Some Thoughts On Professional Development (upon rolling out iPads to Grade 9 students)

“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.tooltime 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, success-sketchSandra 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.

 

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.

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.

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.

The Commons Experiment

Picture of the Commons in 2011

5 years ago, around this time of the year, we sat in the Memorial Building in Ancaster, feeling like perhaps it was too late, and that maybe we should wait to launch until Semester Two. What would become the Commons had just been brought to life on a small server. Most of the summer was spent to ensure we would be ready for September, knowing that if we lost a Semester, we would loose the year.

Today, we accepted our 30 000 user into that “little” blogging community, where we provide a stage for students to publish their work; a window into the classroom so that parents can peer inside; a space for professional dialogue. We provide a means of connecting learners across the board with other learners, with colleagues and parents, and with expertise out in our community.

And somehow through all of that, my avatar looks younger ;).

Here’s to five more years of sharing.