We were asked to sort out a means of having members of the Learning Services team introduce themselves to each other in a digital way on the first day back to school. The workflow created may be helpful for those of you looking for a digital way for your students to tell you a bit about themselves, so I thought I would share it here.
The first step in the process is a template project in Explain Everything. The newest version of Explain Everything allows users with a subscription to add Placeholders (HWDSB teachers can get a subscription by reaching out to their Digital Integration Program Consultant). These blocks help to guide the user in contributing to your template in specific ways. You’ll notice in my template I’ve asked for my audience to upload a picture of themselves, and then add their job title, and the details of their portfolio. This could easily be tweaked to include information like interests, strengths and weaknesses, or information students would like you to know about.
In my case, I know that the adults contributing will be able to enter text in the requisite boxes; but the beauty of Explain Everything is the ability for students to record audio or video instead of text if they struggle to formulate ideas in text. The modality they use to contribute to the project will determine how they may need to get it back to you. I’m collecting my responses as an image submitted to Google Forms. Google Forms now has an Upload File functionality which will allow the audience to save their finalized work from Explain Everything as an image, and then submit it to a Google Form as an image. If your students are using rich media to share, you may be better off getting them to Airdrop the file to you, so you can open it up in Explain Everything. You could also use an Assignments Dropbox in a Learning Management System (like The HWDSB HUB), or you could share the .explain file as a Google Classroom assignment.
I’ve taken this one step further and am using a Google Forms add-on called Forms Publisher to take the image from the Forms submission, to create a Google Doc from each submission. Because I’m collecting everyone’s name in the Google Form, I can use the <<Name>> token from Forms Publisher as the name of the document. This will create a folder in my Google Drive, with a separate document about each individual who submits an entry to the form. Each document will use the Name field from the Form as the document name.
If I could find a script to take the contents of a Google Drive folder and merge all the documents in the folder together, I could create one document with all of the entries. That one document could use the Table of Contents functionality to create hyperlinked table to each user profile. That might be too many steps for something that should be a simple process.
Regardless, finding a means for your students to introduce themselves to you on the first day can be a great way for you to learn a bit more about your students (the picture can help you with names), while allowing them the chance to share something with you that they may not otherwise find an opportunity to share.
Edit. After sharing this last night I stumbled upon this tweet from @gcouros and thought I would create an additional template using these prompt questions.
When we first set out to build the Commons, it was with the inspiration of other projects like the CUNY Academic Commons, and the Domain of One’s Own project headed up by Jim Groom among others, which at the time was a small project happening at Mary Washington University. The ideals behind that project has emerged across a number of different institutions, and can now boast their own conference. You can see some of the tweets below, to get a flavour for the event:
Standing on the shoulders of those giants, we initially adopted a policy in which all students would be provisioned only one blog. That site would play host to their academic output across multiple grades, and act as a digital portfolio of their time at HWDSB. Because WordPress, the idea was that students could also export that content upon graduating, and host it elsewhere. Part of the plan — that due to funding constraints never came to light — was the idea that each student, once in Secondary school, would be provisioned their own domain, which we could then use to embark on conversations about ownership, authorship, internet freedoms, and democratized publishing.
As an elementary teacher, having only one blog worked in my classroom, and in the classrooms of many of my colleagues. Many of our subjects are taught in interdisciplinary ways, and so the idea of having a separate Math blog, and English blog, and Social Studies blog, was an acceptable limitation. It may also have been that those looking to use blogs in the classroom were rare, and students weren’t being asked by too many others to spin up a separate site. What we are finding now is that this idea doesn’t scale well, perhaps particularly in Secondary, where students are being tasked with creating a blog for French, then another site for Media Studies, and another site for Business Studies.
One would think that seeing this explosion of additional blog requests would be a source of joy, and yet instead I’m plagued with the anxiety that the vision of one student:one blog is now crumbling.
The sites these students are creating for these classes are brilliant. The French blogs are fully translated, immersing the reader in another language. Those looking to complete the transformation can even switch the language on their site to French, to translate the blog dashboard as well as the front end.
There are Business blogs that provide opportunities for students to Explore WordPress as a site builder for fictitious companies, and Media Arts sites where students are creating digital photography portfolios.
We can’t stifle that. We need to get out of the way and allow the Commons to support that work; but building a website is a different idea than owning a small corner of the internet (one that we will fund for you while you are a student at HWDSB, without fear of advertising, or data mining, or changing terms of service). Is there still room for the initial vision? If we open up the floodgates to allow students to request multiple blogs, how do we eliminate having thousands of sites with only one or two posts, when categories in a menu could have been a strategy to centralize those posts in one diverse portfolio? How do we differentiate between website creation and the larger ideals of the #DoOO project? How do we preserve the dream, while continuing to be relevant to emerging needs?
So many of the things we run as clubs make great classroom activities. How do we take the opportunities out of clubs, and find ways to integrate them deeply into classroom practice?
I was supporting a school recently on launching a school newspaper club. What might that look like as a classroom activity? I’m not referring to a newspaper unit, but a year-long occupation running a newspaper. How much of the curriculum could be packed into long-form pieces about Science and Social Studies. Could students authentically report about current events both in their community and in the school? Does the guise of reporting allow for more opportunities to reach out to external experts for information and comment? Do inquiry projects transform themselves into investigative reports? In an age of information overload, does adding student voice loudly to the zeitgeist allow for reflection and critical thinking about media, and bias, and satire, and fake news, and the ways in which the online world allows us to shape stories (there are elements of digital citizenship in here too, as we “report” on our own lives through social media accounts).
This video details some one of the technical ways you might pull that off here at HWDSB, using the Commons and the Editflow plugin.
If not a newspaper, perhaps a Podcast, reporting on the news of the week, or examining a new topic. If you aren’t tuning into Podcasts, check out the CBC’s Podcast Playlist show to get an idea of the exciting stories coming out of the genre.
The Code Clubs running around the school board are another example of work we are already seeing transition into the classroom. What solutions to issues could students create through technology? The partnership with the IEC (Hamilton Code Clubs) provisions external experts in our clubs in ways that shift the classroom locus of control from seeing the teacher as an expert, to seeing the teacher as a co-learner. The emergence of the new Workflow app on iOS provides opportunities for students to streamline tasks, and begin working towards creating apps.
Could they help to develop websites for external, local organizations (using tools like WordPress, Hugo, or Jekyll) . Again, thinking not in terms of Units of study, but occupations that students practice within the classroom. How do we ensure that the work they do is relevant, and has an impact outside of the school? (There is some amazing work coming out of @MrCoxall’s class in Ottawa around app development for an authentic audience. You can read more about that here.)
These clubs are launched because we know they attend to the curiosity and interest of our students. They are engaging in ways that we want our classrooms to be. If we ran our classrooms more like we ran clubs at school, what changes?
Over the past few weeks, Andrew Kelly and I have been working together on Version 2.0 3.0 of a new Open Educational Resources Repository on the Commons. This continuing work dates back to 2015, when the 21CL team here @HWDSB began planning the Professional Development sessions for a roll-out of iPad kits for Grade 4 and 5 classrooms.
Up until that point, our Professional Development around the Explain Everything app was based around screencasting. As Doug Peterson rightly points out in a post he wrote this week, that functionality isn’t new. For this roll out, Tim Kivell ran a breakout session on “Templates in Explain Everything“. At the time we geared this session towards the more advanced user (now we introduce the functionality right away, as a great entry-point for the effective use of this app).
In order to share examples, we began hosting a few of the templates we had made on the blog we were using to help organize the day. After the PD sessions were over, we left the site up and continued to promote the space as a repository for teachers to find and submit templates for use in the classroom. That site, located at tle.commons.hwdsb.on.ca, was used for subsequent PD sessions, and still stands as an archive of the work; but as the template repository grew, we realized it should really be housed under its own URL: Enter explain.commons.hwdsb.on.ca.
We can consider this Version 2.0 of the repository. We decided to redirect users from the old TLE site to this new repo. Around the same time, Andrew Kelly and Theresa Price were hired on to help support the effective integration of technology in our self-contained Special Education classrooms. Templates in Explain Everything revealed themselves to be a fantastic means of differentiating both the task and the modality students might use to respond and share their learning. This focus on some of our most at risk learners, revealed the Universal Design for Learning opportunity these templates provided. We need to use these with everyone.
This became the message all of 21CL began to share out in classrooms, and in within the broader Edtech community. Karen Wilson, Jeff Allison, Sonya Clarke, and the rest of the previously mentioned team have delivered breakout sessions, both in schools and at larger regional conferences, on the power of these templates to disrupt traditional learning structures. The amplificaton of that message is definitely working: these templates permeated a number of different math sessions during this year’s Grade 6 TLE PD sessions led by the Instructional Coach team.
Although there were a number of different sites around the web that hosted templates like this (One of the earliest examples being Explaining Understanding), none of them made locating the templates very simple. Theresa and Andrew started reaching out to the authors of these sites, asking if we could host their templates on our new repository. Many were happy to oblige: we provide “props” to those creators within the repository metadata. The collection quickly grew to over 100 different templates, all sorted by subject area.
When Theresa went back to the classroom (😢), Andy Boldt picked up where she had left off, continuing the work in our Special Classes, and has created a number of amazing templates. We found that we could create a similar experience using the Book Creator app: when books are saved in the ePub format, they can be pulled back into Book Creator and students can continue working on them. This resulted in a brief secondary repository and submission system, but also triggered a “why are we focusing on the tool” conversation. At the rate we were going, we would soon have multiple different repositories for whichever new app came along offering similar promise. For example: I’ve been trying to find an entry-point to launch H5P as a tool for use in our school board (Aside: HWDSB Commons users can find the plugin and activate it on their site if that link looks intriguing), and those .h5p files are going to need a home once teachers start to build them.
A popular discussion topic within the team is: VLE or Commons? VLE stand for Virtual Learning Environment — in HWDSB we call it the HUB (you might know it as D2L, or Brightspace , but let’s not complicate things any further than we have to). The VLE already has a Curriculum repository, wouldn’t that make for a more appropriate venue to house this work? Invariably when we opt for the Commons, it’s because we want to share our work more broadly with our community, and with other colleagues around the province (and the world). The VLE certainly has the functionality to house resources, but the repository is private, and the permissions are traditionally hierarchical: only teachers can contribute to the resource share in the VLE.
That last point is incredibly important, and it came to fruition last week with our first student submission to the OER repository. That simple act of approving a student submission to our OER repository revealed the promise a space like this presents. When we say we want students to lead their own learning, and we honour “Curiosity, Creativity, and Possibility“, we need to ensure that our digital tools allow for that mandate to flourish. I’ve blogged in the past about the rich set of tools we offer here at HWDSB,
It connects all our other tools together via Single Sign On
It provisions access to a variety of powerful resources built by HWDSB teachers, and at the Provincial level by curriculum writing teams
Resources like those hosted on our OER site, can be easily shared within a course in the VLE
but in this case, the Commons was the right choice to host this content. As a Publicly funded institution, we need to ensure that our innovations can be shared and replicated — not only for students in Hamilton — but for students across Ontario and beyond. Sharing our work openly achieves that, whether through blogging, through Twitter, or through openly accessible resources like our new OER site. We still have a lot of work to do: we’ve added a space for tags, and the ability to categorize by Grade, so we need to swing back and add those additional search elements to the existing artifacts.
A big thank you to the teachers (and now students) who have embraced this site not just as a resource repository, but as a space where they are sharing and publishing their content for others. We are just scratching the surface of what’s possible with this space.
I’ve noticed the topic of WordPress in Education recently in my Twitter feed. @Jeffr0 over on WP Tavern was recently polling his followers for info on the type of CMS (Content Management Systems) used by schools, along with the cost to run such platforms. Here at Hamilton Wentworth District School Board, we are big WordPress users. Our main website is a WordPress site (http://www.hwdsb.on.ca). We run over 100 individual school websites on a WordPress Multisite Network, and back in May of 2011, we launched the HWDSB Commons: a second Multisite Network which now hosts over 8000 blogs for over 30 000 users.
There is a saying in the WordPress community, that WordPress is Free as in Freedom, not Free as in Beer. Beer may not the best example given the audience that may stumble upon this post in the feed (oh Puritan Canadian, you worry too much); free as is Costco samples would work as well, although it won’t look as good on a T Shirt). I don’t think I understood that concept when we first began this journey, because when you are first starting out, beyond the hosting fee, we found everything we needed in the free Plugin Repository hosted on WordPress.org. (In this instance I suppose I saw my own time dedicated to the project as a free resource.)
Think of plugins like “Apps for your Blog”. Plugins add additional functionality to your site. We use a number of different plugins to bend the Commons to meet our needs (more on that later, or by exploring the “plugins” tag on this site. Everything from BuddyPress to connect all our sites together in a Social Learning Network, to plugins that connect to our SAML infrastructure to enable Single Sign on between the Commons, our Brightspace LMS, and our Google Apps for Education instance. When you are first starting out, those free plugins are probably all you need.
I don’t want to paint a rose-coloured picture that WordPress is free though (in the beer/Costco-sample sense). I actually get quite perturbed when someone refuses to pay for a $25 dollar solution to a problem they are having with their blog, to a small web dev agency spending their time creating thoughtful solutions. We pay for premium plugins. We pay for premium themes. We pay a developer who helps us to build new functionality. The biggest difference that the WordPress in Education community provides, is that others are also paying developers to build out functionality, and the vast majority of those institutions share the things they build for free.
Think about the private CMS companies working in Education today. Most of them will have a catalogue of premium enhancements you can purchase. Sometimes, when they don’t have what you need, they will develop something for you (at an cost, and then an additional maintenance cost). Once that enhancement has been built for you, it gets added to their catalogue, and each additional client pays (again) for that same, previously developed functionality to be turned on. This incremental payment system leads to all of the school boards overpaying for functionality that already exists.
In the WordPress ecosystem we operate in, I pay for functionality to be developed, and I share it openly on platforms like the WordPress plugin repository, or on sites like Github. The money you would have spent to enable the previously developed functionality, you can now spend on something else, something that I might benefit from. Think about how much more responsible this model is, particularly when we are talking about spending public money.
We are all contributing; and the community benefits from those contributions; and our money — and the functionality of our platforms — improves exponentially faster than if we were all spending our money paying the private company over and over again for code that has already been paid for by previous customers.
This is the true benefit. As an example: we built an integration between Google Apps and WordPress, and everyone else can use it for free. The money you save by not having to pay for the same add on, can be used to build something new; something that I might need too.
Currently that community is comprised of mostly post-secondary institutions, but a couple of my K12 colleagues have started asking questions about how they might replicate what we have built at HWDSB.
This (long winded) post is an attempt to help them stand on our shoulders.
What do you need to get started?
If your school board doesn’t have staff who understand Linux, or look at you sideways when you say NGINX or Apache, I would strongly suggest paying a hosting company to host your site for you. We started out hosting internally, but as we grew, we realized that there were hosting companies out there who have a dedicated team working to ensure that the server is optimized for the kind of traffic you are going to experience. We struggled for the first few years with the site going down. It always happened on the weekend. @avivaloca would DM me, and I would sheepishly hope that the technician (who wasn’t paid to work weekends) would respond to my panicked text messages, and restart the server. Save yourself that heartache and host with a professional hosting company. Not everyone in the organization will think that your site being down is as much of an emergency as you do. I nodded my head in agreement when the Mark Zuckerberg character in the movie The Social Network stated that Facebook could never go down. That’s the kind of passion I felt about the Commons, and we are now in a place were a 500 error is very rare occurrence.
You want control of the plugin infrastructure. Although tools like CampusPress offer a limited number of plugins to enhance your experience, the collaboration I am hoping we can build towards requires you to have full control of the plugin and theme directories on your site. Otherwise you’ll still be looking on with jealous stares at what we can accomplish with our independently managed WordPress install.
Storage is going to be your biggest headache. We built that Google Apps integration to allows users to host their content on Google, and embed it on their blog. We also built an integration with Vimeo Pro that let’s us host video on their servers for cheap, without our videos ever appearing within the vimeo.com directory. That helps, but the local media library is hard to beat when creating photo galleries. You can limit the size of each site on a multisite instance so users need to manage their content. We host our content on the Amazon S3 cloud, which is the cheapest way we have found to allow users to archive work from past years without having to worry too much about space. You won’t need this right away, but eventually your users will start asking for more room. We use Tarsnap to back all that up. We haven’t had an incident yet, but you should have a contingency plan if your site gets hacked.
We use Let’s Encrypt to secure all our sites with SSL certificates. It’s free, but you need to find a host who supports provisioning the certificates. This isn’t essential, but in some of our more creative uses of the site, we have embedded a blog within a course in Brightspace, and for that, you need https.
We use a Moderation plugin to help moderate inappropriate content on the site. Part of the mandate is to create a gradual on-ramp for young users to experience social networking, in a space we have full control over. When a post or comment is flagged, the 21CL team is notified, along with the owner of the blog, and the author of the post. These are key teachable moments, and are much easier to deal with than if the same issue cropped up on a platform we have less admin control over (like FB or Instagram).
We moderate the creation of blogs too. Teachers can create multiple sites, but with students we try to limit them to one site. This helps keep the blogging directory free from sites with only one or two posts, with the eventual hope that we will be able to help students procure their own domain in high school, and understand the value of owning their digital footprint.
For sites where we want to foster collaboration across the school board, we have created a plugin that allows students to request membership to a site. This is one of the key differences between how we use our LMS, and how we use the Commons. The LMS tends to be linked to a specific class/course. The Commons opens up the opportunity to collaborate across the hall with other classrooms, between schools within the school board, or around the world with external community partners, or other international contacts.
We have an integration with Brightspace that syncs the membership of a course to a role on a blog. This is great if a class wants to create a group blog to collaborate with their classmates. Think of it like the discussion forum is the rehearsal space, and the blog is the public performance space.
We have set up a site for all of our secondary schools, and a number of our elementary schools, to create an announcements slide show functionality, that is embedded in school websites, and displayed in the hallways of schools, and within classrooms. That Brightspace sync makes sure teachers all have the correct permissions to be able to add announcements from anywhere.
We host LOTS of classroom blogs. These sites create a window into the learning happening in the classroom, and I’m sure contribute to richer “what did you do at school today” conversations around the dinner table.
Some things we don’t do too much of yet: @therealmrkelly and I have been talking about podcasting lately. I noticed local Journalist Joey Coleman tweeting recently about the Podlove plugin that powers his podcast and need to explore that further.
On the topic of journalism, every school should have a student newspaper, and the Editflow plugin is installed and ready to be activated on any school site looking to explore this medium.
We solve a lot of problems with WordPress. We share all our solutions with the broader WordPress community. Maybe you should consider joining us.
“But there is another reason why people abhor the idea of children learning what they want to learn when they want to learn it. They won’t all learn the same things!”
“The people who are horrified by (this idea) have not accepted the very elementary psychological fact that people (all people, of every age) remember the things that are important to them — the things they need to know — and forget the rest.”
Will Richardson / Freedom to Learn
The 21CL team at HWDSB recently completed 18 separate Professional Development sessions for Grade Nine teachers across the board. Everything else took a back seat to these sessions, and my inbox is still glaring at me like an unwalked dog. “Done” is the wrong word though. We’ve only just started on this learning journey.
We built the days to offer choice. We offered 6-10 different sessions (depending on the department) from which the participants could select three they felt would be particularly helpful in the immediate future. Our mandate to attendees was to find one thing they could take back and use, sometimes referred to as your “next best learning move” (Steven Katz and Lisa Ain Dack).
I strongly believe in the concept of offering choice in PD. I suppose that it may not always be possible, but every time I’m involved in PD that prescribes the content — or forces participants to attend sessions that won’t be immediately beneficial — something feels off. The quote from Will Richardson above — although stated in the context of classrooms and children — highlights this pointedly, wherein we acknowledge that learning we can’t immediately apply, or that doesn’t seem immediately useful, is quickly forgotten.
I wonder what PD would look like if this became the backbone of all planning: an acknowledgement that you can’t possibly force everyone to learn all the same things at the same time, so planning PD in which one linear agenda reigns is inherently foolish. What does professional learning look like where everyone gets what they need to move forward. What changes when we stop teaching content, and start teaching people?
There were moments of anxiety; moments of passionate conversation about the vision, and the implementation of that vision in schools.
Some participants felt they had not been properly prepared for the 1:1 project now unfolding in their Grade 9 classrooms. I think this stems from a desire to be perfect out of the gate (we are our own worst critics). To this end, we hope it is clearly understood that “the learning is the work” (Fullan). Any prior training specifically addressing a 1:1 classroom full of students connected to outside expertise, able to collaborate asynchronously, and able to create authentically, without the laboratory environment of your classroom available to immediately test that new learning with students, would most likely not be retained. Now that you have the proper tools, you can begin to implement their effective usage within your classroom.
There were some instances where teachers indicated that the students didn’t want to use technology within the classroom. I think there are a few different things potentially going on here.
Depending on their experience in school, by Grade Nine we’ve indoctrinated students in the pencil and paper way of doing things. Many have learned how to play the “game of school”. The shift in responsibility when the technology in the classroom is effectively used to allow students to “lead their own learning” is new, is challenging. Real learning happens outside of our comfort zone. It shouldn’t surprise us when students — who have been focused on content, and now suddenly find themselves being asked to perform richer tasks — express some discomfort. Fullan talks about this shift, and the additional expectations placed on students, in A Rich Seam:
Teaching shifts from focusing on covering all required content to focusing on the learning process, developing students’ ability to lead their own learning and to do things with their learning. Teachers are partners with students in deep learning tasks characterised by exploration, connectedness and broader, real-world purposes. (See Page 7)
As students become more engaged in the learning, this discomfort should abate. We are changing the “game”, we need to give them (and ourselves) time to learn the new rules.
I think backlash may also exist when students’ previous experiences use technology in trivial ways. The pedagogical usefulness of listening to a teacher lecture while copying notes off the blackboard would be made only more arduous if that note had to be taken on the small keyboard of an iPad Mini. Give me a pencil and a piece of paper for that task (if the practice can’t be abolished altogether).
Blended learning is a hybrid of the best facets of face-to-face learning, and elearning. We need to understand when technology is the best tool for the job; but then when it begins to feel like we are trying to hammer a screw into the wall with a wrench, we should put that technology aside and find better tools.
That should translate into chart paper and post-it notes when that’s the best method of sharing; but then use the iPad to capture those ideas to be posted to a blog where the conversation can continue long after the post-it adhesive has relinquished its hold
Talk to each other; but then leverage the internet to back up those discussions with external sources
Solve math problems on whiteboards; but then capture the process through a screencasting app like Explain Everything
Don’t waste time graphing on paper when the iPad can do that for you, so you can move beyond rulers and protractors to the richer task of analyzing the data within that graph
Marc Prensky talks about the importance of using technology not to do old things in new ways, but to do new things. The intent of putting an iPad into every students’ hands isn’t that they should be using them 100% of the time. It’s a move to combat the prior model in which technology wasn’t at the point of learning, it was stored in a separate lab down the hall you could visit once a week. In a connected world, this should be seen as the assinine equivalent of sharing a set of 30 pencils with 500 students.
There were questions about the different tools we have available within the board. Some feel we have too many different choices. I can’t argue with that other that to say that eventually all the tools might come in handy. To push the toolbox metaphor a bit: you may not yet need half the tools in the toolkit, but as you become a more proficient, each one does meet a particular need. Some of us only need a few screwdrivers right now, but eventually you’ll want to perform a task that requires more power.
Hopefully school teams found an opportunity to meet back at their schools to consolidate the learning from the sessions. During the Phys. Ed. PD, Sandra Holmes and Sonia Tiller from Henderson shared the importance of connecting with a colleague who you can collaborate and learn with. Someone who you can fail with (things won’t always go perfectly.) Eric Lootsma shared this graphic regarding what success really looks like during his presentation at the Geography sessions. I think it’s fitting.
There were great, challenging conversations throughout. These days have exemplified the importance of creating opportunities for departments to share their practice and collaborate together.
We hope that the sessions were useful. We hope that the participants were able to take something from the sessions back to their classrooms and try something new with students. Thank you to all the participants, the presenters, and to the administrators who organized coverage so that Grade 9 teaching staff could attend. We learn about how to deliver effective PD from your feedback, the struggles you share, and the victories you celebrate.