First Blog Post of 2018

Mon Jan 8 8:56:15 2018 EST (-0500 GMT)

The new year effectively starts in September for anyone working in Education (in Europe and NA), for me that’s never been more true then this year as I transition from Brock University to University of Toronto.

I started working on the University of Toronto’s project to transition from a Blackboard 9.1 based system, The Portal, at the end of October. When I took the one year job and secured leave from Brock University I didn’t know what platform the University of Toronto had selected, but I had hoped it was Canvas and was relieved when it was finally confirmed. Now titled Quercus, the University of Toronto’s new Canvas-based teaching and learning environment, has been introduced to all U of T instructors and 3000+ students.

Canvas Cloud Comes To Canada

First UBC then a few months later, U of T adopted Canvas hosted by Instructure on Amazon’s cloud infrastructure in Montreal. I feel that this will be the start of conquests for Canvas in Canada similar to what’s occurred over the last five years in the United States. SFU an OCADu and others in Canada had self-hosted the community version of Canvas for a while, but this is the start of a cloud-based option hosted in Canada.

As many Canadian insituations make big cloud transitions across all of their IT services I welcome another LMS option that can be selected based on pedagogical and feature-based decisions, not otherwise important legal concerns.

If you’re wondering, I still feel that there’s a lot of value in the equivalent budget spent on Sakai and strong pedagogical support. In any case, the ability for the LMS to integrate other relevant platforms and the sum of all those parts is how everyone now measures the component of the LMS: the toolbox approach.

Real New Year, Real Challenges

As the early adopters of Quercus start using it to teach and learn this winter the work on the remaining implementation details begins and the massive content conversion project starts. I’m looking forward to seeing the existing U of T integrations come to Quercus and new integration to existing key platforms like O365.

I don’t want to start defining the NGDLE, but whatever it is, U of T is takings big step towards it. I’m happy to be a small part of it.


Looking at Robarts reflected in Rotman

Trip to NYC 2016

Tue Jun 7 22:28:29 2016 EDT (-0400 GMT)

NYC 2016

A great trip with the family to New York City in the spring. One highlight was renting a rowboat in Central Park. The kids were great travellers, and we all enjoyed our trains, plains and busses trip via Toronto city centre airport on Porter.

Some of my picture of New York City are posted on flckr.

More pictures with the kids at (ask and you’re in).

Catching up to Dick Tracy

Wed Feb 3 23:00:52 2016 EST (-0500 GMT)

Wikipedia on Pebble TimeTonight as we got ready for bed my 5 year old had a question for me about the Northwest Passage. He’s a Stan Rogers fan and a rail fan and wanted to know the difference between the Ontario Northlander rail service and the Northwest Passage.

I tried to explain about the Franklin Expedition, but I realized as I explained it that Franklin is also a turtle in Canadian children’s story series. So I tried to also explain that Franklin was the captain’s last name, and the horrible thing that happend to him and his crew was over 150 years ago and all the ways we travel today are much safer. But, I didn’t think there was too much of a distinction made between the two Franklins and that time line was a guess.

A good question for Siri (we ask her a lot of things) but we’re in PJs (no pockets). It occurred to ask the Wikipedia app on my Pebble smart watch, and sure enough, my watch Bluetooth’ed its way to my phone, on to Wikipedia, and returned a summary of the Franklin Expedition.

That was pretty cool.

It’s the kind of thing Google Now and Siri can easily do (and the Apple Watch), but there was something even cooler with the the answer coming from something strapped to my wrist that’s there when I do the dishes or change the tires on my car. The largest general reference work ever strapped to my wrist, and nowhere near as precious of anything else I’d accessed it from before.

Definitely one of those “the future is now” moments.

An App Store for Web-Based Instruction

Tue May 27 0:21:00 2014 EDT (-0400 GMT)

LTI Connections from LMS to other nodes
Do what you do best, and link to the rest. A lesson of the web learnt quickly by those who’s success depends on being creative online.

The latest released version of Sakai, version 2.9.3, improves on the existing features that allows for the connection of Sakai courses to external tools. The forthcoming version of Sakai, Sakai 10, takes this provision even further.

The biggest improvement is institutionalizing the configuration process to allow approved external tools to appear as peers to Sakai’s own tools when instructors choose what they would like to add to their course site, especially in Sakai 10.

The Sakai tool and the specification that supports the connection is the Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) specification.

Presently, in the Brock University context, instructors need to know that the Brock University service, web-based tool or Publisher they are interested in integrating into their course: exists, supports LTI specification and that Isaak/Sakai can be connected through LTI. The instructor then must contact administrators to have the connection added to his/her course. The connection is only made once the proposed integration has met Brock University’s technical and privacy standards. This new model of pre-approved tools and their listing alongside other Sakai tools now only requires the instructors interest – prompted from any source, including students previous experience.

This ability to add tools alongside Sakai’s current listing of possible tools also provides an opportunity for university services to tightly integrate with courses in addition to making instructors aware that they exist.

The following posting discusses (in too much depth at times) the current status, the Sakai tool and LTI specification, examples of tools that could be integrated and a framework for the selection of tools to be added to this “App Store for Instructors”.

In Summary: We’d like the right kind of developers, on and off our campus, to embrace LTI and further propose an integration to our LMS. We think we have a high bar for accepting proposals, but we think the benefits are large and its the future of innovation in (or adjacent to) the institutional LMS.


As Isaak, Brock University’s Sakai-Based Learning Management System (LMS), completes its sixth year of operation at Brock University, the choice of the Sakai CLE as our LMS remains a good one. Its simplicity, robustness and the amount of control Brock University retains over the platform serves all parties well. Sakai has matured into a reliable tool for institutionally supported eLearning and its latest enhancement of external tools follows the modern web mantra: Do what you do best and link to the rest.

In the last five years other LMS offerings have innovated within the LMS more than Sakai has. This could be associated with the Sakai Foundation focusing on the new and different Sakai OAE product, which has many social features but primitive assessment tools, or it could be a cultural difference between the products with companies behind them and those without (it is no longer as simple as open and closed source companies and products). Sakai has not had recent extensive change to its inner workings or any major features added to its tools. Instead, Sakai has been a model of the IMS Global Learning Consortium’s Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) specification described on the IMS web site.

Embracing LTI and an external tools model allows innovation and specialization to happen within the smaller scales in which they both thrive. The role of the LMS is to perform the general teaching a learning tasks it handles well, readily and reliably. The tools in the LMS need to be as good as they can be, but for all types of learning. The multi-disciplinary, multi-pedagogy imperative of one LMS for one institution creates a tension between the different uses of one common tool for all LMS sites. Adopting external tools and treating them as equal partners in the LMS begins to address this issue with little organizational cost.

The LTI specification is an open, cross-LMS specification for authenticating to a service external to the LMS. The specification allows an LMS to pass a range of information. The ranges starts with nothing more than the status of being authenticated by the LMS or much information as important details like the refering course code/name, real name and usernames, E-Mail address and additional arbitrary properties.

The LTI specification is secure (when run over SSL/HTTPS), based on a pre-shared key to verify information and LMS’ right to refer individuals to the destination service.

In practice, students and instructors are given access to tools that are more focused to specific tasks like discussion, feedback, document collaboration tools or tools unique to a subject area and publisher content which may be behind a cumbersome paywall.

Today, as implemented at Brock University, instructors must go through the Centre for Pedagogical Innovation (CPI) to add these LTI based connections to their courses. This ensures privacy and security concerns can be reviewed. This model often shifts instructors away from individually sending information to third parties and mitigates the risks associated with that practice. This model often prevents a model where a student might have to pay an ancillary registration fee.

The current use of LTI is secure and manages student information responsibly. The most significant problem today for existing external tools and potential tools is discoverability.

Today a few instructors at Brock University have been using the existing per-site LMS tool to connect to the CPI’s Wiki and Etherpad services, discussions/feedback hosted through Piazza, and McGraw-Hill resources. These uses are in a context in which the instructors had to contact the CPI to establish the connection for each course. If the uptake of these innovative tools more closely mirrored how instructors plan the rest of their teaching there is an opportunity for many innovative practices to flourish in Isaak/Sakai.

About the LTI specification


IMS developed LTI specification to allow remote tools and content to be integrated into LMSs.

LTI uses the simple and user-friendly OAuth 1.0a signing protocol developed by Flickr, Google, NetFlix, Twitter, and others[2]. Because of this adoption of OAuth, LTI requires a key and shared secret to sign messages (in practice, an E-Mail or telephone dialogue). This requires separate secure communications between the LMS administrator and the LTI destination. The authentication information is sent to the LTI destination through an HMAC-SHA1 signed dialogue. In practice, or at least in the Sakai case, unencrypted information is also passed in parallel with the signed information in potentially interceptable POST variables, necessitating the use of SSL/HTTPS. SSL/HTTPS is also a requirement because the further communications after the authentication that need to be protected.

Sakai has supported the Basic LTI (LTI 1.0) specification for a number of years. As an interesting aside of Canadian content is that Katherine Edwards, from McGill University, wrote much of the initial code as part of a 2008 Google Summer of Code project under the supervision of Dr. Charles Severance from the University of Michigan and chief Sakai-booster[3].

One can infer that Dr. Severance’s current involvement in the IMS’ work on LTI and the Sakai community lead to Basic LTI being quickly support in Sakai Foundation's two products. Further, related or not, Dr. Severance is presently also an employee of BlackBoard which has integrated Basic LTI into its LMS offerings. Also worth noting is that BlackBoard employees are also working actively on the next revision of the specification.

The first major commercial vendor to ship support for LTI in their native release was Desire2Learn in their 8.4.7 release[4]. Instructure, Inc. Canvas LMS also supports LTI.

Today, instructors cannot add the Basic LTI tool directly to Isaak/Sakai course sites because of its potential to “leak” information to an arbitrary URL and the potential for student information to be intercepted when an LTI destination is selected that is not using SSL/HTTPS. Instead, the CPI adds the tool and assists with the technical and privacy dialogue required to establish a connection.

There are a number of elements to consider when integrating third party tools:

  1. Privacy, and the seeking of the appropriate assurances needed.
  2. Security and implementation.
  3. The addition of the integration to the course site.

Sakai 2.9’s centralization of the administration of External Tools provides streamlines all of these elements while empowering instructors.

Privacy and Third Party Responsibilities

Brock University has a number of relevant policies and procedures about the handling of the type of information the LMS contains and its use by third parties:



Best Practices

These policies and procedures reflect The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) which has been a part of Ontario legislation since 1988. On June 10, 2006, this act was amended to apply to the province’s universities.

It is important to note that many uses of LTI are internal to Brock University, and in this case the concerns are almost exclusively about the handling of private information, non disclosure and due care by other parties.

While the LTI tool itself is not the point of collection, it is however the point at which information previously collected is being used in a new way. This is enough to warrant a modified collection/use notice which the Sakai 2.9 External tool provides for and will be a requirement for potential external tools.

Brock University also requires that when a third party is given private information that third party is to provide assurances, and in many cases, evidence that they will protect private information, minimize its collection, limit (if not eliminate) its reuse and assume responsibility for breaches of privacy. This is typically done through a Brock University Confidentiality and Privacy Agreement or a comparable agreement proposed by the third party.

Our Plan at Brock University’s Centre for Pedagogical Innovation

We’re going to let experience grow a formal policy, but here’s our interim required information for a proposed new tool. Theoretically, anyone could propose a tool to us:

  • Proposed Tool Submission Examples
  • Title of tool
  • Who is submitting the tool
  • Their affiliation to Brock
  • How they can be contacted
  • A long and short description of the tool
  • An instructor to sponsor/vouch for the tool
  • Indicate if the tool uses LTI or a simple URL/GET pattern
  • If available , technical details to establish a sample connection

The CPI will then review the submission and follow-up to seek the remaining information, assurances and agreements about security and privacy.

We’ve implemented this submission proccess at

Cited Above

[1] Image From: (2010). IMS Global Learning Tools Interoperability Version 1.0. [online] Retrieved from: [Accessed: 28 Jan 2013].

[2] OAuth. (2013, January 23). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:08, January 28, 2013, from

[3] (2008). Introducing Katherine Edwards – Google Summer of Code – Google Groups. [online] Retrieved from:!topic/sakai-dev/51aiqGsYwfc

[4] (2012). Dr. Chuck's Blog » Blog Archive » Connecting IMS Learning Tools Interoperability and SAML. [online] Retrieved from: [Accessed: 28 Jan 2013].

Notes on Clickers

Mon Jan 13 23:21:25 2014 EST (-0500 GMT)


Some notes on physical and virtual classroom “clickers” that I’ve maintained in Evernote over the years and shared a few times. Seemed like a good thing to blog about.


  • Turning Technologies has physical clickers and smart-phone clickers
    If you are using a textbook from Nelson or Pearson there might be a chance that you could get the software and base for free from them — but the students would have to pay. ITS’ AV Services also have around 50 of these for sign-out.
  • Top Hat Monocle
    Uses phones, laptops, etc. and they are always keen to do a demo.
  • Poll Everywhere
    Is free for under 40 people but gets expensive as numbers are added.


  • Socrative
  • Flexible and free. Waiting for other shoe to drop. What Mr. Clare Sr. uses.

Web/Smart-phone based:

  • Mentimeter
    It is new and promises to be free, but I have not used it.
  • mqlicker
    is new and promises to be free, but I have not used it.
    A Brock University Economics prof really liked this option
  • Not free at all is:


Then the Chronicle of Higher Ed. has some quick idea for low-tech clickers:

Live classroom interaction, polling, chat…

  • Piazza

    Piazza allows for large groups to ask questions and vote up the important ones. It is a very interesting way to get feedback in a large class. It is free and has an LTI integration that the CPI can add to any Isaak/Sakai site.  It surprises me how often instructors interested in “simple” polling like the realtime feedback Piazza gives.

  • More survey & marketing style
    Signal – good buzz (possibly for the API) with a free trial
  • Shared Sticky notes


That’s my list.  It’s just the notes I’ve been keeping, but hopefully it helps someone else.