Online Learning Resources for people moving online in a hurry.

Before our Friday online teaching class I tweeted out a request for suggestions for the ONE THING that people would send someone if they were moving online for the first time.

The response was amazing. There are so many great educators out there doing good work right now, and so much good work that’s been done that is super useful to the situation we are all in. I have made an attempt to grab some of these links and put a little context around them so that people can skim through them. It’s the least I could do. Many folks delete their tweets nowadays, and looking through a twitter thread can be exhausting. I’m sorry if I missed your tweet. You can just add it to the end of the doc. I’ll check occasionally and sort them.

And just in case you were wondering about video… here’s a list of providers of simple video. Haven’t gotten a chance to break this one down yet. Maybe next week 🙂

Image credit:

What does success look like? card-playing edition

My only memories of my grandfather on my mother’s side are probably not really my own memories at all. I know he was universally beloved. A kind, hardworking man who’d had the first of his 11 children at 50 years old; he owned a farm in northern New Brunswick and lived to the ripe old age of 91 years. I was 7 when he died.

When I was young, maybe 4 or 5, I used to play cards with him in the kitchen of the ‘new’ farmstead (long since gone). One of those stories, and the one I remember best, is the one where I caught him cheating at Crazy Eights. I was, I am told, terribly appalled by the transgression. My 4-year-old fury, the story goes, was quite possibly the funniest thing my gentle, kind grandfather had ever seen.

And when I try and think about it, I can’t imagine that he was actually cheating in any real attempt to win. I have the vague memory of leaving the old house convinced that I was an excellent card player.

He must have been letting me win. And he was cheating.

Flash forward 40 or so years and my 10 year old returned from summer camp this year with a slightly worn deck of cards in her pocket. I had purchased this deck for her in the vague hope that she’d want to play with me. You see… I never really lost that love of card playing. That little boy who was taught to play cards by his grandfather wandered the beach every summer afterward looking to play cards with anyone either too polite to say no or too old to be able to get away in time. I bought my daughter the deck hoping that the kids and I could get ‘card playing’ into our repertoire so that we’d have something else fun to do on our wanders around Ontario.

And now, here she is, stalking me with a deck of cards in her hand. All I can see is Matante* Carmelle and Matante Janinne shaking their heads at the cottage in the summer as I asked them to play dame-de-pic. So the 10 year old sits me down and explains her new card game to me. She shows me her new shuffling skills… clearly her time at camp was not wasted. She’s got this evil, card shark grin on her face that I don’t really recognize… a new look for an almost 11 year-old girl.

We play. I win.

Is that really what success looks like?

As I sit here this summer trying to collect my thoughts about how our practices in education don’t actually match our goals, I’m left a little embarrassed I worked so hard to beat a 10 year old. The oft-repeated, and silently bemoaned, mantra that I repeat to my kids all the time is “What goal do you have for that job? What does success look like?”

I sit here in my basement a little bemused at how i could have missed success by so much.

If you made it through the story above, my goal for the card game was obvious… I want her to keep playing. While I suppose it’s possible that playing a 10 year old with every cut-throat piece of skill you’ve learned in 40 years of card playing is ‘encouraging’…it’s not terribly likely.

I did complement her on shuffling, and did engage her in card-based fun conversations, but, as soon as the shuffle dropped, I fell back to the zero sum winning-means-winning approach that my own 10 year old self took on at the beach so many years ago.

It’s not like I didn’t have a good model to work from. My grandfather clearly had his goals sorted when he was sitting on that little corner table with me so many years ago. He wanted to play with his grandson. There are only so many games shared between 80-somethings and a 4 year old, and this was the place he chose for us. And we played. And, when he got bored, he cheated a little… probably to help me win.

Instead, my daughter learned that the reason for playing IS winning, which she promptly demonstrated by using the same cut-throat mentality I had taught her when she played with her mother an hour later. And she beat her mother.

While I do think that learning how to win can be a super useful skill – it lacks context. Her mother wasn’t trying to win… she just wanted to spend time with her daughter.

How then, do we define success in learning?

I succeeded, I guess, in teaching my girl success in the simplest sense of the way a game can be played: stay on top of the game. Ignore social cues in order to maintain top competition readiness. See success in a strict mathematical sense.

This is the danger, I think, of ever thinking of the learning process as games-based. As the superficial sense of ‘winning’ is so easy to see, so easy to measure, it’s easy for us to slide into our habits and wash away the complexity that lives underneath. There is not likely going to be any advantage to my daughter thinking of cards as a game to enter with the sole purpose being ‘winning’. I mean, I guess she could be a professional card sharper or something, but I’m not sure that that’s a future I would hope for.

Not really my goal.

My goal was to have something for us to do together while we were out enjoying weekend rides out into the country. Something to share. Learning how to work together, to weave competitiveness with social awareness. To see games as a way to become better acquainted with someone, rather than to express dominance. Hard things to measure. My sense is that it’s the kind of thing we can only model. The best teachers I can think of were curious, and giving, and socially aware of the people around them.

Thinking education

The blog post previous to this one was a history of how the desire to use assessment for gatekeeping, for bureaucratic advantage and to encourage student effort lead to our current state of mathematical obsessiveness with grades. Where we saw success as a number that, however artificially created, is the true sense in which we see learning. And, by extension, how we move our learning to objective, extrinsic motivators for reasons that, strictly speaking, have nothing to do with learning.

I’m left thinking about how I can do better with my own kids in encouraging intrinsic motivation. I want them to want to play cards with me because we have fun together when we do it.

It’s the same kind of intrinsic motivation that I want from the education system. So much of our system is defined and constrained by how we measure success. So often we default to the easy measurement, to the convenient measurement, and lose our way altogether. It may be that the way we model learning as teachers is the only real learning that happens in the classroom. I should pay more attention to my grandpa.

note: Matante is an acadian slurring of ‘ma tante’ (my aunt). For the first 8 years of my life, I thought the word ‘aunt’ was ‘matante’ instead of ‘tante’

Digital learning for everyone – project management + socio-emotional support

I’m into Year Two (of two) leading digital strategy for the K-12 system here in PEI. I landed in a wonderful situation where almost all the hardware (computers and wires) system-wide had just been replaced when I arrived, and where the educators and curriculum/governance people involved are interested in having conversations about a way forward. But we want a way forward for everyone. How do we make a plan that is inclusive, that develops web literacy and helps support our learners becoming good digital citizens? I’ve become really interested in trying to build some key strategies into the process to help everyone succeed. This is where that thinking is at now.

Where we are in the digital strategy
Year One was mostly about setting the stage for change.

  1. We’ve built a system wide committee with decision making responsibilities (more on this in another post)
  2. We’ve built a platform to house curriculum and resources for each course
  3. We’ve developed a two course approach to building literacy (my own digital practices course and Google Certified Educator)
  4. We’ve identified and started working on a massive list of things that need attention
  5. We’re working on grants and partnerships to bring cool stuff (and training) to the system

The targets we’re looking to address
Digital citizenship
This one is first because it’s the most important. We need to understand what literacies we need to be good members of our society in a world that has the internet in it. The internet can give us access to wonderful things, and it also contains piles of people who are purposely trying to mislead us so they can make money off of ads. The internet has entertainment for us and also has terrifying Peppa Pig videos. I would love to be part of a society where each individual is trying to make good choices based on their values and not on fears stoked by some kid in Veles.

For so many reasons. Once we start talking about technology, the idea of gender equality inevitably comes up. And it should. Our numbers around tech and girls are still not great and there is still way more work to be done. But there are lots of other issues in here as well. Technology (as its often taught) favours the autodidact. It also favours people who have certain kinds of support at home, whether it be access to tech or the habits that are privileged by our education system. I have seen countless folks over the years, big and small, who come to this work with a great deal of fear. I like to think that I have helped some of them succeed through that, but how do you plan that for a system?

Silicon Valley Narrative
I could call this a lot of different things, but lets just say that it’s the ‘we all need to be coders because coding is the future’ argument. The idea that the purpose of this technology is somehow that we are all going to make millions or have nice cushy jobs pushing the world through its fourth revolution. Go and read Hack Education. It’s amazing and will cover these issues way better than I can. Suffice it to say there are more reasons to work on internet things than coding. Coding isn’t bad… it’s just not some panacea that will save the children.

Technology is hard
Well… it is. I have no interest in taking something like an Arduino, or blogging or web literacy and breaking it into tiny bits that will slowly combine over 13 years in our education system. I want each interaction with this stuff to be meaningful, so that means it’s going to be hard to do. I’m not terribly worried about that. Kids are actually quite smart if you let them be. But it’s important always to remember that this stuff can be difficult technically, socially and emotionally.

Project management and socio-emotional support – a partnership
My solution to address this has developed over 15 years. Much of it comes from my experience working with the concepts around rhizomatic learning and watching people struggle to come-to-know using the rhizomatic approach. My approach is based in hundreds of conversations with educators, research I did for Academic Planning at UPEI two years ago, researchy stuff and lots of time spent staring out the window.

Project Management
Nothing has had a bigger impact of my professional career than learning how manage a project properly. I certainly wouldn’t claim that I have fully reached that goal, but it’s something I’m working on constantly. I’ve learned to ask questions like: What is the real goal we’re working on? What change are we trying to make in the world? What objectives will tell me that I’m getting there? What strategies will I use? Who will do the actions? When?

I’d like to see these concepts applied constantly to our work around tech. We do…kinda. What I’m hoping to encourage (I don’t write the curriculum, I’m working with the people who do) is that we standardize the language around project management and the literacies required. We can use it with 7 year old and with 17 year olds. Imagine a school system graduating people that could directly go into the workforce with strong project management skills. Forget about the workforce. Just imagine how much easier it would be for them to plan a weekend party.

Some people seem to come out of the womb with these skills. I am one of the legion that did not.

Socio-emotional support
I’ve waffled on what to call this. I started out by calling it resilience… but I’m finding that I don’t like the connotations sometimes attached to this. Resilience also, to me, suggests that growth as a human is somehow just about sucking it up and trying harder. That’s not what I mean here. I’m talking more about that reflection that allows you to process your feelings when you’re working. The pressure of idea generation. The frustration when something doesn’t work. That feeling you’re falling behind. What do we do about those things? Is it really about just trying harder?

I’ve been walking around with an Arduino kit in my backpack and doing a little test with it. I’ve been putting it in front of people, opening it up and asking them how it makes them feel. Some people say they are really excited by it. Most are not. The majority of the response I get sits somewhere between revulsion and fear. That kind of response doesn’t encourage learning.

How do we build supports to work and talk our way through those feelings, as learners of whatever age? How do we encourage the kind of reflection that allows people to ‘succeed’ AND feel supported and good about themselves in the process?

Putting them together
I think both approaches get stronger when you think of them as a team. Some learners will certainly favour one approach over the other – but I’m fine with that. Structured conversations about what your goal looks like and how to create a timeline are going to keep people on task and give them success milestones. Reflecting on your feelings in that process – “What did you do when you felt like you were lost in the process?” “How did you deal with having too many ideas (or none)?” and, eventually, “How did your idea generation impact your project charter? Did you have to change your timelines?” is important too.

I would love to see us focus our assessment on these two things. I don’t particularly care if your tech project is perfect, or all the lights blink or whatever… what I care about is how much you’ve grown through that process. Did you develop your search literacies when you got stuck? Did you hit your timelines? Did your goal change as you learned more about the process?

I’m not 100% convinced that this needs to stop at digital. I can totally see it applied in the exact same way to a science project or an essay. Imagine if we focused all the project work we work around those two pieces? If we all used the same language, and pulled together towards preparing our kids to have healthy approaches to running projects?

Wish me luck 🙂

Designing online learning from the ground up for k12

I’ve been facilitating a variety of conversations in the passed few weeks here in PEI working towards a plan for k12 education. It’s been a fascinating glimpse into all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes in the system. This week I moved to a part of the work that I’m really excited about. We’re talking about what a fully online course could look like. There has certainly been lots of experimentation by teachers in online spaces here in PEI, and we’re going to build on those as we can. Our goal is to lay out a pedagogy for online spaces that takes full advantage of the affordances of the web and tries to make a rich, welcoming experience for students.

I thought I might lay out my initial discussion topics here and see what you all think. I’d love your feedback on them. This list is not meant to be exhaustive in any way but rather is an attempt to get experienced f2f educators thinking about how the web is different and how it can be, in some ways at least, better.

Why are we going to teach online?
At the start of any project, I like to get a clear sense of why something is being done. There are tons of reasons to want to put a course online, it may be that you are interested in providing more flexibility for students, you may want to develop digital literacies, you may want to offer new and interesting choices. It’s also a good time to clear up a few issues. A good online course, for instance, is not going to save anyone money, at least not in a straightforward way. You still need the same student/teacher ratio, students still need to be evaluated and guided and nurtured.

A clear sense of the goals, and which goals are the most important will go a long way towards keeping a complex project like this one on track.

Translating good practice to the web – It’s not a tool problem
It is easy, and understandable, that a person considering teaching online be worried about what tools they will be using. The tools, however, are just that. They are the things you use to teach, not the teaching or the learning itself. Just like your whiteboard or a storybook is not the teaching, the tools and resources you’ll use online are not the goal. We need to think deeply about our f2f teaching practice, the little things we do to encourage, to calm, to help students see – we need to think about how we are going to make the heart of teaching happen online.

We’ve been doing a variety of exercises where we try and visualize the first five minutes of class time. The hellos to students. Noticing that one kid looks a little sad today. Another one is distracted. All these little pieces that make our classrooms work. How do we accomplish it online? Are there methods we can use to make our online place feel like home? What else do we need to tell students that we would normally just handle in the classroom?

Collaborating online – working together… differently
It is a rare classroom these days that has students sitting silently listening to teachers and then silently doing assignments. It happens. And can sometimes be appropriate, but with collaboration being an increasingly important part of the world we all live in, those collaboration skills are more important than ever. And it’s better learning. And more fun. The web can be an exciting place for collaborative learning. There’s more space for people to talk. People who find it difficult to think deeply and talk at the same time have more time to consider their responses. More voices can talk to one issue.

But how do we control dominant voices? How do we adapt our activities so that students can do their work? Are we going to work in the open or in a walled garden (or both)?

Motivation and pacing
Assuming that there is going to be some collaboration in the course, students are going to need to be paced through the learning together. We have to assume that every student taking an online course is taking one for the first time. Working online requires that students are more responsible for their timelines. We need to consider how much responsibility we are going to take for their motivation and how we are going to structure the course accordingly.

Will they check their emails? Will we do live sessions to provide those critical check-in moments? Will we use available analytics to track students and help catch students at the moment they are falling behind instead of after? Lots of check-in moments on long assignments to make sure they’re on track?

Differentiation and UDL
Teaching online offers an interesting opportunity to address issues of differentiation in the classroom. Adding additional resources for students with different challenges could be a great way to help them learn. It could also lead to ghettoization in the course. These issues are easy to address in a classroom, as you see cliques develop, but you have to watch a little more closely online. We need to think deeply about all of our students and how they are going to respond to working in an online space.

We need to do UDL. ’nuff said.

And… some tool stuff
Inevitably we’re going to talk tools. I keep trying to hold this conversation off so we can focus on the pedagogy… but its hard. People need to see what something looks like in order to understand fundamental concepts. I’ve been trying to pull together some exemplars of good online teaching… I can show them mine, of course, but as I generally start with an empty shell and have the students build it, it’s difficult to show them if they haven’t experienced it.

We talked about live sessions and if we need them. About the value of pictures of people for context. We talked about screencasting. And Moodle. And google classrooms. And analytics. Lots of fun discussion.

I’m super excited to see how this whole thing develops. Keep sending me whatever you’ve got. The more context we have the better 🙂

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

MOOCs as ecologies – or – why i work on MOOCs

Finally a few minutes with me putting down my new guitar attachment, the cottage plans and the general fun of having a two and a five year old and a partner doing her phd to talk about some of the interesting work coming up. I haven’t been engaged in much of the debate around where the ‘massive open online course’s (MOOCs) and am going to try to not get too chippy here. Actually, I’ll get that out of the way in the pre-amble.

  1. No. MOOCs wont do everything. I would never do an ‘academic writing’ mooc, nor would i do one for beginning singing. Some things need lots of feedback and guidance because there’s a very well established “RIGHT WAY” that you should understand before you go breaking the rules.
  2. I, at least, don’t know what i’m doing yet (assuming i ever will) with MOOCs. Criticizing the concept because i haven’t done it right yet is like hating “friend of the devil” because you heard me play it on the guitar.

So what are we trying to do when we teach?
In my last post I was talking a little about how the learning experience is heavily impacted by how we feel about knowledge. I used the example of the new food plate (which has replace the food pyramid) for two reasons. First, it shows how the things we would like to think of as ‘true’ tend to change over time. It’s also a really good example of how we tend to ‘bureaucratize’ what we know in order to be able to market it. We all know that there are people who are vegetarian, who can’t eat wheat or milk, or who, for some reason or other, don’t fit into that generalization about food. There is a vast, wide ranging field of opinions around food and eating, and the food plate represents the a sort of broad concession. And while I agree that following the ‘food plate’ is better than eating chips and soda for breakfast, it doesn’t exactly invest us with the power to make our own decisions does it?

So what are we trying to do when we teach?

A. Are we trying to pass along the arcane habits of academic writing or do, re, me… these are things that have accepted standards, the knowing of which is necessary for some things. This is accepted knowledge we can point to.
B. Are we trying to encourage people to come to know something… about themselves, about the world. This is the kind of thing that will be different for everyone.
C. Are we trying to do B by acting like it’s an A thing? Are we trying to have people come to know about themselves or the world, to have an opinion or get their mind around a concept by pretending that there is a ‘true’ way to do it.

To go back to our food plate example. The food plate is an A type piece of knowledge. It says ‘eat this way’. I, however, would say that there is no ‘right way’ to eat. Different things work for different people. We all have different bodies, different budgets, different families, different lifestyles and different climates… all these things impact what we should, can and will eat. Eating is, by our chart here, a very B type activity. What the government can’t do, though, is have that ‘tell me about yourself’ conversation with every single person, so they resort to the C approach, they shove some of what we know into a chart and send it out across the country… into schools. We take the network of knowledge, shove it into a graphic, and send it out. This also makes things much easier to assess whether someone ‘knows how to eat”… but i’ll leave that to my next blog post.

My first post on ecologies for learning comes is from 2007. In it i describe how a coffee shop that i spent alot of time in at university ended up being the place where i learned the most. I was thinking of that coffee shop as a metaphor for Edtechtalk, which, six years in, continues to be an ecology in which teachers come to learn every week about themselves, about others and about how people feel about issues and technologies in the field of education. It is a place where that B style learning takes place. There are many people in those discussions who are considered experts and others with very little experience, but there is no ‘right way’ of what and how to learn established there. It’s messy and sometimes difficult and I can’t imagine how you would measure it, but most people agree that they learn lots.

And it’s a community. I can’t just tell it what to do. I can’t say “look, I want to focus on this particular topic over here for the next ten weeks in order to further my understanding of that field.” It resists being directed not out of spite, but just because it’s not that kind of thing. Imagine trying to tell all of your friends that instead of heading to the movies, you’d like them to sit around for six hours and read Foucault. For ten weeks. Well… maybe your friends, but i don’t think i could get away with that here… So… MOOCs

There are times when you want to focus on a certain thing and when other people want to learn about a certain thing. This is why we have schools and courses and stuff. There is a demand to learn something, and other people fulfill that demand. The problem is… I want things to stay like they do with edtechtalk. I want people to be able to come to the ‘course’ and get out of it what they want to get out of it, and possibly come to conclusions very different from mine. But, at the same time, I want to keep on the topic long enough to understand how i feel about it.

During our PLENK2010 course last year, this is exactly what happened. After about five weeks of writing blog posts, I finally understand how I felt about the idea of “personal learning environments“. As you can tell from the comments in the blog post and the ones previous to it… not everyone agreed with me. And that’s just as it should be… for most things.

MOOCs provide an ecology for sustained engagement with a topic without resorting to bureaucratizing knowledge

That’s only for experience learners
In two blog posts… David Wiley positions the challenges to MOOCs very nicely here and here. I encourage you to see George Siemens’ response over on his connectivism blog… I am only going to take up one part of David’s comments. David seems to be suggesting that it is the job of an teacher to both present a structured view of a domain or field AND present it in the way that bear the most resemblance to an INDIVIDUAL learners existing knowledge network. In his words…

Hiding inside the word instruction is structure. This is what teachers are supposed to do, I believe – present a structured view of a domain. Even though there is more than one way to invision the structure of the network, that doesn’t mean that novices are ready to deal with that level of abstraction right away. They need a help. A great teacher is someone who manages to present the view of the structure which bears the closest resemblance to a learner’s existing knowledge network.

This could only be possible if… 1. Every learner had the same knowledge network (or, say, life) 2. The teacher had an unlimited amount of time to figure out what each individual learner had going on in their head (assuming this is even possible) 3. The thing that people needed to know was very easy to pin down.

I would contend that as we can’t modify the learner, or the time, what we do is MAKE the knowledge easy to pin down… and break it in the process.

If the MOOC challenges anything, it challenges the idea that a teacher can decide what people need to know, how much they currently know and what they should get out of the learning process. You can’t. You just can’t do it, not consistently, not over time, not for the majority of your students, not for millions of teachers. The solution presented by the MOOC is that the learner should begin to take control of how and what they are to learn.

I don’t think that the MOOC favours “sufficiently prepared” learners. It actually really irritates and confuses lots and lots of people who are considered VERY prepared learners. And, well, i guess I’ll find out how that works out when we do our “MOOC on Basic Skills for university” in the fall. It’s specifically intended for the people I think David is talking about. Success in a university is partially about knowing what some things mean (see the videos we’re making). They need to know what a syllabus is, what a professor is, what social contract they are getting into. But the path of their success is something that will be very individualized. I can’t tell 30 people, at one time, what is going to make them the most successful. There are broad generalizations that are helpful… going to class is better than not going to class… but they really need to find their own strategy.

The learner needs to develop their own path. MOOCs, hopefully, provide enough structure, an ecology even, in which they can do that. At least… that’s what I’m trying to do.

Overcoming obstacles – a practical guide

This is the title of a presentation I’m going to be giving to the elearning support team from PEI k-12 on Wednesday. It’s my first time being asked to speak here, and I’m pretty excited about the opportunity to meet these people and get a sense of the challenges they face. My kids are 3 and 5 years away from the school system, so my interest is not merely academic. And No. this blog post isn’t the practical guide, but i think it wouldn’t hurt if we all created one. (or, better, found the one that someone is already building and added to it. I just wanted to think outloud about a few concepts and maybe ask you folks for some of your stories about obstacles you’ve met and how you overcame them.

Overcoming obstacles – being ready
I think the most important strategy for overcoming obstacles is to accept that they are coming… with a certain amount of equanimity. You will not run a web-based project without running into difficulties. It may be that people have forgotten their password, it may be, as once happened to me, that any time the students started circling each other in OpenSim the server would asplode. wipe hands. reboot. They will come, and I think a risk assessement, however informal, is critical to any web based learning project no matter how small. A default password for handing out just in case, a plan for doing your planning for the webbased project while the site isn’t working… it never hurts to have these things in the back of your mind.

Overcoming obstacles – needs and wants assessment and flexibility
Oh my. This is a bad one. On a pretty much daily basis someone says to me ” i have this plan, and I want to get students to X”. My response is usually some variation of simplicity. ‘Use wordpress’ for instance. The invariable next response i get is “that doesn’t do ‘exactly’ what i want it to do. And that is the place where you need (if you have the time) to dig in. You need to make two lists, the list of things that absolutely need to be in the project or it isn’t of interest or use to do and a list of things you would prefer for a variety of reasons. That second list is one that you have to be willing to cross things off of. Complexity is the killer of projects. The more things you cross off that second list the better the chance of actually starting the project and people actually finishing. Just send people the chart, with a line between the two questions… seriously, people love to have charts to fill in when they are interested in a project. The chart serves a secondary purpose. People unwilling to fill in a needs chart are not really interested in doing a project.

Overcoming obstacles – know thyself
You (or your client) really need to know what they are trying to accomplish. I saw clarence fisher’s idea hive video a couple of days ago when i asked him for something that represented the work that he does in his classroom. It’s the theory, the idea behind what they are trying to do. It is very difficult to feel good about success when you don’t know what you were trying to do in the first place. Getting the software to work is not success. Having kids writing get better is.

Overcoming obstacles – Finding other people
It is much, much easier to start working IN someone else’s project than it is to start another one. Far better to join youthvoices for a writing community than to try and develop, deploy and find a new community. I understand as well as anyone the temptation to be the person who starts something, to want to have the thing exactly as you like. But, and I feel pretty confident about this, no single person is going to come up with the best way to do any project. Your first draft ideas are probably not going to be anywhere near perfect. Work with the work of others, help make their work better and, if, after that, you still feel like starting your own go ahead. Your work will be much better for the time you took.

Overcoming obstacles – learning communities
You can’t collaborate alone (JM). Find learning communities. Connect with other people like you. You can all come to edtechtalk, we’d love to have you. There are tons of other great ways to communicate. Find one (or several) you like. If you are at all careful IT WILL SAVE YOU TIME. seriously.

Overcoming obstacles – be a smarty pants, be resilient, be whatever you need to be, just don’t give up.
I asked my good buddy John Schinker to do a little video talking about his experience working with Teachers without borders this summer. Some of the challenges they faces were ridiculous. How do you train people to use technology in a school without power? How do you form community with someone who needs to take A BOAT to get to the nearest internet cafe? Well… you can. you just need to want to. And you need to not give up. Here’s the youtube video. If you’re coming to the presentation… Don’t watch it! (jk. you can watch it again on wednesday)

Overcoming obstacles – please add your strategies and stories. pls pls. comments. your blog. tweets… they’ll aggregate here.

Why we do assignments – Generative Art at UNCSA and introduction to emerging tech

I’m always a bit torn when I’m in a position where I’m designing a course and looking towards creating specific assignments that students must complete. There is a sense in which creating a fully delineated, constructed course denies much of the work I’ve done and my own experience. I think that

  • Learning and knowledge building are contextual
  • Different people come to their knowledge constructing differently
  • No two communities ever go at the same pace
  • No one assignment or list of assignments will ever produce the same results (except by accident)

So when I look at the assignments that we included in the Intro to emerging tech course at the UofM I’m always thinking ‘maybe we could have done more of this or that’ and… while the syllabus is in a wiki, I kinda think that we should probably keep the one we started with, as we stated that we would do that. The biggest reason that I can be comfortable with it, is the REASON why I assign assignments in my courses.

In the long history of education I think we’ve lost our initial reasons for doing some of the things we do. The assignment and the essay have reified themselves into ends in their own right and have lost many of the initial reasoning for them. An essay, for instance, has become a proving ground, a place where a professor/educator can ‘verify’ whether or not a given student has correctly understood the work that they are covering in a course. They are correcting the ‘works cited page’ and the ‘thesis’ in order to ensure that those are being done correctly, but often broken down too far and never united in a vision of academic motion. If we should be doing essay’s at all, it should be to prepare for the practical application of the essay to life. Whether that ‘practical’ explanation is the publication of papers in academic journals or the submission to a creative writing magazine… they can be practical… but I’ve yet to meet a first year university student that understands this. We teach things in pieces, without recognizing the whole. The other reason, of course, is to develop the literacies that are necessary for the writing of that essay.

When i assign any assignment, I’m hoping to do a couple of things. I’m offering, first and foremost, a practical application for the exploration that we are doing in any given course. I want students to explore literacies, for instance, by trying to do something they have never done before. The product of that exploration, the actual, say, podcast, is not nearly as important as the exploration of their own strengths and challenges that goes on during that assignment. In order to capture this, I like to offering challenging assignments and heartily encourage my students to work together to try and come up with solutions… and especially encourage them to post their challenges and learning to some kind of sharing space (forum, blog etc…) so that others can see their learning happening. If twenty different people expose their learning process, people get the sense of the variety of challenges that people run into, the variety of strategies and then, if like me you often teach teachers, have a better sense of the challenges that their own students will face.

I’m fortunate in the course, in having a ‘pass/fail’ system for grading. I can, hopefully, give students a sense of the responsibility they have for both their own learning and for exposing that learnign process to their peers without having to track each individual step and judge them against a rubric that I’ve made up. This is the heart of the kind of teaching that I try to do. The challenge, and the comming together that can happen at points of challenge, are on of the key strategies that I use to try to create a community of learning in my ‘courses’. The challenge, as one of my colleagues suggested to me a few months ago, is that doing this online with people who don’t feel the same transparency to the internet that I do, can be a bit challenging.

One of the great f2f examples of how I would love to be able to teach all the time came across my screen this week when I ran into Dean Wilcox and Bob King’s excellent generative art course at the University of North Carolina School or the Arts. I sent those folks and email and they sent me a link to their course website. I’m sure that teaching this kind of art presents it’s own struggles, but man, that course looks compelling. Their blog and their wiki show the same struggles that I was talking about in this post… and their solution is quite a nice one. This is what the next few weeks entail

Thursday, Feb 10: Discuss: Third Project.
Tuesday, Feb 12: Readings: To be determined.
Thursday, Feb 17: Discussion: Readings and Parameters for the forth project.
Tuesday, Feb 19: Present: Forth Project.
Thursday, Feb 24: Discuss: Forth Project.
Tuesday, Feb. 26: Readings: To be determined.
Thursday, March 3: Discussion: Readings and Parameters for the fifth project.
Tuesday March 5: Present: Fifth Project.
Thursday March 10: Present: Fifth Project.
Final Exam: Thursday, March 12 – 9:00 am-11:00 am.
Note: Syllabus subject to change.

I particularly like the ‘note’ at the bottom of the page. If you are looking at this thinking that ‘oh, they’re just doing art stuff’ I challenge you to do the reading that were ‘determined’ for the week of the blog post i read.

With the five readings for today, for example, (non-dualism, Taoism, chaos theory, ‘Pataphysics, and rhizome – which amounted to Eastern spirituality, science, avant-garde, and post-structuralism)

They are trying to make the reading relevant to the groups of students they are working with, making a curriculum as contextual as they can, and working their way to actually responding to the needs of their students. I encourage you to wander over and watch the videos of the student projects. It is far more difficult to teach this way, but, i think, it is the future of really good teaching. You really do need to be what George Siemens would call an expert (a person who has had ’10 years’ of direct experience in a subject) in order to teach this way. It requires experience as an educator, and experience in the field. It may, actually, be the future of university learning as a whole.

There’s a prediction for ya 😛

How to choose the right CMS for Education

About an hour ago I saw a tweet from All-Canadian uber-online edugeek Alec Couros saying

How to choose the right CMS –

To which I responded

@courosa i think that’s the worst article on that subject I’ve ever read

Now in all of my discussions with folks about online learning, community building and network knowledge construction my constant refreain is always about responsibility. You are responsible for the things that you say, and to pass on the things that you think that you know on to the rest of the folks in your community. It is not particularly essential that you are ‘right’ but rather that you share the best of what you have in the hopes that it helps other folks find their own right… even if that right is by disagreeing with just about everythign that you say… Which is what I’m going to do with this post from “Webmaster Depot”disagreeing, as it were, from my position as an educator/webdude working on the projects that I have.

<--Boring dave CMS background-->
I’ve been smashing around in CMSs for about four years now, starting after I gave up trying to build my own websites by hand. I was on the bandwaggon when Elgg 0.2 came out and wrote some (for me) considered commentary about how I thought it could take a direction that would be better for the kinds of work that I’d be doing. I got out of the Elgg game just around 0.8 when I realized that the concerns that I had were getting worse rather than better… and those projects had spawned two 1500+ collaborative student projects in that wholelly ‘non-managed’ environment, with a user interface that seemed built more to support the technology than promote the user. I think, also, that it is an anti-PLE which also hurt it a bit. I’ve been running Drupal’s for a few years (started as 4.6 was turning to 4.7), manage a 100 multisite installation at UPEI and also help work on a variety of other drupal sites, including and This blog is in wordpress and has been since July 2005 (don’t be fooled by the archive, we had a total server crash in 2006 and I repopulated the old posts from googlecache. I’ve also played around with probably 10 or more others (notably mediawiki, which i wont touch anymore)… I’ve also stopped running moodle, mostly for philosophical reasons, as I’d rather a platform designed to be open rather than designed along institutional guidelines that I have no interest in replicating in my classrooms.
<--end of boring background-->

First… and lets face it… the webdesigner depot has alot of ads on this page which specifically correspond to the content being talked about, so I’ll give our friend a break on the way the article is written… we all have to make a living. It’s easy for me to claim I don’t do ads here as I don’t really get enough traffic to make it worthwhile and my RSS feed has been broken for weeks… and I can’t even get around to fixing it. We are not in the same business.

Why you should use a CMS
The main reason for using a CMS is that it makes your content portable. It allows you to easily export your content to relevant places (say send an RSS feed to a community of practice that you find interesting) or export your content to the next-best-thing that comes out three years from now. The pain of using something like dreamweaver (curse you dreamweaver 4) is that that is pretty much what your stuck with. A content management system will also allow things like user authentication and slightly easier content creation, but these are all things with a possible downside. The reason you should absolutely positively be using a CMS is portabillity. Our fearless reader claims that ease of content editing and creation should be your main driving factor… it can be easy… but this can be a curse. Ease of content creation can often lead to a very huge mess… (see most mediawikis)

On the 5 Common mistakes mentioned in my foil of an article
Number 1 and 5 seem to be both suggesting that you should “not trust the IT guy”. That is, don’t choose the supergeeky CMS. While I agree that choosing the most complicated and perhaps the most elegant CMS is not necessarily going to do the job, the top spot on his list of CMSs is drupal, which can be a real monster to set up and administer. We used to have a drupal academy at worldbridges… trust me… it’s not that simple to administer. It can be easy to create an entire website and allow users ‘content creation’ access… but you will not be able to turn ‘adminstration of drupal’ over to most clients. As an educator approaching drupal, understand, it IS the geeks choice. If you are serious about it, buy Bill Fitzgerald’s book and set aside a significant amount of time… it’s worth it if you’re serious about it… but it can be a tough nut.

Number 2 and 3 suggest that you should choose a CMS based on wether the community is large or whether it is small. I guess I can’t technically disagree with that… but you should choose it partly based on the community. More on this later.

Number 4 suggests that you shouldn’t ‘just pick one without researching it’… umm… I agree. But suggesting something that couldn’t possibly be false doesn’t feel like much help really. “pick anything at all!”

His 5 things to look for are
1. Quick and easy installation – no. no no no. Ease of installation is not necessarily connected to success. It can be a suggestion of how much the developers care about their users… it can also be the only thing they focused on. Ignore this.
2. Simple administration interface – umm… no. Good user adminstration… yes. simple can be an illusion. If you are going to go through lots of content over many many years, you want to have the things that you need.
3. Quick and easy extension of CMS for extra functionality – ok. I agree with this.
4. Simple template manipulation – yes.
5. Helpful user community – yes.

What to do if you are looking for a CMS

  1. Ask yourself why you are trying to do this by yourself. A CMS requires server space, at least the vaguest of understandings of how that can work and some idea of security issues on the internet. Find someone else’s CMS and use it.
  2. Ask yourself if getting a CMS is worth the time and money to do a grant application to find someone to help you. If you are very serious about starting some kind of educational project because you have a fantastic idea, the time put into planning a grant application (even if you don’t get it) will force you to really think about what you are trying to get out of it. Hire someone who has done this before, even if its only for one day.
  3. I like to put CMSs into three simple categories based on the CMSs that I think of as being best of breed in the open market right now. Do you want to do a wordpress project, a moodle project or a drupal project. (you could also say ‘a project, a moodlehosted project or a ning project if you don’t care about controlling your data… which i do… but you may not)
  4. If you are debating between two different projects, choose the simpler one. running a CMS is a pain, and it will take you about a year to get comfortable with it. If you plan on doing this for a long time, it is very worth it, but it is a real commitment. Do not let the ease of setup mislead you. Your first wordpress upgrade where ‘things stop showing up’ will probably surprise you, but the ‘white screen of death’ is a very common sight to people who host CMSs
  5. Get your data sorted out. Don’t worry about what it looks like. The biggest mistake that people make is saying “i don’t like how that looks”. One of the cool advantages of a database driven website is that you can move the stuff around and make it pretty as you go along. What you can’t do so easily is tag your data properly after the fact. I still curse my lack of categories on my blog and the lack of CCK organization in some of my drupals. Know what you are going to try and do and get ready for how you are going to use it later.

The three choices
WordPress – It gets a little more powerful every six months or so. I’m not sure this is a good thing, as it seems to be a little more fragile than it used to be (that is, slightly more fragile than a mountain, which is how I felt about it two years ago) It is very easy to install, easy to manage and can allow for a fair amount of flexibility. If you want to get online, and do some cool stuff and manage your own content. This is a pretty nice place to be. All the RSS feeds by category you could want (very useful for sending feeds by categories to other communities), some pretty cool add-ons that allow you to do most things on the net. Handles media well… This is a great PLE.

Moodle – As I mentioned earlier, I don’t really install this anymore (liar! I just installed it to test out a few themes for a friend) but I do teach with it at the University of Manitoba. If you are concerned with security, and want to work in a dark hole away from the nasty outside internets… this is perfect. The security is built in, can be layered and is easy to administer. You can have different courses and things closed to the world and things that are open. Good for teaching (in a traditional top-down approach I would argue… but that’s just me) and good for use with kids as I’ve never heard of the security having been broken into. (no guarantees… but I haven’t heard of it) Not so good handling media, but you can do it.

Drupal – oh the love/hate i have for this software. I use it all the time. I particularly like to teach with it. It allows for very subtle control over content, for, some very interesting monitoring and redirecting of traffic and really can do anything. Of course that’s exactly the problem… it can do anything. My general statement about drupal is that you should probably give yourself two years to learn how to do cool things with it. You are probably better off finding someone’s version of drupal to install and work from… building an educational environment from scratch can be tough… but they are cool. This would be a good thing to go after a bit of cash for. Check out

CMSs are alot of work. They can be very rewarding… but just ask yourself. Why do I want to become a publisher? If you have a good answer to this question, most CMSs will probably get you somewhere. I’ve worked a great deal with the three above and can pretty much tell you that, if the downsides don’t bother you, they’ll do what you want them to. Given time. And backups. Lots and lots of backups.

Community participation, responsibility and defending lurking – introduction to emerging tech week 5

Listening my way through a series of podcasts created by the students of the intro to emerging tech course being taught through the University of Manitoba. The two papers at issue this week are on Communities of Practice and Why Lurkers Lurk (.pdf) . They’re a nicely matched pair for introducing ideas around the contributions that people make in a community learning environment, and seemed to strike a chord with our students in both the live discussions and in the podcasts that the students created in response to this week’s reading as well.

Response no 1 – I’m bad because I lurk
By far the overwhelming response from the students who have posted their podcasts (hem hem to you who have not) is that they felt a little ashamed of their lurking in their learning. There is some feeling that the word ‘lurk’ presents too negative a feeling based on the meaning that the word caries over from other context… but this isn’t the meat of the response. There is almost a sense in which the podcaster/students seem to feel like they are cheating themselves by lurking… like they are somehow “doing it wrong.” There is another, more traditional interpretation, in which they feel like they aren’t contributing to a community and are parasites on the work of others… but I find this ‘doing it wrong’ idea a compelling one. Where is this ‘right’ that they are comparing against? Is this another example of our traditional learning models looming…?

The students are drawing a tight connection between their own offline propensity for sitting ‘on the outside’ and not directly participating and their preference for luking online. (which does seem confusing as they feel like their offline learning is not ‘wrong’) And, as they progress from the lurker article to the community of practice article they find the language that they need in ‘legitimate peripheral participation’… lurking with a purpose, as it were.

“‘the purpose is not to learn from talk as a substitute for legitimate peripheral participation; it is to learn to talk as a key to legitimate peripheral participation’.”

(quoted in community of practice article from original Lave/Wenger book)

This then, is the defence of learning… assuming that there is a further goal beyond that. It’s a great defence if your lurking will eventually lead to more direct participation as you move towards the middle and begin to be able ‘to talk’ better within that community. Not that lurking particularly even needs a defence… I mean… how many expert knitters do we really need. I go to a knitting website, and I get information. If you are actually engaged in a community and are not helping, if people have helped you reach a level of proficiency that you then do not pass on… then that’s bad. But, like so many things, I think it just comes down to being honest about where you are, why you’re there, and what people have done for you.

The Community Social Contract
This is not a comment on what you ‘should’ do when you are in a community, but rather, an idea of what’s going. In response to one of my students in the course, I mentioned that teh social contract that is inherent in a community is different then other locations for knowledge acquisition and co-creation. If you are in a library, for instance, searching through books, there is an entire infrastructure (government or school created) that is behind trying to engender a certain kind of learning in a populace, trying to enhance the status of an institution or a particular person. This is not to say that they don’t want people to learn, but rather that these institutions exist in our society for a reason. they are paid for with tax dollars or as part of a business.

A community, on the other hand, is often the result of shared passion, shared interest, or shared self-interest. The social contract that exists is often difficult to read… There are some communities that love lurkers (edtechtalk is certainly one of those, by far the vast majority of our listeners we never hear from) there are others that expect a certain amount of participation… that would rather people ‘contribute’.

For my own part, I like to think of it like my no doubt oversimplified understanding of the word Karma. I don’t expect that most of the communities that I learn from particularly need my contributions. I try to leave behind questions and answers to issues that I have run into in order to leave that information behind me. And, what i particularly try and do is make sure that I participate where and when i can… This is the responsibilty that I have to the overall communities that I work in.

The mantra that i’ve been repeating over and over again lately is this “The stuff that you are reading on the internet, the communities that you interact with are REAL. They are created by real people. Treat them with respect. That is your responsibility as a good citizen.”

bit high handed I suppose… oh well…

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