An open source education

One California school district created a hot spot for community, collaboration and advanced education.

All-Star category: Applications

Ask James Klein to describe his latest pet project - a Web-based social-networking application for teachers and administrators at his school district - and he jokes, "It's like a MySpace.com for grownups."

Klein, who is director of information services and technology at Saugus Union School District (SUSD) in Santa Clarita, Calif., used an open source social-networking tool called ELGG to create the site. The tool joins his open source arsenal, comprising Linux servers, Apache Web servers, MySQL database servers and the PHP scripting language.

"We're always seeking new ways to eliminate the traditional social and geographic boundaries that hinder communication and collaboration," he says, adding that most districts with geographically dispersed schools end up with islands of creativity rather than a unified platform.

The district receives a 2006 Enterprise All-Star Award for creating this social network, an easy-to-use, technology-rich environment for more than 1,800 teachers and administrators - and departmental users and students, too. The site is proving to be a great SUSD community-builder and tool for enhancing education, at no cost but the time Klein spent on development.

About 150 teachers and administrators across the district's 15 schools use his homegrown application for blogging, file sharing, posting videos and podcasting. They've been busy since January putting the site through its paces, churning out MP3 files for student downloads and posting lesson plans. Over the summer break, teachers used the Web-based site to collaborate remotely on classroom portfolios and enhance their curricula, Klein says.

The rationale for open source

Though commercial tools exist to develop these types of applications, they pose significant challenges, Klein says. "Their disparity, cost and complexity limit their adoption among small organizations," he says. Also lacking are standardized, centrally managed solutions, he adds. And while some of his peers in the industry use free public Internet services, he says he doesn't because he worries about the legal liability.

The commercial and public tools also lack two critical elements: "They lack the access controls and accountability necessary to satisfy the needs of a school district and its staff. We wanted flexible and secure access. Our users can choose what information they share and with whom they share it," Klein says.

The open-source-built social network has "caught on beyond the scope we intended it to."

- James Klein, director of Information Services and Technology, Saugus Union School District

Klein, who began programming the site in November 2005, says he's seeing the innovation he hoped to spawn. "One teacher shared a project he did on beach erosion and tied together bits and pieces of media available on the Internet, including Google maps and links to Web sites. He even put in a question-and-answer section. This is something he would have never done if it were merely a public blog," Klein says.

The SUSD site features blogging tools with an editor for adding in rich text, Web links, pictures and file attachments. Each user has access to secure file storage and sharing, and can control sharing of documents, images, sounds, short videos and other files. RSS feeds and podcasts can be posted for subscription or played directly from a blog post using a thin, Flash-based player, he says.

Klein has put a 250MB limit on files for shared use, but says he's open to bending that rule. "The limitation is to prevent someone who is less experienced with computers from uploading several gigabytes of full-screen video and the like. However, there are some teachers who are sharing video of classroom skits or other relevant files, and we'll give them more access," he says.

A popular destination

The project has "caught on beyond the scope we intended it to," Klein says. In addition to teachers and administrators, departmental users are this year lining up to use the tool. For example, he says, safety and risk-management personnel want to use the platform to host forms and share reports. "The flexibility and access control mechanism make the system an excellent communication and collaboration platform that is relevant across the entire organization," he says.

Another draw is the ability to link educators across great distances. "The special-education department wants to get all of its employees on the platform so they can work together from anywhere, including across buildings, campuses and from conferences. They won't have to constantly worry about who's got what paperwork where," he says.

Virtual teams also are being created around special projects such as grants or interest areas. "Educators can host communities that feature access to controlled, centralized file stores. They don't have to worry about spam or inappropriate comments and content," Klein says.

He sees a great future for this social-networking project and says next up is turning the students into content providers. "Today, students can view and download, but can't create content. We plan to experiment with teacher-moderated, student-created content this school year."

Gittlen is a freelance writer in Northborough, Mass. She can be reached at sgittlen@charter.net.

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