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Published June 1, 2018 | Multidisciplinary

Farewell NewsActivist: Introducing linkr

The world of education technology is one of continual renewal. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Humanities teacher Gabriel Flacks to talk about the development of a new platform called linkr, which is the natural successor to his well-received NewsActivist learning community platform. The new website offers greater functionality and creates networked learning opportunities for students through a social medium for the collaborative development of content, related to current events and contemporary issues.

linkr co-founder Gabriel Flacks

Over the past few years, Profweb has reported on the arrival and evolution of the NewsActivist platform, which allowed “the individual student to create his or her own project by blogging about societal concerns and passions as a way to motivate activism.” After maintaining and tweaking the platform for close to a decade, a decision was made to turn to a new technology stack and build something new from the ground up.

Can you tell us about your decision to move from NewsActivist to linkr?

NewsActivist felt more like a blogging platform, but linkr is a networking platform. The NewsActivist platform was originally built to support my own teaching and collaboration, but it wasn’t built to be scaled or malleable for the needs of other teachers. I really fell in love with supporting other teachers. It is very satisfying to build a community of teachers and students. But I increasingly ran into development walls. To grow and respond to needs of users, something needed to be built from the ground up - from scratch. The linkr platform was built to be responsive and dynamic, to replace the NewsActivist infrastructure which seemed to be increasingly rigid and fragile. The needs of students and how they access the platform has changed, and the new platform has to be fast and accessible to serve content to mobile devices.

Articles written by students on linkr

What are some of the advantages of linkr over your prior platform?

linkr is a “networked learning” platform. It lets students easily find content, people, and classes from around the linkr community to engage with. linkr is very supportive of team-teaching and collaborative-teaching, the standard use case in NewsActivist, but linkr invites “networked teaching”. This approach can benefit all classes that are involved in blended learning and active learning models and teachers aren’t expected to have a collaborative teaching partner to use linkr.

For linkr, the content control features and filters are at the forefront of what we did. The users have much more control over who sees posted content and comment management filters. This is interesting, since teachers can set their comments on student works to ‘private,’ which makes any feedback, or even grading in comments a possibility, since only the student will see these entries.

The look and feel of the platform are greatly improved. It is much easier to use, and the registration process is much more streamlined. The platform is also much faster than its predecessor.

The platform also the ability to private message users by clicking on their name (author for posted content).

A view of Integrated messaging in linkr

We sought out user feedback with our early prototype of the site, calling on 15 NewsActivist users to comment. We specifically sought out users who would be enthusiastic for integrating a new technology. So far the feedback has been very enthusiastic.

Can you speak about your decision to seek out partners and monetize aspects of the platform?

I want to focus on pedagogy, not on user experience (UX). I’m not really a design person. To respond to the needs of the NewsActivist community, I was getting help to fill in the gaps in my technical capabilities. linkr uses a cutting edge technology stack, and developing it is expensive. I sought out some partners that had business experience, digital experience and programming experience (partners Gregory Mattei, Antoine Ricquebourg and Pierre Olivier-Bonin, respectively). I feel like the gaps are being filled in, but it is still an enormous load to shoulder, but at least I can share the load now.

An example of sharing resources with the class in linkr.

With regards to the monetization, everything is completely free for now. The spirit of the linkr project is to make it accessible and affordable, and ensure that the financial aspects never become restrictive. We need to keep everything affordable, since the whole point of linkr will be lost if we can only host educational institutions from the most wealthy nations.

We are looking at a ‘freemium’ model where some of the enhanced features will be monetized to allow us to keep the project sustainable and allow us to develop new functionality. We’re looking at other ways to find revenue, and recently joined EDTEQ, a Montreal-based association of education technology companies that provides networking opportunities and promotes the work of their member organizations. For now, our focus with linkr is to grow, make it easy to use and stable.

What features do you hope to add to linkr in the future?

We are hoping to integrate video chats as soon as possible. We are also looking at providing Android and iOS app versions of linkr given that students are using their smartphones more and more to access content on the Internet. We may release a simple version of the linkr app in the Google Play store, but we are also wondering if we should wait until we have more features built into the new platform.

This area of linkr allows you to easily find teaching partners.

For teachers and students, we want to add an assignment feature that can make any posted content into an assignment.  We also think that rubrics could be integrated to help greatly facilitate marking on linkr. There will also be some emphasis placed on providing learning analytics as part of the backend work on linkr.

What are you hopes for linkr for the next year?

We would love to find some distance education programs during the summer that could benefit from what linkr is right now. By August, we would like the largest number of new users possible. There were 14 countries using NewsActivist, and we would love to see 25 nations represented in the near future. This greater participation would lead to an even more meaningful experience for teachers and students, with more people having access to effective learning.

We would also like to see more teachers and learners writing about the utility of the linkr platform. We are looking forward to see how the new features, community and network that we are offering will benefit the users, by broadening viewpoints and making learning more dynamic.

It goes without saying that we want there to be as many people getting their voices out there as possible!

Best wishes to Gabriel Flacks for this new chapter in his on-going story of supporting engaged teaching and learning!

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