Monday, August 3, 2009

Student Generated e-Content and Records Management

On the last day of the school year, most elementary, middle and high school students will cleanup their desks and take with them all their workbooks. Some may leave their workbooks behind but most teachers don't want to deal with the clean-up and ensure that students leave an empty desk. But how do you deal with student generated digital data at the end of the school year? If you've pursued a number of web-based projects, maintained a classroom site / wiki, or used accounts created by you or your school on any number of Web 2.0 tools, how do you manage the transfer of the digital data they created? How will they carry their e-content home at the end of the year?

Well, one of my colleagues was faced with that very issue this year when a number of parents demanded that the content their kids created on collaborative classroom sites and tools during the school year be passed on for their personal records. All of the sudden a teacher's desire to integrate Web 2.0 into classroom teaching and activities evolved into a records management and communications issue. And this should not be a surprise. When you consider the very fluid and intangible nature of digital information, and then think about its container(s), it becomes so obvious that it immediately requires some form of management. With the increasing use of web technologies by parents and their growing awareness of all the privacy and ownership concerns surrounding digital content (especially in Web 2.0 context), I think planning for the management and transfer of student generated e-content will become more the norm.

Here are some of the things I would consider, and do, to help me plan for and manage this type of request from a parent or student.

Is there a School / Board Policy regrading student generated e-content
This of course is where most of us will start when facing an issue like this. For me, this is a non-issue, literally. The policy makers in our boards have not discussed this, not even on their radars, so it's left up to schools and teachers to navigate and negotiate. As such, I'm not going to spend too much time on the first step, best to develop concurrently as we progress.

Note: It's not to say our Board isn't preoccupied with what our students do online, our board and its administrators have taken an immense interest in monitoring, evaluating, and supervising students' mobile and online behaviour where they can: to curb access to improper sites; manage the increasing use of new Web 2.0 tools as vehicles for improper and illegal conduct, harassment and bullying; and educate students on authoritative, credible sites for research purposes. With activities like sexting now on the education radar - the practice among teens of sending sexually explicit messages or photos of themselves over mobile devices - online etiquette, conduct, and legal rules of access become primary policy activities for boards and districts.

Choosing an Application or Tool
The application(s) / tool(s) you select to work with will play a key role in dictating how you plan and manage student access to their e-content. But that being said, always let content guide your choice of applications and tools, not the technology. There's an endless stream of Web 2.0 tools being developed on what seems like a daily basis, and in some cases you may be tempted to use a tool because the technology is fantastic...don't do it, refrain from letting technology guide the lesson. Here are the steps I take when selecting an application or tool for my classroom activities:

What are your long-range teaching plans...
What are my plans for the year? Where do I want to integrate information technology, collaborative applications, and Web 2.0 tools? And how would I do all this? Having an idea of all the possible teaching scenarios where you would want to integrate the "online" component will give you a better chance of identifying and selecting one or two tools that can address all your needs, instead of responding as-you-go with a variety of incompatible tools from different platforms.

What type of accounts will you set up...
Will all accounts be generated by you or someone at your school? For class / school sites or platforms you'll be assigning accounts, however, how would you handle one-off accounts? Would you assign the accounts for the Web 2.0 tool, or would you let students do this (and the latter will pose a number of other you would definitely want to avoid)? Account selection will of course play a big role in helping with the records management end of things. If you allow students to manage their own accounts you will have resolved, to a large degree, the issue of transferring over the digital content, but you will also be opening a can of worms regarding content ownership, access, and site use, etc.

Is there a platform that can do it all for you...
Can your needs be met by the growing number of all-in-one collaborative platforms out there: the most obvious and recognized being Google Apps Education Edition, but there are a few others to keep in mind, see my Online Collaboration articles.

Do you foresee using a variety of Web 2.0 tools, with or without a collaborative platform as your foundation....
In other words, would you see yourself using tools like Wordnik, Diigo, or Wikispaces? If so, it would be best to ask a few questions first to help evaluate the tool or service:
  • Can I connect the tool / service to external platforms - which platforms; how integrated is it with other Web 2.0 tools / services?
  • Can I export / import data using standard formats - will I be able to export data in a cvs or txt format that will allow me to easily integrate it with the platform I've selected?
  • Is this tool / service hosted remotely or do I have the option to host it locally?
  • Are you considering a long-term relationship with the tool / services?
  • If so, before investing any serious time into development try to determine if this tool will be around for the long-haul - many start-ups develop Web 2.0 tools with the goal of being purchased within a year or two by one of the big players, and many just fail. Hard to determine this one, but a review of all the web / IT blogs will give you an idea.
Is it just you and your students, or will others be involved...
This is a straight-forward communications and logistics issue. If you want to create a wiki that will be shared with, for example, parents, ensure that they have access to the same tool / service, or some alternate way of delivering the info to those who don't have access or don't want to go online.

Transferring the student's e-Content
At this point the available options will be directly connected to your selection of platform, tools, and services. If you're using a platform like Google Apps Education Edition or Zoho then you can build into the year a records management process which places the responsibility of backing-up the student generated digital content squarely on the shoulders of the content producers / owners...the students themselves. And if you're one of those schools lucky enough to have an in-house IT department you can actually get them to automate these back-ups by student ID, and make that content available for download on a weekly, monthly basis.

For platforms or tools that don't, or are note robust enough to, provide these types of backups, then you are left with planning, developing, and implementing processes and procedures for exporting data. That's where the ability to export in csv or txt becomes quite handy. It doesn't mean you're then left with the option of passing on the digital content in really unfriendly text files, you can use csv or txt files with Access or an XML schema to produce some user friendly and funky looking html or Word reports of all their e-content.

I know I've missed a ton of variables, questions, and obvious issues, so please tell me how you would prepare for this, or if you already have a plan in place I'd love to hear what you do...