Curriculum and Education > 2016 - 2017

Curriculum and Education > 2016 - 2017

Current items of interest in and around WSU

Thursday, 22 September 2016 12:59

Professional Learning Communities

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As part of the course I taught online at Queens University over the summer, we investigated PLCs (professional learning communities), and the students were required to engage with one and report back on their success. As a follow up, I received an email the other day from a former student asking about PLCs. Here is an abridged version:

Hi Paul, I hope all is well. I was in your Collaborative Inquiry course during the summer. I honestly and truly enjoyed and learned a lot from the course. So much so that at my new job we recently had our first PLC meeting. It was quite awkward (which I know is to be expected). I was talking to my breakout group about building trust and getting to know one another. They asked me to share this with the larger group and I did (reluctantly being the 'new guy') and the principal of my program said that she would like to speak further to me about PLCs. 

I am of course a bit nervous both being new to the school while still wanting to share all of the good things I learned. I am wondering if you have any suggestions as to how I should share? I believe all of my apprehensions go directly to the issue of trust in a PLC, but want to know how to best overcome this and present ideas effectively. Do you have any ideas or could point me in the direction of an article that would explain this? Sorry to bother, you but I feel that you were the best person to contact in this instance. Best regards, your student

My response was as follows:

Well, you have gotten off to a good start in your new position. That is great. As for the question of PLCs, you have identified the most crucial element. As a teacher, that is the very same element that we need to secure first in the classroom – is it safe to ask questions? To be me?

 I have found a great deal of inspiration through the community of inquiry model (, which I think applies in many collaborative situations. I wrote a paper which is in review now about using this model to manage communities. The goal I think is to make the community feel safe through the social presence – making sure they understand the purpose of the community and letting each other know their own personal goals within the larger community. This is a great activity in itself to let the participants place themselves in the community and in a context where they feel they can contribute.

 COI model front

Also, you as facilitator, need to manage this process.

 The next step is to clarify the notion of teaching presence. This is the guiding force of the community. These are the questions that we ask each other and more importantly, the include the permission to ask questions. If we expect questions and tell each other that we are expected to ask questions, when we actually do so, it is easier. You may have noted that even in our discussion boards, people still get a bit put out when some one asks a question or challenges them. However, that is the point. And we just do it in the context of learning.

 Once we have social presence and teaching presence, then we will get cognitive presence, and not before.

 Have a read of the two articles and look at the website and the actual model. It may take awhile for it all to sink in, but trust me, I have been relying on this model for at least 10 years and it still works perfectly. 



Thursday, 08 September 2016 15:16

Collaboration in the new Learning Space

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Lately, I have been engaged in a variety of projects to help faculty prepare for our new learning space. One recurring item in my conversations and work is the notion "Making Thinking Visible". This is not a new topic for me (just search for the term)! The following discussion is part of a larger piece of work that I am sharing with colleagues in order to spark discussion about how to manage our new collaborative spaces that we will be moving into in the fall (January for our northern hemisphere audience).

Tell Show me what you think of / know about …

One of the most important elements of engaging students is ensuring that they know what to do.

  • Do they know what to do right now in the class?
  • Do they know what to do for next class?
  • Do they know how all activities relate from…
    • Preparation for class to …
      • Classroom activity to …
        • Assessment to …
          • Unit outcomes to …
            • Success by passing the unit to…
              • Graduating

The more clearly we can articulate opportunities and expectations, the more engaged our students will be. Concurrently, in order to help students see the relevance of their work, we also need to give them the tools, and the strategies to use those tools, to allow them to make their thinking visible.

They need to make their thinking visible to themselves first and then to their colleagues and peers, and finally to their stakeholders and assessors. 

We need to make our expectations visible through as many means as reasonably possible.

Modelling Thinking

In order to help students interact with ideas and content in meaningful ways, we need to provide strategies, or thinking routines, that can be employed in the classroom to help facilitate the learning process.

These routines can be a leverage point for us to help students extend their critical thinking beyond their normal limits. We need to get the thinking out of their heads and on to paper so that others can see it.

idea manage classroom

If we are Distinctly Student Centred, then it is our responsibility to ensure that all students participate – not for their own good, but for the good of those around them. If a student does not want to participate, that is their decision, and they should be encouraged to leave without penalty. However, it is your decision to let them stay and then adversely affect the rest of the class through their (in)actions.

The learning studio is designed to facilitate collaborative inquiry and support group work. Much of the activity in the class will be noisy and challenging. As the tutor, your role is to both offer content expertise and manage the process. 

idea manage

Managing the process:

group work

At all times, ensure that the students are engaged in the class. The main reason students disengage is that they do not know what to do. A secondary reason is that they think you do not care. To help ensure engagement:

  • Are students listening? Wait for attention. Wait… wait … keep waiting
  • Are they participating? If not, why not? They may not have a pen!
  • If you ask a question. Don’t immediately answer it for them.
  • Do not be afraid to have quiet. Students need time to think.

If they have not prepared,

  • Ask why not. Have they done anything at all? Can they still answer the question or participate in group work?
  • Indicate the consequences, for their classmates. Highlight who has come from where, or given up what to be in the class. Stress the importance of being able to contribute to their classmates.
  • Is there time for them to look at content?
Tuesday, 09 August 2016 12:41

Idea Management in Higher Education Featured

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Idea Management

In order to support students in their academic efforts, the notion of Idea Management can offer a series of processes and strategies that can tie together, both conceptually and practically, their interactions with important and recurring concepts. Such processes can be reflected in assessments that are designed to help students articulate their thoughts, to themselves, their academic communities and their assessors, in a coherent and complete manner.

Idea management is a notion that speaks to the highly interactive nature of the flipped classroom, a model that is quickly gaining prominence, especially in Australia and elsewhere. Many current assessment strategies include opportunities for students to demonstrate competency through a variety of practical activities. Students now need a structured, holistic approach to these assessments that will allow them to compile and curate the range of ideas, skills and concepts that they produce through their classroom and assessment work and that are related to the various practices they are expected to master. These processes will be designed to support their ability to recall and reuse concepts and strategies across units.

Variation Theory

The ability to recall and reuse, and apply concepts speaks to the issue of threshold concepts. In many areas of study, the ability to be successful relies on students being able to grasp elemental concepts and then develop and build on those concepts. Variation theory, as means of working with threshold concepts provides a means of modelling activities that support student success.

Variation theory may be viewed as an application of Schema Theory (Ausubel) supported by Differentiation and the notion of Ill-structured knowledge domains (Spiro). Schema theory suggests that in order to understand a new concept, we must be able to place or attach it to the context of our current understanding. Ill-structured knowledge domains consider the idea that knowledge is not usually linear and hence requires a variety of ways to represent and understand it. Differentiation suggests that we all learn in different ways. Hence, variation theory suggests that we might learn better if we are given opportunities to interact with new knowledge in different ways in order to account for all of its permutations and combinations.


Feedback from a number of fellow colleagues in higher education suggest that a coherent strategy would be appreciated and would offer meaningful support, both longitudinally beyond the duration of a unit through a course, and concurrently across units. Feedback also supports the development of a coherent strategy that could be modelled for other units and courses. Feedback from literacy advisors indicates that there is need of an overarching strategy that can support students to address their other literacy needs and that can be used to track progress and to guide further personal development.

Idea Management and Student Work Space

The notion of a student work space refers to a set of tools, and processes to make the best use of these tools in the pursuit of excellence. One of the elements of this approach will be a curated collection of work to serve assessment purposes.

A structured work space for idea management outlined through assessments provides students a range of lifelong learning skills including communication and presentation skills, collaboration and participation skills, analysis through curation, and critical self-reflection. It also provides a set of skills that help students to function in a knowledge economy and that will provide coherency and consistency across the span of a student’s university career and hopefully beyond as they pursue lifelong learning.

The activities that support and are supported by this approach also speak to a range of learning items including learning styles. The notion of differentiation discusses the value of presenting information in different ways, and the need to consider the students learning styles as well as our own. 

We need to consider how students take in information and ‘digest’ it. Most people learn in a variety of ways but will have a preference or a particular strength in learning in one of these ways. We also need to be very cautious not to generalize from our own experiences when trying to understand how others learn.

Students receive ideas and information from a variety of sources, and are expected to do a variety of things with that information:

  idea manage 200

Another way of viewing this work is to look at it through a sequential process.

  idea manage classroom 200

Students themselves are often not aware of how they learn and so should be given the opportunity to experience multi-modal methodologies. For example:

learning styles three 200

  • Auditory learners: Learn from or when hearing others talk.
    • How: Let them talk! When they speak aloud they quickly realize they do or do not know what they are talking about.
    • Let others talk
    • Share videos online
  • Visual learners: Need to see the information
    • How: Write new concepts and vocabulary on the board – leave them there as a reference throughout the lesson
    • Use presentation tools with graphic images with or instead of text.
    • Let students design their own graphics and concepts maps.
  • Kinesthetic learners: Need to move or physically interact with information
    • How: Provide opportunity to take notes, remind them to write something down
    • Let them get up and write on the board,
    • Let them handle things (manipulatives – e.g. spreadsheets), “hands on” activities,
    • Work in groups to make a concept map.

How do we then integrate these methods into our classes?

  work spaces 200

By providing structures for work spaces, associated classroom activities, and incorporating these processes into formal assessments, the faculty can encourage students to come to class much better prepared for the flipped classroom. By employing cloud storage tools to capture and share ideas, students should always have access to their work and be able to draw upon previous work and documentation.

The notion of “Making Thinking Visible” allows students and faculty to externalize their ideas – to literally take the ideas out of our heads – and through the use of various media create ‘discrete’ ideas which can be manipulated, shared, sequenced and put on display for others.

By using a few select, freely available tools, students can bring their old ideas with them to new classes. They can reflect on past work and make connections by virtue of having a range of thoughts and ideas arrayed before


Students should use their own cloud storage tools for the actual storage of their data in its various formats. There are a variety of different tools available.

Google is recommended because it offers a range of tools under one log-in account and is already widely used around the world. It also offers longevity for the account, easier access to other account holders, ample storage space and an integrated suite of tools.

The following is a selection of tools and purposes offered as examples.

Personal work space

  • Google Drive
    • provides ample cloud storage space (15GB)
    • Accessible from multiple devices and integrates into multiple platforms.
    • Can’t be forgotten at home.
    • Can’t be lost
  • YouTube
    • provides a video platform.
  • Twitter
    • can hold links, articles,
    • Share ideas
  • LinkedIn
    • Profile, employment related groups and discussions
    • Great source of professional communities
    • Can be linked, used for communication, updated and shared

Community work space

  • Google docs
    • Synchronous editing
    • Exports to Word, Excel, PPT.
    • Supports forms
    • Documents and videos from these platforms and from social media including Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. can be easily embedded.
  • vUWS
    • Discussion boards, wikis,

Assessment and Competency

  • vUWS
    • Supports assessment documentation and provides various efficiency means for assessing and providing feedback
      • Classroom activities
      • Work sheets
      • Quizzes and results
      • Presentations
      • Discussion boards
      • Wikis
  • Blogger
    • Can hold embedded documents, RSS feeds from Twitter, LinkedIn profile etc.
    • Can be used for reflective writing and exported.
    • Can be closed, shared, partially or fully public.
  • Folders:
    • Personal folders can be shared in such a way as to support assessment of individual items.
    • Folders can be assessed for such aspects as:
      • Completeness / inclusion of
        • Instructor and / or peer feedback
        • Individual homework items
        • Reflections on activities
      • Presentation of contents
        • Ease of access to contents
      • Curation
        • Are the contents representative of some element of the unit e.g. real world examples of unit content found in media / imagery
    • In class activities need to be:
      • Related to the weekly content in various formats in order to allow for the flipped model to function.
      • Map from outcome to activity to assessment needs to be explicit.
      • Can incorporate a point system for the portfolio activities.
      • Need to consider recurring strategies that allow the students to be familiar with what they need to do and what tools they might need to use.

In my last post, I wrote about digital literacy and the mundane idea of document storage. The point, which I may not have actually mentioned, is that we need to be able to make our thinking visible to others. I have written about this topic several times (here and here for starters). 

In the video below, Steven Johnson comments at about 3:45 that an idea is not a single thing, but rather a network. This is interesting but might be a bit misleading. We can debate the existence of complex ideas or simple ideas, but nevertheless I think that individual ideas exist and can be externalized into a visible format through the use of media to create meaningful narratives of learning. 

narratives of learning

We then take those ideas and string them together into networks of ideas. In the video, Steven Johnson talks about several notions surrounding the question, where do good ideas come from, including the 'slow hunch'. But, basically he says good ideas come from people sharing their ideas with others and beating them about, and bashing them against others' ideas and preconceptions about the world. He concludes by saying that, "Chance favours the connected mind". 

So, how do we share our ideas more effectively with those around us and how do get others to share their ideas with us.

Watch the video...