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.


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.

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.

Implement a Program, sure, but LIVE the philosophy


image source: http://www.edudemic.com/eduwin/

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!

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.



Appleby, Y., & Hillier, Y. (2012). Exploring practice - research networks for critical professional learning. Studies in Continuing Education, 34(1), 31-43.

Barab, S., Zuiker, S., Warren, S., Hickey, D., Ingram-Goble, A., Kwon, E. J., . . . Herring, S. (2007, September). Situationally embodied curriculum: Relating formalisms and contexts. Science Education, 91(5), 750-782.

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.

Checkland, P. (1994, Sep/Oct). Systems theory and management thinking. The American Behavioral, 38(1), 75-91.

Church, A. (2012, November/December). Making performance-based evaluation work for you: A recipe for personal learning. (M. Naso, Ed.) Knowledge Quest, 41(2), 38-41.

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.

Perez, L. (2012, January/February). Innovative professional development: Expanding your professional learning network. Knowledge Quest, 40(3), pp. 20-22.

Pritchett, C. C., Wohleb, E. C., & Pritchett, C. G. (2013, March/April). Educators' perceived importance of Web 2.0 technology applications. TechTrends, 57(2), 33-38.

Ranieri, M., Manca, S., & Fini, A. (2012). Why (and how) do teachers engage in social networks? An exploratory study of professional use of Facebook and its implications for lifelong learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(5), 754-769. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2012.01356.x

Sandars, J., & Langlois, M. (2005). Online learning networks for general practitioners: evaluation of a pilot project. Education for Primary Care, 16, 688-696.

Severance, C., Hardin, J., & Whyte, A. (2008, April). The coming functionality mash-up in personal learning environments. Interactive Learning Environments, 16(1), 47-62.

Sie, R. L., Pataraia, N., Boursinou, E., Rajagopal, K., Margaryan, A., Falconer, I., . . . Sloep, P. B. (2013). Goals, motivation for, and outcomes of personal learning through networks: Results of a Tweetstorm. Educational Technology & Society, 16(3), 59-75.

Spradley, M. (2008). Dialogue within professional learning communities and its impact on the professional growth of teachers in the elementary school setting. (Order No. 3342444, Walden University) ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from http://search.proquest.com/docview/288043812?accountid=11243

Terrell, S. S. (2009, September 30). PRESTO: How to build your PLN on Twitter. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7ekj_Ys4FM

Veletsianos, G. (2011). Higher education scholars' participation and practices on Twitter. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 28, 336-349.

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.

Understanding and Creating Professional Learning Networks (Video Abstract)

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

Hanraets, I., Hulsebosch, J., & de Laat, M. (2011). Experiences of pioneers facilitating teacher networks for professional development. Educational Media International, 48(2), 85-99. doi:10.1080/09523987.2011.576513

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 / Internationale Zeitschrift Für Erziehungswissenschaft, 54(2), 211-242. doi:10.1007/s11159-008-9084-1

Sie, R. L. L., Pataraia, N., Boursinou, E., Rajagopal, K., Margaryan, A., Falconer, I., Sloep, P. B. (2013). Goals, motivation for, and outcomes of personal learning through networks: Results of a tweetstorm. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 16(3), 59-75.

Veletsianos, G. (2012). Higher education scholars' participation and practices on twitter. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 28(4), 336-349. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2011.00449.x

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.

How on Earth do you know that?!

Crossword (PSF)Gathered around the NY Times Crossword every morning in the staff room before heading to class we would collectively work our way through the entire puzzle. Few of us could solve Thursday or Friday’s puzzles on our own, but together we were pretty successful.

One colleague was famous for knowing some of the most obscure answers and, when asked how she knew that, her response was always:

Oh, you know… I live in the world… I pay attention.”

My students reflect not only on their content learning but also on their work process, project planning, implementation strategies, and management outcomes. The goal is to help them develop a sense of presence (living in the world) and observation/reflection (paying attention). Rather than focusing on linear, predictive models of the world, we develop a capacity to see and analyse the chaotic world around us. In this way we can accommodate the unexpected, embrace innovations.

Understanding "Performance Support" (Infographic)

This infographic on Performance Support was written as part of my participation in the graduate course Learning Technologies & Organizations at the George Washington University. It summarizes chapter 6 of Beyond E-Learning by M. J. Rosenberg on Learning and Performance in the Context of Work. Click for full-sized image.

Click for full size (1024x5933)

Click for full size (1024x5933)



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 Organizations and Developing Multimedia Materials.

Multimedia Design for Learning: Selected Articles

This work was done in anticipation of my work in the graduate course Developing Multimedia Materials at the George Washington University.

Design-based research: designing a multimedia environment to support language learning

Hung, H.-T. (2011). Design-based research: designing a multimedia environment to support language learning. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 48(2), 159-169.

Design based research is intended to be dynamically responsive to a learners’ needs in the given learning environment through iterative design, implementation, and assessment of theoretical research.

Using the term “multimedia” to refer to the range of available content, storage, programs and devices, Hung (2011), a researcher in English language learning, explored a multimedia language learning experience using video recordings to reflect on learners’ own oral presentations to assess their personal skills. In addition, the author sought to implement and analyse multimedia design principles proposed by Moreno (2006) and Chapelle (2005).

The author concludes with six guidelines that blend the two works and serve to guide multimedia development efforts:

  1. The input principle: comprehension is mediated through technology and instruction
  2. The output principle: learners produce representations of their understanding
  3. The noticing principle: learners employ technology tools to analyse their own learning
  4. The reflection principle: learners employ technology tools to reflect on their own learning
  5. The interactivity principle: learners employ technology to engage with people and content
  6. The multimedia principle: technology provides context for engagement with content


Creating a ripple effect: Incorporating multimedia-assisted project-based learning in teacher education

Seo, K. K., Templeton, R., & Pellegrino, D. (2008). Creating a ripple effect: Incorporating multimedia-assisted project-based learning in teacher education. Theory Into Practice, 47, 259-265. doi:10.1080/00405840802154062

The authors of this study are all involved in teacher education and explored attitude and skills development in multimedia use within the context of project-based learning (PBL) experiences. Requiring their students to design and develop multimedia projects, the teacher candidates were immersed technically, pedagogically, and socially. It is widely held that visual representation and interpretation of information is an essential skill; engaging in multimedia projects as consumer and producer fosters skill development with those communication tools.

The authors explore the benefits of multimedia in the context of PBL noting that the students are learning the course content in addition to developing skills with digital communication. For teacher education, this approach better prepares the learner for their own experiences in the classroom when they have their own students. Exposure to a variety of multimedia tools during teacher education contributed to increased comfort with the tools, and an increased likelihood that the tools would be employed for learning in schools. Additionally, the experience shifted thinking in teaching styles; teacher candidates could more easily accommodate the conceptual and practical shift from teachers as deliverers of information, to students as creators of knowledge.


Design and Implementation of a 3D Multi-User Virtual World for Language Learning

Ibáñez, M. B., Garcia, J. J., Galán, S., Maroto, D., Morillo, D., & Kloos, C. D. (2011). Design and Implementation of a 3D Multi-User Virtual World for Language Learning. Educational Technology & Society, 14(4), 2-10.

Recognizing that language learning is best accomplished through social engagement in a natural context, the authors explored the affordances of 3D virtual worlds (3D VWs) to meet this end. Using Open Wonderland, an open source virtual world authoring tool, Ibáñez et al (2011) generated virtual spaces with interactive objects, automated conversation agents, and social spaces for engagement with peers. In this context.

The authors first describe the kinds of activities best suited for 3D VWs including simulations, public events, collaboration, situated learning, role playing, and problem based learning. They go on to describe design considerations and processes in generating the interactive space and agents. Audio prompts and interactions can be anchored to a particular space or object, allowing learners to experience language situated in a context that aids comprehension.

Because of the social nature of the virtual learning space, learners generated unique avatars to serve as interaction agents within the virtual world and also contributed to the learners’ sense of social presence. The authors also tested immersive display and input tools but found they added a layer of complexity to the experience that hindered, rather than supported learning.


Can multimedia make kids care about Social Studies? The GlobalEd Problem-Based Learning Simulation

Ioannou, A., Brown, S. W., Hannafin, R. D., & Boyer, M. A. (2009). Can multimedia make kids care about Social Studies? The GlobalEd Problem-Based Learning Simulation. Computers in the Schools, 26, 63-81. doi:10.1080/0738056080268299

This paper explores a foundational question about multimedia in education: does it make a difference? While research supports the claim that multimedia makes information available and allows for communication in more diverse ways, it is less certain about positive impacts on learning achievement. The authors compared the learning experience of students engaged in an activity in which access to multimedia resources was controlled.

Results demonstrate that both groups learned and could demonstrate understanding of the content with the multimedia group scoring marginally higher than the text-based learners. Interest in the subject was not statistically different between the groups, nor was there any significant attitude difference toward the learning experience.

The authors acknowledge that the small sample size and inability to control some elements of program delivery across research sites may have generated flawed outcomes; they cautions about generalizations.


Cultural interpretations of the visual meaning of icons and images used in North American web design

Knight, E., Gunawardena, C. N., & Aydin, C. H. (2009). Cultural interpretations of the visual meaning of icons and images used in North American web design. Educational Media International, 46(1), 17-35.

The authors examined culturally influenced interpretations of menu icons from academic websites finding that intended meanings can be skewed or obscured when viewed through a cultural lens. Starting with an examination of how icons function symbolically, abstractly or representationally, they go on to explain how icon interpretations, as long as they fall within proximity of the intended meaning, will have served their purpose.

This study revealed that cultural impact was greater for icons intended to communicate affective meanings than it was for commands or processes. These influences reflect culturally different understandings of social stratification, individuality, gender, time-sense, and social morays. Balancing this is the emergence of a global internet culture in which shared understandings of icons is beginning to transcend these cultural interpretations. Nevertheless, this research supports the use of icons with simple conceptual representations; these are more likely to be culturally interpreted within the range of intended meaning.


Applying multimedia design principles enhances learning in medical education

Issa, N., Schuller, M., Santacaterina, S., Shapiro, M., Wang, E., Mayer, R. E., & DaRosa, D. A. (2011). Applying multimedia design principles enhances learning in medical education. Medical Education, 45, 818-826. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2923.2011.03988.x

It is reported in this empirical study that learners experiencing multimedia materials reflecting Mayer’s (2008) design principles demonstrated improved short-term memory over the control group. Measures of retention and transfer showed no statistically significant difference. The article includes examples of slides used in both test and control scenarios offering a useful visual comparison of test and control materials.


Analysis of elementary school web sites

Hartshorne, R., Friedman, A., Algozzine, B., & Kaur, D. (2008). Analysis of elementary school web sites. Educational Technology & Society, 11(1), 291-303.

The authors analysed elementary school web site content and describe broad categories of content found and some design features observed. They offer a checklist for both design and content to guide new site creation and improving existing sites.

Generally, elementary school websites share information about the school, share student work, provide resources for stakeholders, and offer data for internal and external use. Hartshorne et al rated elementary school web sites using a criteria checklist (included in the appendix) intended to target exemplary design and structural issues, and content elements as well as some general site considerations.

They determined that most elementary school websites fall short in some areas and would benefit from improvements as detailed in their checklist. Additionally, the authors offer procedural guides for web site development including a shared understanding of the website’s function and purpose, planning for current and future needs, use of accepted web design principles, usability, and communication affordances.


Emotional design in multimedia learning

Um, E., Plass, J. L., Hayward, E. O., & Homer, B. D. (2012). Emotional design in multimedia learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(2), 485-498. doi:10.1037/a0026609

Whereas learner emotion can add to cognitive load and interfere with learning, positive emotions may contribute to a heightened state of receptivity thus enhancing learning. The authors sought to determine if positive emotions could be evoked either prior to, or as a function of multimedia design, such that learner achievement was positively impacted.

In the experiment, either a positive or neutral emotional state was evoked externally as a function of a series of statements, or internally as a function of multimedia design. Examining learner achievement after evocation of the emotional state revealed positive effects in some cases.

In summary, inducing positive emotions during learning through positive emotional multimedia design had a positive effect on comprehension, transfer, mental effort, maintenance of positive emotional state, as well as perceived ease and perceived achievement.

These finding stand in opposition to other research suggesting emotional state introduces a cognitive load that can negatively influence learning. The authors offer their population of motivated students at a prestigious university as a possible factor limiting generalizability of the findings. They suggest that emotional design is worth pursuing and encourage further research into the topic.


A framework for Web 2.0 learning design

Bower, M., Hedberg, J. G., & Kuswara, A. (2010). A framework for Web 2.0 learning design. Educational Media International, 47(3), 177-198.

The introduction of Web 2.0 enabled easy interactivity amongst users making the internet a much more social and collaborative space. This article examines a variety of Web 2.0 tools and aligns them with elements of teaching and learning including content, pedagogy, modality, and synchronicity.

Technology is seen as the medium for information transmission relies on human engagement to bring meaning and purpose. Pedagogically, information can be transmitted and discussed, and used as a foundation for solitary or collective knowledge building. The Web 2.0 tools employed to engage with people and content are categorized and described in terms of their relation to different pedagogical approaches and learning strategies.

The authors also propose a design process by which Web 2.0 tools can be effectively matched to content, pedagogy, and representational modalities.


Using multimedia and Gagne's Instructional Design to enhance teaching and learning in a student-centered environment: A Malaysian experience

Neo, T.-K., Neo, M., Teoh, B., & Yap, W.-L. (2010). Using multimedia and Gagne's Instructional Design to enhance teaching and learning in a student-centered environment: A Malaysian experience. International Journal of Instructional Media, 37(4), 365-377.

The authors, in an effort to increase student participation, explored a constuctivist learning model designing an integrated web-based multimedia learning experience mirroring Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction (Gagne &Briggs 1974). Identical test were administered before and after the learning event revealing significant learning gains. A survey of student attitude and experience indicated positive learner satisfaction.

Some notable issues with this study includes a small sample size (n=42) and the absence of a control group against which performance can be compared. Repeating the same fifteen question test before and after learning introduces uncertainty as to the factors contributing to score increases. The student survey included in Table 2 does provide some good points to consider when designing multimedia learning experiences.


Effects on learners' performance of using selected and open network resources in a problem-based learning activity

Hsu, C.-K., Hwang, G.-J., Chuang, C.-W., & Chang, C.-K. (2012). Effects on learners' performance of using selected and open network resources in a problem-based learning activity. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(4), 606-623. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2011.01235.x

In problem-based learning (PBL) students explore, research, and determine solutions to the identified problem. PBL encourages student-performed research rather than direct instruction to locate, consume, and process appropriate content. As such, information sources play a critical role; determining whether open searching or searching teacher-curated sources leads to greater learning is the focus of this study.

Students accessing curated information sources spent less time searching and were able to identify and process relevant information more quickly than students accessing open resources. The authors suggest that search proficiency and source validation introduced challenges to those accessing open-resources. Curated systems may use proprietary search interfaces introducing a need for orientation and training beyond the target content.

In conclusion the authors suggest that digital libraries reduce cognitive load for learners allowing them to focus on processing content more than finding and vetting sources. Curating sources for beginners is important and, as learners develop search proficiency and the ability to validate sources, they can move to more open resources.


A toolkit for web-based course creation and conversion

Floyd, K., Hughes, K., & Maydosz, A. (2012). A toolkit for web-based course creation and conversion. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 30(4), 32-39.

With the growth of web-delivered distance learning and recognition that online distance learners are increasingly likely to have the technology and skills required for successful participation, the authors explore considerations for moving traditionally delivered content to online learning spaces.

Surveying existing literature for best practice in asynchronous online course development and project-based learning in higher education. They first determined that online distance learning could be effective citing studies indicating successful learning experiences, retention, transfer, and application as well as high levels of satisfaction. Next, the article outlines five areas to consider when converting traditional learning programs for online delivery. It should be noted the authors focused on highly standardised programs used for state certification and licensure so there was an obligation to maintain a high degree of fidelity to the original program.

The five “tools” recommended by the authors are:

  1. Be aware of web-based students’ performance and perceptions – several studies are summarised wherein it is shown that web-based learning can be just as effective as face-to-face learning.
  2. Create social presence through discussion groups and collaborative outcomes – a student’s connection to the larger learning community is linked to individual achievement and online learning increases participation.
  3. Moderate your presence – the degree and nature of instructor participation in discussion boards can either enhance or hinder discussion.
  4. Include project-based learning – this approach leverages the social affordances of online learning experiences and reflects constructivist learning pedagogies.
  5. Provide optimal feedback – feedback provided too quickly steers dialogue to learner-instructor, too late stagnates dialogue, too intense stifles discussion, just right can nurture and encourage deep discussion amongst learners.


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 Critical Issues in Distance Education and Computer Interface Design for Learning.

Interface Design Considerations for 3D and Augmented Virtual Learning Environments

This research paper was written as part of my participation in the graduate course Computer Interface Design for Learning at the George Washington University.


Emerging technologies broaden the range of tools available for users to communicate, create, and access information. Display devices are no longer limited to computer monitors, projectors, speakers, and printers; the keyboard, mouse and scanner are joined by a growing variety of input devices.

3D virtual worlds are immersive and highly customisable digital spaces in which the user, through the agency of an avatar, engages with rendered objects and spaces. Augmented Reality blends digital data with the physical spaces inhabited by the users themselves. The devices used to access these spaces determine the degree to which a user is immersed in the experience. These range from visual representations on a computer screen, to fully immersive environments that stimulate almost all the senses.

Planning for instruction using these virtual and augmented spaces demands consideration of three factors: the virtual space design, the means of navigation and manipulation, and the interaction devices through which the user perceives the virtual space.

Designing the Virtual Space

3D VLEs support open exploration and collaboration amongst learners. Preparing for learning in 3D virtual spaces involves planning in minute detail not only the instructional design, but arrangement of the virtual space. Whereas a physical classroom already has a defined spaced with furnishings and materials to support teaching and learning, a virtual space is a blank canvas where anything is possible. Because a digital avatar has no need to be protected from the elements, or furnishings to increase comfort, these spaces can be designed specifically to serve the learner achievement of the learning task.

Designing a 3D VLE includes consideration of Knowledge Assets including all information and rendered elements in the Instructional Places within which these assets exist for retrieval and manipulation by the Actors who exercise intention with the knowledge assets and each other (Bouras, Igglesis, & Kapoulas, 2004). The virtual space is the metaphor through which the learner interfaces with the learning material and should reflect the instructional strategy employed (Reeves & Minocha, 2011). Instructional pedagogies will offer familiar learning spaces where content is delivered to the learner. Constructivist pedagogies demand an environment that is rich with embedded content for learners to explore and make meaning. Simulations and role-play reflect experiential pedagogy and offer opportunities for learners to experience content that may otherwise be inaccessible to them. These last two setting take advantage of the unique affordances of virtual learning spaces, but also demand a high degree of authenticity and fidelity to the settings and experiences modeled.

Hanson & Shelton (2008) describe how instructional design will inform the design of the virtual world, level of desired immersion, modes of sensory feedback, and degree of user interactivity when employing a 3DVLE. Unlike physical experiences, every sensory input and output has to be considered and activated to increase learning.

Figure 1: Traditional classroom setup reflects instructional pedagogy.  Image retrieved from http://lindenlab.wordpress.com/2008/11/26/stories-from-second-life-how-languagelab-gave-language-learning-a-new-lease-on-life/

Figure 1: Traditional classroom setup reflects instructional pedagogy.
Image retrieved from http://lindenlab.wordpress.com/2008/11/26/stories-from-second-life-how-languagelab-gave-language-learning-a-new-lease-on-life/


Figure 2: Spaces that encourage exploration and discovery reflect constructivist learning pedagogy.  Image retrieved from http://secondlife.com/destination/euclidia-space-planetarium

Figure 2: Spaces that encourage exploration and discovery reflect constructivist learning pedagogy.
Image retrieved from http://secondlife.com/destination/euclidia-space-planetarium



Figure 3: Simulations and role-play reflects experiential learning pedagogy.
Image retrieved from http://knowledgecast.wordpress.com/



High representational fidelity can increase a user’s sense of presence within a virtual space. The degree to which a virtual object or space reflects an analogous physical space and the authenticity of interaction will influence the degree to which the learner suspends disbelief and fully engages with those virtual elements (Dalgarno & Lee, 2010).


Constructing virtual environments that are beyond the learners’ common experience, such as the interior of a cell, or the surface of another planet reveals additional opportunities not only in the modeling of the environment, but the means of navigation through that space.  How one navigates is as important a design consideration as the physical placement of information in the virtual space (Dillenbourg, 2000). Visual modeling of factors such as friction, opposing forces, and gravity can increase the authenticity of the learning experience.

The elements placed within the virtual space are critical.  Dillenbourg (2000) notes that “… environments where students see the same objects enrich more interactions than that of those where they see each other…” suggesting that even more important to learning and engagement than having avatars is to have purposeful spaces and objects that stimulate communication amongst learners.

In addition to the social opportunities provided by virtual learning spaces, there is need to consider the relationship the user has to the computer.

Tung et al  (2006) explored how a young learner’s awareness of the computer as a responsive player in a learning experience influences how they participate and take feedback from the program. The authors suggest against blatant anthropomorphization suggesting, rather, that subtle social cues built in to computer responses help young learners see the computer as a trusted friend rather than a computer.

Feedback systems in 3D VLEs will also reflect pedagogical approaches. Nelson (2007) defines different guidance strategies for use in virtual learning environments

Tacit guidance reflects the belief that students should construct their own meaning operating in discovery learning mode without direct instruction. Nelson (2007) question whether this is possible in practice as some form of response system will guide discovery toward mastery of a particular learning outcome. However, if the learning outcome is itself how to learn, then the content is secondary and serves as the hook for engagement. In this mode of guidance even the navigation and interaction interface should be self-discoverable through experimentation and observation.

Collaborative Guidance leverages the social affordances of 3D VLEs. Learners co-create, cooperate, collaborate, and construct knowledge in social groups. Such a guidance system will require a space for exploration, a means of engaging in communication and, perhaps, additional spaces within which learners construct models of their understanding (Dickey, 2005).
Reflective Guidance offers prompts and hints that encourage metacognition in learners about both content and learning process. Reflective guidance systems externalise the students' thinking, illuminate a learning path and, possibly, reveal next steps. Nelson (2007) also points out that lack of reflective guidance can hinder learning.

Thornburg (2004) offers a primordial metaphor for structuring spaces, both physical and virtual, that reflect different kinds of cognitive engagement. The campfire space is for story telling or learn from experts. The watering hole is a space for communicating and learning from one’s peers while the cave is a place of solitary meditation where personal schemas are considered. Virtual space design should offer contextual cues as to the function of the space; familiar metaphors such as Thornburg’s can serve an orienting function before proceeding into less familiar and more fantastic virtual spaces.

Command of the Virtual Space

To function within a virtual space, the user must be able to move the avatar through the environment, select and manipulate objects within the environment, and affect change through system commands. (Bowman, Krujiff, LaViola Jr., & Poupyrev, 2001)


Even familiar looking virtual spaces can be challenging to navigate because of unfamiliar positioning cues. When considering immersion into unfamiliar virtual spaces, it is most important to have clear spatial positioning feedback for the user (Bowman, Davis, Hodges, & Badre, 1999). Designers should consider using interaction methods that map to familiar models of manipulation, but are reflective of the purpose or intent of the 3D VLE.

Bowman distinguished between travel which is the movement from one place to another, and wayfinding which is the cognitive process of blending intention with action (Bowman, Koller, & Hodges, 1997). User navigation and wayfinding is more effective when accompanied by directional cues, recognizable environmental structure and landmarks (Vila, Beccue, & Anandikar, 2003). A compass or large scale map showing present position are two such navigational tools that provide spatial feedback to the user (Figure 2). Research suggests that gender influences how spatial information from a virtual experience is processed. Males are more likely to navigate using geographical landmarks while women are more likely to use navigational cues available in the environment such as paths and signs (Ali & Nordin, 2011). These tools may also contribute to more successful learning experiences by providing information in more than one form.

Figure 4: Selection and manipulations of objects in Second Life by ray casting, and spatial navigational aids.
Figure 4: Selection and manipulations of objects in Second Life by ray casting, and spatial navigational aids.

Selection & Manipulation

Successful 3D interface design builds on familiar interaction techniques and takes creatively simple approaches to existing design principles. Hands, in the physical world, are the means by which most object selection and manipulation is performed. In 3D spaces, a virtual hand or pointer on screen serves the purpose of selecting, grasping and manipulating the virtual environment (Poupyrev, Weghorst, Billinghurst, & Ichikawa, 1998). Signaling intent in the virtual space when the avatar is at a distance is done through a technique called ray casting in which the user points at and signals intent to interact with the object Figure 4). Ray casting is categorized as a magic form of interaction which includes those unique affordances of virtual worlds that have no analogue in physical reality like flying, walking through solid objects (Bowman, Krujiff, LaViola Jr., & Poupyrev, 2001).

System Commands


Figure 5: Second Life employs movable and customizable floating menu pallets in addition to a top-of-screen drop-down menu structure.

Figure 5: Second Life employs movable and customizable floating menu pallets in addition to a top-of-screen drop-down menu structure.


In a three dimensional world, conventional two-dimensional menu and command structures pose a design challenge. Graphical menus can be evoked that either overlay the viewed workspace such as Google Glass (Figure 7), or can occlude the workspace space like Second Life’s floating menu pallets (Figure 5). Bowman et al (2001) suggest that 2D menus should be layered for simplicity of display and should not intrude into the virtual space except when necessary. Minecraft’s interface hides menu commands until called by the user (Figure 6). Command designs may also be embedded within the 3D environment and rendered objects themselves enabling more intuitive interactions. Whatever system is used, sufficient user feedback is necessary when engaging with them in order to minimise mode errors.

Figure 7: Projected translucent text and images on Google Glass eyepiece receive voice commands or touch/swipe commands on the side of the device.  Image retrieved from  http://www.dvice.com/2013-5-8/video-what-you-really-see-when-you-look-through-google-glass

Figure 7: Projected translucent text and images on Google Glass eyepiece receive voice commands or touch/swipe commands on the side of the device.
Image retrieved from



Interfacing with the Virtual Space

Interacting with a virtual space occurs through activation of program sequences embedded in the virtual world itself. The devices with which we execute those commands form the tangible physical interface to the virtual world. Designed to enable communication between computers and humans, emerging technologies offer an increasing range of possibilities that involve all the senses.

The design of virtual environments is well informed by standards (Blade & Padgett, 2002) and a growing body of empirical research into best practice with 3D VLEs. Conventional input and output devices are also well researched and understood. Less conventional input and output devices are still being explored, problems identified, and research conducted to mitigate those challenges.


Moving from point-and-click interfaces to more natural forms of interaction including voice, gesture, and handwriting recognition (Saffer, 2009). Touch responsive systems both receive input, and generate pressure responses that simulate an object’s pliability (Reitinger, Werlberger, Bornik, Beichel, & Schmalstieg, 2005). Haptic input devices provide an alternative to point and click interfaces and can provide a learning experience that more closely reflects the performance context (Jun Lee, 2012). Even electroencephalography (EEG) can be employed in a sort of mind-control of computing devices (McFarland, 2012).

Research will continue to reveal design considerations for using these kinds of interfaces. For example Demi (2007) tested various input devices for controlling movement and manipulation in 3D virtual space and determined that bimanual, or two-handed systems are less prone to error and easier to learn than unimanual systems. Handedness also plays a role in ease of input. Ones’ dominant hand is better for finer micro-manipulation and the other hand for macro-manipulation. It is important to provide control mechanism customizations that accommodate preference for bimanual input and handedness.


Virtual reality is a fully immersive experience that occludes the user’s sense of physical reality and replaces it with a digital sensations. Careful fitting of these devices is important to minimise spatial disorientation (Milgram, 2006).

Augmented reality, on the other hand blends both physical and digital realities (Bowman, Krujiff, LaViola Jr., & Poupyrev, 2001). Transparent displays such as Google Glass or heads-up-displays in vehicles, must account for the myriad conditions in which they are employed. Gabbard, Swan, & Hix (2006) are pursuing a display engine that responds to environmental conditions such as brightness, colour, and texture then selects a text display that maximises contrast without being disruptive or distracting (Gabbard, Swan II, & Hix, 2006).


In responsive physical spaces, the physical environment itself is equipped with sensors that perceive and respond to ambient conditions like movement and sound (Eng, et al., 2006) (Kiyokawa, 2012). These systems allow for kinetic interactions without having to wear any special equipment. Mapping sounds to virtual objects can also serve to mimic tactile experiences through vibration patterns (El Saddik, Orozco, Eid, & Cha, 2011).

Research continues into developing communication systems between humans and computers that rely on ambient information gathered by the computer, processed and used to respond to users implicit intention or states of being (Iizuka, Marocco, Ando, & Maeda, 2012) . In this way, the user’s reality is enhanced not with digital data, but with physical changes to the space that meet the user’s unspoken needs as perceived by the computer through body language, physical activity, time of day, and location. In enhanced environments such as this, a responsive device recognizing these user characteristics could change the interface to reflect user need or ability to interact (Mashita, et al., 2012)

Bring Your Own Interface

A variety of technical interfaces that are sometimes inaccessible, expensive, and difficult to use. While there certainly are effective uses for those devices, it is worth considering a far cheaper, more ubiquitous, and highly customisable interface for learning in virtual spaces. With the wide variety of tools available to learners now, it is not unreasonable to expect that many will already have the tools required for the most basic access to 3D VLEs. Dede (2004a) (2004b) has predicted that augmented reality will serve distributed learning communities and learners will self-select the tools and applications with which to engage with that content.

Institutional benefits to controlling interface mechanisms, include opportunities for branding, standardizing user experience, offering technical support for approved tools, and access to user engagement metrics (Severance, Hardin, & Whyte, 2008). Nevertheless, the means by which learners access content, communicate with peers, and contribute their own created knowledge assets to the learning community is ever growing. Severance et al. (2008) call this a “functionality mash-up”, where the users defined need to consume and produce content is met using self-selected tools, techniques, and communities. In this way, learners create their own personal learning ecosystem.

Architectural standards for data sharing are key to making this work. Severance et al. (2008) go on to explore various standards, some complementary, some competing, that contribute to greater interoperability amongst data sources for content management and modes of communication. Such standards allow for the creation of a broad range of interfaces for users to retrieve and contribute to the same bank of knowledge assets.

Personal Learning Environments, in this context, may be understood as an interface to knowledge. The tools used to engage with the learning ecosystem are not themselves the learning environment, rather they give access to the learning environment (Wilson, 2008). That is to say that the people, digital space, and the knowledge assets form the learning environment. The interface is made up of the tools employed by the learner. Knowledge assets may originate from many different service points, the tools aggregate and filter that content as defined by the learner using the tools they have selected to perform that function.

In Open learning systems, content is co-created in virtual spaces by like-minded learners and forms a body of knowledge accessible through a learner’s self-selected tools. In this respect, the knowledge assets need only be indexed and available online existing independently of the means of delivery. Agnostic of any particular platform, users are free to choose their own interface for content and communication.

Design consideration for AR: physical occlusion due to user interference – hand seen but not “layered” relative to the digital environment.


There is no doubt that 3D virtual learning spaces offer tremendous opportunities for rich, exciting, and engaging activities. Attending to the careful design of the virtual space, understanding the how to leverage the means of navigation and manipulation, and the appreciating the affordances and constraints of input and display devices, will help the user take full advantage of the virtual space. Dillenbourg (2000) suggests that while there may not be conclusive evidence that virtual learning spaces have a direct effect on the efficacy or economics of education, they do provide teachers and learners a unique set of affordances.

Innovative technologies open up new ways of learning and working. A new tool may well have an obvious primary function, but when the tool is put to use a wider range of affordances are likely to be uncovered. As those who like to experiment and ride the breaking wave of innovation share their trials, observations, and experiences, researchers can compile case studies to inform further research that starts to define and shape those experiences into definable affordances. Subsequently, researchers can then conduct more empirical studies that determine the effectiveness of the tools for different applications which helps providing guidance and best-practice for those that use the tool.

Works Cited

Ali, D. F., & Nordin, M. S. (2011, September). Gender issues in virtual reality learning environments. Journal of Edupres, 1, 65-76.

Blade, R. A., & Padgett, M. L. (2002). Virtual environments standards and terminology. In K. M. Stanney (Ed.), Handbook of virtual environments (pp. 15-27). London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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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 Critical Issues in Distance Education and Computer Interface Design for Learning.

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