OER Repository on the Commons: A “Brief” History

Teacher working in a classroom with students

TLDR; Version: Go visit https://oer.commons.hwdsb.on.ca/

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.

Enter explain.commons.hwdsb.on.ca.

Teacher working in a classroom with students
Photo Credit: Sharon Harvey

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.

We realized what we had been building was an Open Educational Resources Repository, and https://oer.commons.hwdsb.on.ca was born (don’t worry, you can still get there from explain.commons.hwdsb.on.ca too).

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,

The Complexity of Choice

I value the VLE for a host of different reasons:

  • It creates a safe digital wing of the classroom.
  • 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.

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.


Charity Begins at Home

I’ve been using Github for a couple of years now to connect with our developer on the HWDSB Commons. We post a lot of code there, sharing it with the rest of the WordPress and BuddyPress community. For those of you unfamiliar with Github, this is how they describe their platform:

GitHub is how people build software. With a community of more than 14 million people, developers can discover, use, and contribute to over 35 million projects using a powerful collaborative development workflow.

When we look at trying to do real things in the classroom, and providing students Professortocat_v2with authentic tasks, I think Github has a role to play, particularly in secondary Computer Science classrooms. Github is where many international corporations share their work (Vimeo, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Apple, Microsoft, and Google, among others). I don’t think there is another segment of industry that works so transparently, and allows the public to look in on the process of how their product is built. Github also flattens the hierarchy, eliminates corporate silos, and allows anyone with a username to contribute to projects, or fork (create your own copy) and hack/remix existing code projects. A Github profile is now being used out in the software development community to gain employment: it’s more powerful than a resume.

Github offers an educational package, and repositories to help teachers use Github in the classroom. If teachers want to teach Computer Science in authentic ways, they should be investigating Github to share code within their classroom. But using it in the classroom is only the first step. The real learning happens when the students begin to see themselves as contributing members of the software community:

As an example, Bootstrap (a theme initially created at Twitter) is available here on Github. There are just under 400 issues that are open on that repository, and the community around the project is quite active. A student could take on one of those issues by forking (copying) the repository and attempting a fix, and then create a pull request to have their contribution pulled into the main repository (a pull request is a request you make to the author of the code, to have your changes “pulled” into the main repository). React, Angular, jQuery, Nodejs: the projects that run the internet are all available and being collaboratively built on Github. When contributors post code, others comment and help to make that code better: they teach each other. How many expectations within a Computer Science class could be assessed by students solving authentic problems on important open source repositories. Even if they don’t get a pull request accepted, watching developers contribute to projects is a rich learning experience every student interested in coding should be exposed to.

The title of this blog post is Charity Begins at Home, because I think that we can help promote contributing to important projects by having our students — with the ability to code — contribute back locally in ways that can make our infrastructure within the board stronger. Our students potentially have a role to play to help create apps they can use in their classes. They see first hand the problems they might be able to solve collaboratively by building software. They can help build apps to support their own learning, or to help teach students in elementary. They could solve authentic problems that exist within our organization. There is a thriving Hamilton Software community that we have partnered with through the Hamilton Code Clubs initiative. The mentors who are visiting our elementary schools could help to audit code created by secondary students.  Think about how rich the learning is when students are tasked with solving authentic problems, have an authentic audience for their products, can see them being used, and can iterate on their development through user feedback.

What better way for a fledgling coder to say Hello World.

Innovation vs Consistency

I wrote a post recently about the different tools we have available in the school board. You can read it here:

The Complexity of Choice

This is a popular conversation in the 21CL team here at HWDSB, and it is happening with renewed vigor as I redesign a landing page for the HUB (the HUB is the name of our instance of the Ministry-provisioned virtual learning environment). The HUB is our Learning Management System (occasionally referred to by Desire2Learn/Brightspace as an Integration Management System: a distinction we will examine further)

This is still just a draft as we continue to iterate. You can follow along on the development over here on Github.

As we build out the “integrations” tab, the conversation invariably turns to the plethora of tools we offer at HWDSB:

  • Do some of them cannibalize on adoption of the HUB’s internal tools?
  • Do we end up creating silos with too many tools?
  • Do they eliminate the ability for neighbours to help each other with adoption?
  • Do we need to concern ourselves with the rogue?

It’s this last point I get a bit stuck on. I am a self-professed “rogue”. I like shiny new things, and tried to foster an environment where my students understood the need for agility when it came to our use of digital tools: what Alan Levine would call a “de-centralist” approach, of small tools, loosely joined. What one might consider doing within a Discussion Forum in an LMS, we would select an appropriate web 2.0 tool for the brief moment we needed it, and then move on to the next space. This dipity timeline assignment is a good example of that type of thinking, loosely joined through our classroom blogs.

So the question becomes, how can system supports like the 21CL team enable a “de-centralist” approach, without creating an environment where users feel overwhelmed by choice? (I use the word “enable” with intention here, rather than “promote”) Should we turn off Google Classroom because it cannibalizes on HUB adoption? Should we turn on the OneNote Classroom Notebook that could act as a content delivery system, when we already have a few different ways to do this (because it might meet some teacher needs)? Is the HUB a learning management system, or is it an integration management system: A pass-through that allows for “small tools, loosely joined”. Can we concern ourselves with trying to serve the rogue, or will they shirk our offerings on principle. And where do you draw a line? Example: the use of Seesaw in the board is concerning because the content doesn’t easily travel beyond the school year, and one of the great features of an ePortfolio is the ability to look back on a previous year’s work and reflect on growth. Using the ePortfolio tool in the HUB (although admittedly less engaging from a User Interface perspective) would allow for students to carry their artifacts from year-to-year, school-to-school, and around the province while they attend publicly funded schools, and then beyond via myDesire2Learn. Can we be hard-nosed about some tools, while offering choice in others, without creating chaos.

How do we differentiate responsibly?

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.


Templates for Newcomers

I’ve been pulling together a series of posts regarding Explain Everything as a format for creating templates. In that series I’ve attempted to expand on some methods to create templates, and established a space to share those templates with others. You can read those posts here:

Creating Templates With Explain Everything

Sharing Templates from Explain Everything

Let’s take that workflow, and apply it to an urgent need within our school system. We currently have a growing population of Syrian students attending our schools; many of whom do not speak English, and require assistance in learning the English language.

With that need has emerged requests for a number of different “apps” that may help to support this learning. Finding apps that will assist Arabic speakers to learn English, that don’t contain advertisements, and that are aimed at older students, rather than toddlers learning English as their first language, is a difficult task. It can also be costly.

This offers an opportunity for our students to help these new Canadians by creating “apps” to assist them in transitioning into our schools. For example, some of the apps being requested involve topics like the first 100 words an English language learner might be required to know. What if our students were to contextualize this need, with an EE template that contained pictures from around their school of common objects (hallway, door, washroom, pencil), with audio or video of the item name being pronounced. In schools where bilingual (Arabic/English) students exist, those items could be named in both languages.

Because these files can be created, uploaded, downloaded by others, augmented, and then uploaded again, we have an opportunity to crowd-source this work, building upon each others’ creations across classrooms, or around the board.

Literacy apps: that teach the letters of the alphabet, sight words, basic English phrases; numeracy apps: that cover the names of numbers, and basic numeracy vocabulary — these are all within the scope of what we could create using Explain Everything as a platform.

Can our students develop resources to help our Syrian newcomers? I think we can contextualize resources to help create specific supports, that can help welcome these students into our schools. I think we can do a better job than the apps I’ve currently been able to locate within the iOS app store. I’m hoping you agree, and that you and your students will take some time to help create resources that might be of service to fellow students, new to this country, attempting to make a new life here in Hamilton.