current site, so I was glad to read that this student found this new addition helpful.
I also got great ideas that I implemented right away.
  • “I like the new site’s look and layout better because it’s a huge change from the boring dark green, white, and green background that is consistent with every wiki page, so I’m sure you can change the page background but haven’t gotten to it yet.”
    • This made me laugh because I had actually designed the page with the gray and white color scheme and had clearly totally missed the mark!  So, I went in and changed the page background to navy through CSS coding (as the navy I am using to replicate our school color is not a default font color on Google Sites). I also put the image I had used as the page wrapper into the page header to create visual interest in the header.
  • “I think it would be better if the icons for the different genres were not in two columns but in a single column with the headers on top to separate them. I just think that putting them in two columns is an act to fill up space when you could post like a picture, or quote, or fun fact, or something that will make students to want to go on the page more often.”
    • I decided to keep the three-column layout. I had chosen this deliberately because when I tried a one- or two-column layout, a user had to scroll way down to see everything. I was told years ago by my IT director that no one wants to scroll on a webpage, so I am trying to keep my page wider and shorter. However, I certainly did not want it to look like I was just filling space, and I loved the idea of the fun facts. So, I added those, coding them to be in the navy color as well as coding the spacing so it all still fit into the two columns.
So, here is my first “homepage” (see the second picture on the post). And for the big reveal, here is my current Google class site!


"Acceptable Use of Electronic Networks Policy." Policy: Queen Anne Public Schools. Queen Anne’s County Public Schools, 7 Sept. 2011. Web. 22 Apr. 2012. .

Beer, Nicholas Gane and David. New Media: The Key Concepts. Oxford: Berg, 2008. E-book.

Brooke, Collin Gifford. Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media. New Dimensions in Computers and Composition. Ed. Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, In., 2009. Print.

"Elementary and Secondary Education: Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)." U.S. Department of Education, 8 Apr. 2011. Web. 22 Apr. 2012. .

"How to." Sites. Google. Web. 22 Apr. 2012. .

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Critical Edition. Ed.

"Official Google Enterprise Blog: Better Control in Google Sites with Page-level Permissions." Official Google Enterprise Blog. Google, 18 Apr. 2011. Web. 22 Apr. 2012. .

Orlando, John. "FERPA and Social Media." Faculty Focus: Focused on Today's Higher Education Professional. Magna Publications, 7 Feb. 2011. Web. 22 Apr. 2012. .

Playboy. "The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan «" – Exploring the Nature Caused by People. 24 Dec. 2009. Web. 19 Feb. 2012.

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