Freedom Sticks For The Classroom

I’m working with teachers in a small-town Saskatchewan school. My role involves getting these volunteers to begin using current forms of technology in the classroom, to research the process and to begin a technology-related mentorship program. These teachers will eventually become mentors to others in the division. It’s important to note that these teachers are very new to technology in the classroom and are beginners in this area.

After some initial conferencing, I decided that blogging would be a great place to start. The following documents the process with the first teacher.

I thought I’d start at WordPress.com. It’s been really reliable, and although (philosophically) I prefer edublogs.org, it has been buggy for me and my students in the past. I found out quickly that WordPress.com was blocked by the school filter. So, we tried edublogs.org. It worked!

We started the sign-up process. Everything went well. But, when we went to check the authorization email that was to be sent from edublogs.org, we realized that the school mail filter rejected the message from edublogs.org. Uggh. We tried again, but first I had the teacher sign-up with a Gmail account. This worked, but we had to choose a new userid and URL for edublogs. But that’s OK, we’re getting there.

In edublogs.org, I had the teacher change the presentation (theme) and the temporary password. When we came to create our first post, I noticed something missing. The ONLY browser on the school computers was IE 6. For some reason, the visual editor in WordPress did not show up. This was another big issue, but at least we could post basic messages.

Next we tried attachments. We could upload files in IE6 in edublogs, but when you went to attach the file to the post, it would not work. Another IE 6.0 issue it seemed. Then we went to embed a Youtube video. Nope, YouTube blocked. Oh, we could get to TeacherTube … but, wow, no Flash player installed on these machines either.

So let’s go through the list of things of issues:

  • Filtering blocked some really important, educational sites.
  • No visual editor in WordPress because of IE 6 (it seems).
  • No ability to attach files to blogposts.
  • No Flash player.

Frustrating!

Solution:
I setup a wireless network (probably against board policy) in about 10 seconds using my Airport Express. I take this tool with me everywhere, to every classroom I work in, to every hotel I stay in and to every conference I present at. Setting up a wireless network is idiot-proof with this tool, and this is by far the best $100ish I have every spent.

While on the Wireless networked, I noticed that I could get to any site using Firefox on my MacBook Pro. As I had a few USB sticks with me, I thought I’d try installing Firefox Portable onto a stick and see if it would work on the school computers. If you don’t know much about portable apps, basically these applications run from a USB stick with no need to install on the local computer. In placing this USB stick into the school machine, I quickly realized that we were now able to do everything we wanted to do including bypassing the school filter. For some reason, the entire web proxy system was closely tied to IE, so when we used Firefox, we no longer had limits. Edublogs.org now worked perfectly on Portable Firefox. We now had the visual editor and could attach files. We were free!

I quickly realized that it would be useful for these teachers to have their own sticks. Thus I purchased 8 sticks (one for each teacher) and included the following apps, most of them available at portableapps.com.

  • 7-Zip Portable: Compression utility (WinZip equivalent).
  • AbiWord Portable: MS Word replacement.
  • Audacity Portable: Audio-editing utility.
  • FileZilla Portable: FTP utility.
  • Firefox Portable: Web browser.
  • GIMP Portable: Imaging editing app (Photoshop-like).
  • Open Office Portable: Includes Write, Calc, Impress, Base, Draw, Math (MS Office replacement plus).
  • VLC Portable: The best cross-platform video player (plays almost everything).
  • Opera USB: Another web-browser. I added this because it seems to have the Flash player built in the browser, Firefox Portable doesn’t.

There are a number of other portable apps which I did not include simply because I don’t think the teachers needed the apps (too techy), yet.

Distributing these USB sticks to teachers is done as an interim measure. For now, this will allow these teachers to get to many great resources and will allow them to use powerful Web 2.0 tools. Teachers will also be able to show their students the resources they choose and deem appropriate. I have dubbed these loaded USB devices “freedom sticks” as this was exactly what was gained from this experience.

  • http://ideasandthoughts.org Dean Shareski

    It’s so crazy when you think about….all the little games and work arounds we have to play. But I’ve done them myself and am learning a few new ones from you.

    I’m looking for the IT department that has been able to open things up and yet still feel comfortable with their level of security and service….we’ll see.

  • http://stigmergicweb.org Rob Wall

    Sadly, I can relate to these problems. To add to my frustration, the IT people have somehow blocked Firefox portable from running (other portable apps seem to work without a problem).

    I remain optimistic that eventually there will be a change in attitudes and beliefs about the role of networked communication in education. An analogy is water flowing around a rock. When a rock is in the way of the flow of water, the water is not stopped. The water flows around the rock until the rock is eventually worn down.

    There’s an interesting conversation about filtering going on at Gary Ball’s new blog. Gary is one of our division’s newly formed group of in-school instructional technology support teachers. Gary describes some of his frustration with such radical and dangerous sites as blogmeister. One of the comments in response to his post is the all too familiar red herring about protecting the students as a justification for such prejudicial filtering.

  • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

    OMG what a pain. That was even painful to read. Hearing that wordpress was blocked made me cringe. I’d like to hear the justification for that.

    Nice workaround hack though!

  • Irma

    Wow, it will be frustrated when we go out into the field to teach. Will we be able as teacher in a school to bypass all of the block and filters? Hope the “rock in the way” will be significant smaller when we begin our teaching career.

  • Shaun Hart

    Thanks for the info, Alec. I have now put all of those portable apps on my memory stick and I hope to find it much easier as I move about from my home computer to the computers here at school.

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  • http://mtl-peters.net/blog Sharon Peters

    WOW, Alex! Brilliant workarounds! I am definitely looking into the investment of an airport express….
    My story about workarounds comes from the students I used to teach last year. They pretty much let me in on all their workarounds because they knew my position on the ridiculous policies of the school. Firefox was not permitted on the school computers in the library (nor any of the laptops in the 1:1 environment), so they changed the students changed the name of the .exe files of Firefox to…. Internet Explorer! I had a good laugh… not sure if anyone ever found out! I had to change the name of my .exe file on my school laptop as well.
    At least my school opened the ports to just about anything I asked…. except gmail for the students. Google very likely has the best spam and virus filters in the world, but was ranked in the same class as hotmail and yahoo. I would be very interested to know how much bandwidth is taken by google docs and uploading and saving to gmail – that was the admin’s other excuse.
    Thanks for the idea – freedom sticks!

  • http://weblogs.elearning.ubc.ca/brian/archives/036661.php Brian

    I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned how much I dig this kind of work you do. Truly inspirational.

  • http://podco.ca Evan Thornton

    That is brilliant! Superb work-around. Will share widely.
    -Evan

  • http://why-not-88.blogspot.com/ Anne Van Meter

    Only two thoughts, one serious, one not: What could we do if we didn’t have to spend all of our time doing work-arounds? How much more productive would we (both teachers AND students!) be? The second thought? Sometimes the relationship between teachers and “the tech department” sounds like a caricature of Tom and Jerry or Wiley Coyote and the Roadrunner.

  • http://www.webedtech.com Art Gelwicks

    It’s interesting to know people that take the “If you’re not willing to lose your job you don’t deserve to have the job” mindset to heart.

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  • http://www.webedtech.com Art Gelwicks

    Hmmm…posted an idea on how to leverage Alec’s thinking on this >> http://tinyurl.com/2j8s2s

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  • Katy Connelly

    Can Freedom Sticks be taken one step further? Can all the students in a computer class use Freedom sticks? They would then have the exact same software at home as they have at school.
    This is something I would like to research, but there is not a great deal of information available.
    If anyone has any useful links to information regarding the use of portable apps in an educational setting, if would love to see them.

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  • Scott

    Since you have a mac, can’t you just turn on network sharing instead of using an airport express? That’s what I do at school so I have wireless for my iPod. I’ve also put portable firefox on my desktop (runs faster than on a thumbdrive)

  • http://netvibes.com/monikahardy monika hardy

    i put portable firefox on my desktop as well. way faster.

    thanks for all you insight alec. great stuff. as usual.

  • http://pairadimes.davidtruss.com David Truss

    Hey Alec,
    I feel compelled to share my presentation: http://www.slideshare.net/datruss/the-pods-are-coming The POD’s are Coming!
    I love how you work around things to promote thinning walls (Slide 37)- Your work, thanks for sharing!
    And as I say in slide 53, “Filters Filter Learning!”

    What I love most about this post is the attitude that, ‘well that didn’t work, so what can we do to make it work?’

    People don’t go to a photocopier when it is broken, just before a lesson that they needed copies for and say, “Dang, out of order, that’s it I’m NEVER going to use the photocopier again!” but somehow they try something with technology in the classroom that doesn’t work and they use that as proof positive that technology has no place in their class!?!

    You exemplified what it means for the teacher to be the ‘lead learner’ in the classroom and role modeled what it means for ‘failure’ to be a learning opportunity.
    Thanks for leading the way and sharing your experiences with us!
    Dave.

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  • http://www.downloadvlcplayer.net Lisa

    Portable apps can be so useful at school or at work. I don’t what I would to without them. Especially when some computer systems don’t allow you to install ANYTHING on the PCs.

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