Sunday, 27 October 2013

Learning Commons Transformation by Crisis

Hanging on the Willow Park fence after the fire. 
An update from Willow Park School after our recent fire. Chelsea Mason, our dance teacher calls it “Teacher Survival School” and makes sound effects when she reenacts the stories about her teaching day. I personally experience thoughts that veer wildly from “I can do anything! Bring it on world!” to fits of hysterical laughter.

I was surfing through blog posts from fellow learning commons colleagues and I realized I had to stop working and share our story. The people really need to know! Let me recap the situation for you.

This August I began a brand new job at Willow Park Arts-Centered Middle School as the Learning Commons instructor. One of my main roles would be spearheading the Library to Learning Commons transition. A dream come true.  

Step one included:
  • Facilitate Learning Commons Design Strategy Workshops with teachers and students throughout the school.
  • Give information sessions with parents about digital citizenship, digital learning platforms (specifically D2L) and the learning commons transition.
  • Organize teacher coffee and carb sessions where focus on an area of needed professional learning for a half an hour before school on fridays.  
  • Learn how to use the server based space and equipment booking system.
  • Connect users to content quicker by moving the laptops into wings of the school, rather than signing them out individually from the circulation desk.
  • Collect and create book lists.
  • Compile and share a learning commons companion guide filled with 21st Century literacy strategies to support and strengthen conversation between units and disciplines.
  • Analyze staff and students feedback about growing our services through apps, digital files and ebooks.
  • Work with key stakeholders to evaluate and map digital platforms and channels into virtual learning spaces and pathways.

Step one was a phenomenal success. Truly. The learning commons transition and digital citizenship workshops sparked lively discussion. Everyone was brainstorming ways to re-paint, de-carpet, re-arrange our space into areas that suited their needs better. Students were challenging the idea and making lists of things that they wanted to see stay the same, as well as things they would like to change. Students and teachers began building digital learning spaces on both public and private spaces embedding the D2L experience with award winning web 2.0 tools seamlessly. Parents, administrators and teachers starting using google tools for collaboration tools. We were having equal access discussions, inquiries about e-textbooks, giving password support, identifying strategies for weeding, troubleshooting technology, logging software and hardware needs and brainstorming collection development with teachers. We were in total wind-up and/or full swing. The Virtual Learning Commons was also growing. David Cloutier my student-teacher and I were mapping and strategizing tools and steps. Teachers and students were generating and designing. I started adding and following teachers who had public websites, students were next. By the end of September every teacher in the school had at minimum one digital learning platform. Most had integrated learning platforms together, becoming architects in learning design through the process of trying and risk taking. More than half of the students in the school had begun building digital learning spaces.

When all of a sudden we were in a terrible mess.
The Classroom...

At 4 am October 9th 2013 vandals set fire to the school destroying a classroom on northeast side of the building and structurally damaging the entire northeast  wing of the school. On October 10th we found out who did and didn’t have what they needed, and when/who would be able to get back into the school to tag and request items needed to start teaching as soon as possible. This day also marks the beginning of the technical difficulties with Weebly, D2L, Wordpress and the integration of the three. Needless to say, that while we did get some online support and do some troubleshooting this issue took a back seat to the new issues both urgent and important.

By October 17th 2013 the entire 650+ student population and all staff moved to Viscount Bennett School. We’ve been fortunate to have Thanksgiving and an Org day fall into this month.  October 28th will mark our 6th day in session at the Viscount Campus.

For our second step forward things are looking a lot different.  

Step two has so far included:
  • Creating group google documents shared through the staff D2L shell to compile the lists of resources we need to get started, empowerment arts-centered resilience ideas.
  • Posting .pdfs of all the textbooks for every grade in a school wide D2L shell for student availability until our physical textbooks are returned.  
  • Setting up a temporary laptop computer lab with borrowed laptops and replacing it with our computers as they arrive bit by bit.
  • Getting permission to borrow a desk and a processing space for our clerk in the Viscount Learning Commons.
  • Painting the walls and hanging posters over the graffiti on the walls.
  • Unpacking boxes and boxes of technology after they are cleaned and getting as much technology into the hands of students and teachers as possible as fast as possible.
  • Identifying what works, what is broken, what is missing, what is a write-off and what software and hardware support teachers feel are essential to this moment.
  • Tracking down teacher laptops, access to SIRS and access to printing  as top priorities.
  • Identifying active wifi ports and dead spaces in our borrowed space.
  • Getting free public library coupon cards for all 650 students.
  • Starting a paperback “take it or leave it” library.
  • Empowering my clerk to buy two copies of every book she can find a ULS and Scholastic that are on a teacher booklist.
  • Teaching drama… lots of drama… it’s my subject and when you have a class full of kids in the computer lab, no wifi, no other spaces and the computers all go off-line… you go out to the field to teach drama.
  • Getting a new schedule with more teaching and more supervision.
  • Starting and sitting on a “healing through the arts” collaborative learning project committee.
  • Building a brand new equipment booking site with constantly growing equipment
  • Redeploying laptop carts in every area.
  • Finding power supplies and power cords for all technology… for some reason the cables were all cleaned separately and misplaced.
  • Connect via google forms to the parent volunteer coordinators to make sure to thank the many volunteers and supporters who helped with this transition.

Team Members David Cloutier and Graham Killen Setting Up Temporary Lab

Students, teachers and parents have asked the question; what are we going to do so that we continue what we’ve started with our Learning Commons transition now that physical space is more of a computer lab and less of a common space? We’re now experiencing delays and side steps in many of our plans. Even though, things have changed. Fast.

Teachers that were just becoming dependent on their integrated technology were stalled out and many asked to teach with no technology for a time, in some cases asked to teach without a whiteboard never mind without a SMART Board. We were discouraged but not defeated. The learning changed. In one case students offered to do their school work at home and to spend the day organizing cords and setting up computers. Classroom-flipped. Community centered.

It appears that we are going to focus on building resiliency in our learning community and building a virtual learning commons for our community. Our frame and our focus shifted from inside out to outside in. It’s some ways it’s a blessing in disguise. The school will have all books packed in boxes making the ripping out of the carpet that we planned to do anyways easier to achieve.

So what is a virtual learning commons? According to Shahuai Ren and Jialin Cao of the Shanghai University Library the definition is a complicated sequence of formulas that looks like this:
Definition: Virtual Learning Commons VLC: = {U, {Pt, Vc, Sm, Ot, Vr}, {Dl, El, Sn, It}, Up, Vo}, in which U:={St, Te, Li}, U is user, the generalized concept which included all the participants in learning activities. St: Students or Learner; Te: teachers, counselors, peer counselors; Li: Librarians, IT support staff, and other staff. In the VLC, students are the learning subjects, while teachers, counselors, librarians, IT support staff and other support staff are supporters of the learning activities and also learning partners of students for improving learning effect through exchange and interaction. [Pt, Vc, Ot, Sm, Vr} are the five functional layers. Pt: Portal, Vc: Virtual community, Ot: online collaboration and learning tools, Sm: Semantic construction, Vr: virtual resources (Cao & Ren, 2011)

The VLC organization system described above can be simplified if we think of it just in terms of meeting the learners learning, interaction, collaboration and research needs by integrating digital libraries, e-learning systems, social networks and support tools. Despite our evolving context the key question is still; “How can we adapt our learning services and create spaces to serve the 21st Century student? Questions about how this crisis will affect our this direction? What are different learning needs associated with this evacuation? What virtual connections will the community find most useful in organizing and collecting resources? How are students, parents, teachers, administrators and experts using interactive digital platforms to connect common learning? How do students perceive both the opportunities and challenges with being digital learners? Is there a link between the use of different interactive platforms and user generated content levels to the students’ perceived success in academic achievement?  How can best I support our evolving context and simultaneously map an integrated school web presence that has findable content and collaboration gateways?  

Stay tuned for ideas around how we answer these questions and reflections on different VLC implementation techniques.  Step one: find the plugins for the projectors.  

Cao, J., & Ren, S. (2011). The virtual learning commons architecture based on semantic technologies. In X. Luo, Y. Cao, B. Yang, J. Liu & F. Ye (Eds.), New horizons in web-based learning - ICWL 2010 workshops (Vol. 6537, pp. 151-160). Retrieved from

Clark, S. (2013, October 12). [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Martin, C. (2013, April 21). [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Morville, P. (2011, AUGUST 08). Information architect.Semantic Studios, Retrieved from

Vaughan, N., Zimmer, J., & Villamar, F. (2012). Student engagement and interactive technologies:what's the connection?. Research project, Department of education and schooling, Mount Royal University, Calgary, Canada. Retrieved from

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Encouraging Curiosity

One thing we want to do in our learning commons is encourage curiosity. One we have done this is create a curiosity station. This was unbelievable! Students came by to record their thoughts 2 minute after I finished the display.

What do you think it is?

HINT: Remember, we live in Alberta, Canada, where dinosaurs once roamed!

Google Apps Power!

I have been part of our system/district wide GAFE prototype since in began in early 2013. I am still amazed at the power of the that Google Apps for Education has in the classroom. This amazing collaboration tool is revolutionizing the way we teach and learn.

All of a sudden our students are able to collaborate so easily and working on projects with other students in seamless way and never have the frustration of losing their work through files transfers via email or flash drives.

After using Google Drive for a month or so, our students are still learning how to work collaboratively in documents together. We have been working a variety of projects where students are working together in a different documents. Here are some workflows we've begun to explore:

Google Docs - Working in Tables

When you have whole class working in an online Google Doc it can get a little crazy! We have found tables to be way to lessen the confusion. 

This video was blurred to protect the students' identity.

Forms - Collecting information to use or share later

Forms have to one of my favourite Google Tools. What an amazing way to collate information in a clean and user friendly way. We have played with various reasons for using forms with students. Here are a couple of screen shots of the form and the collated info.

Students were to read an article about the June Floods in Calgary and then
respond with their feelings in the form above. 

The results were then displayed to show what other people were feeling.
The ability to hide the name column was good to help give
some students more confidence.

In this form student filled out the form so it was as accurate and personal as possible.

All entries were then shared and students were then groups according to the
Smart they wanted to improve on

Spreadsheets - A different way to collate information.

Spreadsheets are a great to build and collate data from scratch without using forms.

This document was a way for students to check where they were at in a project.
It also made their progress visible to the rest of the group.

Google Drawing - Digital Mapping

This example is not student work but the idea was to be able to use technology to become more familiar with Canada and Alberta. I'm looking forward to using this tool in a collaborative way.

This was the first task we started with. It was also centred
around learning how to use the Google Drawing App.

The Questions on the right were to guide their work,
then they used the tools to draw over the map.