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BuddyPress: An online community for educators built with BuddyPress

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MLN badgeThis post is by Jay Collier of The Compass LLC. Jay has been a consultant to the Maine Department of Education for the past 2 years, during which time, he proposed, built, and is continuously improving MaineLearning.net, a professional collaboration community and learning resource directory for Maine educators.

MaineLearning.net is built on WordPress and BuddyPress, using a highly-curated set of plugins and themes. In the following report, Jay outlines Maine’s use of BuddyPress as part of its continuing innovations in K-12 education.

Strategic context

The state of Maine has been an innovator in digital learning for over 15 years.

  • The Maine School and Library Network, initiated in 1996, provides Internet access to all schools and libraries in Maine.
  • The one-to-one laptop program, established by law in 2001, provides laptops to every 7th and 8th grader in the state, while school districts fund laptops for an additional 50% of high school students.
  • A high-speed network backbone, bringing gigabit ethernet to rural communities, was completed in 2012. The goal was to provide inexpensive connectivity to last-mile providers: for-profit corporations, not-for-profit organizations, cooperatives, and municipalities.
  • In 2012, Maine passed legislation for proficiency-based high school diplomas. Starting in 2017, rather than receiving passing grades in a standardized series of courses in order to graduate, many high school students will be able to receive a diploma by demonstrating proficiency in a variety of ways, from traditional tests to portfolios, performance, exhibitions and projects … and at their own pace. Schools will be allowed to eliminate age-based classes altogether.
  • And more.

Online community of practice

To support this transition to learner-centered and proficiency-based learning, commissioner Stephen Bowen charged the Department of Education with developing an online community of practice (OCOP) “where teachers, school leaders, curriculum coordinators and others can share best practices – lesson plans, rubrics, curriculum materials and professional development opportunities.” The charge:

  • Build a professional learning community platform to help educators engage in conversation, share innovative ideas, discover and curate useful resources, document successful practices, and apply them in their own classrooms and schools.

  • Support and sustain continuity between in-person meetings and professional development opportunities. Help new constituents get up to speed and become valuable, active partners in learning communities.

  • Model an interdisciplinary, continuous-learning community approach that can be implemented at schools and districts across the state.

  • Connect teachers, administrators, parents, and taxpayers so they can discuss important educational policy issues.

So, in the summer of 2011, we developed a digital strategy, built a demonstration site in less than a month and drafted policies for user-generated content. Initial funding was earmarked in November 2011, the initiative was integrated into the Department’s strategic plan in January 2012, and the version 2.0 production site went live in February 2012. During the following months, the Department approved 21 practice groups with 250 active members.

Architecting engagement

From day one, we wanted the platform to support increasing levels of engagement, from initial observations (“lurking,” in the positive sense) all the way through to moderating and leading practice teams.

Although the OCOP would be launched quietly and was limited to Department-approved practice groups and members during 2012, from the start all group conversations were intended to be visible to the world: a virtual version of the fishbowl model of collaboration.

We wanted members to be able to receive activity notifications immediately or via daily or weekly digests. We wanted visitors to be able to follow any group by subscribing to its feed via the Blogtrottr service.

Then, after implementing the collaboration features, the next phase would be a learning resources directory, which would contain recommendations (via URL) for:

  • Digital learning objects, such as content, multimedia, applications, lesson plans, and syllabi that can be used anytime, on any device, in any setting, at home and in classrooms, and through self-directed study and professional development initiatives, and
  • Digital learning opportunities, including classes, courses, workshops and professional development sessions and that provide live interaction between, and among, students and teachers, learning coaches and community mentors

Whereas there already countless global resource repositories — containing both free and “premium” objects — when we began, there were no registries that organized links to resources based on Maine-specific needs and standards, and no single repository contained links to local Maine learning resources: expanded learning opportunities, service-learning projects, and community mentoring opportunities. Our Resource Directory was created to do just that.

Laying the foundations

From the start, our goal was to deliver a minimal viable product to demonstrate potential, and then to rapidly iterate while adding functions requested by our early users. Our first step was to identify the platform that could be quickly configured to support familiar kinds of online collaboration — forums, document sharing, wiki pages, blog posts, and status updates — while being able to support our vision of the ideal future platform.

So, we pulled together all of the requests we’d received from DOE staff and constituents (including features from a series of previous projects) and created a detailed list of criteria, for which we made an initial evaluation using the NGT ranking technique. (See tabs along the bottom of the spreadsheet for details.)

Since we knew we wanted to create a framework that could be easily replicated by school districts and other learning organizations and jurisdictions, and at low cost, we started with the open-source frameworks supported by our state’s IT office: Drupal and WordPress. We determined that both platforms were viable, and chose WordPress because it could be easily configured by non-technologists. The BuddyPress environment was critical to meeting our defined criteria.

Building on WordPress and BuddyPress

We started with minimal resources — 40% of my time, external hosting services, and about 40 hours for back-end administration and quality control for plugin code for the first 9 months. We contracted with SiteGround for cloud VPS hosting and with BuddyPress developer Boone Gorges for back-end support. Boone set up a public GitHub repository and configured our server for the Git development workflow. I installed MAMPGas Mask, and GitHub for Mac on my own machine for local development.

Since I am a strategist (rather than a back-end developer), I found it quite easy to implement desired features by finding and evaluating WordPress plugins, installing, activating, and testing them on my local machine, and, if acceptable, pushing them to the current development branch at GitHub, all without needing coding experience. When needed, I asked Boone to provide recommendations, check for PHP errors, and add site-specific code to meet our needs. He would then push to production.

Configuration and theming

To get started, I installed WordPress multisite (using subdirectories rather than subdomains) and installed BuddyPress on the main site. I chose to use the BuddyPress default theme for the main site and the Genesis framework for subsites; all customizations were to child themes. I made continuous interface tweaks via the Custom CSS plugin, and for each periodic push from development to production, I moved those changes into each theme’s styles.css file for versioning.

Plugins

Here are some of the key plugins we’re currently using with WP 3.4 and BP 1.6. Most of these are perennials that have been maintained through many core software updates, and across multiple projects.

Administration

  • Allow Multiple Accounts
  • Gravity Forms (premium)
  • Gravity Forms + Custom Post Types
  • Network Privacy
  • TurboCSV (premium)
  • Types and WP-Views (now WP-Toolset, premium)
  • User Switching
  • WP Optimize
  • WP Super Cache

Authoring and back-end

  • Admin Menu Editor
  • Broken Link Checker
  • Enable Media Replace
  • Events Manager
  • Post Type Switcher
  • Resize at Upload
  • TinyMCE Advanced

BuddyPress

  • BuddyPress
  • BP Group Documents
  • BP Group Management
  • BP Group Organizer
  • BuddyPress Docs
  • BuddyPress Edit Group Slug
  • BuddyPress Group Email
  • BuddyPress Moderation
  • Invite Anyone

Integration with external services

  • Akismet
  • Learning Registry Display Widget

Interface and navigation

  • Autolink URI
  • CryptX
  • Custom CSS Manager (moving into Jet Pack)
  • External Links
  • Hide Broken Shortcodes
  • No Page Comment
  • Query Multiple Taxonomies
  • Theme Test Drive
  • WP Page-Navi

Of course, our use of these plugins is always provisional; I continue to evaluate alternatives that will meet our requirements even better. Indeed, we are already in the process of replacing some of these plugins with alternatives.

Customization

We added a number of code snippets to the functions file for minor customizations:

  • We added navigation buttons to activity stream items
  • We changed the default member avatar
  • We loaded common site-specific CSS styles into TinyMCE drop-down menus
  • We adapted Helen Hou’s implementation of the Chosen multi-select list styling to simplify back-end metaboxes for multiple taxonomies

A note on custom content types, fields, and taxonomies

For the Learning Resources Directory, I needed to create and maintain custom post types, field groups, and taxonomies to support a rather complex data structure for metadata for our learning standards: the Maine Learning Results and Common Core State Standards.

After having tried nearly every plugin option (and combination), I settled on WP Types & Views (now called WP-Toolset), which allowed me to rapidly prototype and improve data structures. Then, I used Gravity Forms to create front-end forms to prompt educators to organize and classify their recommended resources.

This work has only just begun, but WP-Toolset has provided all the features we’ve needed; indeed it can be compared favorably with the Blocks, Views, Panes, and Panels modules and functions for Drupal. Indeed, I’ll be experimenting with WP-Toolset’s CRED feature to more easily integration between front-end forms and structured data.

Today

The online community of practice has now been fully-functional since March, 2012. Since then, the Department has approved 21 practice groups with 250 members; the more active groups have included: the Digital Learning Advisory Group, the Cross Discipline Literacy Network (and its 10 subgroups), the Maine Arts Education Leaders cohort, and the Digital Citizenship in Schools discussion group. We recently added a space for service-learning coordinators and practitioners, and maintain a list of group and membership requests.

The learning resources directory has been tested by a variety of educators, with continuous improvements based on user feedback. The Arts Education cohort is developing a peer review process for those who ask for review of their submissions. Wikipedia-style ratings will be implemented next.

Currently, program direction, platform administration, and community stewardship functions are being performed by myself (Jay Collier) and our back-end developer, Boone Gorges (core software developer for the collaboration software).

Next phase

We’ve now been live for almost one year. As we approach the end of our current funding and contract cycles, the state of Maine has been working to sustain MaineLearning.net.

  • The Department of Education has been planning to initiate a public communications campaign and is seeking funding to fund program leadership and community stewardship through the next level of service, including those potential enhancements listed below.
  • The state’s Office of Information Technology has been developing an RFP that will seek external vendors to provide Internet hosting, software management, and back-end development to support the continuous improvement of the platform when the current funding and contracts end this spring.

With sufficient resources, we are considering many potential enhancements, including the following, all of which are possible within the current framework, given additional staffing:

Potential collaboration enhancements

  • Allowing open group applications and selecting new groups based upon capacity
  • Professional development support, including organic groups for sustained collaboration between webinars, seminars, and workshops
  • Active management of resource vetting teams, including rubric development, and credential design (badges)
  • Availability of sub-sites (blogs) for every group, upon request

Potential resource directory enhancements

  • Statewide promotion for crowdsourced resource sharing
  • Simplified resource submission interfaces and predefined search results
  • Multiple levels of evaluation options, from thumbs up/down, to multi-question reviews, to peer review workflows
  • Exchange of vetting data (paradata) via US DOE Learning Registry and other repositories
  • Ingest of pre-existing learning resources, from vetted OERs to professional development objects, to community learning opportunities

Potential administrative initiatives

  • Grant applications for funding from regional and national foundations
  • Consulting with other jurisdictions that wish to replicate the model
  • Contributing lessons learned and custom add-ons back to the open-source community
  • Investigating viability of integrating ePortfolio and learning management (ScholarPress) features into the platform

Toward the future of learning

In Education Evolving (PDF) — Maine’s 2012 strategic plan for learning in Maine — Commissioner Bowen worked with educators around the state to define the challenges and opportunities of 21st-century education.

To build on the great work being done in Maine’s schools today, and to move from a century-old model of schooling to a more effective, learner-centered approach in the process, will require a steady focus on a handful of core priorities organized around meeting the individual learning needs of all students …

Such a move won’t take place through the imposition of heavy-handed mandates or one-size-fits-all approaches from Augusta, but by building on the innovative work being done in schools across Maine already and by employing strategies to increase collaboration and sharing of best practices….

As Harvard’s Tony Wagner argues in his book The Global Achievement Gap, teaching has been and continues to be a largely solitary practice providing few opportunities for collaboration and sharing of best practices…

With the advent of  the Internet, the sharing of new ideas and new approaches to teaching can be far more readily facilitated. Instructional materials, research on best practices, and even videos of effective instructional methods can be shared instantly across the state and around the world.

Collaborative, learner-centered education is at the heart of Maine’s strategy for transforming learning communities for this new era and MaineLearning.net supports that strategy.

Watch an introduction to Innovations in Maine Learning, including the MaineLearning.net online community of practice and digital resources directory:

This case study was supported by the Maine Department of Education. An earlier version was partially funded by the British Columbia Educational Resources Acquisition Consortium.

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