Mistakes I made with a new BLT (Blended Learning Teacher)

What’s the right way to approach a new BLT (Blended Learning Teacher)?

I recently worked with one, and I made some mistakes. Big mistakes. Learn from my errors.

I didn’t look carefully at the content

There were some technical issues with the provided content. I hadn’t looked at that grade/course in a while, but they were issues I knew (and had forgotten) about. First thing we looked at together: nothing. Next thing: broken. Oops. I might have overpromised a little here.

I assumed I knew what they wanted

I thought I knew where the needs were, based on my knowledge of the school, the teacher, the students… but I was wrong. And you know what’s worse? I didn’t listen carefully when the teacher explained what they were hoping for, and I jumped into what I thought they needed. Bad move.

I showed a bazillion examples for inspiration

This stuff is exciting to me, so I want everyone to see all the possibilities. I knew I should ask more questions, refine the boundaries of what we were trying to do, but I didn’t. I thought, “I’ll show a few examples of what other people have done; something will look interesting to this teacher.” Nope; it just looked scary. Too many options, many of them too far from the teacher’s goals. I knew better.

Next time

If the teacher contacts me again (I hope they do), we’re going to have a softer start. I need to give people time to think about these things; I’ve had years of thinking, conversations, practice,….

And next time I’ll listen more than I talk.

First foray into badges for math

I recently started working with an innovative grade 5 teacher on creating badges for math as a way to engage students and make the learning goals more tangible. We were going to start with data management, but saw a need in the current topic (area measurement). I thought it might be nice to share the badges I made in case anyone wants to use them.

They print 5 sets to a page, and the second page is a version to print in black and white that prints 3 sets to a page (with room to hole-punch, etc.) – a place for kids to stick their badges they’ve earned. Later, we’ll create more (if it’s successful). I think they’ll be helpful for conferencing with students and parents, and for reporting. If we were starting in the summer, we’d have made sheets with the learning goals for all of the strands of math, and maybe other subjects.

Of course, I’m interested in exploring this digitally next; that’s what I do. I have a friend in the Near North DSB (don’t know if he wants a shout out) who’s working on this kind of thing for e-Learning courses, and @timrobinsonj got me looking at classbadges.com as well. I’d like something that can live entirely in D2L, if possible. Maybe D2L wants to make it easy for me? #featureRequest #collaboratePlease

If the students earn all three badges for area, they get the “I am an AREA MASTER” badge :)

Initial feedback: good. I’ll follow up later.

(The files are .png files, created in Microsoft Publisher. They’re 300 dpi. If printed as-is, the first image will fit nicely onto Avery 5163 (4″x2″) labels, two per label (not the second one). Feel free to use in your classroom.)

Content isn’t enough; interact!

There is very little that’s truly compelling about content.

Sure, you can come across something new, funny, interesting, shocking, dramatic… but in the end, it’s usually not life-changing.

Want to change people? Interact. Build relationships. Invest in each other’s learning, perspectives, and lives. In fact, the “content” that changes people is the content that encourages interaction.

Look at your content. Is it just informational? Are students allowed to be passive “absorbers”? Does your content require students to apply new learning to a problem? Does it require them to talk, share, coach, collaborate…?

I’ll challenge myself too: do I encourage professional learning from this perspective? Or do I just tell people “the way it should be”?

Maybe I need to ask: do you agree? disagree? have an example? a counter-example? a question? have I over-simplified?

Respond in the comments, post something in Twitter. Let’s interact.

How I Use Twitter Professionally

I’ve noticed several posts lately about how to use Twitter as a teacher for professional development; I thought I’d weigh in.

My tweets are public.

I’m trying to encourage conversation and collaboration, so my tweets are globally accessible.

I don’t follow a lot of people.

I currently follow 70 people, of whom about 40 are actively tweeting (let’s say at least weekly). Some of these aren’t related to education; for example, I follow The LEGO Group (@LEGO_Group).

I can keep up with this: I read every tweet, unless it’s an especially busy day in my face-to-face life.

I accept anyone as a follower, pretty much.

Except for a few obvious accounts, I let anyone follow me. Since my tweets are public, anyone can read them (even without a Twitter account), so letting people follow me doesn’t reveal anything extra. Plus, it’s easier when you don’t have to approve people.

I don’t accept Direct Messages (DMs) from people I don’t follow.

This cuts down on the spam. Now it’s just mentions, and there aren’t too many of those. This is a good idea for anyone, so I thought I’d list it here.

I follow hashtags for a while.

Recently I followed #SeLNO for the Thunder Bay Region’s event; you can still see stuff by searching for that tag. I don’t follow the very busy tags, although I sometimes apply them to my posts (#D2L, #onted, #blendedlearning).

I try to follow the people in Northern Ontario.

We face many of the same issues, and perhaps we have solutions to help each other. I like that idea.

I let Twitter post my tweets to Facebook.

I don’t really use Facebook professionally, but sometimes my tweets catch the eye of some of my Facebook friends who aren’t on Twitter. Some of them are reading this post (you know who you are). It’s one more way to expand the conversation. (I imagine some of my friends are tired of all the education-related stuff.)

I use Tweetdeck; it rocks.

Chrome has TweetDeck as an app; I like that I can have columns for a variety of things I want to look at. Currently I have my Twitter timeline, my Twitter Interactions, my Twitter Messages (DMs), a Twitter #NeLChat search, my Facebook Timeline and my Facebook Notifications. It’s great.

I say things for myself, and I say things for others.

I tweet things that I want to remember or revisit (great for “note-taking” at a session/workshop/conference). I also tweet things to inform others or start conversations.

If you want to follow me…

I’m @bgrasley. No pressure, of course. Use Twitter however it works best for you!

Thinking about BYOD

In my role as e-Learning Contact I get to see a lot of schools, work with a lot of students and teachers, and discuss technology with people from all over the province. One of the hottest topics is BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) – should students be allowed to bring (and use) their own Internet devices? This issue has been pushed to the front of my mind lately as a result of some conversations and observations in schools.

Recent school visits

I was recently in a computer lab with a group of students and in the last few minutes of our time together, after the work for the day was completed, I noticed some students checking Facebook. Some were bypassing the board’s content filters on the school desktop computers; others were pulling out cell phones. Some of the cell phone users were connected to the school’s guest WiFi network, which is ostensibly for students to use to connect their personal laptop computers to the Internet; others were using their own data plans.

I was in another school recently which did not permit students to have personal electronic devices of any kind at school at all, for any reason. Even during lunch and break times students could not use devices, including MP3 players, cell phones, cameras, and so on. Personal laptops were not explicitly allowed by the “school rule”, but they were in evidence during instructional time.

Elementary (K-8) schools will often permit grade 7/8 students to bring laptops, but not younger students. The allowance for other devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.) depends on the school.

There are a few problems here

First, the spectrum of permissions across a single board is staggering, and the inequities that spectrum represents are troubling. I imagine some parents, in deciding where to send their children to school, have considered the schools’ policies concerning BYOD. And I think that’s appropriate, as much as it’s appropriate to select a school on the basis of the schools’ Specialist High Skills Majors, available extra-curricular opportunities, busing, etc.

Second, some schools have highly restrictive policies that teachers (a) can’t possibly enforce, and (b) often don’t want to enforce.

Third, how is a laptop different from an iPod?

MP3 players and me

Several years ago I taught at a school which did not permit the use of MP3 players during instructional time. I didn’t agree with the rule, and I spoke to my administrator about it, but couldn’t get the rule changed.

So I lived with it. I didn’t permit students to use MP3 players during my class. I wasn’t harsh (I didn’t confiscate them, etc.), but I was firm. I didn’t tell my students that I felt they should be allowed to use their devices because I didn’t want to undermine the authority of the school and my own authority by telling them some rules could be broken.

But I was the bad guy. I was the “only teacher” (according to the kids) who wouldn’t let them use their MP3 players. I don’t think it made a huge difference in my class, but I’ll admit to feeling some resentment at having to choose between enforcing a rule I didn’t agree with and setting a poor example for my students.

Rules should be permissive enough to allow innovation

What I wanted was a school rule that said, “The use of MP3 players during class time will be at the discretion of the classroom teacher” or something to that effect. I wanted to freedom to allow their use, just as I understand another teacher’s desire to deny their use for management, safety, or other reasons.

That’s the way I feel about BYOD. The policies should be permissive enough to give teachers the latitude they need to explore and innovate in their class, but restrictive enough to give teachers the power to manage the use of devices in their classes.

But what about safety, appropriate use, distraction, equity…?

Yup, all big issues. How do we keep a student from sending a nasty text message to another student during class? How do we keep them from passing virtual notes? How do we know they’re doing school work on that device, and not playing Angry Birds? What about the students who don’t have devices; aren’t they at a disadvantage?


Students have the devices. They use them outside of school, and some of them do inappropriate/mean/illegal things with them. But suggesting that not “allowing” them in school will stop the abuses of the technology? I don’t think so. In the same way that locks keep out honest folks, DBYOD (don’t-bring-your-own-device) rules won’t stop the determined student during the day (and won’t stop anyone at night). It certainly gives a school one form of recourse against the students who get caught, but the school would have recourse anyway if the BYOD policy simply denied nasty uses of devices.


Yup, cheating is a problem. Of course, it always has been. It’s more technically sophisticated now, and that’s why there are companies selling sophisticated cheating detection systems, and why teachers are constantly Googling phrases from essays on “To Kill A Mockingbird” to see if they’re original. I don’t see how saying “no” to cell phones but “yes” to laptops helps with this. Bring the devices out into the open. One teacher told me that she asks her students to put their phones on their desks so that she knows where they are. That seems like a good strategy to me.


This one is harder, for sure. When Facebook, Twitter, email and Angry Birds are all calling to you at once, how do you resist? Having respect for the teacher/class/learning is one way to resist those “temptations”. Students have responsibilities to look after during the school day. The key is to make the learning as engaging as possible to help temper those other distractions. (Small aside: engagement does not equal entertainment. I love math, but I think it would be pretty challenging to make it more entertaining to search for bias in the design of a survey than it would be to play a game on a phone. That doesn’t mean it can’t engage students, though – it has to pique their interest, challenge them…)


If a student comes to class without their “tools for learning” (read: pencil and paper), we provide them, particularly if they can’t afford those tools. In the case of BYOD, the devices may not be essential to the learning, and we can’t provide enough for everyone who won’t/can’t bring their own.

There is an inequity there. And we can’t fix it right now. Srsly. But rather than reduce everyone to the greatest common factor, let’s allow the devices into our classrooms. I spoke with a teacher this week who had an iPad in their class for students to use. I was asking about how the LMS worked on it and things like that, but the most significant thing the teacher said was that it was the first time several of the students in the class had ever touched a tablet. Ever. If we want them to develop skills with these devices, but we can’t provide them, we need to let the students bring them.

Content filtering and BYOD

Content filtering is driving everyone crazy. There are good reasons for filtering (keeping pornography out of the hands of 8-year-olds is a good one), but it seems that we’re not very good at it. The primary approach for content filtering is blacklisting, which is an approach that requires a lot of maintenance. As a result, organizations purchase solutions from companies who will categorize websites so that filtering software can allow or disallow traffic based on site category and user role. For example, a school board might allow “Reference” sites (e.g. Wikipedia) for all users, but “Streaming Media” sites (e.g. YouTube) for only teachers.

Unfortunately, these categorizations will change over time, so sites will become blocked or unblocked without warning. The board can whitelist or blacklist sites individually as well if the pre-packaged solution isn’t meeting the local needs, but it’s labour-intensive and therefore impractical.

From the perspective of a low-bandwidth connection, content filtering can be helpful. I think there are better ways to shape traffic, but I don’t know enough about them to say whether they’re feasible in our organization.

From the perspective of keeping inappropriate content out of the hands of students, content filtering does nothing. Students regularly bypass filters using the ever-changing proxies, different protocols, and a dozen other methods I’ll never be aware of. And what’s more, they have no filtering when they’re outside the school. None. So we teach them to be good digital citizens in a heavily insulated environment with no significant challenges and then send them home to the complete, unfiltered Internet.

So what are we gaining? An increasingly frustrated teaching population, for one thing. Possibly fewer classroom management issues (or possibly more… hard to say). And a less relevant classroom experience.

Final thoughts

We can’t afford to provide one-to-one ratios. We want students to be able to use devices and the Internet in the real world, and many teachers want them to use devices in their learning. There are challenges with BYOD. Schooling is less relevant without BYOD. BYOD can make access to Blended Learning more equitable.

I don’t think it’s reasonable to deny access any longer.

First Publish in a Safe Place

The Thunder Bay Region had The Symposium for eLearning in Northwestern Ontario (SeLNO) this week in Thunder Bay. I didn’t attend, but I was happy to watch things happening on Twitter (#SeLNO) whenever I had a chance to dip into it. A quick conversation about blogging using D2L caught my eye:

It got me thinking about how “global” we ask students to be when they’re learning about social media, Web 2.0, etc. I posted:

I was thinking about a recent experience in a grade 7/8 class. The students were exploring Blended Learning for the first time, and as a first discussion prompt we asked, “Describe your digital self: how much about the “real you” do you put on the Internet?”

Their answers surprised me a little. About half of the class didn’t “publish” – no Facebook account, no Twitter, no anything. They were consumers of content, and they would use instant chat services, but they expressed nothing that was likely to be “permanent”. The other half published (usually to Facebook, although they didn’t think of it as publishing when I asked them), but most of those students didn’t put any really personal information out there.

That was a little bit heartening for me, and I started thinking about how best to train the students to become responsible publishers in a Web 2.0 world. I’m happy to have my thoughts be globally accessible, partly because I want to encourage a broad dialogue and partly because I’m confident I won’t make any damaging mistakes. If I had 12-year-old child, I think I might have some concerns with their thoughts being broadcast, unchecked, across the web.

That’s why a secure, password-protected environment like the Learning Management System that e-Learning Ontario provides (Desire2Learn) makes sense, especially for that first online publishing experience. It’s a great place to train students how to write, what to write, and what not to write. When they make a mistake, we can help them fix it. Let’s prepare them for the real world by playing in the backyard a little bit first. I don’t think it has to take long, and we certainly won’t be able to prevent them from striking out on their own without us (nor do we want to, I’d argue). But let’s give them some guidelines, strategies and cautionary principles first. Then we’ll escort them out into the wild, and finally set them free.

Identity, Anonymity, Pseudonymity

I spoke recently at eSymposium 2012 in Sudbury about digital citizenship, referencing Ribble’s work at digitalcitizenship.net. I had some lovely notes for myself, but I set up an extended desktop and couldn’t see those notes very well. As a result, I neglected this line:

Identity vs. Anonymity vs. Pseudonymity

In the context of teaching students to be good online citizens, I think it’s important to consider the different roles they might choose to take on. Doug Peterson’s tweet this morning reminded me that this is something I wanted to talk a little more about.


Students (and teachers) have been developing online identities for a long time. I find it helpful to be “the real me” for my professional conversations, since people can find me and find what I’ve said. I’m also use my real identity on Facebook, Flickr, and most other sites I use. This works for me (or has worked for me so far…). Unfortunately, for many people their online identities are not as polished and shiny as their owners might wish. Making a wrong move online can be disastrous and permanent. One solution is to teach kids not to say/do/post things that might not look good later. This is okay, but it has a chilling effect on discourse. That’s why people move to anonymity.


If you need to say something without fear of reprisal, anonymity is one way to go. There is a sense of freedom in anonymity that people want to experience and explore. You can make a political statement, or say something your employer wouldn’t approve of, or participate in countless other legitimate activities. As you can imagine though, sometimes this leads people to behave badly: you could also promote hatred, or incite a riot, or spam others. This is why many sites prohibit submissions from anonymous users.


For many purposes, something in between would be better. What if you have a public identity but you want to participate in an online community that might seem “unusual” for someone in your position? For example, teachers are held to a high moral standard in our code of ethics; some activities which are “normal” for most people are unacceptable in the public’s eyes for teachers.

This is where pseudonymity can help. It allows you to have a persistent identity (that you can develop and maintain over time) that is separate from your “true” or public identity. This persistence is what distinguishes a pseudonymity from anonymity.

This isn’t a new concept. Authors have been doing this for a long time with pen names. Often the names and pseudonyms are connected later; sometimes they are not. Consider Hugh Laurie (successful actor): he wanted to have a book published on its own merits (not because of his fame). He submitted it to publishers under a pseudonym until it was accepted, and only then revealed his identity.

What should we tell students to do?

For students, it’ll be important that they understand the choices, and soon. Once they’ve used their real identity in a way that might be “used against” them later, damage has been done.

But I want them to explore. I want them to engage in conversation that isn’t strictly mainstream; I want them to test their boundaries. I just want them to do so responsibly, with consideration of the effects of their explorations on others and on themselves. The greatest danger to themselves under pseudonyms is the possibility that their various identities might be connected; anyone who is aware of the connections could compromise the true identities in public.

There isn’t a single correct role to take online; they all have value in different situations. I find the idea of identity providers very interesting (Twitter, Google and Facebook partly act in this way as authenticators for other sites). I’m interested to see how this develops in the next few years. If you’re interested in hearing more, Steve Gibson (@SGgrc) and Leo Laporte (@leolaporte) had a fascinating talk about it on Security Now! episode 307 on June 30, 2012 (transcript, etc. at grc.com/sn; other media at twit.tv).

It’s probably just as well I skipped that line of my notes. I don’t think I could have squeezed it into a twenty minute talk.

New BLTs – where to begin?

[Note: I tried to add an audio clip of me reading this post, but WordPress apparently wants me to get a “Space Upgrade” to enable that feature. Didn’t realize that. I’ve posted it to my Google Drive for now, and here’s a link. I’ll work out something better (and also free) soon.]

Click here to access the audio version.

I had a couple of good meetings this week with new BLTs (Blended Learning Teachers) who had attended eSymposium last week. They’ve clearly been thinking about the impact of technology on learning. Our conversations ranged from avoiding the filter bubble to engaging students who don’t have access to technology at home, and everything in between. I was struck by the careful consideration that teachers were giving to the use of technology in their classes (what’s efficient? what’s helpful? what’s optional?) and the decisions that resulted from that thinking. It was very encouraging, and although I finished the day exhausted from our efforts, I was also energized by the enthusiasm I saw (which explains the midnight-on-a-Friday blog post). I’ve been pondering for a couple of days, and I decided it might be worthwhile trying to consolidate our discussions into some recommendations that I can pass along. I don’t imagine that these are new, but perhaps they’ll help an interested-but-terrified new BLT somewhere.

(I mostly talk about Blended Learning in the context of using Desire2Learn, the Learning Management System funded by e-Learning Ontario, in a public school in Ontario.)


Get your e-Learning Contact to make a course (or a bunch of courses) for you. Log in. Poke around. Srsly. Until you have access, you’re mostly stuck. In my board at least, this is a zero-commitment step. If you’re not happy with what you see, no hard feelings.

Define A Goal

Why are you doing this? Because you believe students need the skills that Blended Learning helps to develop? Because you want to share with students in a way they’ll find relevant? Because you need to overcome geographical barriers? These are all great reasons; which is important to you and your students? Once you’ve thought about the goal, it will frame and define your decision-making about how to proceed and where to spend your energy.

Try One Tool

It’s not good to try everything at once. If you’re the rare wizard who can leap into the environment with utter success, that’s great; however, you’re likely working with a group of students who need to get used to the water a bit. Take it easy. Try one thing first (I suggest using the Discussion tool). Branch out when your learners are ready.

Try Something That Isn’t Academic

Post some news about your dog. Have a discussion about the Blue Jays. Collect school spirit photos in a dropbox. Ask for a haiku related to technology. Less pressure on students is usually a good idea.

Look Around For Ideas

The groups I worked with had a list of ways to use different tools in D2LTake a look if you want, then head to Twitter, e-Community, or your favourite research site for more.

Get Help

You have an e-Learning Contact. They can help. Honestly, you should email them. They can help you technically, connect you with other people, and show you some possibilities you maybe hadn’t considered. Also, they’re nice people. (Full disclosure: I’m an eLC, so I’m nice too.)