The Genesis of HWDSB Commons – Teaching / Learning in a Virtual Space

[jbox color=”red”]I am so excited that the genesis of the HWDSB Commons has been highlighted and showcased for all as an amazing social learning network for students – Click Here for a “Snapshot” highlight on Curriculum.org (http://resources.curriculum.org/secretariat/snapshots/principal_digital.html)  Students have always been at the centre of the vision of this amazing platform and, having watched the videos posted today, I want to explain the genesis of this amazing learning tool….

See also….http://mrjarbenne.ca/2012/11/07/fingerprints/
For Jared’s commentary and exploration of this topic.[/jbox]

[jbox color=”blue” title=”From my previous reflection of my journey into the world of blogging…”]The concept of writing for a teacher is artificial! When writing solely for evaluation, the exercise seems mundane, almost punitive. With blogs, the writing is live for the world, accessible for all. That’s realism. That’s relevance. The student’s work would no longer be contained to the classroom – it would extend beyond it and integrate other components from the web of which it was a part. Students could use their social networking skills in a new educational forum. By posting to their blog, and linking it to others, the students could read and comment on each other’s work. This is peer editing and collaborative learning at its best. Plus, I could access, assess, and work with those students digitally wherever I could find Internet access – and they with me.
http://bloggucation.learninghood.ca/2009/10/20/welcome-to-the-world-of-blogging-in-education/[/jbox]

When I was in the classroom (about 4 years out now)  I learned pretty early that some of my practices did not coincide or mesh with the practices, priorities or realities of my students. As a culminating task in my Media Literacy class I originally had them create a magazine for me of their media literacy journey, learning, and growth. As an assignment,  they were to create for me a print magazine with articles of their learning (developed throughout the year) and connections to the media around them.  The articles were developed and continually assessed throughout the course of the semester – never evaluated until revised and “published” at the end of the course. The students started to present me with amazing products – and they were spending money to do it. This was never the intention. I didn’t want them spending their own money to print in colour their elaborate projects. I wanted them to reflect and present their learning in a dynamic, organic fashion that suited their individual learning styles. For me, the blog was born. I wanted to provide my students with a medium that was authentic to them and one that would enable linking to media products within their refection of them. It would transcend the limitations of the printed page and honour their individual and collective learning styles.

At the time, the platform I used was Google Blogger. I established my class website on this platform and I created our class collaborative website on the same. This was my website (as skeletal as it is in comparison to my site of today) as I last left it in 2009 (https://sites.google.com/site/puleysmediastudies/). I posted daily synopsis of the learning, where we were going (big ideas), and how we were going to get there. Students could access the days work and learning even if they were not in attendance on any given day. Learning was transparent and visible at all times (some links are sure to be broken).

This particular avenue, however, was not necessarily interactive. It needed another venue. A platform where students could interact with the material, their learning, and their peers.

To enable an interactive experience for students and to provide them with a safe space to reflect upon their learning, both for themselves and with their their peers, I looked to Google Blogger to create an interactive class blog. It provided students with a space to reflect upon their media learning (in an authentic space), to include links to articles, videos, and songs in a consumable, interactive, and accessible fashion, and to interact with their peers in the same. Students were spending their hard earned money to give me beautiful printed material from Staples. I didn’t want them to spend their money but appreciated that they wanted their work to look beautiful. With a blog, I could give them a platform to give me the beauty they desired in an interactive and free location where I could click on their links and watch the videos or see the images they were referring to. The spaces they would interact in was fluid, infused with multimedia elements, and interactive. Did every kid love it, want to interact with it, create in it? Absolutely not! But this was my learning to understand that not every student learns the same. They don’t engage the same – and they certainly don’t learn the same! This was my essential growth to where I am today!

My First Post

This is my first post on Google Blogger as I began to implement it into my learning environment.

The Media blog (EMS3O) was an object of love for me in terms of student engagement. I started it by posting reflection topics to which the students would respond and reflect. In time, I supported the students in the creation of their own blogs. We linked them together, followed each other, and built a community of learners in a virtual space. The topics and the form were never the same – always personalized, always responsive: Year 1 (http://media-patriot.blogspot.com/), Year 2 (http://puleymedia08.blogspot.com/), Year 3 (http://puley-mediablog09.blogspot.com/), and Year 4 (http://puleyblog4.blogspot.com/). We learned together as a class about what worked and what didn’t and I always tweaked and responded to the input and thoughts of my students. I also expressed the learning and ideology of our class on my classroom blog in a transparent fashion here – http://bloggucation.blogspot.ca/. My professional blog is now located permanently here at http://bloggucation.learninghood.ca (or http://bloggucation.com)/. As you can see, my blog is a part of the Learninghood network and not the Commons. What is the Learninghood you ask? Well, I’m getting there now (and will elaborate much further in a later post).

Learning in an interactive, student friendly spot was always a given for me. I wanted students to be engaged with my material and to present their ideas to me in the interactive format they craved. They wanted to show me the material they were discussing and this was difficult for me when I was trying to type in obscure URLs to locate material. When they could include clickable URLs in their digital submissions, I was able to click, view, and comment back in a live and interactive environment. In turn, they were able to respond to me and their peers were able to comment and suggest revision in a true teacher, peer, and self evaluation model.

This was one of the main initiatives that made my application for a board consultantship successful. I was always excited to provide for my colleagues, systemically, that which I explored individually in my own learning environment.

The stage was set.

Today, posts regarding the HWDSB Commons (http://commons.hwdsb.on.ca) and teaching / learning in digital spaces was released by the  http://resources.curriculum.org/secretariat/snapshots/principal_digital.html on “Use of Digital Technology” Snapshots of Effective Practice of the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat. The video resources are splendid, yet need, deserve, and necessitate some context for those consuming such an ideology for the first time.

@mrjarbenne and I developed this amazing resource together in a time of flux and passion. Our roles had been re-envisioned from supporters of Information Technology (formally referred to as IT Consultants) and into supporters of educational technology for teaching and learning . It’s what we always did, but the re-imagining of the role allowed for the support of learning with digital tools to take the stage versus the technology and tools themselves.We believed wholeheartedly in it and needed to sell it to those in positions to push it forward.

The journey is a fun one to explore.

Let’s  go back three years to when Jared and I were first afforded the amazing opportunity to work together. If synergy could ever be positioned in employment then this is the time. Jared had implemented blogging into his practice in elementary as much as I had in secondary. We were twin brothers from another mother in this regard and we saw potential in such a platform for learning K-12. Jared had instituted a WordPress  / Buddypress install for his classes and had tremendous success. Whereas I had instituted a commercial program such as Blogger,  Jared had created and supported his own. Sounded like magic to me. So I made one too.

I talked to my wife (@learninghood), who had also instituted blogging into her practice, and we developed together our own WordPress / Buddypress install based on Jared’s concept – litcircuits – for her (her students later called it The ScienceHood = Science + Neighbourhood —> a Learning Community). She had already established a one-way home-school communication tool that informed students and their parents of work and assignments that had been discussed and assigned in class. As in most practices, this was uni-linear and not at all interactive. Unfortunately, recent updates have changed the essential appearance of the original appearance of the site but it resides here (http://version1.learninghood.ca/).

Jen’s amazing accomplishment would come with the next version of her site which became the ScienceHood (http://sciencehood.ca/). Where this site differed from the original was that it was not an information based consumption environment. It was a social learning network where students could offer their thoughts, reflection, and growth on any given topic in a collaborative space. It was interactive, dynamic, multi-directional, and responsive. It gave students a forum in which to co-create learning with their teacher and with each other in a collaborative space. Some examples of student reflections on their student created units can be found here (http://sciencehood.ca/groups/group-2/). The third incarnation of her learning network became the LearningHood – it transcended Science and the focus was on learning in all senses of the word. The site received a new look as my understanding and proficiency grew. We learning so much together during that time. More on the growth and evolution of the LearningHood later (see Jen’s posts from some various conferences we have presented at: ISTE (http://learninghood.ca/category/iste/) and ECOO (http://learninghood.ca/category/ecoo/).

Here is Jen’s (@learninghood) presentation at STAO where she explained the premise and the student / parent engagement potential of the platform (http://learninghood.ca/category/conferences/stao/). She includes here an amazing story that includes student and parent voice. Student centered and student created learning can be an overwhelming experience for students that have been “trained” with the more traditional concepts of learning. They are used to being told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it by. When empowered with the ability to co-create learning with the teacher, to truly understand why they are doing what they are doing and to build it from the ground up collaboratively starting with curriculum expectations is an innovative concept. I thought it was ground breaking for Jen to take this learning network and to empower the students to make it their own. This story is of one student that was truly met – yet it took time.I absolutely adore how she believed that Jen’s understanding of science was lacking because she didn’t teach like everyone else. She guided the students to learning versus delivering it to them. The adaptation of a student-centered based unit could certainly leave a student confused if they are used to a teacher delivered unit. An inquiry driven, student-centered unit is unique and is so powerful for learning. The social learning network made it possible.

Here is the reflection of student and parent. I have the utmost respect for the mother of Jen’s student, of whom she speaks of in this clip. As she is a current Vice Principal, having once been in a consultant position, I love how this parent reflects honestly, as a parent, on the perception of an inquiry based classroom. It is a new concept – not one that everyone is prepared for.

The learning is innovative and the concept inspirational. Using an “All”, “Some”, “Few” approach, we can definitely all see how such tools can support the needs of some or a few students.

But I digress….

So came the day when Jared and I were asked by our principal to report on our coming and goings. Surely this made sense, yet the vehicle of us doing it did not. We were originally asked to utilize FirstClass (our outdated Byzantine Labyrinth of a system) to document our school / support visits. Jared and I pushed back on the archaic, text-based-non-collaborative system. We said no. Simply…we respectfully refused. We asked for some time to explore other avenues. We weren’t being oppositional, but we were exploring more effective, more collaborative, more interactive options. We were exploring the same types of options we explored when in the classroom. This was not something our principal could envision at the time.

The classroo.ms was born. A fun play on words in the URL – A sandbox site similar to Jared’s litcircuits site – a WordPress / buddypress install.

At the time, I was strongly involved with a 1:1 laptop initiative in Mathematics at a local high school. As students were to be assigned laptops in a 1:1 environment, we were looking for a platform in which they could reflect on their learning with their teachers and with their peers and engage with material in both a virtual and physical space. In essence, I was wanting to capture the magic that @learninghood accomplished with her Science students in a Math based environment. I knew it was possible but it required teacher buy-in and commitment.

Team Tag Cloud

This platform was one that we explored both at a classroom level and at a system level.

Jared and I thought that we could utilize this amazing blogging platform that we both believed in at our own system level as well as a level of in-class learning. We realized that we had developed a platform that served a plethora of purposes. It was a learning tool but it could be collaborative documentation tool as well. We laughed when the answer was right under our noses. We hadn’t thought of using the blog to document and collaborate together. We tried it. Every team member became a user of our 21st Century Fluencies Team blog and we wrote small posts about our support visits. We found quite quickly that we could see what work was being done and at what school. It made our work visible and transparent and our principal could check it quickly and easily. All visits were categorized by school, cluster, and panel and tagged by topic and request. What we started to see was brilliant. The growth of the tag cloud showed us all what was being requested the most by the system. The words tagged the most grew bigger and bolder and trends could be seen immediately and shared quickly.

The Commons, then, grew from the need for interactive and engaging  teaching-learning environments that supported all levels of assessment as, of, and for learning AND for a collaborative and interactive system support mechanism.

What’s so important to note here is that @mrjarbenne and I developed the HWDSB Commons independently and almost defiantly of our direct report. This is how change is accomplished! This is how innovation is enacted.  There are times when people need to be convinced of a solution, of a platform, of an idea. Everybody doesn’t always see the benefit of an idea. Sometimes it needs to be initiated, supported, and explained so that the effort become clear.

This is one such occurrence.

Based on the innovation of @mrjarbenne in his elementary classrooms, my practice in my secondary Media Literacy and English classes and @learninghood‘s extension into a secondary Science learning environment, we were able to explore learning in a blended physical/learning space and support in kind.

Every principal / leader will not understand the motivation and not every principal / leader will fathom the use in every learning environment – and that’s OK. A good leader, however, will trust their employees and allow for some exploration and justification. At the time ours did. It took some time to convince our principal of the validity of such a model and of such a platform but we were afforded the time we asked for and magic was the result.

Amazing ideas often generate from a grassroots level. It is, however,  always vital that a leader acknowledge where the ideas, the passion, and the support come from. In all honesty, and in every sense of the word, @mrjarbenne devised the HWDSB Commons in his teaching environment – it is his concept. We collaborated together in our learning space and I created and developed a similar platform and supported my wife with the same at a secondary level. In collaboration together we took what we learned and devised a K-12 model for such a platform. Rolling it out to a system level took massive amounts of people to accomplish. Creating it was deceptively simple. Supporting it is a different story – and one for a later post.

SO, The HWDSB Commons spawned from the classroom of @mrjarbenne, expanded into the world of @learninghood and the amazing collaboration of myself (@bloggucation) and @mrjarbenne creating the stellar learning platform that has housed such amazing initiatives as the Director’s Student Voice Forum, The Bulldogs Literacy Day, EcoSchools, Social Justice, The Bruce Trail Trek, and a plethora of stellar and amazing teacher/student blogs.

We have almost 10,000 users on the Commons to this day.

It started as a passion and as a rogue enterprise – the passion of two guys in a side office that believed in kids, their learning, and their style.

Thankfully it was adopted but always remember that a dream starts with a passion – a passion that others will eventually adopt but always starts with a few…or a two.

@mrjarbenne…this one’s for you!

 

1 Comment

  1. I feel very fortunate to know these “two guys” that inspire me almost every day with what’s possible to do in the classroom. You two are amazing! I’m so glad that you worked together and created the Commons for our Board. Students are sharing and learning from each other in such a dynamic way. They cannot only learn from other students in our Board, but interact with teachers and administrators as well (within the Commons itself) and the “world” (within the blogging part of the Commons). The options are incredible!

    You two truly deserve to be commended for all that you’ve done, and I’m so glad that these videos were made! Congratulations to both of you!

    Aviva

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