Face to face or online learning? The case for blended learning?

ABSTRACT: What is the picture of a student’s intellectual future? How is online learning transforming learners and the ways in which learner’s learn? There is no turning back, to the pre-internet world of learning and inquiry. Our minds are changing as we interact with the tools of learning, and as the structure of our brain changes, so do our thoughts and experiences.  What do we stand to lose by constant connectivity, instant and unlimited information? For a talent lost or diminished there will be another one that is gained. As educators continue to nurture student’s minds, they need to tread carefully and perhaps adopt the evolving ‘ Blended learning’ model of education, the combination of traditional bricks and mortar and online delivery. This presentation will cover the impact of the Internet and its tools on learners, the different approaches and models of Blended learning, how the IB is leaning towards a blended learning environment and practical insights into what makes it work

This session opened with a disturbing metaphor: ‘the internet the invading our world’.  It didn’t improve much when we then went into the ‘what is the internet doing to our brains’ and then showed a whole lot of pictures of young people texting. However, she twisted the narrative by then showing a picture of the conference from the day before; a whole lot of educators on their ipads and computers (and iPads are everywhere here)

Unfortunately, it was then back to neuroscientists and ‘What the internet is doing to our brains’ and the Nicholas Carr book, ‘The Shallows’. Our brains are changing apparently, being constantly rewired and neural pathways and synapses are working all the time. We used to call this ‘learning’ by the way.

This presentation argued that there is no turning back, but then went back to what we might lose by constant connectivity. So far, so negative. It was nice to see some of the participants questioning back: ‘how is this different from the way the brain is rewired when you learn French?’ Yuzzah. You go you. The session threatened to get feisty when one man said that the way he had to deal with 150 emails a day and didn’t read the same anymore, and that was because of this (gesturing at the screen with the word ‘internet’) And there was a bit of back and forth. Nice to see.

But then it was back to us losing the skills of ‘concentration, contemplation and reflection’. And (no irony at all) an argument that we should go back to the blackboard. I’m not joking.

We eventually got on to ‘blended learning’  – ‘a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, pace etc.’ For schools, surely this is the future I think; the mix of ‘brick and mortar’ and online learning model. She argued for a ‘self-blend’ model for IB where students take an online course in their regular school schedule and students work with a site based coordinator.

Blended learning provides a nice convergence of online and face to face. She gave some good tips including the importance of the dedicated site coordinator, sharing student weekly progress using Google Docs, setting up collaborative student teams, making tutorial or help sessions available, student counselling in and out of the program, limit of one subject per student, the importance of educating parents and students, providing hard copy text books and doing regular surveys of student opinions and interests.

On the other hand this was pretty much the only session I’d seen so far where the presenter demonstrated good design skills with some good images, and very little text. And she handled what I would probably have regarded as challenges, really well.

Below, a key diagram from the presentation, which argued for the self-blend model.

Postcard from Finland

At futurEducation I did take the opportunity to make some notes from a couple of the keynotes, which were both interesting.

Dr Tom Wikman, from Finland, opened the conference and was disarmingly honest in his admission that he both was a bit sick of Pisa test discussion but also liked it (‘after all, it’s brought me here’). He opened with a gorgeous Finnish landscape shot, a bit like the one above.

Wikman talked about Finnish education, the ‘Finnish Pisa machine’ he called it, and explained why Finnish results might be so high, even in comparison with ‘like’ countries such as their Nordic neighbours.

One reason he pointed to, ironically, was the lack of reform in Finnish education, where education has been consistent and stable compared to other countries that have had multiple reforms over the last twenty years. The message: test less and reform less, and let teachers get on with it.

But that’s if teachers are trusted as high quality, well esteemed, all with Masters Degrees and seen as teacher-researchers. His metaphor was the teacher as ‘conductor’ (as in conducting an orchestra)and described a surprisingly conservative and old-fashioned sounding education system: blackboards, kids in rows, textbooks, with an emphasis on ‘essentialism’ (the subject) rather than ‘progressivism’ (the child), and traditional in emphasis rather than future-orientated.

Okay, it gets good test results in PISAS; can’t argue with that. But, unquestioned in all this, it seemed to me, was the idea that tests like PISA do accurately measure what matters, just not what can be measured. I’m not sure that I’d go far as to endorse the (somewhat US-centric) view that PISA test results are inverse predictors of creativity or ingenuity or entrepreneurship, but I get the point. Everyone, from the PM down to the boys in the Gonkski-mobile seem to believe.

And, after all Wikman’s talk about the status of teachers, the need for stability and the worth of trusting teachers, what’s the take-home message for Australian politicians?: test, test, test, and make teachers accountable.

Finland landscape photo from Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wolfgangfoto/

Hear this blog post read by a computer!

Monitoring (and celebrating) class behaviours with Class Dojo

A little while ago I was lamenting with my Literature class that it wasn’t always easy to document how that class went and establish what to do next, both of which are critical for effective planning, reflection, and formative assessment practice.

I take notes on student progress (formerly in OneNote, latterly in Evernote) but it takes discipline (and time) to do that after every lesson, let alone in that lesson itself. I might do that once a week, so I often don’t even have a record of who I’d had a good learning conversation with each lesson and, importantly, who I hadn’t spoken to 1-1 for a while in class.

It’s something that concerned me again recently when, at the end of term, I asked the students to complete a short online survey of how the course was going for them. Most of the results were positive; the students felt they could learn, were challenged to think and participate and enjoyed the range of activities, though one wag suggested that I could improve my tech skills 🙂

However, the lowest response came from the question: ‘Do you have a good sense of how you’re going in this class?’. It’s something that is difficult for Year 12 students sometimes, especially early in the year when they haven’t done much School Assessed Coursework (SACs) and it’s one place where a short 1-1 conversation can have much more impact than any general or group activity you set up.

But, who have I spoken to recently? Is the problem I began with.

So, I was very interested in the possibilities of the unlikely tool named Class Dojo which promises real-time behaviour monitoring. I saw the program from Roger Zuidema on Twitter and recorded that I was about to invent this!

I was surprised to get a pretty quick reply from the people who make Class Dojo too, proposing a Skype chat sometime about how it could be improved, which I’d like to do sometime.

How it works is you set up your class, who get zany colourful avatars, and you record good behaviour or bad in the class very easily via web page, iPad or iPhone. They get +/s or -/s against their name and the tally adds up. Over the lesson, or the week, or the term or whatever period you decide.

I’m lucky to work in a school where disruptive behaviour is rarely a problem but I was very interested in how this tool might be used to record learning behaviours. Our school’s reports, for example, include a set of ‘Positive learning behaviours’ from ‘Participates in class discussions’ to ‘Is organised and up to date with set work’ that teachers are asked to record in terms of how often they’ve seen their students exhibit those behaviours? Always, often, sometimes, rarely? But how do teachers record those behaviours and could Class Dojo help?

One of the first things I did was enter my students names and then showed them how the class looked via the data projector in class. They’re Year 12 students but they loved the quirky little pictures, immediately wanted to customise theirs (you can’t) or swap with someone else (you can’t).

We then looked at the behaviours section, which is at the heart of the program. We looked at the default behaviours (out of chair!) and talked about what + or – behaviours might look like in our Literature class, and then added them. One of the nice things is that you can set the positive and negative behaviours yourself and can even vary them from class to class. So, I can set up a series of learning behaviours that suit my senior Literature class, which are different to the ones I want to establish with my tutorial group in the wellbeing program. Here’s the behaviours we agreed on.


We agreed on these positive and negative behaviours and I was ticking off some of the things in Class Dojo through the class. This year I’ve started using a student as ‘class blogger’, who records the class discussions, rather than doing that myself all the time in OneNote, (they’re put up on the class wiki) and that’s helped free me up more to direct discussions or take records like this. So you click on the student names and assign ‘points’ as you go and it even pops up on the screen with a cool sound if you want.

At the end of the class, you get a report something like this

or you can get a report for each individual student, from any duration (whole year so far, this lesson etc) and you have the option to email that report card to a parent or student or email all the cards (it remembers the email addresses once you’ve put them in once)



I don’t think our school would approve of zany colourful non-letterheaded reports being emailed to parents, but I was happy to send them to students, always in a positive way to celebrate some ‘points’ they’d gained during the class. I wouldn’t want this to be a negative thing, and I wouldn’t be showing negative scores a lot, or giving them I hope. But, ‘not doing the homework’ is a pretty clear – in a Year 12 year.

Is it perfect? No. Is it a fun, simple and useful way to clearly document and share the good things that are going on in class? Yes. You need to have internet access and more importantly, your students on board; to involve them in the discussion about criteria and be clear and objective about how you’re using it: it’s not an assessment, it’s a tool for improving learning.

I plan to keep using it with my Literature class and wellbeing class this term and see how it goes.


The Flipped Classroom

I’ve been a bit interested in the Flipped Classroom lately; the idea of turning things on their head so that the predicatable, the ordinary and the mundane gets tackled with technology and the real learning takes place in the classroom.

I became interested in this a while ago, even bought a microphone to do more podcasting and audio with my own class and collected a list of resources and made a Diigo list of them, as you do. [http://www.diigo.com/list/warrickw/flipped-classroom]

But there’s another side to this too. A nagging concern that what might come out of this movement is not the freeing up of the classroom, but the intrusion of the bureaucracy, the big business backed educational resource sites such as the Khan Academy.

How many teachers, in reality, will have the energy, motivation or expertise to develop their own material? Our educational institutions really going to free up teacher time to develop new resources in new technologies?

And, if they don’t, aren’t we going to end up with mass-market resources that don’t fit my classroom and my students or my course?

I can imagine that a closely knit, organised and cohesive team of teachers working together on a course could collaborate closely enough and effectively enough to generate resources together. I can imagine that such a team, with perhaps two or three staff with expertise in new technologies feeding into the main team, could in fact create a course that was flipped. But I can’t see it happening often in the daily, stretched lives of the teachers.

Perhaps flipping the classroom makes more sense the universities with a lecture model still predominates. And where perhaps hundreds or thousands of students undertaking the same course. But I want personalised resources of my students doing my course at the right time, appropriate to the level of ability and the timing of the course. Which means I may have to create them myself.

And, if flipping the classroom means we all go home to watch YouTube, then I’m against it.

Stephen Heppell at the The Schools Network Learning Technologies Conference

Late last year I blogged about a short session I attended with Stephen Heppell on technologies in learning, which I enjoyed a lot. So, I was pleased to find a video of Heppell presenting much the same presentation I saw. So, I embed it here for your viewing pleasure. Some interesting points relating to ‘bring your own technology’ around the 19 minute mark and also on classroom design from a student perspective beginning around the 21 minute mark.


I enjoyed a short session this week UK educator, Stephen Heppell, under the heading, ‘learning:now’. It was a kind of meandering tour of projects he’s been involved in, with a particular emphasis on learning spaces and some key messages that resonated with me.

I liked the way he used his desktop as the presentation tool, (see his website image above for a sense of that) pulling up images and doucments and movies as he thought of them (or that’s how it seemed) and now a powerpoint slide in sight. It did mean that at times the talk lacked the dotpoint focus that comes with those tools, but it was a lot more interesting and engaging for it.

He showed lots of learning spaces he’d been involved in co-constructing with students, or he just thought showed the kind of surprise and delight that thoughtful spaces give us. I liked his image of the UK system of everyone stopping for lunch at school at the same time (‘the only place in London where you can seat 1000 people for lunch is the Dorchester and every high school’) and what that meant for how the day involved. He was all for immersive learning, teach the first week of February for a month, and time at task.

The classroom spaces he showed were ‘shoeless’ places, often where every surface is a writing surface and where the student work was celebrated and maintained. He wanted places where students could sit, perch, slump, lie (did anyone ever choose to sit up straight to read a book he asked?) And what was the point of staff rooms, he asked. If we’re all learners, why have a special space for old learners?

He talked a lot about a classroom space at Lampton, UK, that the students had designed: mood lighting, writable surfaces, skype enabled but, signficantly, the students didn’t want the room filled with technology. We’ll bring our own, they argued, and plug in. That way it will be up to date! He drew a lot on the idea of family, showing us a school that had a bread oven near the entrance so that students could smell that fresh bread cooking as they arrived and talked in this way of ‘a learning family, not a learning factory’ and schools that moved beyond placement of students in age-related groups to peer support and peer learning. He argued for ‘in-betweeny’ time, keeping the day fresh and inviiting and playful ways to do the hard stuff.

He was in favour of social technologies like Skype and Twitter (he tweets here) and flipping the classroom, so that the routine work was done at home and the interesting and challenging stuff done collaboaratively at school. He showed us some slides of stupid things that schools ban, mostly mobile phones which were often the most powerful computers in the room, turned off or banned completely.

And he DID have some key messages that resonated with me:

  • Listen to the students
  • The most risky thing you can do as a school or a system is to do nothing.
  • Teachers needs to lead this discussion – the future competitors to our schools will be Pearson
  • If you can astonish kids with the place you create and the expectations you bring, they will astonish you

Teaching and learning without technology

If there’s one thing that struck me about the Vietnamese people in my recent trip to Vietnam (and there were many things, especially the friendliness of the people) it was their intense desire and capacity to learn.

In Hoi An I got talking to a young woman spruiking sales outside a restaurant. She spoke good English, enough to tell a joke, understand nuance and understand the power of communicating with these new tourists who are coming into the country nowadays. That’s where the future might be.

When I asked her where she’d learned English she told me that she’d learned it herself, from talking to tourists and soaking it up. She was desperate to learn more, asked me some finer points about pronunciation and was back out on the street, drumming up business for the family restaurant.

She was typical in lots of ways. Kids go to school and then go home to do some more work. And often have extra classes on the weekends. And a family business they’re working in. The two things that seem most critical are family and learning. In learning environments that we’d despair about there seems to me a quiet determination to learn.

Earlier on, at Ha Long Bay, we’d been taken on an excursion to a ‘floating village’, where fishermen and women supplement their precarious incomes now by showing boatloads of tourists around their ‘village’. There was a school in session too, recently bolstered with funds from a visiting Sydney school (Killara High School)  and as I guiltily poked my head in (what teacher wants a stream of foreign visitors gawking around) I saw a purposeful, quiet collective effort of learning. There wasn’t a piece of technology in sight. And it was quietly inspiring.

The Fresh Air Fund

Sometimes, believe it or not, learning takes place without technology. Outside even, in the open air.

  • The Fresh Air Fund is a volunteer hosting organisation that aims to give NY city kids a holiday in the country, and they’re looking for volunteers to help. I love the things these kids up to. I want to laugh in the sunshine myself!
  • Playing in the backyard
  • Laughing in the sunshine
  • Catching fireflies
  • Riding bicycles
  • Learning to swim
  • Running barefoot through the grass
  • Gazing at the stars on moonlit nights
  • Building sandcastles
  • Making new friends
  • Simple pleasures of life away from the inner-city

If you’re reading this in the New York area, maybe you can help out? Watch the video and you might get inspired:

Living and working with an Ipad

My wife works for a publishing company, in sales. She’s on the road a lot talking to people in bookshops and also health stores, new-age emporiums and anyone else who’ll listen. Times are tough in the book trade, and some of that’s to do with e-books, e-readers and the move to digital.

But that’s another point. The point is that she uses a notebook computer for work, almost exclusively for email purposes, but also some document handling, some online training and some access to the company’s database checking stock levels on various titles, and what’s new on each of the lists.

Currently, she uses a Dell PC running Windows Vista that we got about three years ago. The company doesn’t supply her with a computer; she has to buy her own, and her own internet access and try to claim it back on tax as a business expense. The Dell laptop looks and feels like a roof-tile and runs like it. It’s slow, unresponsive, constantly needing Windows updating and battery life is now down to 40 minutes fully charged. She needs something new.
And, for the first time, I’m thinking there is an alternative to bringing home another charcoal-grey box, and that alternative is an Ipad.

The Ipad will run her email, albeit only in the webmail format. She can open attached documents in either Google DOcs or an app like GoodReader. She can access her company database and keep a decent looking appointment calendar, task list and customer notes. It’s got roughly ten hours battery life and, if she got all fired up, she could be showing her customers glossy looking PDFs all stored on the Ipad.

For the first time it feels like it is possible that the next device might not be a notebook computer, or a computer at all in some senses, but something quite different.

And,if I’m thinking that’s going to work for her in her work, I wonder am I being open enough in my thinking about how it might work for my students?