Snapshot_002I have been playing around with a program called Sim-On-A-Stick which allows you to create virtual worlds on a flash drive. These can then be shared with a class, to give students a virtual space to learn in. You have to download OpenSimulator as well, and a viewer which will allow you to connect to your sim-on-a-stick! All of this is not for the faint-hearted, but there are step-by-step guides to help you navigate all of this geekiness!

Once installed properly you can begin building a virtual world. This also has quite a steep learning curve, but I had my teenage son on hand to give me a few pointers. Again there are plenty of how to videos to help out if you don’t have a teenage son spare! A few years ago I explored Second Life to see what value it might have for me as a teacher. I was impressed by the obvious benefits for language teachers in particular, but underwhelmed by the experience. For language teachers surely Skype offers more chance to get together with students or distance lessons.

The cost also put me off as did the proscription against under 18 year olds! Using Sim-On-A-Stick, however, age concerns go away. Although one use of a virtual environment is to display material via links to websites, or create physical worlds to explore as a virtual museum, if you like, to my mind the most exciting option is to use the virtual world as a space to allow students to construct representations of, say, the Colosseum in Ancient Rome, or a typical Medieval town! It thus has similar properties to Minecraft. You could even get students to build a large walk inside computer!

I have to say that at the moment the technology is such that I think the benefits for education are limited, but it does make for an interesting idea for a project, and gives students something different to do, which is always a plus!

It is great fun using Sim-On-A-Stick, and I would certainly recommend playing around with it.

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Posted by on July 31, 2014 in Second Life, Virtual Reality


Platform Agnosticism

One of the hardest decisions a teacher needs to make these days is which digital platform to use. For some, school districts or the school itself may have forced a decision by selecting a particular Learning Management System. For others, given a free choice, the choice itself may present a bit of a nightmare. I think I have an account on just about every digital platform known to man, and I have dabbled in most of them at some stage or the other.

moodleAt my school the choice has largely come down to three platforms: Edmodo, Moodle and Google. Each of these has some very strong features, and some weaknesses and the school itself upholds a policy of platform agnosticism. My personal preference is for Moodle because it is so strong at managing the whole process of electronic submission and grading, and has peer assessment modules and badges and can generally handle just about any educational function you might wish for. Its affordance value is thus very high. However, it has a fairly steep learning curve, and this can be problematic. Many of our teachers have gone for Edmodo, and I can see the benefits of this in terms of ease of use, although for me the platform is seriously light on features. Google has recently burst onto the scene at our school, and is garnering some support. Students seem to enjoy using any of these platforms, but clearly with different teachers using different platforms, there is a need for a school portal allowing students to link to different class resources from a single entry point. This also helps brand the school’s e-learning, and if done intelligently can deliver a seamless experience for students and parents

I don’t see any benefit in forcing teachers to use any particular platform. Teachers really need to use whatever platform they are comfortable with. Different subject disciplines have different needs and technology offers different affordances in different contexts. The only logical approach then is to encourage a variety of platforms, and run a strong portal.


Filming Discussions – the digital fish-bowl

dialogic videoThere is nothing I enjoy more, as an English teacher, than a rousing discussion about a poem! In the past I have regularly used what I called poetry circles to encourage students to talk about poems, in a circle.

Sometimes I use a fish-bowl exercise, where some students are doing the discussing and the others have to watch and jot down questions, or summarise the discussion, or even play tag discussions, replacing “team” members when they want. I have recently started filming the discussion so that the video can be placed on the class Moodle page to form the basis for further discussion on the forum.

What I have found is that creating a video of the discussion provides powerful new tools for the flipped classroom armoury. A discussion forum can be used either before the classroom discussion or afterwards, and the video provides a chance to replay an in-class discussion and reflect on it in different ways to an in-class fish-bowl. The digital fish-bowl allows students to rewind a comment and reflect on it in ways which the face-to-face version of the exercise cannot match. I call this Flipping Forward because it takes something done inside of class and flips it on, or vice versa.

I have found 8 to be a magic number of discussants, and the key decision is whether you as the teacher are in on the discussion, or are absent from it. Some groups need more input than others, steering when they go off track, nudging when they go silent, or for drawing in of silent ones.

I find it really hard not to dominate the discussion if I am in the group, so one technique is to appoint a chair who is responsible for guiding the discussion, and to give them a cue card with some questions to ask when discussion flags. This works quite well if you choose the right chair. You also need to keep the video as short as possible because videos that are too long do not engage as well, and also take longer to download. They should not really go beyond 10 minutes! I appoint a time-keeper who will indicate to the chair when they need to do the wrap-up.


Differentiated Tasks and Flipping Foward

poetryprojectOne benefit offered by technology is the ability to offer students differentiated tasks, and to administer this relatively painlessly! You can do this on Moodle by setting conditional statements, which release particular assignments to students based on performance on other assignments, and this can be very handy, but a bit of a nightmare to set up! It also smacks of almost dictatorial teacher power!

Another approach is to allow students to choose what types of assignment they want to do – within reason, of course. In the example on the right, students can choose from any three poems on the list, and any three assignments. The only rule is that they cannot present on the same poem, or the same assignment type. They therefore need to present three assignments (on three different poems and three different assignment types).

Assignment types can vary from traditional essays, blog entries from the point of view of a protagonist, to prezis, slide-shows, videos, voicethreads, posters, quizzes and the like, I use a generic rubric which assesses the content, the structure of the assignment – how ideas are organised, and the presentation – how the technology is used. You can also get students to submit their own rubric, which forces students to think about what they are doing in a slightly different way. You can also do peer assessments (Moodle has a workshop module for this).

The great strength of this way of working is that it gives students some control over how they study the content, and how they show evidence of their learning. I think this is not only more engaging and motivating, but it also delivers a wider variety of assignments which can be used for further learning and Flipping Forward. By this I mean that the posters, slide-shows, prezis, films and so on that students produce can be used as the basis for follow-up activities, such as an in-class discussion based on the materials created. Having digital submissions really helps as everything can be stored on the LMS where it is readily accessible for Flipped Classroom purposes.

I find that students get quite excited by the idea that content they create will become the content for future lessons. They seem to take more care, and certainly turn in work of a high quality.



Presence in Teaching and Digital Becomings

Rodgers and Raider-Roth (2006) argue that we are losing sight of a “complex and nuanced notion of what it means to teach” with the drive towards equating student achievement, measured only in terms of high test results with teacher competency standards. It is turning education into a behavioural check-list, and ignoring that elusive essence of what it means to be a good teacher – something they term presence – something that involves “self-knowledge, trust, relationship and compassion”. They argue that in the current climate, obsessed with quantification and behavioural standards, we need to focus on the importance of this factor as key to educational achievement.

Presence equates to the extent to which a teacher has invested themselves in their teaching. Something Prabhu discussed as the teacher’s sense of plausibility, how passionate they are about what they are doing – the extent to which they are there. The advent of digital media in the classroom challenges us to extend this notion of presence to include a teacher’s digital presence. Increasingly my interchanges with students happen via email or through online messaging and happen after hours.

To my mind presence is at base, about how a teacher models an approach to life – their overall demeanour towards what life, in the form of the classroom, throws up. A key challenge for teachers is to be honest and real, to be friendly, but remain professionally detached. In other words to care, but not too deeply, to be up-front about when they are having a  bad day, but not to let that impact on their teaching too much either.

One’s digital presence is about how one reacts to digital media and technology in the classroom, and what that has to say about one’s approach to life in general. Digital presence is about how to be there for your students in a world which is mediated by machines. It is often about how one deals with the problems of technology which doesn’t always do what you want it to do.

I remember one day when I was administering an online assessment. The network was misbehaving and every second student was unable to access the files they needed because there was something wrong with the roaming profiles. There was a sea of hands in front of me, all anxious, as only teenage girls can be about a test, and not one of the techies was available. On top of this a girl came in late, very upset about something her previous teacher had said to her. She was in tears, and her computer was also affected by the network issue, adding to her tears. After reassuring everyone in the room that if the technical issues could not be sorted out I would cancel the test, but asking everyone to re-boot (which worked incidentally), I turned to the tearful one and remarked that she seemed to be having as bad a day as I was, and that I felt like joining her in her tears. Suddenly the network seemed to be working again, the hands went away, and the tearful girl and I shared a smile of mutual encouragement. She dried her tears and went on to score well in the test. Somehow humanity won out over technological determinism – and for me, that is what digital presence is all about, conveying that sense of shared humanity in a digital world.

I have always thought that one of the most valuable lessons one learns in school comes from seeing different types of people cope in different situations, and learning from that, that anything is possible. Teachers do not have to be paladins of virtue, they don’t have to be right all the time, or be able to cope in every circumstance. In fact we learn more from a teacher’s flaws and foibles, and how they rise above those moments to somehow provide us with a model of what it is to be an effective man or woman in our society. They show us how we can overcome our own short-comings, and that we don’t have to be fearful of being nothing.

We live in a digital society and teachers are not known for being the most digitally adept as a collective. But forget all that nonsense about digital natives, teenagers are even worse. Trust me – I teach them computer skills! How a teacher handles digital media is important. Teenagers may appear more confident, and less anxious if the technology doesn’t work immediately, but a key thing teachers can help them with, is in showing them what use to put these devices to.

Left to their own devices teenagers would probably not get much beyond the like and share stages of our mashable culture. They are very much a consumer generation, and need to be shown how to be productive with their devices. Teachers may be less confident about using the devices, but we are more experienced in finding productive uses for things. How we use our own devices personally and in the classroom, the digital presence we bring is very important in helping students frame and shape their own digital selves, every bit as much as a teacher’s presence helps students in their own becomings.

As a computer teacher I like to model the steps I take when I don’t know the answer, the routines I run through when hardware, or software won’t work. I show my students how to Google for support from forums, and how to use the answers given by people online for those having similar problems. Even when I do know how something works, I sometimes pretend I don’t so that I can show students how to work something out. I try to show them that techies mess things up and that computer people don’t always know what they are talking about.

In responding to student emails and messages, the key thing  for me is to answer promptly, as I would anyone else, and to use the slightly less formal tone of email to soften all interchanges. It’s a chance to get to know your students a little better, and take some time framing a reply to make sure you hit the right tone. I’m not saying you need to answer emails at 12 o’clock at night! One of the clauses in my subject policy warns students that emails may not be answered after hours, but that they should expect a reasonably speedy reply. I believe that it is important for me to model good netiquette in my digital interchanges. It is rude not to respond to emails, but it is equally rude to expect replies late in the evening!

How are we to interface with our machines in a digital Information Age? A good teacher teaches us  with, by and through their digital presence.

Cited Works

Rodgers C. and Raider-Roth, M. (2006). Presence in Teaching. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 12 (3), 265-287

Prabhu, N. S. (1990), There Is No Best Method—Why?. TESOL Quarterly, 24: 161–176. doi: 10.2307/3586897



Holiday Projects – Learn To Code As A Family!

With the holidays fast approaching, I am filled with just a little dread. Not only will my wife trot out the DIY jobs jar, but, as a father of teenage boys I know that after a few mornings sleeping in, a few days of playing the new computer game, will come that moment when the inevitable question gets asked, “What can I do now?”

But these holidays I am forearmed with an answer. Learning to code is all the rage: for good reason. Firstly – it is good mental discipline – the logical reasoning, attention to detail, the need to plan and move from the generality of pseudo-code to the specific syntax of whatever language you are using. I think learning to code teaches you a certain kind of mental precision that children used to get from having to learn Latin.

Secondly – I believe that it is a digital citizenship skill, something we all need to know for a future where being able to tweak your machine, modify your applications will not be seen as something geeky, but something as necessary as breathing. We are fast headed for a technological future where we will be interfacing with machines not as isolated events during a busy day, but on a constant basis. That future has two possible paths, one in which all the coding of those machines is managed by corporations, and we have little say in how we experience our environment, apart from choosing from a list of alternate “templates”, and another in which we are able to tweak the code ourselves, and can deliver more personalized outcomes. I believe it is imperative that we try our darndest to be ready for the second alternative – and that means learning to code.

It worries me that we seem to be producing a generation of consumers rather than producers. When I was young, computers came more or less assembled with nothing on them. You pretty much had to learn to program to be able to get them to do anything. Even to get the programs that were on them to work you had to learn to type in DOS commands! These days computers come with everything on them, and you don’t need to learn a stitch of code to work them. We need to get back to that spirit of showing your machine who’s in charge!

Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly, coding is fun. learning should always be fun, but especially during the holidays! It can also be an opportunity to experience learning together as a family. We don’t do enough of that. The natural order of things is that adults know more than kids, hopefully anyway! So learning tends to be about stuff your kids need to know, but you already know. Even if it’s stuff you’ve forgotten, like Algebra, it is never really a situation where the playing field is level. Coding, however, for most families will probably be a learning project the whole family can take on where all of you start as beginners.

So – here’s the challenge! Set up a challenge at the beginning of the holidays, a family project to code your own game for computer or mobile, learning to code as you go! This may sound like an impossible task, but actually the resources online are incredible, and make the task relatively painless. You can scale the ambition as you go. In many cases the tutorials and guidance is so good you can have a game going in 10 minutes! The rest is all about wanting to design your own game.

Here are some sites you can use (mostly free):

This list is not exhaustive, but represents some of the most popular sites.


Can ICTs Challenge Neo-Liberal Taylorism, or are we wasting our time?

Frank Webster argues that there are two main views about the nature of the contemporary world: those who argue that we are living in an age that is essentially different from the preceding period – a post-modern, post-industrial world; and those who emphasise continuity with the past (Webster, 2006, p. 7). For some this new world order holds promise of utopian dreams where man is enhanced by technology, and access to knowledge is unrestrained and emancipatory. For others, the new world order is an entrenchment of the inequalities of power, and vast swathes of humanity are bypassed as disparities of wealth widen rather than close. The main thrust of this essay will be to examine some of these approaches though the lens of education generally and educational technology in particular and to argue that educational technology is a site of struggle.

There is a general consensus that the new digital and communication technologies are changing the world in unprecedented ways and that these technologies are enabling a new and changed world order which is post-industrial and based on an information economy. This idea was first advanced by Daniel Bell. For Bell it is the computer which is at the heart of the change to an “Information Society” (Kumar, 1995, p. 8), a change as revolutionary as the advent of the industrial age itself. He describes a shift away from manufacture towards information and service industries, and with it new stratifications in the labour force and new space-time frameworks (Kumar, 1995, p. 11) as globalization and synchronous communication appears to shrink the planet and national boundaries are broken down by the growing power of transnational corporations.

Manuel Castells argues for a view which acknowledges the continuities of class power within the transformation of capitalism into what he terms an informational capitalism, whilst still acknowledging that “there is something new in the information age” (Castells, 1999).

The transformation of the capitalist system is characterised by the fact that it is enabled by the new information technologies and represents a concentration of capital in the hands of transnational corporations together with a decentralization of organization (Castells, 1999, p. 6). Informational Capitalism thus acquires the properties of a flexible and fluid network, able to respond rapidly to changes in circumstances. While being connected to this network leads to prosperity, many societies, what he terms the fourth world, are simply bypassed. Within the developed nations themselves individuals are connected to the nodes of the network or are marginalised.

This shift from manufacture to information-processing activities is accompanied by a change in the organisation of labour, from the large-scale standardized mass production of the Fordist era, to the more flexible units of fast capitalism, able to respond to changing markets rapidly, characterised by just-in-time production and distribution methods based on an information economy (Warschauer, 1999, p. 9).  These economic changes require a new type of worker and a new work order (Lankshear, 1997). Reich’s analysis of the contemporary labour market in developed economies describes three categories of work: routine production services such as clerks and factory workers, in-person services such as janitors or hospital workers and symbolic analyst services such as management consultants or software engineers (Warschauer, 1999, p. 14).

There are, according to Reich, wide disparities in the experience of work and the education received to prepare workers for these categories. Symbolic analysts are educated in elite schools or better suburban schools followed by four years of college. These workers are educated to think critically and be creative, articulate and collaborative, in tune with the needs of fast capitalism (Warschauer, 1999, p. 15). Those being prepared for routine jobs, however, although the pedagogical rhetoric is the same, effectively receive an education which stresses functional literacy and fact recall. In this context the introduction of educational technology presents two faces.  While for some it is used to enhance critical thinking and prepare them for full participation in the networked society, as Thomas and Yang have pointed out, for others the use of technology in education, controlled by a neoliberal agenda, only seeks to teach people ‘better faster cheaper’ (Thomas & Yang, 2013, p. 113). As Apple has pointed out, neoliberal education is concerned with meeting the needs of the job market and with efficiency, rather than being concerned with the growth of the individual (Apple, 2004).

For some the new society being ushered in by the new informational capitalism is frequently accompanied by a utopian vision of the limitless possibilities of the future. Stonier, for example argues that the post-industrial information society will be “peaceful and democratic … an era of plenty” (Kumar, 1995, p. 14). The new technologies offer the promise of participatory democracy and the ability to solve problems, rising above the struggle against material reality to achieve, what Masuda terms a “computopia” (Kumar, 1995, p. 15). As Fuchs notes, these views are “uncritical and affirmative” not because they mischaracterise the centrality of information and knowledge labour, but because they fail to correctly identify the continuities in class power and dominance (Fuchs, 2009, p. 388). For Fuchs networks are not inherently non-hierarchic or democratic as many argue, they can be asymmetrical in their reflection of the power relations within society. Some hubs within the network are more powerful than others, and the network itself bypasses many areas of the globe – a case in point being the often unequal access to ICTs (Fuchs, 2009, p. 395).

Much of the current educational debate is framed by the perceived need to restructure the educational system in such a way as to provide the skills needed by the new knowledge-workers, and this is often cast in the rhetoric of critical thinking skills, but we need to be ever-mindful that it is a dualistic system which perpetuates inequalities and seeks to limit debate as much as it promises creativity.

For Jean-François Lyotard the principle feature of the post-modernist world is the demise of the great meta-narratives and teleological explanations of the previous age such as the notion of progress, the Enlightenment or Marxism’s inevitable march towards Socialism (Webster, 2006, p. 231). The growing importance of symbolic production within the post-industrial world leads to a multiplicity of relativist positions, and the lack of a grand structure. For Jean Baudrillard, for example, the very proliferation of signs in the modern world robs us of a sense of being in touch with reality (Webster, 2006, p. 256). This presents a world less certain of its direction and less confident in its own ability to find solutions to the multiple problems we face. Gunther Kress describes our times as being characterized by “radical instability” (Kress, 2000, p. 134), requiring a new pedagogy to prepare people for such an age. In a world based on consumption, in a world where commodities are constituted as signs, meaning is no longer confined to texts in the old sense, and Kress, and the New London Group argue for a multiliteracies approach to education. This places digital an new media technologies at the centre of the educational debate.

For Stevan Harnad, furthermore, what characterises contemporary society most is nothing less than a cognitive revolution which he sees as being born: a revolution based on the new digital technologies and the networking of knowledge that this enables [i] (Harnad, 1991). His vision is one replete with promise and points to the liberatory potential within the new educational discourse. The new “skywriting” represents a cognitive advance and to ignore the potential inherent in the utopian visionaries is to surrender to the neo-liberal agenda. Education, schools, educational technology itself is a site of struggle. Castells argues that the Internet possesses “embedded properties of interactivity and individualisation” (Webster, 2006, p. 106)allowing for people to form electronic networked communities which provide a space within which to challenge the hegemony of the neo-liberal agenda.  Antonio Gramsci noted the way in which knowledge is used to reinforce hegemonic power and the importance of conducting counter-hegemonic struggles (Bates, 1975), and it is in this sense that the New London Group argues for a focus on critical literacy within the curriculum.

Andrew Feenberg, for example, in examining the struggles between a vision of online education based on automation and deskilling of academics and attempts by faculty to re-instate human mediation (Feenberg, 2005, p. 61) is indicative of the kinds of struggles over educational technology through which the nature of contemporary society is being contested. While we may feel that the overwhelming power of global transnational informational capitalism allows for limited manoueuvre by human agency, but, as Kumar suggests, “(o)ptimists are as plausible as pessimists” (Kumar, 1995, p. 24) and it is too early to tell. Teachers have the crucial advantage of being on site and of having at their disposal a discourse which stresses critical thinking and creativity.

Works Cited

Apple, M. (2004). Creating Difference: Neo-Liberalism, Neo-Conservatism and the Politics of Educational Reform. Educational Policy, 18(1), 12-44.

Bates, T. R. (1975). Gramsci and the Theory of Hegemony. Journal of the History of Ideas, 36(2), 351-366.

Castells, M. (1999, September). Information technology, globalization and social development. United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, Discussion Paper No. 114.

Fuchs, C. (2009). A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of Transnational Informational Capitalism. Rethinking Marxism, 21(3), pp. 387-402.

Harnad, S. (1991). Post-Gutenberg Galaxy: The Fourth Revolution in the Means of Production of Knowledge. Public-Access Computer Systems Review, 2(1), 39-53.

Kress, G. (2000). A Curriculum for the Future. Cambridge Journal of Education, 30(1), 133-145.

Kumar, K. (1995). From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Lankshear, C. (1997). Language and the New Capitalism. The International Journal of Inclusive Education, 1(4), 309-321.

Thomas, M. K., & Yang, W.-L. (2013). Neoliberalism, globalization, and creative educational destruction in Taiwan. Educational Technology Research and Development, 61(1), 107-129.

Warschauer, M. (1999). Electronic Literacies. Language, Culture, an Power in Online Education. Mahwah, new Jersey: Laurence Erlbaum Associates.

Webster, F. (2006). Theories of the Information Society, Thid Edition. London: Routledge.





[i]Harnad’s argument is that the new technologies allow for a bringing together of the immediacy of oral communication (the first revolution) and the reflective power of writing (the second revolution) in a form which allows for interactivity and reflection at the same time, and constitutes not just a quantitative change as was experienced with the advent of the printing press (the third revolution), but something qualitatively different (the fourth revolution).


Posted by on June 24, 2014 in Critical thinking




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