Rebuilding CompEdNet

You may know a little about CompEdNet but here is a potted history before I go into what I’ve been up to! Around late 1996/early 1997 Computing teachers around Scotland started to use an online mailing list forum called Onelist to share information about the new “Higher Still” courses of the time. Onelist groups were started off for the new courses by Bobby Elliott, now of SQA, who at the time was a lecturer at Cardonald College but seconded to the Higher Still Development Unit. Bobby used the national training events to publicise the use of Onelist and it took off because it allowed teachers from all over Scotland to share materials and discuss the new courses.

After a few years Onelist was bought over and turned into eGroups and then was acquired by Yahoo. The product that the groups were moved to was YahooGroups and the community didn’t like it as much and it wasn’t well moderated so with much of the work carried out by Richard Bissett, then of RGC in Aberdeen, the forums, resources and discussions were moved to SmartGroups, a forum/mailing list community provided by Freeserve. All members were verified as teachers or other educationalists which meant that we could now talk about SQA assessment and issues in a secure environment.

Late October 2006, Wannado/Orange (who had just taken over Freeserve) announced that they would shutdown SmartGroups in 30 days time. What would become of the community of teachers and all the resources which had been shared on SmartGroups and also how would we deal with, yet again, losing a service because of take-overs and deals in the web world?

So I built a web site…and a community moved in

This is where I came into the story. I’d been a proponent with Bobby of the earliest version of discussion forum on Onelist. Bobby and I were both National Trainers for the “Higher Still” programme and I had used the forums on many occasions. I also had a web server and a domain that I had registered (CompEdNet.com) hanging around for a project. I built an online system to mirror SmartGroups functionality using Joomla, phpBB2 and Mail2Forum. It took me a couple of days and involved some server work, php coding and some database work using mySQL. It was a custom made solution which allowed forum posts (including attachments) to be sent and received either via the web or by email. A number of the community members assisted with uploading the content to the new forums and downloads area and we announced the successor to SmartGroups as live on, I think, the 15th November 2006.

CompEdNet has been a great success, membership was very active, the system ensured that information was pushed to users rather than relying on them coming to the site – it notified them of what was happening and allowed them to respond via email or the web site. Uploads were notified to users and this drove more traffic to the site as users visited it to download the uploaded content. However, in May 2010, after a number of delays, I had to “upgrade” the software which ran CompEdNet. A number of potentially serious bugs in the software and the php language it was written in mean that it could be possible to compromise CompEdNet. This upgrade removed the push notifications to users and the replacement digest system didn’t work. The main feature of the site, which provided it’s ease of use, was gone and visitor numbers went through the floor.

I’ve had a very busy year in 2010 but it had always been my intention to return to CompEdNet and try to change the format of the site to make it more useable, more focused on notifications and to improve how information within the site was organised. I also wanted to take some of my experience of Social Networking and integrate that into a platform for professional networking and collaboration. The result is the new CompEdNet site and I’m extremely happy with how it has turned out.

Now the geeky bit.

CompEdNet has, until now, been built on the Joomla content management system with a phpBB forum and a number of “components” (Joomla add-ons which provide additional features). At one point CompEdNet had a video system, wikis, blogs, personal user pages, downloads and forums. But only the downloads area and the forums communicated to users (the downloads sent an email to the forum and the forum emailed it out to all the users). There was no “activity stream” and no way to control subscriptions to such a stream! I could have used the JomSocial plug-in for joomla which would have provided many of the features I was looking for but I’m just not sure that Joomla has a significant future as a platform when I compare it to WordPress. WordPress is lean, well written and very scalable. The plug-in community is integrated into the software and install/uninstall/activate process is excellent. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to hack away at files on the server to remove a failed Joomla component (I’ve only had to do that once with WordPress – and that was my fault!)

So last week I moved CompEdNet to WordPress, ported all the forums and users over using a mixture of scripts from GoogleCode (phpBB_to_BBPress) and some nifty MySQL queries to integrate the ported data with a Buddypress installation. CompEdNet now runs on desktop and mobile devices with different interfaces, has activity streams which show all user activity, has dedicated groups with all the files from the old site and the all the discussions, users can establish “friendships” and can contribute to groups and make their own ones if they wish. There is fine grained control of email notifications (you can chose from everything to nothing or daily or weekly digests) and their is even a fledgling achievements system (something I have discussed elsewhere on this blog).

The new CompEdNet is significantly better than any community site I have previous developed and the integration of notifications into the activity stream really allows users to see what is happening and to use the site in a production way.  If you are a Computing/ICT educationalist in Scotland then you are very welcome to sign up at http://compednet.com

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