Supporting learning in unexpected spaces.

I’m in the business of assisting academics and teachers to electronically develop their courses. I work alongside them and systematically we design learning experiences. The ideas that I tout are often responsible for reshaping or traversing classroom walls. By installing new technologies into existing classrooms or introducing new virtual environments, I may be transforming traditional teaching practices. While it’s unlikely that any of my technological interventions will cause the university to dispense with the traditional classroom, it is likely that my work will allow academics and students to better engage with each other in the educational process.

Recently we’ve been asked to give some thought to the development of a new learning space (see the photo). While researching the possibilities I’ve wondered whether we are missing a large learning opportunity. All of our attention is focused on real and virtual classrooms and we often neglect the space between the lecture theater and the LMS. Attention, I think, needs to be given to unacknowledged learning and teaching places. Around the water cooler, between computer terminals, seated in the cafetaria, texting on mobile phones, waiting on strategically placed benches, posted on signboards, relaxing in a residence hall etc. If we claim to know how people learn and have ideas on how to help them learn better, then we should also be investigating the interesting and unexpected situations that students and faculty lurk around in. Learning designers need to think between the corridors and computers, and ask how can these spaces be used to support learning.

When data projectors were installed in classrooms, these new fangled slide projector re-framed the way that visual information (a graph, chart, diagram, poster etc) was accessed and distributed. A teacher with a data projector did not need to find in a book, photocopy the diagram and distribute it to the class. At a mouse click, the educator could open a series of images that illustrated the concept and immediately project those image for students. Students were then at liberty to retrieve the illustration, electronically.
Or when journals stopped being printed and distributed digitally, librarians found (for the first time) that they didn’t need to find more shelf space. Their users were now needing space and place to discover information resources, engage in peer to peer learning and explore new ideas within networked group. Libraries responded by creating Information Commons, where students and faculty can make sense of what they were reading.
Before learning went virtual, a teacher’s had to hand around a class register and match submitted assignments to student numbers to ensure lecture attendance and assignment submission. Now the grade book within the LMS automatically performs this function.

When technologies were introduced in a classroom or library or the virtual classroom, new functionalities were acquired and traditional practices were reshaped. Now, as it becomes the norm for students to own their mobile, wireless, connected computing devices and for the university to offer wireless access, we must ask, what new functionalities will be a result of this these technological innovations

The first implication is that real time communication between students and faculty will be possible. Where discussions and clarification took place either in the lecture / tutorial / virtual room, teachers and students that use networked digital devices can conduct their teaching and learning seamlessly across both physical and virtual spaces, synchronously and asynchronously.

A second implication is that we may come to re-appreciate the importance of ‘physical situatedness’ for community and collaboration. Although the concept of an alternate constantly connected virtual learning space has gained some traction, the novelty value of being online is wearing thin. Students will always want to explore new learning opportunities that lie beyond the confines of the physical classroom. But the don’t necessarily want to do it behind a computer.

The third implication is that learning designers also need to find a way to support the creation of informal learning space between the virtual world and the classroom place.

Computer networks may have opened the world’s knowledge bases, enhanced our storage capacity and granted unexpected access to scholars and their work. The scope of data, information and expertise available will however not by itself enrich our learning landscapes. Neither will new real time functionalities within available technologies necessarily make a big difference to practice. Although it may be possible for questions about content to be posed within the lecture theatre, within the virtual learning environment or between these spaces, the instructional designer needs to insert themselves into the places where these clarifications questions are being made. Once we understand what’s happening there, then we may discover interesting ways to support students learning in these inbetween spaces. This information can help focus our planning discussions as we decide how to go about designing new spaces that can support the curriculum.

If universities are only seeing the installations of wireless access and static free carpets as another round of technological interventions, we won’t be able to assist teachers teach and students learn best in the inbetween places. If our attention is focused only between the real and virtual classrooms then it’s likely that we’ll fail in our attempt to use these new spaces constructively. Learning designers have used the functionalities of emerging technology to create new practices in the classroom, in libraries and the virtual world. We also need to articulate a vision for real time networked technologies that works in tandem to support our institutions overall teaching and learning objectives. Yes, focus on the virtual and face to face classrooms but don’t forget about the inbetween spaces and ask how you can support students freedom to engage in self-directed and independent learning outside the formally planned and tutor-directed activities.

Generating ambient intimacy

Maybe it sounds a bit too touchy feely, but I’ve been thinking more and more that there’s a need for a place in an educational setting where there are opportunities for students and faculty to create a feeling of connectedness, a spot for sharing and belonging.

The hyper public world has created such places. Intimate strangers from diverse backgrounds and locations are frequently (and cosily) talking to each other on a variety of platforms about their life experiences without the normal time and space constraints that come with direct engagement or interaction.

In University courses, many VLE’s offer tools (blogs, chat, forums etc) , that could create feelings of connection and interaction between students. From what I’ve seen, such engagement is rare. Distributed and personal relationships seem to develop, not because of the tools but because people have elected to “expose more surface area” and add their everyday facts, places, comments, feelings, significant others, etc to their own micro-blogs, social networking sites, media sharing sites. Connections have happened because people have wanted to develop “an understanding of the activities of others, which provides a context for your own activity”. A sense of awareness of the presence of an interaction partner is what creates “ambient intimacy”  – Leisa Reichelt

Students could start to feel connected when the medium that they are using allows its users interpersonal interactions. Conversely, class members feel isolated and group dynamics suffer when social connections are not encouraged. Social (co)-presence is explored more formally by Short, Williams and Christie in their book, The Social Psychology of Telecommunications. Although I have not got access to their book, Steve Wheeler and Ruth Rettie’s research have helped me understand that social presence essentilly the ability to project yourself via another medium” (Justin M. Bonzo describes Ruth’s work better than I can). Essentially social presence is a process by which person comes to know and think about other persons, their characteristics, qualities and inner states. Increased social presence leads to a better person perception. Within education, this capacity to be “real” has become a significant factor for creating a sense of community within a course.

Getting back to the point. My original intention behind this post is to get my collegues to start to think about their social presence. While I’m not sure how you start making people aware of the possible presence of an interaction partner, I thought that this exercise for social workers by Barry Cooper & Maggie Pickering from the PPBL PIVOT Project from the Open University had possibilities and I have adapted it so that they may start thinking about developing their professional identity. If you are interested, please take a look at The Commemorative Trophy for Amazing Knowledge Work. As always, comments would be appreciated.

An inspiring knight in Cape Town

Sir John Daniel -Photographed from my crummy web camera

Schoolnet and the Commonwealth of Learning invited me (and a variety of highups in Education)  to a day long seminar in Cape Town around the topic of  ICT integration and teacher training. The key note speaker was the inspiring knight, Sir John Daniel. Not only did he take 25 years to complete a part-time Master’s degree in Educational Technology at Concordia University, but he’s also the president and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning since 2004 after previous appointments as assistant director-general of UNESCO and vice-chancellor of the UK Open University and that’s only a summary of the last 10 years of his career.

At the seminar, Sir John chatted about the Second United Nations Millennium Development Goal – Universal Primary Education – and argued that these goals were well on their way to being achieved. As of 2008, over 570 million children were now able to complete a full course of primary schooling and only 50 million children were not primary schooled. The success of the campaign however, has created a new problem, that of Universal Secondary Education. The scale of the challenge is vast. 400 million children aged 12-17 are not in secondary school and 10 million more teachers are required by 2015 if this problem is to be addressed.

Sir John then went ahead to explore some interesting ideas to train more teachers and effectively retrain and motivate those in the profession. He suggested that countries should be recruiting people and sending them into the classroom within minimal training. Then, while they are teaching, they should receive in-service training that is in the schools and that addresses classroom realities. In order for this to happen, institutions will have to use open & distance learning and ICT.

His latest book – Mega-Schools, Technology and Teachers: Achieving Education for All – he explores the implications of using ICT for open and distance learning. The publicity blurb says that the book covers:

  • the creation and expansion of Mega-Schools, which combine distance learning and community support and have a proven track record of increasing access at scale
  • how to prepare the 10 million new teachers that are required to achieve Education for All by 2015 by focusing on classroom-based in-service training.
  • strategies for using technology to scale up distance education cost-effectively.
  • the creation of a 21st century educational ecosystem that integrates open schooling and teacher education with communities and their school systems.
  • successful examples of open schools and teacher education programmes operating at scale around the world.

Sir John is an amazing person. He has a global vision for education and an appreciation of how educational technology can provide secondary education to tens of millions of young people around the world. If the book is as good as his engaging presentation, then it’s certainly another must read for my bookshelf.

Connecting the dots

I’ll come to listen to your parade of movers and shakers, spend the night comfortably cosseted in clean linen. Thanks for the food, flight and great speakers. You’re obviously serious and I must admit, I’m flattered that you want me to come to your do. Although it makes me sound a bit ungrateful (and I’m not), let me tell you how you could be getting better bang for your conference buck.

If you want to ensure that your messages are heard by people that matter – then look for people that use a range of processes for communicating online. They’re connecting (sometimes very loosley) to like minded people interested in formulating relationships with other likeminded people with the express purpose of communicating and developing knowledge. Try engaging these individuals with online identities. They’re mavens trying to join the dots together. Your conference is an opportunity to broaden the conversation and you’ll find that if you connect, they aren’t scared of sharing their thoughts.

So once the thank-you’s have been said, the business cards exchanged, Linkedin Profiles updated, and all other network schmuckwork dissipates at the end of the conference, remember oh conference organiser, that “knowledge – and therefore the learning of knowledge – is distributive, and not located in any given place.” As Downes explains, knowledge consists of the network of connections formed from experience and interactions with a knowing community. So if you are really looking to connect your impressive programme to key people …. then organising a get together of key people in a big city and spend thousands of rands flying in delegates to a hotel stay sandwiched with a seminar filling is only the start of the process. Sorry, you thought the conference was over.

Differentiated Tasks

William M. Ferriter’s article is Why Teachers Should Try Twitter is more about differentiated instruction than Twitter. When I read it, I thought – here’s a note to self – time to explore how technology can be leveraged so that  “students of different abilities, interest or learning needs” can use  different learning paths so that they can experience appropriate instruction.”

Typically, in class, we create a single path and teach a specific amount of content to fill up the period of time while walking on that path. Ranking students’ ability to complete the journey is the teachers intention, and in our assessment, we measure how much of the content they have passed through as they walked along the path with us.

Here in Ed Tech, there’s an unlimited about of learning trails available and a wide range of students with different backgrounds, skill sets and abilities. I’d like to see what paths  students take to develop their technology mastery. So, to assist the “newbies” and to challenge the “geeks” in the class, I have created three routes for them to follow.

  • Entry Level (students simply complete the Tasks )
  • Adoption Level (Do the tasks and create a PLN)
  • Innovation Level (Complete the Tasks, create a PLN and represent what you know publicly, online)

Background and experience with ICT will most probably have an impact students ability to complete the tasks that I’ve set.  Students be able to consult the rubric and complete a task at a certain level. In order for this to work, my role (as instructor)  will have to move from simply teaching to content in lectures and workshops to designing learning activities, facilitating and modeling methods to achieve mastery at an optional drop in session.

I’m trying to persuade students to use Twitter to connect with  and mentor other students as they progress from one task to another or shift from one path to another.  They will have to practice their skills and solicit coaching and feedback from their “networked sherpa”. Both instructor and student will be walking into a  “knowledge gap” and jointly taking steps to shift that gap a step closer to mastery. They seem keen and  I think it’s going to be an interesting journey.

Does it have to be so hard?

logonHostname, username, computername, network, password, submit – are words that I see everyday and respond to without thinking. This jargon however, is a foreign language to a person on the other side of the digital donga. Yet the terms are thrust as a greeting at the struggling “digital immigrant”, aware of an information avalanche, threatened by a disconnected future, worried about tripping over hurdles as they try to login to the LAN.

I’ve just tasted this cocktail of confusion. I spent an hour introducing the LAN to a student who’se managed to avoid browser wars, Hotmail, e-commerce, Google thedotcombomb, Youtube, Facebook etc. The jargon and the process was unfamiliar and obscure. The purpose of the login exercise did not communicate security. It spoke of trickery and confusion, things that you’d expect a usability expert to have simplified by now.

Firstly, you have to swipe your card at the help desk (located 10 minutes away from this lan). Secondly, you have to enter your user number and then your password. Thirdly, after entering your password, you are prompted to add a new one, and then to repeat this new one, and if you don’t think of a “secure” password, you’ll be asked to repeat step 3 again. With login done, the fourth step is to attempt to access your e-mail. And so you repeat the process of usernames and passwords. And then if you are to make use of any social media – the process has to be repeated again.

Why, when the LAN is used primarily by students that don’t have a computer at home, does it have to be so darn difficult to logon to a network? When swiping the card, the “help” desk could use a branching test to easily establish whether the user was a newbie and give the struggling student a small tutorial in login procedures. A single hand out with the space for a user to fill in their username and password might avoid countless confused students. Or how about an ambient gaming overlay that will nudge users forwards. At least create a screen saver that offers a login tutorial might assist the student scaffold their thoughts.

The banking industry have managed to simplify the login procedure to access money from an ATM. OpenID is making it safe, faster and easier to log in to web sites. Kodak (and other film companies) have managed to get photographers to use their terminals to print out photos, but network security technicians (or whoever is responsible for the LAN login process) have re-enforced a late adopters inferiority complex and excluded them from participating all because of network security.
There must be ways that can make connecting to the net work a little less work?

Personal Learning Networks

It's at the digital water cooler where I interact with and learn from other people. This is my PLN

It’s at the digital water cooler where I interact with and learn from other people. This is my PLN

“All of your knowledge won’t amount to much if you don’t have a network of people to share it with and enough compassion for the people in that network to understand that your success is a direct result of their success.”

Tim Sanders, Chief Solutions Officer at Yahoo

I’m in education because I want children/young adults/students/professionals to be able to think for themselves. I believe that I’m working to a point where the locus of control should rest within them. Yet, when it comes to my professional development needs, this locus usually resides with an obscure subcommittee that arranges meetings, invites a speakers, a lecturer or guru and assumes that the co-hort of attendees will learn, grow and return to our classroom inspired and “professionally developed”. What a silly notion.

A person that loves learning, is looking for guidance, wants wisdom, requires answers to questions and has experience to share does not need sit through presentation after presentation, discussion after discussion in order to become a better educator. Training programmes are not going to improve their teaching. A network of educated people that are willing to talk with other educated people is required, not a panel of presenters.

Managements’ obscure faith in officially sanctioned lectures, in-service training courses or educational conferences is being shaken by free-form, dialogic user centred learning concept called a Personal Learning Network (PLN). Skeptics of top down training programmes are using the Social Networking and Web 2.0 Technologies to create an alternative platform to communicate, accept and dole out advice, coach and be coached and interact with a huge range of interesting people. Sharing and social applications on the ‘net have facilitated user-centered learning opportunities, where the training agenda is made up by the attendees, not the speaker.

So if you are tired of being told what meetings, conferences, INSET days you should attend, but are interested in engaging with similarly minded professionals (in a mediated public space), if you are comfortable with being part of a community and are looking for some form of mentoring or coaching, then maybe you’ll be interested in developing your own Personal Learning Network. Search Twitter for the term “My PLN”, and you’ll find thousands of people using electronic tools to connect with and share their knowledge. Or join me, and my AV / Ed Tech class and create a digital identity where we can explore new ways of learning in an unplace, where control rests with the teacher, not the talker. Expect peer to peer learning, some social engagement and reflective thinking. Who knows where this conversation will take us.

Modelling Technology

Motivational speakers usually don’t impress me. Brought in by a well meaning leader, the “You can make a difference” inspirational monologue, usually leaves me more dispirited than before. “Do what I’m doing, stand in my shoes for a week, and then make this speech”, has always been my internal mantra to their 20 minute routine.

Computer experts with “solutions”, in the same way, also often leave me cold. Listening to another well practiced pitch that explains how this new technology “…will revolutionize your classroom…” leaves me equally skeptical. “Experts”, I think, need to install the package on the school network, model the technology to teachers and students, make it available for staff to play and experiment. Then, if it works, you will inspire.

My best learning has been when I’ve had time to explore, play and interact with an expert that takes the time to go beyond teaching and models (and expects) best practices. Wesley Fryer is such an expert. Instead of opting for the the motivational approach, and delivering great lectures on technology use, the “expert” has set out explicitly how he intends to model appropriate uses of the technology to the class.

This approach inspires me. It allow me to see how the others are playing, experimenting and designing teaching and learning activities for other classes. I know that as I start climbing another steep learning curve, my inexperience with new programs, my confused explorations with new websites can be mediated by another , who has stood in my shoes, and is able to empathize with my position, and offer me examples and assistance.

My class this year are also going to be learning about ICT and how they can integrate it into their teaching. I’m “the expert” this time, and it’s likely that I’ll sound like the motivational speaker. To ameliorate any dispirited feelings, I intend to model good technology use to the class. I’m going to focus on

  • Collaborative learning
  • Acting as a networked sherpa
  • Engaging in reflective thinking about my teaching practice
  • Having fun

with them.
I know that the route to computer competency is littered with well intended courses, certificates and experts. I’m hoping that a bit of explicit modeling might create some engaged learning. Subscribe to this blog and I’ll keep you posted.

Web Wednesday Chit Chat and Workshops

I’d like to experiment with hosting and running a set of alternate bi-monthly chit chats and workshops for people that want to share their digital stories and extend their use of the net. These events will take place on the first Wednesday of the month and will collectively be known as WebWed.

Chit Chat

At these brief presentations we’ll discover how people are adapting / adopting / innovating with the net in their professional, social and educational lives. Join me for a bi-monthly Web Wednesday presentations (using the Pecha Kucha format) at 21 Milborrow Road.
Suggested Chit Chats
Please select the Chit Chats you would be interested in watching (multiple selections allowed)


Some people might be want to make better use of the net and learn how to design and develop web stuff. Sign up for a practical session behind a computer every second month where I’ll facilitate a workshop on a local computer network. Only 10 places are available

Suggested Workshops Topics
Please select the workshop topics that you might participate in (multiple selections allowed)

If you are in education, development or training and interested in learning about, using and producing resources on the web, then look out for #WebWed on Twitter. If you are around Pietermaritzburg, consider sharing your experiences or sign up for a workshop where together, we’ll work on the web.

Testing times for an oEmbed ignoramus

Derek Keats is testing Chisimba, oEmbed and WordPress and I’ve offered to get my hands dirty and assist. I’m officially an oEmbed ignoramus (remember, I’m an ex-history teacher). But I’m also a networked learner. Search engines have allowed me to almost instantly explore an array of unknown fields, modular Word Press Plugins make me feel technologically sussed and my Twitter friends have enlightened and directed my thoughts. I’ve benefited from Derek’s Twitter comments and so I volunteered to test his code.

I turned to Heapr for assistance. A brief scan through their results left me with an introductory article by oembed and a WebMonkey tutorial.

“oEmbed is a format for allowing an embedded representation of a URL on third party sites. The simple API allows a website to display embedded content (such as photos or videos) when a user posts a link to that resource, without having to parse the resource directly.” ( )

I don’t know about you, but definitions don’t always work for me. I prefer to explore first and then concisely articulate. I’d rather see what is being defined, reverse engineer it and then attempt describe it in words. I’m a data plumber with a “Justdoit” approach to understanding. I’d far rather apply first then analyse and understand.

Webmonkey’s tutorial prompted some “dirty learning”. I copied and pasted their oEmbed exemplar. Below is a line of code from their site.

Click, test, yes – it works. First success. Getting my hands dirty is always satisfying.
Encouraged – I now tuned to Keats’ Code.

Below are my two attempts
Not Encoded

Click, Test – Oops – The first one links to a php file and the second gives a 404 error – what am I doing wrong? Could be my version of WordPress? No – the Flickr example worked. Or my coding? Quite possible. My hands are filthy and I’ve got a few mud splatters on my face. Or maybe Keats code has errors.

Back to the instructions. I missed the first line – “Please note that you can only do this test if you have the WordPress oEmbed plugin installed.” – in red. Off to oembedder plugin install and enable it.

Lets try again.

code removed 1

And now preview the post – but I get an 500 server error message. Has the server has crashed? No, I can edit the post. Disable the oembedder plugin and I can see the post.

Lets try some code from the oembedder plugin readme file


Hey it works

Whoah, this is getting way beyond me. Time for the PLN to assist? Could you help me out? Does the problem lie with my server, my slightly out of date WordPress code, the oEmbed code Derek put together or my HTML? Any assistance – as always – is most gratefully received.

Update 5 Jan 2009
Derek has provided me with a couple of updates in the comments

Let’s try the code with the amended provideimage and format=xml

code removed

Nope – problem still repeats itself. Following this up with my service providers, but it looks like oEmbed code from Chisimba is not working here on my machine. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else can get Chisimba and their oEmbed to work on their site.