Global Classrooms, Local Action: An NPO Learns from a MOOC

Nonprofit organizations are no strangers to professional development opportunities. In just over six months, I have attended a variety of community meetings, trainings, seminars, and even a conference. While the topics ranged from youth behavior to corporate culture, one thing remained constant: the trainings served as hubs for community partners. When attending these types of events, I may shake hands with a representative of the local chapter of the Boys & Girls Club or even be introduced to an entirely new organization. But afterward, it seems that our organization often struggles to implement the ideas explored during these trainings, and I have a hard time deciding whether these events are for the content or the publicity.

Recently, however, the NPO I serve broke this mold. Several of our staff members (including me) decided to participate in a MOOC together. The hours spent learning online would count toward professional development and I could do it on my own schedule, without even leaving my house. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel that maybe something was missing. What would we do, as an organization, with this newly acquired knowledge? In the nonprofit world, whenever learning occurs, concerns of implementation are never far behind.

Once the MOOC began, we supplemented the digital content with lunchtime sessions—dare I say, the NPO’s take on the graduate seminar. This small group of educated/educating minds sitting apart from the world reawakened one of my greatest worries about formal education; that is, the course content tends to get stuck within certain barriers. I fear that many brilliant ideas may never get an audience simply because they were written for a grade rather than for the “real world.” Such a strict dichotomy need not exist. A classroom should, of course, serve as a safe space to explore concepts and gain knowledge. And then it should act as a starting point toward something greater.

By participating in a MOOC within a nonprofit, we were perfectly situated to take direct action in the community. With the MOOC as the content provider on one side, and nearly a dozen area schools on the other, our organization could now serve as a bridge between the two communities that may not have otherwise met. We weren’t in it for a grade (in fact some of us, including myself, even “failed” according to the course requirements). The quizzes weren’t valuable to us. Rather, we took from the course the things that were actionable in our context.

With the common language of the course, our organization was able to reconsider many practices we have had in place for years and assess them in light of new evidence. The course identified how KIPP Charter Schools approached education through character-building in the classroom. While we don’t have classrooms per se, we do have multiple learning spaces throughout the community. We took the knowledge acquired from the MOOC and applied it to our tutoring and academic enrichment activities.

In contrast to the trainings we had previously attended, the MOOC was scaffolded, regularly scheduled, and ongoing (for the duration of the course). This course structure provided our organization with several opportunities to discuss the content over many weeks. We didn’t have the opportunity to meet other area educators, but we did create a community of learners with a common organizational goal. Together we sought to use this information to help us better serve our students.

We finished the course over a month ago now, and I find we are still using the language and concepts regularly. While I am not without my hesitations about the effectiveness of massive digital classrooms, I find that this experience alleviated many of my fears about educational barriers. We didn’t simply learn it and leave it in the back of our minds. When the result is direct action, or implementing positive social change, education certainly becomes more than a mark on the transcript or a notch on the professional development belt.

So, what happens if we apply this model to activist communities?

A MOOC could serve as a site of resistance. Imagine global classrooms that inspire local action. Imagine a course designed by a labor union covering how to organize, mobilize, and take action. Consider how actionable such an educational opportunity could be: a relevant history of the labor movement, enhanced with digital tools to help locate other nearby activists, and a final project that inspires participants to take action.

Alternatively, imagine a course on sustainable, locally-sourced food, informed or even taught by urban gardening initiatives from around the world. The final project could encourage participants to design a project appropriate for their local context. Again, the digital platform could provide the tools necessary to begin implementation, and mobilize the community around a common social cause.

The possibilities are as endless as our collective imaginings and our need for positive social change. Through years of a fairly nomadic lifestyle, I have observed that while a given community’s challenges may be localized, they are by no means local. Poverty, social inequality, and access to education, among others, are global concerns. Accordingly, open and global classrooms may serve a crucial role in the fight against injustice. So, keep learning, organizing, and taking action.

Instructional Design vs. Online Pedagogy

instructional design online pedagogy

A colleague recently asked me about the difference between instructional design and online pedagogy. We’d been in conversation about learning, and I blithely remarked that these two fields had important differences.

To address the distinction between instructional design and online pedagogy, let me first start by saying that not all online teachers or edtech professionals would make this distinction. I believe the difference is fundamental, however, if we really want good learning to happen online or in hybrid spaces.

From my article, “Decoding Digital Pedagogy, pt. 1: Beyond the LMS” on Hybrid Pedagogy:

“Pedagogy has at its core timeliness, mindfulness, and improvisation. Pedagogy concerns itself with the instantaneous, momentary, vital exchange that takes place in order for learning to happen.”

And from my previous post, “What is a Pedagogue?”:

“I like to think of pedagogues as fashion designers. They can be a bit blithe to the quotidian concerns of classroom teaching … The pedagogue is concerned more with big ideas, the themes of education, its ethics and morals and goals, and a lot less with grading mid-terms, quizzes, and preparing well-researched lectures.”

Pedagogy consists of the universal principles of learning that undergird any teaching practice. It is about awareness and care. A lot of what pedagogy does has little to do with institutional attempts to quantify learning. This is actually at the heart of the problem with programs like No Child Left Behind, or even Common Core: standardization across all learning situations is impossible and dangerous. It is one more attempt to control teachers and forcibly train students. Instead, teachers should work to be flexible, attentive, creative, and responsive, and allow students the room to learn in ways that are natural and instinctive to all humans.

Instructional design, on the other hand, comes directly out of early experiments with computer-aided instruction (CAI). Matthew Kruger-Ross outlines the history of CAI in his article, “A Plea for Pedagogy”:

“The basic computing program presented piecemeal bits of information to the learner. After, the learner was asked to complete a number of questions written specifically to determine if she had learned the content. Because of the … engineers’ simplified understanding of teaching and learning, CAI redefined learning as driven by clear and concise objectives that could be easily quantified and measured (see Hamilton & Feenberg, 2012). CAI initiated a trajectory of integrating computer technology into education that continues at present with only minor changes in language.”

Because computer-aided instruction was more invested in the relationship between the human and the machine, and not at all designed by pedagogues or teachers, the imaginative aspects of the experiment were primarily technological. Instead of embracing the multivalent ways that the human mind works, CAI looked to find ways that the computer could create delimited learning experiences for the user.

As a result, today most students of online courses are more users than learners. And the truth is, no one likes it this way (outside, perhaps, of the administration—those who do not teach, design, or learn within LMSs). More and more, universities are expanding their online learning offerings in order to expedite and make efficient the learning and teaching process in higher ed. In this recent Washington Post article, for example, Dominic Basulto predicts that we may be looking at a near-future situation in which “the first artificially intelligent machine begins to fully teach a MOOC—lecturing, grading and engaging with students the way a human professor might.” From a labor perspective, this is obviously troubling; from a teacher’s perspective it’s patently absurd and horrifying at the same time. And it’s only made possible because the majority of online learning basically asks humans to behave like machines. The notion is absurd, because it not only asks that teachers be replaced by machines but creates an environment in which students must also become like machines in order to succeed.

Truly great online courses will do a lot more than just ask students to obey commands, to respond to the computer. Truly high quality online teaching will be a combination of innovative pedagogy and responsive instructional design, which privileges learner-humans over user-machines—something I will explore in a future post.
Photo, Bambi vs. Godzilla, by JD Hancock CC BY 2.0

The Beautiful Versatility of Hyperlinks

You undoubtedly used a hyperlink to get to this post. You’re so used to them that the instinct to click or tap on blue, underlined text can probably drive you to distraction.

Students work the same way, living in a world saturated with interconnected documents that have been created to lead readers from one resource to another, in a chain of citation, explanation, and elaboration that has been growing exponentially for the past 25 years. Students know about hyperlinks; we don’t need to teach them how to use them. But do our students know how to create hyperlinks and how ubiquitous hyperlinking tools are? Do they know when it’s appropriate to create them, and what effect they can have on a piece of writing?

From my experiences teaching high-school and college writing classes, I’ve found that students don’t often think to add hyperlinks to their documents created for class because most of their assignments have been designed with print-centric expectations. They create documents designed for an 8½ × 11-inch page, double-spaced (a convention adopted to make room for proofreaders’ marks (remember those?), and with an MLA-standard list of Works Cited at the end. (Who, besides the teacher, ever reads lists of citations, anyway? I now believe many teachers use them as little more than a schadenfreude-generating device.) Their work looks the same as work created centuries ago on typewriters. Except now, that work is created on an expensive, powerful typewriter that is connected to millions of other expensive, powerful typewriters all around the world. Even so, student work is typically designed for paper, even if it’s created, submitted, scored, and revised electronically.

Because so many of our documents spend so much of their lives as digital files, we should take advantage of digital opportunities and let go of our paper-derived standards or limitations. One of the simplest and most flexible tools for moving away from a paper-based mindset is by adding hyperlinks. Most any text-editing program supports the addition of hyperlinks, including Word, the world’s most commonly used word processor. All other major word-processing programs and online publication systems support hyperlink creation. Here’s how to do it in Pages, OpenOffice Writer, WordPress, and Blogger. Once a student learns how and why to make hyperlinks in one environment, transferring that practice into another is trivial. The icon is even nearly universal.

Hyperlinks could be integrated into students’ essay-writing process in several ways.

  • Elaboration — Students could show audience awareness by linking concepts potentially unfamiliar to their audience to sources of background information.

  • Corroboration — Rather than being tempted to plagiarize from other sources, students could foreground the ideas of other authors by linking to source material that supports their own ideas or providing links to complete sources when they quote excerpts.

  • Refutation — Students love pointing out when someone on the Internet is wrong. They could highlight the exigence of their writing by pointing out the source with which they disagree. Not only does that give students an opportunity to connect their work with the world around them; it also shows how writing can be a response to a real situation, rather than an arbitrary in-class scenario.

  • Citation — Perhaps the most relevant use of hyperlinks in student writing comes from their Works Cited lists. Students prefer the convenience and simplicity of online sources, so why not encourage their responsible use by having students provide well-documented links to their original sources within their Works Cited lists? Even better, students could make the parenthetical citations within their documents link to the relevant entry in the Works Cited list, which itself could link to the external source.

  • Conversation — With a little extra collaboration, students could have their documents refer to one another’s writing, engaging other authors in direct conversation, using peers as sources for their discussions. This use requires that student work be accessible online, so it’s likely only to work within environments like Google Drive, but if students cite one another in their own writing, they would add credibility and purpose to one another’s texts.

Our world is saturated with interconnected documents. It’s time we show our students how to be a part of that world and create documents that refer to one another. If we show students that even their standard word processor can create interconnected documents, they could apply that practice to their future writing scenarios, expecting their own documents to spread beyond the digital page.

Asynchronous Improvisation

When I was a grad student teaching creative writing I used to walk a mile-and-a-half to class. My walk was valuable time for me to think about my lesson plan, and to tune in—in that psychic way that teachers have—to how the day felt, and whether changes should be made to the plan. Even before I saw my students, I often revised my approach to the day’s subject matter. On a nice day, we might go outside. On one particular day, we played hopscotch and recounted stories from our childhoods. On another, I dared them to do something unexpected (even to them) for the hour.

When I first began to teach online, I bemoaned the loss of the spontaneity of the classroom. Online, I thought, I would never again enjoy the quick report of shots fired in dialogue across desks, in circles of chairs. The LMS, as I knew it, provided no opportunities to decide in the moment to take my class outside, to play hopscotch, to be daring. Courageous teaching took place in and outside of the on-ground classroom; and I worried that online learning would not look like learning at all.

To an extent, it’s true that teaching online—especially in a learning management environment—requires planning so far in advance that a teacher doesn’t often know who her students will be. We are forced to design our class for the ghosts of students, or worse, for stereotypes of students. Designing a class this way is almost entirely about design, and very little about execution, primarily because once the course is designed and students get access, very little can change. The syllabus, which most people see as a contract between student and teacher, prevents improvisation as much as the constraints of design and planning do.

Yet, as I’ve said before, “the core of digital pedagogy [is] an acknowledgement that the space of learning is more fluid and adaptable than we might have planned on.” So, instead of looking at the asynchronous nature of the online classroom as a hindrance, we should consider what it offers us as teachers, and what it offers our students as learners. Pretty much perpetual are the conversations about how online learning is different from on-ground learning, and too many people bemoan those differences ipso facto. But, as Maha Bali and Bard Meier point out in “An Affinity for Asynchronous Learning,” we need to back up, reconsider the real possibilities with asynchrony, and then proceed creatively and productively.

Doing digital pedagogy always requires adaptability and not a little bit of swagger. In this case, we need to look at ways that asynchronous learning environments limit us and decide if we can eliminate those limitations. For example, the syllabus. Every class must have one, right? Not necessarily. But, if we have an administration breathing down our necks, or QA folks nosing about in our online courses, then we probably can’t remove the syllabus entirely. Instead, we need to find ways to build flexibility into the syllabus that will allow for a more spontaneous, more creative, more daring kind of interaction to take place between our students and our plan.

For example, find a way to allow your students to not just create discussions on their own, but to make those discussions not at all peripheral to the main thrust of the learning. Have students decide not what they want to discuss, but what discussions are necessary to the class. And here, I’m not talking about students voting on discussion topics that you create, but creating their own ideas for what can and should be discussed about the subject matter.

Another option: allow students to bring their own materials to bear on the learning. Ask them to write—asynchronously—a collaborative manifesto for the class that supplements (and sometimes overrides) the syllabus. If you’re teaching Moby Dick let them decide how best to embrace the book. Will they write reports, or make papier maché whales? Will they give video presentations, or collaboratively write a comic for the book online? Whatever they come up with, be prepared to invent right alongside them.

There are two keys to this kind of asynchronous improvisation.

1. Creativity. As the instructor, you have to make space in your course planning, in the drawing up of the syllabus, for students to be creative with their response to the course material. You will need to design that space—literally—into the course. If, when students arrive on the scene, the course is laid out so tight you could bounce a penny off it, they won’t believe your exhortations to be creative. (And yes, you’ll need to exhort. This kind of pedagogy is three-ring pedagogy.)

2. A student-centered focus. Behind everything I’ve described is a generous helping of critical pedagogy, and a sincere desire to empower students. It was not for sheer fun that I took my students out to play hopscotch. It was a deliberate move to allow them to see the power of their own stories and memories. So when we open up to improvisation by putting learning in our students hands (and snatching it deftly away from the LMS), we not only manage to make our classes more lively, but we also persuade learners of their own capacity to learn, and to engage with the world in learning ways.

Creating improvisation does not need to require synchronous tools. In fact, the key to capturing the delightful vitality of a classroom in an LMS environment has nothing to do with tools at all, but rather in whose hands learning rests. What I’ve found is that when we turn over a certain degree of lesson planning to students, spontaneity comes rushing back in.


Hybrid Labour-Power

I always find it comical when a student begins an email with something akin to the following sentence, “I’m sorry to email you so late, but ….”

It’s not like my computer suddenly comes alive and flashes or beeps at me. I don’t have push notifications linked to my email (because that would drive me crazy in about an hour). Yet my students still apologize. This apology tells me that young people (most of my students are around 18-19 years old) attach meaning to email in the same way that I attached meaning to a telephone call when I was that age. But communication is still communication, right? The fundamental difference here is important though: we are expected to answer a ringing phone as it rings, but we are not expected to answer an email the moment it comes into our inbox. Or are we?

Students often expect us to check our emails all times of day. If my student writes, “I’m so sorry for emailing u at 3 a.m.,” I can read this as, “I’m sorry I expect you to check your email at 3 a.m.” Clearly, the student may not realize she is creating meaning in this way, but it’s certainly there. Her apology for expecting a response during non-working hours changes the notion of Marxian industrial labor. No longer do most of us work in factories, set to clocks and timers. No longer do many of us clock in, work, clock out, and go home. Email, home computers, portable computers, and most recently, smart phones, allow us to labor at any time, on any day, while we’re standing in line for coffee, playing with our kids, or even walking down the street. “The sale of labour-power,” as Marx describes it in Capital Volume I, no longer “takes place for definite periods of time.” Instead, computerized technologies, like the one through which you are accessing this blog, allow labor to be distributed throughout all times.

Instead of lamenting the woes of student expectations when they say “sorry to email you so late,” why don’t we, as teachers, step out of our comfort zones and ask the same of them? Recently I was affected by what many in the South humorously nicknamed “snowpocalypse” or even “Hothlanta.” In case you hadn’t heard, it snowed in the Atlanta area (and a lot of other places) in February—twice. My courses felt the impact of the weather the most severely because our scheduled meeting time was subject to two full weeks of cancellations. Of course, snow day is synonymous with “do nothing day” for most of our students. And I’ll not point fingers; I did nearly nothing during the snow days, too. Unsure of whether or not we would be asked to make up missed courses at the end of the semester, I decided to take it upon myself to create video lectures for my students to watch in order to stay current on the materials we would have otherwise covered in class.

In the (slightly embarrassing) 14-and-a-half minute clip below, you’ll see some of the things I learned while stuck in my house—completely unprepared for actual snow in Atlanta. For example, I had no idea that I could use my refrigerator as a whiteboard until I saw a colleague doing it on her own refrigerator via Facebook.

I made this video late in the day, after my students and I would otherwise have been in class together. I used my laptop camera, the free movie maker software on my PC, my refrigerator, and a whiteboard marker. The whole thing took me about an hour. You might observe that I talk to my students as though we have done this before. We have. But as you can see, I all but bribe them to continue our visual rhetoric activity (which I falsely label a game) that we play on Instagram. Two issues are at play here.

  1. While my students expect me to check my email and respond at all hours of the day and night, most of them are unused to teachers asking them to “work” during non-school hours. And by “work,” I mean “interactive work.” My students expect interaction when they email me. I expect interaction when I ask them to do homework that takes place in online spaces, such as our Canvas LMS, or our visual rhetoric game on Instagram. They are not yet used to these requests for interactivity outside the usual setting. Getting them to labor the way they might in an interactive f2f classroom is difficult.

  1. I am modeling for my students what to do when problems arise that may otherwise seem insurmountable. So we’re stuck in our houses … again. Let’s still have a class, shall we? Further, you can see in the video that I ask them to make a video of their own for an assignment. By making a video that they may watch at their leisure, I am also modeling that I too can make a video—and do it with some spontaneity. I am showing them how useful a whiteboard marker can be (which they have since admitted was the coolest thing about my lecture). And finally, I am giving them the tiniest peek into my personal life away from campus by filming in my own kitchen. Instead of being an ever-present spectre in a classroom who sits up all night eagerly awaiting emails, I am a person with a kitchen, a refrigerator, and a messy counter.

My students have not requested that we miss more classes and have video lectures instead. They seem to like classroom activity and f2f interaction with me and with one another. I am a fan of in-class time and will always favor it over the virtual. But I learned during snowpocalypse that impromptu hybridity is pretty cool. I learned that it’s not only OK, but totally reasonable to post a video my students can watch at 3 a.m., or 11 p.m., or noon if they want to. It’s acceptable to ask them to interact online with me, or with each other. It’s acceptable to break Marx’s notions of “the sale of labour-power” because it no longer applies here.

5 Things to Do When You Teach Digitally

5 dos of teaching digitally

My first time working synchronously in Google Docs felt like a caffeine buzz. Cursors flew about madly on the page. My sentences were completed before I could finish them. New ideas sprung fully formed onto the page as I struggled to formulate my own.

My first Twitter hashtag chat was the same. Words rolling over me, voices crowding my feed, jubilant in their display and conversation, threading out a million different ways behind the screen. I remember struggling to make sense of it all, to not become overwhelmed by the clamor and ring, and to respond as much in kind as my alarmed mind and slow fingers would allow.

The web is an environment where play and chaos are always imminent (and immanent). Teaching there is not unlike rousting math equations from kindergartners on the jungle gym. The permeability and presence of the Internet’s digital tools can make attention to a single task, a single question, a single conversation feel impossible. Our students are lively on the web (even if they aren’t lively in our online courses); they tweet and post and like and favorite as butterflies tasting pollen in a field of poppies.

Many teachers, when first approaching digital environments, respond to this infinite variety by trying to shackle it. The LMS works to confine the online learning experience within certain specific walls. As I said in “What Is Digital Pedagogy?”:

“LMSs have more than snack-sized shortcomings, but the biggest dilemma they pose is that they create the illusion of digital learning without really ever encountering the Internet. Like all illusions, this is misleading, because digital learning (and by necessity, digital pedagogy) takes place all over the web.”

This being the case, our pedagogies and students are better served with flexibility, with embrace, rather than with calcified resistance.

There are many approaches that favor flexibility, and more than one way to embrace the raging tiger of the web. Here are five solutions that I’ve found work well. They are pedagogical in nature, and so must be translated by you into practical teaching methods.

1. Decide that failure is a win. The digital is a space that changes dramatically from semester to semester, sometimes day to day. New tools and new ways of operating (new operating systems, updates to new tools) abound as quickly as we hit refresh. We must learn—and we must teach—discernment within the digital environment. And since we cannot contain our students (or face it, ourselves) on the Internet, we must prepare them to fail now and then. To try tools that don’t work, to discover virality as an accident, to become overwhelmed from time to time in order to struggle their way into understanding. Failure is vitally important to all learning, and especially digital learning.

2. Let tools guide the learning. Many teachers new to digital learning insist on teaching content and not tools. That’s all well and good until our students hit the bricks of the real world and need to know how to use digital tools in their lives. Keep in mind that the tools themselves are neutral, and only become active when we put them in students’ hands. So, put them in students’ hands and then see what comes next. Allow students to figure out the tools, to break them, hack them, use them to their own purpose. Give them an iPad and let them make a movie. Give them Twitter and let them hold discussions. Hand them WordPress and watch them form a company. Letting tools guide the learning is letting students guide the learning.

3. Break your lesson plan. Ultimately, the digital will overwhelm. Putting an agenda to a hashtag chat will fail. In all learning, but especially in digital learning, the lesson plan can become a choke chain. So, when we approach planning a lesson (or a syllabus), we must be prepared to change our expectations for the content and the outcome. Setting objectives is fine (and in some cases bureaucratically necessary), but plan to exceed them, or plan to come to them in a new way. Scaffolding is so last year.

4. Plant seeds and wait. Digital learning is learning in the wild. At its best, it is learning as learning happens in early childhood—spontaneous, reactive, experimental, and full of discovery. Traditional “point-A-to-point-B” pedagogy falls flat in so dynamic an environment. What’s needed is “point-A-to-point-78-to-point-banana” pedagogy. To foster this kind of experimentation takes openness, kindness, and patience. It’s improvisational and responsive pedagogy that succeeds best in digital learning.

5. Get down on the floor and play. The Internet has made us all students these days. Don’t be afraid of this. When we’ve spent so many years teaching, we get to where we think we know our stuff. We know what works. We know how to teach Shakespeare, and physics, and biomechanics, and business, and philosophy. And we do. The digital won’t necessarily add to our knowledge, but it does ask us to reconsider our approach. It offers options we never had before, and makes even the most seasoned of us new teachers. So, engage with it, play with it. Our hands should be as digitally dirty as our students’ hands.

image via Flickr

Using Twitter and Storify for Multimodal Peer Review in Online/Hybrid Classes

Courses that require oral and nonverbal communication, such as multimodal composition, present special challenges when taught online or as a hybrid. When face-to-face time is at a premium (hybrid) or nonexistent (online), how do you not only create situations where students can present to an authentic and engaged audience, but also give them opportunities to practice their presentations, receive feedback, and revise in response? This semester, I was able to do both using Twitter and Storify to provide and curate peer review feedback for video presentations.

Using Twitter and Storify for Multimodal Peer Review in Online/Hybrid Classes

The Project

As with anything else, the first step is to create a project that invites engagement of the presenters and their audience because it contributes knowledge resources or material that will be useful in other course activities. For example, in my upper-division technical communication course this semester, each student is responsible for creating a brief, online professional development or training module focused on a concept, strategy, or technology relevant to one of the collaborative projects we are completing. As part of the process work for the module project, authors have to present their draft modules to me and their peers and submit them for review and comment. In the course of completing the module project, the author/presenter acquires a deeper expertise in something that will be useful in their ongoing collaborative work, and reviewing the presentations and modules provides a similar “just-in-time” learning opportunity for their peers.

The Process

Once you have a project, the next step is to coordinate the presentation and review process. In the week they’ve chosen for presenting their training modules, the presenters upload a copy of their presentation video. I’ve left the presentation format open, so some students have recorded themselves presenting as if in front of a live group, while others have created videos comprising a slideshow with voiceover. You could be more specific about format if it’s important to the goals of the project, e.g., if you’re particularly interested in focusing on nonverbal communication—body language, pitch, tone, volume, pacing, etc. In my class this semester, however, the open format allows us to explore how asynchronous digital communication opens up the possibilities for the presentation as a genre.

Once the videos have been uploaded or linked to our course site, class engagement for the week consists of viewing the video presentations, reviewing the draft modules, and tweeting questions and constructive criticism using a hashtag to create a backchannel on Twitter. Each presentation gets a different hashtag. Since I’m only teaching one relatively small class this semester, and since this is a relatively minor project, I’ve taken it upon myself, as part of my feedback on their drafts, to curate the feedback for each presenter using Storify. The project could, however, be modified to provide for a more extensive peer review process where students tweet feedback on the presentations, then peer review groups or partners use Storify to curate that feedback—and perhaps even clips from the presentation video and module, and excerpts from or links to useful resources—into a more formalized peer review. In this expanded version of the project, I might also consider having the presenters use Storify to create revision plans or reflections, again drawing from the Twitter feedback, clips from their presentation videos and modules, and excerpts from or links to other resources.

Conclusion and Additional Resources

In addition to facilitating process work and peer review for a particular project, using Twitter and Storify in this way helps to cultivate students’ general digital literacy, introducing them to the professional uses of the backchannel. For convenience, I’ve created public Google Docs for the training module project description and my instructions regarding the presentation and peer review process. If you have your own ideas for implementing or expanding upon this strategy, or any questions or concerns about it, please share them in comments to this post.

 Image via Flickr

What “Flipping” is Really About

Rebecca Schuman’s recent Slate article about higher ed’s adoption of the flipped classroom model provides a good starting point to learn what “flipping” is all about. Schuman identifies several potential problems with this model that deserve consideration. She says it’s not just that “professors are forever annoyed—often justifiably so—at the possibility of ‘disrupting’ an instructional style that is often the result of years of trial and error,” it’s that the flipped model seems risky; indeed, the article opens with a warning to students that they may unknowingly be part of an experiment. (So much for the “years of trial and error” it’s taken to perfect the traditional model.)

For humanities courses in particular, Schuman suggests that “the flip threatens to flop,” presumably because f2f humanities courses are mostly discussion-based. Rather than discounting the flip altogether, humanities teachers can avoid the potential flop by moving their discussion-heavy courses up the technology-enhanced teaching spectrum and incorporating asynchronous online discussions in addition to synchronous f2f.

Schuman also raises a question about when students in flipped classrooms are supposed to do assigned reading if they’re spending time at home watching lectures. (For now, I’ll set aside the evidence that students typically spend about half the recommended time on homework.) Teachers new to blended and online course design can lose track of the idea that assigned reading is homework, and in implementing the flipped classroom model, they run the risk of creating a course-and-a-half by inventing new onsite activities while still expecting students to watch lectures and keep up on readings at home. One way to avoid this pitfall is to redesign learning activities based on outcomes and a total learning time standard like the traditional 3-to-1 study-time-to-credit-hour formula.

Schuman explores these potential problems using the example of a typical Shakespeare course where the teacher doesn’t lecture much in the first place; class sessions instead center on discussions. Students read the text outside of class and participate in class based on that reading. This kind of course seems hard to flip, right? Well, not really, because this Shakespeare course is already flipped. See, like many technology-based education buzz-trends, the flipped classroom model isn’t really new; it’s only that new technology facilitates adoption of this model within a broader range of courses and subject areas, and with the potential for different or better outcomes.


Taking Learning Beyond the Classroom Part 2: Learning Platforms

If you recall Part 1 of this series, you’ll remember our discussion about how learning outside the classroom is about more than just internships. Frankly, it’s about more than MOOCs, too. Here’s the third (and final) extracurricular learning activity I hope students will consider as they’re looking for ways to expand their real-world technology skills.

Various self-paced interactive platforms exist for students who want to learn new technical skills, such as WordPress, Ruby on Rails, Photoshop, or how to build a web site. Most middle and high schools don’t attempt to teach these types of skills, but they’re absolutely necessary for budding entrepreneurs and tech-savvy youth. Here are four examples of platforms that provide self-paced learning opportunities.

Code School badge-student

1. Code School (

Known for their course, Rails for Zombies, which teaches Ruby on Rails, Code School combines educational, but entertaining videos with onsite coding activities. At $29 per month, you get access to over 30 courses, 1,700 coding challenges, and lots of content.

Gregg Pollack, founder of Code School, says the school’s focus is on creating the best way for someone to start learning any new technology. “Often, this means it takes three months and five to six people to create four hours of online content. We want that four hours to be the most engaging and effective introduction to any given topic.”

2. ( covers everything from 3-D animation to project management to retouching photos. A variety of membership levels are available from $25 a month to $37.50 a month for access to over 111,000 tutorials and exercise files. Learning on the go is a plus at with the ability to switch from computer to mobile device. Lynda Campus provides educational institutions access to reports, co-branding, and certificates of completion with the convenience of single sign-on capabilities.

3. Treehouse (

Treehouse provide tracks for learning web design, iOS development, Android development, WordPress, and much more. Their expert teachers are entertaining and make learning easy with clear steps along the way. The basic plan is $25 a month with access to thousands of videos, live code challenge practices, and members-only forums. The gold plan is $49 with all the basics plus talks from industry professionals and exclusive workshops and interviews. They have a special promotion right now: for every new gold account, they will donate an account to a student attending a public school.


4. Code Academy (

Code Academy is a free educational site for learning to code. Various platforms include JaveScript, HTML, PHP, Python, Ruby, and APIs. They also provide an after-school program to help students learn more about coding or start a coding club with a curriculum attached.

Each of these programs is unique, but all share a similar goal: helping people learn.


SXSWedu Q & A: Let’s Focus on the Q’s

As I walked into the Downtown Hilton in Austin, I felt a blast of excitement. A newbie to the four-year-old SXSWedu conference, I knew right away that it would be everything I had expected. Educators from all walks of life were talking about disruption, educational policy, and technology—and it was all brightly tinged with that SXSW hipness.

There to participate in a panel discussion on the third day, I spent the first two days attending as many sessions as possible. The presentations were rich with big ideas about how to transform education. In my new role at Instructure, where I lead Canvas Network, I was intrigued by the continued debate about the role of MOOCs in this transformation. And yet, what struck me as the most interesting and insightful parts of that and every conversation, were the questions asked by the audience.

sxswedu 2014 wrap up questions

If you’ve ever attended SXSWedu, you know the format of most sessions (aside from the daily keynotes) tends to be panel-style, so the emphasis is clearly on dialogue, debate, and lots of questions from the audience. From session to session, I found myself tracking the themes of these questions, and by the end of the conference, I observed three major categories.

Student Success

Many presenters were asked about how to measure student engagement and success, especially as educators renew their focus on the needs of individual students and on the educator-student relationship. How do we know students are really engaged? Is this engagement really leading to their success, whether it be to further their education or to help them be more productive in today’s workforce? As we blend and flip our classrooms, how do we know it’s truly working?

Resources and Funding

During quite a few of the panel sessions, presenters shared specific examples about how they brought change to their institution or organization. Not surprisingly, these examples gave rise to questions about funding and resources. How do we find the money to fund transformation, especially for the technology we want to use? How do we motivate and incentivize educators to participate in the change? How can we ensure a continuation in funding to make more lasting change?

Data and Research

The final bucket of questions revolved around data and research. What data is most valuable? How can we collect and analyze this data as part of our existing systems? How do we ensure our technologies promote the use of data in the most effective ways? In every session I attended, someone asked for research references. Where can we find good research studies that reflect ideas discussed by presenters? How can we research key questions about student learning more effectively, but also, more collectively?

For those of us working to transform the learning experience for our students, these questions are as important as the ideas shared by the 100+ presenters during the four days of the conference. They help us more clearly understand the transformative work we have to do individually within our organizations and institutions—as well as the work we have to do collectively as an education community—to promote the ideas that caused such a stir at SXSW. It’s in everyone’s best interest to come together to find answers to these questions. And to ask more.