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.

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.

Broadcast Posts

We are deploying a new functionality on the Commons called Broadcast. The Broadcast box at the bottom right of the post edit page will allow you to take a post and cross-post/duplicate/broadcast the post to another blog.

Historically we have always felt that students should have one main blog, on which the post all of their work. We recognize that classrooms and initiatives set up group blogs for a variety of purposes, but we didn’t want students to have numerous blogs established for one grade or one course that would have one or two posts on them, and then would be abandoned, when one of the key features of blogging is the ongoing portfolio of work it provides for a student to look back on. We have attempted to endorse the idea that students could use categories to properly categorize their work, much like I do on my blog, with topics like technology, pedagogy, and the Commons.  This is fine, but it can make it difficult — particularly in secondary (in elementary we find the teacher is usually responsible for multiple subjects and can just Follow the blog) — for a teacher to locate the posts a student has written for History, and Science, and English, if they are using the blog for multiple courses during the same semester.

Broadcast is our attempt to attend to this. If the English teacher creates a group blog for the course (using the Hub Sync functionality to add their students as Authors), then the students can broadcast their posts to that central blog using the new broadcast function. This provides a central location for students to see the work of their classmates. Currently comments left on the group blog sync to the student’s individual blog. The students can set it up so that the links on on the group blog will redirect back to the parent permalink (back to the student’s blog where the post was initially created.)

We are still crushing some bugs, but would love some classrooms to test out this functionality and either email me or comment below with feedback and commentary.

I’ve Broadcast this post over to my personal blog (so meta).

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?

Annotating the Web

Annotating the web isn’t a new thing. There have been a variety of tools that have allowed users to annotate text online and make it available to others. Diigo had an early version of this. There was a fantastic tool that 2016-03-20_23-47-18Google killed off called Google Notebook that allowed you to grab snippets from the internet and post them to a notebook which could be shared (it was awesome, but like Google Reader, sometimes Google kills off awesome things). The Kindle and Kobo platforms allow you to share your annotations about books to others via social media. According to, I bookmarked a tool called Surfmarks back in 2010 that not only still exists, but looks pretty cool (although it’s a paid service)

Although all of these tools exist, there are two recent entries on the annotation stage that are worth looking at, particularly in a secondary school context: and

Genius started out as Rap Genius, and specifically targeted lyrics, and the crowd-sourced analysis of the meaning of lyrics. They’ve branched out into other text forms now, but the site is still catering to a music loving crowd. Given the genre, the content isn’t necessarily appropriate for a school environment, but if you can find the right text/song, the engagement factor is incredible.

Hypothesis is perhaps the more logical choice, as it’s aimed at academics, and offers the opportunity to comment and highlight online texts. If you’d like to check it out, here’s a link to collaboratively annotate the new 21st Century Competencies document available on the Edugains site:

2016-03-20_23-43-04I’ve also added a new plugin on the Commons that allows you to offer readers the opportunity to annotate your blog posts. You can activate from the Plugins menu in your dashboard. The plugin adds the Hypothesis menu in the top right-hand corner of your site.

Shortcomings? You can’t highlight on mobile (you can annotate but the annotations are out of context). There seems to be a lot of momentum behind this tool though, so I expect this to change as they travel further along their roadmap. Educators looking to get started can check out their resources here.

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 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 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.