Friday, December 23, 2011


I'm rather partial to infographics or 'data visualisation'. In the right hands, an infographic can make complex information accessible and interesting. This blog post not only contains links to a number of really useful tools for the creation of infographics, but also made me realise that their scope is so much wider than I had imagined. Better world flux in particular caught my interest: it has the potential to be a fabulous tool for teachers of the social sciences and geography. Sadly I couldn't get the website to run in any of the recommended browsers. Their demo video here shows the potential of the tool (ignore the over-production); hopefully the website will be more accessible to you than to me.

And just in case you think infographics is just a fancy name for a poster, take a look at this one explaining the population explosion.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Google Zeitgeist gives a rather damning comment on society today. Under the heading, 'What mattered in 2011' Google has compiled a list of the top searches for the year. Number 1? Rebecca Black... most famous for singing badly on Youtube. Apart from the Fukushima Reactor, everything else on the top 10 list centres on celebrity (and generally not very noteworthy ones) or Apple. The spirit of our times is a superficial one indeed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

School reports: shedding pseudo light on non-problems?

Yesterday was a school report day in my family. As an ex-teacher with many years of report-writing experience, I can't help but feel a twinge of sympathy for teachers at this time, although that twinge is tempered by the fact that in New Zealand, it seems teachers only report formally once a year. A far cry from the detailed quarterly reports we had to churn out!

The report we received was interesting, in a confusing sort of way. Unlike some NZ schools, J_'s school has implemented national standards, a system that requires schools to score each child as 'above', 'at' or 'below' the national standards for reading, writing and mathematics at their age. Exactly what each individual standard entails is a little harder to find, but I remain hopeful that another few hours on Google will be fruitful. I am all for standards. I don't think it's demeaning or harmful to find out that my child is 'below' the national standard (whatever that might actually be) for mathematics. On the contrary, it's a useful alarm bell, providing me with an opportunity to arrange extra lessons, or whatever else might be required to improve his performance. (And when one considers that in New Zealand, apparently just 'one third of students going into secondary school are numerate', that alarm bell is ringing pretty loudly.)

What confused me about the diagnosis of 'below standard' is the feedback that accompanies it. Apparently elder-son has made 'significant progress with numeracy..., is clever at solving problems which involve thinking out the box... has worked hard... is capable...can do well'. Now, apart from the slight equivocation of 'can do well' the rest seems pretty positive. So why am I confused? Well, earlier this year, we had parent-student-teacher interviews instead of a formal written report. I like these occasions when the parent, student and the teacher talk together about achievements, progress and improvements. At this interview, I was told that my son was performing 'at the national standard' for mathematics. Six months later, he is below standard. That really does not sound like significant progress to me, unless progress and success are inversely proportional! So I queried this with his teacher. Take a look at the reply I received, and if you can interpret it, please let me know!

The Interim Reports and interviews were based on J__'s results from the first half of the year. The end of year results were based on the whole year which included OTJ's (teacher judgements) Numeracy, Statistics, Probability, Measurement and Geometry, which is why there is a difference in the levels. J__ has made significant individual progress within these areas. The National Standards are aspirational [???] and there are wide variations within each level.

What is really interesting about the whole thing is that despite some fairly lengthy searching online, I still don't know what exactly the standards are for each level, and what being below standard actually means. I'm sure it would be much more useful for parents to be told that their precious offspring is a lazy git who would do better if he talked less and worked more than to be told that as a result of 'significant progress' said child is now below standard.

The other child's school issues their reports tomorrow. Interestingly, this school is one of the renegade schools that have refused to implement national standards, and they've done a lot of touting of the fact that their reports will be 'written in plain English'. I look forward to the evidence of this.

On a slightly related note, the same school report tells me that my son and heir was 'able to make connections from his 1970's research and transfer this to his character on stage' [in the annual school theatre production]. I trust you are impressed. You would be less so if you knew that said son was one of ten masked characters who marched onto a stage amongst about sixty classmates, stood utterly motionless at the very back of the stage throughout the piece, and then marched off again.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

iPads in the classroom

More than once I have expressed my cynicism about the hype surrounding iPads in the classroom. Make no mistake, I really would like to have my own iPad to play with, but observing iPad users (in the education environment at least) so far as really shown me that they are proving the adage, 'using new technologies to teach the same old way'.

I recently attended a demonstration where a technology teacher was showing how he was using the iPad to transform his teaching. He was using the camera on the iPad 2 to photograph his students working on their projects, then uploading their photographs in slideshow or video format to Facebook. Whilst I have no doubt that the students enjoyed seeing their work online, I can do the same with my mobile phone, and for a great deal cheaper. Yes, there are people using the iPad to show videos and animations, but again, it's nothing that we aren't already doing with existing technologies.

So, it was a relief to read Johnston and Stoll's article, 'It's the pedagogy, stupid...' about iPads in in eLearn Magazine. Whilst the first part of the article makes similar (but much more coherent) comments about the iPad to those I have made, in the second part they outline some interesting and innovative ideas which suggest that, while the transformation won't be as immediate or as universal as the hype will have us believe, iPads and other tablets will be disruptive technologies in the classroom. Well worth a read.

Image from

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The flattery of social networking

Yesterday, as a backup, I uploaded a couple of powerpoints that I use infrequently to Slideshare. They're slides I use in presentations to students, and would be of little interest of relevance to anyone else. Imagine my astonishment then to receive this in my email this morning:
How exciting, thought I. Fame at last! Recognition from the international community of Slideshare! And, because I am vain, I went straight to the Slideshare site to see how many views my apparently wonderful presentation had had in the 14 or so hours since I had uploaded it. The result:
So what does this mean? It was rather flattering for a moment, but 0 views does rather burst the bubble! Is this a cunning ploy designed to encourage us all to upload more slideshows? Is there simply a lag between their view counter and their email system, and in fact, this trivial and visually unappealing presentation, last updated in January 2010 (unlike Facebook!) really is one of the most popular uploads of the day?

And just in case this isn't enough to make you cynical about Slideshare, I received a SECOND email:

Two uploads; two of the most popular presentations of the day. If only that actually meant something.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

21st century skills from a 21st century classroom

A year ago I blogged about 21st century literacy skills, asking whether we were still using definitions of literacy that are out of sync with our new, technological world. Since then, I have had the privilege of watching my son negotiate his first year of intermediate school in a laptop class. Make no mistake, he is in an innovative and challenging school, and observing his learning, both planned and accidental, has been fascinating, but it leaves me with more questions than answers.

I have no doubt that the experience of being connected to his peers on a more or less continuous basis has enabled him to develop relationships. The school uses Adium as the social networking tool (students are banned from accessing Facebook at school or on their school laptops) and my son seems to spend an inordinate amount of time chatting online. So in that way, I suppose he is improving his skill at building relationships with others. Or is he? When I browse his chat history (and I do, because I'm a parent and I believe that is my responsibility) I am overwhelmed (and relieved, I admit) by the superficiality of the communications that take place. Is a relationship based on a dialogue such as:
son: wuu2
friend: nm u
son: nm. brb
friend: k kewl - g2g, etc., etc. (find translations here) really a valuable or meaningful relationship? Certainly, it is cross-cultural - in fact it is an entire sub-culture of its own and it gives me a headache to read it, but how far is it going towards that wonderful goal of solving problems collaboratively? Certainly he and his friends are very proficient in the use of these tools, but for what purpose? nm?

There have also been some tough lessons for him this year around the ethical responsibilities of the online environment. These lessons have been the products of chance rather than planned, and have probably been much more powerful as a result. Learning about the dangers of posting criticisms and gossiping online is invaluable, but the lessons can only be taught if there is someone monitoring the discussions. More often than not, there is no one. And so instead of students being helped to address those ethical considerations, bad, even dangerous, habits are entrenched.

Having said all that, I have recently been watching my son engage with his first virtual world, Minecraft. This challenges him on a whole range of levels. He interacts with a group of friends all building in the same world, he has to share ideas and collaborate online, and, he tells me, all in a context that has taught him all about architecture! It certainly has engaged his interest and his creativity, and would devour hours of his time if allowed. And it has provided him with a place to apply other forms of learning. Yesterday we watched some of the 9/11 memorial coverage. Somehow, despite living almost his entire life in the post 9/11 world, he'd never really been aware of the specifics of that day, and it made for some sombre conversation. What has interested me however is the outcome of that conversation: his new build in Minecraft is a tower that will be more resistant to terrorism. Sad, but a really concrete example of engaging with the responsibilities of the new and complex environments we live in.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Online learning design

This was one of the featured presentations on Slideshare today. Ellison gives excellent pointers for clear and effective learning design. Designing for cognitive disabilities
View more presentations from Ruth Ellison

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A visit to Christchurch

Yesterday I flew to Christchurch for a work-related visit to CPIT. Despite it being my first trip to the South Island, I opted not to take my camera, for fear of being ghoulish. It was a sobering visit. At first glance, the place seems very normal. The taxi drive from the airport into the city gave glimpses of homes under repair, but nothing too unusual, apart from a relatively high number of patched or missing chimneys. The road winds through Hagley Park, which is a large area filled, at the moment, with the with trees  carrying the last of the autumn colour, and people doing normal things like pushing prams and walking dogs- hard to reconcile with the images of people camping out there in the hours after the quake. 

Arriving in the central city though, breaks the illusion. The first thing, and the thing that struck me most, was the number of buildings with florescent orange, spray-painted, 'clear' notices with dates and initials on them... notices for searchers that the building had been checked for the dead and injured. Many of the buildings are red-stickered (no-entry, awaiting demolition), and I wonder about the people who went into them in the days that followed the quake, risking their own lives if one of the 5000-odd subsequent tremors were to strike whilst they were inside.

The taxi driver also undermines the illusion of normalcy. He talks endlessly about the quake. (It seems everyone does. Snippets of conversation heard during the day all seem to have the quake as a theme:  how they are coping, what they will do if there's another big shake that brings down the building, why they won't use elevators any more....) He adds another aspect of realism to what, for me, has been, until now, a largely academic understanding of what it all has meant. He talks about realising that he can't have faith in the ground he stands on any more... of how it feels  like he is standing on 'porridge' that will one day shake hard enough for him to sink. I found that oddly disturbing - solid ground is a cliché that we assume is completely valid. What must it mean to no longer be able to rely on that? I can't imagine.

The CPIT building itself is largely unscathed. The nursing school I was visiting was on, I think, the 4th floor. One lecturer no longer uses the elevator - people had apparently been trapped for hours in elevators with no power and constant aftershocks.  We were shown to the office allocated to us and left to our work, with strict instructions to take handbags, laptops, etc., with us, even on trips to the loo, in case of another shake.  After the February quake, people were stranded outside of buildings with no phones, and no car keys, unable to contact family members to let them know they were safe.  The surfaces of the office are covered in a grey, gritty dust - school had only re-opened three weeks prior to our visit, following inspections by engineers, and many parts remain as they were in February, with fallen shelves and thick dust covering everything. Lecturers had been carrying on business as usual from their homes and Lincoln University, 20km away. The view from the office window is over Cathedral Square. The damaged cathedral looms whitely against the grey day, its corners sliced open. Men in a gantry hanging from a crane work on the dome despite the wind. Shipping containers are piled against one side to prevent further collapse.

Lunch brings more reality - lecturers chat casually of where they were and what they had done after the February quake (rushing to find children or having to walk long distances to get home because their cars were in no-go areas) and of life now with no flushing toilets and no heating (an awful thought at the start of a South Island winter). We followed this with a short walk down to the main areas of destruction, literally a few hundred metres from CPIT. Even looking at the streets in the red zone, it was hard to comprehend what had happened. It looked like the images of Beirut that we used to see on television. Although the streets have been largely cleared, the pavements are still buried under rubble. Buildings with missing facades show interiors of shops and apartments left exactly as they were that day, Marie Celeste style, as if people will come back and pick up their interrupted lives. The Grand Chancellor Hotel lurches overhead, more crooked than it seems on TV. Ironically, the artist supplies shop on the corner of the street is open for business - its window display contains decoupage papers of the tower of Pisa. Blinds and curtains flap through broken windows in the old city council buildings. Gusts of wind bring the smell of sewerage.  Angry posters protesting the delay in accessing these final streets, and urging a respectful rebuild of the high street, are everywhere. Faded memorials are poked through the wires of the barriers surrounding the red zone. Dead roses; artificial lotus flowers, some ribbons which probably held things that have blown away in the wind.  A still-legible card sends love to someone. Amazingly, traffic still flows through the streets.

Everywhere, there are people taking photographs. And it doesn't seem wrong. In a year, or two, or five, the city will be rebuilt, and in the way of humans, the world will have moved on and forgotten. To a large extent, it already has. We've already forgotten Japan and Haiti, and Pakistan, and Chile... It will be good to be reminded of the scars. Perhaps it will remind us to be human whilst we too sail calmly on.

Musee de Beaux Arts - W H Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A rose, by any other name...?

There's been an interesting discussion on the TANZ e-learning advisors' forum. Vasi Doncheva, from Northtec, asked forum members about the status (academic or general staff) of instructional designers at the various polytechs which belong to the TANZ group. Judging from the responses, there doesn't seem to be any consistency across (or even within) the polytechs that replied to the query.

Are instructional designers 'academics'? I'd say not, at least within the conventional sense of what an academic is, but at the same time, they are integral to the success of many academic programmes, so perhaps they should be classified as such. Two respondents felt that the fact that they did training as part of their role meant that they should be regarded as academic, which certainly broadens the definition (if there is one) of what an Instructional Designer really is. While we're at it, perhaps we need to broaden the definition of 'academic' too?

Interestingly, there also seems to be a view that instructional designers and e-learning advisors are one and the same. Is this a reflection on the pervasiveness of 'e'-based learning in tertiary courses? Although in my role as instructional designer, I use a range of e-learning technologies and strategies, I see my role as more closely linked to course content and development than that of an e-learning 'advisor'. Am I wrong in this? 

Many of us work in fairly small departments. There's huge pressure on individual staff members to be all things to all people. Does this blur the boundaries of conventional job descriptions; meaning that we tend to be jacks of all trades, with the accompanying risk of being masters of none.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The perils of social networking

David Hopkins remains a phenomenal source of great links and ideas; this one, about the potential perils of social networking, is so well designed it should be an integrated part of first-year orientations.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

PS, and by complete coincidence...

...this blog, in its own way, reinforces the points made by the article I mentioned earlier by Judith Boettcher. It looks at the problem of plagiarism and the importance of changing the way we assess in order to meet the challenges of a world inhabited, if that is the word, by Watson and his (its?) progeny

Moving beyond traditional assessment

Vasi Doncheva recently tweeted a link to Tony Bates' blog which mentioned this article about online assessment. (Attributions can be so complicated!) In the article, author Judith Boettcher makes the point that online assessments offer numerous opportunities for engaging, informative assessments. She asks the question, 'Why is the traditional paper so prevalent in assessment, and how can we move beyond it to alternative evidence of student learning?'

In his blog post about the article, Tony Bates comments that Boettcher's article 'has major implications for course design. It suggests that online technologies allow for different learning outcomes and objectives, rather than merely mirroring the learning objectives set for classroom teaching. Indeed, thinking of how best to assess ’21st century skills’ should be an integral part of decision-making around course content, forms of delivery, and choice of technology.

How often do we even consider the 21st century skills in our course design? I fear that, all too often, we continue to design courses for 21st century learners using 20th (or, if Ken Robinson is to be believed, 18th) century paradigms. I was recently asked why I was spending time building an interactive online content package when our students already had a textbook. The question was asked sincerely, and out of a desire to reduce staff workloads, but it made me wonder if, in the often very traditional world of tertiary institutions, we are missing the boat by not focussing our energies as much on educating the decision makers as we do on educating the students. As Judith Boettcher indicates, we may spend all the time in the world creating engaging online resources for students, but if we continue to resort to the traditional assessment forms of papers and exams, we may miss opportunities to identify 'real understanding and growth' in our students.

Are instructional designers, content developers and e-learning specialists brought too late in the course design process, when key elements such as assessments are already decided, approved and cast in stone. How we go about bringing a transformation in assessments at tertiary level that reflects the transformation in learning, literacy and the information-soaked world in which we live? I'm not sure that I have the answers to this... I hope that someone out there does!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Setting the bar

I was fortunate to attend the recent Inspired Impact conference in Palmerston North. There was a powerful line-up of keynote speakers (including Sir Ken Robinson and John Edwards), and some really practical and inspirational workshop sessions. The theme of the conference was Nurturing Creativity, which possibly doesn't seem immediately relevant to someone working in a School of Nursing, but there was wonderful food for thought.

Despite the international big names, the highlight of the conference for me was a session by Albany Senior High School Deputy Principal, Mark Ambrose, on e-portfolios. Of course, e-portfolios are the flavour of the month, but this school has been using them with both staff and students, for several years, so not only are they pretty far down the road of ironing out hitches, but they have a deep understanding of how e-portfolios can be used to enhance the student experience AND improve staff self-management. They've taken e-portfolios from being the latest pedagogical buzzword, and made them work in meaningful and understated ways.

This school also has scheduled classroom-free days called 'Impact Days', in which students work on self-designed projects. The limits of the project are that they must be designed to develop the students' knowledge, and they must benefit the community. So a group of students worked together and built a jet engine. They organised engineers and lecturers from the Albany branch of Massey to come and give guidance, and they built a fully functional jet engine. Along the way, they didn't just learn about engineering, but they developed professional networks, project management skills, research and collaboration skills, and a practical understanding of health and safety regulations! Another group is doing research into the restoration of a piece of indigenous bush near the school, including biodiversity studies, species counts, etc.

All students are required to maintain a reflective journal in their e-portfolios which they document their learning from their Impact projects. The level of introspection in some of the posts was truly impressive, and without a doubt those students have learned skills way beyond anything that could have been taught in a traditional classroom.

At a completely different level, my older son has just started Intermediate, and is enrolled in a laptop class at Ross Intermediate here in Palmerston North. Of course, school has only been running for a week, so I may be speaking too soon, but I am excited by the way he has already been completely hooked by his teacher.... She is dealing with students with a range of IT skills, and I have been so impressed by the way she is measuring their levels of understanding without them even knowing. For example, her class blog contains all sorts of bits of information which the kids need to evaluate in order to decide whether they are relevant to the blog, or should be tidied out of the way. Without noticing, my son has watched a video clip explaining digital narratives (in words he understands, of course) and he has evaluated a series of educational games.

This all begs the question... how are those of us who work in tertiary education preparing to meet the expectations of these students? Do we truly understand the level of the innovation that is moving through the school system, and are we really ready to meet it? Does the traditional (archaic?) structure of tertiary institutions, with its accompanying mass of committees (and we all know the story about camels and committees) condemn innovation at tertiary levels to always being slow and behind the times?

Image CC-BY-SA from

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Disruptive innovation.

Steve Wheeler's post on disruptive innovation is thought-provoking and essential reading for those of us in education. “…Getting education right is the most important priority for all of us. It’s the whole ball of wax. No state education system will be any use, unless it trains and sustains good teachers. Teacher education in a digital age, using the best and latest technologies is a must”