Wired for Collaboration


Beth Sanders and Pernille Ripp, along with countless other teachers from around the world, are “connected educators.” Beth uses digital technologies “to tear down the walls of a traditional classroom”. An educator committed to social justice, her students share their voices with the world through class discussions held on Twitter. Pernille has brought networked learning to a global level — in 2010, she began the Global Read Aloud program, which connected more than 144,000 students, representing thirty countries from six continents. They are exemplars of connected educators, teachers who construct knowledge, collaborate, and interact with other educators all over the world via social media to develop networks to deepen understanding (Wong, 2013). Connected educators embody Siemens’ connectivist theory emphasizing the need to collaborate, and learn through networks. This approach to teaching and learning enables teachers to positively engage K-12 students with global experts and opportunities.

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Digital Pedagogy: A Case of Open or Shut

Keyboard closeupRecently, there has been some lively debate online about whether devices like laptops, tablets, or phones should be allowed in classrooms. As well, during a digital pedagogy workshop that Jesse Stommel and I presented at Lewis & Clark College, discussion arose around whether students should be allowed, on their own recognizance, to utilize digital tools in the classroom. Distraction was the primary argument against: distraction for other students (who doesn’t want to watch the game instead of listen to a lecture?); distraction for the teacher, who cannot trust that eyes not directed her way are paying attention; but mostly distraction for the student using the tool. Essentially, the debate came down to: can students be trusted to use computers and digital media responsibly in class?

Leaving aside for a moment this issue of “trusting” students (apothegm: If you can’t trust students, you shouldn’t be teaching), this sort of question is what digital pedagogy is all about. Some folks believe that digital pedagogy concerns itself with the integration of digital tools and technologies into learning and learning environments, that it’s pedagogy that’s practiced online, or in blended or hybrid classrooms. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of digital pedagogy. In fact, digital pedagogy concerns itself with learning in the digital age. It is — as all pedagogies must be — less interested in technologies and tools, than it is in the person, the learner, and how learning happens. This doesn’t mean that digital pedagogy doesn’t concern itself with machines as they apply to learning, because it does. Simply put, digital pedagogy is pedagogical practice that doesn’t ignore the fact that our lives have become increasingly digital, that machines are part of our environment and, in fact, very often mediate our interaction with that environment.

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Lossless Learning: an Interview with Jared Stein

2321662868_17985fa9c9_bThe following is an excerpt of an interview with Jared Stein, Vice President of Research and Education at Instructure, the makers of the Canvas LMS. Following a press release in June that announced a suite of digital products for the hybrid classroom, Sean Michael Morris of Hybrid Pedagogy caught up with Jared to get a little insight into the pedagogy behind Instructure’s new tools. The full interview was published here.

1. What inspired the idea of lossless learning?

The idea of “lossless learning” was inspired at first by a desire to think differently about some of the fundamental concepts we take for granted in education, like transmission and reception of information, in order to help teachers and technologists find new ways forward.

Like most ideas, we arrived at this metaphor from many different conversations and research threads serendipitously coming together over an extended period of time. I do remember Josh Coates and I talking about the potential of big data – truly big data from a cloud-native learning platform like Canvas. Canvas has a tremendous amount of data, more than we currently know what to do with. So how do you make that much learning data actionable in a way that is both reliable and meaningful? How do you know which data is important and which is not? Is it even the right data? I’d been reading and writing on blended learning for a while, and the lack of data in face-to-face was foremost on my mind. Josh related the challenge of lossiness in data storage, situations where the quality of information is lost — sometimes inadvertently, but sometimes to gain a benefit elsewhere, like in size or speed. This idea of educational lossiness — accidental or planned — lined up with the notion in blended education that you lose something when you move from teaching face-to-face to teaching online — and vice versa. And we were off.

The important thing about the idea of lossless learning is that it’s not just about some new tools or feature’s we’ve added to Canvas, it’s about how technology in general can help capture important information that would have been otherwise lost, and thereby lead to improvements in the quality of the learning experience. My hope is that by paying attention to education’s tendency toward lossiness, educators and technologists will find a fresh way to reflect on the information that is either captured and sacrificed in any learning experience in order to re-evaluate and iterate learning design for greater effectiveness and efficiency.

2. Instructure is primarily an LMS provider, right? So, why the turn toward in-class technology?

Over the past few years it seems education technology has been obsessed with the potential of learning analytics. I think that’s with good reason, but often conversations about learning analytics presume that online learning is the only game worth paying attention to, because that’s where the data is. While Canvas certainly recognizes the power of online learning — it’s hard to dispute the internet has been the transformative cultural phenomenon for education in the 21st century so far — we also know our teachers and students, and we know that most teaching still happens face-to-face. Why? Not because some teachers hate technology, but because face-to-face is special, and will continue to provide things that online can’t well into the future.

There’s another side to it, too: For example, I had been teaching exclusively online as an adjunct for about five years before I returned to face-to-face classroom to teach a blended course, and it was hard. I was a fish out of water, and I felt the same thing that most new online teachers feel: Teaching in this new environment meant I gained some capabilities, but I had to sacrifice others.

So we thought, we’ve given tools to online teachers that help them capture some of the sensory richness of face-to-face inside Canvas; wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could do something similar for face-to-face teachers? We should figure out a way to diminish the lossiness that happens in many face-to-face classrooms with some clever technology. But not just by capturing data (and not at all by passively monitoring students’ physiology) but by helping teachers get more of their class participating and interacting using simple tools that capture data to reflect those interactions.

3. You say in the press release for the new suite of products from Instructure that “We are excited to see the impact of this new functionality in thousands of classrooms around the world. Lossless learning and personalized, iterative instruction have been practically impossible in physical settings until now, as educators would have to spend hours trying to retroactively document the learning that takes place in their classrooms.” I’m not sure that every instructor would agree that personalized, iterative instruction has not been possible, or cannot be possible without technology. How would you respond to a skeptic?

There are always teachers who defy our predictions and make amazing things happen without special tools or resources, and we all can learn a lot from them. So, regardless of how we interpret “personalized, iterative” I think you’re right: not every teacher will agree, and not every teacher needs these particular tools. But many classroom situations make it difficult to engage all students in ways that are personalized and individualized and gather meaningful data on those interactions that promote iterative design. We’re taking a baby step toward creating new ways of doing this with Canvas Polls and MagicMarker. Polls is especially useful when your goal is to increase conceptual understanding; MagicMarker is especially useful when your goal is to dynamically assess student skill or ability in the present moment.

Having said that, I want to point out that there’s a subtext, too: “Personalized” instruction has been used almost as a synonym for “adaptive learning”, which requires lots of data to trigger automated intervention. In a sense, we’re trying to return that word “personalized” to the broader conversation about teaching and learning by suggesting the data-driven, automated approach is practically impossible face-to-face. Indeed, the automation required in many interpretations of “personalized” is antithetical to what face-to-face is best at delivering on: dynamic, human interaction.

Find out what Jared has to say about the intersection of critical pedagogy and instructional  design, the goals of higher education, and more. Read the full interview here.

Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture

Glass marbleSyllabi that reflect the mundane, bureaucratic requirements of the University are at risk of setting an equally banal classroom atmosphere. While administrative personnel may argue otherwise, the syllabus is not simply a contract between teacher and student. Rather, a syllabus should be a manifesto that serves as a founding document detailing the rights of the students and the pedagogy of the classroom.

Over time, the syllabus has become perfunctory. University policies and classroom expectations are the first impressions that we make in our classrooms. Using such a prescriptive approach to classroom culture, however, damages the social, cultural, and educative potential of formal schooling. To undo this harm, we must redefine the form and repurpose the syllabus as a space of cultural exchange. Only then can the artifact begin to enhance teaching-and-learning relationships within the classroom.

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Professional Practice

GrindstoneAs the beginning of the academic year approaches, I start rehearsing the inevitable conversations I will have with faculty. In general, those conversations will be the same as they were last year, and the year before. Faculty want a quick way to adapt technology or learn about a new rubric they heard about. They want to know what’s the latest tool or approach they should be using. They want me to tell them what they need to know, in simple and easy steps.

I love it. I enjoy working with faculty and helping them find new ways to engage their students.

Yet, regardless of the type of question, the overwhelming genesis of “what can I do quickly and easily?” is bothersome.

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Late Work

Follow the White RabbitAn instructor comes to me with a quibble about late policies in his department’s composition courses. I’m feeling ornery and rushed when he e-mails, I’m feeling curious and obstinate, so I ask him: “What is your pedagogical reason for penalizing late work?” I know when I ask this that it’s not really a question that needs asking. Is it? Penalizing late work is an assumed practice in teaching. Not unlike the way that “you’ll sit there until you finish your vegetables” is an assumed practice in parenting. Or teaching your dog to sit is always part of dog training. But this morning when he e-mails me and I’m feeling ornery and curious, I ask the question.

The response comes back something along the lines of: “I enforce deadlines because there are deadlines in the real world, like taxes, etc.” It’s the response I expected, the response I think just about any instructor would give me in answer to the question. I’m far from satisfied with the answer, though. This is a composition classroom, I want to tell him, and not a course on teaching young people to turn in their tax forms on time. Not only is that decidedly not one of the course objectives, it’s not a responsibility – as an English teacher – I want to take on.

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8 Steps for Rolling Out Social Features in Canvas LMS

Infographic of social features in LMSA perpetual question that we face as designers of online instruction, in the era of rapidly evolving communication technologies and learning management systems, is: how do we create a vibrant community of learners online? We know that students will achieve at higher levels if they feel a personal connection with their teacher and are socially engaged with their peers. To establish these connections in an online course, and motivate students to take an active role in building their communities, we must adequately orient students to the online milieu, and also not overwhelm them with technology or ‘high-stakes’ social experiences. In this post I take insights that we’ve gleaned from the past 3 years of running fully-online courses (most recently using Canvas by Instructure) and present one possible progression of social learning activities that will help students get the most from their teachers and peers.


To begin, engage students in simple asynchronous discussion. Consider using a prompt that invites students to share something safely personal, yet that does not demand, or even invite, high-level creativity. One idea is for such a prompt is “What was a course you took last year that you found interesting? Write for 5 minutes about why that class was so interesting.” Some notification that the student has completed the prompt (a short response from the teacher, an automated ‘complete’ grade designated upon posting to the discussion, etc.) affirms to the student that she has completed the required task. Continue reading

Teaching Writing Massively, Part Two

Loose typewriter keysWhy are there so few MOOCs that incorporate writing, much less focus on writing as a subject? This is the second in a two-part article on the potential for the recent online learning phenomenon to use learning theory and technology to support rather than avoid written expression.

Efforts to save education through technology often ignore the rich history of the field. Online learning is anything but new; in its current telecommunications format it is over 25 years old but its genesis can be traced back close to 60 years, and there is an argument to link it to distance education which can be traced back over 150 years. Such a breadth of history and research has yielded substantial findings on what sort of person best benefits from such learning: they are older than traditional students, are intrinsically motivated, and have significant experience in formal education.

Thus, when EdTech mavericks purport to solve the education crisis through the use of technology, the inevitable erosion of such lofty expectations is unsurprising. If technology does nothing more than present a didactic, content-heavy experience over a computer, instructionally it is no better than existing alternatives, only cheaper, and therefore we can accurately deduce what demographics of student will succeed and struggle in the endeavor. MOOCs are a fitting example — they are largely filled with people who were doing good work in the subject before or good work in other subjects, and when put into practice with other populations they either fail or require ample third-party support. The MOOCs of today are excellent for lifelong learners.

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Teaching Writing Massively, Part One

Typewriter keysWhy are there so few MOOCs that incorporate writing, much less focus on writing as a subject?  This is the first in a two-part article on the potential for the recent online learning phenomenon to use learning theory and technology to support rather than avoid written expression.

The principles of an excellent course in creative writing are the same as the principles of any excellent course.  It focuses on the emergence of wisdom as the praxis of practice.  It not only recognizes varying levels of expertise in a class but seizes such expertise as an opportunity to learn as a network of individuals rather than from a proprietor of content.  It scaffolds exploration and experimentation so that students are free but also will not end up in a rut of knowledge gaps.  It recognizes that learning happens best when it is situated in an environment and content is contextualized for that unique space and time.  The difference between exemplary creative writing and calculus instruction is primarily in the output; documents instead of derivatives, but the hallmarks of quality teaching remain.

As a society, we have spent much more time focused on improving the pedagogical practices in calculus and other mathematical instruction than we have in any written instruction, creative or otherwise.  Educational technology has played an increasingly prevalent role in how we view the future of education as a concept and a practice.  The President of the United States commissioned a task force to address a proclaimed crisis in science and mathematics education, a crisis whose roots stretch back over 55 years to the launch of Sputnik.  Massive Open Online Courses, an educational model that went viral in 2012 with promises of democratizing education across the globe, are heavily concentrated in math and science courses.

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Getting More out of PDFs in the Classroom

Colorful MarblesWhen you set up a digital classroom as a teacher, every tech tool you use has an impact. Whether it be an iPad, a digital whiteboard, or a document processing application, you need to consider how the technology can be valuable in the classroom and how it can engage students effectively.

Take, for instance, a PDF file. Like with any digital tool, the PDF is used every day. It lets you preserve, share and archive digital content faithfully and universally. There are many common user misconceptions about the format which usually have people hesitant in even considering the PDF format as a learning tool.

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