A Tool For Classroom Connections

from Educators' eZine

This article covers the use of the open source content management system Drupal. Specifically it addresses the use of Drupal to facilitate on-line small group work in a classroom. I am a technology facilitator for the Glenview Public Schools, and have been teaching/managing classroom technology for nearly nine years.

A teacher recently came to me wanting to have her entire team of 125 kids create small group, collaborative blogs, web pages and wikis. With nearly 40 groups, setting up a secure tool that would allow students to login and collaborate looked to be a challenge to say the least. Plus, the teacher wouldn't know the groupings until the day before the project started.

Two years ago this would have been a problem. However with Drupal, an open source, flexible content management solution and a component called Organic Groups module, this was easy.

Drupal runs on the familiar combination of Apache, PHP and MySql. It is supported through a vibrant community anchored by Drupal.org, an incredible resource. Drupal has won numerous awards and is widely regarded as one of the best choices for deploying a system to manage content and users on the web.

The Organic Group module is an 'add-on' to Drupal. Users of Drupal can download modules from Drupal.org for free. These modules add extensibility, customizing it to user's demands. There are literally hundreds of modules free for use, many very specific in nature and functionality. Installation is usually simply a process of transferring a file or files to your website.

Organic Groups allows users to create their own groups based on topics of interest or focus. Instead of waiting for an administrator or teacher to create groups, users can do so on their own. Organic Groups allows users to collaborate in a rapid, flexible manner without hindrance.

Students will need to have an account already created. Accounts can be created through bulk upload, LDAP authentication or user sign-up. Student accounts can be locked to prevent personal information from being added or deleted. While email accounts are required to create an account, an administrator can use non-functioning or dummy addresses. These can be set to be inactive as well.

Organic Groups adds an easily understood menu accessible to authenticated users. Upon login, a group membership menu appears with links to specific group resources. Students can publish work to their group or keep separate if desired, and can belong to many groups at once. Class, club, assignment or project groups can all be managed easily.

Once students have accounts they can login and create their own groups. Students simply need to know the usernames of other members to invite them to join their group. Administrators can force group membership on account creation, or manage large groups of students. Groups can be private or public and public groups are listed in a searchable directory.

Additionally, student work and communication can be moderated or supervised by a teacher/administrator with ease. Rss feeds, email notification and other moderation mechanisms are possible. Group calendars can be set which allow students to create their own events such as study groups, after school activities as well as assignment due dates. All student work can be made public or private as necessary. Using a separate Workflow module, student work can be set to publish automatically or flow through a moderation workflow, checked by a teacher or editor before publication.

Drupal's Organic Group Module

Recently a teacher created an organic group (pictured above) of approximately ten students. This group was to be used for a month long project. Group creation took a few minutes and the next time students logged in they received an invitation to join.

This collaborative group centered on writing book reviews. Drupal allows for any type of custom content to be created. Using this organic group, the teacher and students collaborated on writing book reviews online. The teacher used the group blog to update his students on the project, list due dates and give specific instructions. A group wiki was used to brainstorm possible books as well as to develop a group rubric. Using an RSS feed of published student work, an electronic newsletter was automatically created of student book reviews, published on the school's website.

Online collaboration has many benefits; idea sharing, knowledge transfer and collaboration outside of class among them. Students working in small groups with collaborative access to a group blog, forum, wiki, survey, podcasts, bookmarks, messaging system or file repository- all web-based, improve production, extend class dialog, allow ELL students more time to participate as well as motivate. The OG module facilitates all of this with ease.

An organic group with Drupal allows teachers to focus on the content and connections that can be made. Students can concentrate on the information and the sharing of ideas. Learning can occur outside of class and school, supported by technology that empowers students to work and learn together. More importantly, tools such as this do not add to teacher's workload. Instead they replace activities or methods through technology, increasing efficiency while exposing students to 21st Century Skills.

Additional information about Drupal can be found on it's website: www.drupal.org. DrupalEd is a fantastic resource for educators using Drupal in an educational environment, and offers a pre-built installation pre-configured for schools.

Email:Reggie Ryan