Since the inception of the Commons, teachers have had the ability to create Groups. This additional capability had to be manually added to teacher usernames, so not everyone had it. We tried to keep up, but there were numerous teachers who probably didn’t have the ability to create groups.
A Group on the Commons was comprised of an Activity feed (very much like the larger feed you can find under the Community link on the main page at this URL: http://commons.hwdsb.on.ca/activity) and a Discussion Forum. You could make the Group Public (which really meant available to all members of HWDSB), Private, or Hidden, and students could request membership to groups, or join automatically, depending on that setting.
This functionality pre-dated the availability of The HUB as a means of creating a private collaboration space for students, so in the early days of the Commons, teachers looking to migrate out of First Class took the opportunity to create Groups. Now we have The HUB, and it syncs automatically with the Student Information System so students don’t have to request membership, and teachers don’t have to manage users. The HUB has discussion forum capability too, and allows for richer tracking of student involvement within the discussion forum with analytics and user logs, along with a host of other features that make it a better space to collaborate privately with the other students in your class. We are also working with software vendors to make The HUB a single-sign-on solution for other tools. This is already the case with Voicethread, Gizmos, and tv.HWDSB.
The activity feed in the group is another more social means of interacting with others, but without a group, this functionality can be found by using one of the many P2-style themes available in the Theme repository on the Commons (more on that later) on a Groupblog….
This is where things got more confusing. Within the admin menu of a group, you could enable a “Groupblog”. This was a blog that had its membership tied to the group, so students who were members of the group, were automatically added to the blog as an Author or Contributor. In the past, we used this as a bridge to allow students to quickly join a blog (the ecoschools blog, and the Bulldogs literacy blog are good examples of this) — the group functionality (discussion forum and activity feed) was never used, and once students were on the blog, they didn’t visit the group again.
Now we’ve eliminated the need for this step with the new Request Membership widget, that can be added directly to your site. Here’s a run-down of what that plugin does:
Having a Group, and a Groupblog, also created a too-many-spaces issue:
- Should I post on the main activity feed of the Commons?
- Should I post to the more private activity feed of the Group?
- Should I post in the Discussion Forum?
- Should I post on the groupblog?
As someone who works with teachers on creating a digital wing for their classrooms, the question of whether they should use a Group, a Blog, or a Course in The HUB comes up all the time. Again: TOO MANY SPACES.
Due to all of these issues, we have turned off the ability to create Groups on the Commons while we re-define how they should be used. For teachers who embraced the Group functionality, I truly believe that all the functionality can be had with a blog, and then some. Check out http://sandbox.commons.hwdsb.on.ca for an example of a P2-style (that’s the type of theme that lets you post right from the front of the blog, removing the complicated nature of the Dashboard from students looking to post. Check out: P2, Responsive P2, or Mercury for P2 theme examples in the Appearance menu of your blog). On that site I’ve also enabled a Discussion forum, and a Badging functionality to give you an idea of the different options available on a blog. If you have a group, and want to migrate, reach out to the 21CL team for assistance. If you have a group, and you no longer use it (some haven’t been active for a couple of years) please help us out and delete the group. If you are looking to archive some of the content, we can help with that too.
The Case for Blogs
Blogs have greater privacy flexibility. Groups could not be made public, but a blog can be seen by outside collaborators. That’s the true power of the Commons, and what separates it from The HUB. A blog, whether that’s individual student blogs, or one Groupblog, can allow collaboration to happen not only with the other members of the class, but with other classrooms across the school, within the board, and around the world. That said, if you want a blog that is private just to the members of your class, that’s always an option too: you can always open up the blog once you’ve successfully covered the digital citizenship skills you feel are necessary before availing your students to a public soapbox.
All of this is part of the evolution of the digital tools and resources available to create a digital wing of your classroom. As The HUB evolves to fit the collaboration needs of the students within the classroom, the Commons will continue to fill the more public stage required to access an authentic audience, to connect classrooms across the board together in collaborative projects, and to create windows into the classrooms at HWDSB so that parents and community can share in the awesome things happening in classrooms across the board. We know that implementing blended learning can be a daunting task, and too many tools can create confusion. I heard once that technology is all about finding the proper sized wrench to pound in a screw. Remember that the 21CL team is always available to help chose the right tools for the task, which in the end is how all good lesson design should evolve: what are you trying to do? What tool would best accomplish that task?
Regardless of the tool you use, make this year the year you add a digital wing to your classroom. The advantages for students is far-reaching.