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L3RN: Seattle Public Schools Brings Social Networking In House

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The video-sharing site YouTube clearly engages young users, but content and participation can't be controlled, making it difficult for K-12 to use the site for educational opportunities.

In response, Seattle Public Schools this spring launched its own social learning network, called L3RN. Developed in house by the school district, the software program allows students to use many of the multimedia and social networking features of popular video-sharing and social-networking sites, but in a protected space and under the watchful eyes of teachers.

L3RN lets students and teachers build rich online content that includes streaming audio and video, one-click podcasting, interactive portfolios, and live discussion groups. The networking aspects of the tool let them post content to be shared with others, turned into podcasts, downloaded into iPods, and more.

Students--and their parents, who can also use the site--are authenticated as they log in, so the district knows exactly who they are as they post comments or upload work. A teacher must OK any student's content before it can be viewed.

"While Microsoft and Google were fighting over buying YouTube, we went ahead and built our own version of it," according to Ramona Pierson, head of the district's department of educational technology.

Student Projects Go Online
The diversity of student projects in L3RN includes a social studies class in which students created podcasts for chosen historical figures. One student researched music for various times in Hitler's life, Pierson said; another selected Marie Antoinette. A second-grade teacher had her classes create podcasts of the history of Seattle, with each acting out some historical aspect. Spanish teachers set up a classroom as a restaurant, then taped the students ordering meals in Spanish for later critique.

The project began as the district was trying to solve several issues, including ways for students to track their graduation requirements, and teachers to communicate with each other to share curriculums and professional development issues. "Instead of trying to buy five or six different tools, we decided that what the district really needed to do was to create a social learning network.... We decided to actually build our own version of YouTube and MySpace integrated together, and lock it down" against outsiders, Pierson said, while still making it easily accessible for students, parents and teachers.

Training and Technical Requirements
One key aspect of L3RN: It doesn't require a high-end computer system. Families running computers with older Windows software--anything that can connect to the Internet--can not only visit the site, but can create content. "Anybody can use it," Pierson said. "Some of our kids are on computers that don't even have Office on them... We provide opportunities for families who are on Apple or on 486 or 386 or using their phone [for a dial-up connection], so we reach the least common denominator."

Training wasn't a challenge, Pierson said, especially for the students. "The kids just stick to it immediately," she said. Although training initially focused on a select handful of teachers from elementary, middle and high schools, who then introduced the software to their students, the project has grown organically from there. After initial training by teachers, Pierson said, "the kids turned around and started showing other kids and other teachers how to use the tool." Teachers who weren't trained initially have also seized on it, experimenting, participating, and uploading their work. "Even with school closed," Pierson said, "teachers are still using at it. It's been a wonderful experience for teachers and students."

Although the exchange of quantities of video content between schools can take up large amounts of bandwidth, Pierson said that hasn't been a problem, at least yet. "We were concerned about the bandwidth," Pierson said, "but we wrote some tools to make sure that [video content] could stream through very narrow bandwidth."

One advantage of being in the city that spawned high-tech giants like Microsoft is having a vast talent pool to hire from. That can also be a downside, Pierson said, because competition for top developers is fierce. All of the L3RN system has been built in house, and the entire system is open source. That has appealed to talented developers interested in essentially donating a few years of their career toward working on an educational project of this scope and scale, Pierson said, and has helped keep costs down.

Security and Non-Public Data
While L3RN's easy to use multimedia aspects are a draw, the site also serves other purposes, such as storing secured information on each student's progress toward graduation. With a click of a button, students--or their parents--can view personal data. "If they're trying to create a project to meet graduation requirements and they want to see how they're doing," Pierson said, "they can just tab over it and they can get all of their personal data."

Although outsiders can view a public face of the site at www.L3RN.com, that's only a small sampling of what's happening on the actual site. There's a vast private area is reserved for Seattle Public School students, teachers, parents, and staff. "We have a lot of content on the inside," Pierson explained. "We have projects going on that we can't put on the outside [site] because we don't have parent permission to show pictures [and the work] of those students. We have thousands of content pieces locked inside."

L3RN is just one piece of a large, entirely open-source software project that Seattle Public Schools is building. It will eventually tie in other pieces, such as a data warehouse and online enrollment tool. In Pierson's vision, parents will be able to log in to check their child's grades, attendance, homework, test scores, and more. In addition, the district may eventually come up with a way to share L3RN with other schools, both within the United States and worldwide.

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About the author: Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, CA.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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