Watching learners with laptops – what’s really going on?

Jonathan Martin is the principal of a 1:1 laptop school school in Arizona. In a recent issue of Connected Principals he reports on his experience with observing students at work by Standing in the Back, Watching the Screens.

This article raises all sorts of  issues – including what (if any) internet filtering schools should implement. But what really interested me was his observation that students changed what they were doing on their laptops depending on what else was happening in the classroom:

When the topics appeared relevant to students, the note-taking pages appeared; when the topics veered to the arcane and irrelevant, the screens veered to facebook, gaming sites, and other distractions…

When [the] teacher moved towards more discussion, though, asking questions to facilitate conversation… Nearly half of the screens veered away from both note-taking pages and distractions; appearing instead were google, wikipedia, and other information source sites.

This seems very positive – students appeared to be responding to classroom discussion activities to maximise their own ability to contribute. However, the report does raise a few issues:

  • In my experience, students don’t always know what is relevant information and what is ‘arcane and irrelevant’. So there is a risk that a student with little prior knowledge will assume something is irrelevant when it is not.
  • Discussion is not always about ‘finding the right answer’, so searching the web is not always a good strategy. For example, a teacher may want to explore learners’ prior knowledge in order to help them acquire new learning – a sound constructivist learning strategy. If learners immediately turn to an external information source rather than reflect on their own understanding and experience this would tend to undermine the effectiveness of the activity.

I’m not arguing here that students should not be in charge of their own learning. But teachers do need to take a proactive role in guiding the learning process. Both issues suggest that making the learning process explicit is important:

  • If something is likely to seem irrelevant to students, point out why it is in fact important. And if it really isn’t important and relevant, drop it!
  • Make it clear that not all learning is about ‘finding the right answers’ from an external source. Discuss why making prior knowledge explicit is an important stage in the learning process.

What do you think?

Challenges for an online community for teaching and learning

imageUnitec’s Diana Ayling (pictured) spoke at an Elearning Community workshop about an online community she’s involved with which focuses on teaching and learning. These are my brief reflections on her presentation.

Diana and audience members identified some challenges for members of a teaching and learning community:

  • Teachers take time to develop a voice online because creating and managing content is a complex skill set. There is a growing need for teachers to develop ‘real-world’ technology skills such as working with social network technology. We need to ‘go to where the learners are’ so need to move beyond the institutional  Learning Management System.
  • Teachers have varying levels of resilience – when something goes wrong such as a technical problem, some are inclined to give up straight away while others see it as only a temporary setback.
  • There is a tendency to form splinter groups, as some are more comfortable with interacting a small group. This may have the effect of decreasing overall activity and interaction.
  • Data protection and copyright are ongoing issues as teachers move to more open technologies such as social network tools.
  • Online safety and privacy is an issue for both teachers and learners. Separating the personal and professional online presence is complicated but necessary.
  • When working with teachers as community members, we should not make assumptions about their level of technical skills – patronising them is a real turn-off.
  • Finding time to contribute actively to multiple communities and online spaces is difficult for busy teachers. RSS is a great tool for managing all the sources you read, but it doesn’t really help with contributing through writing.


Online Learning Communities: resources and references

A bibliography of useful books, articles and online resources

Australian Flexible Learning Framework. Effective Online Facilitation. Downloaded 5 January 2010 from

Australian Flexible Learning Framework. What are the conditions for and characteristics of effective online learning communities? Downloaded 5 January 2010 from

Brook, C Oliver, R (2003). Online learning communities: Investigating a design framework. Downloaded 4 April 2010 from

Cann, A et al (2010). Google Wave in Education. Downloaded 2 march 2010 from

Carr T, Jaffer S, Smuts J. Facilitating Online: A course leader’s guide. Downloaded from 6 February 2010

Chatti M A. LaaN vs. Situated Learning. Downloaded 18 February 2010 from

Chromatic. Building Online Communities. Downloaded 5 January 2010 from

Clark, RC, Mayer RE (2003). E-learning and the Science of Instruction. Wiley & Sons.

Downes, S (2007). Learning networks in practice. Downloaded 25 February 2011 from

Garrison, D., & Anderson, T. (2002). E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Framework for Research and Practice. Routledge Falmer.

Green, P (2010). How to create a live online learning event. Downloaded 2 March 2010 from

Left, P (2010). 8 tips for online learning community activities. Downloaded 20 June 2010 from

Left, P (2010). Evaluating online community activities. Downloaded 20 June 2010 from

Left, P (2010). Planning online learning activities: problems with technology. Downloaded 20 June 2010 from

McKeachie, W. J. (2002). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. Houghton Mifflin Co.

McPherson, M., & Nunes, M. B. (2004). Developing Innovation in Online Learning: An Action Research Framework (Open & Flexible Learning S.). Routledge Falmer.

Nussbaum-Beach, S. The Art of Building Virtual Communities. Downloaded 5 January 2010 from

Palloff, R. M. (2003). The Virtual Student: A Guide to Understanding and Working with Online Learners. Jossey Bass Wiley.

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2004). Collaborating Online: Learning Together in Community. Jossey Bass Wiley.

Palloff, R M & Pratt, K. Beyond Facilitation. Downloaded 5 January 2010 from

Siemens G. Learning Ecology, Communities, and Networks: Extending the classroom. Downloaded 5 January 2010 from

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. A., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge. Harvard Business School Press.

Wenger, E. Communities of practice: a brief introduction. Downloaded 5 January 2010 from

Wenger, E. Communities of Practice: Learning as a social system. Downloaded 5 January 2010 from

Wenger, E. and Trayner, B. Frequently Asked Questions. Downloaded 5 February 2012 from

White N. How Some Folks Have Tried to Describe Community. Downloaded 5 January 2010 from

White N. Communities, networks and what sits in between. Downloaded 5 January 2010 from

Google Breadcrumb: create interactive mobile learning resources

Google Labs has come up with Breadcrumb, a simple tool for creating web-based resources, hosted by Google, that are formatted for mobile access. Breadcrumb provides an online text editor where the text of the resource is entered. Simple markup characters are used to create new pages and links to them, in a manner similar to wiki markup. There are no tools for WYSIWYG editing: you need to use HTML to insert images and create formatted headings etc.

The Breadcrumb page also shows a sample (unformatted) output as it would appear on a mobile device, a ‘mind-map’ of the page structure and some minimal help. The sample output and mind-map are updated when the text file is saved. The page also includes a QR code that can be scanned directly off screen or used in print or a web page elsewhere to allow mobile users tor jump directly to your finished work.

The Breadcrumb screen


Teachers can use Breadcrumb to create interactive stories, scenarios and traditional ‘branching’ learning materials. For example, it would be easy to use Breadcrumb to create something like the Learning Design Challenge, a problem-based learning resource in the form of an interactive game-like story in Mediawiki. Breadcrumb can also be used to create decision tree resources.

Breadcrumb issues

  • The biggest issue with Breadcrumb is that there is no page security – anyone with the URL can change or delete all the text. So you really need to keep good backups of the resource code! Until this is fixed, Breadcrumb is really only useful as a fast and easy way to prototype a new resource.
  • Breadcrumb markup is similar but frustratingly different from other widely-used markup conventions. If you’re familiar with a form of wiki markup, learning Breadcrumb’s markup is easy. But moving resources between systems (eg using Breadcrumb to create a prototype as above) would be a chore.
  • Breadcrumb resources do not always display well on mobile devices – for example, on iPhone or iPod the text is very small and double-tap to zoom does not work properly. On Android the display is better but not perfect.

Breadcrumb tips

  • Backup constantly by copying and saving the text to a local file on your hard drive or an online tool such as Springpad or Evernote.
  • Plan before you start – eg create a mindmap or tree diagram on paper.
  • Use the Breadcrumb group to learn more, as Google’s documentation only covers the real basics.
  • Don’t use numbers for pages – one thing the Google documentation doesn’t tell you is that page names can be words. See my example in the diagram – I find meaningful page names much better to work with.

Breadcrumb has a lot of potential as a tool to allow non-technical users to create interactive, branching learning resources such as stories. Currently it seems to be not quite ready for real world use by teachers, but let’s hope Google Labs continues to develop this tool.

Android for teachers: simple, tasty photos for the web

One thing I really like about my Android phone (LG P500) is the camera feature. It’ll never replace my real camera but it’s always with me, so I can take a quick snap even when I’m teaching. Plus there are imaging apps which make it a great tool for fast and easy creation of images.

For example, Vignette is a camera app for Android which has a free demo version as well as a paid version. The free version is limited to .3M pixel images, but these are fine for small illustrative images on a web page. The software has a wide range of effects which are fast and easy to use. And they provide some useful tweaks for web display.

For example, some of these effects produce a small square image (about 500 x 500) with a white border. So it’s really easy to produce a web-optimised image that is small and fast to download and has a built in margin for text wrapping. The image shown here is just 49KB and uses the Velvia filter which increases colour saturation. It’s not a great photo, but I love how fast and easy it is to capture an image like this, all ready for sharing on the web.

And because Android is a very ‘open’ OS, once you’ve captured the image there are many options for sharing it. Vignette will send the photo to Twitter, Facebook, email or other apps you use. I use the WordPress app which allows me to edit posts and pages on my phone, and Android makes it easy to send the photo directly from Vignette to a new WordPress post. Again, fast and easy – and a lot more flexible than just having a ‘Send via email’ option which I got used to on an iPhone.

Where there is a need for high resolution and high quality images a phone camera is not going to be appropriate. But where all that’s needed is a quick informal snap, a phone camera can be a great tool. Many of the teachers I work with don’t find it easy to get to grips with optimising images for the web. An Android phone* with Vignette is an easy way to get images into a blog or an LMS like Moodle, and it also integrates well with many of the social software platforms they use. I’d recommend it as a useful tool for teachers wanting a simple and convenient way to enhance their online presence with images.

* Note: not all phone cameras are equal. I chose one with 3 MP resolution and macro capability, but no flash as I prefer to use natural light anyway. Others will have very different needs.