Tag Archives: classroom environment

Thoughts from the 2014 FutureSchools conference #FutureSKL

I’m currently sitting at the Gate Lounge 33 at Sydney Domestic Airport (well that’s where I was when I started writing the article, but it’s now the weekend and I’m at home finishing it up) after spending the last 2 days at the 2014 FutureSchools conference. If I was to sum up my thoughts in a few words, they’d probably be Good things are happening in schools, but there’s so much more to do.

As a general rule, the presentations were pretty good. I felt there were some that focussed a bit too much on the technology and/or the learning spaces themselves rather than the pedagogy that goes along with it, but some of that I believe comes back to not all of the presenters being “professional” presenters in a sense. My only criticism of the event overall would be that it was very much a “sit and listen” type of event – interaction with presenters was pretty low (with the exception of Eric Mazur who did a great job involving us in his presentation – see the section on Peer Instruction below), and that made the later sessions difficult to stay completely focused on. What we really needed were some opportunities to work with smaller groups of delegates to explore interesting ideas and talk about the details of what was being presented – much of it was big picture, and didn’t address some of the more pressing issues like how to bring staff along and/or break down preconceptions or negativity about change.

Learning Spaces: an enabler, not an answer

Presenters from a few different schools gave us some insight into the way they are using some of their learning spaces. Presenters from Brisbane Boys College, Scotch Oakburn College in Launceston, Stonefields School in Auckland, Mordialloc College in Victoria and Anglican Church Grammar School among others all demoed their learning spaces and talked about the ways they’re re-thinking how they’re used to keep kids engaged with school.

We’re very lucky at my school that, as a newly built school that is only a few years old, the learning spaces that have been set up throughout the building have a lot of variation and scope for being very flexible. What has tended to occur, though, is that each of the spaces in the building has become setup and used in a relatively static and permanent way – although there is scope for flexibility and dynamism, in many cases very little is done to change how each is space is used throughout the year. The result is that the methods used to teach in those spaces are very typical of what would be observed in regular classrooms – evidence that having flexible spaces alone is insufficient to change teaching.

That doesn’t really come as a surprise – technology works in much the same way. Replacing books with laptops doesn’t automatically create classrooms that aren’t teacher-driven (and in fact, I’ve seen many examples where the only difference is that students type notes from the board rather than writing them), nor does swapping out blackboards and chalk for IWBs. Like technology, learning spaces are an enabler – both provide us with new capabilities that wouldn’t have been available otherwise.

Think of it this way – if all students have at their disposal is books and pens, then every task they do will involve writing, drawing and/or conversation with content provided by the teacher. However, with technology, not only can they also do things like make movies, record their discussions and collaborate in real-time on the same documents, they can also access an unlimited amount of information to help consolidate their learning, and use a range of different resources that might be more appropriate for their learning styles (opting for a video or podcast series rather than text-heavy web sites or articles).

Many teachers are unfamiliar with the technology and unsure of how to use it to teach in new and interesting ways. The same can be said for learning spaces – if all you’ve ever known is rows of desks and a board at the front of the room, how then can you be expected to take advantage of the options provided by highly flexible learning spaces?

Interestingly, in the case of flexible learning spaces, many of the benefits they offer are only really available if they are coupled with technology. While we can configure learning spaces to provide students with areas for group discussion and collaboration, individual learning, large-group presentation of information and one-on-one support, if we’re relying on a single source of information or content delivery then the flexibility is of no value. To really take advantage of flexibility of space, we need to have lots of content options and activities that students can be engaged in that will allow them to learn and reflect in ways that make sense to them.

So how do we make better use of the spaces at our disposal? We need to invest a lot of time into teaching teachers how to teach in that environment. Notice I didn’t say “show teachers how to facilitate learning in that environment”? That was intentional. In many cases, students learn in spite of what their teachers do – the learning can often happen no matter what is going on. However, when teachers are effective teachers (i.e. they “teach” well, for a given interpretation of “teach”), then the learning that is possible for students is far greater than it would be otherwise.

My plan for this year is therefore twofold – by developing a strategic plan for the growth, use and implementation of technology for teaching and learning at the school, I’ll be seriously considering the role of professional development to not only address the technical and pedagogical needs of staff with respect to technology, but with respect to the learning spaces as well.

Changing Culture: Consultation, Community Involvement and Nurturing Innovation

What was really clear from early presentations where schools had successfully changed the culture was that in every case, without exception, students and the general community were involved in the process. Presenters made it very clear that a large part of what kept students interested in the school was the building of relationships with their teachers and school leaders, and that empowering them to drive aspects of the decision-making process was the easiest way to get buy in from the student body. We’re currently in the process of investigating a new timetable structure to cope with the increasing enrolment numbers at our school, and it gave me the idea – why don’t we have the students organise a community forum to collect ideas and present options about what this might look like? It is one of the things I’m going to suggest as part of our strategy over the next few months, and I’m hoping that other members of the leadership team will see the value in such a move. Does it mean that the student voice will be the only determinant of any change? No. But it will mean that their voices will be heard and can be considered as a part of the change process.

The other barrier to change that was discussed at length was the perception of what school should look like that came from parents – it was interesting to hear how principals who had only recently taken up their positions were contacted by families to find out if they were prepared to “stop the madness” that was going on in the school. As previous participants in the education process, many parents “know” what school is and are afraid of any departure from that picture. Successful schools that have managed to shift their pedagogical approaches away from teacher-centric, content-focused delivery practices to student-directed, teacher-guided, personalised learning unanimously had parents heavily involved in the transition. There was a significant investment in parent education; bringing teachers, students and parents together to openly share what it was each stakeholder group thought education should look like and what tools and environments would facilitate it. The greatest allies for schools in these conversations were the students themselves – it turns out that kids are much better at convincing their parents something is a good idea than the school is, and when all parties agree the transition is smoother and much quicker than it might otherwise be.

Stephen Harris, Principal of Northern Beaches Christian School, presented his “steps” for successful cultural change:

  1. Observe the situation, and involve everyone in the process;
  2. Have a clear vision about where you’re headed;
  3. Develop the vision with others – build it and it allow it to grow;
  4. Encourage ideas that support the vision through space and collaboration;
  5. Act on those ideas; and
  6. Evaluate progress regularly and adapt the vision based on what is working.

It’s a relatively simple idea, but for me I think the key is definitely defining the vision and having others buy-in to it – making it a shared vision so that everyone is working towards the same goal. I think of it a bit like a soccer team – everyone plays a very specific role, with  each working towards getting the ball in the opponent’s goal while not giving up their own. Without the goals at either end, we’d have a lot less structure and nothing concrete to work towards, and there’d also be no way of determining the success of any unplanned moments of brilliance that might come along.

Structures that encourage innovation

Another thread throughout many of the presentations was that innovation and change comes about only when supported by appropriate structures. Some of these are organisational, others physical. I’ve extracted the ones that struck a chord with me below.

Leadership Structures

A couple of schools talked about the way they’ve structured their leadership teams to both take advantage of the skills and expertise of their staff and to encourage creative thinking and innovation. NBCS and the Australian Science and Mathematics School both threw out the traditional, faculty-based organisational structure and instead have adopted more fluid and dynamic approaches that encourage experimentation and collaboration rather than reporting up and down the chain of command. This primarily achieves two things:

  • it eliminates the expectation of management that a hierarchical, top-to-bottom structure creates, encouraging every person in the organisation to take on leadership roles and innovate, and shifting the emphasis of senior members of the organisation towards visionary thinking and innovation; and
  • it breaks down the barriers that are naturally created by the independent business units common in hierarchies – typically in high schools, this is the faculty unit.

I love the idea that teachers should spend more time working with colleagues from other disciplines and sharing their thoughts more widely, and that leaders are given greater opportunity to define what the important aspects of their roles are.

What was really evident, however, was that for this approach to work, everyone must be invested in the vision and strategic direction of the school. There’s a significant amount of groundwork necessary to put that in place before you can just flip the organisation on its head.

Personal Learning Time

At our school, students are not timetabled on every class which provides them with their own Personal Learning Time. The idea is that by providing students with some flexible time they can use to focus on their study in a way that best suits them, and can seek out extra assistance from teachers and peers outside of regular class times. It’s a good idea, but it isn’t always utilised by students as well as it could be.

Many of the schools that presented talked about the way they have adopted “20% time” similar to organisations such as Google and 3M. The idea being that students can choose something to work on – absolutely anything, with no restrictions or limitations – and use 20% of the timetable at school to explore their interest. There is an expectation that they will present what they learn back to their teachers and peers, then move on to another topic or interest.

Across the board, the schools that have adopted it have said it is one of the most popular initiatives amongst the student body. It got me thinking – we’ve got that space in the timetable (which in our case works out to be about “16% time”), what if we could recognise anything a student did that sat outside of the regular curriculum during that time? I think there’s merit in the idea, and I also believe that there’s a good chance that the learning that takes place would flow on to better results in other subjects too. I’m going to investigate how we might be able to get that happening – providing some kind of framework for students to better utilise their non-timetabled school time, but still crediting them with some formal recognition of the learning that takes place. I’m sure it’s possible.

The Staffroom

I’ve never been a fan of staff rooms. Personally, I find that while they’re great for developing collegiality amongst the people that share a space, what they also tend to do is create separation between different staff rooms as a result of people not being challenged or exposed to alternative ideas on a regular basis. When there is little need to relocate yourself, busy days often mean you just don’t bother to do so. I’ve always made it my mission to try and get around to other staff rooms regularly so that staff know who I am and I get a chance to hear a bit about what they’re doing. I haven’t been as successful this year as I have previously (moving to a new school no doubt being a factor), but it’s something I’m working on.

To counter the negative effects of the staff room, some schools have begun the process of eliminating them altogether, or at the very least blurring the line between what defines a staff room “space”. Instead, staff are encouraged to work in locations that make the most sense at the time for their work – if it is collaborative planning, moving to a space with a round table and plenty of whiteboard space is going to be much more conducive than a standard staff room space might be. Equally, if what you’re working on requires uninterrupted attention, finding a private area where you can shut yourself away for a short period of time to finish something up is equally important.

I don’t believe that you can just get rid of the staff room altogether – I think there’s a need in any school environment for teachers to be able to separate themselves from the students at times, especially when you consider the many situations where privacy is important (for the students and the staff). But I do believe that you can minimise the amount of staff room space in a school. A large space or two with options for lots of people to work in different ways strikes me as the ideal – just like we want to create dynamic, fluid spaces for learning in different ways, so too should we be looking at these options for staff. Besides, there will always be the occasional empty space at various times of the day where classes aren’t happening, and that could be useful too.

The biggest blocker here would no doubt be staff themselves – many staff have become comfortable working in the current paradigm, and to change would be a fairly significant shift. We’re also used to many procedures in schools that tend to work on the assumption that teachers reside in staff rooms and that those places aren’t fluid – there’d be a lot of work that needs to be done to alter administrative processes and implement solutions that would allow us to operate in a different environment.

Information and technology

The Library

Without a doubt, one of the most contentious spaces when any suggestion for change is made is the library. I love books – I’ve got a decent sized collection of my own at home, but the reality is that when I go looking for information nowadays often books are not my first point of reference. There are some situations where books are absolutely fantastic – one of the most challenging things I find at the moment when teaching accounting is that while there is plenty of information online for techniques and processes that apply to accounting generally, finding information about things that are specifically Australian that are accessible to students can be really tough. There are books that do this well, and their value cannot be understated.

So when I suggest the following, don’t interpret it as me being a book-burner or anything – libraries need to change in a BIG way. We don’t need anywhere near the amount of books that is typical in a conventional, established library. We also don’t need the library to contain classrooms, labs of computers or tables set up only for individual study. The library has the potential to become an energising hub of information, research and thinking, but libraries with older designs don’t conjure up those images anymore.

I see libraries now as being much more multi-modal, and there are many librarians out there that completely understand it. Our TLs are regularly recording and sourcing video for students that they make available through our media servers, and this supplements our book collection. They do a great job and I value the TL role immensely.

However the spaces in libraries need to reflect this. More small study areas, lots of variety in the spaces available, collections of resources such as podcasts, videos, lectures and media from educational institutions across the world – that’s what is relevant to our students today. And, best of all, a lot of this material is actually free. The problem is the quantity and quality of what is out there, but that’s where the real value of the Teacher Librarian is – they know how to curate and catalogue amazing content.

To be able to do this effectively, TLs need the time and technology to support this move, and some input to help design library spaces that are attractive and inviting to students of all ages.


Communication is never the best it can be – it just isn’t possible. It’s a multi-faceted problem that gets so complex with new forms of communication that keeping up is a job in itself. But one of the things that always frustrates me is the amount of time spent on communicating administrative information when instead, what inspires learning and excites people is hearing about interesting developments in a range of areas.

We’ve got large screen TVs hooked up across the college that are capable of streaming all types of media from a content server. What exactly are they used for? Right now, RSS feeds of news, the school Twitter feeds and similar, but most of what goes up there is administrative – this event is coming up, don’t forget exam week etc. None of the content is designed to challenge thinking – it’s used to disseminate information.

That information shouldn’t dominate those screens. Sure, it’s important and it needs to be shared, but surely there are better ways to make use of significant amounts of display time. I’ve been thinking – what if the administrative announcements were up during certain times of the day, while during others the screens were showing streams of what was happening in the performing arts, or video of some interesting science experiments, or a major cosmological event, or a public lecture from a local university on a human rights issue? One of the ways I think we can better engage students with that kind of information is to make it easily accessible, and to give them a reason to go back and look at the screens on a regular basis. If all we’re doing is feeding them information they are getting from other sources (such as their smartphones), it’s an opportunity that’s going to waste.

I’m not completely sure of the capabilities of our systems, but I understand that the server and software is quite powerful. I’m going to incorporate better use of our existing systems into the strategic plan for technology.

The power of Peer Instruction

For me, the best session of the conference was the second day keynote presented by Eric Mazur from Harvard University. I mentioned it earlier because of all of the sessions that were held, it struck me as being the most interactive. While others attempted to involve us, the enthusiasm Eric generated as a result of the use of peer instruction in a restrictive lecture space was enlightening. What was surprising wasn’t that it worked – it’s something I’m sure all teachers have used before – but that it made me feel like a student that wanted to learn again. By the end of his lecture, I’m sure that every single person present was excited about thermal expansion in solids, or at least was hooked enough to need to know the answer to his question.

Mazur has delivered other lectures on this same topic in the past – his Confessions of a Converted Lecturer video is available on YouTube (this version is 80 minutes long, but there is also an 18 minute summary) – but ultimately, what he showed us was that students, when involved in each other’s learning, are able to teach others and convince them of a correct answer if they’re given the time to do so. Using real-time feedback and response systems, he was able to demonstrate how once a critical mass of students in a large group had understood the concept, he could have the group collectively find the correct answer to a problem very quickly. Even in a lecture, where the teacher remains at the front and direct access to them by the students isn’t possible, it is enough to have students speak with the people around them.

He’s known as the “Pioneer” of Peer Instruction and Flipped Learning, and he spoke about both of these topics in his presentation, but the clear contrast with his presentation compared to many others was that in his case, his focus was on the change in pedagogy that was necessary for student improvement. Not once did he discuss the flipped classroom beyond the idea that the video became the tool for delivery of content and the classroom experience the change to engage with the material through problems and practice – once that had ben established, all of his time was spent emphasising that the classroom environment and teacher actions had to change to ensure that opportunity was provided to the students.

I’ve taken a lot of what he modelled on board and I’m going to endeavour to do a lot more to provide my students with as many opportunities as possible to practice and share their learning experiences. I’m convinced that it needs to be a fundamental part of what learning should look like in all classrooms. That too will be a factor in the development of our technology plan.

Ultimately, a LOT to think about and share with the leadership team at school on my return. Was it a worthwhile two days – for me, absolutely. For the school? That’s dependent on the willingness of everyone to experiment a little and enact elements of what has been successful in other places. I think there’s a lot there that has the power to improve what we do.

Differentiating the Curriculum for senior students

Today was my first official day at my new school, and as is typical here in the ACT it was a whole school professional learning day. The topic that the school decided on last year was differentiation – ensuring that all students can access the curriculum and have opportunities to show their learning regardless of any disabilities or learning difficulties that may create barriers for them to succeed. It is a topic I’ve done many PL sessions on in the past, so whilst I think the day itself was well organised and run, I didn’t feel like there was much “new” information presented for me to take in.

That said, one thing I was really impressed with was the way staff conducted themselves during the day – it is clearly something that the school has identified as an area that needs to be improved on this year. While these events tend to be a lot of information presenting, there were opportunities to get details that were specific to the needs of students in my classes so it wasn’t so general as to be of limited use.

We were provided with some resources to look at before attending, exploring differentiation and/or diversity from a range of perspective. Websites, presentations, videos, policy documents – it was a pretty good collection of readings that addressed many of the aspects that are important to understand the issues and complexities of differentiating successfully. Of course, Gardner and Bloom’s came up, as did the work of Maker and others known for their differentiation research, but it was interesting to see where the emphasis on differentiation is placed by various educational jurisdictions. Some tend to focus on the gifted and talented end of the spectrum, while others look very much as disability and severe learning difficulties. Our interpretation was much broader, and tries to capture students who, for any reason, may hit a barrier to learning. These could include the above, but may also be as simple as moving around a lot due to a parent working for Defence, being a non-native speaker, being independent and needing to balance work as well as school or in more extreme cases being a primary carer for a relative at home, among others.

The video below is just one of the resources – I’ve provided links to everything at the end of this post if you want to explore some of them on your own. This one provides a good starting point for thinking about the importance of keeping students engaged with their learning through variety, and ensuring that school doesn’t just end up being a waste of time (for all involved).

One of our sessions consisted of us choosing from 8 different activities and working in small groups to either consider some of the issues surrounding differentiation or to work through a differentiation activity. I found a few of these interesting for a couple of reasons:

  1. Differentiation strategies abound on the net for primary school teachers. Adapt one of more to a college setting.
  2. To what extent does differentiation differ from simply good teaching?
  3. Choose a model of differentiation (or make up your own) and use it to develop a differentiated lesson or unit of work.
  4. Write a soliloquy/sonnet/dramatic monologue from the learning environment to the teachers of the college.
  5. Evaluate a differentiation strategy of model of differentiation.
  6. Why do some of our most gifted students get bored in class?
  7. To what extent is differentiation a ‘machine-gun’ approach to the teaching of students with diverse needs? Aim, pull the trigger and hope for the best!
  8. Choose any content. Fill out the boxes in the Blooms-Gardner’s matrix.

I worked with one of the science teachers on the last activity, mainly because I have done quite a bit in the past on this topic and I thought I’d go to the smallest group and contribute there. We only had about 25 minutes to work on our matrix, but the result of that (which we’ll probably go back to and refine at some point – some of the notes are a bit rough right now) is visible here.

The statements that I found the most interesting, though, were 2 and 7. One of the biggest gripes I have with the discussion around many of these topics and issues is that they are often discussed independently of what it means to actually be a teacher. If I didn’t differentiate within my classroom, I wouldn’t feel as if I was actually performing my duty as a teacher. My role is to instil in all of my students a passion for learning – what they learn in my class is, to a degree, secondary. And the only way I can do that is to engage them, which means taking into account their individual circumstances and making sure that they have every opportunity to tie their own experiences in with the material and activities I present to them.

The best way to do that, of course, is to know your students – relationships are in my mind the most important part of being a successful teacher. What each relationship looks like may be different – teachers and students all have their own unique personalities; some are built on respect while others may use a shared passion as the underlying foundation. Either way, getting to know your students is the number one priority, especially early in the teaching period.

Which brings me to the machine gun analogy – I don’t believe it works for effective differentiated instruction. The image I conjure up in my mind when I think machine gun is of a general target (understanding a concept) that is simply delivered in multiple ways in the hope that something clicks for each student. It doesn’t imply any considered thought about what those strategies would be, just that there are a lot of them.

Using the strong, positive relationships your build with your students allows you to make informed choices about which strategies are going to be effective for your classroom – there’s no need to just spray bullets, because each bullet has already been carefully selected to meet an identified need.

Then, there’s the question of assessment. Ultimately, my view is that this can be done well – even when working within imposed constraints such as the HSC, VCE or (in our case in the ACT) the BSSS courses that dictate what should be taught and when. If, when we design our assessment tasks and learning activities, we keep in mind that what the students need to understand can be considered independently from the opportunities we create for them to learn, share and explore it, we can then introduce flexibility into how that learning is demonstrated to us. Where an external exam forces us to test concepts in a written form that can be hard (thankfully, we don’t have external testing), but for the assessment that occurs at the school level ensuring that how students present their learning is not restricted ensures the maximum success when it comes to marks and grading.


NSWDET Policy and Implementation Strategies for the education of gifted and talented students
A fairly comprehensive overview of the contemporary approaches to differentiation (60 pages)

NTDET Curriculum Differentiation and Education Adjustment Plans
Focus on individual needs and reasonable adjustments (23 pages)

UNESCO – Changing Teaching Practices: using curriculum differentiation to respond to students’ diversity
A vast consideration of the topic of differentiation notable for the international perspective it brings and the breadth of disadvantage that forms its context. (109 pages)

Basics of Differentiation
A fairly thorough example of how student choice boards can be applied.  The example considered is on figures of speech. (26 pages including some irrelevant ‘water cycle’ material)

NSWDET Developing Differentiated Units of Work
A range of practical charts, lists and templates that enable differentiation in a range of different and sophisticated ways (28 pages)


Are your lessons fun? (3m 20s)

Special Ed Differentiation – Some Ideas (Tiered Activities, Tic-Tac-Toe, RAFT) (5m 14s)

Why Differentiate? – Carol Tomlinson (3m 47s)

Learning Stations – Tiered Activity, Speech Bubbles, Memory, Choice (2m 55s)


Queensland Managing Learning for Diversity – Teaching
A range of adjustments suggested alongside some movements in curriculum design that are compatible with differentiation i.e. Productive Pedagogies, Universal Learning by Design (1 webpage + links)

WA Schools Plus – Helpful hints for differentiating the curriculum for all students
A comprehensive list of tips for teachers (1 webpage)

A Different Place – Examples of products
A list of different ‘products’ of learning categorized somewhat dubiously according to their potential to elicit more or less sophisticated performance. Most usefully used as an ideas source for products. (1 webpage + links)


Strategies for Differentiation: Curriculum Compacting, Tiered Assignments, Independent Projects
Very practical in nature but focusing significantly on curriculum compacting (50 slides)

Reaching all children in the classroom: an overview of differentiation strategies
Powerpoint presentation that is well pitched in terms of dealing with complicated ideas in an accessible way. Some good examples included. (32 slides)

Extending Gifted Students
An authoritative presentation on the extension of gifted students with an emphasis on creativity as well as some local research on the way gifted students prefer to learn (36 slides)


Maker and Williams Model Template
Curriculum design templates for differentiation based on the works of Maker and Williams respectively (5 pages)

Bloom-Gardner Matrix
Tool for developing activities that cater for both Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive difficulty as well as Gardner’s multiple inteligences (2 pages)

Scholarly Articles

Integrating the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy with Multiple Intelligences
Scholarly article by Toni Noble addressing planning for both differentiation on the level of academic rigour alongside also addressing multiple intelligences (21 pages)

Effective strategies for implementing differentiated instruction
Scholarly article arguing for inclusive strategies for meeting the needs of gifted and talented students in mainstream classrooms as opposed to structural solutions (13 pages)


SERUpdate June 2010
Newsletter of the South Australian Special Education Resource Unit (SERU) containing a range of articles from educators in SA schools focusing on the successes and challenges of differentiation in the classroom. (40 pages)

MOOCs: How good are they from a learning perspective?

I’m currently working through my 3rd course no a MOOC – a Massively Open Online Course. This one is hosted on the Venture Lab platform and is called “Designing a New Learning Environment“. Prior to this one, I’ve completed two on the Coursera platform – one on Cryptography and the other on Gamification. Based on these experiences so far, I thought it was time to reflect on the effectiveness of these environments as learning tools.

I should start by saying that as far as motivation for learning is concerned, I’m pretty driven. I don’t need a structured course to get me interested in learning about something – just an interest or desire to want to know more about it. The problem is that its easy to want to know a lot about lots of things, and you tend to get distracted by others as you’re trawling through the wealth (?) of information available to us now via the the Internet. So I jumped into these as a way of providing some focus for my learning – in that regard, they’ve been pretty successful.

I’ve managed to make the time in my already full schedule to spend a few hours a week working through the materials. I’ve identified topics of interest to me, and devoted the time necessary to get my head around the concepts. Some have been pretty challenging (it had been a while since I’d done any real mathematics, and while the Crypto stuff wasn’t overly complicated, it required getting my head back into the notation peculiarities of the discipline), others pretty cruisy (I never really felt “challenged” by the Gamification course, even though it was interesting). It’s my feeling that there’s something available through these MOOCs that will be of interest to everyone.

The big plus of these platforms is the access it gives you to world class academics. They allow leaders in their fields to present materials to anyone from anywhere, and that’s great for everyone who gets involved. It’s also great marketing for the Universities involved. Actual interaction with the professors is virtually non existent, but given these courses can upwards of tens of thousands of participants, what more can you really expect.

And while there are capabilities in the platforms for people to engage with others (the usual forums, peer assessment tools and the capacity to comment on other people’s work) I have to admit that I haven’t felt the urge to engage beyond what I’m required to do. Perhaps I’m just too busy to do so, but I can’t help but feel that ultimately it comes down to the way the content is being delivered.

You see, it is still based on the lecture-task-evaluation paradigm – sure, evaluation may be by peers, but once something is submitted and assessed, there’s no real reason to go back to it. And given the assessment tasks are primarily individual (there are group tasks coming in DNLE, but we’re not there yet), there’s no motivation to collaborate on them in the lead up to submission either. It is essentially about watching/listening to the lecture, applying that to a problem, then moving on to the next one. All pretty low on the Bloom’s taxonomy classification scale.

The DNLE course is attempting to go beyond that with an emphasis on teams creating a design for a new type of learning. The goal is admirable, but so far I’m not feeling it. I don’t want to be too critical given there’s still a while to go yet, but so far I haven’t really felt the mechanisms for true collaboration have existed in the platform or the method of delivery.

I’ve formed a team with colleagues I know through other means (the OzTeachers mailing list), and we set up a Google+ hangout to throw around some ideas for a team-based project initially. Apart from that though, there has been little collaboration. There is a video-chat capability in the Venture Lab platform, but because of the way we’ve built our team up, I just haven’t had the desire to use it.

For someone like me who is happy to work alone on things and doesn’t require a stack of extrinsic motivation, the existing MOOC structure is fine – it provides a scaffold for me to keep my learning on track, and that’s what I need to keep from getting distracted. However, for people who want to engage with others in meaningful ways (and I enjoy doing this too), these platforms seem to be a bit too disconnected from the networks we already engage in heavily.

MOOCs in general, and platforms like Venture Lab in particular, are still very much in their infancy. But My attitude towards them so far is that if they don’t evolve quickly to offer more than online courses have since early LMSs launched in Universities and Schools in the early 2000s, their appeal for may people won’t last. As a cost cutting measure for universities they’re a great tool, but as they currently exist they use the same methods of teaching that have always existed, and that’s not advancing learning like it needs to.

We know that models of learning and teaching have to change. Moving what we do now into the online space is hardly sufficient to advance things further. We need to see some truly transformative education platforms and tools – MOOCs (at least for now) do not fit that profile.


AppleTV in Educational Settings

Recently I’ve been experimenting with configuration and use of Apple TV in the classroom as a means of providing teachers and students with wireless projection capabilities for their supported iOS and Apple devices over AirPlay. This came to a head for me when I heard the announcement from Apple in late September that the version of iOS for Apple TV (v 5.1) included support for connecting the Apple TV to enterprise networks that use the WPA2 / Wireless Certificate / Radius methods for authentication. In the ACT, the public school system uses such a configuration, and until this recent update Apple TVs could not be connected to the wireless network.

So I investigated the process and found that is is actually a relatively simple one. The requirements are:

  • A 2nd or 3rd Generation Apple TV;
  • A Mac capable of running the latest version of Apple Configurator (available through the Mac App Store)
  • The certificate file for the wireless network to which you are connecting
  • A Micro USB cable (available from all good retailers, or perhaps as an inclusion with a mobile phone you have had over the past 5 years or so)

With those 5 things, the process became fairly simple to setup. The steps are all essentially laid out in the following three Apple Hot Topics from their support website:

  1. Apple TV: How to configure 802.1X Using a Profile – this can be used for setting up a profile for any iOS device, including iPads, iPods and iPhones so that the user doesn’t have to manually enter configuration details.
  2. Apple TV: How to configure a proxy using profile – again, can be done for any iOS device. You can even set these profiles up using iPhone Configuration Utility, but Apple Configurator may be required for Apple TV support (at least at the moment)
  3. Apple TV: How to install a configuration profile – This is the final step once you’ve built your profile, and ultimately is the way you prepare it for deployment.

There are a couple of gotchas that you ultimately need to be aware of when you do this, and a few steps involved specifically for connecting to the ETD network:

  1. The EDU network uses different settings to the STU network – this is in place at the moment but will, after the move to SchoolsNet, will no longer be in place, making things a bit easier. For this to work at our school, I needed to use STU (since students cannot connect their devices to EDU).
  2. The credentials for connecting to the STU network need to be present on the AD server for your student network – teacher credentials won’t work, so you need to have an account on your student server and use that one.
  3. Proxy settings for STU are required – make sure you use the same settings that are in place on your STU desktops and laptops (I won’t publish these settings here – if you’re a teacher in the ACT ETD, you’ll be able to look them up at school). You should be using the Automatic Proxy settings (not auto-detect).
  4. You will need to get a copy of your wireless certificate off the student server. You can export a copy of the certificate from your server so that you can put it on the Mac that will be running Apple Configurator.
  5. When transferring the profile to Apple TV, you MUST have the power cable plugged in – the HDMI cable isn’t necessary (I found that I couldn’t plug both HDMI and USB 2 in at the same time because the cables I had were a bit fat) but can remain plugged in.
  6. Finally, your STU wireless network needs to be able to support AirPlay – this requires multicast/Bonjour to be active. It is active on our network due to it being used for wireless printing for our Cafe App.

Other than that, it is a pretty painless procedure. Once the profile is installed as outlined in the third Hot Topic, all you need to do is double-tap the home button on your iOS device, tap on the AirPlay icon and select the device from the list of AirPlay devices on the network. If you’re using an AirPlay capable Mac, the AirPlay icon appears in your toolbar at the top of the screen when an AirPlay capable device is present.

There are a couple of settings you’ll want to turn on for your Apple TV:

  1. Consider setting an Airplay password if you want to restrict use of the Apple TV to a few people. This might be something you want to do, but it does limit the way you can have students use the device.
  2. If you want to allow anyone to connect via AirPlay, it is a good idea to turn on the setting that requires you to enter a 4 digit passcode to connect. This way, students or teachers need to be in the room to connect their device, and you won’t get students from the other side of the school throwing their display up without you knowing.

For the cost of a big screen TV that supports HDMI (< $1000) or a HDMI-capable projector (< $1200) and an Apple TV (about $100), you can have the capability in your classroom for anyone with a capable device to display their work to their peers. This gives the teacher the flexibility of demonstrating something from anywhere in the room, and for students to do the same. When you compare this setup to the cost of an Interactive Whiteboard (in the order of $4000-$7000), the potential for deploying this on a large scale is pretty significant if money is tight and doesn’t carry with it the restrictions of having to plug yourself in via cables in a specific place in the room.

I’d be interested to know what you think of this set up, and am happy to help you get yours up and running if it is something you’re interested in pursuing.

Way too long between drinks…

I spent a bit of time tonight looking back at the stuff I’ve done this year and realised that it has been way too long since I’ve given a rundown of my experiences with education or technology here on my blog. I’ve made some minor updates to my website, but no real post to capture what I’ve been doing. So, this post will just lay out some of what I’ve been up to this year, and it should start me on a more consistent and regular posting run from this point on (at least, that’s the intention…)

  1. Re-design the system for reporting at school so that we generate all of our course documents from a single database – the same one we use for reporting and assessment;
  2. Win a CS4HS Grant from Google to deliver some PD to teachers – in the ACT and in Bendigo, Victoria – on integrating Computer Science into the curriculum through mathematics, english, art and other subjects;
  3. Founding President of InTERACT (Information Technology in Education and Research ACT) – ACCE affiliated professional organisation for educators in the ACT;
  4. Roll out a dual-boot image for MacBooks to all teachers at school, allowing them to use either Mac OS or Windows as required for individual lessons or classes;
  5. Apply for and be appointed to the ACARA Advisory Group for the Australian Curriculum: Technologies for the writing phase, working to advise the writers on the content that will ultimately become the Australian Curriculum;
  6. Begin developing a course for iTunes U that allows students to learn programming on an iPad – still in development, but excited by the possibilities of using this (and iBooks Author) as a means of deploying content to iPads;
  7. Accept a position with the Inspire Centre for ICT Education at the University of Canberra / ACT Education and Training Directorate to develop the capacity of schools and teachers to utilise Apple Technologies effectively in the classroom;
  8. Complete online courses in Cryptography and Gamification through Coursera – a free, online educational platform supported by world class universities;
  9. Enrol in a class on Designing a New Learning Environment through Stanford University’s Venture Lab platform;
  10. Work closely with the organisers of the ACCE Conference on their ACCE Unplugged hangout sessions to get people excited and ready for the ACCE National Conference which took place in Perth in early October; and
  11. Set up Apple TV as a wireless projection solution for iOS and (new) MacBook devices for use in the classroom on HDMI capable projectors and TVs, with the intent to roll this out to many more classrooms in the future (the setup costs under $1000 per room, compared to $7000 for an IWB).

They’re the highlights at least – I’m sure there have been other things, but that alone has taken up large chunks of time this year. Now that I think about it, I really have been busy, so it’s no real surprise to see why the blog has been quiet of late.

Still, I’m making the commitment now and everyone who ends up reading this post will be my witness – I’ll post regularly, and use this as a way of keeping track of what I’ve achieved and where I’m going. I hope you’ll join me on the journey!

21st Century Learning – Reflections on #ITLMC

Over the past few days, IWBNet held their first ever ITL Masterclass conference up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. The conference was a different format to the usual conference event – delegates participated in a cohort session that involved 6 hours of deep investigation of a topic, as well as a series of pre-prepared and unconference sessions hosted by a range of participants. I had the privilege of facilitating one of the cohorts through an investigation of 21st Century Teaching and Learning – a broad concept that encompasses pedagogy and practice suited to the modern world. I also presented some pre-prepared sessions on Challenge-Based Learning: An integrated approach to the Australian Curriculum.

The Cohort Sessions

I’ll admit that I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the event. I agonised for weeks over how I was going to ensure the best outcomes for the participants in my group, and a week out, decided I’d go in with a stack of resources and ideas up my sleeve, but ultimately prepare very little in terms of presentation to the cohort. I introduced the topic and gave them an opportunity to reflect on the concept in the hope they’d be able to identify something they needed to address in their school to move things in the right direction. With such a broad topic it was a challenge, but in the end I think everyone managed to identify a need and a way of addressing it when they get back. The conversations that took place between the delegates (including myself) were extremely powerful – there are so many schools in different systems and sectors grappling similar issues, and (perhaps unsurprisingly) the biggest obstacle most of them face is changing the culture amongst staff, not students.

Through discussion within the cohort and with other conference delegates over the two days, the participants came up with a range of solutions that they’ll be taking back to their schools in the hope they can begin the process of changing their school culture:

  • A set of expectations/standards that teachers within the school can work towards as a means of guiding them along a clearly defined path for professional learning (based on the work being done around teacher standards by AITSL and the ISTE);
  • Professional Learning showcases that involve staff at the school publishing case studies or presenting to their colleagues, demonstrating the evidence of improved student learning due to their innovative and student-directed approaches. To make these particularly effective, staff that are not savvy with the technology and are seen as “typical” practitioners at the school should be leading the event – this makes it seem more achievable to those who are less confident with the ideas being presented;
  • Pilots should be established to demonstrate the effectiveness of an idea. This came up in discussion around implementation of a 1:1 initiative in place of a laptop trolley solution (which is not achieving the outcomes expected from access to the technology);
  • Regular dialogue and professional conversation amongst colleagues, and the repurposing of meetings to contain less administration and information to be more active forums for professional sharing and learning;
  • Flip teaching [1, 2] as a means of overcoming the technology barriers that may exist in the classroom due to external or imposed school/departmental policy;
  • Keeping in mind the need to overcome barriers that prevent students from learning (such as low literacy or behaviour issues) so that the 21st Century pedagogy is more effective – it may mean simplifying activities so that they are more attainable for students until their skills develop further;
  • Increasing the “genuineness” of student learning by publishing their work to an international/community audience, rather than it being shown only to the teacher or their class; and
  • Making sure that the technology is used by the students and is less teacher-driven. This includes not only the selection of which technology is appropriate, but the type of activities involved. Technology includes robotics, cameras and personal devices – not just school-owned computers!

All in all, a successful series of sessions that will equip the participants with some tools and information to help shift the thinking in their schools. Resources that explore the topic a little further have been made available on the conference wiki and at my website.

My session on CBL

As an Apple Distinguished Educator, I’m one of a group of educators around the country that has been recognised by Apple as someone who is doing great things with technology and their products in the classroom. My experience in the program introduced me to Challenge-Based Learning – a framework that gives students the opportunity to direct their own learning around a Big Idea, with the teacher acting as a facilitator. With all of the investment going into the Australian Curriculum by the federal government, I’ve always had a fear that the development of documentation built around specific disciplines may create a situation where learning becomes pigeon-holed rather than multidisciplinary, and CBL is one mechanism that could be used to prevent that from occurring. At the conference another ADE, Dr. Jason Zagami, gave a presentation on brain-mapping that highlighted the importance of developing links between concepts that extend beyond single-disciplines and/or contexts, which served to reinforce my belief that schools must make sure they build integrated study into their curriculum.

My presentation gave delegates an opportunity to see how CBL works through two case-studies and examples, mapping the learning and content in the Australian Curriculum from multiple disciplines into a single challenge. I’ve published a copy of my presentation on both the conference wiki and on my website, and feedback and discussion with participants suggested that many understand and see the benefits of this kind of approach to learning. I’d encourage everyone to have a look for themselves, and consider how the model could work in their own context to break down the culture that exists in some schools around learning being restricted to specific learning areas.

Other Goings-on

The organisation of the conference was great, with plenty of opportunities to talk to other educators about their experiences in their schools and contexts. Breakfast, morning tea, lunch and dinner all provided delegates with a chance to talk to people they wouldn’t normally engage with in their regular day. Many educators who already connect with social networking tools like Twitter also had a chance to meet each other in the flesh, finally putting a face to the avatar they’ve known for a while.

If I get the opportunity to participate in something like this again, I’ll definitely get involved. I might refine topics a little more to narrow the focus a bit beforehand (which will also allow me to identify a really good set of resources that explore the practice as well as the theory/ideas), but other than that, I’d say it was pretty successful. A big shout-out to the team at @IWBNet for their work in making the conference happen! And, if you weren’t able to attend but would like to know more about what went on, either visit the conference wiki or search #itlmc in the twitter stream.

The importance of a comfortable environment

As my last post implies, I’ve been working on a project lately that has seen me spend a great many hours in front of a computer screen. I don’t have a laptop at the moment, so I’ve had to restrict myself to working from my study, which, as it happens, gets quite warm during the summer months. The air conditioner in the house doesn’t seem to reach the study (or the bedroom), and as a result I’m finding that as the day gets warmer it becomes less and less comfortable to work in there.

Today I rummaged through my girlfriend’s stuff and dug out her old laptop – it’s not an ideal development platform, but at least it means I can sit in another location where it’s a bit cooler. I’m out on the balcony at the moment – shaded and its still warm, but at least the breeze is a nice change. It’s much nicer to work out here as a result, and this got me thinking about the environment that we have our students working in at our schools.

Many of us probably work in old buildings that haven’t been maintained as well as they probably should have been since being built. With the exception of special purpose rooms that have been developed fairly recently (computer labs, for example), little gets done to make the rooms comfortable in terms of temperature and air-flow. I can’t imagine what it must be like being on the 3rd floor of a building in North Queensland in a maths class after lunch on a Friday for a kid who isn’t mathematically inclined. I find it hard to work on something I’m passionate about when it’s hot, so getting me to do something I detest (like the washing up or the ironing) is damn near impossible.

Consider the conditions that some of our non-teaching peers work in – big, air conditioned buildings with great facilities across the board. Why do we accept a less than adequate environment? Even the little things count  – nice bathrooms, a decent shower so riding to work is a real option. That’s not to say that everyone works in ideal conditions, but I’d venture to suggest that in most places where the number of people in a space the size of a classroom is as high as it is for us, a little bit more is done to ensure the comfort of those present.

This probably sounds like a bit of a rant about teachers being hard done by, and I guess in part it is, but the students have even less choice than us when it comes to going to school. Many of them go to their local school because it’s convenient and all that’s available to them, and if their school is in poor condition, this has to be detrimental to their performance and their engagement in the classroom.

We all do the best we can to keep students interested in their own learning, but when we’re fighting things like physical conditions that are easily fixed with a bit of funding, it only makes our job more difficult. I wonder how many politicians would be happy working in some of our older, less-maintained schools…