This Site: A Work in Progress

This Site: A Work in Progress

We’ve been fooled. Fooled into believing that the Web is like a shopping mall where we go to visit shiny store fronts put there for our consumption. We visit Facebook and are algorithmically spoon fed our own social network data back to us, with ads, of course. Assured that there are other, much wiser, people tinkering with the system to deliver us the best and most relevant content, be it suggested movies, status updates, or news stories, most of the places on the Internet that we frequent are built for us. Instead, they should be built by us.

The Web could be a workshop where we go to collaboratively build the tools to communicate, share, and create, where each of us is responsible for making web spaces that really achieve our own goals. It’s not going to be easy, the easy way is to keep using the tools, built for us, that spy on us, profit off of our data, and trap us in ideological bubbles.I want you to believe in a different story. One where each of us takes an active role in building the platforms that move us. In this story you don’t have to be “good with computers” to contribute or worry about asking dumb questions. You are more than a mere user.

This website, AgileLearningCenters.org is that story. Right now it’s just the dusty, hastily put together framework of the aforementioned magnificent workshop. I have high hopes for this, our little chunk of online space, but I’ll need your help in fulfilling those hopes. Lucky for us, we stand on the shoulders of giants. If we all pitch in we can have have a space that facilitates all the needs of the Agile Community, which truly belongs to us. Better yet, if we do this right we can contribute to the wider community.

A little bit of background

In July of 2014 I and a few other cool people participated in the first ever Agile Learning Facilitator Summer. Some of us, like me, were completely new to the whole idea, others had been practicing it for a few months, and still others were well versed in the Agile idea. Together we developed a training program while we shared, learned, and collaborated.

Part of my contribution was this website. With help of the other facilitators and parents we worked out some of the problems we wanted to solve with this website. We found the right (we hope!) tools for the job and set them up over the three week program.

Here is where we stand right now:

WordPress

The website is running WordPress, a “content management system”, which gives us the tools to create and publish content on the web. WordPress is a bunch of PHP code that runs on a server and performs certain functions “out-of-the-box”. It provides an administration “back end” where content is created and edited and allows for that content to be displayed using themes. Think of it like the plumbing and wiring for our workshop, only it’s already been done for us.

WordPress is a project over 10 years old, with tens of thousands of contributors writing code, answering questions, and writing documentation. It is used in over 15% of all websites on the Internet and it is free for anyone to use and modify. A true common resource shared by all Internet users.

WordPress is built to allow the community to write code that can be “plugged in” to the “core” code which extends the features. These pieces of code are called “plugins” and are created by individuals or groups of people to make WordPress better.

We use many plugins on this site, I’ll go over some of the central ones.

Commons in a Box

This plugin turns WordPress into a social network by adding all kinds of features. It is developed for the CUNY school system in New York. There is a sizable community working on making it better, we are now a part of that community. As this community makes improvements to ‘Commons in a Box’ everyone benefits.

Buddy Press

‘Commons in a box’ uses the ‘Buddy Press’ plugin to run most of the social networking functions. Buddy Press is a collection of plugins that add individual features like discussion forums or groups.

WordPress Network Site

This isn’t a plugin but a feature of WordPress. Instead of having just one site we are able to create infinite “sub sites” that are fully featured WordPress sites but networked together, sharing the same plugins and themes. This allows us to create student blogs and school websites which can all interconnect.

How you can help

Always be on the look out for ways to help that interest you. Just because it takes work doesn’t mean it can’t be a fun or educational experience.

Here are some suggestions:

Use the site!

It’s an easy first step. Make a note to visit and contribute. The more this site is used the better we can understand the improvements that are needed. Think of it like waiting to pave a path or a court yard until after people have trampled the path.

Share your experiences

If you notice something is wrong speak up, contact the support group or send an e-mail to someone (more info at the bottom). The more detailed you can be with your problem the better, some suggestions:

  • The web address of the page that messed up (this is called the URL) you can copy it from the address bar at the top of most browsers
  • The browser you are using. This is the program that runs on your devices and shows you web pages. Most folks use Firefox, Google Chrome, Safari, or Internet Explorer.
  • The Browser version. This is a number that normally looks something like this: 4.5.1, it indicates the “age” of the browser that you are using. If you haven’t updated in a while that might be causing the problem. You can normally find the browser information under Help > About on Windows, or by clicking “About Browsers Name” on the Mac program menu (top left next to the Apple icon)
  • The operating system you’re using. Is it windows, Mac, or Linux? Which version?
  • A description of the actions you took to find the error (or details about where it is). Those of us who will be working to fix these problems will first try to recreate the issue so we can better understand it.

See a problem, fix it!

See a misspelling or edit? With a little understanding of WordPress you could probably fix it yourself. Talk to a developer or support person and see if they can help you get comfortable with editing the website. Knowing WordPress is a valuable skill and best of all it’s probably easier than you think.

Help document everything!

Writing support documents, feature requests, or bug reports is both non-technical and super helpful. The more we write down what we are doing, why, and how we are doing it, the easier it becomes for people to join in on this collaborative effort. A few examples of things you might write:

  • A how-to guide to using a particular tool on the site
  • Interview a developer about what needs to be done
  • Follow up with people who are having trouble and write down ideas to solve their problem
  • Ideas for how the site could be better

You can take it further by reaching out to external support systems like the WordPress support forum or the Commons in a Box community.

Get into the code

There are a lot of moving parts behind the scenes, if you know how to code or have always wanted to learn this could be the perfect project. I will do my very best to document and mentor anyone who is interested.

Start by educating yourself, bentobox.io is a great stepping stone.

Help organize others who want to learn, and bug the people like me to teach you!

Sometimes the best way to learn is to help a developer document what they are doing. This helps your knowledge grow while also supporting the community.

Conclusions

What is the story that we are going to write? I think it’s going to be about a community of people working together to build an educational system that better prepares the children and the community at large for the fast approaching future.

This web site is but a blank slate. I think that we can turn it into something amazing. Imagine us as a community caring for this space like our homes or classrooms in the physical world. Imagine a website that strengthens the community by facilitating the sharing of our ideas, problems and solutions. More than a website, it is the laboratory where we learn some of the central skills for the 21st century.

If you want to get involved create an account (you’ll need a validation code) and join the developer or support group. You can also e-mail me with questions and ideas

[email protected]

I also welcome you to leave some comments! How do you think you’ll be able to contribute? Do you have other ideas about how to help? Any suggestions to make this post better?

14 comments

  1. Bryant Coble says:

    Seems like a great thing you guys are building. I know for me personally I like the information but not being as computer savey makes some of the info harder to process. I understand that problem due to the fact when I talk medical info to my amazing wife she zones out.

    I did notice at the bottom there was a lot scrolling to get to the final note of contact the alf team.

    Thanks guys for all you do. I will keep checking the site and am looking forward to great things.

  2. Jan Rieman says:

    Drew,
    Thanks for this great account of the vision of this website, how we can be creators and drivers of on-line spaces and the encouragement to be active in this space.
    A way I can help: as a teacher of rhetoric and composition I have lots of experience as a writer, so I’m willing to write content. I’m also a great editor/proofreader, so please feel free to send me website content that you would like some suggestions about. Finally, I have lots of experience in ePortfolios that my students create to document their learning–and lots of great resources for reflective writing as well.
    I’d love to learn how to really use WordPress (beyond my own little WordPress site that needs attention), so I’m grateful for the invitation to learn more.
    Jan

  3. Yanira says:

    Thanks for this Drew. Creating a launching a new site is definitely no small task. Thank you for creating a way to connect all of us. I look forward to the continued growth and development. I have some experience with WordPress, so please let me know if there is anything I can do to help.

  4. Mercer says:

    I love this! I love the NYC agile website. I love the ALC network website. I haven’t looked at the other individual websites yet but I’m sure they are awesome too. I love easily accessing the blog that my son, Timothy is creating. And, I love what Tomis asked of us at the parent meeting on Thursday – that we spend 50% of the time we would spend on Facebook (or other social media sites) on here instead. I’m doing that right now and love it!
    Thank you everyone for the visionary thinking and for making this a reality!

  5. Mercer says:

    @drew – is there an easy way to get to people’s blog pages? The only way I know to do it is to type their name.agilelearningcenters.org/ into my address bar. I keep wanting there to be a link to people’s blogs somewhere within their profile but I have not found it.

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