Virtual Learning

Today I had the chance to try out some ‘technologies’ in Macquarie University’s lecture theatres.

This presentation was mashed over an hour with a ‘virtual’ hook up with Annabel Astbury and Jokay. Its always hard to know how to ‘pitch’ virtual worlds, but I see them as highly motivating and engaging spaces that students find ‘enjoyable’. The degree of ‘fun’ that they offer I think gives me some latitude to explore more challenging questions of pre-teachers.

The invitation to ‘live comment’ using Tinychat was met with blank looks as the opened their highly decorated ring-binders and set out their ball point pens. This presentation is also online, so ask questions, don’t write alone. But of course, no one was used to the idea of live note taking, but that was a message not something I thought would happen.

I think you have to have a serious message, but with mixed media presentation when talking about Web2.0 or virtual worlds. It’s a style thing. I like to use Apples ‘spaces’ to bounce around screens, but also like to have a lot of fast-paced slides, mixed with a few videos to allow a break from the onslaught.

Other like to run off a wiki or a set of bookmarks – I like pictures.

I don’t expect students will take specific ‘facts’ from the presentation, and indeed, I don’t want them too. All too often technical presentations for ICT get bogged down in ‘details’ and ‘yeah buts’. What I want them to do is take away one simple question – as “What I am doing motivating for students”, and then perhaps to start thinking of reasons to think about other things. Today I used World of Warcraft and Second Life – to demonstrate how we can use narratives and motivation to develop a range of ‘soft skills’, contrasted against the freedom of virtual worlds such as Second Life and Open Sim. I am sure that the students are not about to explore this stuff deeply. It’s just one hour in their course, but I’d like them to feel is that it is not okay to dismiss it.

The next step is to mix Second Life ‘live’ with a lecture, having students in-room and in-world. As the lecture is delivered, the backchannel should light up. All I have to do now is find an academic mad-enough to try this – or even better try and hook our theatre with another class. And to me, that is the hard part of EdTech – getting someone to take a ‘risk’ – a one hour ‘risk’. The technology itself is a piece of cake … the saga continues. A lot of work for an hour I grant you. But no matter how hard it was, it won’t be again … and there is always a next time.

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Realism, Relevance, Retention


This is a bit of a passion piece, but I think it’s important to say. I listened to some of the audience’s questions during Will Richardson’s presentation in Sydney last Friday. As ever Will was pulling out the main issues that face parents and teachers. As ever, some questions were very specific ‘which blog do I use’ or system-damming ‘but it’s blocked’ and ‘but I don’t have time’.

The Industrialist 3Rs (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic), are still being cited as the capstones of learning –  when learning is cited as ‘failing’-  the call is to go back to basics – as if technology is somehow disconnected from these things. Learning with technology is part of the ‘digitial’ 3Rs – realism, relevance and retention. These are things to strive for in relation to a broader array of classroom activities. They are enhancing the capabilities of gifted teachers, not displacing them. But even motivated teachers find it difficult to access professional learning that is going to allow them to learn to do it. We have the ability to transform learning  and increase motivation though technology, and still address traditional ‘values’.

Imagine a global virtual world in which students have to negotiate through the complex politics surrounding a wildlife habitat construction project in the developing world, making the case for its economic and environmental benefits. Students take on the ‘role’ of diverse stakeholders, and though classroom research – the can role-play, using exploratory and explicit learning to put forward their solution for a negotiated outcome. They interact in a virtual world, develop models and ideas – blended these with reflection and discussion in other online media such as a blog or wiki to collect and justify their collective action.

picture-11We now have 6Rs, Reading; Writing; Arithmetic; Realism; Relevance and Retention. The above experience can be created using a range of technologies; MeetSee, Edublogs; Skype; Google Docs etc., and easily blended into the classroom. Teachers can connect with other schools (see Jenny Luca’s recent presentation), and can easily ‘chat’ using very low bandwidth, low-tech web tools such as Tiny Chat. In primary years, this can be created with Quest Atlantis, or ever the excellent eKidnaworld (an Australian parent developed virtual world – that needs your support!).

What is critical is that teachers have access to ongoing ‘mentors’ that can show them how to create this – though adaptation of existing, readily available technologies.

To be effective, teachers need to learn about more than Bloom’s taxonomy, but to learn how to develop learning frameworks that contructively align outcomes (what do we want them to learn), activities (how to be create motivating classrooms) and assessment (how to we know they did it). Teachers also need to learn about ‘communication’ with digital media. More often that not, they focus on ‘marking’, and not ‘talking with’ students using more informal strategies.

So before teachers begin to utilize new laptops and faster networks, there remains a huge need to help schools develop goal-orientated, achievable learning frameworks to renew curricula, and will place valid, relevant arguments to the Department of Education as to why students need to access curricula that motivates. Duty of care relates to a physical state, not a virtual one.

The current policy of ‘banning’ sites is at best inconsistent. Are schools breaching Google’s AUP in schools?. If a child is bullied on their way home on a mobile phone – does the school breach it’s duty of care? If someone complains about a ‘blog’ then, despite following policy,are teachers are left at the mercy of the legal system? In short, unless ‘we’ move to a  position where we have effective policy, effective leadership, professional learning and on the ground ‘help’ for teachers, we might as well return to the 3Rs of the 1950s. We will fail and continue to orbit the issues and not end the digital winter. The best professional learning is happening inside personal networks, not systemic ones – and I don’t see any movement forward in public schools.

The DET needs to be brave, it needs to release teachers to mentor based professional learning, and link that with clear assessment via the NSW Institute of Teachers, in co-operation with the Teaching Unions to ensure equity. Instead we find Queensland and Western Australia blocking Quest Atlantis (as the data is held off-shore) and the DET using Twitter to make announcements, but blocks it in school. In short it is a mess and the debate over laptops and school intrastructure is meaningless unless clear policy and action is taken at DET level. I’d love to have that conversation.

Will’s session was another demonstration that teachers want to learn, but lack access to people who can help curriculum leaders, libraries and classroom teachers renew curricula and develop 21st Century pedagogy. There is no preparation for the introduction of fibre connectivity or laptops in the classroom, and well over a decade since the DET ‘re-trained’ teachers.

Realism is not present; what we are doing is no longer realistic. Relevance; current professional learning is limited to policy implementation. Retention; motivated teachers are ‘expelled’ by systems unable to recognise the significance of what they are trying to do. In our desire to be equitable, we fail students. Access to powerful professional learning and therefore powerful schools is increasingly limited by geography and social capital. Bringing any scale to what is a massive problem is difficult in Australia, imagine how much more complex it is in the UK or USA.

However, I wonder at what point someone (maybe me?) form some organisation to deliver 21st Century Learning in whole school, public access level in Australia. PLNs are great, but I think that we need to start something far more significant, that is recognised as professional learning and in some way aligned to recognition and motivation, and in such a way that it transcends the organic and provides constructive advice, policy and lobby for change.

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Wakoopa – Time of your (digital) life

picture-14This is a great little gadget, for mac and pc. Wakoopa is a widget with code you can embed online. At first glance, its a tool that watches how much time you spend with various applications. Great for finding out just how much time you’ve ‘wasted’ in Second Life or WoW perhaps.

I think it might have a far more constructive use for 21C educators. One of the greatest myths, put downs or unknowns that ‘connected’ teachers have justifying time online in networks or learning new applications. Its time that often goes totally unseen (in the eyes of HR). The amount of self-directed PD that these teachers and edtechs are doing combined with the amount of time they spend using these technologies to develop learning environments is almost impossible to measure, let along report.

I’m not going to pretend that I believe it is acceptable for teachers not to be learners or that traditional professional development models will keep pace with learning technologies. Its time to move on from passive ICT approaches.

Blogging is perhaps the most visible sign that a teacher has decided to engage in the 21C discussions and teaching approaches. But a blog post is a small part of the time people spend online, especially when starting to take in the enormity of the problems and solutions being explored by so many. You begin to read way more than you post.

Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) for example are by far an large the most important ‘technologies’ that teachers are using in professional development. These were again and again highlighted in conferences and panel discussions throughout 2008. The knowledge of all of us is greater than any one of us – as the saying goes.

Wakoopa is one way that a teacher could track their own time, but also use it to evidence their level of activity and engagement in their professional acitivity. You might not want to put it one a public page, but a private page on a blog or wiki, would be a very useful reporting tool. Of course this once again opens people to the critisism – you have too much time on your hands, you don’t have a life etc., – which to those who understand it’s transformative power, don’t really care about these days. More fool them. Recruitment ads are increasingly calling for ‘demonstrated ability’ in regard to ICTs – and I think in that regard Wakoopa could just be one of those widgets that gives real evidence of professional development.

Teen Second Classroom Nomination

Wow, I was amazed to see Teen Second Classroom, get nominated for an Eddie.

Given the amount of social networks out there, getting noiced is one thing, getting kids to use it another – but to get nominated, just fantastic. Judy O’Connell and I created the space last year, together with Second Classroom. The later, we hoped to gather 100 members by the end of the year, which I noticed we achieved this week. The aim was initially to just connect educators who are looking at virtual worlds, MUVES and games.

Teen Second Classroom we thought would be a place for students involved with this in classrooms, could come to connect and reflect on what they were doing, in an authentic and informal way. One challenge in introducing virtual worlds into a school time-table, is that it has to be accountable.

This is hard to do in Skoolaborate, given that adults can’t go and have a look around.

We felt that reflecting on the experiences was important and develop their fluent use of ‘making and collaborating’ in TSL and reflecting in a blog. A place for students to share development tips as they saw them, and to reflect on their own work.

Consider that students only had 1 hour a week in class, all 9th graders, and apart from being given the ‘problem’, had to work out just how to go about using second life to create a 2 minute Machinima film, based on a Shakespeare play. So this was a huge challenge for them, how to go about doing everything.

The students did spent more time in world, at home, at lunch etc., – and it was interesting to see how their need to ‘learn how’ led them to collaborating with other Skoolaborate avatars. This I guess was a kind of experiment on my part. They knew other people were in there … would they turn to ‘network knowledge’ as a solution – is that how they learn? – and yes, that is exactly what they did. The need to learn, make and do led them to forming relationships with others in Skoolaborate, but wasn’t explictly outlined.

In doing that, they needed to solve a number of problems – how to screen shot, how to write reflectively – what kind of writing would show their progress etc., So the work in there is all self-directed. We purposely keep well out of they way, and it was interesting to see how they started to use it. In the classroom, students worked in-world, but also checked the community for video clips and what others were doing.

The future of it? Well I really hope that some of the educators in Second Classroom, will form student groups in the Teen community – and that students will work to mentor and help each other in these environments.

As I’m not in the school now, Lucy Gresser will pass on my congratulations and continue to work with the students.

At the end of the day, the site is not mine, or Judy’s, but belongs to the students. Its important in all out ‘love’ of SL, that we hear students reflect on what they do, not just report on it as teachers.

Click here to vote if you feel so inclined.

Write a book in a day

04112008561Day 1 of the ‘Book in a Day’ creative writing project with 9th graders ended in an almost party like atmosphere from the 60 students who took part today. The final hour had 60 students in one big room, furiously working in groups to finalise their work and publish it.

The scene reminded me of the buzz that advertising studios generate in the final moments before some suited up account representative takes the creative thoughts of the writers and designers to pitch for the account.

What also stuck me was the organisational skills and co-operative skills that the students have.

04112008558No teacher was pushing them along or giving motivational speeches. From the moment Lucy Gresser posted the days work groups, the kids threw everything at it. Even the students that tend to lurk on the very brink of engagement usually, were sucked into the vortex of creative writing that was going on.

We presented a short video montage of themes from Orwell’s Animal Farm – spliced between images taken in Second Life from Tempura Island (a recent field trip with the Jokaydians). This was the visual base from which they had to produce a book – on a given theme – 8000 words. The students almost fell off their seats when seeing that – 8 0 0 0 words? – it looked impossible – and in a single day – madness, but we are  giving them a summative writing test in a day. We thought they could do it, now they had to believe it too.

We didn’t want them to start getting into graphic design, so the supplied material negated them spending time there. The end product would be a simple 5.5″ x 8.5″ book, with a title cover and about 12 pages in which 6 students developed their storyline – and each took equal share of creative writing – 1000 words each, or approximately 2 pages of writing.

04112008556Two pages of creative writing might now sound too much, but to get 9th grade boys to undertake such a thing is, in my experience, a rare thing.

We are so used to seeing students produce reports and recounts – using crutches like Google and Wikipedia, that the work done recently in community blogging in their Green Up project – gave them the confidence to engage with the task.

The way in which we’re designing projects and lessons is delivering confidence, engagement and a sense of adventure in learning – or at least that is the feedback that students are giving us. They bail staff up and talk about ‘learning’ and Gavin Hayes reported last week how he overheard kids at the cricket nets discussing teaching approaches between classes, and which worked best.

The students are very aware of what good teaching and learning is, and that accountability fuels the enthusiasm of the teacher. 9th grade is often a difficult grade, and our school used to be a proof of that. Now, we have learners, not issues.

They are reflective writers now, so this project is pushing them into being creative too. The year long skills that they have developed, under the project leadership of their teachers, especially Lucy Gresser in English was paid back in a single day it seems.

The boys know how to collaborate and share information and ideas and the groups took several different approaches to the task.

One, for example, decided that they would co-operatively create the first ‘chapter’ of a thousand words. From that they each took a subsequent chapter individually. This approach they thought would give them some common unity and style, so the remainder of the writing would be much more connected.

These are decisions that they can now make as they are experienced in what makes collaboration work. They are now a long way from the prior norms where a few do the majority of the work and the other coast along for the ride. They all WANT to contribute – and support each other using the critial friends process that they have been taught all year.

The know how to use a GoogleDoc and share it to speed up their effectiveness – they can throw 8000 words into InDesign in half an hour and format a publication. Their fluency between technologies now affords them methods of collaboration to manage time, pace and delivery.

04112008557During the day, it is significant that Google was not a tool that students used. There was no desire to try and ‘find answers’  or short cuts.

I think that the way in which the English projects have been designed and presented to students in the last 6 months have sufficiently promoted individual thinking and writing that to a large extent, students no longer see Googling as the best way to learn. They may hit it for quick facts, but do not rely on it anymore. That to me is a massive shift away from prior ‘norms’ that we saw in 9th Grade ICT based classrooms.

Lucy is writing up the more literacy aspects of today on her blog, so I’ll link there, where she has also posted up some examples of the work the students did today.

All 14 groups posted their work on time, which is 112,000 words. The next step is to work with them to extend the project in terms of design and publishing – and post the combined works on Lulu for purchase and download by their families – and of course the world.

Day 2 will see some 80 students do the same summative task – and I’m really pleased to know that Judy O’Connell will be sparing some time to come and get involved in the afternoon!

I am finding that students work really well in carefully planned tasks that have a sense of urgency and deadlines about them. We’re finding that 2 week projects appear to yeild higher engagement than 4 or even 6 weeks. Lucy is also very adept at using a range of formative methods – this is a critical teaching skill to ensure that her classes are not only meeting outcomes – but also demonstrating sound knowledge of the syllabus content.

If there’s one critisism of project based learning I have – it is in teachers being able to track and evidence syllabus content as well as meeting outcomes. There is a danger that ‘content’ is glossed over in the desire to have a ‘cool end product’. This isn’t something that is happening – and I think that using Web2.0 tools makes the formative work far more transparent, than if students were using more tradtional PBL approaches, but it does take a lot of strategic planning to build that into activities – the results however, are worth it. To see these students work right through recess and lunch, almost oblivious to it, and then to end the day so enthusiastic is amazing.

Animal Farm 2.0 – Reading and Talking in Google Docs

In my previous post, I talked about the balance and opportunity between instructional learning and inquiry (or project based learning).

My last project with Lucy Gresser in Project Based Learning at my school.

I was a real attempt at combining the two methods of learning. If you’ve not read the other posts on Animal Farm, then here’s the gist of part one of the project.

The students were charged with reading the novel in a week, in preparation for a second week of learning about creative writing. At the end of the second week, they work collaboratively to write a 7000-8000 word novel in groups of 6 in a day using Google Docs and Blurb’s Booksmart application.

These 9th grade students did not know what the second week project woud be about, whilst reading Animal Farm – but they knew it was connected somehow.

Lucy is an amazing teacher, and I’d put my kids in her charge without hesitation. She demonstrates what I think are the critical characteristics of a 21C teacher – and engages and enthuses students and uses technology fluidly to connect with students.

Part of the task, for students to select an online group – in which they would talk to a character in the book – who asks them questions – Each day, the character asks a few questions on each chapter as the student progresses – using Google Docs. The ‘teacher’ is blind to know who the teacher is online – though they do know their classroom teacher – so in effect many students online teacher was not their face to face one.

We wanted to create a feeling of a third space, in which students would undertake conversational learning. They would debate the classroom discussion online, and answer questions that we not set ahead of time. Whatever topics the students raised, the teacher expanded upon – we didn’t want the teacher to be the ‘expert’ in the conversation – so took the approach of using the various characters of the book as the students online conversational tutor.

This is a link to a PDF file of the Google Doc ‘learning’ conversation that took place over the week. The teacher comments are in green, the student’s are in black. I would really like comments on what you see going on here – in contrast to ‘instructional’ learning only.

Feedback on the approach and what you see in the document is much appreciated. How has the student reacted to online conversations, is it effective learning, do you see him grow in his understanding of the text and wider issues? How?


I’m a Wii

I thought this (raunchy?) Apple parody would make a good ‘entry document’ to use to talk to older students about ‘Digital Representation and Reputation’.

It is actually very well done and I think would form the basis of a good classroom discussion, given that students already know the “Im a Mac” ads and understand the PS3/Wii war.

Animal Farm 2.0 – Reading won’t hurt

 We are almost the end of the first week of the two week Animal Farm 2.0 project. Our goals have been clear. We want the students to get back into reading books, talking about books and thinking the language of books. We also want them to use what they are reading to help them learn about basic creative writing techniques, start to repack ‘language’ in a formal context and then to produce a series of books containing short stories.

It’s fast and furious. I am not the ‘classroom’ teacher – in fact there are 8 of them. I think that the design of this project has created for the teachers a real feeling of ‘unity’. Casual conversations with the teachers suggests that they feel enthusiastic, becuase of the way the students have taken to reading and asking questions. It has not been perhaps the ‘battle’ to get 15 year old boys to get engaged with reading that it might have been in the past, but that is just a feeling I get from talking to them.

The students have shared a simple GoogleDoc with their teachers online, and have been actively responding to questions. These questions are individual to each student, so the teachers have mapped the ‘key learning’ and been able to explore the student’s ideas as well as meet the objectives of the unit. The classroom lessons are given to explore the text in groups, take part in writing exercises to support it. The deconstruction and reflection of that classroom activity – is done in GoogleDocs, and it may well be that the students are talking to a different teacher.

In effect they are talking to an advisor and mentor. When they return to class – its clear that the students are bring a number of persectives to the class.

They can say to the teacher ‘That is what I thought, but then Snowball said ….”. It gives the student some ‘expert’ feeling, that they are bringing information and new ideas to the teacher – creating a greater democracy in learning.

Around the campus, students can be seen reading. They have also formed discussion groups with teachers at lunch time – because they want to know more and get more from the text. In the 3 years I’ve been at the school, I have never seen this in 9th Grade. The actual manditory tasks this week are actually quite low, yet the effort and enthusiasm is remarkable. We have a new teacher in the mix, Brad. Lucy has taken on the project in her usual creative and enthusiastic manner and Brad has falled right into line. Her understanding of how technology can be used strategically to create a sense of drama and mystery in learning is fantastic.

The students know that there is something about to happen in the project, and not sure what, but it has something to do with the meaning that they need to get from Animal Farm. (I’d say more, but they might read this). What is important is that when I ask the students about ‘how’s the project going’ … they talk about the meaning of the book, and how it might apply to all manner of things, no least the way the school operates. They are not retelling the story. At the end of almost a year, these kids are now looking well beyond the immediate ‘task’.

In this project, I think we’ve got a strong ‘content’ and ‘learning’ balance. One of the critisisms of PBL is how kids stack up against kids learning the same content in more traditional ways. I guess that really depends on how you define the summative assessment – but I do think that there is a danger to skip content milestones in favour of other goals – which are valid – but make it hard to draw direct comparisons.

This project, so far, has created unity in the teachers – each has a part to play, and has been able to teach in their own style. The enthusiasm that the teacher brings to class is picked up by students. At times I think teachers can be lost in the fog of technology, or the process of project based learning – and students know it. When putting this task together – a major goal Lucy and I had – was for the teachers. To create a project that let them do what they do best, to learn a new tool (GoogleDocs) and create unity and engagement as a teaching team – that has the ability to focus on individual students. I am learning just how critical that is – and unity is as much of a key word as collaborative to me right now.

The next phase of creative writing starts tommorrow – so I really want to try and capture that – with the end ‘book’ writing the week after.

Animal Farm 2.0 – Reading and Sharing

A funny thing’s happened at the farm. Firstly, strange messages started appearing on the walls in the barn. A few days later, students were given the shocking news that they had to not only read, but talk about Orwell’s Animal Farm. The farmer did come in and ‘yeah but’ a few things, but the animals didn’t bark or moo back.

Students remind me constantly that what they have learned this year in a web2.0 classroom, are skills and methods of learning – that boost learning. One example. Students chose one of several study themes while reading the book this week. So for instance, one theme is Napoleon, looking at power. They share a GoogleDoc with Napoleon, and answer the questions. Each day, the questions move onto 2 new chapters.

This was Lucy’s idea not mine – for the character in the book to be having the conversation with the student – about the content of the book – and as a formative tool. So the learning goes back and forth in a very conversational style.

The benefit, and perhaps the significant shift that technology brings – is that the conversation is instant and between teacher and student. It is not marking at all, it is a conversation and the teacher is able to push or pull the student to explore any ideas they have. The teacher is NOT asking all the questions, but posing questions that generate discussion. The learning comes from that discussion – no getting a question right a,b, or c.

GoogleDocs allows that to happen. It also gives the teachers an opportunity to share and work with students outside of the classroom setting, where peer pressure and ‘its not cool to read a book’ might otherwise stop boys asking questions. But in the classroom is not silly-boyish behavior, over what many 9th grade boys would cite as ‘boring’ .. why are we reading this old book about stupid animals.

Why is not a question that immediately comes to mind for them now. As they know that the answer will not be simple enough to be given to them.

I think that is what schools need to see happen. Students learning that there is often no single answer and that even if there was, then they know how to challenge it – not simply accept it as truth because the teacher is the one with both the questions and answers. Technology enables but does not determine this learning.

Perhaps from a social media perspective – the most significant ‘observation’ I’ve had is that students no only shared their document with the teacher (who remains anonymous throughout the week), but with several of their friends. There is discussion about the book at school. Not teacher led but student lead. GoogleDocs is being used in a way that negates asking ‘class questions’ at all, so even though they are sharing, each only has ‘their answers’ which are related to others, but in no way singularly satisfies the teachers question.

This promotes more sharing, and more discussion. It leads to clarification, and the teachers are now being asked to have a book-group in lunch times. Some read, some listen, some GoogleDoc.

As they know there is more creative work to do next week, they also know that in someway, just as the pictures appeared in the barn, that reading and talking about Animal Farm must in someway link to what comes next.

Right at the center of this project is not a book, or a GoogleDoc – it is a natural conversation between tutor and learner – in which the teacher does not have to have or offer all the answers, but also pose questions – based on what the student is saying. It is a wonderful dialogue. Part digital, part face to face. Almost fireside at times.

Each teacher has the opportunity to explore the text with each student. GoogleDocs affords massive accountability to the student and teacher. It’s a living document, showing the relationship between teacher and learner. The students automatically ‘shared’ those conversations with other students. Not to copy, but to compare. Very little activity is given over to list, identify questions. The entry point is compare and it rises from there.

I think that finally, I’ve found a significant lens to say that I know what makes collaborative projects work in the classroom. There is a balance between mystery, interest, accountability and propaganda. As I end my time here, it do hope that I can continue to look at media literacy based learning with Lucy. But then these days, we never really leave do we.

Animal Farm 2.0 – How to

Just spent a fantastic day off and on with Lucy Gresser, who is part of our PLP leading teacher project team. Lucy is one of the most creative, democratic and inspiring teachers in the schools Project Based Learning. She has an absolute passion for English which resonates with her students. I constantly think as a parent – what kind of teacher do I want my kids to know – and Lucy is exactly that.

So we’ve modeled a two week descriptive writing project today and going to try and share how this collaborative project works, and maybe give people some idea of what I consider 21C practice.

Why? Well at the end of very interesting week in which I was asked to ‘describe what it is I do’ in my role as LTST. It’s hard to explain something like this to people who really don’t have a context for it, suffice to say, this is not what LTST does as far as I know. Confused? Yeah, me too.

This is what I do because I hope teachers will do with my own kids in the future.


Once again, we’ve opted for ‘classless’ grouping of students. I am a massive believer in the ‘collaborative discourse’ community approach to learning.

This means we have 6 teachers working with 160 students – online, but in class, 2 teachers work with about 55 students in two hour blocks – in one room. In this way we blend learning between virtual and face to face.


The project runs over 2 weeks.


  • it is a digital storytelling set up.
  • It uses reflective writing as formative assessment
  • final product and presentation as a summative assessment.

The first stage is the entry document and project launch – and that is very important. The initial introduction of the project needs to create plenty of questions in the minds of students. As we move through the project, the teacher’s role is to scaffold the learning – to navigate students though ‘way points’ – from the syllabus. How they get to those is largely the students choice.

Preparing the project

To get to the launch – there is preparation. That I did using Second Life. Quite by chance as it happens. One goal of the project is to prevent students ‘creating graphics’ – but to focus on reading and writing. We know that we also need to general visual scaffold and stimulus material in reaching our end product and I’ve been thinking about that. How to make it interesting, but not schooly.

I was talking with Jo Kay, Al Upton and Leigh Blackall at the tail end of a small event – and Leigh got talking about the changes in graphic themes and styles that is maturing in lots of Second Life builds now. Lots of this is soft, organic and a kind of steam punk/manga feel. Korean and Japanese designers are often ellustive to talk to, but they are creating some amazing visual effects and spaces with that are edgy and at the same time highly detailed.

Once such space Jo took us to was JAPAN : Tempura Island. As anyone who knows me, I am an Art Director by trade – so I love to look at the technics of builds. Tempura Island is outstanding.

As we looked about, I took ‘photos’. These images show lots of interaction between characters, elements of nature, man made items etc.,

I was using SL to create a portfolio of images that the students will use as part of their final work – where they will produce descriptive writing.

There are 3 reasons for this. 1. The students respond to this type of ‘gamer’ visual representation. 2. It is very easy to do and 3. It provides the students with a ‘core’ visual stimulus to work around – in what will be a single day of final work.


Collaborative Web2.0 projects have greater impact if they are broken down into fast and furious hands on activities – followed by more sedate reflection. There has to be a degree of pressure and urgency in the task to push the students in the task – but well resourced so that the distance between a thoughts and a ‘win’ is not too far and reinforced through reflection via Google Docs. The book itself is a class text – but we also provide a Google Books link to the online text, but we want students to go home and READ.


Week 1 uses Moodle and Google Docs.
Week 2 uses Google Docs, Blurb and the images from Second Life, via a Flickr account.

The reason for this lies in the formative assessment tools developed to support this format of learning.

Formation of Groups

  1. We created 6 ‘themes’ for the final product. For example, ‘Equality’.
  2. Each theme is presented to students as a 50 word ‘outline’.
  3. This gives an ‘idea’ of what the end product might entail – but by no means exhaustive – it is named and described to create curiosity.
  4. 160 students are broken down into 7 groups. 6 groups are ‘mainstream’ and 1 group is hand picked based on differentiated needs or students that are identified as needing ‘special help from past performance’.
  5. Moodle is used to form the groups. Here’s how we do that – We open the themes for online enrolment. First in bessed dressed is the way we do it. Kids opt into 1 chosen theme on that basis. They do not know who the ‘teacher’ is who is mentoring the group online. This stops kids trying to get with their mates or hooking into the ‘best worker’ groups – as they fill up fast – and kids soon learn that if they want their pick, then they’d better get on, else that group gets filled out.
  6. Group names. We used ‘Snowball’, etc, to name the study groups – rather than a classname. This again is there to build curiosity and links to the text.
  7. Google Docs – We created 7 Gmail Acccounts for each group. Students invite their mentor – using the given gmail address – to share their individual documents for the project. This makes it simple – and private for teachers.

So at the end of formation, kids have chosen a group, set up a Google Doc and shared it with a teacher – via a special email address. Each teacher will have about 26 shared documents to work with.

Its important to note that the kids in their Google Group – may not actually be in their class. This means that the kids they teach face to face may or may not include those they teach online. This ensure’s teacher buy in and also is a stragic way of norming Google Docs in professional development.

The strategy behind this : The kids are selecting the topic, and have no bias to the teacher and visa versa. The teachers we involved in the process of choosing the ‘theme’ from Animal Farm that they want to teach. This is a strong bargain.

Week 1

Reading is not a normal 9th grade activity. Reading a whole book in a short space of time is even less so. In week one, the students read the 100 pages or so of Animal Farm – which is made of 10 chapters. Our expectation in the classroom is simply reading. 2 chapters a day in class/home. At the end of the lesson the teacher asks one question – relating to the text. This formative assessment is based on comprehension and communication, and equates to 30% of the end mark. The teacher has the ability to vary the question – depending on how they feel the previous responses were made.

I think that it is critical – in 21C learning, that we leverage the teaching experience and skills of staff – and not dictate inflexible lesson planning.

Students respond to each question (2 per day) using Google Docs – together with the a reflective addition – “things I wonder about right now”.

During the first week, the students are learning that sustained, personal reading is valuable. The teachers can allow quiet reading – or model reading with all or some of the students in break out groups.

We are not seeking to explore Animal Farm in a historical context – that is another project. We are also aiming to use scaffold thier comprehension though rising taxonomy as the week progresses.

Week 2 – Descriptive Writing

The first lesson is 2 hours. In the first hour, we show them one image from the Tempura set. In the hour they are asked to write a descriptive text. A saga. So they need to research that. More specifically, they have to write a 50 word saga. This is a soft exposure to descriptive writing – and an introduction of the final assessment criteria. This is 10% weighted and sumbmitted via Moodle. Most kids will nail this – and its really important to start ‘new’ projects with ‘easy wins’.

In the second hour, the kids are given a ‘writing brief’, and watch a short video. This is just an Animoto – using the 6 themes and images from Tempura. This is called the entry document. This informs them of what they will do to create their final product – but at this point the have little idea how to reach the goal.

The end product is a book using Blurb – and the images supplied from Tempura.

  • Each book is a collection of short stories.
  • There are 6 chapers. The chapters are based on the themes and the Google Doc Groups.
  • Each chapter has three short stories (one per student).
  • The story is constructed around the images – and the themes that they chose at the outset – taken from those in Animal Farm – so there is immediate meta-cognition for the students to scaffold from.

This is where collaboration returns. In the first week, they worked in a Google Doc Group as individuals, now they need to work together, so each book is produced by taking 3 students from each theme.

During the week, the teacher models the descriptive writing process. For example a teacher may ask students to write an alternative last chapter for Animal Farm or perhaps the first chapter of a sequel. Again this is open to the teacher to decide.

The end product

Using Blurb, the students produce a short story of 800-1000 words – on a single day. For example, they may create a story called ‘Julies crisis’ – their contribution to the chapter. In effect it means that we have a ratio of 1 teacher to 15 students during the writing day. They will have to use Google Docs to submit an outline by a deadline – which will be graded, then the majority of the day given over to writing.

The final product is the assembly of the book itself – largely a cut and paste task from Google Docs.

Students then submit their final work as a .pdf file into Moodle to time and date stamp it.

Evaluation and Real World relevance

I like everything to have a real world aspect in learning. We’ll invite an external ‘friend’ to read the books and to select a ‘winner’. Each student will then get a copy of the book using Blurb as a hard copy. Each book is then evaluated and feedback given to students.

This gives them incentive – the chance to have a quality portfolio piece  – A professionally produced book, with cool illustrations containing 8000 words on average.

In addition to this, we will offer each of the books for purchase online. Students are invited to consider how to market their work, and as a default position, they will be offered for sale to parents and community using PayPal or Blurbs ecommerce engine via the schools website or their personal blogs.


I think that giving students not only the opportunity to write a book at the age of 14/15 – but also to sell that book to everyone and anyone is poweful. The proceeds of sale go to the authors. We often talk about each of us having a printing press – but in this case I think its important to show them that not only can they complete this task – but you can put a value on the work.

Designing a project is FUN. Its fairly manic – and we constantly are looking to encourage some activities – and negate others. For example, there is no value to a student in attempting to Google any element of the project and there is not opportunity to move away from reading and writing. There is no ‘graphic design’ and so no need to worry about ‘design’ or allow students to ‘bling up’ their work – that is not the focus.

To me being a 21C Educator is not about delivering ‘content’ but developing learners to achieve authentic goals using technology. This kind of project, and working with teachers like Lucy to unpack ‘how they learn’ not ‘what they learn’ is the difference between so many teachers, but anyway – this is what I do (or did).

If you want to know more, talk about it, comment on it – then I’m more than happy to do so!