Apps for whatever you are teaching and learning

Occasionally people ask about “must-have” apps for their devices. My preference is to focus on apps that ease the burden of communication, collaboration, and playing with ideas. These iOS applications are agnostic of content area and well worth the minimal costs. I suspect many are also available for other platforms, but I'll leave that to you.

Explain Everything ($3.49) gives the user a Khan-Academy-Like work space with the ability to record and share their voice and what’s on the screen. It’s like putting an interactive whiteboard in everyone’s hands.

GoodReader ($5.97) is my favourite reader app. It handles a lot of different file types, connects with several cloud storage services, and lets you create and share annotations with a pretty robust tool set. You can store files locally for off-line access.

Voice Dream ($11.99) speaks the contents of text files. Like GoodReader, it handles a lot of different file types and plays nicely with many cloud storage services.It remembers where you left off, has adjustable pitch and speed controls,handles challenging document including headers and multiple column formats. Tables, though, are a little wild to listen to. Other voices are available as In-app purchases for $3.49 each.

Dragon Dictation (Free) is a great way to get ideas from kid’s heads onto the (virtual) page. Voice recognition is much more accurate now than it was in the past and this app is very handy. The active listening time is limited so longer passages or thoughts might take a few starts/stops, but I’ve found it to be very accurate and easy to work with.

Coach’s Eye ($5.79) lets the user annotate video files with lines and shapes. There are a couple of in-app purchases that also let you place multiple timers and a protractor to measure angles. With slow-motion, shuttling, and live narration, it’s a great tool for science… and sport too. It’s a little pricey, but makes replays, slow motion, and onscreen annotations extremely easy.

Google Translate, formerly Word Lens (Free) provides through-the-lens instant translation of text to the selected language. Still a little choppy, and not great for small text, but a very cool app for language learning. Each language pack used to come as in-app purchases but since the app was purchased by Google, all the language packs are now free.

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MOOCs and Motivation

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Addressing learner motivation in self-directed open learning environments

Reading about motivation and volition in instructional design, I contextualized the ideas within self-directed open learning models, like MOOCs, which reflect social constructivism. Here, participants join large groups working toward a common goal, but pursuing their goals in smaller self-selected learning communities.

For most participants, MOOCs are voluntary and pursued independently. Often loosely structured, these courses allow individuals meet their own learning goals in contexts that are interesting to them while connecting with others of similar mind. This embodies Keller’s (Simsek, 2014) first two principles of motivation: attention and relevance .

MOOCs can draw thousands of participants suggesting that many people are highly motivated to learn. However, with completion rates averaging only 13% (Jordan, n.d.) there seems to be a lack of volition to see the program through to the end.

Learning systems such as this, Bouchard (2009) suggests, create a pedagogical void; the learner herself is both learner and educator. Pedagogical tasks such as sequencing, pacing, formulating objectives, finding resources, following up, and evaluating may or may not be part of the learners’ skill set. In their absence, learners may feel overwhelmed, experience failure, and lose the will to continue (Knox, 2014). These three outcomes reflect the absence of Keller’s (Simsek, 2014) last three principles of motivation: confidence, satisfaction, and volition.

Clarà & Barberà (2014) suggest that MOOCs represent a way of being, rather than a way of learning. That technology-enabled ubiquitous connection and constant engagement reflect the practice behind an attitude of life-long learning rather than the rigor required for formal education. In this respect, MOOC participants neither fail nor succeed, they just make more or less progress to achieving a learning goal.

Instructional planning for MOOCs and social constructivism with autonomous learners has to address the pedagogical void. While learners are highly motivated to begin with, and can act on their own curiosity, instructional designers have to consider developing the metacognitive processes that increase confidence, lead to success, and sustain learner volition.

Additionally, the connectivist learning approach, an offshoot of social constructivism, approaches learning differently through a process of aggregation, remixing and reflecting, re-purposing, and sharing (Kop & Fournier, 2011), very different from experiences these learners may have had in the past. Orienting learners to the big pedagogical picture may also contribute to success.


Bouchard, P. (2009). Pedagogy without a teacher: What are the limits? International Journal of Self-Directed Learning, 6(2), 13–22.

Clarà, M., & Barberà, E. (2014). Three problems with the connectivist conception of learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 30(3), 197–206. doi:10.1111/jcal.12040

Jordan, K. (n.d.). MOOC Completion Rates: The Data. Retrieved from

Knox, J. (2014). Digital culture clash: “Massive” education in the e-learning and digital cultures MOOC. Distance Education, 35(2), 164–177. Retrieved from

Kop, R., & Fournier, H. (2011). New dimensions to self-directed learning in an open networked learning environment. International Journal of Self-Directed Learning, 7(2), 1–20. Retrieved from

Simsek, A. (2014). Interview with John M . Keller on Motivational Design of Instruction, 5(1), 90–95.

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Securing your network in Web2.0 environments

Off-line WiFi router allows students to connect with their personal devices.

Enterprise network security strategies in Web2.0 context.

Network Security

I found an excellent article that addresses some of the issues surrounding network security in the age of social media and collaborative online spaces. Almeida (2012) describes how Web 2.0’s characteristics create great opportunities, but also some vulnerabilities, specifically how some protocols are harder to detect and how some content can be delivered in different ways. Sites with dynamic content creation (non-static) may be safe one time, but not another.

Consequences and Strategies

He goes on to outline possible legal and financial impacts from such content highlighting the need to create an effective security strategy. The strategy, he suggests, should be based in policy but supported with technology. Policies created after broad consultation should reflect enterprise philosophies but address particulars in enough detail so as to be actionable.


Almeida identifies eight approaches that together allow access to social media and minimises exposure to malicious content:

A. Application control list: examines network activity for signs of traffic from disallowed destinations.

B. Application traffic shaping: limits available bandwidth for particular applications

C. Monitoring and review: analysis of network traffic logs can reveal usage patterns

D. Browser settings: should be set to maximize security (https)

E. Anti-malware software: deep scans for both inbound and outbound traffic

F. Authentication: password management, two-step verification, token-based or biometric passwords

G. Avoid clickjacking: logging out of applications and minimising cookie longevity

H. Data loss protection: software solution that monitors data use and patterns to reveal suspicious actions


What I appreciate about Alemeida’s approach is that it recognizes the value of social media and it’s potential for positive contributions to an enterprise seeking to make it a safe experience. One thing that is explicitly missing from his list but is implied elsewhere in the article is the importance of education and training. Controlling the technology puts interventions in place, but controlling for the human element offers preventative protection.


Almeida, F. (2012). Web 2.0 Technologies and Social Networking Security Fears in Enterprises. International Journal of Advanced Computer Science and Applications, 3(2), 152–156. Retrieved from

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Oh DEAR, Drop everything and read? Really?

Some 15 years ago, Drop Everything and Read was where some song or sound played at random points throughout the day. Everyone was to stop what they were doing immediately and start reading the book they were to carry around with them during the DEAR week. Then the announcement would come on some time later and we were to resume regular activities.

I hated it.

Most teachers hated it.

It was intrusive, it interrupted those kids who were in flow, and created two new points of transition in the day. Besides that, it just isn’t the way we read.

Following up on a post to the English Teachers' Association NSW Facebook page, I decided to have a quick peek to see what I could find.

(Wu, Wu, & Lu, 2014) Suggests that careful planning and some kind of structured approach to teaching reading is important. DEAR is included as one such strategy.

Another literature review reveals that a regular scheduled program of reading for pleasure in school has a positive impact of a child’s love of reading, and the value they place on reading (Pegg & Bartelheim, 2011). DEAR is mentioned as one such initiative.


Lee-Daniels (2000) report describes experiences with a year two class engaged in DEAR. She found that excitement for the program wore off and needed regular invigoration. She describes an incentive strategy to build intrinsic motivation as well as some other strategies for keeping DEAR fresh.

Olivar, Manalo, & Palma’s (2014) report seems to approach DEAR as a context for content engagement rather than reading for pleasure. They also address the issue of intrinsic motivation but describe their interventions in terms of assignments and projects as motivators to engage in DEAR.

Pruzinsky (2014) suggests that, while DEAR may seem to divert time from heavy content courses, the time spent reading strongly benefitted students. He describes the larger program by which he engaged students and made DEAR part of the program rather than a diversion from it. This article has many ideas for implementing an effective DEAR program.

Cummings (Cumming, 1997) describes the positive effects of a DEAR program in a remote Canadian community with a largely oral tradition. The author used participant generated content and variations on reading locations and times in an attempt to establish a culture of joy in reading.

None of that research had measurable data to support claims, but the bottom line seems to be that DEAR is effective if it is responsive to the audience, is tweaked along the way to keep it interesting, and is part of a regular program. Certainly not the kind of DEAR I experienced early in my career.


Sources cited:

Cumming, P. (1997). Drop everything and read all over: Literacy and loving it. Horn Book Magazine, 73(6), 51–53.

Lee-Daniels, S. L., & Murray, B. A. (2000). DEAR me: What does it take to get children reading? Reading Teacher, 54(2), 154–159.

Olivar, L. L., Manalo, J. A., & Palma, A. M. (2014). Awareness of maritime students in Lyceum International Maritime Academy on the Drop Everything and Read ( DEAR ) Program. Academic Research International, 5(3), 206–213.

Pegg, L. A., & Bartelheim, F. J. (2011). Effects of Daily Read-Alouds on Students ’ Sustained Silent Reading, 14(2).

Pruzinsky, T. (2014). Read Books. Every Day. Mostly for Pleasure. English Journal, 103(4), 25–30.

Wu, R., Wu, R., & Lu, J. (2014). A Practice of Reading Assessment in a Primary Classroom. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 4(1), 1–7. doi:10.4304/tpls.4.1.1-7


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Epistemological Dissonance as a Barrier to eLearning

While it may appear that mobile adoption is limited and slow, I would argue that, given tablet computing really only took off when the iPad was introduced not quite five years ago, education is embracing mobile technology if not quickly and enthusiastically, then carefully and with some curiosity.


By the third quarter of 2014, Apple sold 13 million tablets worldwide direct to education with another 8 million in 2013 (Cavanagh, 2014). In 2012 there were 4.5 million sold to education within the US alone (Etherington, 2013). While Apple has the dominant market share, the combined presence of other mobile computing vendors is not insignificant. This supports a significant investment from education into mobile technology hardware.


A survey report from Interactive Educational Systems Design, Inc. revealed that just over 20% of responding schools had tablet computers in general use (2012, p. 12) with almost half of respondents indicating that number is expected rise. This seems to support the rapid adoption of a new technology. About three quarters of the respondents also indicated a strong interest in pursuing the use of tablets for teaching and learning. Interestingly, though, three quarters of the almost 90% of respondents with no Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy also indicated a reluctance or unwillingness to pursue BYOD initiatives in the near future (2012, p. 22). This suggests a reluctance in mobile adoption, but likely speaks more to control and management than pedagogy.


So schools are purchasing mobile technology and plan to increase access, but what are they doing with them? This, I believe, is the crux of the perceived problem.


Mobile technology challenges the way we think about teaching and learning, for engaging with content, with others, and, some suggest, for how we think. Initially mobile learning was celebrated for making learning possible “Anytime and anywhere”. Cook (2012) suggests that “all the time and everywhere” better reflects our evolving understanding.


A technology’s affordances emerge over time as humans use, problem solve, explore, and create with the tool as illustrated in Shorkey & Webel’s (2014) examination of technology use in Social Work education. Siemens (2004) proposed connectivist learning theory, a new model for understanding how we learn in an age where access to people and information is ubiquitous. He suggests that learning need no longer be linear developmental steps, rather, learning can be the random assemblage of connections amongst humans and information.


This epistemological rethinking challenges how we design curriculum, how we create learning opportunities, how learning institutions are designed (Leather & Marinho, 2009). Critics of connectivism point to gaps in connectivist learning as a theory (Clarà & Barberà, 2013, 2014) but acknowledge that the educational landscape is changing and such proposals are valuable. Given the deep philosophical change connected with effective use of mobile’s affordances, it is reasonable to expect some level of discomfort and hesitancy amongst educators and administrators.


While educational institutions are taking careful steps, individuals are running ahead fully embracing mobile technology. One survey anticipated by 2014 there would be 1.75 billion smartphone users worldwide with a full 70% of the world using mobile phones (eMarketer, 2014). A Canadian survey revealed that more people are using mobile technology and their level of sophistication in terms of demands of the device is also growing (Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, 2012).


The understanding of mobile technology as extensions of our own human capacity is more widely accepted (Siemens, 2004) and individuals are using technology in increasingly sophisticated ways that are integrated with daily life. As extensions of and supplements to our memory, a mobile device is an intensely personal tool. Perhaps, when thinking about mobile in education, we can look at how to capitalise on the new capabilities of their learners to achieve both individual and enterprise goals.

The full embrace of technology by education will happen when our tools, practices, and philosophies align.


“What can we do with the device?” becomes “What can we do with learners who have devices?”


Sources Cited:

Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association. (2012). 2012 Consumer Attitudes Study. Retrieved from

Cavanagh, S. (2014). Apple Touts Strong iPad Sales in Global School Market. Retrieved September 20, 2014, from

Clarà, M., & Barberà, E. (2013). Learning online: massive open online courses (MOOCs), connectivism, and cultural psychology. Distance Education, 34(1), 129–136. doi:10.1080/01587919.2013.770428

Clarà, M., & Barberà, E. (2014). Three problems with the connectivist conception of learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 30(3), 197–206. doi:10.1111/jcal.12040

Cook, V. (2012). Learning everywhere, all the time. Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 78(3), 48–51. Retrieved from

eMarketer. (2014). Smartphone users worldwide will total 1.75 billion in 2014. Retrieved September 21, 2014, from

Etherington, D. (2013). Apple has sold over 8M iPads direct to education worldwide, with more than 1B iTunes U downloads. Retrieved September 20, 2014, from

Interactive Educational Systems Design. (2012). 2012 National Survey on STEM Education. Retrieved from

Leather, D. J., & Marinho, R. D. (2009). Designing an academic building for 21st century learning: A dean’s guide. Change, (May/June), 42–50.

Shorkey, C. T., & Uebel, M. (2014). History and Development of Instructional Technology and Media in Social Work Education. Journal of Social Work Education, 50, 247–262. doi:10.1080/10437797.2014.885248

Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. Retrieved September 17, 2014, from


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40% Cutbacks to IT Department -> What do you do?

This was created as part of my participation in the graduate course Educational Hardware Systems at the George Washington University. The scenario was to make a plan that addresses a 40% cutback in funding for IT in your enterprise. These are my thoughts... would love to read about your thoughts or experiences in the comments below.


I’m considering this exercise in the context of a public school district. Some assumptions:

  • Schools in the district are equipped equitably
  • Current state of technology is no worse or better than any other average year
  • There are no new policy directives requiring technology


Prong 1:
Pursue BYOD program to reduce load on existing hardware, leverage personally owned technology, and ease the need to purchase/replace hardware. Focus hardware supports in low socio-economic schools to support students who may not have their own devices.

Business: Using sample data from Operations Management Technology Consulting GmbH(Luxembourg & Sommer, 2013) Hardware accounts for about a quarter of IT expenses. Reducing capital investments in new computers while increasing access and connectivity will help achieve budget goals without impacting productivity.

Technical: (Hardware) Consider technology use agreements, level of support for personally owned devices, securing data and network integrity. (Humans) Preparing learners for maintaining and appropriately using their own technology, and preparing employees for working with an unpredictable pool of hardware will present a challenge.

Educational: Accessing information and productivity tools on one’s own device may well be more motivating than having to use an assigned computer. One study (Mang, Wardley, & Bay, 2012) reported that more than 40% of college students reported not using the full capabilities of their assigned hardware because they knew they had to return it at the end of the year. Using one’s own hardware increases the motivation to fully understand and utilize their technology tool.


Prong 2:
Network/Internet maintenance and development to ensure robust and reliable connectivity.

Business: Every aspect of enterprise relies on the network for its operations. Online spaces and resources are as much a part of the enterprise as the physical spaces (Futhey, Schroeder, & Benatan, 2013). Connectivity must be supported and developed first and foremost.

Technical: Consider bandwidth requirements for accommodating bring-your-own-device (BYOD) and increasing multimedia streaming. While enterprise-owned hardware may reduce in number, or at least stay static in a period of austerity, prong 2 will produce increased network load and introduce security issues.

Educational: Access to online resources, communications technology, and productivity tools are integral to 21st century education. Whether learners are using their own devices or those provided by the institution, robust connectivity ensures access to the broadest and most comprehensive learning resources.


Prong 3:
revise maintenance/upgrade schedules to keep existing devices in operation for the foreseeable future. Running vintage software on vintage machines can leverage speed and performance from old computers, as long as security patches are in place. Ensuring enterprise hardware is secure, protected, and well-managed will control maintenance costs (Nash Networks, 2009).

Business: Adopting a BYOD program places maintenance obligations on the end-user. While this has the advantage of offloading costs, it also means a loss of control over the technology used. Providing some support and maintenance services on a cost recovery basis goes some way to reducing overall costs while supporting end users.

Technical: Consider rebalancing investment equation to determine which of the existing enterprise devices are worth refurbishing or upgrading in order to extend usability. Where network and device security is not compromised, resist upgrading applications to the latest version. Strip browser add-ons, plug-ins, and reduce/eliminate startup programs to free up operating memory. Repurpose or redeploy older computers for light-load purposes (eg. simple office applications, email, browsing). Also consider replacing desktop computers with much cheaper thin-client devices that make use of cloud computing resources.

Educational: Ensure a pool of computers at each site capable of running required software (student/learning/content management systems). Maintaining status quo with hardware does not preclude the use of new browser-based applications though older browsers may not always support the application demands.


Prong 4:
explore budget alternatives: Extend amortization schedules for technology purchases. Explore rented/leased hardware which shifts budget requirements from capital to operating expenses. Operational expenses are more flexible and allow for greater scalability as needed (Baker, 2010).

Business: Consultations with the organizations’ Chief Financial Officer may reveal changes in acquisition/ownership practices that allow for continued access to learning resources in addition to reduced costs.

Technical: Consider limitations or restrictions that may come with leased/rented equipment. Duty of care, insurance, maintenance obligations, penalties associated with the lease agreement must be clearly understood, communicated, and implemented.

Educational: The budget line from which a purchase is made is not likely to affect how a student learns.


Prong 5:
Transition to cloud-based services offering productivity software and storage solutions. This will lower the total cost of ownership by reducing need for local storage infrastructure (Sundeen & Sundeen, 2013). It also supports less expensive thin-client

Business: A Forbes article on Cloud Computing reported savings of more than 20% on infrastructure costs with a shift to cloud computing.

Technical: Consider data security – what data needs to be stored locally, what can be cloud based.

Educational: Educational experiences using cloud resources opens the door to greater collaboration, wider access, and more current tools.


Sources Cited

Baker, G. (2010). Why CIOs Should Shift from Capex to Opex -- CIO Update. Retrieved September 03, 2014, from

Futhey, T., Schroeder, T., & Benatan, E. (2013). Creating the IT architecture for the connected age. Retrieved September 03, 2014, from

Luxembourg, Y. P., & Sommer, T. (2013). IT Costs – The Costs, Growth And Financial Risk Of Software Assets. Muenchen, Germany. Retrieved from

Mang, C. F., Wardley, L. J., & Bay, N. (2012). Effective Adoption of Tablets in Post-Secondary Education : Recommendations Based on a Trial of iPads in University Classes. Journal of Information Technology Education: Innovations in Practice, 11, 301–317.

Nash Networks. (2009). Total cost of ownership (TCO) of IT (Vol. 9, pp. 1–14). Retrieved from

Sundeen, T. H., & Sundeen, D. M. (2013). Instructional Technology for Rural Schools : Access and Acquisition. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 32(2), 8–14.


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10 Design Critiques: bad designs and suggested improvements

This  paper was written as part of my participation in the graduate course Computer Interface Design for Learning at the George Washington University. Having read Donald Norman's book, "The Design of Everyday Things" we were challenged to identify bad designs in our everyday life and suggest improvements. Here are mine.

Object 1: School Intercom Control Panel


Public Address Console makes too much visible and offers no conceptual model for operation

Fig 1: Public Address Console makes too much visible and offers no conceptual model for operation

The purpose of this control panel is to enable communication to the entire school, groups of classrooms, or individual classrooms. It is also capable of broadcasting recorded messages to targeted areas. In order to send a message, the user first selects the message source from five options, identifies the message target identifying selected rooms if required or all for a global broadcast.

The panel does provide colour feedback for active switches and instructions accompany the various controls. Colour coding is also used to differentiate between message source and target controls.

Problematic Design

While button functions are colour coded, for the casual user, there is a lot of text on the control panel to process. Many potential users are baffled by the range of buttons, switches, and dials, and are quick to ask the clerical staff to make the announcement for them. Mutually exclusive control buttons can be simultaneously depressed, and the linear rows of room targets do not correspond to the rooms’ position in the school. While there is evidence of logical design to the panel, it is only divined after some thoughtful consideration and analysis.


A decision-tree interface could simply prompt users with two questions:

  1. What do you want to broadcast?
    1. a voice announcement
    2. a recording
    3. Who will receive the broadcast?
      1. Everyone
      2. Selected Room(s)

i.      Enter the rooms on a keypad, or make a selection on a touchscreen map of the school to identify broadcast targets

  1. Press play, or begin speaking into the microphone

Simple switch labels with an icon to represent source and target selections provides instruction without loading the interface with text. These changes could be implemented by simply replacing the console cover with the streamlined instructions.

A more ideal interface could use a touchscreen to ask the two questions and then provide a map of the building to select targets for the broadcast.



Object 2: Batman DVD Player


DVD front console bat-shaped button panel

Fig 3: DVD front console bat-shaped button panel

DVD batman themed remote control

Fig 2: DVD batman themed remote control

This DVD and remote control design reflects a Batman theme. The sleek curved remote has a fluid looking button panel and the console has a silver bat-shaped insert and a convenient button panel on the front offers the most common DVD player commands. A central yellow LCD display provides playback and status information.

Problematic Design

The remote control was designed for appearance, not for ease of use. While no two buttons are identical there are no tactile indications of a button’s function. Buttons are grouped by function but the layout provides no clues as to function. Text on each button is small and hard to read. These controls are virtually impossible to see in the conditions under which this device would normally be used, in the evening or at night in a dark room or home theatre.

On the console, frequently used buttons are quite visible and each button is labeled as well as embossed with conventional video control icons but the light grey lettering is hard to see in low lighting, and the control icons too shallowly embossed to be easily discernable by sight or touch.


Reduce the number of remote control buttons to essential functions to make essential commands more visible. Backlight the buttons in recognition that the user will most likely be using the device in low lighting. Mimic the button arrangement on the console panel for consistency and map the functions




Object 3: Streets in Calgary, Alberta


Map of Calgary, Alberta suburb with identically named roadways (Image source: Google Maps)

Fig 5; Map of Calgary, Alberta suburb with similarly named neighbourhoods (Image source: Google Maps)

Map of Calgary, Alberta suburb with identically named roadways (Image source: Google Maps)

Fig 4: Map of Calgary, Alberta suburb with identically named roadways (Image source: Google Maps)

Roadways are commonly named after significant figures, locations, institutions or events. The type of roadway generally depends on its’ position, or orientation to the compass: streets run north-south while avenues run east-west. In suburban Calgary, roadways are named after the development in which they are constructed. All streets in a neighborhoods have the same name and are only differentiated by roadway type.

Problematic Design

In little more than one square kilometer, there are no less than 15 different roadways with the name Royal Oak in a single neighborhood. (There is a Royal Oak Crescent, Boulevard, Road, Mews, Heights, Way, Court (x2), Circle, Grove, Bay (x2), Terrace, View, Green, Lane, and Manor)

Slipping up on an address is extremely easy and providing directions requires extreme precision as roadway names lack features distinguishing enough to get a good conceptual model for travel. Street layouts are not in grids and no two neighborhoods have the same street layout contributing to frequent traveler error.

Neighboring communities are named Royal Birch, Royal Elm, and Royal Ridge and all have the same naming scheme. While it is easy to identify the neighborhood in which a person resides, locating the specific home is a challenge. Conceptually, this naming scheme works on a macro level when thinking about the city as a whole. When it comes to on-the-road travel, both description and associative action errors are common as commuters


Roadway names should be sufficiently different from one another to reduce the precision required for successful navigation. Simplifying the task in this case means making everything different rather than the same.

While maze-like roadways reduce pass-through traffic and gives a neighborhood character, it increases the likelihood of commuter error in navigation.  Knowledge of conventional grid and quadrant city layout does not apply here and users are left to construct new mental models of these communities. Limiting access points to a neighborhood creates physical constraints that can also reduce traffic in a neighborhood. With that in place, roadway layout can be simplified for ease of navigation.




Object 4: Bluetooth Sound Dock Adapter


Bluetooth sound dock adapter (Image Source:

Fig 6: Bluetooth sound dock adapter (Image Source:

This device receives streamed audio from a mobile device using a Bluetooth connection and plays the music through a docking station. Users can listen to a device’s audio through a docking station without having to have the device physically attached to the dock.

On the top of the adapter is one multi-function button with a single LED that can display blue, and red light. The button serves as a power switch and also initiates pairing with a Bluetooth enabled device. When attached to the dock, one button press turns on the device. Feedback is provided with different flashes of blue and/or red light and an audible blips.

Problematic Design

The single button offers a clean design and, in the small space available, provides the functionality necessary to make the device work. As such, the user must reference the manual to understand how the device functions.

  • A 3 second press-and-hold turns the device on
  • A 5 second press-and-hold turns the device off (or it can be removed from the dock).
  • A 7 second press-and-hold when the device is off activates the pairing function.

Attempting a pairing when the device is already on will turn off the device.

Time-related responses require a greater degree of precision and results in frequent mode errors. The absence of labels or icons on the device means the user must consult a manual for successful operation. Seemingly arbitrary light flashes and audible blips are not mapped to any conventional understandings of the device operation and their meaning is only understood with reference to the manual, or after committing the codes to memory.


Reprogramming the device so it is in an always-on state would eliminate the need for two of the three button functions. The button with a clear Bluetooth icon could then be used solely for pairing with a device. Simplifying the button to one function eliminates the need for timed precision in interaction, the icon communicates the button function without needing a manual. Flashing red, the LED indicates readiness to pair. Steady blue means pairing was successful.




Object 5: PS Touch


Screenshot of PS Touch for the iPad

Fig 7: Screenshot of PS Touch for the iPad

Photoshop provides a tremendous array of tools for working with digital images. Such functionality comes with a vast array of commands and dialogues.

PS Touch is Adobe’s Photoshop redesign for tablets. Bars along the top and side display a few icons representing groups of tools. When tapped, the bar contents are replaced with a tool subset. This unclutters the interface leaving plenty of room for the work space.

Problematic Design

While the appearance looks neat and clean, the absence of text labels makes learning the program more challenging. The side bar icons are familiar to Photoshop users, but the top bar icons are new and replace what was, in the past, text. Tapping an icon on the top bar drops down a menu with commands described with both icons and text. It takes a lot of tapping and resulting mode errors exploring through the menus for the desired command.


Include text labels for the top bar icons with an option to hide them until the user is used to the new interface. Additionally, a question mark icon could provide visibility on demand by temporarily overlaying menu labels.




Object 6: Microsoft Office access to special characters


Microsoft Word's Insert Symbol window

Fig 8: Microsoft Word's Insert Symbol window

Foreign language teachers often use accented characters. Using a code typed while pressing the ALT key, these characters can be inserted into text. Holding ALT while typing 130 will insert an E with a grave accent: é. An E with the same

Alternate keyboards provide quick access to accented characters.

Problematic Design

There are four methods of inserting accented characters into a text document:

  • Using the Insert Symbol dialogue
  • Using an alternative keyboard layout
  • Using ALT codes (ex: ALT + 144 for È)
  • Using special key combinations (ex: CTRL + ` + SHIFT + E for È)

A simple crème brûlée requires:

  • 9 keystrokes and at least 15 mouse clicks using the Insert Symbol dialogue,
  • 17 keystrokes for both the French Canadian keyboard layout and the special key combinations if you can remember which key activates each accent
  • 21 keystrokes and three different ALT codes.

The accented characters are only visible when calling up the Insert dialogue or if the user purchases a special keyboard showing those characters. The ALT codes are arbitrary and there is no way to discern a pattern for which numeric code corresponds to which character. The special key combinations are more closely mapped to visual understandings of accents by combining punctuation and symbols that look like the accent with the letter and the CTRL key.


Introducing a CHARACTER key could activate a contextual menu with options that look like the next letter pressed. For example, pressing CHAR + E could show all the accented E characters and the user could select the correct one using the arrow keys or mouse.




Object 7: Lawn Tractor Safety Shut-Off

Safety Shut-Off Switch (Image source:

Fig 9: Safety Shut-Off Switch (Image source:

Shut-off switch in seat turns off tractor when the seat is empty. Moving switch to the chassis or shocks would allow the user to stand on the tractor or lean over to avoid bushes / trees without having the tractor shut off.


A switch underneath the seat on a lawn tractor completes a circuit when someone is sitting in the seat. The user’s weight depresses the switch completing a circuit allowing the tractor to operate. When the user is no longer sitting in the seat, the circuit is broken and the tractor immediately turns off. This safety feature is intended to prevent users from stepping off onto the mowing bed or off the tractor while it is still running.

Problematic Design

Avoiding branches while mowing near hedges, bushes or trees may require the user to stand or lean out of the way to avoid being scratched. Doing so causes the tractor to stop when the user is most at risk of minor injury. The constraint requiring the tractor operator to be seated does not accommodate frequent conditions in some properties where movement is necessary. A quick search online reveals that many users are bypassing or disabling this safety feature because it is interfering with the tractor’s usability.


Positioning the switch to the tractor chassis in such a way that the switch is engaged when sufficient weight is on the tractor, not just on the seat. In this way, a user could stand or lean while the tractor is in operation, but the safety shut-off would engage with the user gets off the tractor.




Object 8: Microsoft 8 Mail App


Windows 8 Mail App Setup Screen

Fig 10: Windows 8 Mail App Setup Screen

Windows 8 Mail App Error Message

Fig 11: Windows 8 Mail App Error Message

Microsoft’s new operating system keeps the familiar desktop interface but also introduces a graphical tablet-like interface radically redesigning methods of interaction. The Mail App is part of the system install and offers complete integration with the operating system.

Problematic Design

Launching the Mail app from the start screen, users encounter the screen above. If the user does not have or want a Microsoft account the user is inclined to click Cancel. Doing so results in the screen below. Often users encounter screens such as the Mail error message which fills the entire window. The only visible option is to Try Again. There are no other buttons or options other than to return to the previous screen.

Pressing an x in the corner of the screen was a familiar way to exit a window. Pressing the escape key was also a familiar way to get out of computer dead ends. There are no menu bars, and no other visible means of interaction. Microsoft has changed the conceptual model people had about how operating systems work and has provided little to no information on the screen to help the new user. No commands are visible, the user is constrained along a particular path with no visible way to escape. Traditional commands are ineffective, and while the screens are simple, they are not helpful.


Radical shifts in interface design to a product widely used by a large population are bound to be resisted and challenged. Changes should be purposeful and serve to ease the effort required and time needed to do a job, or to introduce new ways of engaging with the technology that adds value. Completely new models of interacting with technology take time and guidance to appreciate and integrate into existing understandings. If the change is radical, there must be some guidance and support during the transition.




Object 9: Pearson Miller Analogies Login Screen


Simulation of Admission Ticket for MAT

Fig 12: Simulation of Admission Ticket for MAT

The Miler Analogies Test (MAT) is used for admission to graduate study programs. Upon arriving at an approved test site, the test-taker receives an entry ticket showing name, date of test, date of birth, and an access code. The Proctor logs in to the program then the test-taker is prompted to enter his/her date of birth then click the Log In button. As testing conditions are strictly controlled I was prohibited from taking screenshots of the problem but have created simulations of the interface as shown above.

Problematic Design

The test-taker log-in screen has only two fields and a button. One field labeled is labeled “Access Code” and the second field is labeled, “Date of Birth”. This field shows two slashes to separate date components. The button is labeled, “Log In”. The test-taker’s date of birth and access code are printed on the entry ticket the user receives on site. Entering the data as it appears on the ticket and clicking Log In gives no response. The screen remains unchanged and the information, as entered, remains visible.

The user must reverse the month and day as it appears on the ticket in order to successfully log in.


Simulated solution to MAT login issue

Fig 14: Simulated solution to MAT login issue

Simulation of MAT Login Screen

Fig 13: Simulation of MAT Login Screen

There are many solutions to this problem. Have the date of birth field order mapped same in both media. Better, the birth date order could be made visible between the slashes as shown in the simulation to the right. Additionally, the Log In button could flash when clicked to provide feedback and an error message could provide direct instruction to the test-taker. A pop-up calendar or drop-down menu for date, month and year could provide visual mapping of the entry task and provide constraints as to the order required.




Object 10: Toshiba Laptop


Toshiba laptop with ports on the side

Fig 15: Toshiba laptop with ports on the side

Possibilities for expansion and connecting peripheral devices is a desirable feature for laptop computers. This Toshiba laptop offered an RGB and HDMI output, three USB ports and an Ethernet port for wired network connectivity. As someone who often works with a second monitor, and uses a mouse rather than the track the ability to work with a third

Problematic Design

Early laptop design positioned peripheral ports at the back of the device keeping cords and cables out of the way while working. This lack of visibility prompted a designer somewhere to re-position the ports for accessibility. Ports on the side of the laptop increases visibility, but use of the ports create physical barriers to natural everyday use.

On this Toshiba laptop all but one of the ports are positioned on the right hand side near the front of the laptop. While this is convenient for accessing the ports, it means that, as a right-handed person, mouse work is shifted to the right by about 10 centimeters affecting arm position and places extra strain on the shoulder. Shifting the keyboard to the left moves the keyboard off centre and presents similar challenges. This design flaw may not lead to user slips or mistakes, but it does create physical discomfort.


Admittedly, rear-facing ports were awkward to access, but time spent primarily with keyboard and mouse work, not accessing cables. USB ports for memory sticks and mobile devices are frequently used and could be positioned one on each side near the back to accommodate both left and right-handed people. Monitor ports should be rear-facing so they are out of the way. They are not frequently accessed during a typical user session and need not be visible.


Image Sources

Fig. 1, 2, 3,15: photos by Miles MacFarlane
Fig. 4, 5: Google Maps
Fig. 6: retrieved from
Fig. 7: screenshot by Miles MacFarlane of Adobe Systems’ PS Touch
Fig. 8: screenshot by Miles MacFarlane of Microsoft Word 2013
Fig. 9: retrieved from
Fig. 10: screenshot by Miles MacFarlane of Windows 8 Mail App
Fig. 11: screenshot by Miles MacFarlane of Windows 8 Mail App
Fig. 12, 13, 14: graphics by Miles MacFarlane

For the next couple of years much of my time will be spent on coursework as I have enrolled in George Washington University's Master of Arts in Education and Human Development (Education Technology Leadership). In the spirit of learning in public, I plan to use my blog as a thinking and processing space. I'll use the #GWETL tag here on the blog and the same hashtag when tweets are course related. At the moment, I'm registered in Critical Issues in Distance Education and Computer Interface Design for Learning.

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International Teaching Exchange: PD of a different nature

For the 2014 calendar year I am on an international teaching fellowship in New South Wales, Australia. I am teaching high school mathematics in a small rural K-12 school serving a livestock farming area on the edge of the outback. What follows are excerpts from my blog that most relate to the professional experiences of swapping careers (and lives) with another teacher on the other side of the world.


While I am always mixing up my program, following kids' leads, and pursuing new technologies, I was ready for a bigger change. Not a permanent change though; I love my school, my colleagues are progressive and we are close both professionally and socially. The community is terrific too - there is a lot that is fabulous about my professional life at the moment. However, after more than a decade in the same situation, I needed to freshen up.

The international teaching exchange offered just what I was looking for: a temporary change, a professional challenge, and some travel opportunities for me and my family. Teaching a new grade, in a different school, in a different district, in a different state, in a different country, on a different continent is a great learning experience. Longer term visits like this offer deeper understanding of philosophies and processes.

December 3, 2014
01Imagining the year ahead on a teacher exchange

We talk about the adventure, the experience, the challenge of trying something new. Conversations in our family started big - forest view, so to speak – an exchange to Australia, the continent, on the other side of the globe. With a specific destination now, our conversations have started to narrow in focus as we look at states, capital cities, town names, river locations, and the beaches. GoogleEarth and street-view images bring us to the ground and help to appreciate that the gestalt view we have of the Australian continent is not the reality of daily life, in the same way that our daily lives here in Canada are not filled with majestic mountains on the horizon backing herds of caribou sweeping majestically across the snow-covered prairies. Rather, we wake up, eat meals, go to school, drive to work, pick up groceries, pay bills – the essential activities that make life work.

Connecting with my exchange partner and his colleagues on social media, and “Liking” my destination school’s Facebook page lets us see some of the people, places, and activities of our home-for-a-year. This causes both excitement and a little anxiety as it brought the forest view down to the trees. It’s easy to think about travel and a little holiday, but it is so much more than that. Set that beside the new curriculum documents I’ll be teaching next year and it is a little like sitting at the top of a huge waterslide - you’re nervous and excited, it’s terrifying for a while, then just exhilarating. For my son, when I asked him what he thinks about when he thinks of the exchange he said something like, “I don’t really think about being there… I think about going there.” For him, so far, it’s the journey and not the destination. Time enough ahead to process everything!

December 13, 2014
02A year of switching places: Stonewall Teulon Tribune article on Teacher Exchange

We’re only 10 days away from departure and it’s feeling a lot more real with every passing day. I have such a terrific group of students that will be hard to leave, and friends at work who, while we’re away, will be getting married and growing families, maybe even a retirement or two. While we sure would love to be there for those events, we also know that you could spend a lifetime enjoying other people’s lives without really living your own. I may be overstating the sentiment, but all three of us, in some way, are experiencing that tension.

Today our school staff is putting on a farewell lunch for us followed by a last night out with our amazing work friends. We’ve had a lot of good-bye’s over the last couple of weeks with people we know we won’t see again until we’re back. So thankful for digital communication and social media that will keep us connected while we’re on the other side of the planet. In preparing for the exchange, we have been looking at our world with fresh eyes – acutely aware of how much we value our family, friends, our community, work, our cozy home, even the weather, as cold as it has been… all of it is highlighted as the unique elements that make us who we are.

Dec 22, 2014
03Journeys and Destinations… it’s all journey if you’re in the moment

Tomorrow we are off on our big adventure. It hardly seems real – so much of our attention has been on preparing the house and classroom, managing paperwork, running errands, and fitting in last visits with friends and family. In fact, we have finished so many little jobs, and purged so much from the house, we’re actually quite happy with the state of things here, almost makes us want to stay (haha!)

A few weeks ago I asked Carlen how he was thinking about being in Australia for a year and he said something like, “I don’t really think about being there, I just think of going there.” An interesting distinction that focuses on the journey more than the destination. And boy, do we have a journey ahead of us! almost 12 hours from Vancouver to Beijing, then another 12 hours from Beijing to Sydney. I’m rather looking forward to those flights. For each of those days there is nothing to do but “sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight”.

Jan 28, 2014            
04Starting work at my Australian exchange school

Because we are rather rural and it is incredibly hot and dry here, my school qualifies for a “Climatic Disability Allowance” and an extra week summer holidays.

Everyone back in Winnipeg battling the worst winter in recorded history is rolling their eyes in disbelief. Yes, it is hard to beat having to clear 2m tall snow drifts in -42c weather to find the car for weeks on end. Let’s just say the NSW Department of Education and Communities knows how to treat their staff and recognizes the challenges of living in extreme weather and locations!

Today I spent the day at the school – wandering around, mostly; sitting, staring at the walls thinking, meditating, and getting into my teaching/learning space. I recall my first teaching job and walking into the classroom full of books, binders, and resources. Where do you start? How much do you have to read before classes start? How on Earth will I be able to manage it all?!

Of course, more than 20 years later, some of those same feelings emerged walking into my office space and then the classroom. I have been dealing with the same grade and the same curricular outcomes for the last 12 years which brings a great deal of comfort, confidence, and a firm foundation for experimentation and innovation. Here, flipping through the planning binders my exchange partner left for me (extremely well-organized and tremendously detailed! Thanks Matt!) everything felt a little uncomfortable and uncertain – though this time I have the benefit of a couple of decades of experience.

05I started by making a file for my timetable – that helped me understand the flow of the day and the groups of students with whom I would spend the day. Later I went through all the planning documents for a couple of the courses: scope and sequence, unit plans tied to curricular outcomes, assessment tasks. That helped me get a sense of the planning requirements, terms used, and the flow of the year. Also poked around the classroom a bit to see what was there for texts, resources, and flipped through some documents related to the school’s personal management strategies. Also got my department network login and email which is exciting in its own way.

That was a good first day – gave me some context for understanding the work environment. Tomorrow I’m hoping to get class lists and maybe some pictures so I can focus on the most important part of the job – my students. I’ll be walking into that classroom on the first day of school just as much a learner as the students there with me.

February 8, 2014
06A newbie with twenty-three years’ experience

First week (and a short week at that) is done and I am wiped. It’s early days, of course, in this teaching exchange experience, but getting my head wrapped around everything is very taxing. There’s new curriculum, program acronyms, unfamiliar planning and assessment practices, not to mention a lot of names, personalities, and a new timetable to get used to. Even a different length period means getting used to pacing a class differently.

I really want to understand why things are the way they are. The well-understood philosophy in my home school division in which I have worked for so long is, of course, the lens through which I see educational issues. This last couple of weeks I’ve been working hard to develop a second lens with which to understand my new professional environment.

Prior to the start of school I flipped through a lot of stuff in the office trying to understand what I was even looking at, often without success! It was rather like looking at pieces of a thousand-piece puzzle without the benefit of the picture on the box. Now, thanks to my fabulous Aussie colleagues, I have some context which is enough to get me started and gives me enough understanding to know what questions to ask! I really appreciate their patience and support as I adapt myself to this new system.

February 16, 2014
07Exchange Teachers’ Weekend in Sydney

Valentine’s Day this year had my family out on a walk around Sydney and me in an orientation event with current and past exchange teachers. It was fun to meet others in Australia on their exchange year as well as a number of Australian teachers who spent 2013 in Canada. We met with some folks from the NSW Department of Education and Communities, had a talk from a Sydney policeman about safety, and an environmental educator about wildlife and safety.

During breaks, and over the weekend, we shared a bit about our new communities and schools, what we have done for travel so far, and what we have planned for the rest of the breaks. We also talked about some of our challenges: getting around, connecting with colleagues, managing classes, learning new systems, etc. None of the challenges are insurmountable, and we acknowledge the challenge as part of the exchange experience. Someone said something like, “I didn’t come here to have the exact same experiences I do at home!”

The NSW Teacher Exchange League was awesome putting together some activities for families while we were in meetings, and the harbour cruise was a terrific time. We had more time to visit, sight-see, and had a shore lunch at Clifton Gardens before heading back to the harbour. Sunday they organized some other events but we had a few things to do before making the long drive back home.

We did encounter a road closure on the way home and learned that there was a fatal collision between two vehicles. Gave us about three extra hours drive home to think about how much we have to be thankful for. To top it off, we had a close-up encounter with a koala, a spectacular sunset behind cloud-shrouded hills near to home, and we didn’t hit any of the many kangaroos alongside the road.

Life is good.

February 25, 2014
08A Day at the Races (literally and metaphorically)

You may already have read on my son’s blog about our day at the races. It was a new experience for all of us despite living so close to the Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg. Our experience at the Coonabarabran Jockey Club felt more like our favourite home-town community hall events – lots of visiting, catching up with people you haven’t seen for a while.

Almost a month into our work and school life here in Australia and we’ve established a bit of a routine and feeling very much at home in our new space. Reviewing our bank statements provides ample evidence of a couple of months of travel and exploration. We remind ourselves that the six or seven weeks that we were travelling is the longest stretch we will have and it won’t be too hard to stem the flow of cash out of the account now that school has started.

We’re all happy in our daytime pursuits though I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit that the teaching hasn’t been a bit of a race itself. There is a lot to take in, a lot to manage, a lot to understand in a new system with different approaches to teaching and learning. As hard as it is, it is also intellectually and professionally enriching. There is much that I value from home and many things that I appreciate from here that will guide my practice for a long time, I’m sure.

If you’re interested in what’s going on at my school, our latest newsletter is available on the school website. Have a peek at what the start of school is like at a rural Australian school!

Reflections on Teaching So Far

09Here are some observations and challenges I'm dealing with given the lens through which I see education. It is early days still and, as I explored in the past, I am mimicking processes while I seek to understand the motivation and philosophy that drives the system.

  • Data: data driven decision-making tends to focus discussions more on statistics and benchmarks rather than student achievement. While there is little wrong with using data to guide decision-making, I find that conversations focus on “raising scores” as a whole and very little on helping individual children. There is a tremendous amount of information generated for each student and is useful for targeting interventions with individual students, but must be weighed against classroom experience and personal knowledge of the students interest and performance.
  • Departmentalization: segmented days make it hard to form relationships with students, little opportunity to integrate curricula. Dealing with a child one subject at a time makes it challenging to see the big picture and see the child as a whole, as part of a family, and a member of a larger community.
  • High stakes testing process where only a select few items, often fewer than 6 per year, average out to a final grade. Turns those assessment events into the only things that "count". The rigid bureaucracy with assessment schedules, compliance registers, assessment notifications, and assessment task records feels like they serve to mitigate liability rather than contributing to student achievement. It appears that there is an increasing awareness of assessment for/as/of learning.
  • Compliance / Rules put the processes and procedures ahead of people; they are a means by which behaviour is controlled. Token economies with reward and punishment schedules require a lot of monitoring and are very hard to standardize from situation to situation which reduces its’ effectiveness.
  • Huge bureaucracy makes for impersonal, numbers driven, administration with lots of top down mandates and control through testing and accountability measures. Smaller districts have opportunity to form relationships with staff and students. Growing people rather than administering policy.
  • Rigid Planning is an interesting exercise in weaving together outcomes, content, delivery, and assessment into a pre-determined, administrator-approved package. Students, teachers, and administrators sign off on the plans that result in clear, but inflexible schedules. The plans then drive what happens in classrooms; pushing content to stay on track, rather than really exploring concepts and interests with students. Focus appears to be more about acquiring knowledge rather than mastering processes.

March 13, 2014
Challenging classes are “Mettle Detectors”

11Wednesday morning:

Well, it finally hit. A bout of homesickness. For me, at least.

There are a couple of challenging classes that make me wonder where my 23 years experience with classroom management has gone. The persuasive restitution-based strategies I have successfully employed back home for the last 12 years `seem completely ineffective (so far) and I’ve had to revisit strategies I haven’t used since my first few years in the classroom.

So today was one of those days – a few challenging classes in a row then, on my break, I happen to flip through some photos from home. The familiar images with the unseen, but intimately felt context outside the picture’s frame, filled with warm memories stirred up the emotions.

But every day there is plenty that makes me smile thinking about where I am, what I’m doing, how fabulous this opportunity is for me and my family. And, to be fair, relationships are harder to form with some kids when they know you’re leaving at the end of the year. I knew it would be a challenge, and that it would be like starting fresh again. As difficult as things are at times, I have no regrets, and it won’t kill me, and I’ll be a better teacher for it.

(now keep repeating until you’ve convinced yourself!

 Wednesday afternoon (Same day)

Well, I pulled myself together and had a fabulous class with a smaller group where we all brought our desks together and just did math for 40 minutes – figuring things out, working equations, visiting, helping each other. IT WAS AWESOME!! I told the students that when I found out I’d be here teaching math that THIS was what I dreamed of – gathered around learning together.

One of them said, “Awww, we made sir’s dream come true! High-five, everyone”

What a joy. I love it.

March 15, 2014
Virtual Faculty Meeting on the Edge of the Outback

12Virtual faculty meetings bring together math teachers from small rural schools for professional development and dialogue. The most recent meeting was in the town of Cobar, about 400km drive west from Coonabarabran (almost 700km inland from Sydney). Surprisingly, I wasn’t the only Canadian there, and another Australian teacher taught in northern Manitoba near where I was many years ago.

We talked about the NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) tests Australian students write a few times over their school career. There is a tremendous amount of data generated about each child with rankings and comparison to school and state averages. Small schools like the ones we are in are subject to statistical anomalies and the online data interface warns viewers about the small sample size for our respective schools. This generated some interesting conversations about assessment and test scores.

The drive there and back was relaxing and I listened to a bunch of lectures on Australian Aboriginal History from La Trobe University. Each little town has the same kind of  grand hotel with a second story railed balcony providing shade over the ground floor walk into the pub. I wonder sometimes how little towns like these can support two or three of these enterprises. Either they all have thriving tourism industries, or the locals drink a lot of beer!

March 15, 2014
More Media Coverage from Manitoba and New South Wales

1413I recognize that this exchange program is supported by our respective departments of education who believe there must be some value for our teachers and students. Initially I thought it would be a good experience for me, professionally, to recharge my batteries and experience some new things. While the exchange teachers benefit, our students, hopefully, also benefit from our unique perspectives on the world. Our families enjoy hearing about our experiences abroad, and our friends and colleagues appreciate the experience working with a colleague from away. Within the community, we make connections and share our experiences and stories. These teaching exchanges have a huge ripple effect. Upon returning, we will be rearticulating our experiences and understandings through a new lens.

I have committed to recording my experiences on this exchange – not just the travel and family experiences, but the professional challenges and experiences through my blog. This blog, for us, serves a few purposes:

  1. a venue for recording our experiences; whether anyone actually reads it or not, journaling is a good way to process stuff that needs processing
  2. communicating to friends and family some general updates
  3. a resource for others considering an international teaching exchange – we have appreciated reading other exchange teacher blogs and gained a broader understanding of the experience to come; this is our contribution to that bank of knowledge

We will continue to analyze and process our experiences sharing them on the blog. In conclusion, I wish to extend my deepest gratitude to my school division Board and administrators for supporting this experience and accommodating me and my exchange partner.

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Implement a Program, sure, but LIVE the philosophy


image source:

At the end of the day one of my students was packing up to go home and had a huge smile on her face.

me: How was your day, C?
C: Amazing!
me: Really? Amazing? What made the day amazing for you?
C: People.
me: You have some good people in your life here at school?
C: Absolutely!

C. has a lot going on in her life and school is a place of amazingness for her. I don't believe that making school an amazing place for everyone is a matter of chance, or luck. Here is another interaction I overheard in the hallway:

TA: Hey J. you weren't here yesterday... how are you?
J: Good
TA: Missed you yesterday, glad you're here today!
J: Thanks

Simple exchange with single word responses from these middle years kids, but here's why it's meaningful to me:

  • that staff that doesn't normally work with that student,
  • there are more than 600 students in my school yet the TA still noticed

Every student should be valued, we should notice when they're away and appreciate when they're back. It's people that make school "amazing" and we are all important people in setting and maintaining a positive culture, and climate.

Programs like Restitution, or Positive Behaviour for Learning can get us started down that road, but the underlying philosophy needs to be absorbed into our own beliefs, thoughts, and responses. Living the philosophy, more than implementing a program, will contribute to the amazing school experience I want for all our students, and ME for that matter!

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Literature Review: Professional Learning Networks

This literature review on professional learning networks was created as part of my participation in the graduate course Learning Technologies & Organizations at the George Washington University.


Organizations seeking to leverage the unique skills and knowledge of individual members create communication, collaboration, and information sharing networks. Formal networks let members share knowledge within a secure space while protecting sensitive information. While developing employee skills these networks are intended primarily to serve the interests of the organization. Individuals may also seek out information and opportunities for collaboration for a variety of reasons. Connections within and outside their organization are intended primarily to serve their own professional interests. The people and resources used to pursue these interests are referred to as Professional Learning Networks.

Social media has emerged as a platform for serious work and professional engagement; Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and wikis offer a platform for interaction with others on a global scale. PLN’s offer a learning community perfectly suited for social constructivist approaches to learning (Dede, 2008). Increasingly, connected professionals are creating informal, self-directed, self-managed Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) using social media to improve practice, engage in professional dialogue, encounter current innovations and trends, and advance their careers. A PLN’s malleability makes them unique to each participant serving different purposes at different times (Carmichael, Fox, McCormick, Procter, & Honour, 2006).

While it seems self-evident that skills developed outside the organization could, directly or indirectly, benefit the larger enterprise[i] (Checkland, 1994), the extent to which that is the case is unknown. Do organizations benefit when members pursue independent self-directed professional development within a PLN? If there is benefit, how can an organization promote, encourage, members to participate in a PLN? While the concept of PLNs is applicable to any enterprise, the focus here is on education professionals.

Literature Review


The Web 2.0 infrastructure offers content that can be filtered by learners, accessed through their own choice of tools, and responded to in a variety of media. While most educators acknowledge the benefit of Web 2.0 tools for teaching and learning (Pritchett, Wohleb, & Pritchett, 2013), it is not unusual for some to dismiss or ignore its use for their own professional learning (Carmichael, Fox, McCormick, Procter, & Honour, 2006). Educators engaging in professional development are, themselves, learners and applying understandings of social learning theories to their own professional development, can see benefit in engaging with social media.

PLN’s imposed on members by an organization are less likely to succeed than those created by the participants themselves. O’Brien (2008), Appleby & Hillier (2012), and Lightle (2010) each found that while some participants saw value in the networking endeavor, many were suspicious of the organization’s motivations and expressed privacy concerns about the network. While the learning network was carefully planned by committees of administrators, network participation was imposed on educators who had little input, experienced restrictions regarding topics, were somewhat cynical about the initiative, and adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

Top-down directives such as that observed by O’Brien (2008), Appleby & Hillier (2012), and Lightle (2010) fail to acknowledge participants’ diverse learning needs and their need to exercise some control and self-determination over their learning experience. Dede (2008) describes learning as a “human activity quite diverse in its manifestations from person to person, and even from day,” (Dede, 2008, p. 57), and points to technology’s ability to accommodate many different learning approaches.

Many recent editorials and opinion articles in peer-reviewed journals promote social media as a context for self-directed PLNs. Church (2012) points to the a PLN’s capacity to morph to meet the professional’s changing needs and address emerging issues. Ongoing engagement with a carefully curated PLN can, for example, address required interventions and growth opportunities identified from performance evaluations. In this context, the participant is sees the PLN as a means to a single specific end.

Couros and Hilt (2011) anecdotally describe how their PLNs contribute to professional growth, provide a forum for reflection and feedback, and create a sense of community and connection with educators around the world. For them, the PLN reflects one’s individual professional needs and interests and is an end in itself.

Benefits of a PLN

As much as a PLN is about ideas, it is primarily about people. For individuals in unique job roles, in small schools, in isolated work environments, or in challenging situations, a global PLN offers a point of connection to teaching/learning resources and, more importantly, to human resources: people with whom the participant can interact (Sie, et al., 2013).

Its’ malleability means that each participant can make the PLN serve different purposes in supporting, teaching, and learning roles. Participants can, individually, or at once, provide information, offer professional development, collaborate, offer feedback, lead change, research, learn, and advocate (Hughes-Hassell, Brasfield, & Dupree, 2012).

Sie (2013) worked with individuals with self-directed PLNs and identified several benefits broadly generalized as information exchange, personal connections, and career management.

Connections between PLN participants  may be mutually beneficial where there are two-way lines of communication like a conversation. Other connections are one-way where a participant receives a connection’s communications, but reciprocal communication is not enabled, like a lecture. Both forms of connection can be beneficial. Connecting to a prominent thinker will make the thinker’s material available to the participant, while the thinker may not be interested in the participant’s contributions. “Latent ties” (Ranieri, Manca, & Fini, 2012) such as thee connect ideas with those that want them.

Two-way connections fall on a continuum of weak to strong. Weak ties characteristically provide access to information and focus primarily on idea exchange while strong ties add an element of emotional fulfillment and serve to deepen understanding and engagement (Hanraets, Huselbosch, & deLaat, 2011). Whatever the nature of the connection, there can be benefits to the participant. Because the composition of a self-directed PLN is determined solely by the individual and there are no binding obligations to others in your network and unproductive connections can be dropped and new connections added.

Designing a PLN

For the Individual

Twitter is the platform of choice for day to day engagement with a PLN (Church, 2012) (Lightle, 2010) (Perez, 2012) (Ranieri, Manca, & Fini, 2012) (Veletsianos, 2011) supported by more in depth and permanent products like blogs, nings, and wikis (Lightle, 2010). Individuals will search for other people and content based on their own needs (Woods, 2013) and follow, subscribe, and register to participate on social media platforms with which they are comfortable or willing to learn. Woods (2013) describes how an individual’s self-directed PLN connections can cross disciplines and philosophies bringing diversity that stimulates deeper thought and exposure to ideas in different contexts.

Given the variety of tools available to curate content, PLN participants have the ability to customize not only their content, but their interface.  Several applications are available to view Twitter feeds and RSS readers collect new content from subscribed blogs.

For an Institution

As mentioned, attempts to impose learning networks on educators have met with underwhelming success. Participant surveys and studies of previous attempts to create organizational PLNs reveal strategies to increase the success of mandated learning networks:

Ownership and Self-Determination – Make the PLN meaningful by letting participants identify their own needs and interests, use their own devices, and choose platforms and apps they are familiar with (O'Brien, Varga-Atkins, Burton, Campbell, & Qualter, 2008). This engenders a sense of trust between the institution and the participant. Because individuals have choice and flexibility with their networks, it can morph with their needs and interests over time without requiring structural or organizational change. This makes it more meaningful and relevant as time and circumstances require.

Openness and Personalisation – Allowing participants to connect with others both within and beyond the enterprise increases the pool of potential connections (Harvey, Marina & Huber, 2012). This is particularly important for specialists and those in isolated or small organizations. Learning networks that are too small or too narrowly defined are less responsive (Sandars & Langlois, 2005), can establish rigid identities, and cannot evolve as needed to sustain relevance (Barab, et al., 2007). While participants use PLNs for professional engagement, sharing mundane personal details also contributes to the strength of network connections. Points of common interest are also points of possible contact: participants may begin a conversation with the mundane and move on to work-related topics (Veletsianos, 2011).

Support and Training – Facilitators can help participants articulate needs, identify content, and connect with people and ideas without being directive or imposing. Organizations can create a climate of acceptance and introduce opportunities that highlight the benefit of a PLN (Hanraets, Huselbosch, & deLaat, 2011). With increasing comfort participants may want training on new tools or explore new social media settings to expand their PLN. Additionally, some users may benefit from instruction in social media communication such as how to craft short messages, or respond to blog posts (Hanraets, Huselbosch, & deLaat, 2011).

Sustaining a PLN

While consuming information from a PLN provides the participant with resources and up-to-date information on their areas of interest, contributing to the conversation gives the participant an opportunity to express ideas, add points of view, and share information. Importantly, it also requires the participant to read, understand, process, reflect, and articulate understandings. As both consumer and contributor, the participant is likely to experience a stronger sense of connection and support in addition to more meaningful professional growth (Spradley, 2008)

A survey of teachers using social media by Ranieri, Manca, & Fini (2012) reveal that PLNs with a diverse population and wide ranging interests are more beneficial to the participant than those with a specific content focus. With heterogeneous connections the participant is better able to filter and identify applicable people and resources to meet emerging needs.

A robust PLNs should have at least 200 connections (Terrell, 2009), that regularly populate the participant’s feed with resources, timely responses, and insight into the state of the field on any given day. Perez (2012) offers the following strategies for maintaining a robust and meaningful PLN: Actively manage connections; add and drop to fine tune the content flow. Participate and cultivate a professional profile. Use aggregation tools to bring the variety of PLN sources into one window, and use mobile devices to stay connected.

Brief messages and exchanges such as those on Twitter often point to more detailed explorations of a topic in the form of blogs or wikis. Dickinson (2012) promotes digital publishing for positive self-reflection and professional engagement. A thoughtful online post or article extends the conversation long after the writer has completed the piece. Such writing contributes to the body of knowledge and resources upon which others may draw in the context of their own PLN.

Understanding PLNs

A PLN affords opportunities for professional engagement beyond the usual work day. Independent of time zones, a well-curated PLN is available 24/7 offering a context for professional engagement and reflection with an audience as narrow or diverse as one chooses. Using social media for the PLN means it is possible to connect with colleagues without disruption to usual routines and engagement can happen within the participant’s own work context (Appleby & Hillier, 2012).

The value of such networks to the individual is anecdotally clear (Couros & Hilt, 2011) and measurable evidence of engagement with PLNs reveal a variety of motivations and benefits for participants (Sandars & Langlois, 2005) (Sie, et al., 2013) (Veletsianos, 2011), but determining the value to the organization is harder to measure. Harvey, Marina & Huber (2012) suggest that a PLNs value is something sensed rather than measured, that independently motivated and engaged members are more likely to be motivated and engaged with their work but quantifying the impact on the organization is challenging. Efforts to understand learning networks led researchers to identify measurable elements including the strength, and content focus of connections (Sie, et al., 2013) and the nature of individual relationships within and amongst content clusters (Carmichael, Fox, McCormick, Procter, & Honour, 2006).

Directions for Future Research

Effects on participant learning

The unique nature of PLNs challenges standard measures of learning. Performance on standards tests comparing students that created and engaged with a content-specific learning network to those that did not may serve as an indicator of the PLNs effectiveness. For educators, research could examine qualitative changes in lesson preparation, delivery, and assessment before and after engagement with a PLN. Examining an individual’s message content over time may reveal evolution of thought patterns while blog posts as expressions of understanding provide evidence of growth.

Effects on teacher effectiveness

Standards test results over time could be correlated with teachers’ PLN engagement though there are myriad other influences on test results it would be hard to isolate the PLN’s effect. More revealing may be anecdotal reports from workplace colleagues of the participants’ professional cachet or evidence of positive and progressive professional engagement

It would also be interesting to qualitatively understand the kind of content and contributions associated with different media. Twitter’s 140 character limit, a blog’s single-author unlimited post, and an open ever-changing wiki invite different types of engagement and studies may reveal the extent to which that content correlates to quality or depth of understanding.


Recommendations and observations from the research cited generally indicate that individual PLNs are most effective when:

  • it contributes to meeting personal and organizational goals
  • it is populated by a large and diverse community with wide ranging interests
  • balanced with face-to-face opportunities for engagement
  • participants actively manage connections
  • participants both consume and contribute

Organizational PLNs are most effective when they accommodate the conditions above, and:

  • serve a clear purpose though the purpose may change,
  • are self-directed but may receive support,
  • are independent of work obligations though may be work-related,
  • are acknowledged by the organization as a valued professional activity
  • are supported but not directed by a facilitator
  • social media communication strategies are developed
  • demonstrate openness, integrity, and trust with the participant


An effective Professional Learning Network reflects the larger professional community. With a large enough pool of connections, participants are bound to find the information, resources, and supports needed to attenuate challenges, grow professionally, and pursue innovations in the field.

The literature is quite clear that that imposing or mandating participation in a PLN will be met with resistance and attempts to limit conversation is likely to undermine hoped-for outcomes. An organization wishing to encourage PLN participation is well-advised to create a climate of acceptance, and a culture of openness and sharing amongst members with supports for individuals wishing to participate.

That self-directed participants are so enthusiastic about their PLN speaks to their perceived value. It is easy to argue that creating opportunities for professional engagement outside the traditional workspace will lead to greater engagement and better performance within the workspace. PLNs make ongoing professional development an easy reality, one that is being lived by increasing numbers of educators for their own benefit and that of their students.



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Carmichael, P., Fox, A., McCormick, R., Procter, R., & Honour, L. (2006, June). Teachers' networks in and out of school. Research Papers in Education, 21(2), 217-234.

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Couros, G., & Hilt, L. (2011, May/June). Social media as a professional tool. Principal, pp. 36-38.

Dede, C. (2008). Theoretical perspectives influencing the use of information technology in teaching and learning. In J. Voogt, & G. Knezek (Eds.), International Handbook of Information Technology in Primary and Secondary Education (Vol. 20, pp. 43-62). Springer US.

Dickinson, G. (2012, November/December). Professional learning networks through publishing. (M. Naso, Ed.) Knowledge Quest, 41(2).

Hanraets, I., Huselbosch, J., & deLaat, M. (2011). Experiences of pioneers facilitating teacher networks for professional development. Educational Media International, 48(2), 85-99.

Harvey, Marina, & Huber, E. (2012). Expanding the horizons of professional learning: A foundations alumni network. Asian Social Science, 8(14), 19-27.

Hughes-Hassell, S., Brasfield, A., & Dupree, D. (2012, November/December). Making the most of professional learning communities. (M. Naso, Ed.) Knowledge Quest, 41(2), 30-37.

Lightle, K. (2010, November/December). Using social media to build an online professional learning netorkd of middle level educators. Knowledge Quest, 39(2), 48-53.

O'Brien, M., Varga-Atkins, T., Burton, D., Campbell, A., & Qualter, A. (2008). How are the perceptions of learning networks shaped among school professionals and headteachers at an early stage in their introduction. International Review of Education, 54, 211-242.

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Woods, B. (2013, November 8). Building your own PLN. T+D, pp. 70-73.

[i]   Checkland (1994) suggests people are quick to express the most ethical answer to a question. For example, when asked who is the beneficiary of an educational initiative the initiator will respond, “the students, of course” when, in fact, the initiative may benefit the initiator most directly. In the same vein, when asking who is the beneficiary of PLN engagement, the ethical response is, “the consumers of enterprise efforts” when the most immediate benefits may be to the PLN participant himself.


For the next couple of years much of my time will be spent on coursework as I have enrolled in George Washington University's Graduate Certificate in eLearning, the first step toward completing the Masters Degree in Education Technology Leadership. In the spirit of learning in public, I plan to use my blog as a thinking and processing space. I'll use the #GWETL tag here on the blog and the same hashtag when tweets are course related. At the moment, I'm registered in Learning Technologies and Organizationsand Developing Multimedia Materials.    Send article as PDF   
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