One person’s guide to evaluating educational technologies (week 4 of ed366)

It’s week 4 of Educational technology and the adult learner, and we are quickly getting to the point where we need to start thinking a little more broadly about technologies. While we should never get to the point where we simply pick a technology and then go about trying to fit it into our practice, one does need to get some sense of what is out there in order to be able to make good choices.

So far
So far we’ve been working on three of what I consider to be the most important technologies you can use in education – blogging (wordpress) for reflection, twitter for connection, and googledocs for curation. There are other uses for these technologies and lots of other technologies that you could choose to work with, but most of us have gotten to the point where these technologies are working for us.

We’ve also started to come to terms with the implications of these technologies are to the adult learner. By exploring our own reactions and following along with those of our colleagues, we get a fairly broad sense of how people respond to the use of collaborative technologies in the classroom. I think we’ve had a pretty even response somewhere between ‘i’m overwhelmed’ and ‘wow, there’s so much out here’. In some sense it’s almost the same response. I think we’ve also learned one of the critical lessons – the technology is going to fail on you. We’ve had login problems, mail problems and twitter problems. These will happen. You just need to accept that and not get flustered.

A networked beginning
My favourite way to look for technologies is to ask my network. I’ve had my network for a fair while now, and many of them are professionals that use a fair number of technologies, so that might be easier for me. Still, it’s much better when you have a technology to start with. If you can get someone you trust to tell you that they have a technology that they feel comfortable to recommend, you have an anchor to do the rest of your searching.

Let me give you an example. Lets say you want to explore some educational technologies, and you want ways to post your student work online. Imagine a googlesearch

educational technology blog

Now try another google search

educational technology blog wordpress

I feel pretty comfortable recommending wordpress. It’s excellent software. Including it in your search is *likely* to bring up better results. Having an anchor to start your search, a point of trust, can be extremely useful. It will not always workout perfectly, but networks can be a great way to get started looking for information on choosing technologies and looking for tips on using them well.

Working back to the network from the software
This can also work in reverse order. If you’ve come across a piece of software, or had it advised to you from a friend, you can use the networks out there to see if it’s any good. If you take a word like *wordpress* and add a variety of different words to it in a google search, you’ll find people out there using it. Try things like ‘is awesome’ or ‘sucks’ or ‘for teaching’. Use your imagination… what might someone want to say about it… and they probably have. This can also be an EXCELLENT way of building your own network. Add keywords relevant to your field to the search, and you may find people like you out there doing similar work.

The ‘top five/ten/100 best list’
While many people scoff at top ‘whatever’ lists there are some excellent ones out there and they can be very useful places to start. I can’t be mean enough not to give you my favourite one – check out Jane Hart. Finding a list like this can be an excellent way to start, and then using a few of the keywords from that list can allow you to connect to people’s personal reflections on how they used them in their classroom. So… no. 1 is twitter… go to google and say

using twitter in the adult classroom

You may need to play around with the language… but these kinds of journey’s both serve to allow you to find new people and see what other people’s experiences are. Get used to using the ‘more search tools’ button on google (it’s on the left, about halfway down depending on your screen size). You might only want results from the last year for instance, to save you getting information from outdated software.

Evaluating them for yourself
At the end of the day, a piece of software has to work for you. Dean Shareski, who is awesome, loves Prezi. I hate it. I know that he’s wrong about his love of prezi, but he doesn’t seem to understand it. As you go on, you’ll get a better sense of what you like and don’t like, but my advice is that you shouldn’t use something in your classroom if it doesn’t suit your style. Play with it first, try to do something useful with it, but if it doesn’t work for you… don’t use it… even if other people like it. Keep an open mind, but understand, that like most things, you have to please yourself.

I’ve been thinking about the process that I have for choosing technologies, and I’ll do my best to put the list of things I think about down… I’m sure I’ll remember more next week 🙂

  1. What happens to the work in this technology when the course is finished? Will I have it, or will the student have it?
  2. How long will it take someone to learn it? will I have time? Is it worth my student’s time to learn it?
  3. Does the technology have other practical benefits for my students?
  4. Are there privacy concerns that we should be worrying about?
  5. Do I know other reputable people who have used it? What are they saying about it?
  6. How stable is it? How easy is it to ‘do the wrong thing’?
  7. What does it ‘do to the work’? Does it force us to think/work in an ‘unnatural’ way?

Nasty answers to any of these questions aren’t necessarily deal breakers, but two or three bad answers probably is.

Final note
Common sense, as always, is the best guide. If a piece of software promises too many things – distrust it. DO NOT allow students to put information into software you don’t trust!

Five tips for slackers for keeping track of digital stuff

I’m going to be completely honest about this at the outset… i’m not good at this. I have many friends who are excellent at keeping track of the things that they post, the people they connect to, and the work that is ongoing – but i’m not one of these people. I firmly believe, however, that one needn’t actually be good at a thing to explain it to someone else. If that were the case, Wayne Gretzky would still be a hockey coach and the best coach ever.

Do as I say, and not as i do 😛

File naming
This may seem like a silly place to start, but there is NOTHING that will lose something quicker than not taking five seconds to give it an appropriate name. I have scads of documents from years ago called ‘stuff’ and ‘notes’ and ‘ideas’ that are of limited to no use to me now. When you make the conversion to googledocs, things only get worse. The ease of use, the speed of creation, makes for new problems. You need to MAKE the time to title things properly…

Your paper notebook automatically creates a certain linear order to the notes that are in it (unless you just write on random pages…). While your files will also come with dates, the context imposed by a notebook will be lacking. Paper imposes many points of order to the things you write on them. The digital has a different set, and, for it, the file name is king.

Use fewer docs, structure them
Speaking of documents, i have this terrible habit of creating new ones for every different idea… instead of grouping ideas together, where they can feed on each other. A well created googledoc, with a table of contents, and some reasonable formatting is not just something you can show off to your boss to make you look energetic, but it can be a reusable resource that you can send out to other people. It can be a single point of reference for recipes, or for all the things that you learned in a course. Organize your documents.

Find some way to keep track of links
I have a terrible way of keeping track of the links that i want to remember. I have a little widget that takes all the links that i post on twitter, and puts them automagically into I have just recently started using as a repository for the research documents that I’m interested in and have been experimenting with Evernote for keeping track of the things in between. That’s delicious for random links, evernote for chunks of stuff from webpages that i want to post with some comment on it, and mendeley for official categorizing of journal articles that i want for my research.

It’s not great. But it’s what i’ve got.

Good networks make for good memories
I admit it, i use twitter to remember things. I will, at any given time, open up my twitter account and say “does anyone remember that tool that does the screen casting, you know, website based” and someone will fire back with screen-cast-o-matic. That’s one I forget all the time. But being part of a network of people in your profession can help you remember the things you’ve forgotten, or, sometimes, give you an answer better than the one you had before. Connect to the people you know and want to keep track of. (say… on twitter)

Connecting with people is good for new ideas… but it’s also good to help you remember old ones 🙂

Have a home
Maybe the most important thing that I do online is blog. It’s important to me for alot [sic] of reasons, but one of the most important is that I know where i ‘probably’ left something. It’s the place where i should have my updated bio (though i don’t) where i can put links to all the things i don’t want to forget about, and where i throw up ideas (like this blog post) so that I don’t forget them. It’s my go to place, in some ways my junk drawer but always the place that both defines me to other people and serves as the representative of who i am.

Personal knowledge management
Want a better sense of what you should be doing and why? Check out Harold Jarche’s PKM stuff. Even better… take his workshop 🙂

Why we work together – cheating as learning

I’m starting the second week of my Educational Technology and the Adult Learner course. The following is the start of the discussion for week 2 🙂

You are the curriculum of this course. The course is designed so that each of you will do your own work, but will be sharing that work with other learners. When we see and respond to your work we’ll not only understand your perspective better, but we’ll better understand how adult learners see educational technology. As we collaborate using the tools you’ll experience first hand what its like to use those tools and that should help you understand how you could use it in your own practice. As we start to work together, hopefully we’ll begin to rely on each other’s perspective to make our own better.

Why don’t you just tell us what to learn?
There are certainly some basics that I could (and have at other times) break down into basic steps, and then test whether or not you remember those things. In our first class you all tried to log into a new blogging platform, register, and post. I could have given you a step by step process for doing that… and we would have finished faster. But i don’t consider actually just ‘getting the job done’ to be the same thing as understanding. I’m hoping that after this course you’ll be able to see a new technology, get a sense of what it’s for and bet able to use it in the way you need to use it.

And, truth be told, there aren’t a huge amount of real ‘best practices’ for using technology in education. Every situation is different. A quick look around our own classroom, with the different backgrounds and different levels of experience, gives you a sense of the flexibility that we need. You have to consider your context if you’re going to use a technology. Learning how to deal with uncertainty… with that feeling of not being sure what the right answer is and deciding anyway, is critical to being able to use technology for education.

Community as Curriculum
There are very few people in the educational technology industry who are able to understand the technology by themselves. We all rely on each other to help us learn and understand our work. I tend to think this is true of any industry. We used to have to turn to books to pass knowledge around but with the communications technologies that we have now, we can work with each other in real time to come up with the answers to our challenges. We can use these technologies for more than simply telling each other ‘things’ we can use it to negotiate ideas between us.

This video is one that I made last year to try to explain the way as see the community as the curriculum. It is also an example of a resource created to explain a complex topic.

The learning contract
One of the flaws that I’ve had in this approach in the past is that I’ve been lacking a way to bring a method of assessment to the course that reflects the philosophy of education I’ve been working with. The idea of saying that you understood 92% of the ‘right’ way of seeing something is the exact opposite of the way that I see this course. From a traditional perspective… I want you to cheat. I want you to ‘get the answer’ from your neighbour. I want you to tell me that you did that… but more importantly, I’m hoping that you’ll tell each other that. So the contract measures how much work you’re doing… How much you are contributing.

And, if you take anything from this course, is that making meaning, creating knowledge, is something that happens in public.

Here’s an article that talks a little bit more about collaborative theories of education.

ED366 learning contract – prior to student input

Hey folks. Here is my learning contract for the course. Your feedback would be much appreciated.

Overview: Explanation and Contract
Evaluation Method:

Welcome to the course.

Student work in this course is evaluated by ‘contract’ – meaning that each of you decide how much work you would like to do for what grade. Individual assignments are given a ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory’ assessment upon completion, with the option for you to resubmit unsatisfactory assignments within a given timeframe.

In this sense, you get to choose what your learning experience will be like, and make it fit your context and priorities. Some of the assignments in the course are mandatory – you must fulfill these requirements. In order to pass, you must complete and earn at least a 75% grade out of the possible 100%, including all mandatory assignments.

Contract Grading:
Contract Grading is designed to change the power dynamic of the classroom. The lecturer is still the ‘content expert’, but you are the one who knows how much time you have to devote to this course, and what you’d ideally like to get out of it. The contract lays out what ‘acceptable success’ looks like and then you get to make choices about whether you are willing to do the work to earn a grade deemed ‘excellent’.

The contract focuses on your effort rather than on attempting to measure or quantify your learning. This course aims for encouraging self-valued, life-long learning.

This is my first time engaging in contract learning as an instructor, so this is a learning curve for me as well. I’ve been researching the field, and have written a blog post on the challenges of contract grading: feel free to check it out and read the referenced articles
Grade Calculating:

On May 16th (our second class session), each of you will collaborate with a classmate to complete a contract for a grade. You will also build an individualized online grade reporting sheet based on the assignments you decide to commit to.

There are only two grades for any assignment: Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory.

Satisfactory is full credit.
Unsatisfactory (poor quality, late, or not submitted) is no credit.

At the end of the course, we tally. Renegotiation of the contract is possible, but not encouraged after the first few weeks.

(1) Class Attendance/Participation

(includes reading/viewing/listening to all assignments)

Class attendance is mandatory.

Whatever your contract for the course, you may miss only one class (but not the corresponding blog posts) without an official (doctor or pre-approved) excuse. After that you will lose 5% per missed class.

If you are missing for a non-medical/emergency reason, you have to have approval in advance and, at that time, state your plan for making up the missed work. You are still responsible for the readings and posting your weekly blog post.

(2) Weekly Blog Assignment, 300-500 words

Blog posts are intended to share your learning and make contributions to the field. Some may simply be reflections on yourself, your work, or your professor’s or fellow learners’ ideas, but overall, blogs are intended to be thinking in public, for the public: your very own Open Educational Resources.

Blogs are substantive, should use secondary sources where appropriate, and can use video, sound, images, animation as well as text.

Blogs must be completed by MIDNIGHT SUNDAY each week in order to allow time for review and feedback.

Comments are important in turning blog posts from single-voice resources into networked conversations. All students are required to read the blog posts by classmates each week, and are encouraged to leave comments and engage in outside-class discussion on each other’s blogs.

(3) Participatory Peer Presentation

Peer presentations are mandatory.

There will be a schedule of weekly presentations which the class will develop by Week 3: everyone will be responsible for one 15 minute class presentation, and will act as a critical friend facilitating post-presentation discussion for one other student.

Presentations should outline the uses, possibilities and potential challenges of integrating a new-to-you technology into your professional context. The idea is to workshop an approach to using a technology with the whole class, as if the class were your professional environment. The presentations should be participatory and collaborative, in some manner, and demonstrate an understanding of some of the uses and challenges of your chosen technology.

Critical friends: Each student is responsible for being a critical friend for another student’s presentation. The critical friend will moderate the discussions during the presentation and lead the feedback discussion after the presentation.

(4) Learning Network Plan

Learning Network Plans are mandatory.

Throughout the course you will be expected to gather and cultivate a visible network of people, tools and approaches that will help support you in integrating educational technology into your own professional context. You will be responsible for handing in a draft learning network plan by the halfway mark of the course and a final version on the last day. These plans should be between 500 and 1000 words and, ideally, be full of links, commentary and ideas for how you can continue to learn, network and use technologies after the course has ended.

The first ‘grade’ of the learning network plan is mainly intended to be a check-in to guarantee that you have understood the purpose of the plan and have found a way to make the plan work for you. There is no specific designated format for the plan but it should be clear that you are utilizing it to keep track of information, links, connections and possible leads to augment your work in your professional environment.

(5) Public Contribution to Knowledge (Simple & Complex)
Open Educational Resources are digital materials that can be re-used for teaching, learning, research and other purposes, made available free for others under open licensing agreements.

Your blog posts will be OERs, in a sense, but this assignment asks you to move beyond writing to alternative media.

Both of these assignments qualify as optional selections for grading. The first assignment would approach the topic simply, offering a step-by-step mastery process by which we could accomplish a ‘best practice’. The second would approach and present a more complex topic, giving advice or suggestions or an overview of a challenge that does not have a ‘best practice’ attached to it, or on which there is no general agreement in the field about what should be done.

The contributions to public knowledge should stretch you and demonstrate effort on both conceptual and technological levels. If you have any questions, please talk to the instructor to confirm acceptability of topic and medium.

(6) Public Discussion Sessions (online)

Live participation in at least one public discussion session is mandatory.
There will be four public non-class-time discussion sessions during the course, to be held in an online collaborative platform. These will be scheduled with the class’ input by Week 3.

Participation in these discussions includes being present and active in the collaborative platform for the live online event. If you wish to count public discussion sessions towards your final grade for the course, you may simply ‘attend’ and participate in the live events, or you can watch the recording afterwards, on your own time. If you choose to watch the recording, you will need to write an additional reflection about the key points and ideas shared in the session to qualify for the grade. You may blog these reflections but if you wish them to count towards public discussion grades, they cannot also count towards blog grades.

(7) Final Contributions to Group Learning Document

Contribution to the Group Learning Document is mandatory.
As a class we will plan, develop and deploy an online record of what we learn and create during the course. Record-keeping is a critical component of any learning endeavour but especially so in educational technology. When information, skills and knowledge come very quickly, it is important to come up with a way to keep track of that information. Equally important is learning how to use collaborative tools to do that planning. The platform for this group document will be negotiated by the class by Week 3.


When you design and tally your contract, please make sure you have included all mandatory elements, and that your choice of elements to count towards your grade adds up to at least 75%, as this is the minimum for a pass in the course.

Also, if you set your grade to the minimum and fail to complete requirements, please understand that you will be failing yourself in the course.

Your role in this course is to learn and demonstrate your learning through participation and sharing of your reflective processes and new knowledge, and to contribute to the support and learning of your peers, as peer networks as a key part of success with educational technologies.

My role as instructor is to facilitate new learning experiences, and to support you and provide feedback on your chosen elements as a member of your network.

added: here is the spreadsheet that allows you to figure out what each thing is worth

Avoiding Resistance to Grading Contracts

I have a course that starts in 4 days. I’ve taught the course before (ED366 educational technology and the adult learner) but as my views of rhizomatic learning evolve, so do my feelings about how to teach this course. I have a fair amount of latitude on how it is to be taught, and, while the reviews of the course have been more than acceptable, I can’t help but give it a ‘tweak’.

The tweak – contract grading
At the end of ED366, the last time i taught it, a student came up to me and said “you know, i think i buy rhizomatic learning, but you really should look at contract grading… would make way more sense for what you’re doing.” I smiled, and nodded, shook his hand and thanked him for being a great student… and the thought just sat there in the corner of my head. Late this winter, when i found out I’d be teaching the course again, I decided to dig in a little deeper. The contract grading approach, loosely speaking, is one where the student and the instructor negotiate a ‘contract’ for how that course is supposed to go. Here is an excellent example from Cathy N. Davidson that I’ve been borrowing from. (or, as she suggests, pilfering from)

So… if you want an A – do that much work. Only want a C? Do that much work.

In the last few months I’ve become more than a little fascinated about how many overlaps there are between educational work done in the 70’s and what I’ve been trying to do with Rhizomatic Learning. Contract grading, it seems, is no different. I found as much research from the 70’s as from the 2000s. I decided to focus my searches on the challenges for adoption that different researchers had encountered, and see if i could come up with reasonable first draft solutions for some of them.

You need to ACTUALLY be open to student control
The one thing that everyone seems to agree upon is that shaping the course for themselves is the critical element to contract grading. If you create a situation where the contract exists, but students get little or not input into how its carried out (say you set things up where choice is very robotic, or checkbox like) it will not work.

“Virtually every student expressed the belief that the opportunity to assume responsibility for shaping their contractual obligations helped maximize their commitment to the course and fostered ownership of their learning in ways that conventional grading practices did not.”
Brubaker, Nathan D. 2010.

This position is supported by a 1971 article by Hugh Taylor where the results of student surveys had 5.10/7 agreement with the statement “The grade contract does not allow for adequate communication between students and teachers about course objectives”
Student Reaction to grade contract, Hugh Taylor

And while the research done by Spidell and Thelin echoes this idea by stating that many of the students said that they would have been more engaged had they had more input on the model, there came this little gem…

“When asked, though, what provisions they would add to the contract and what provisions they would eliminate, the students did not reach beyond the boundary of the contract. Many, in fact, needed to take out the contract from their backpacks as a reference, as they could not remember which provisions they liked and which they objected to.”

The article quotes the grand-daddy of andragogy himself (Malcolm Knowles) as having said that you should start grading contracts from scratch with your students… but I’m going to put myself down as too chicken for that. I’ve tried it before, and failed miserably. Maybe next time.

Allows students to have input, but remember that this is potentially their first time with contract grading, and you can’t expect them to have complex feelings about how they are to go about it. Still… give them real choice.

Other comments from the quite excellent Spidell and Thelin article
If the world made any sense at all, i could just link you all to the excellent article written by Spidell and Thelin, but I’m afraid that you or your institution will have to pay for that right. Some other comments from their article that I’m going to be keeping in mind.

Issue: Both Spidell & Thelin and Taylor suggest that student confusion was strong…
Proposed solution: I’m going to have the students each develop their own grading sheet, and hope that this process will allow us to confirm their own understanding of the grading. Also… I’m going to try to explain it well 🙂

Issue: High performing students resent a perceived levelling effect (Spidell & Thelin)
Proposed solution: The only thing i can really do about this is address it outright both in the contract and in the class. All assignments are going to be ‘satisfactory/unsatisfactory’… that may get some normally upper-level students irritated. We’ll see.

And my favourite…
Issue: Contracts must be within a constantly negotiated curriculum (Spidell & Thelin)
Proposed solution: rhizomatic learning 🙂


Davidson, Cathy. 2011 “Contract Grading + Peer Review: Here’s How it Works” HASTAC Accessed May 6, 2012.

Brubaker, Nathan D. 2010. “Negotiating Authority by Designing Individualized Grading Contracts.” Studying Teacher Education 6, no. 3: 257-267. ERIC, EBSCOhost (accessed May 6, 2012).

Spidell and Thelin. 2006 “Not Ready to Let Go: A Study of Resistance to Grading Contracts” Composition Studies 34, no 1. p35-69 Texas Christian University.

Taylor, Hugh. 1971 “Student Reaction to the Grade Contract.” The Journal of Educational Research 64, No. 7 (Mar., 1971), pp. 311-314. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
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