It’s difficult to give a concise biography for Leigh Cassell. Let’s just take a couple of her words “Educator and Edupreneur” and run with that. I think that, after reading this, you’ll realize that she’s much more. My greatest fear is that I won’t touch on all of the various aspects of this amazing educator’s career. And, she’s not sitting still either.
Doug: I’ve got to start by saying that I’m in awe because, as a person growing up in Huron County, I would have loved to have a job there. But there were none and I landed in Essex County and love it. My first question, as always, do you remember when we first met?
Leigh: I believe it was online – if by “met” you mean the first time we tweeted to one another; after that I believe it was at an ECOO conference a few years ago. Do you remember???
Doug: Honestly, I don’t. Sorry. I do remember a blind call from you to have a Google Hangout with you just to chat though.
More frequently, I see you on Twitter and am delighted that you follow me there. Why would you want to follow me?
Leigh: I appreciate that you make the time to bring forward what’s happening in #onted and who is actively engaged on Twitter. I’ve connected with some amazing educators you celebrate online.
Doug: Almost daily, I see your work cross my social media paths with things that are happening at Digital Human Library. Can you share a bit of the roots to this project? https://www.digitalhumanlibrary.com
Leigh: Sure. In 2011, I was heavily invested in inquiry-based learning and I was exploring the use of video conferencing technology in my classroom. My students and I were connecting with classes around the world as we inquired about communities, culture, traditions and celebrations. A few months in we had worked with classes in 12+ countries which soon led to inquiries in all subject areas. It was then that I realized in addition to connecting with other classes, I could try and connect my students with experts across the curriculum to inspire, support and further new learning.
Our first connection was with Mark McAllister at the North Carolina Zoo. We worked through the logistics of connecting (remember way back in 2011 when we didn’t have access to the platforms and technology we do today!), and our first session was experiencing how wildlife experts track and tag wild animals. We watched video footage of wild animals at night being tracked and tagged, and Mark showed us animals up close that had been tagged and were now being cared for at the zoo. His program engaged my students in ways I hadn’t observed before. After that my students and I were hooked. I was now spending my prep time following up with Experts that my students and I would find and vette together online, as opposed to going home and spending countless hours learning and preparing material myself. About 3 months later, with support from the AMDSB Foundation for Education, I hired a high school student to build my first database. I then spent the next year learning how to build a website in WordPress, teaching myself coding languages like HTML, CSS and then the basics of PHP and MySQL so I could work in my own database.
Fast forward to today…
Digital Human Library now offers 3 digital experiential learning catalogues, a wealth of resources for educators, and we have a not-for-profit foundation that is leading research and supporting social innovation projects created by teachers and students, for teachers and students. These experiences shaped not only what and how I was teaching, but also reshaped my why.
Doug: Today, it’s so much more than what it started. What’s your inspiration for making it grow so much?
Leigh: As I mentioned above, these experiences reshaped my why which is what continues to drive my work today. The value of teaching students how to use the internet to develop new digital literacy skills like locating information, evaluating it, synthesizing and analyzing it like we do when we search for new experts online, also lays the foundation for teaching students networking skills which I believe are the most important skills we can teach students today. Teaching students how to network provides a meaningful context for students to develop global competencies through the process of building relationships with others. And building relationships with others is how we learn best.
Doug: At the bottom of the Digital Human Library pages, you give a running score of the school districts across Canada, and I mean truly from sea to sea to sea, along with sponsors and partners. Do all the school districts use the Digital Human Library in the same way?
Leigh: We serve each District in different ways depending on their digital experiential learning needs. In some Districts teachers focus on accessing our Video Conferencing Catalogue to connect their classes with Experts, while other Districts focus on our catalogue of over 1000 Virtual Tours & VR experiences. In other Districts the focus is on our live streaming calendar of over 500 programs from unique places like museums, science centres, concert halls, aquariums, and more. Streaming makes it easy to connect your students with experiences of learning from around the world in fun and interactive ways. We also have thousands of Canadian teachers and students participating in our social innovation projects, like our GlobalEdSsChat, Walk With Us, A Kids’ Guide to Canada and OnEdMentors Connect.
Doug: Can you provide some specific examples that would inspire us?
Leigh: Wow – there are SO many… I think I’d like to share some examples by sharing the voices of others who have benefited from the work we do at dHL:
Digital Human Library
We got to view an open heart surgery. It was so amazing to see it live happening right in front of you. I don’t like bio that much, but seeing an open heart surgery made me think about how it all works together. It made it more interesting and more engaging. I loved it.”
Batoul, Grade 11
“Connecting to experts via live interactive video is an extremely valuable asset in the hands of educators. We as educators now have the ability to connect our learners to virtually anyone, anywhere in the world. The opportunity to question and learn from a global network of experts (authors, scientists, explorers, educators etc…) helps to both inspire and empower our students and truly brings their learning to life.”
Educator, Virtual Field Trips/ VR/ DigCit Coordinator
“In this era of rapid change no one educator can be an expert on everything. The digital Human Library is a vital tool at the teacher’s fingertips to connect students with experts. As students conference with experts like surgeons or planetary scientists, they not only hear up-to-the-minute discoveries but develop crucial critical thinking skills. Human connection provides motivation, meaning and a path to empathy.”
Educator, Author of Connections-based Learning
Walk With Us
I strongly believe that this project will not only put small northern indigenous communities on the map, but also help tell some of the rich history and true happenings of our beautiful communities that may not otherwise get the needed platform.”Kristine Arthur, Supervisor Indigenous Education, NCDSB”I see Walk With Us going very far. I’m very excited for when we have our very first tour for anyone to see. I would like more time to visit communities to try and capture more of the reserve. I think that we really can teach people about who we really are.
WWU Student, Grade 10
Being a member of @GlobalEdSsChat has really been an amazing experience! Having the opportunity to discuss things that matter to me with other passionate students helped me find my voice and has taught me a lot about digital leadership!
Darcie Brohman, Grade 9
A Kids’ Guide to Canada
A Kids’ Guide to Canada has been so much fun for my grade 2-4 classes! Learning about Canada from other kids and sharing our home town with this authentic audience has really motivated the kids to do their best work.
Kathryn McLean, Elementary Teacher, OCDSB
OEMConnectOEMConnect is a way to build skills, connections, strategies outside of the blocks of a classroom, school, board or district in order to support individual teacher learning. On their time and in a way that is most impactful for those in the mentorship relationship, OEMConnect is a personalized approach to professional learning, well being and efficacy. Mentorship changed my life, and I believe it can be a game changer for so many others.
Noa Daniel, Co-Founder of OEMConnect
Doug: You also claim a nice collection of sponsors and partners. What role do they play in the activities of the Digital Human Library.
Leigh: I’d like to come back to what I shared earlier about the value and importance of networking. My success at dHL is the result of what I have learned over the years from educators and entrepreneurs around the world. I’ve had many incredible mentors – some of whom have become sponsors and partners at dHL. Most of the support we receive at dHL from both our partners and sponsors are services in-kind to help further our growth and reach across Canada.
I also want to recognize the incredible work done by over 40+ volunteers and interns at dHL. Our volunteers and interns work on a wide variety of projects and contribute to the research and development of new catalogues and services available at Digital Human Library.
Doug: Growing up in a small town, I have total agreeance with your focus on rural communities and equity. Can you tell us how this drives your work?
Leigh: After my first few years teaching in a rural school in the AMDSB I began to notice a real inequity in the kinds of educational experiences students receive in rural settings compared to students who attend school in urban centers – specifically when it comes to experiential learning extending beyond what happens in the classroom. So I began looking for innovative ways to bring new experiences of learning to students by leveraging digital technology. And what evolved as a result of these new digital experiences of learning were these incredible relationships students were building with people from around the world. These relationships extend learning beyond the curriculum to include stories based on personal experience, career talks, and meaningful authentic connections between what students learn in the classroom and how that learning translates or is applied in the world outside of school. Relationships that inspire learning are what continue to drive my work today.
Doug: The website serves up a wide variety of resources. Where would the first time visitor start?
Leigh: I would recommend reading through our homepage to gain an understanding of what we offer, and then browsing our Library Catalogue pages to learn more about each of our offerings. The Teacher’s tab has lots of information and links to resources to support teachers as they learn to integrate digital experiential learning into their classroom programs. We also hope teachers will visit our Foundation website to explore our variety of social innovation projects and read our most recent article published in JRTE*, Wise Practices and Intercultural Understandings: A Framework for Educator Videoconferencing (2019).
*Journal of Research on Technology in Education
Doug: Is there anything in particular that you would highlight that would absolutely blow an educator away? I.e. unique to Digital Human Library and available nowhere else?
Leigh: Digital Human Library is itself unique because we are the only digital experiential library of its kind serving Canadian teachers and students. In particular, we offer a one-of-a-kind library of experts available for loan free of charge, and a calendar of over 500 live streaming interactive educational programs for K-12. I don’t want to leave out our social innovation projects either. Each project has been co-founded by Digital Human Library and talented educators across the country that aren’t available anywhere else.
Doug: As if that wasn’t enough, you also offer consulting services which include speaking and coaching. What makes you unique in these areas?
Leigh: I’ll come back again to the value of networking and the mentors I’ve had the privilege of working with over the years. Speaking and coaching affords me the opportunity to meet all kinds of new people and build new relationships for learning. And the work I’m doing now with Noa Daniel at OnEdMentors Connect has really opened my eyes to the positive impact a 1:1 self-directed mentorship experience can have on professional learning, well-being and efficacy.
Doug: Another significant endeavour is your involvement with OEMConnect. What is your role there? Why would an educator want to get involved with you there?
Leigh: Noa Daniel and I co-founded OnEdMentors Connect (OEMConnect) last year. Through a phased approach, OEMConnect has evolved as a community that supports 1:1 self-directed mentorship experiences as professional learning to strengthen teacher efficacy and impact student achievement. Our goal – and the reason why educators would want to get involved – is to foster responsive, reciprocal and non-hierarchical relationships between Mentors and Mentees and within the education community at large.
In the new year we will be launching The Mentoree – a collaborative community that promotes professional learning and efficacy through mentorship. Education professionals will be able to explore 1:1 self-directed mentorship opportunities and engage in personalized Mpact experiences of learning with educators in supportive and caring environments through face to face and virtual connections. Stay tuned!
Doug: Your resume and bio indicate that you were a Teacher and Technology Coach with Avon Maitland. What did that involve?
Leigh: Yes, I spent 5 years at the system level supporting tech-enabled learning and teaching. My portfolio initially involved the work I was doing district-wide with digital portfolios which was funded by the Ministry, and then evolved to include pedagogical support for all kinds of technology in the system, digital citizenship, social media in the classroom and new digital literacies.
Doug: These days, you’re a consultant with Apple Canada. What are you doing with Apple?
Leigh: I work as a K-12 consultant supporting teachers and students with their use of iPads in the classroom as tools for creation. I am also invited to consult with Apple teams from time to time about the integration of technology in the classroom and their professional learning programs.
Doug: Finally, a day job! As a kindergarten teacher! Please describe your classroom for us and, where does technology and all your experience there fit?
Leigh: Yes, and I do have a full-time day job! I’m back with the AMDSB after some incredible time off. My classroom is a busy place full of curious, excitable and unique little people. What I’m seeing more and more is that children coming to school in the early years have spent so much time on technology at home, their needs are shifting. While I integrate iPads and other technologies into my program, it’s not to the extent I had originally planned. The children I serve need more time to play with each other, socialize, and practice oral language. They also need time with toys and a variety of other educational materials and resources we have in the classroom. It’s always about finding the right balance that best meets the needs of all learners.
Doug: I don’t know how you keep it up! I’m tired just researching for this interview and then culling down to these questions. Did I miss anything?
Leigh: Well, since you asked…
I do want to share some exciting news! Jen Casa-Todd and I have written our first children’s book which we have recently learned will be published at EduMatch. We are working with an incredibly talented young artist who was a past student of Jen’s and our inspiration to write the book. We expect to have our book out in the next 6 months!
Doug: And finally, what’s next for Leigh Cassell and the Digital Human Library?
Leigh: It’s safe to say I’m not sitting still! We are in the process of launching a Unique Collection of Experts that will be available to speak to all 17 Sustainable Development Goals. We are also building a Virtual Co-op Catalogue for high school students in Ontario and across Canada to provide Districts with an extensive collection of community partners that are offering virtual co-op experiences.
Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, Noa Daniel and I will be launching The Mentoree in January. The Mentoree will house a number of offerings including the OnEdMentors podcast, OnEdMentors Connect – our free open-source community for personalized 1:1 self-directed mentorship experiences, Mpact experiences and our speaker’s bureau of Motivators. Lots of exciting things to come!
Doug: Thank you so much for your time to complete the interview. I know that readers will find it inspirational.
You can find Leigh involved at:
Digital Human Library: https://www.digitalhumanlibrary.com
Digital Human Library Foundation: https://digitalhumanlibrary.org
Live Learning Canada: https://livelearningcanada.com/
The Mentoree: http://thementoree.com/ (coming soon!)
Leigh Cassell Consulting: https://leighcassell.com/