The Complexity of Choice

I spoke at a school recently where a teacher indicated that the amount of platforms we have available at the board was paralyzing, and that not knowing where to begin, they choose to do nothing instead. I was troubled by this of course. overwhelmed-3Our intent is to provide a rich tool kit to attend to all of the different ways that students can create and collaborate together. Limiting the toolkit seems stifling. Providing choice, and access to a rich variety of platforms that can reasonably be supported by our small team, is something I’m quite proud that we have established. I think that we have made it easier than ever to begin integrating digital tools. Usernames and passwords sync across our platforms, and where they don’t, we leverage a technology called LTI (Learning Tools Inter-operability) to pass credentials from one tool to another. Yes, we have a lot of different tools; but this has always been the case. If you look at the operational side of the board we have different tools for booking supply teachers, for housing IEPs, for completing report cards, for managing our paystubs, and for booking professional development. Although I see a place for all of the different tools we have at our disposal, and can make strong arguments for how all of them fit together in a classroom context (I think we have work to do on staff to staff communication and collaboration, but that’s another post entirely). Sometimes, in order to understand where we are going, we need to understand where we have come from. The following is a brief history of how we came to build out current toolkit.

As a member of the department charged with assisting teachers and students in integrating digital tools and resources into pedagogy, I will admit to having a love for cool digital tools. In the classroom I would scour Google Reader, and shared links on tools like Delicious and Diigo. @dougpete sent out a regular list of web 2.0 tools as the technology contact at GECDSB, and I would analyze the shared links, and introduce the appropriate tools to my class. At the time in HWDSB, we didn’t have the same complement of web-based board provisioned tools (web 2.0 was in its infancy). First Class (FC) allowed students to create blogs and podcasts, and to collaborate in conferences; but the functionality was somewhat limited in comparison to the web tools that were beginning to emerge. Additionally, sharing and commenting required some tweaks to First Class that opened up the directory so that students could see staff email addresses. Funny now to think that this was a concern.

My students would use that FC email address to sign up for tools like Edublogs, Voicethread, Dipity, and Xtranormal. At the time you could also sign up for a commercial Google Account using your board email address (in the same way that you can establish an Apple ID using your own email address, or an icloud.com email address). This was before Google Apps for Education was released; but as soon as it was, we signed up with our domain.

Historical Aside: I believe it was Steven Nagy from Earl Kitchener who initially signed up for the hwdsb.on.ca Google Apps for Education account, but he couldn’t prove ownership of the domain. Somehow I managed to have both a commercial Google Account and an Educational Google Account, both under the same email address, and needed to finalize the sign up process Steven had begun to take back control of my account. With the help of the webmaster at the board office, I became the Google Apps Administrator for HWDSB to solve a personal account issue six years ago. It took us a few more years of adding users manually to that Google domain before we got the user and password sync working, but I think it’s important to understand the legacy of Google Apps at HWDSB — it’s been around a while.

Around the same time, we had students and teachers who wanted to blog. We needed a blogging platform to host student and teacher blogs. We built the Commons. I’ve blogged about this often, so I won’t re-visit it here other than to say that a blogging platform opens the doors to classrooms collaborating across the halls, within the board, and around the world. I am biased towards the Commons because it was born from the way in which I ran my classroom, and when I found myself in a position where I could scale up that model at a system level, I took advantage. I think blogging rocks.

When we needed to replace First Class for a more robust email system, Google Apps and O365 were the only logical choices on the market. Given our Microsoft infrastructure, and the difficulties we had experienced getting Google Apps to sync with our systems initially (along with Google’s lack of fidelity to its many products and a worry that they didn’t have a collaborative platform beyond Google + to replace our conferences) , along with Microsoft’s better track record as an enterprise email system, we adopted Office365 as our email provider. The elements that went into that decision are fodder for another blog post (I’m accruing a list). 21CL was merely one voice at a table of voices ensuring the appropriate choice was made for email and calendaring. I believe that the right choice was made, but given our legacy with Google, selecting that platform would have made things simpler. You can argue both sides of this of course.

At this point, it would have potentially made sense to shut down Google Apps for HWDSB. In selecting an email program, we inherited the collaborative document platform that Office365 offers. But so many users had content in Google Apps; and the ability to synchronously edit a document with others in real time continues to be something Google excels at despite Microsoft’s more recent improvements in this space. Couple that with stronger iOS apps, and a deep integration with Desire2Learn (our elearning/blended learning platform), and Assistive Technology software licenses for Read&Write, and keeping Google Apps available was a logical choice. (Although I can’t imagine turning Google off, this is where our largest struggle lies, because Google works great in the classroom, but the operational side of the organization has adopted OneDrive.)

Around three years ago, eLearning Ontario changed the rules and allowed us to utilized Desire2Learn in face to face learning environments. Prior to that you could only use D2L for distance learning. As a provincial platform, D2L has allowed us to provide access to many different digital tools provided by OSAPAC. If the Commons is the stage on which we share our learning with the world, The HUB (our moniker for D2L) is the private space in which teachers can share resources with their students, and provide access to other tools and resources. It is an incredibly powerful platform, and we use it to provide “spokes” out to all of our other resources and tools.

So we find ourselves here, with choice.

  • The HUB: which syncs usernames to all our other tools (Mindomo, Gizmos, Homework Help, Career Cruising, and the Virtual Library), and provides a digital wing to your classroom from which students can launch out into a variety of other spaces.
  • Google Drive: where students have unlimited storage to house artifacts from their entire tenure at HWDSB. Items they create in Google Drive can be shared in a Discussion Forum in the HUB, or to a Dropbox for assessment purposes, or more broadly using Google Drive’s powerful collaboration functionality.
  • HWDSB Commons: where students can blog together, and maintain an online portfolio of their thinking, and the multimedia artifacts they create, while learning how to use the software that powers 25% of the internet. They can post items from their Google Drive straight to their blog.
  • Outlook Email and Calendar: another industry standard tool to allow students to have a board provisioned email address and calendar.

All these different tools, in the hands of a teacher who understands the value and functionality of each of them, can be used selectively to create powerful learning experiences. This is why we have compiled this toolkit. Is it overwhelming? Definitely. FullSizeRender 2Is the expectation that you understand how to use all these tools? No; but we do hope that when you identify a task you want your students to perform, we will have the right tool to help. A toolbox with one tool may seem like an attractive offering when you are first starting out, but any trades-person will tell you the value of having the right tool for the job. If looking out onto the web 2.o world is the equivalent to staring down the overwhelming aisles of the big box tool shop, we hope we can be the specialty ed-tech shop down the street: friendly, approachable, with everything you need for your classroom, and expert advice when you get stuck. Is it messy? Sure it is: learning always is. Can we do better? Not without you pushing to let us know what you need, helping us improve out tools to meet your needs, and helping you find new tools when the existing kit doesn’t meet your needs.

 

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