I was recently having a cup of coffee with a colleague and during our conversation, he asked me where our edCommons platform had come from. It’s a question that’s come up a couple of times lately, and as someone who loves a good story, I’m always happy to share. But these conversations have also given me pause to reflect on the important ways that our site is responding to the changes happening across our community. So, as edCommons celebrates its 5th anniversary, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at how the OACS created this site and share how I think it embodies our vision for flourishing together in Christian education today.
In 2011, the OACS launched a membership platform called “eCurriculum”. This was a point during which the whole world was already deeply investing in changes around online content (making information more accessible) and social media—allowing people to connect with one another as never before. That was the same year that I successfully defended my thesis in New Media within a Masters of Fine Art at the Donau Universität Krems in Berlin, Germany. Because of the courses and readings I’d done in preparing for my defense, I could see that there were really big changes happening along with the development of online technologies.
It’s been theorized that the three greatest changes in information technology have been written language, the printing press, and the digitization of information. There’s a lot to this, but I’ve come to realize that we don’t always understand the way in which these changes have happened. It seems that often there’s a quick, surface change when a new technology is adopted, and then significant, unforeseen opportunities that follow.
The place where my family and I live is a perfect example of this development from the past. Conestogo is a small village that was once a thriving hub of activity. When it was first settled in the 1830s, manufacturing was all water-powered, and its location between two strong rivers made it ideal for this kind of machinery. At the turn of the century, an amazing development was happening: electric power was replacing water-power! Walking down the main street of the village today, you can still find a historic workshop that was built during that time and it isn’t anywhere near the rivers.
It was immediately recognized that this new power source meant manufacturing could happen anywhere, not just where there was a good water flow. And, looking in the window of this old shop, you’ll notice that in every way it was built just like the water-powered shops, with a single, long drive-shaft running the length of the buildings and all the machinery connecting to it with a system of belts. Whether a 10 horsepower motor or a water wheel was turning this drive shaft, the results were the same. Over the next 30 years, the unforeseen possibilities of electric power were explored and deeper changes followed. Because an electric motor could run a single power tool as easily as a whole workshop, this new power source ultimately changed the way that people worked together in manufacturing. These changes went much deeper than people initially expected!
What I came to realize in my studies was that we’re in a similar transition today. Online platforms have been ubiquitously adopted because they grant easy access to information. However, the potential they have to change from simply providing information to how we engage the information and use it to relate to one another is still being explored. This is poised to change much more than we can predict.
So, when I was given a green light at OACS to build an online platform five years ago, I was excited to see what we’d learn and build, as member schools participated in these changes on our own site. It was clear that, just as our community knew that it was important for the Reformers to publish with the advent of the printing press, it was important that Christian educators get involved in this new media. As a result, probably every teacher and principal reading this article has, at some point, logged onto edCommons.
Looking back today, I think there are three areas in developing edCommons that continue to provide opportunities for change that are important in online content and beyond: Learning Resources, Groups, and the Teacher Gallery. Each of these has been developed in specific areas on edCommons, and each of them also reflect back on changes coming from technology. Within this experience, I think we are beginning to learn about how we collaborate in our resources, relate in groups, and live creatively.
Collaboration has become one of the most exciting changes in the digitization of information. In real-time, multiple authors can now change, share and reply to online content. This creates the opportunity for everyone to participate, but has also created some new challenges.
One of the most frustrating courses I took in my graduate studies involved publishing a book in a single week (called a “book-sprint”). The class took everything we could find—Wikipedia articles, email correspondence, and late night rants—and pasted it into a document over the week. All of these resources were bound into a book, with each of us subsequently
assigned a letter grade based on the amount of content we had contributed. As someone who still believes that an author’s work is to create information that has meaning, I hated every moment of it. But it provided me with an important experience to help understand the challenges in creating online resources today: how do we post and share within a professional resource?
The response to this challenge on edCommons has been to place our content into different hierarchies of information and think about these different hierarchies as being uniquely accessible. This can most fully be experienced in the way we built the curriculum pages on edCommons. When we got to work digitizing this content, we divided the OACS curriculum into three basic sections—Thematic Statements, Lessons, and Activities—with each section being created to allow greater or lesser collaboration and changeability.
On one end of the spectrum, Thematic Statements have been included in a way that is neither collaborative nor changeable by anyone except OACS. This is because we feel that this element, like any big picture, is something that needs to change along a time frame of decades, and is best served by a professional presentation. When you look at one of these pages on edCommons, you’ll see that elements of the Thematic Statement, like its Overview, Focus, or Driving Question, are cleanly presented for consideration. This part of each curriculum page is built using Wordpress, a popular system for publishing content online across a whole host of platforms, browsers, and devices.
At the other end of the spectrum, Activities, like a classroom project, are best shared with lots of room for mistakes and the need to change constantly. Here we needed to let everyone share and change what they were doing, without OACS becoming a bottle-neck in the process. To make this happen, we’ve recently begun to use Google Drive, a popular system for collaboration. This means that a teacher can now share any digital resource by “dragging-and-dropping” it into the curriculum’s resource folder, or even share a real-time copy of their school’s own Google Drive folder into related sections.
I’m really excited about the early adopters who are already making use of all these online resources, whether learning or administrative. But for this to be successful, we must work in tandem and this raises questions that go well beyond what’s online.
Back when edCommons was in its early stages of development, Diane Stronks, the Executive Director of Edifide, was also introducing something new at the annual Teachers’ Convention—time for groups to meet in Educators Helping Educators (EHE) sessions. During a number of conversations that Diane and I had, we decided that having virtual EHE groups would be a great way to augment these sessions. And so, the Groups section of edCommons was developed.
Today, our Groups have become the most popular part of edCommons (followed closely by the platform’s resources!). The directors and staff at OACS are continually using them to strengthen our community by sharing the work we are doing. Right from the beginning, we decided that every member should be able to create a group and groups have been appearing on edCommons ever since. In fact, as it stands right now, there are just over 150 groups!
The information architecture on which these groups are built is pretty interesting and is always in a state of development. Recently, we moved all of the group documents to Google Drive, and we’re beginning to explore what that means for more collaboration and sharing. It has meant that we’re beginning to share documents as resources between groups by having the conversations happening in groups inform the resources and vice versa.
But what I find most interesting about the popularity of our groups has little to do with its technology. A few years ago, I connected with a colleague from another organization that serves Christian education across Canada, and he shared some things about their own membership website. It was built on a solid platform, but their “groups” were largely unused. In pondering this, I’ve come to believe that the popularity of our groups has more to do with the kind of principals, teachers and board members that are part of OACS than any other factor.
The generosity of advice and resources that is constantly being shared within our groups is based on the vulnerability our community embodies with one another. While both access to edCommons and allowing certain groups to be private were decisions made to create safe spaces where members could freely engage one another, the way in which this has happened is a testimony to the amazing community we’re all part of.
The need for vulnerability is one of the deep changes I see happening as information is published online. As more and more of our daily lives are shared across social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, the need to feel that our lives are worthy of sharing is becoming more important. Two experiences have given me the chance to reflect on just how difficult (and rewarding) vulnerability can be in education: the first happened last year when a number of us visited High Tech High (HTH) in San Diego, and the second happened this year when I taught a workshop at the University of King’s College in Halifax.
There was an afternoon during our visit to HTH when we were invited to experience the way in which the Project Based Learning approach uses its “critique protocol.” To do so, we were given pencils, paper, and a mirror, and instructed to create a self-portrait. I think it’s safe to say that within the exercise was a need to be vulnerable with each other. Most people got to work, but a small group headed for the doors and left. I can only surmise that these attendees were uncomfortable with the vulnerability required in such an assignment. As principals and teachers who are educated within a traditional professionalism, I understand the discomfort that could be felt in being vulnerable with each other, but I also know that we need to live within that discomfort in learning today.
More recently, I was invited to teach a small group at King’s College to paint. I arrived with the expectation that I would be leading university students, but to my delight, our small group also included a professor and the Dean of Students. While neither of these people in positions of authority had any art background (and I wouldn’t even say that their work was the most successful from our workshop) everyone was willing to fully participate and work together. I was deeply impressed by the willingness of educational leaders to humbly work alongside their students.
So what did I learn from these two experiences? I think at King’s College (and with most of the participants at HTH) I learned that the willingness to participate came when people felt supported and worthy in their roles, providing a foundation for vulnerability and trust. It is this sense of vulnerability that needs to be lived and taught in Christian schools today. This same willingness to be vulnerable is witnessed every day on edCommons when a teacher shares a lesson idea or a principal asks for help with a policy. The openness embodied in these online interactions strengthens our community and is healthy for the individual. (If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t miss the opportunity to check out Brené Brown’s TED Talk on the subject:
Finally, one of the most recent developments on edCommons that I’d like to highlight is our Teacher Gallery. It’s here that we’re playing with what creativity looks like today.
You’ve probably noticed that the term “creativity” is being applied to just about everything these days, but my own use of the word is based in my work as an artist. In striving to be creative in my art practice, there’s an approach to doing something that I use: do it 99 times the wrong way so that the 100th time will be amazing. My creative life is based in seeing value in the process, wrestling with drafts of things that don’t work, and playfully engaging in ideas that might be called stupid, ignorant, and even nonsensical.
The value of such an approach in learning is witnessed in the work coming out of EL (Expeditionary Learning) Education, where it is commonplace for students to create multiple “drafts” when drawing a butterfly, for example. While it’s obvious that early attempts have lots of mistakes, each successive draft shows where learning takes place, culminating in beautiful final work.
EdCommons now has a special area for sharing the ideas that teachers are working on. Many of these are the result of multiple years of trying to create a new lesson or project, and our hope is that each thing that is shared will inspire others to play as well.
This is another big change I see ahead —getting it wrong the first time is no longer an obstacle within the easy changeability of digital content. And, like all these deep changes, it effects our day to day life too. At my home in the evenings, our typical conversation around the dinner table recounts the day’s events. I love hearing the way my children of different ages recount a story and what is significant to them. But, when we talk about the meaningful or praiseworthy events of the day, the only possible candidates are our mistakes. Whether it means we now have the chance to do better next time, we tried something too big that didn’t work out, or we can just have a chance to laugh at something stupid, I know this approach is the basis of being creative.
As this part of edCommons continues to develop, I have a secret hope that our Teacher Gallery might someday become our community’s unofficial S.I.N. fridge—a space where ideas that are a little Stupid, Ignorant, or Nonsensical can be tested and put to good use. One of my all-time favourite presentations playfully talks about the connection between such spaces and creativity. In 2014, Dimitris Grammenos gave a presentation at the Ontario Librarian Association entitled, “Abba-Dabba-Ooga-Booga_Hoojee-Goojee-Yabba-Dabba-Doo”, which is just as playful as it sounds, and can be watched in an English version here:
I think that such creativity offers us an example that we need to pay attention to on edCommons, in Christian schooling, and in our lives.
As a space where professionals in Christian education can work together, edCommons embodies many burgeoning opportunities that are opening up online for communities. I hope it continues to be a valuable service offered by OACS, and as edCommons celebrates it’s fifth year of supporting Christian education, I look forward to exploring future collaboration, vulnerability, and creativity with you.