Using Moodle with a student centred curriculum

Earlier this month I was invited to do a presentation for the Moodle MOOC. The presentation included the use of the live slides approach where the audience of the presentation is responsible for creating slides from which I as the ‘presenter’ can try and draw a narrative. It’s an approach I’ve used many times with many different audiences, but in this case things took an unexpected detour. As the participants were given access to the white board, they simply would not focus on working together. Now… this was particularly impacted by the fact that the software we were using had ‘moveable slides’ which allowed them more freedom than i’ve seen before, but it ended up taking about 25 minutes to get things started. You can watch it here.


Why moodle?
I got an email today from the excellent Paul Allison asking about the moodle assignment I was actually going to talk about during that presentation and never got around to. Paul shares my concern about Moodle being a platform that can easily lead to a very hierarchical teacher centric approach to online learning. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course, but it’s default separation of roles, separation by topic or week, and linear structure can easily guide you to a checkbox, step by step approach to online learning.

I want students to be responsible for much of the curriculum that is covered in the course. I particularly don’t want to create a scenario where the students believe that learning happens when the instructor lays out clear objectives that they are to conquer. I understand that many people think of this as contravening best practice, but i tend to think that it creates a power relationship around learning that can lead to students ‘not’ learning when someone isn’t around to sanction it for them. I think of life long learning as a much messier, disjointed struggle than that. I think that if you are trying to prepare students for confronting decision making about a particular topic, then you need to, in some degree, mirror the uncertainty to daily life so that they can practice that decision making with a guide or mentor close to hand. The course is at if you are interested. The ‘textbook’ for the course is at

So i wanted to use moodle, show my students how a discussion forum worked, but i didn’t want to be controlling it.

The assignment
So, the goal then was to create a moodle activity that would force my students to find an interesting way to use a discussion forum to address an issue that they were thinking about as part of the course. In order to facilitate this I created a Moodle course and invited all my students into it as teachers. We broke them into groups of from 2-4 and each group was responsible for creating a ‘homepage’ as a topic within the course. That homepage (topic) would be theirs to design, develop and host a discussion on their chosen question.

We did the registration live during the class. There were a few hiccups due to some irregularities with people’s accounts… but no real big deal here. As I am wont to do, i didn’t assign individual groups to numbered topics, I let it be a free for all. Groups had to grab their topic by editing it and putting their subject description in the title. This created a bit of a flurry of excitement and a couple of ‘HEY, we were going to do that one’. I wandered around the class to ensure that each group had eventually got a topic section and then proceeded to explain what a discussion forum was and had them do some basic interactions in an example topic area that I started building in the classroom. I am resistant to the idea of creating a proper exemplar as I’m trying to get students to think their way through what should be there rather than try and copy what is there. I always struggle with whether this is a good position to hold or not.

Here is one sample of an entry from one group. I picked it because it’s the right size to fit in the blog post :). It’s also a good example of the kind of thing i was looking for. Others offered much more or less copy on the page… there was alot of variation. But the space became theirs (as apposed to mine) very quickly.

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 1.46.46 PM

Outcomes (so called)
The way things turned out in this class, i was going to miss one of our three hour f2f sessions for a conference. This assignment was intended as a replacement for a three hour class, and the students were therefore requested to show up online from 6pm-9pm local time and participate in as many substantive discussions as they could during that time. They were also responsible for monitoring and facilitating discussions in their own section. A few students setup a google hangout to help in their coordination but most simply did their best to participate.

I was pretty happy with the outcome. We got a fair amount of substantive discussion, and some interesting ideas that hadn’t come up in the course so far. We had a feedback session in the next face 2 face class and students spoke with confidence about the possibilities of discussion forums. Many students suggested that they occasionally became over focused on other topics or their own topic and found it difficult to switch back and forth. I was online in Spain during the first half hour or so and did some trouble shooting over twitter with four or five students.

It’s the first time i’ve had this kind of freeforall in a Moodle. I kinda like it. I particularly like the idea of students building their own home and would like to do something where students had to keep going back to improve and refine their own space. Maybe a whole course for each group. Meh. Maybe next time.

Below is the group feedback that i sent to my students regarding the assignment.

Moodle discussions
Cell phones in the classroom
“Several times last year, when I noticed a student texting while I was giving a lecture, I would stop, stare and wait for them to finish texting, then continue with the lecture, as if nothing ever happened. It didn’t take too long for all to realize that they were being stared at by all. The students themselves then became the “Text Police” My enforcement wasn’t needed.” Daryl
The technology requires an establishment of new society norms. It is, as Sherri suggests, a question of professionalism. That’s going to be different for different classes. But the key is to make overtly clear (as Daryl does very nicely here) about what is expected and what the new normal is.

Twitter and brevity
Do you feel as though 140 characters is enought to say something substancial? Can you pack in lots to communitucate thoroughly? Shannon
It certainly keeps the clutter down! Well, I would say that it can do a lot but, yes, I wouldn’t want to do my dissertation over Twitter ; 0 Mark

A couple of things here. First, I note that Shannon critiqued Twitter’s substantialness in 128 characters… excellent work Shannon. Mark makes one of the two points i would make here a. Twitter is not for everything. The second point is addressed by Andrea when she says that twitter is a place for connections. The corrollary to this is that twitter is NOT, generally, a place for content. If i have something substantial to say i might link to it on twitter… but i wouldn’t try to write it there. It’s just not designed for that.

Finding the need before the tool
I could see us posting a students code and then have students provide feedback on it. One thing that some of this technology provides is a way to do things that some students may be able to get in to using. BJ

I could totally see this as a twitter/pastebin combination. Get students to post the code on pastebin, and tweet it out to everyone else. For that matter… coders have been using IRC for collaboration for a generation. Might be good to get them in the habit of doing that. If you wanted to get real creative, you could setup an IRC channel for students to exchange code with people doing the same type course at another institution.

Kids these days
Spoiled by their parents, which leads to the sense of entitlement and not having to or willing to work for what they want, showing no respect for their parent’s hard earned dollar. Don

I can’t seem to put my hands on it, but i found a quote from about 60BC in the Roman Republic a few months ago that said the same thing as this almost to the letter. This is the complaint of every generation about the one following it. This also doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, but we need to remember not to associate all things into the same problem. Daryl says “he was lucky to have a working wristwatch” a statement that would have been ‘spoiled’ a generation before. We need to remember that it is the adults in society who are responsible for setting norms for the use of technologies, these norms don’t just make themselves. We are entering into a strange period where we have things in our culture that have confused norms associated with them (eg. texting). That’s not the kids fault.

The great higher education money debate
Very cool discussion (and a great way of seeing what a discussion forum can do). I would like to add that when comparing College to University you’ll find different results in terms of ‘lifetime earning’ than you will in ‘immediate employment’. The main theme of the discussion seemed to be ‘it depends on what you want’ which i totally agree with. I eventually ended up with an undergraduate degree in philosophy (after starting in computer programming, which, frankly, i hated). University worked for me – eventually. Anyway, i don’t want to go down the rabbitt hole here, the point is, the discussion forum allows for multiple points of view and it allows for people who don’t necessarily like to break into arguments in class to do so with time to consider what they are going to say.

Online learning
One of the themes of discussion is related to the comparison of online learning with face to face discussion. One of the reasons i love teaching ed366 is that it gives me the chance to be in a classroom, which I love. I also love getting input from people from different perspectives, cultures and experiences, which is often more difficult in a place like Charlottetown. Our class is not particularly culturally diverse. There are affordances to both modalities… some suit some of us better than others. I agree with BJ that my favourite is a blended model where we can steal some of the advantages from both approaches. It need not be either or though, in most cases.

Interesting to see everyone on the same side of a discussion for once :). It speaks well of our government and our culture, i suppose, that privacy isn’t a concern to its citizens. Don says “if you do the crime, you do the time” – and that works fine as long as you and the people with the power to harm/incarcerate you agree on what is a crime. The catch comes when those things don’t line up. Lets imagine that, like in many, many countries, it becomes a crime to criticize a political party or a religion or some other organization. An interesting discussion. In this case our discussion forum, different from the discussion above on university/college, shows our agreement.

Assessment and Rhizomatic Learning – Course start Tuesday

Well… it’s that time of the year again folks. Time for me to teach my Educational Technology and the Adult learner course. I think of myself as being very privileged to teach this course every year. The course is, in many important ways, unfettered by its institutionality. It not connected to any other courses in any registrarial way… no pre-requisite, no follow up courses. I have no other instructor also teaching the course and was not given any material or specific guidance on what or how to teach to begin with. The program itself is full of many experimental, dedicated teaching professionals, so many of my students have already had their horizons challenged in other courses in the program.

And the students are fascinating.

Some have never stepped foot in the classroom as teachers. Some have spent 30 years there. Some spent 25 years working on a job that they are now going to teach to others. Some have never been in the formal workforce before. I had one student last year with PhD in chemistry working with a career pipe-fitter. I mean… how awesome is that? All students are different, and, I think, do better in the end when they are free to choose their own paths… but these folks are different in ways that are easier to negotiate. This makes the ‘we are all different and need to have different objectives’ part easy, but it does present some challenges on the assessment front. As I don’t believe, fundamentally, that learning is something that can be effectively (if at all) measured in the classroom, I’m trying to measure effort. Effort defined quite broadly. Let me know how you think I’m doing 🙂

I need to give them all a number grade. Out of 100. so…

Learning Contract
When i taught this course three years ago, a finishing student of mine said “you know, I think i understand your whole rhizome thing… but you know what it needs? It needs a learner contract. You should let us pick what grade we want when we start the course and let us work to that”. It was like being hit with a teaching stick. My first thought was “can i really get away with that?” Then I asked him where he got the idea and he told me that it was from the 70’s. I did some research before teaching the class last year and built my first contract

What I learned year one
Many of my students were actually quite familiar with the idea of a grading contract… which I hadn’t expected. Overall most students were prepared for the idea of trying out the contract and choosing how much effort to put in. There were some, I think, who took everything because they expected that deep down they were supposed to. 🙂


  1. It lacked depth of choice. I did that partially because I didn’t want to confuse anyone… but also because I hadn’t really had any experience to draw from. So… more choice.
  2. Real language. I had all kinds of crazy unnecessary language in there last year(eg. OER). Sure, it’d be cool if everyone knew the lingo, but it made contract choices difficult. Students make contract choices BEFORE the course. This time… Plain language.

What I’m doing this year
Two whole days before we get started and I’m still tweaking the sections. I’m going to lay them out here with the reasoning behind each of them and see if it makes sense all pulled together. Important to realize that this class is formally hybrid, and has only 21 hours of in-class time for a full term course. If it seems like there’s alot here… there is. Also… this is still a ‘suggested breakdown’. I’ll have to talk it over with the students in class two.

I can’t help myself. I have to throw attendance in there. I simply don’t believe that it makes sense to have 25 people come together in a classroom if that classroom time isn’t somehow critical to the experience. Attendance for me is not a ‘physical presence’ it is a way of being. To this day I have never not given someone an attendance mark when they did show up. My job to engage them.
grading: pass/fail

Blog posts
Reflective blog posts on the topic of the week… or something else that came to your mind. I try not to put a number of words on these because people with different literacy sets react to these very differently. However it works out, reflection upon yourself and your classmates as learners is the MOST IMPORTANT part of this course.
grading: 0 – Didn’t do it. 1 – did it but lacked effort 2 – did it and made an effort.

Mini Presentations
I have always had students do giant 15 minute presentations “as if they were teaching in their own class” in an attempt to give people a practical headstart using technologies in their own classrooms. It has always been a fight getting this message clear and, frankly, I’m giving it up. These presentations will be timed 5 minute “hey I just learned this” demos in the front of class. There was just too much of a discrepancy between those with classroom teaching experience and those without… it wasn’t fair the way i had it before.
grading: pass/fail

This used to be called a network learning plan and is really what I like to think of as learning curation. It’s a way to keep track of the links you’ve found and the ideas that you’ve had so that you remember them later. When learning in a state of abundance (or, say, drinking from a firehose) we lose most of the things we come across. This is a nod to trying to build that curation space. I could use a bookmarking system, I suppose, but google docs are more flexible and easier to understand.
grading: rubric to be negotiated

Group Take away
This is the class’ notepaper. We throw all the stuff we learn in here as a group. It’s a replication, in a sense, of the learning network plan, but it has a different purpose. Rather than everyone throwing 50 mini-presentations into their own plan, it gives us a central sharing space to include all that stuff. Not sure what i’m going to use for this… maybe a wiki, maybe a googledoc. Hoping to decide as a class.
grading: scaled based on number of updates


Article Discussion
I’m going to seed the course with Terry Anderson’s (edited) book on online learning. Students are, of course, free to use whatever article they want. I would like them to engage in a discussion (using a discussion forum) on a given article. We might decide to do this as formal group work, or as individual assignments with a ‘reply’ guideline. Not sure… we’ll see what the students say.
Grading: rubric to be negotiated

Simple/Complex Maker
This remains the same as last year, although the name has changed. Make one web based object that explains a simple, step by step process and another that addresses a complex problem.
Grading: negotiated (but i’m thinking pass/fail)

Thursday? Online sessions
Collaborate sessions devoted to student chosen topics. We’ll meet one night a week and chat… about something. I’m going to have to be on top of this one, because i think that the students might have a difficult time picking topics. But you never know… totally depends on the class.
Grading: pass/fail

Twitter Chat
Yay! twitter chat! Somehow I’ve never done one in a class before. Might do this leading up to the online class or do it another night.
Grading: pass/fail

How does all this support rhizomatic learning?
Well… rhizomatic learning (as I’ve been talking about it) suggests that there is not start point and ending. That people come with a variety of thoughts and feelings and connections and need an ecosystem in which they can help grow those on a given topic. If we are going to presume that the map everyone is going to make is going to be different, then the need the freedom to choose. At the same time, if there is no structure at all, it’s difficult to get better at a specific thing.

Taking a course like this is a commitment to trying to get better (or something you were force to take, but lets overlook that 🙂 ) but it’s not like there is some kind of consensus about the best way to use technologies with any learners. There are many approaches, and many tools, and I believe that people need to become situated in the discussion so that they can become effective decision makers around technologies and education. Fundamentally this course is about practicing making decision, thinking about the effectiveness of those decisions and trying to make better decisions next time. It’s about becoming someone who can make decisions with edtech and adult learners.

Looking forward to it 🙂

Educational Technology and the Adult Learner Week 7 – Pulling things together

This is the last ‘blogging prompt’ blog post for the course as the course wraps up immediately after the last class next week. I like to think of these posts as prompts rather than questions or content as they are meant to start thinking down a particular line rather than control what people are going to think. There is some tendency, always, for people who are being assessed by someone else to think they are supposed to agree with that person. The goal with this course has been to provide opportunities for people to take a given line of thinking and map it up against their own experience, be that the work that they do in an official teaching role, as a professional, as a parent or as a friend.

This last prompt is meant to pull together all the things that we’ve talked about and talk about the identity, at least partially, of this mysterious ‘adult learner’ and what that person might care about whether you use educational technology with them or not.

Learning contracts – This addresses the power structure of a course. The design of a course should provide enough structure to help build a context for learning. It shouldn’t, in my view, simply lock down the content so that what constitutes ‘learning’ is measured in how much we can prove that content has been transferred from the instructor to the learner. The technologies provide a whole new way of accessing information which frees us from relying on a static set of books or the contents of my head as resources. The learning contract is meant to broader the possibilities. This measures, hopefully, the amount you’ve worked, not ‘what you’ve learned.’ It’s my job as an instructor to make sure you’re learning.

Cheating as learning – If we think of the ‘content’ of a course as the thing we are engaging in the learning contract for, then ‘taking’ that content from someone else is cheating. If we say that we aren’t concerned about the specifics of the content you are picking up, then taking information from others becomes sharing. In this sense cheating and sharing are actually the same activity, just with a different power structure surrounding it.

Keeping track of digital stuff – One of the side effects of giving people freedom to create their own content is the taking the textbook based, pre-defined content out of the course. One of the challenges that this presents is that you can’t just ‘look back at the textbook’ to see where you are. You can’t simply follow the assignments or the syllabus to remember what is going on. When you add the vastness of the internet to this, one of the prime literacies required for learning using technology is the ability to keep track and organize your work. If the facilitator is not controlling it… you need to.

Evaluating technology – I don’t think it makes sense to talk about technologies until everyone has a passing comfort with them. With three weeks of using our class based educational technologies (blogging, twitter and googledocs) under our belt, the search for new technologies starts to make more sense. The use of nodes of trust, and the ubiquitous online top ten list (or top 100) makes that process even easier. At the end of the day, though, we are still just going to the internet and trying stuff out.

Collaboration – And there are too many things to try out. Too many lessons to learn and in to many ways. Collaboration in a classroom provides more scope for learning, and, I think, a more rounded view of what a person is learning. If we can share how 20 people (or 2000) see given topic or idea (be they technological or not) we get to see it from many perspectives. That broad scope, I think, makes for the best kind of teaching.

Responsibility – The key glue to all of this is where the impetus to learn stems from. If we allow for all this freedom and control, it can’t be driven by the ambitions of one educator. We are only in a classroom for a few hours, and learning in any context is a lifetime event. A classroom that creates a scenario where people are only interested in learning when they are told to learn and what they’ve been told to learn encourages passivity. A classroom that supports student responsibility as a core principle is one that encourages active, ongoing, life-long learning.

Final Thoughts
Throughout this course we have all reflected on educational technology and our own feelings about it on our blogs. The next step, I think, is in synthesizing the ideas of ourselves and others and starting to make early judgements about how our own learners will respond to educational technology. If you think about the different people in our class, and the journeys that they have been on, different answers to that question will present themselves.

I don’t believe in ‘learning styles’, but in people. People have complex lives, they have eye surgery, and deaths in the family, and anniversaries, and the prom and a hundred other things going on. (Not to mention a beer at the beach). If you put 20 people into a classroom the web of complexity gets wider, add in access to almost every bit of knowledge ever produced on the internet and its a wonder we make it out of class at all.

Given all this complexity, what have we learned? How would you use educational technology with the adult learner?

Student responsibility in a collaborative curriculum Week 6 ED366

In reading blog posts this week, i can see a real turn in the way that people are speaking. We’re hearing less about what the technology is, and with people’s challenges with the technology and more about what the changes in technology mean to their work. This week I’d like to talk a little bit about the responsibility that the student has when the community is the curriculum.

Responsibility vs. Obligation
These are very similar words, in a sense, but there is a motivational difference between the two that I think is very important to the educational experience. Collaborative learning presumes that people are coming to a learning environment in an attempt to come to a new understand, or to get a sense of a new context. If this is true, and you are working with others that are also there for that reason, i see it as your responsibility to help each other. It is also your responsibility to help yourself, in ways that make sense to you. If I, as an educator, create an obligation, then we are working from my own context and history and not yours. If i help structure an ecosystem that allows you to bring your own sense of responsibility, then you are working from your history. I would argue that the latter is more relevant. Responsibility is and should be student driven.

Some key points about responsibility…

Give your colleagues good feedback, help them learn by sharing new connections between their ideas and ideas you’ve had. This may ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ with what they are saying, but this isn’t important. Good feedback creates new connections. New connections can come in many formats, it may be a link to a new thinker, it may be something you overheard or just a thought you had. Share them.

Improve collaborative work Our group work belongs to all of us, and it is the record of what we’ve done together. If everyone spends an hour going in, cleaning up links, making new connections, fixing formatting… our work gets much better. Imagine you were working on a house together and you saw a part of the house unpainted. Get brush. Paint.

Detail your learning journey I’m going to learn WAY more from the ways that you have learned than from the final product of that learning. What wrong turns did you make? What were the important lessons that allowed you to move forward? What good ideas did you have that you didn’t have time to follow up?

Be responsible to your own learning If there’s something you don’t get, doesn’t make sense to you, or you don’t like, talk about it. But make sure you’re informed. The syllabus of a course like this (or in our case the learning contract) is a part of our ecosystem. Read it. Digest it. It sets the ground rules of the language we are using. Many times simply reading what other people have said or done, or reading the foundational documents, is enough to clear stuff up. These things belong to you.

Push yourself As an educator, I do my best to push my students. I like to think that coming together and giving bunches of hours of our time to learn together is worth caring about. There’s no sense committing 30-100 hours of your life to something and not get something out of it. Find new connections, new ideas, do things that are hard.

Do things that are hard… and come tell us about it.


Moving your teaching up the collaborative continuum – Week 5 ED366

I’ve had a number of students state their concern with how exactly they are meant to be collaborative in their teaching. If you see the video that I posted last week, you’ll see that i emphasized collaboration and interaction quite heavily. We’ve all seen the term ‘collaborative’ and ‘interactive’ used in any number of ways… so i thought i might try and break it down a bit.

[youtube_sc url=kf-C3DzUQDI width=500][youtube]

Rhizomatic learning – student centredness
The expression ‘student centred’ means different things to different people. For me it refers to a responsibility on the student’s part for the creation of things they are going to learn. I want my students to have control of what they are doing, as much as possible, so that they can feel like the learning is something that they own… however uncomfortable that can sometimes be 🙂

One of the things that the internet and associated collaborative technologies allow us is the possibility to connect in more direct ways. We do not need to go through the process of deciding what we want to talk about, months in advance, in order to get the books ordered on time. We don’t need to decide what’s going to happen before the students walk in the door. We can have access to any number of different kinds of content… and, more importantly, to the people and ideas behind that content.

We can let the community be the curriculum.

How does this help me plan for collaboration dave?

What i’m going to try and lay out is a continuum that runs out from the least to the most student control on the content. I would posit that the ‘content’ of a course is just an excuse, or at least, just a foundation, for getting accustomed to a context of a given field or discipline. We do need to get a sense of how language is used, and how concepts recombine in any new discipline, but definitions will hardly allow us to do that. We need to try things out, to test drive them, to see how they work out in conversation to really round the edges of our understanding. The content is part of that ecosystem, but not the goal of it.

A Collaboration Continuum – from a content perspective

Nameless person/company’s content that talks about your context

This is the least valuable, and potentially collaborative kind of content you can present to a class. Without the meat of who wrote a given piece of content, you can’t get any sense of what kind of thing the content is attached to. It can be very important as a foundation for other work, but it doesn’t allow for connection.

  • Textbooks/Manuals
  • Wikipedia (in a certain sense)

Other people’s content that talks about your context

This is a serious improvement form the last category. The internet is full of people with expertise (albeit outweighed by those without it) in whatever context you’re working in. Finding relevant people in a field, checking out their work, using their work to triangulate to other people and ideas… this is what knowledge building is all about. This could be a research article printed in the library, a blog post, a tweet… it doesn’t matter. It’s content, and it has a person attached to it. That’s a step in the right direction.

  • Journal articles/blogs
  • primary sources

Content you made to talk about your context

Some people might disagree with me on this one, but i’m a huge believer in making my own content. It may simple be the remixing of other people’s content (at some level, that’s all we do) or you might be writing everything from scratch, either way, being able to craft content directly to the students that you have, when you’ve actually met them, offers a host of possibilities.

  • Teacher blog
  • Customized resources

Content that you make collaboratively with others (maybe your students, maybe not) to talk about your context

This is where the magic really starts to turn on. At this point you have the potential to not only pass along the conventions of your field, how something works, or whatever, you can engage your students in the creation process of the knowledge that they are engaging with. Whether the students are themselves actually working with it, or whether they are around for the process, it allows them to not only see ‘the content’ but see how people engage with the content in a practical way.

  • Class wiki
  • In class projects

Content your students make individually to talk about your context

The next level of responsibility is empowering students to work on their own to make their own contributions to the process. The more other students see knowledge negotiation happening from their peers, the better. This might be as simple as a blog post or video.

  • Student created OER
  • Student blogs

Content your students make collaboratively to talk about your context

This is the most rhizomatic end of the continuum. From here students are not only engaging with the content, making knowledge with it in their own way, they are starting to make connections with that content. Learning how to use it with their peers, to build and make stuff with it, is an important step towards internalizing a context. To being able to work within a context… to learning.

  • Student collaboration via network feedback
  • Student supported collaborative projects

How is this helpful?
When you are planning your use of a technology for the classroom, try to keep your student in mind. It’s not necessary to have everything you lay your hand be collaborative, but put the student experience first and foremost in your mind, and think about what some of the collaborative technologies can allow them to do. Can they be part of the knowledge making process? The more that happens, the more they take control of their learning, and the better they learn.

At least… that’s how i see it 🙂

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.

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.
Article Stable URL:

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, the content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.