Blogging and the Ultranet

Note: this is not a critique of the Ultranet, rather it is advice on choosing the best platform for your students to get the most out of blogging.

Over the past few months I have been approached by countless teachers asking for help and advice with the same issue…

Their school leadership has told them to use the Ultranet for blogging rather than platforms such as Global2, Edublogs or Blogger and they don’t know what to do.

I believe this advice is fuelled by a lack of understanding of how the Ultranet works, how blogging works and what the benefits of blogging are.

People who are advising others to use the Ultranet to blog probably aren’t bloggers themselves and I am hoping this post can help them realise what teachers would be missing out on if they chose the Ultranet as their blogging platform.

As I highlighted in this post, there are many benefits of blogging, most of which cannot be achieved with a blog on the Ultranet.

What is the Ultranet?

For those readers outside of Victoria, the Ultranet is a multi-million dollar online portal released in 2010. The Ultranet is a state-wide, secure site that students, parents and teachers in government schools can access via the internet. A large number of security guidelines means that students and classes are very limited in who can view their Ultranet spaces and who they can connect with. The Ultranet has an application called a blog, however it has its limitations which I will discuss further.

What’s wrong with blogging on the Ultranet?

I like to call blogging on the Ultranet, “pretend blogging”. To me you may as well be writing a “blog” in a Word document or in an exercise book. The Ultranet is a closed space with limited features or audience.
My main issues with blogging on the Ultranet rather than on a regular blogging platform are lack of global connections, lack of classroom community, lack of authentic audience, lack of features and lack of opportunities to authentically teach about internet safety.

Lack of global audience

I have found the global audience to be one of the most exciting benefits of blogging. Real blogging can help flatten the classroom walls and the benefits of these connections are incomparable. A sense of understanding and tolerance develops and students learn a lot about the world in which they live. My class has connected with classes from all corners of the globe through our class blog and the learning has been priceless. A day doesn’t go by in our classroom where we don’t have some form of interaction with our global blogging buddies. This would not be possible with an Ultranet blog. There would be no chance of any visitors outside of Victoria seeing the “blog”.

Less sense of classroom community

A real sense of community has developed each year through my class blog. We have a class mascot, Leo the Lion, who features prominently on our blog and we have established a place in the global blogosphere. We could not have developed our identity with a blog that had no real audience. Our class blog is a place where students, parents, teachers and classes around the world come together and interact. They can learn about who we are and what we are up to while sharing their own experiences with us. With the restrictions placed on accessing the Ultranet, this would not be possible with an Ultranet blog.

Lack of authentic audience

In the traditional classroom, the only audience of student work was the teacher and sometimes classmates and parents. (Real) blogs provide a much larger audience for student work and an avenue for feedback and self-improvement through commenting. I have found students are more motivated by knowing they have a large and genuine audience for their work. The Ultranet does not provide much more of an audience for student work than traditionally existed when students did all their work in exercise books. How many people would be looking at a student or class Ultranet blog?

Lack of features

The aesthetics and features of Ultranet blogs are extremely basic which adds to my claim that Ultranet blogging is “pretend” blogging. There isn’t overly much you can do with your Ultranet blog. To provide just one example, we start each day looking at the Clustrmap of our global visitors on our class blog. This is such an authentic way to learn about maths and geography. There are no Clustrmaps or many of the other wonderful web 2.0 tools out there available for Ultranet blogs.

This image demonstrates the appearance of an Ultranet blog.

Blog Ultranet

Limited opportunities to discuss internet safety

Real blogs are on the internet for everyone to see. Through being heavily involved in blogging, my Grade Two class has opportunities almost every day to discuss cyber safety issues and appropriate online behaviours in an authentic setting. We establish blogging guidelines that help students understand how to behave safely online. With the Ultranet being so heavily protected, how can teachers and students have genuine discussions about how to connect safely with others and how to protect their identity?

Use your time wisely

Someone once pointed out to me that while they realise all these arguments are valid, teachers could use the Ultranet for blogging with a local audience and another platform for blogging with a global audience. My question is why? Blogging platforms such as Global2, Edublogs and Blogger are far superior and incomparable to what the Ultranet has to offer. They cater for local and global audiences while offering many other features and benefits. As a teacher, I don’t have time to dedicate to “pretend” blogging on the Ultranet as well as real blogging. Do you?

The Ultranet may have other valid uses in the classroom but to me, blogging isn’t one of them.

What do you think?

Sites for Integration Aides

Monday 9th August is a statewide curriculum day for Ultranet implementation in Victoria.

For readers who are outside of Victoria, Australia, the Ultranet is a  $60.5 million online portal for teachers, students and parents in Victorian government schools. Read my post on my initial thoughts on the Ultranet here.

I am a Lead User at my school, Leopold Primary School and we came online in Cycle One in May.

While I remain somewhat sceptical that the Ultranet will actually work on August 9th, we have come up with a detailed plan for training the staff on this day.

Catering for our integration aides was a consideration in our planning.

While our integration aides will be participating in the basic Ultranet and Web 2.0 workshops, we are also allowing them time to explore useful websites that they could use with their students on classroom computers.

I have prepared the following handout for our integration aides, which may also be useful for primary school teachers.

What do you have planned for August 9th?

Do you have any sites that you think would be particularly useful for integration aides?

Thoughts on the Ultranet

The Ultranet is a $60.5 million online portal for teachers, students and parents in Victorian government schools. After years of build up, the Ultranet was officially launched on Monday 10th May and my school was in the first group of schools to come online.

The first stage of the Ultranet allows students and teachers to create personal learning portfolios and collaborate with others across the state. Stage Two, to be released in Term Four will allow parents to log on and keep track of their child’s performance. It will also include features for teachers to plan curriculum and monitor and assess student performance.

While the Ultranet is unique to Victoria, it is not dissimilar to other smaller scale online portals that schools around Australia and the world run independently. With increased accountabilities and controls appearing in various education departments, I would not be surprised to see an increase in Ultranet type portals in coming years.

I completed the two-day Lead User training last week. This “train the trainer” course provided an overview of all the features of Stage One as well as discussions on how to implement the Ultranet in our school. After these two days, I’m still gathering my thoughts on the pros and cons of this new initiative but I thought I would share some initial thoughts.

My thoughts on Ultranet

What do you think about the Ultranet? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.