Category Archives: Professional development

Getting started with PBWorks wiki

To my surprise, I’m still recommending PBWorks to teachers as a good way to get started using a wiki. That’s because the Moodle wiki is still not a very effective tool, and PBWorks is easy-to-use and provides some good features for developing and formatting content. It’s proprietary, of course, so it has to be used with caution, but it’s a good way to get started.

When I’m introducing teachers to the potential of wikis and other web tools, I naturally start by getting them to set up and work with wikis themselves. It seems to me like a set of core skills – how to plan and put together a collection of linked pages. This can be applied in reflective individual writing or as a collaborative exercise.

Here’s a 3-page PDF document on how to get started with PBWorks. It’s covered by the by-nc-sa licence so you are welcome to download and use it as you see fit provided it’s not used commercially and my authorship is attributed.

If you modify or adapt it, please add a comment to this post with a link to the new version.

Image: Andjam79

Building a bilingual glossary in Moodle

The context

Glossary entryI worked with the management and teaching staff of a small provider to plan strategies for developing the organisation’s capability to incorporate a blended / flexible learning approach into its training and education. One key component was a short professional development programme for teaching staff, with the purpose of developing staff skills in using Moodle and incorporating its use into teaching and learning activities.

Initially, the staff had little experience with learning management systems and other online tools. There was also uncertainty about the appropriateness of incorporating online components into the existing face to face courses: staff shared a strongly-held belief in the organisation’s values and special character. In particular, there was a strong emphasis on establishing a sense of whanau in the relationships with and support for learners.

I knew that the professional development programme for staff would need to provide participants with a strong sense of ownership and engagement. I especially didn’t want to appear as some external ‘expert’ attempting to impose a culturally inappropriate model on the organisation. So I was keen to ensure the blended learning activities (online and face to face) incorporated and valued the participants’ Maori language and culture.

The method

Prior to the first face to face session I set up a glossary of key terms and concepts relating to flexible and online learning. Although these were mostly in English, I included a few in the Maori language. During the first face to face session, I demonstrated how to use the glossary, including how to add comments and new entries.

Over the next few weeks participants added additional content as they chose, including:

  • translation into Maori of English glossary entries
  • explanations of how a term or concept related to their own students and their culture
  • comments and questions on others’ glossary entries
  • additional material in their own language which contextualised the English term – for example, one participant posted a traditional proverb to illustrate a particular term

Although the glossary never grew to include many entries, I was impressed by the depth of thinking and contextualising that took place in a short period of time.


  • Because the Moodle glossary can be configured to allow both comments and edits by participants, there is plenty of opportunity for collaborative development of shared knowledge
  • The collaborative development of a bilingual resource not only provided a body of shared knowledge but helped establish an environment where the participants’ language and culture was valued and there was a sense of ownership of the online resource
  • I’d recommend this as a useful blended learning approach in a range of contexts: whether bilingual or not, the collaborative glossary can be very effective in building engagement and collaboration

Exploring the assumptions underlying learning technologies

Teachers don’t always find it easy to analyse the assumptions about learning that underpin specific examples of learning technology. A simple scenario can be used in a professional development setting as a trigger for discussion of these assumptions and the links between technology and education theory.

In my professional development work with teachers, I love seeing them learn how to use the new tools and develop an enthusiasm for using these tools with learners. But skills and enthusiasm are not quite enough – to decide how and when to integrate technology tools, teachers also need to be able to understand the educational models on which the technology is based.

Even when a teacher ‘knows’ some education theory, it is not always easy for them to integrate theory and practice. So the theory often remains as ‘book learning’ and doesn’t fully inform their decision-making about planning and using technology.

I recently developed a simple scenario as an attempt to deal with this:

I incorporated the scenario into the session and used it to generate discussion around a few simple questions. On their own, the small groups touched on a few links to education theory, but the payoff came when reporting back – as a group, we identified lots of ideas about the sorts of assumptions about learning and the links with theory.

The fact that it was only a scenario and not hands-on I believe helped the participants because there was no ‘seduction’ factor – there was no possibility of being distracted by the technology and the fun of exploring its features. And it reinforced the concept that every application of technology in learning is based on implicit assumptions and theories about learning, and that informed teachers can make these explicit through dialogue and collaboration.

Wikis, learning and faulty knowledge

Information and knowledge in a vocational education setting often has a significance beyond that in more academic courses: in fact, the life and well-being of the students and members of the public may depend on its accuracy. Consider the following scenario:

CC: photo Robert LawtonJan is a nursing lecturer in a department which has recently begun to incorporate a ‘community of practice’ approach, including the use of a wiki for students and staff to collaboratively build publicly-accessible knowledge resources. She logs in one Monday morning and sees that a student has added to the page on clinical practice, including information which is contrary to accepted practice and could put patients’ health at risk.

Jan is appalled: What if another student read that information over the weekend and put it into practice? What if a practising nurse has read it and is about to complain to Jan’s head of department? Jan immediately deletes the incorrect information, then wonders whether she has done the right thing.

How should Jan have reacted? In fact, if Jan’s department had been through a thorough planning process, the risk of faulty information being contributed as well strategies for dealing with it would have been identified prior to implementing the collaborative activity. So Jan would have known exactly how to react.

Some e-learning specialists feel that Web 2.0 tools like wikis have no place at all in vocational education because the risks of ‘faulty knowledge’ are potentially so great. I don’t happen to believe that, but I do believe we need to identify the risks when we are planning, along with what we will do when ‘faulty knowledge’ is contributed. And we need to share this with students beforehand, so that they too understand the risks and how these will be handled.

If we do identify that there is a risk of ‘faulty knowledge’ being contributed, we need to also identify how we will:

  • Monitor the wiki (ie how will we know incorrect information exists?)
  • Deal with the published incorrect information (eg is it deleted, corrected or annotated?)
  • Correct the students’ faulty knowledge (ie that underlies the incorrect information)
  • Maintain a democratic and motivating collaborative environment while retaining the right to intervene
  • Communicate the risks and how we’ll deal with them to students

I believe the potential benefits of exposing ‘faulty knowledge’ outweigh the risks – but we do need a well thought-out plan for dealing with incorrect and potentially dangerous information.

Photo by Robert Lawton

Why I am not (yet) using virtual worlds in my work

There’s an interesting discussion going on at the moment over at Stephen’s Web about Second Life. It centres around the observation that delivering a lecture in SL is still just a lecture – ‘We know how to bore you in a classroom, and now we know how to bore you online’. A key point for me is that it’s not enough to rely on novelty of delivery to get learners interested and engaged, the process and the learning itself needs to be engaging.

It’s also interesting to compare assumptions about how SL would be used in education – some see it as a simulation, others as a tool for constructing a highly specific virtual environment, others as a replacement for a learning management system. My take is that it will do some of these rather well, others quite poorly!

Me in Small WorldsAs a Mac user, I’d never had much fun with SL, but when I saw that Small Worlds was now public, I was keen to try it out. Part of my interest was that it’s based here in New Zealand, but also I hoped it might provide a lower threshold environment I could incorporate into my professional development activities. The picture here of my avatar is as far as I got – Small World’s suggestion that before I did anything I should ‘go shopping’ was like a bucket of cold water to my motivation! I already spend enough time shopping in the real world without having to do it in the virtual one as well. And I think I know enough about my learners, their technical skills and access to technology to know it would never work.

In his article A New Virtual World Winter?, Bruce Damer says:

Is interaction in a VW that much more enriching and valuable than the simpler modalities available in other platforms? Will VWs ever really go mainstream? I continuously hear complaints about VWs not being worth the trouble, especially from people much younger and hipper than me (I am 46) who prefer much lighter weight forms of interaction.

While I don’t think we should necessarily see youth and hipness as the sole qualification to speak on learning, I think this quote holds a lot of truth. We already expect learners to jump over lots of hurdles – eg learning to use a new LMS and other IT systems – without making them clear the greater barriers in using virtual worlds. Some already have the skills and the online presence, but a great many more don’t.

In general, I can see specific applications of virtual worlds such as Dante’s Inferno as having huge potential, but the generic application as some kind of ‘pimped-up’ learning management system doesn’t seem realistic at this point in time. I prefer software tools which liberate me from the constraints and humdrum details of everyday life rather than replicate them, which remove barriers for my learners rather than impose new ones. If I want to share ideas, I use low-threshold tools (such as WordPress) which allow me to focus on the ideas rather than the interface. Virtual worlds such as Second Life or Croquet pose too high a threshold to be used in my professional development activities in the immediate future.