Monday, May 19, 2008

tt4t_038 An elephant in the room, can OpenID help schools?

It’s Monday, May 19th 2008 and welcome to episode 38 of TechTalk4Teachers, I’m Tom Grissom. I recently had a conversation with some colleagues about how many of the Web 2.0 technologies seem to offer wonderful possibilities for educators but there is often a reluctance at the district level to implement projects that offer new and exciting possibilities for teachers and students on a wider scale. There always seems to be an elephant in the room about using Web 2.0 technologies that few want to talk about. The elephant is the need for established acceptable use policies and guidelines for Web 2.0 services that are followed up with practical procedures for creating and managing user accounts.

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Whose responsibility is it to create Web 2.0 accounts? Is it the teachers? Is it the parents? Is it the schools? Internet safety is a prime concern for all educators that use the Internet for classroom activities. States are beginning to mandate Internet Safety courses as more and more of our students venture onto social networking sites that can be a dangerous place, especially for K-12 students if not used appropriately. Many students are using these technologies at home whether the school (or the parents in many cases) allows this use or not. Establishing policies and guidelines on the front-end can help to avoid potential problems and abuses that can occur without clear expectations and boundaries. Many schools do require parental permission before beginning Web 2.0 projects and these projects should be discussed and approved with administration before any new project begins.

Even with the administrative and parent/gaurdian approval being met there is still a recurring set of issues that educators face everytime they want to use a new Web 2.0 service. First you have to establish an account with a userid and password that is unique to the service you are wanting to use. In doing so the user agrees to a Terms and Service agreement that probably 99.9 percent of users ever read, yet alone understand. For Web 2.0 services like MySpace there is a clause that states that users must be at least 14 years of age to establish an account to use MySpace. To complicate matters most Terms of Service agreements also state that they can change the terms of use at anytime for any reason. Another problem is that on the web there is no way to verify the accuracy of the account information so it is very easy to get an account even if a student is under the age of 14. Usually in less than five minutes anyone can get an account on many of these social networking sites by simply filling out a form. Many parents and students don’t even know this age limitation exists on MySpace and many parents may not even know their child has a social networking account. When a user signs-up for an account they are agreeing to the Terms of Service that truthfully represents oneself and the user agrees to meet all of the terms of use for the account.

This anonymity of the web is the first problem that we educators face along with the fact that you never really know who is on the other side of that userid. This anonymity often offers a false sense for security and privacy especially for younger users that do not stop to think about the consequences of posting information to the web. Many times information that is meant to be private becomes public because it is so easy to copy and re-disseminate digital information on the web sometimes without the users permission.

So here is a proposal that may help the recurring problem of establishing Web 2.0 user accounts with the emerging OpenID standard. This proposal may help with some aspects of management but it will not solve all of the issues related to Web 2.0 accounts for school use. A few episodes back on TechTalk4Teachers I introduced you to the OpenID initiative that offers the promise of establishing one central account that can be used by multiple Web 2.0 services. Here are some of my thoughts on the OpenID movement from an educational perspective. First as a parent I want to have access to my childs online accounts just in case problems occur or in case I need to disable the account due to inappropriate use. Since the OpenID movement is in the beginning stages of development I was wondering if there would be a way for OpenID to create a hierarchical account structure that could identify parent level access for a childs account? Perhaps there could also be a field that would identify if an account belonged to an underage student and therefore could be used by Internet sites to help protect the account from inappropriate material on the Internet not suitable for minors.

Businesses might also find this OpenID hierarchical account structure useful. Information technology services whether for a business or a school utilize their own internal directory structures that allow control of access to user accounts if needed. When the accounts move to the Internet information technology services have no control or access to accounts and can thus create a number of problems not the least of which is the loss of control over IT functions that help protect businesses and schools. A third category of this hierarchical structure could be for a trusted Administrator account like a superuser account for the business or school that could allow schools or businesses to access accounts if needed similar to what information technology department deal with on a day-to-day basis.

There are problems with this method as well since all activity is tied to a user account that can be traced to the userid so privacy concerns can arise here as a users activity can be tracked. There are also issues of who owns the user account; the business, or the school, or the teacher, or parent, or student? There are no easy answers but these issues need to be worked through on a case-by-case basis. Until these questions are answered we will not see wide-spread adoption of Web 2.0 technologies in schools because these basic questions need solutions. For now many schools are taking these Web 2.0 services in-house where they have control of the servers and accounts but many schools lack the resources and personnel to make this a viable solution. We need access to these resources that can scale and at the same time offer some degree of local control when needed. I know this is probably wishful thinking but as more and more services become available in the cloud we need to find solutions to these problems that stop many educators from using Web 2.0 services out of the gate.

What do you think? How are your schools using Web 2.0 technologies and addressing the policy issues of using software-as-a-service (SAAS) applications? What keeps you from using Web 2.0 services in the classroom? Please leave a comment on the TechTalk4Teachers blog to share your comments with others.

Tom’s Technology Pick(s) of the Week
My technology pick of the week this week is actually a two for one mention for a helpful Web 2.0 service for storing and organizing photos online along with a cool browser plug-in for previewing online photos and videos. First for those of you that don’t already know about Flickr; the Flickr service offers an online storage space for you to upload and share digital photographs with others. You can establish a copyright or creative commons license regarding how you would like to share these photographs online with others. Flickr is part of Yahoo and has been around since 2004. If you have used the social bookmarking service this concept will seem familiar to you as is also from Yahoo so you will see some commonality between the Flickr and services. To learn more about be sure to checkout the archived version of Episode 12 of TechTalk4Teachers.

TechTalk4Teachers – Episode 12:

The Flickr service is built around uploading photos for online storage and tagging of your digital photographs by keyword so that you can organize and easily find them when you need to. Like you can search on a keyword tag for your collection or also see the photographs of other Flickr users tagged with the same keyword. Since we are dealing with photo content there is not a completely safe way to screen the content of all pictures tagged and therefore any use of this service in a classroom setting needs to take this into consideration. This service may be blocked by content filtering services at schools for this very reason. A link to the Flickr service is provided in the show notes. – Online photo sharing site.

My second Pick of the Week goes to a plug-in for the Internet Explorer and Firefox browsers that is a really cool new way of previewing photo images or videos on websites. This requires a download of the plug-in for your browser of choice but once installed offers an attractive and easy method for viewing photos online. The name of this browser plug-in is PicLens. The PicLens plug-in works with Google images, Flickr, YouTube, and other websites that display photographs or videos and allows the user to quickly scroll thru tons of images very quickly to find what you are looking using a very attractive 3D interface. Like the Flickr service the user needs to be aware that photographic and video content cannot be guaranteed to be appropriate for all audiences so as with all of these services be very careful with any photographic and video content from the web. I recommend that you download material you wish to use that is safe for classroom use rather than rely upon an open service that may contain inappropriate content that can change at anytime.

PicLens – Provides an immersive full-screen 3D viewing experience for viewing photographs and videos online:

If you have not seen PicLens in action I encourage you to click on the link provided in the show notes and view the demo on this very impressive browser plug-in.
That wraps it up for episode 38 of TechTalk4Teachers. Show notes for this episode along with archived versions are available on the web at the EIU Instructional Technology Center website at just click on the Techtalk4Teachers Podcast link. If you would like to make a comment or suggestion please send an email to or leave a comment on the TechTalk4Teachers blog. Until next time this is Tom Grissom, keep on learning

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