From the Club to the Classroom

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.

Code Clubs

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?

OER Repository on the Commons: A “Brief” History

Teacher working in a classroom with students

TLDR; Version: Go visit

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, 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


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 was born (don’t worry, you can still get there from 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.

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

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 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:

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:

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, 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.

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.