Online tools
Sunday, August 14th, 2011 | Author:

One of my summer jobs is to manage accounts for children on a variety of online tools that we use in school. This ranges from Google Apps for the children’s email and documents to Class Pet for their maths activities. It also includes sites such as Purple Mash, their WordPress blogs and new tools such as Voki Classroom and Zondle which I am keen to try next year. The thing that has struck me while I go and manage these accounts is just how different the tools are and how they approach the username/password creation in different ways. Another thing that has struck me is that the best customer service often comes from the “little people”. I have had great customer service from Zondle and we don’t pay them a penny! I’m not saying the paid-for content support isn’t good, but I’m amazed at the support for free tools. One thing to remember is that often in a primary school especially, it is a teacher that is creating these accounts and nota network manager. So simplicity is key.

Right…so when we manage the accounts for these tools, what do we as a school need to do? What do we expect? What is the minimum that should be in place? For me, it is about barriers. What are the barriers that will stop my children (and possibly more importantly, my staff) from wanting to use the tool. I have hopefully only selected tools that I think will suit our school and our children so that is half of the battle. If there is a tool that I don’t like, or I don’t see us using, then I won’t create accounts for the whole school.

The main barrier for me is the username and password. How do the children access the tool in the first place? We have lots of sites and tools and these are listed below. I will discount some free sites such as Photopeach because although we have a username per KS2 child, this isn’t really managed by me. The fabulous guys at Photopeach created these accounts for us and each account is as if the child went and signed up themselves rather than being managed by a school admin console. I’ll also ignore BrainPop because this is one login for the whole school.  So what do we have in school and what am I trying to populate with accounts?

  • Google Apps for Education
  • WordPress Blog
  • Purple Mash
  • Class Pet
  • Manga High (free)
  • Zondle (free)
  • Voki Classroom
  • J2E
  • Pearson’s Bug Club
As I said, some of these are free, some are on trial and some we have paid for. It’s a bit of a mixture but still, children need accounts or a way of accessing it. For some tools it is just KS2 that will need accounts for now. For instance, in Voki Classroom there is a limit of 200 accounts per teacher, well we have 180(sh) KS2 children so that’s enough accounts for us.
I do have to say that not all of these tools are used all of the time, every day in every year group. When the children access them through the Google Apps page, there is a brief description, a help video and reminder of the format of the username to help them (and staff).
Now usually usernames are created using a CSV import. The list of users was exported from our SIMs database and I can then move and re-arrange it in Excel. I even went through and changed Daniels to Dans if they wanted me to. Each online tool will want a CSV with slightly different information such as last name or surname – although these are technically the same, the system will want the columns named correctly. Sometimes you need an email address to sign-up to these tools and that is provided through our Google Apps accounts. (A quick help video for creating CSV files is here)
As there are so many different tools and so many potentially different logins, what do I want from an online tool?
  • I want to choose the usernames
  • I want to choose the passwords
  • Ideally a school specific login URL or page would be great (especially if there is a school login to remember too!!)
So why do I want to choose the usernames and passwords? With so many tools I think it is important that the usernames are simple. This should follow the naming convention for your school network. I know some schools have the year children joined the school and part of their name e.g. 08ianadd If this is the username I as a child am familiar with, great. In our school we use firstname.lastname to log on to the computer. The management of which year group they are in is done behind the scenes on the server. So I want all usernames to be the same for the online tools too. Unfortunately WordPress doesn’t allow ‘.’ in the usernames without a plugin (which I might look into) so we have firstnamelastname for WordPress at the moment.
Now I know some tools such as tutpup provide random usernames and logins like pinkflamingo2456 for e-safety reasons but I am comfortable managing this within my own school through talking to the children and educating about using their name. It will never be linked to pictures of them and they’ll never be able to be contacted either.
Some sites like Bug Club and Voki Classroom do offer the ability to print out bookmarks or cards with login details on it, but I don’t want to have to print them all out for every different tool!
With so many children accessing certain online tools there are bound to be duplications so it is understandable that usernames will need numbers etc after them. Some tools get around this by including a ‘school ID’. This can be linked to the school’s name or can be random. As a school called ‘St John’, lots of the variations are taken already. Adding a school ID is an extra step, or barrier, to logging in to access the tools. This is where the school specific login page comes in.
We have two of these, one for Purple mash (here) and one for Manga High (here). These are the links that my children go to when they want to access these tools. It then knows that they come from our school and they just put in their username and password. Simple. One less thing to remember. I have to also say that both Manga High and Purple Mash tick every box when it comes to simple creation of usernames and passwords.
What has struck me when creating accounts is which companies have really thought about the user experience, which really haven’t and which ones are open to ideas about ways to change it for the better. It is refreshing to hear a developer say that these ideas make sense and they will look into it. One piece of advice that I would give any teachers that are doing something similar is to question the company when you find a barrier. Don’t just take what they say as gospel. Offer suggestions for how it can be improved, they will often listen.
Oh and I know someone will mention single sign-on tools but in my two years as a VLE consultant and my year back in school since, I am yet to find or be shown a tool that actually works properly and is affordable.
So which online tools do you use? Which ones are flexible and allow you to choose the logins and passwords? Have you even thought about it before or do you just have a variety of different logins for different tools? Am I being too picky and controlling? I’d love to hear reactions from teachers as well as from software companies.