mirtone

Disrupting Morning Announcements

I’ve been working on and off for a little while in the off hours on re-configuring how announcements are delivered at schools. We currently have an incredibly convoluted process that Paul Hatala and I conjured up when we were building the secondary school landing pages in the HUB (our LMS). Looking at it now, it seems like perhaps we were trying to see how many different pipes we could connect together before reaching our destination.

2016-09-19_21-17-13Version One

  1. Teachers submit an announcement through a Google Form
  2. That Google Form feeds a Spreadsheet
  3. The Spreadsheet is running a Google Script add-on called FormEmailer
  4. FormEmailer sends an email to a secret email address set up on a WordPress blog running Jetpack
  5. Jetpack has Post By Email enabled, and takes the #tokens# from FormEmailer, and converts them to a blog post
  6. The RSS feed from those blog posts feed widgets in the HUB created on http://feed.mikle.com/

Version Two

So Reliable!
So Reliable!
  1. All steps from Version one except the widgets from step six
  2. When posts arrive at the blog, they are converted to a reveal.js Slide using this plugin and a  custom bit of code to change the post type from post to slide
  3. While that is happening, back on the Google Form, it was determined that pulling announcements from the spreadsheet was difficult, so another Google Addon, DocAppender, came to the rescue, to make announcements more legible for reading off the PA
  4. An IFTTT.com recipe is sending each Slide as a Tweet in a few instances
  5. Someone needs to be deleting the slides once the announcement is no longer applicable

And then sometimes it breaks. We never know which cog in the gears is the offender, so fixing it is always an adventure.

Enter Version Three

  1. It’s a blog on the Commons.

That’s it. One piece of software (with multiple custom bits built into the theme). So when it breaks, it’s easy to fix, and when a school wants to start digitizing their announcements, we don’t have to pull out the two pages of documentation created to build version one and two.

It still uses those beautiful reveal.js slides from version two, which can be embedded in different places (like the HUB, and school homepages, or on websites like this). It looks great on monitors hanging in hallways, and is responsive, so it looks nice on your phone too.

 

Panic Inc. has created an app called Statusboard, img_0116that provides a widgetized interface for creating displays. This one includes a feed from an Outlook calendar with the rotary days on it, a feed of Tweets from a Twitter Account, a Countdown widget, the Announcements Slideshow, the Weather, and the Time. You can develop your own widgets for the board, so students could expand on the functionality I’m just scratching the surface on here:

 

I’ve created an instruction manual that lives on the site, along with a couple of videos to explain how it all works. Schools interested in adopting this new system can reach out to the 21CL team for assistance:

 

 

Why Go To All That Trouble?

One of the new strategic directions at the school board this year is about communication. This method of announcement delivery takes what was once private on the PA system in the school and presents it to the parent community. It also makes it available to students who couldn’t-hear/weren’t-listening/missed-something/were-absent while the announcements were being presented. It gives caregivers an opportunity to help get students involved in their school (Hey, you should go out for that play/team/club/thing).

Many of our schools can now boast having a digital projector in every room. Phase two of the master plan is to eliminate the PA system announcements all together. Why not display and read the announcements in your classroom at a time when students are ready to consume them, rather than when they are still struggling in the hall with snowpants or locker combos. What could an English class do with the concept of being communication managers for their school? What makes a good slide? A good Tweet? What other multi-media could we use to disrupt announcements (Props to SJAM-TV on forging a path here). There are companies who pay for social media managers to help support their digital footprint. What role could our students play in this at a school level?

We want students to do real things, and real things are necessary to help a school run. This is a small example with what I believe has a lot of potential. I look forward to seeing where people can take it.

2016-09-11_21-55-59

I need help, STAT!

A couple of years ago, we started thinking about the idea of a student run tech team. It’s not something we can take credit for coming up with. There are numerous examples on the internet, with some secondary institutions even offering a course for credit. Check this link as well for more details:

Student Tech Teams 101: A Toolkit for Educators

I think there is great value in empowering the students at your school to help others and to create a method to offer their assistance in a more “official” capacity.

A couple years ago, under the guidance of Maria Marino at Adelaide Hoodless, we created the Student Technology Assistance Team, or STAT team. Leveraging a ticketing system built within the Commons, we created a means for teachers and students to connect with the team for support. You can check out the archive of this project at this site: https://stat006.commons.hwdsb.on.ca/

The number references the school number, an internal reference we use at HWDSB. Signed in users could create tickets, and then the team could take on tasks, assigning tickets to themselves, and finding opportunities to help others around the school. The team met once a week to hone their own technology skills, to ask questions of each other, and to help answer tough questions.

The idea here is not to replace the Instructional and Information Technology Technician assigned to the school, so the teacher running this extra-curricular opportunity needs to understand what tickets are better left to the professionals, and what tickets make sense for students to assist with. Tickets requiring a technician need to be redirected appropriately.

The tasks students ended up helping with included assisting with Google Drive, building out websites on the Commons, helping younger students to get logged into web tools, understanding how an app or website works, or explaining the differences between something like Airplay and Airdrop. Here’s the site from the example above. You can see from the blog posts the types of support that you could offer: https://bhshelpdesk.com/

I would love to set up more of these around the system this year. If you are interested in exploring this, please reach out in the comments here, via Twitter, or through board email.

Readers who are not from HWDSB will need a WordPress installation and this theme to spin up something similar.

cropped-cropped-hwdsbtv-banner

Goodbye TV.HWDSB, Hello HWDSB.TV (or, third time is a charm)

I’m not sure how many people — outside of the 21CL team — are privy to the ongoing video platform saga here at HWDSB. Back in 2013 we recognized the need for a centralized video platform within the board. I think we are one of the few K12 school boards in Ontario with such a platform. As a medium, we found that video was a more effective way to assist teachers than the practice of authoring long screen-shot laden documents. We also recognized deficiencies in the way that Desire2Learn handled video, offloading the processing of video to the browser, and browser add-ons, rather than providing server-side transcoding. What this meant in practice was that videos that would play on a laptop wouldn’t play on an iPad because of missing browser plugins. (Nerdy aside: WordPress solves this by including Mediaelement.js as part of their codebase.)

At the time there was really only one video platform integrated into D2L, a service called Kaltura. On the surface this looked like a perfect fit. They offered both a Software as a Service (SAAS) package, along with what looked to be a vibrant open source community that might allow us to host the service on our own servers in the future. There was a plugin that worked to add video comments on a blog that looked like it might give us voicethread-like abilities on our blogs (this didn’t ever work in a Multisite environment in the way we envisioned, and we were never able to turn it on: I still think video comments would be a cool idea). Within the year we were on the hunt for a new platform. The strikes against them:

  • They were incredibly expensive
  • They weren’t interested in fixing their WordPress Plugin
  • The connection to our Active Directory broke in May, and wasn’t fixed until well into June, leaving students without access to video review materials necessary for exams
  • Their admin platform was incredibly cumbersome, and required their help desk every time we attempted to make changes

So over the Summer of 2014, we migrated over to Mediacore, a small Canadian (yea!) company that seemed to cover most of our needs. For the next year, we worked along with this company as they grew and adapted to the needs of education. They were incredibly responsive to our requirements, and their development roadmap echoed many of our needs. Then in October of 2015 we received word that they had been acquired by a company called Workday, and would be shutting down their education sector services.

That was a huge punch to the gut.

We started looking at other video providers, but having been stung twice, the prospect of adopting another third party video platform, that may also fold, or change, or otherwise lead to triggering what seemed to be suddenly becoming a cycle of migration, was not something we took lightly. Couple that with the fact that the video platform market is saturated with small companies we had never heard of, all vying for edu-dollars, all possibly on the brink of acquisition, made the hunt for a new home a pretty depressing activity. The falling state of the Canadian dollar also meant that the expensive edu-video platform market (geared more towards post secondary pockets) was starting to look like it might be beyond our budgetary reach.

The power of the video platform is in its ability to feature published content from around the board, fostering collaboration, creating windows into classroom practice, and sharing in a safe, advertisment-free/data-mining-free environment. We weren’t ready to abandon that vision.

We started thinking seriously about just hosting everything in Google Drive, but that would mean losing the centralized video repository. It would mean going back to the siloed collections, embedded in various other spaces, or merely distributed via email, requiring manual intervention every time someone was searching for something. The power of the video platform is in its ability to feature published content from around the board, fostering collaboration, creating windows into classroom practice, and sharing in a safe, advertisement-free/data-mining-free environment. We weren’t ready to abandon that vision.

We also had a difficult time finding platforms that met the needs of a student-centred K-12 program. Most platforms seemed to allow for a select group of administrators to upload content, while students merely view and consume. Others were focused on lecture capture, a style of teaching we wouldn’t want to promote within our inquiry-based classrooms. We needed a space where students could author their own content, and where related videos were other HWDSB creations. We needed a place that empowered students to be publishers, while allowing us to administrate and flag things that are perhaps inappropriate, in a safe space to learn about how and what to share online. We needed a space that integrated with our existing platforms: the Commons and the HUB.

So we decided to build out own platform (such a small sentence: such a huge undertaking). And for the rest of the year, started working with our developer-extraordinaire Ray Hoh on what it might look like.

11 months, 4 Github Repositories, 11260 lines of code, 64 Github Issues created (hundreds of posts within these issues), and 164 code commits later, we migrated 13 000+ videos from Mediacore over to our own video platform. Eventually we hope to open source most of this code so others can take advantage of this epic undertaking.

Building our own platform meets all of our requirements, and guarantees that we won’t have to move again due to poor customer service, corporate takeover, changing RFPs or any other number of issues that we risk when using commercial tools that we don’t own. This has been the basis behind the HWDSB Commons, and we have used those lessons to complete this project. Once we open source the project, I’ll get into more of the detail about how it all works, but basically we are leveraging Vimeo as the video streaming service in the backend (we don’t expect them to go anywhere anytime soon, so you can trust we won’t have to migrate again), and WordPress blog on the front-end to house the video contributions. We have developed this so that your videos will never appear on vimeo.com, and our branding and sharing settings will always be the only mechanism available to distribute your video. With Vimeo taking care of the transcoding and performance of our videos though, we can focus on building out new custom features that meet the needs of HWDSB (hosting video on your own server is hard).

We are incredibly excited about this new platform, and hope that you will help us make it a vibrant community of sharing and collaboration. You can find it at HWDSB.TV. We hope you like it. We are incredibly pleased with the results.

SSL Everywhere

Warning; technical details ahead: Over the weekend, the entirety of the Commons was switched over to the HTTPS protocol. This has been in the works for a few months now, and took a few key steps.

We first needed to secure all of the content that you share on your site. We accomplished this by shifting all our media content to be served up using an S3 Offloads plugin developed by a company from Nova Scotia named Delicious Brains. For the most part all 200 000+ media items made the shift over to their new home. You might find you need to add your header back to the top of you blog, or if you manually referenced an image or file in a widget on your sidebar, you may need to grab the URL again now that it’s being served from a different server.

The next step was to procure certificates for all our our custom domains. Most of the sites on the site are covered under a wildcard certificate: *.commons.hwdsb.on.ca, but users who have opted for a custom URL aren’t covered by this certificate. We leveraged an exciting new initiative called Let’s Encrypt to secure sites like mrpuley.ca, suedunlop.ca, adunsiger.com, and mrjarbenne.ca. Although these sites comprise a small subsection of the 7097 sites hosted on the Commons, I’m inspired by the work of the Domain of One’s Own project, and would love to eventually see our work extend out to allow students to being building out their own digital cloud, as referenced in that linked article from Wired Magazine:

“Writing for EDUCAUSE Review in 2009, Gardner Campbell took the argument a step further. In A Personal Cyberinfrastructure he argued that learning to build and operate a personal cloud was a life skill students would need and should be taught”

If you don’t see the green lock at the top of the browser bar, you might have “mixed content”. A picture of a browser bar, with the green link indicating an SSL connection.This is caused by elements on the page that aren’t secured, and are still being delivered via http, and not https. In many cases, you can navigate to the post in question, and just add an “s” to the end of the “http” portion of the URL in the embed code (most sites that offer embedded content are secured by SSL. If you use a service that isn’t secure, reach out to them on Twitter and ask them to secure their embeddable content). Mixed content has been an “issue” within the HUB (Desire2Learn/Brightspace) for a few years now, so users who navigate that space will be aware of the issue. There is a movement to secure the web that we heartily support.

We couldn’t have done this without the help of our web-host and WordPress security specialist @boreal321.

As always, if you run into issues, don’t hesitate to comment below, or reach out to your 21CL Consultant via email.