Technology writer Diana Clement accepts an invitation to trial a new portal and website for teachers.

Network 4 Learning’s Pond.co.nz portal has launched and early users are giving it the thumbs up.

Education Aotearoa was invited to test drive Pond under the guidance of Newmarket Primary School’s principal, Dr Wendy Kofoed, and ICT lead teacher Sonya Van Schaijik .

In short, the result of Education Aotearoa’s testing was the conclusion that Pond will become a valuable tool for educators once it’s opened up to all 64,500 intended users.

In simple language Pond has three main purposes:

Up until now teachers have spent hours scouring the web for content but often find that what they’re looking for isn’t on the Internet, doesn’t exist, or is unsuitable for the New Zealand Curriculum. Often teachers reinvent the wheel over and over.

All Pond users can upload content. Others can then comment and rate the content uploaded to Pond and it will show up on their “ripple” (newsfeed/timeline), which will in turn alert other teachers to that content. All discussions on the ripple are public, with the idea that the entire community can benefit from the conversation.

A classic example of how useful this will be for teachers is Newmarket Primary School’s Matariki book, which was written in English, Maori and Mandarin. Before Pond other schools may not have been aware of this resource. Now that it has been uploaded to Pond other schools that need Matariki or Te Reo or Mandarin resources can find and download the book for free.

Up until now, an educator looking for Matariki resources could Google and would find resources from sources such as Te Papa, Christchurch Libraries, the National Library and elsewhere. The advantage of doing the search in Pond instead will be:

  • that irrelevant results from that Internet search will largely be removed
  • if previous users have commented on the same search results, teachers using Pond for their Internet search could see a rating and explanation of the content and examples of learning ideas related to it
  • in future, they will be able to upload lesson plans related to the content.

More than just a search

One of the most useful features of Pond is its search functionality. Users can search a term such as “WW1”. The results are listed in three side-by-side columns. The first is a safe search of Bing (which is similar to Google); the second column provides content from “deep search” providers, which include TKI, Digital NZ, TVNZ, Ministry of Culture and Heritage, and the Science Learning Hub; and the third column is for content on Pond itself.

The search results can be filtered further with one click down to news, articles, video, books, magazines, reference, and people. If one of the Internet search results such as a video is of interest, it can be played within Pond without opening another tab or window. There is also an “Add To Pond” button that allows a user to upload the link as content with a single click into the Pond catalogue for others to view. “Content” in the catalogue can be documents, PDFs, videos, and links to other resources on the Internet. It is not all held within the database.

When providers or teachers add content to Pond there is an option to include “educational suitability” tags to it such as “primary”, “secondary”, “gamification”, “music” and “medieval history” to name a few. These make the content more easily searchable. Someone, for example, who is looking for content related to “medieval history” for a “secondary” class, would search those tags. Both the user who originally posts the content and other educators using the system can add “learning idea” tags as well.

The deep searches are currently only of five websites. Many more will be added in the future, says Chris South, N4L’s head of dynamic services. If, for example there is demand for searches of sites such as NASA or the Smithsonian Institution and Pond can connect to them, then they will be added.

Commercial education providers such as Learntree, Musac and eTV can also upload material to Pond, which then becomes searchable. Currently more than 130 providers are on Pond and the number is growing.

The provider content on Pond is tagged with filters to make it easier to search. For example, the eTV content is tagged with information about what browsers and platforms it works on, and its pricing. Anyone who then wants to use its services clicks through to the eTV website and sign up and pay in the normal way.

With the current version of Pond there are lesson plans available through the deep search providers. Functionality that will allow teachers to upload their own plans isn’t yet available. South says they’re considering how that would work because they do not want the site swamped.

Social media integration

Many Kiwi teachers are very active on Twitter and other social media. There are a variety of ways that Pond and social media interact. For example, on Kofoed’s Pond profile her twitter feed appears as well.

If users like a particular piece of content on Pond, they will soon be able to click a button to share it to their Facebook and Twitter followers as well as on their ripple in Pond.

Specialist interests

Educators who use Pond can list their specialist interests such as “Minecraft” for example, or “financial literacy”, which can be useful. They can filter by their specialist interests when they visit the catalogue, which holds the uploaded content, or do a more general search. They then only see content relevant to their specific interests.

As with other social media, a teacher using Pond can follow other users. Anything new posted by that teacher will come up on the user’s ripple. Schools could even search for new teaching staff as a result of their interests listed on Pond, says Kofoed.

Getting started in Pond

Pond was launched to 500 teachers on May 5. The plan is for those educators” many of whom are tech savvy” to get the site populated with useful content and opinions to make it more appealing to rank and file teachers when all are invited to join. “It’s a classic chicken and egg situation,” says South. Content is needed to make the service more appealing to teachers.

EA found the site relatively easy to use with little need for explanations. That’s also what Van Schaijik found. In most cases teachers at Newmarket Primary School” who are all pioneer users of Pond” were able to figure it out for themselves. Van Schaijik’s litmus test was that if a teacher could log in, add a photo, and follow her without being shown, they needed little training. Workshops and training are available for those who can’t do these basic tasks intuitively.

Once into the system users then find people who they want to follow by going into the Community section and either searching for colleagues and educators they already know or know of, or they can search on topics of professional interest to them to find those worth following.

N4L is open to feedback and constructive criticism to help the system evolve. The feedback form on the website allows users to rate how they’re feeling” from Happy to Angry, and include information about problems and suggestions, which is sent direct to the developers rather than a customer service department tasked with fobbing off criticism.

Pond also has a “Coming Soon” page, which includes timelines for new developments” such as email notifications and digests for interesting activity, and smart Twitter and RSS integration, both of which are due in from August to October this year.