"The Anti-Education Era" by James Paul Gee, a SpeedRead

The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning by James Paul Gee

Gee, J. P. (2013). The Anti-education era: Creating smarter students through digital learning. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Collaborative Book Review by
Yukiko Bonnefoy, Møre og Romsdal, Norway
Miles MacFarlane, Winnipeg, Canada
LaKisha Scott, Atlanta, USA
Jenna Wallace, San Antonio, USA

With more than 20 books, almost 200 journal articles, and more than 300 conference lectures to his credit, James Paul Gee is an innovative thinker and prolific author at the intersection of linguistics, communication, cognition, identity, and technology, in both real and virtual spaces. Gee is most recently known for his application of gaming theory to learning situations. Gee is a member of the National Academy of Education and is the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University.

His most recent works include Good Video Games and Good Learning: Collected Essays on Video Games, Learning, and Literacy (2013), Collected Essays on Learning and Assessment in the Digital World (2014), and Unified Discourse Analysis: Language, Reality, Virtual Worlds, and Video Games (2015).

This review focuses on his 2013 book, The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning.


Dealing with broad societal issues but focusing on the educational context, the author seems to target educators, but the subject matter could have a wider appeal. The content addresses issues far beyond the classroom showing how individuals and the broader social context affect how we think and perceive the world. More than a book of educational reform, Gee addresses the deep philosophical and psychological factors that cause us to be stupid. Anyone with an interest in how society functions and what can be done to improve the human condition will enjoy this book.


People are ill-equipped to cope with today’s fast-paced hyper-connected world and much of what we do stand in opposition to what we want. It is this, Gee suggests, that makes us stupid. Recognizing what makes us stupid is the first step toward being smart.

In our reading, Gee’s provocative and confrontational style pushes an unflattering mirror in front of the reader highlighting everything that is wrong with individuals and civilization. He then describes possible applications of technology that could direct the collective wisdom of humanity toward positive change.

Book Summary

Essential Ideas

In the first half of the book, Gee describes at length how people’s thought processes and behaviors result in stupidity. Gee suggests that the human brain was not designed and has not yet evolved to cope with the complexity of human relationships, society, and types of problems we now face. He suggests that we can use digital media to compensate for where we struggle and augment where we have it right. Digital media offers the means and context for coalescing human wisdom and experience into something not only manageable, but effective in helping us achieve our collective goals.

He outlines fifteen different ways in which human thought is misguided or deceived. These errors limit our ability to live in harmony with people and ideas and prevent us from approaching the world intelligently. Given the depth and pace of change, Gee says, we are, as a species, at greater risk of social, economic, and climatic catastrophe. He frames and details each of the fifteen challenges and, in the end, offers an approach to learning that leverages the collective wisdom of our species. In this way, we can overcome these challenges moving us farther from being “stupid” and closer to being smart.

The amount of ink devoted to what makes us stupid and the provocative language about human intelligence, creates in the reader a sense of discomfort and defensiveness. Gee describes numerous examples of how what we are doing is not getting us what we want. By holding up to humanity a mirror that exposes every flaw and blemish; he forces the reader to examine one’s worldview through a different lens. He offers much that is wrong, and only hints at possible solutions. For receptive readers, this will churn the ground on which belief systems are built offering an opportunity to rethink, debate, and collaborate on new foundations for a better world.

Major Points

Gee suggests that our current education system needs to engage learners in more social, authentic, and meaningful learning experiences that promote reflective thinking through collaborative mentorship. Rather than trying to get our brains to work more like computers he wants us to develop the unique creative and meaning-making capacities, and let computers manage our information storage and processing needs. We tend to think of human intelligence as a measure of an individual’s cognitive abilities. Gee urges us to think beyond that to humans augmented with technology connecting with other augmented humans. In this way, we can manage very complex scenarios more effectively.

Humans are good at identifying patterns but sometimes generalize too quickly, not appreciating the broader context of that experience. Such a narrow or limited focus is a barrier to understanding. Beyond limiting our experience, Gee says who we relate to (solidarity) and who we aspire to (status) similarly limit our thoughts and behaviors and our social position further affects our ability to participate in society. In the search for solidarity and comfort stories, we can often be led to believe things that are factually wrong. This mentality can lead to “us versus them” dichotomies, marrying individuals into groups that reflect one’s own existing beliefs and perceptions. Such groups can have a negative impact when they isolate the individual from other perspectives and other opinions. Similarly, learners in highly customized, personally adapted settings are sheltered from authentic challenges and do not develop the ability to problem solve or deal with the non-customized world. Likewise, institutions can also experience limited or narrowed focus when formalized processes lock participants into thinking and behaviors that prevent the institution from evolving as needed.

In the last portion of the book, Gee points to some scenarios or structures to address the sources of human stupidity. He describes the importance of both virtual and real spaces where people from a variety of backgrounds converge, by choice, in fluid and flexible groups to explore a common issue. These so-called affinity spaces promote a synchronization of intelligence that leverages the wisdom of the group and the affordances of digital technology, to make and communicate meaning. He offers Talk, Text, and Knowledge mentoring (TTK) with digital technologies as the foundational skills upon which a smarter civilization can be built.

Analysis and Evaluation

Strengths and Weaknesses

Gee’s book evokes a visceral response from the reader as he holds the unflattering mirror to humanity in an uncomfortable confrontation with our very belief systems and worldviews. Front loaded with blunt rhetoric about humanity’s stupidity, readers seeking solutions rather than colorful commentary on how awful the world is may be turned off and abandon the book. However, we found the longer we stood in front of the mirror, the more we saw the truth of his provocative assertions.

Two-thirds of the book clearly defined and gave examples of humanity’s stupidity while the final third, rather than offering solutions, gave only suggestions of a solution. This mentality is frustrating as a reader because the book title promises that we can “Create Smarter Students through Digital Learning” yet it is consistent with his thesis. Gee says that we must create purposeful communities where everyone has a voice and put our collective minds and technologies to finding solutions - solutions will not come from one single author.

Implications for Education

Understanding the many ways people get things wrong, and the ways in which we avoid the ruth, educators can better recognize the origins of misunderstandings in students and correct them. They may also use this understanding to craft learning experiences that address these human inclinations to help learners make meaning from determined truths.

Learning experiences, Gee suggests, should make use of digital technology to create both real and virtual points of contact where individuals can gather to learn, share, debate, teach, explore, take, and contribute ideas on a particular topic. Education can be restructured to make use of affinity spaces and leverage the synchronized intelligence of a vast and diverse learning community to create even better learning experiences than exist now.

Educators should identify those strategies and pedagogies that promote empirical thinking and leverage the power of communications technology to build productive and positive affinity spaces for learners. In this context, we can even rethink the definition of learner from one who simply receives or creates knowledge to a term that embodies the notion that they are contributors and active participants.

Relevant Quote

Gee (2013) stated:

To be smarter today we need Minds, not just minds. We need synchronized intelligence we need to be able to dance the dance of collective intelligence with others and our best digital tools. Talk, text and knowledge (TTK) mentoring and digital tools can be deployed in ways that reverse our brain bugs and social bugs to make us smarter. (p.208)

This quote communicates the essence of Gee’s path away from the stupidity toward smartness. The terms he uses in this quote are elaborated on at length in the book, and his full meaning is hard to comprehend out of context. Essentially, we need to confront our flawed and narrow thinking (brain bugs and social bugs) and use the unique capabilities of our brains (Minds) and technology (digital tools) together with diverse others (collective intelligence) in a coordinated (synchronized intelligence) and collaborative (mentoring) effort to make meaning based on empirical evidence.

Book Club Questions

Gee suggests that the pursuit of empirical reasoning is critical to creating a better world. He also suggests that religion, as a complex set of mental comfort stories can get in the way of our capacity to reason. He does propose that science and religion can co-exist as complementary frameworks for understanding the world. Do you agree? Can science and religion support each other in the pursuit of truth?
Gee identifies Affinity Spaces as important elements of a thriving civilization. Understanding Gee’s vision of affinity spaces, discuss examples of affinity spaces in which you already participate. To what extent do your affinity spaces reflect the criteria outlined in Chapter 20?
Gee describes video games as potential virtual spaces for learning and describes how affinity spaces can exist in the context of a game. There is a lot of criticism about the effect of video games on today’s youth. Is Gee on to something, or is this simply a bad idea? Is there unlocked potential in virtual gaming spaces, or do the dangers outweigh the potential benefits?
Humans often seek meaning over truth. Sometimes we find meaning that is void of truth or truths that do not yet have meaning for us. Gee urges us to recognize and false meaning, and find motivation for embracing truths for which we do not yet have meaning or use. Discuss examples of meaning without truth and truth without meaning. Explore the challenges of dealing with each scenario.
Gee suggests humans have to acknowledge our penchant for mental comfort stories. Nietzche famously said, "God is dead" but went on to say how we will always invent something new to take God's place. Can humans live without mental comfort stories?
How fitting is the title The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning for the book? What alternate title would you give it?



Individuals with an interest in sweeping social change will appreciate Gee’s observations and recommendations for changing the way we think to achieve a better world. Senior education leaders will find the messages a challenge to traditional learning approaches and may find Gee’s ideas useful as a framework to guide reform efforts. Educators, in general, may find the points related to society’s “stupidity” somewhat confrontational spurring reflection on their practice and experiences.

While the book proposed ways in which technology could improve education, we wouldn’t recommend it as a “how-to” book for those searching for practical strategies to implement digital technology in education settings. Rather, it serves as a conversation starter for those interested in improving education in the 21st century.

Additional Resources

James Paul Gee. (n.d.). Retrieved February 25, 2015, from http://www.jamespaulgee.com/

DMLResearchHub. (2011, April 4). Games and education scholar James Paul Gee on video games, learning, and literacy. Retrieved March 1, 2015, from

Elbouza, M. (2014, May). The Anti-education era – Response to Gee. Retrieved February 15, 2015, from http://melscollectibles.com/?p=258

Ellis, K. (Director), & Borovoy, A. E., & Rosenfeld, L. (Producers). (2008, April 12). Big thinkers: James Paul Gee on grading with games [Video file].
Retrieved February 16, 2015, from http://www.edutopia.org/james-gee-games-learning-video

Güss, C. D., & Tuason, M. T. (1942). Fire and ice: Cultural influences on complex problem solving. In COGSCI 2009: The Annual meeting of
The Cognitive Society (Vol. 1947).

Lewis, M. (2013, July 10). Reflection on the anti-education era by James Paul Gee. Retrieved February 15, 2015, from


Lilly, T. (2013). The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning. IJEP-International Journal of Educational Psychology,
2(3), 353-355.

Shapiro, J. (2014, July 3). Games can advance education: A conversation with James Paul Gee. Retrieved February 25, 2015, from


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Mental and physical fatigue and multitasking

Then and Now

source: Reddit


I've been sitting at the computer for several hours now. For a while I worked on my research paper. When I need to reduce the cognitive load I popped on to Facebook for a bit. Then, I caught up on the latest posts for my course and spent some time reading a couple of articles. After that I replied to some emails and logged in to my account to pay an e-bill.

So, I did some research and writing, I socialized, I played a game, read some news, wrote some correspondence, paid some bills.

Every time I switched my focus, I did so because I was ready for a change bit not quite ready to go back to the cognitively demanding activity. Even after all that time doing something other than my paper, I'm still not ready - still not feeling like I'm ready to give it my best. Of course, when I really think about it, I've not been active. While my brain is switching activities, my body is still in the same position.

Lately I've been doing my coursework while walking on the treadmill and found that my powers of concentration are much stronger. Not only that, I can sustain effort on one activity far longer than I could if I was sitting at the desk task switching.

My research paper, ironically, is on multitasking and I will be posting more on that research later. As I posted elsewhere, distractability has long been an issue of concern for educators. Then, in the 1960s a new term emerged describing a computer's ability to perform more than one task seemingly simultaneously. By the 1980s, lots of people knew about a computer's ability to multitask and the notion sounded good enough for people to try. At this time, use of the word distractability decreased, and multitasking increased. (Check it out using the very cool Google NGram Viewer).

Now, I'm not saying there is a direct correlation, but it wouldn't surprise me. Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable and us humans work hard to avoid it. Given our penchant for describing things in the best light possible, and rationalizing poor decisions or unfortunate situations I think we have simply re-branded distraction as purposeful and productive multitasking. Sitting at the computer is more appealing to me than reading on the treadmill because the potential for getting more things done at once is alluring.

It is clear though... crystal clear... that multitasking doesn't do anyone any good. The problem is we think we are the exceptions to the rule, we are the ones for whom the research does not apply. Well, the hard truth is that there are no exceptions. We all suck at trying to do a bunch of things at the same time.

So, does knowing this help me better manage my workload?

I wrote this during a break from writing report cards in a browser window with more than a dozen tabs open.

Self-control is another big part of the multitasking picture, but that's for another day. I need to get back to my report cards. Maybe on your break you could share strategies you use to manage multitasking in the comments below!

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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

Image source: http://is.theorizeit.org/wiki/Kellers_Motivational_Model

Click to enlarge.  Image source: http://is.theorizeit.org/wiki/Kellers_Motivational_Model

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 http://www.katyjordan.com/MOOCproject.html

Knox, J. (2014). Digital culture clash: “Massive” education in the e-learning and digital cultures MOOC. Distance Education, 35(2), 164–177. Retrieved from http://proxygw.wrlc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=96964878&site=ehost-live

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 http://sdlglobal.com/IJSDL/IJSDL7.2-2010.pdf#page=6

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 http://search.arxiv.org:8081/paper.jsp?r=1204.1824&qid=1415955980764mix_nCnN_-677970468&qs=%22social+media%22+security

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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 http://cwta.ca/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/CWTA-2012ConsumerAttitudes1.pdf

Cavanagh, S. (2014). Apple Touts Strong iPad Sales in Global School Market. Retrieved September 20, 2014, from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/marketplacek12/2014/07/apple_boasts_of_surge_in_worldwide_sales_of_ipads_for_education.html

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 http://proxygw.wrlc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=74029564&site=ehost-live

eMarketer. (2014). Smartphone users worldwide will total 1.75 billion in 2014. Retrieved September 21, 2014, from http://www.emarketer.com/Article/Smartphone-Users-Worldwide-Will-Total-175-Billion-2014/1010536

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 http://techcrunch.com/2013/02/28/apple-has-sold-over-8m-ipads-direct-to-education-worldwide-with-more-than-1b-itunes-u-downloads/

Interactive Educational Systems Design. (2012). 2012 National Survey on STEM Education. Retrieved from http://svsd.schoolwires.net/cms/lib05/WA01919490/Centricity/Domain/457/2012-national-survey-stem-ededition.pdf

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 http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm


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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 http://www.cioupdate.com/budgets/article.php/3905476/Why-CIOs-Should-Shift-from-Capex-to-Opex.htm

Futhey, T., Schroeder, T., & Benatan, E. (2013). Creating the IT architecture for the connected age. Retrieved September 03, 2014, from http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/multimedia/ESPNT133.mp3

Luxembourg, Y. P., & Sommer, T. (2013). IT Costs – The Costs, Growth And Financial Risk Of Software Assets. Muenchen, Germany. Retrieved from http://omtco.eu/references/sam/it-costs-the-costs-growth-and-financial-risk-of-software-assets/

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 http://www.nashnetworks.ca/pdf/TCOofIT.pdf

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: thinkgeek.com)

Fig 6: Bluetooth sound dock adapter (Image Source: thinkgeek.com)

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: mytractorforum.com)

Fig 9: Safety Shut-Off Switch (Image source: mytractorforum.com)

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 thinkgeek.com
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 mytractorforum.com
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 http://teacherexchange.ca 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 teacherexchange.ca 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 teacherexchange.ca 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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