No perfect instructional strategies

I read Donna Fry’s post ( this evening, and as a result I reflected on my practice as a central resource teacher. It also brought to mind an experience I had a number of years ago when I worked as the Special Assignment Teacher for Numeracy with our board. The math teacher in me cringes at the emphasis that people (including math teachers) place on memorization in math, instead of modelling and problem solving. And many math teachers think that they can learn the formula for teaching (you know, the approach used by their teachers).

One of the most powerful moments I had in supporting math teachers was with an LTO who was struggling with engagement in her Applied class. I observed her class for a period, and we had a reflective conversation afterwards. Based on her own perception of her class and her teaching, I suggested she try getting the students to work through the next day’s planned problems in small groups and on chart paper. She was concerned about the behaviours in the room, and didn’t think students would work well together. She didn’t have chart paper in the department, so I brought some for her. She was uncomfortable, but was willing to give it a shot, as nothing else she had tried had proven effective.

I couldn’t be there for the lesson itself, but I spoke with her afterwards about it. She told me that she was stunned at their level of engagement, and that they were even excited to share their solutions with each other. I congratulated her on trying out a new strategy, and told her it was great to hear that the students were engaged.

A month later, I spoke with her again. She told me that she was discouraged, because the students only responded to the “chart paper activity” a couple of times before they were just as disengaged as before. She thought we had stumbled across the perfect instructional strategy for that class, and was frustrated that it didn’t always work. I kicked myself for not pushing to stay more regularly involved, because she had fallen into a common trap.

There is no formula, there are only models and approaches and careful consideration of all of the factors involved. Each concept, each skill, is a new problem to be solved, both for teachers as instructors (determining which strategies will work well for this concept, with these students, on this day) and for students as learners (developing understanding of the concept, and of themselves as learners).

So we need to reflect, talk to others, and learn as much as possible about our practice. As we do, we should also share that understanding with others, to support them as they develop, and to invite feedback, which we can use to improve our own practices.

Thanks to Donna for a great post, and for an excuse to ramble, tell a story, and soapbox a little. :)

Supporting e-Learning Students and Teachers in Small, Rural Schools – #ecoo13

A picture of a pond on the side of Highway 17, north of Sault Ste. Marie.

A stop on my way north to meet with some e-Learning teachers.

I gave a presentation at #ecoo13 last week. My slides were minimalist (I did have a map, though), and I felt unreasonably rushed (I like to talk, at 45 minutes isn’t long). So here is a much more lengthy version as a blog post. Enjoy. :)

My board

I’m the e-Learning Contact for the Algoma District School Board, centred in Sault Ste. Marie (you can see a map of our board here). And here’s a Google Map showing our board office and it’s position in the province.

We have about 10,000 students, of whom 4000 are in high school. These high school students are distributed among 10 schools: 4 in the Sault and 6 in “the district”. Many of these district schools are rural.

Did I mention that the board is 70,000 square kilometres? That’s pretty big. Driving across it takes about 8 hours, and that wouldn’t even get you to every community. Tack on several more hours (oh, 5 or so) for that kind of trip.

We need e-Learning

We have two “large” schools (more than 800 students), and the rest are much smaller. We have two under 100, two more under 200, and then some mid-300s and 400s.

As a result, it’s very, very hard to offer complete pathways for all students. I mean, pretty impossible. But consolidating schools further to increase school populations isn’t really feasible either – there are already 200km between most district schools (sometimes more). Putting kids on the bus for six hours a day falls into the “unfeasible” category for me.

So, we look to put some courses online for a few reasons:

  1. Students from all around the board (and more) can access more complete programming.
  2. Students who are not taking e-Learning can access more complete programming (i.e. we don’t have to cut a Grade 11 “elective” just to run Grade 12 Calculus for three students).
  3. It’s good to learn online – these are important skills!

Rural e-Learning happens at school, not at home

It turns out, though, that rural students often have poor (or no!) connectivity at home. In fact, sometimes the options are just dial-up and satellite. For many of the rest, the cellular network is the only other choice available, with is quite costly. Because of the poor access to the Internet, families may choose to not purchase Internet-enabled devices (computers, tablets, etc.).

So, for most rural students, “the school has the best Internet in town” (quote from a northern student), and maybe the only computers they can access. This mean they can’t reasonably work on their e-Learning courses exclusively at night or on weekends, so they must complete much of their coursework during the school day (or at the very least, they have to plan out their evening’s work carefully in advance, and post to their dicussions, etc., the next day).

We provide devices for e-Learning students

Rural schools have to provide devices for e-Learning students. In ADSB, each school was allocated 6 laptops specifically earmarked for use by e-Learning students. These computers are signed out a period at a time, and are available for other students or teachers if they are unused. The laptops stay at school; they don’t go home with students.

Having these laptops helps to reduce the load on the other school computers, which might be used by face-to-face students. Since there is WiFi everywhere in ADSB schools, the portability of the machines makes it much easier to manage and support the students.

We have BYOD everywhere

With all that said, many students have their own laptops which they prefer to use. The school WiFi is available to all students and for all device types, so e-Learning students are well-supported in this way. The Mac users in particular like to stay with their own platform (most of ADSB is PC-only).

Students are permitted (and in some schools encouraged) to bring their own personal mobile devices (e.g. cell phones, tablets) to school, but for many courses the tiny screens or limited interfaces make the devices unsuitable for e-Learning. These devices tend to be better for consumption rather than composition. The main exception is for media-based products, like video or photos. One great use of the ubiquitous cameras is to take photos of handwritten (often math) work instead of trying to type symbols all of the time.

We have e-Learning teachers everywhere

Every high school has at least one e-Learning teacher, and some of these teachers are now “veterans”. They are able to support students and other teachers in the school to a much greater extent than other teachers with fewer online experiences can. This support is currently not formalized in our board (that is, it’s not a formal role).

Example: Student Support “course”

In one school (which accesses and supports e-Learning a lot), all of the students taking e-Learning courses are enrolled in Student Support course in the virtual Learning Environment (vLE). One on-site teacher is also enrolled, and he helps students with technical difficulties, questions about their work, and so on. It’s not a heavily-used system, but it’s great that it’s there to provide news and a bit more oversight for students who might otherwise feel less connected.

Example: e-Learning “rooms”

In another school, there are e-Learning rooms with scheduled teachers. Since the school has a large number of e-Learning students, the kids all work on their online courses while being supervised by an experienced e-Learning teacher. This is not a teaching period for the supervising teacher, although they can knock off a couple of emails if the students in the room don’t require a lot of assistance on a particular day.

Professional Learning for e-Learning teachers

All e-Learning teachers engage in a full day of face-to-face professional learning in the Sault. I personally feel the F2F opportunity is invaluable in connecting teachers from across the board, and for having quick, “resolvable” discussions about policy, procedures, and practice. These things could be done online, but they can be done very quickly in person, for a cost.

e-Learning teachers also get priority access to me, for what that’s worth. A Blended Learning teacher (using the vLE F2F) who has a technical or other problem can fall back on a F2F plan; an e-Learning teacher doesn’t have that luxury. So I try hard to be responsive, although that’s increasingly difficult.

Planning Course Offerings (2013-14)

Our decision-making around which courses to offer online has been evolving for several years, and it will evolve some more this year. I might have to write a separate post about how we do things.

It matters which courses are offered. We want a variety of great, online courses for students to pick from. We want to satisfy every pathway. We want rural students in a school of 150 to have the same great opportunities as an urban student in a school of 800.

For the current year’s offerings, schools suggested courses and the board (superintendent) suggested courses. There was a little negotiation about it, and then the tentative list was included on all schools’ option selection sheets/materials.

That last statement might seem innocuous, but the practice of sometimes dramatically changing the course offerings for a school likely caused some heart palpitations. The known, sure-thing e-Learning courses were also listed in the Common Course Calender, a document that lists courses for our entire board. Modifying the options available to students is complex, but it was in the best interests of students everywhere. Oh, did I mention that schools were not to identify the e-Learning courses individually, but were just to indicate that some courses could run online? Yup, definitely a separate blog post coming…

As a result of the option selection process, things changed. Some courses were cancelled. Others were “unsplit” into separate sections. Many went just as expected, which is a testament to how well the folks involved knew their work. In the end, we have nearly 40 courses online this year, which is an order of magnitude more than a few years ago.

What’s next

There are three big things next:

  1. Improve awareness about e-Learning. Administrators, guidance counselors, teachers, students, parents — each person has a perception about e-Learning which is usually only partly based in fact. It’s important to be clear about what e-Learning is and what it’s not so that everyone can make good choices.
  2. Increase collaboration between boards. ADSB is part of the Northern e-Learning Consortium (NeLC), a group of boards who have agreed to share e-Learning seats at no cost for the benefit of students across the north. The challenge of collaboration is to have 15 boards (each with their own circumstances) agree to offer certain courses in an effort to reduce duplication and increase program opportunities.
  3. Develop leadership in schools. As I so eloquently put recently, there is only one of me, so it’s becoming less and less feasible for e-Learning teachers to come to me for one-on-one help. Instead, it’ll be important that the work of nurturing e-Learning teachers and improving online pedagogy will have to move into each school so that everyone has the support they need to be awesome in their online teaching.

I installed Minecraft because of #ecoo13

Minecraft Pocket Edition screenshot

I attended a session about using Minecraft for instruction yesterday, and I found myself wanting someone to show me how to play. Then I realized two things:

  1. I can play without being shown how.
  2. I have access to a bazillion videos on YouTube from the rabid, Minecraft-loving masses.

I don’t need to ask for help, or details, or ideas. That’s what the Internet is for.
So I installed the free Pocket Edition Lite on my iPad while waiting for the plane at Billy Bishop and messed around a little during the flight.

Minecraft Pocket Edition Lite

My initial reflections:

  1. I’m used to (and I like) text instructions/prompts. Minecraft doesn’t really have these.
  2. I’m used to being told what the goal is in a game.
  3. The graphics induced nostalgia.

I understand the iPad version (especially the free one) is less complete than the PC version, but I think I’ll start here for now.
Next steps:

  1. Figure out how to do stuff.
  2. Have fun.
  3. Learn to use Minecraft to engage students in their learning.


Minecraft Pocket Edition Lite is very light… I just paid the $6.99 for the full version of Pocket Edition – way more complete.

Update 2

Yup, I was right: YouTube is the place to learn how to play Minecraft. I found the tutorials I viewed very interesting, particularly the detailed, complex environments people build. For example, one person had a vast “barn” in which each wall was lined with furnaces, stonecutters, chests and more. Steps down into mines were perfectly regular – no variation in slope, and the torches were exactly, evenly placed. Wow.

Agenda-less PD?

As I wait for the plane home now that ECOO 2013 is over, I’m thinking about teachers’ professional learning. I remembered and just reread Andrew Campbell‘s “Hacking Your Professional Development” and find his advice to be still awesome. Teachers should take control.
But I’m in a central role as an e-Learning Contact, so I am also that guy planning those eye-roll-inducing PD sessions. And I’d rather not do a bad job of the sessions I host, really. I’ve tried a few things to improve my work in this area:

  1. Provide a menu. If people can choose from a list of possibilities, perhaps they can get what they need.
  2. Inspire instead of train. I don’t find showing people technical details really helps them to persevere. Showing possibilities might.
  3. Share resources that are useful. If someone can use something right away, maybe they will.

But after hearing from Donna Fry about EdCamps, I keep thinking that there is a missing component: teachers should choose from everything, not just from a list. I don’t really know what everyone needs; it’s pretty arrogant to think I could even do a mediocre job of planning their learning for them with a bunch of formative work first. And I shouldn’t be the expert, but just one of the many resources people can reference.
I had someone ask me on Wednesday to explain how I configure something in the learning environment. I didn’t need to create a PowerPoint presentation first; in fact, I didn’t anticipate that anyone would ask me about it. We just got together and talked for a few minutes, and he walked away with a plan.
What would happen if a bunch of teachers got together in a room for half a day with these two instructions?:

  1. You can’t complain.
  2. You need to learn from each other.

(I don’t think all groups of teachers would need that first instruction, but some would.)
I think the learning would be tremendous. I know that every time I get together with other tech-minded educators, I’m inspired and motivated (and educated, really). Shouldn’t everyone have this opportunity? Let’s try this.

We all have to teach technology

There are plenty of teachers who think technology is important

But there aren’t many people who are willing to spend lots and lots of time learning to use it for good instruction, and there are fewer who are willing to teach the skills explicitly to their students. Often teachers are content to use some tech in their instruction (“I put my board notes in PowerPoint”) without trying to move any further. Many people tell me things like, “The kids know more than I do!” and they feel the statement speaks more to the characteristics of the younger generation than it does to their own priorities.

How important does it have to be?

Most teachers I know now see themselves as teachers of literacy, and many as teachers of numeracy. These sets of skills and understanding are pretty universally accepted as essential for students to develop. Kids need strong reading skills, so we need to be good teachers of reading. No problem.
So why is it weird to suggest that if kids need strong technology skills, we need to be good teachers of technology? How important does the development of those skills have to become for our students’ futures before we consider them essential to our teaching?

We “get” reading and math

We all learned that stuff, in some form, to varying degrees. We have relevant learning experiences (good and bad) to draw upon which can inform our teaching. And we see how we use those skills regularly, how much they help us as professionals and as citizens.

Technology is different somehow

Computer technology? Online collaboration? File maintenance? Because this area is “new” (by comparison, I suppose) and rapidly evolving, even young bucks like me (who had PCs in their elementary schools) don’t have a relevant school experience to draw upon. It looks different now. And for some reason the everyday experience of using technology personally (e.g. Gmail, Facebook, Netflix, etc.) isn’t viewed as similar to (or even useful for) teaching the use of technology in the classroom.

We don’t know what’s next

I don’t what computer technology will look like in ten years, and neither do you. But I know one thing: it will be closer to what we have now than it will be to what we had twenty years ago. If I taught my children now based only on my experiences with my XT, or my 486 DX2, or even my Blackberry Curve 8330, I’d be doing them a disservice. We should use today’s Web, today’s tablets, today’s networks. And that means being familiar and competent.

There isn’t really enough time

I know. There truly isn’t. I’ll admit, I’m a better teacher of technology than I am of reading, because I’ve spent a lot more time on tech and I can’t do everything really well. But there are three things that make me feel okay about this:

  1. I’m a competent teacher of reading. Not awesome, but good, at least.
  2. I know where to go for help with my learning.
  3. I will continue to improve, because I know it’s important to get better at it.

I have to prioritize my own learning based on my role. In preparation for next year, when I’m teaching high school students again, I’ll have to shift my focus heavily to literacy and numeracy, while maintaining a foothold in tech.

So we need to learn more

Computer things look different now than they did when you and I were students, but they’re increasingly important, so we need to prioritize our learning in this area. We can’t rely on students to show us the path, to teach us the skills (although we can learn from them in many ways). We need to learn, plan, and educate the next generation so that they’re as prepared as we can make them. Hopefully the next generation of teachers will be highly reflective and highly connected; I believe they will be, if we require it of them and first of ourselves.

There is only one of me


Two of me. If only.

I spent some time today talking with other central program people and senior administration about how to best support the integration of technology into our instruction in an efficient, effective fashion. As you might imagine, this was not a short, conclusive conversation.

I work for a lot of people

As a system level teacher, I’m responsible to all of the teachers and students in our board; I have to provide leadership in a variety of areas of technology (thankfully not all areas, and thankfully I’m not completely alone). But there are ten thousand students in our board, and about 600 permanent teachers. Who can I reach, with what, and how?

e-Learning and Blended Learning

A large part of what I offer teachers is an online space for sharing and working with their students. It’s the same platform that’s used for e-Learning in our board and across Ontario (Desire2Learn). And it has a lot going for it: user management and visibility, class environments, news, discussions, electronic submissions,…. But in the end, I have to help answer two questions for teachers: “How do I use this?” [technical training] and “How do I use this well?” [pedagogical learning].┬áBut even though we’re at the smaller end of the population scale, I can’t realistically provide that kind of support to everyone. So the big, system-level question in my mind is “Who gets what support?”

Some of it is easy

Everyone gets tech support from D2L; that’s at no cost to us in money or time. e-Learning teachers need rapid pedagogical support, since they’re teaching in a mode which has built-in latency (students are not necessarily online at he same time as their teachers) and which depends completely on the virtual Learning Environment. Since face-face teachers have backup plans (e.g. offline), I tend to prioritize e-Learning teachers.

Some of it is hard

But what about the Blended Learning teacher who is interested in having online discussions with their class? Or who wants to develop electronic portfolios with their students? Or who wants to share class news and suggested home activities with parents?
We’ve grown enough that I am becoming the bottleneck – people end up having to wait for me to finish stuff, to prepare stuff, to respond. It’s an awful feeling for me that’s generated by a “good problem” – people are interested, having recognized the need for the digital to be integrated with the analog in learning. But there are too many of them, and I don’t feel comfortable giving access without ensuring understanding about quality uses.

Better than nothing? Or worse?

Someone once told me that with technology it’s better to have none than to have some that doesn’t work. I’ve seen that quite a bit – some people have that first, difficult (or even awful) experience trying something new, and then they’re forever decided: old is better than new. So I hesitate to open the floodgates to any but the most motivated, self-sufficient teachers – those who will do the research to improve their teaching without my help, and who will persist even if there are bumps in the road early on.


There are a bazillion resources out there to help those teachers who are interested in being independent learners. I saw three sets of tutorials for D2L go by on Twitter today (here, here, and here). You can Google “how to make a quiz in d2l” or “designing an online discussion” and get tons of stuff to work with. And once you’ve done that, try talking to the other teachers you know (or don’t know!) who use this stuff. YouTube is great. Twitter is a gold mine.

Grand plan

So I think I’m going to end up doing larger, group things (blanketing a group with professional learning opportunities, facilitating online collaboration, supporting special projects) and big picture things (developing procedures, networking and connecting educators, and working provincially). I won’t be in this space forever, and when I return to the classroom I want to leave behind a legacy of an elegant, effective, nimble system that we’ll be able to use to enhance instruction for the benefit of students everywhere.

Okay, that sounds pretty lofty. Perhaps I’ll settle for surviving the month. :)

Sharing to learn

Classical guitar

Classical guitar

“In the era of connectivity, informal mentoring relationships are easily formed and those with expertise are eager to pass on what they know to novices. In a participatory culture, I am unable to learn from you if you are not sharing online. I will never be able to find you and leverage what you know.”
The Connected Educator, page 11

This makes me think of learning to play guitar. I’m an okay guitar player right now; I’ve been dabbling for several years. I don’t think I’m particularly skilled, but I’m not brand new to the instrument. Up until now I’ve been learning in semi-isolation – I read something or I watch video online and I practice on my own. I don’t play with other guitarists, I don’t share my own playing online. Up until a few minutes ago, I was thinking that my online sharing wouldn’t be useful, since there are many highly skilled players already sharing online. But I realize I know better. When a teacher new to blogging or Twitter shares what they learn online I engage in a dialogue with them, for them and for me. Similarly, I could share my fledgling guitar playing online and perhaps spark a conversation. This interaction might be helpful to a very new player, or it might be helpful for me (especially if a skilled player provides feedback).

So I think I’ll do that. I’ll post some video of me playing guitar, and I’ll invite comments and feedback. And I’ll hope for the useful kind of feedback, the sort that gives the conversation a place to go (instead of “You should try an easier instrument” I’d prefer something more like “Have you considered trying this technique?”).

Edit: Here is a link to my YouTube channel, which includes four videos of me playing guitar (so far).