Reflecting on Grade 1 Communities Unit (part 3-Making Global Connections Online)

This is the third part of a reflection on introducing grade 1 students at the International School of Phnom Penh to the learning potential offered by online communities. Part 1 of this reflection described how grade 1 homeroom teachers (Rachelle Pia, Carina Corey, and Kelly Davidson), the Tech Coach (Matt Dolmont), and the EAL teacher (me) collaborated to introduce students to the concept of communities of learners by using analog community boards. In part 2 of this reflection I explained how we introduced student interaction in these communities by teaching commenting skills. In this part, I will summarise the unit and discuss how we moved from the analog communities and comments to online communities, enthusiasm for which spread to other grade levels at our school and grade 1 students taught by Tara Barth from Myanmar International School in Yangon.

This reflection appeared in the April – May 2016 edition of the ISPP Pulse.

Grade 1 recently inquired into the transdisciplinary theme of How We Organise Ourselves:

Our central idea was:

Effective communication systems allow people to connect locally and globally.

Our lines of inquiry were:

  • The ways different communication systems work
  • The ways we connect locally and globally using communication systems
  • The effectiveness of communication systems

As part of this inquiry, students explored how modern communications systems like the internet can help us create Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) that give us the potential of connecting with learners in other classrooms, schools, and countries in online communities. Students found out how these connective possibilities allow us to share our knowledge about topics that interest us and learn from others who may have a more developed understanding.

This exploration began with the students participating in an online Google Forms survey that helped teachers identify the six most preferred topics of interest amongst Grade 1 students. These topics were: puppies, cats, sea animals, Lego, football, and MineCraft.

Students then chose to become members of one of six communities centered around each of these topics. These communities initially existed as analog communities on art boards erected in the shared Grade 1 and 2 piazza, each of which was posted to by a teacher on the team. Students were at first asked only to lurk, which in terms of digital literacy means to simply enjoy content on the boards and check them for new posts and updates.

The analog communities piazza with teacher posted content. Students initially just joined and lurked.
An example of a one of the analog community boards with teacher posted content.

After a few days, students were invited to contribute oral, then written, comments in response to new posts made on the communities. Teachers modeled comment writing on sticky notes and students soon followed suit on paper speech bubbles. In writing workshop and unit of inquiry lessons, students learned to comment in ways that paralleled responses to art forms students had written during their previous unit of inquiry. Students learned to make: evaluative comments in which they expressed how and why they liked posts; connective comments in which they discussed how the post connected to their personal experiences, other topics, or other aspects of the same topic; inquiring comments where they asked a question of the person who made the post or of the other community members; knowledgeable comments where they added their own knowledge of the subject of the post; reply comments in which they answered another student or teacher comment; and graphical comments that expressed ideas with images or drawings. Students could use key sentence frames involving commenting from this “Commenting Cheat Sheet” that was displayed around the communities with the sticky notes and pencils. 

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In these photos you can see student comments on content in the yellow speech bubbles. Teacher comments are on pink sticky notes. Some of the content pictures are from students.

After this period of experimenting with commenting, students contributed to their communities by adding content in the form of images, facts, questions, or mini conversations. At the same time, students learned more about gathering images and information from Internet sources, and about how to be responsible and safe digital citizens from Mr. Matt, our Technology Coach.

Teachers, remarking on how interesting these analog communities seemed to be to their members, and other students throughout the school, then posed the questions: “Is it possible for people outside Grade 1 in ISPP to join, comment, and contribute to these communities? How could we make it so our little interesting communities could become GLOBAL systems for communication?” In every class discussion, Grade 1 students ultimately concluded that these analog communities had to be put on the internet somehow.

The medium of instruction and activities then shifted from the analog communities boards in the piazza onto the internet based VoiceThread application. Using this application, teachers created six “VoiceThreads”, media-centered slides that could be commented on from computer lab PCs and class iPads with equal utility, based on the analog communities boards. Each Grade 1 student was listed as an identity on each slide and was able to comment on content with written text, recorded voice, video, or annotated explanations. Using identities allowed other members to see the name of the students who made each comment, thereby providing a simulated yet controlled online community experience. Students demonstrated the commenting skills they learned through their experiences of the analog communities, but in various media formats online!

To help students make connections between the lines of inquiry, especially regarding the effectiveness of communication systems and how they allow us to connect globally and locally, the Grade 1 teaching team opened up these VoiceThread communities to Grade 2 ISPP students and Grade 1 students taught by Ms.Tara Barth from Myanmar International School in Yangon. ISPP Grade 1 students soon found their own comments surrounded by those from children in other classes and in another country!

Example Voice Thread Communities Picture
An example of what the VoiceThread online communities looked like after students commented…

Ultimately, the Grade 1 students showed great engagement in and enthusiasm for both their analog and online communities. As teachers, we hope their collective experience with especially the online VoiceThread communities proves to be an intriguing segue into blogging that begins in Grade 2, and results in an increased awareness of how engaged digital citizens use the internet for research and knowledge sharing.

We also feel that rich online experiences such as these will help students practice and develop behaviors that will lead to illustrative and positive digital footprints. As our Grade 1 students will undoubtedly be assessed and judged by future recruiters and employers according to the nature of these digital footprints, we think the appropriate time to guide students in their uses of technology is NOW.

Reflecting on Grade 1 Communities Unit (part 2-Comments)

This is the second in a series of blog posts about how I and a team of homeroom teachers and a Tech Ed coach at the International School of Phnom Penh are teaching Grade 1 students to participate in and contribute to learning on internet learning communities. In part 1 of this post, I detailed how my experiences in COETAIL Cohort 6 have led me to believe I should offer my students the opportunity to connect to other learners beyond their own classroom in order to share knowledge of topics they are mutually interested in. Communities in the internet sense provide learners with perfect forums for this sharing.

Also in the previous post, I discussed how my team and I decided to start this foray into online communities in analog form to match the literacy and typing development of our students. At this point in our unit and a week and a half into our analog communities, students have begun to comment on posts and comments made by teachers and their peers using a comment cheat sheet as a guide. Homeroom teachers have begun to model making various types of comments: evaluative comments that express positive feelings about or agreement with posts; knowledgeable comments that add factual information to comments and posts; connective comments that connect posts or comments to the life and experiences of the commenter; and inquiring comments that ask questions of community members. Students are monitoring posts and comments, using the cheat sheets at the analog boards to help write their own comments, and checking their comments against a comment checklist. A few students have replied to comments from teachers. In the examples below, you can see some interesting dialogues beginning, sometimes between posters (teachers) and students, but more excitingly, between students and students!

I had a surprise chat while on duty in our school’s “contemplative garden” this morning with one of our Grade 2 teachers, Ms. Anita Mathur, a pioneer of our school’s use of Twitter and blogging. She expressed a good deal of interest in our Grade 1 communities project, and especially the commenting aspect of it! Later she sent me a wonderful resource exploring ways to teach this skill to elementary students and we are making plans to have the Grade 2 students, who already have school Gmail accounts, join our Grade 1 VoiceThread communities to give all our combined students more appreciation of how such internet resources allow us to connect with other learners beyond the classroom. We both envision the Grade 2 students mentoring the Grade 1s in their commenting, as the older students have already used some social media throughout this school year. It’s exciting to think that this little project is growing more meaningful and reflective of the central idea of this PYP unit: Effective communication systems allow people to connect locally and globally.

Just a little note on technology concerns for this unit…I had a little flirtation with Padlet this afternoon, and momentarily considered using this aesthetically pleasing little app instead of VoiceThread thinking it might be easier to use. However, upon further use, I found that videos made on iPads do not seem to upload to the app and there is no option to record only audio. Too bad as Padlet is great for posting links to videos, documents, images, and audio files and commenting textually…perhaps better for the older and more literate students. Recommitting to my original choice of app, I discovered that I can share my VoiceThreads as embed objects on one of my blogs, or, for more security, I can share them as links in an email to each of the three class Gmail accounts that all the iPads in Grade 1 are signed in as. I thought back to the 2014 Horizon Report which identified the problem of keeping data safe as a significant impediment to technology adaptation in education and decided to opt for the second option. If Grade 2 classes wanted to jump into our Communities, I would send their teachers the links and they could distribute and share these based on student interest.

The next post will describe what happens when students take more control over these analog communities and start posting their own content!


School is a State of Mind: Changing Learning Environments


As part of this week’s COETAIL odyssey, after reading the New Media Consortium’s (NMC) 2014 Horizon Report I had a deep think about how technology has changed the overall learning environment. I also thought about how my own experiences in international schools reflected the findings of this report.

I thought about the learning environment in terms of location. School in my perception has always involved a physical place where students and teachers could meet for the purpose of learning and instruction. At times, I have imagined this place to be a garden, a set of marble ruins, a one room school house, or a factory like mill of sorts, depending on whether I was thinking of the Academy of Socrates, the school room of Laura Ingalls Wilder, or the scary sketches of a “modern school” from the wildly popular Sir Ken Robinson “Changing Paradigms” rallying call to action or Pink Floyd’s the Wall. Technology has allowed for this concept of “school” to be abstracted to a degree; school is indeed a conceptual gathering place of ideas and learning, but it need not be a physical place. I was really intrigued by the idea of hybrid schools and their combination, sometimes on a rotational basis of in class discussion and online learning. Similarly, the creation of virtual schools is fascinating to me, especially with the potential for these online classrooms to be filled with students in all corners of the globe. I myself have joined virtual classrooms in the form of Blackboard based courses from a US based university and have been very impressed with the level of learning I experienced in such environments.

At the International School of Phnom Penh, while we are not currently experimenting with the hybrid school model, we are experimenting with how we use the time spent together with students in the physical classroom. Many teachers, including myself while teaching Grades 4 and 5, have tried the flipped classroom method of having students learn new material, or review remedial material, in the form of interactive videos at home using online sites such as LearnZillion or Khan Academy. Students have then been tasked with coming to school the next day or during the week ready to discuss material or work on collaborative projects in which they had to perform higher level thinking tasks such as creating and synthesising using digital tools available at school. Part of what made these forays into student learning outside the classroom possible, at least in my case, has been ISPP’s adoption of Google Apps for Education and my own explorations of digital classroom management and collaborative apps and scripts such as Google docs, Google ClassroomautoCrat, and Doctopus. The availability of these tools made it easy to share documents and information with my students, monitor progress, and give real time feedback. Without developments in technology over the past 5 years, none of this extension of teaching and learning beyond the classroom would have been possible.

Just as technological advances allow for flipped classrooms and the resulting negotiation of what happens in the 8 hours of the school day and the physical classroom space, they are also making possible what I consider to be the greatest reimagining of learning environments: the integration of personalised learning into the school experience of many students. This combination of individualised and differentiated instruction and learning, along with explicit teaching about methods of building Personalised Learning Networks is poised to have a great effect on education in the next few years. The Horizon Report mentions how this integration is made possible by many cloud tools that allow students to personalise their own learning environments, whether they are enrolled in BYOD/T schools or schools where the tech stays within the school space.

Here I started thinking about my own experiences with COETAIL and the learning environments I have set up on my old but updated early 2011 Macbook Pro; I think about my Chrome account and Notes app, both of which sync across all of my devices and how I keep careful track of and maintain quick access to important sites and online resources through synced bookmarks and Zotero. I’m also thinking about my learning environments like my new Netvibes setup, which I have appropriately named “JB’s ONLINE Eye DESTRUCTION Program” and my Tweetdeck spread. These feeder/aggregators also make it easy to keep tabs on additions to Cohort 6 members’ blogs and comment feeds. These convenient information rigs surround me with the information I need and want for my own learning. I read at my own pace, and write my reflections slowly but surely. With suggestions and DIY videos, I have crafted this environment in a way I know helps me learn as much as possible and I want my students to begin learning how to do this. I’m also asking a question now too that my colleague Matt Dolmont raised earlier this week: Would it be better if students had their own devices in order to constantly be surrounded by their own learning environments? From my own experience, I have to say I think yes.

I also think about the apps I have used for my own learning that have provided me with a personalised learning experience. These are mainly apps for learning language such as DuolingoMemrise, and MosaLingua. In using these to learn various languages, I have been very impressed at both how effective they are in terms of my own language acquisition, but also how thoughtfully they have been created in conjunction with research about memory, learning styles, and differentiation in general. These apps provide learners with visual, written, auditory, and tactile experiences in order to give users practice with and motivation to learn language in the absence of a full time teacher or friend. They also match the pace of your learning, which is assessed with games and various other activities. EAL students will undoubtedly benefit from using similar language acquisition apps for children, which keep track of learning and modify instruction based on student interests and progress.

Capitalising on how new technology can collect learning data from my students and adapt itself to their own proficiency with and understanding of content, I learned to use a personalised learning app, Front Row Math, last year with all of my students. In my year group, we used this app as an extension tool or center activity while teaching math as a series of stations. However, I do think that there were a number of students in the class who could have learned the content exclusively through this application.

This truth is humbling as a teacher, yet I also see the amount of learning that technology is capable of fostering with students outside of the school day and school room as empowering and exciting. It gives us teachers, I believe, time and space to concentrate on much deeper sorts of thinking in the classroom. I refer to the higher level thinking skills of creating, improving, problem solving, constructing, and innovating and the requisite social and the communication skills required for their development.

The following quote sums it up best I think:

“Teachers are no longer the primary sources of information and knowledge for students when a quick web search is at their fingertips. Instead it is up to teachers to reinforce the habits and discipline that shape life-long learners — to ultimately foster the kind of curiosity that would compel their students to continue beyond an Internet search and dig deeper into the subject matter.“

-NMC Horizon Report: 2014 K-12 Edition, p.6

Making a Mess Out of Minecraft (The Antigaming Game is Up – Part 3)

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Image by

Has this ever happened to you?

It’s afternoon on a Saturday. You should be blogging but while being soothed with peacefully eerie music, you get dropped off on some brand new created world. You realise you have to hike miles to get to the nearest birch or oak trees poking out of some rugged diorite terrain. Ok, you get frustrated, tripping all over the hard granite steps. You try to remember how to walk, but the sun is so bright, and you are maybe a bit hung over from the previous night. You swipe at some pigs maybe with your arm stump. They turn red and snort at you. “Should not’ve done that,” a good digital citizen voice in you says. Anyways, you trudge past the seemingly aimless porkers and finally get to some grey skinned birches beneath an apparently abandoned fortress. In order to survive, you keep lightly hitting a taller specimen of the species. Nothing is happening apart from some flakes falling off. Looking around on the ground, you find there is nothing useful to grab. Finally, it strikes you like a meter square block of diamond that you can keep on hitting these trees by continuously pressing the Macbook Pro track pad to create logs that are useful in some way. You try to create planks, get confused over the process, check your guidebooks that you have piecemeal collected. The sun is setting…and you know what that means. You check your inventory and create planks, then a crafting table to get some sort of protective shelter. You throw it out onto the ground under some trees where you are hoping to your maker THEY don’t find you. The angular sun sets ominously from behind. Now, you need to get this darned craft table open. You go to right click to open it. You pick up the craft table again. Wait, you don’t want to pick it up! You throw it down. You pick it back up as if it was cursed with glue! You check your guides…right click to open! Right click to open crafting table!! Right click to open crafting table!!!

Then whoosh! You get chomped by a groaning zombie. Or shot by an arrow firing skeleton. Or stung by his pet jumping spider. Actually, you are not even sure because it is dark and you of course didn’t have a blocky puffing torch! (Because you didn’t know how to craft one.)

Only later, after doing some relatively difficult searching through different MineCraft and Mac forums do you find that there does not seem to be a unified opinion on how to simulate “Right Click” on a Mac trackpad. You finally “mess around” some more and find some options for what might work as right click on Macs. You settle, you think, on a combination of hitting CONTROL or  COMMAND and the two finger click. On to the next puzzle. In searching for the meaning of mysterious “buttons 1 and 2” you also find what appears to be a slight rift between Mac MineCraft users and PC MineCraft users. In fact this reminds you of the adage when you bought your first computer back in 2004: “If you want to create art or music, buy a Mac. If you want to game, by a PC.” You thus get distracted and look to see if that myth still holds and find that the gap has closed somewhat…Makes you feel better, but you realise that there is still so much to learn about the differences in MineCraft controls between PCs and Macs! And that doesn’t even begin to describe how much there is you don’t know about the subtleties of playing MineCraft!

You regain focus, go check out the MineCraftEdu World Library site that Marcello Mongardi has turned you on to. Oh look! Just what teachers love…cheat sheets! Oh! Some graphics that help you get control of the situation and most important, MineCraft recipes! Right now, content to lurk, you actually create a new Netvibes tab for MineCraft that you hope to populate with MineCraft educators’ blogs you can feed off. And just to get the ball rolling on becoming more of a contributor, you share this tab with others.

You stop for a moment to ponder something. You have made a mess today. You’ve made a mess of about 10 attempts to survive a night in the MineCraft world. You’ve made a mess of your time and have not done your blog entry yet and are once again succumbing to what seems to be an endless life cycle of procrastination. You’ve made such a mess that you forgot to eat, or drink water, and will not make it to a local show of music tonight or dinner with family (which may actually be the right things to do however as you are dealing with an almost endlessly morphing rhinovirus that feels like a coronavirus).

But man have you learned about MineCraft…you now know where to lurk to find information about MineCraft for pleasure and education, and you have possibly become a node of information yourself in connectivist fashion as you have established a shared link and resource list for others to access after reading your blog. (Learning indeed can reside in nonliving appliances.) You’ve got a pretty good handle on the MineCraft controls. You’ve done some decent problem solving involving more than just issues with the game. You’ve critically reckoned with the massive amounts of wikis, blogs, websites, online communities, forums and videos dedicated to the game, deciding which information to trust, test, or ignore. You have truly taken yourself on a journey to experience how 21st century learners are thriving in the New Media, verifying what you have glimpsed in the research on how youth handles the information Big Bang that is the internet.

This reaffirms for you the idea stated eloquently in a TED talk by Tim Harford, an economist who through his journalism teaches countless numbers of people, that mess, and our reactions to it, causes learning and creative thinking. You think of your experiences learning foreign alphabets and languages and guiding children through their own language acquisition by sorting words and letters into categories, often initially of their own designation. We all make sense and connections out of chaos and that is what learning is.

The day reminds you of a TED Talk given by impassioned third grader, Cordell, imploring his teachers to use gaming in the classroom:

You totally agree with this risk-taking, balanced, communicating learner, especially in his citing the fact that games allow us to make mistakes and learn from them! As you think of all the mistakes that you made today, you realise that making these mistakes egged you on. After making many mistakes and repeating a lot of plays, you started pausing the game in order to go search for information. Upon returning to MineCraft, you tested out different directions, making notes of successes and failures. By the fourth or fifth game, you recall, you weren’t waiting around for the zombies anymore. You got into the new world with the skills that you had learned and you started mining and crafting immediately!

You start to think…isn’t that what we want our students to do for real? Take the skills they have learned in the school “sandbox” and put them to use as creative individuals in the real world?

Now, assuming that your students are not really going to have to survive pitch dark zombie raids in the near future, the big question floating around in your mind like the beautiful rectangular MineCraft moon is how to get some content and knowledge beyond these skills into the game for your students?

But still, you shudder as you remember…You were once anti-gaming…



The Anti Gaming Game is Up! (Part 2 – Standards)

In part 1 of this multi-stage blog post of my evolving attitudes towards in class computer gaming, I discussed how in the past I had not conceived of computer gaming as a very practical way of helping students learn curriculum contents. Based on new experiences with and perspectives on gaming, however, games have begun to rise in my esteem. I then went on to clarify what types of games were most useful, in my opinion, to encouraging the kind of thinking and conceptual interactions that are necessary for learning; these would be simulation, role-playing, and real time strategy games.

In this new post, I will seek to lay out my reasons why I currently consider multiuser games to be amongst the most useful tools for student learning available.

Why should we have gaming in the classroom?

First of all, there is a standards based rationale behind incorporating game playing into learning in the modern, well connected classroom. Let’s look at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) standards for teachers as a starting point.

Below, I picked out the standards that might be most applicable to creating gaming lessons and will justify how these standards relate, for example, to a Minecraft simulation, role playing, real time strategy game that was introduced by my school’s Tech Ed Coach, Matt Dolmont, in order to assist Grade 4/5 students at the International School of Phnom Penh in their learning about concepts related to economics including: the law of supply and demand, fair trade, agricultural production, and market forces. In this unit, Dolmont created a marketplace domain in which there was a physical market, called the Treehouse, in which different middlemen bought goods produced by students and offered goods and services for students to buy. As the administrator, Dolmont could also do things that reflected forces in a real market, like raise and drop prices for goods.

ISTE Standard 1a. Promote, support, and model creative and innovative thinking and inventiveness.

Once a week, students logged into the school Minecraft server and were given an overarching task; for example, at the first week, students were instructed that in order to keep this settlement, they had to make a certain amount of money together to buy it. No further instructions were given, but Dolmont allowed for a quick exchange of ideas. As play began, with an ensuing amount of chaos, he highlighted when different students came up with solutions to problems, prompting them to share with teammates. In order to eke more creative thinking out of students, Dolmont would pepper the game with new and changing variables as can be seen in the image below. Students had to adjust their thinking about what to sell and buy and when as the teacher kept changing prices to echo the law of supply and demand.

You can see chats in which Matt Dolmont, the Tech Ed Coach has altered prices. This forced children to alter economic activities and think on their feet.

ISTE Standard 1b. [Teaching should] engage students in exploring real-world issues and solving authentic problems using digital tools and resources.

As close as they could get to the real world, students were experiencing the law of supply and demand, production, and consumption on a weekly basis in their roles. The whole Minecraft Marketplace experience actually served as a formative assessment, getting students ready for an actual market day in which they bought and sold products and services they had created.

ISTE Standard 1d. [Teaching should] model collaborative knowledge construction by engaging in learning with students, colleagues, and others in face-to-face and virtual environments.

In Living and Learning with New Media (Ito, et al., 2008), a process known as “geeking out” is observed amongst patterns of digital media use. Geeking out “ involves learning to navigate esoteric domains of knowledge and practice and participating in communities that traffic in these forms of expertise. It is a mode of learning that is peer-driven, but focused on gaining deep knowledge and expertise in specific areas of interest” (2008, p.28). Standard 1d seems to connect particularly to this mode of learning. During the Minecraft Marketplace period of time that lasted for about 5 weeks, students were continuously observed geeking out, with its requisite collaborative knowledge construction. Students spoke incessantly about Minecraft and the tasks they had to complete in the Marketplace game; they shared tips, remembered funny moments, and tried to work out together how to come out on top. Some students, if they were proficient in typing, also engaged in the chat tool that exists in the game to comment in real time on what was happening in the game or to communicate with teammates across the room. Other students would walk quickly to share a tip with a partner in person before returning to their own console. 

ISTE Standard 2a. [Teaching should] design or adapt relevant learning experiences that incorporate digital tools and resources to promote student learning and creativity

As stated before, this Minecraft Marketplace was the most elegant incorporation of a digital tool to foster learning that I had ever seen in school. I cannot conceive of a better way to help students repeatedly experience and learn concepts of economics. I also feel that this gaming environment completely reached the zenith of the SAMR Model of Tech Integration, in that it totally redefined how we could teach students about supply and demand. The Minecraft world allowed us to really teach students these concepts through experience rather than through learning from secondary sources.

ISTE Standard 2b. [Teaching should] develop technology-enriched learning environments that enable all students to pursue their individual curiosities and become active participants in setting their own educational goals, managing their own learning, and assessing their own progress

The world of the Marketplace Minecraft domain became a world in which the students had to take on responsibilities and plan daily activities in order to achieve mutual success. They actively participated because they found so much joy in the game themselves. They wanted to learn economic concepts because they wanted to win the game and they were curious to figure out all the tricks of the Minecraft universe.

ISTE Standard 2c. [Teaching should] customize and personalize learning activities to address students’ diverse learning styles, working strategies, and abilities using digital tools and resources

ISTE Standard 4b.  [Teaching should] address the diverse needs of all learners by using learner-centered strategies providing equitable access to appropriate digital tools and resources

Marketplace Minecraft offered a different entry point for many learners. It was visual and there was chatting for more verbal learners. Kinesthetic learners could move around to discuss strategies with group members. Logical rational thinkers could set up successful strategies for making money. Collaborative learners highly enjoyed working in small teams that were in turn part of the larger class group. The game allowed students to access the content on many different levels.

ISTE Standard 2d. [Teaching should] provide students with multiple and varied formative and summative assessments aligned with content and technology standards, and use resulting data to inform learning and teaching

As stated before, the Marketplace Minecraft sessions, and the blog entries teachers required students to make afterwards, served as good formative assessments for the whole unit on Supply and Demand. In seeing how students played the game, teachers had a reasonable idea how ready these learners were for the summative assessment.

ISTE Standard 4c. [Teaching should] promote and model digital etiquette and responsible social interactions related to the use of technology and information

At a basic level, students learned to use chat functions in trying to communicate with partners around the computer room. They also, therefore, had to not over use chat, as that caused people to ignore and become annoyed with the chat messages. Students therefore had basic experience in how to properly use this basic form of social media. In addition, while promoting our school’s new exploration and use of Minecraft as a tool, Chelsea Woods, the Technology Director at ISPP made important points about how Minecraft could encourage collaboration rather than violence by creating a digital environment in which students had to peacefully cooperate to survive and solve problems. In essence then, the gaming world could serve as a sort of sandbox for students to practice what students learn everyday in the PYP classroom about being cooperative, tolerant, enthusiastic, open minded, respectful, thinkers, and inquirers.

In the next part of this post, I will seek to try and connect how gaming can encourage learning by creating, amongst other things, messes.

The Anti-Gaming Game is Up! (Part 1 – Confession)

Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition
Photo Courtesy of Alejandra Ramirez

Confession time. I was an anti-gaming teacher.

For 6 years, I set up classrooms and taught a variety of content. I facilitated learning to a fair degree, conceived of a wide variety of learning engagements, and tried to offer my students many pathways to reach our learning objectives, often based on learning style preferences that the students themselves identified or I observed. I became more thoughtful in varying the kind of thinking I expect from students by drafting learning objectives based on Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy of Thinking, planning engaging activities using Project Zero’s Visible Thinking Routines, and by making use of Tony Ryan’s Thinker’s Keys for diversity.

But I never planned actual online gaming experiences into my lessons, and failed to consider that such experiences could be extremely beneficial to student learning.

Now, before I completely present myself as an overly self critical education flagellate, perhaps I should backtrack. I should soften my initial statement. It’s not that I was an anti-gaming teacher. I mean I was open minded to the possibility of using online, multi-user games, but never realised it would be possible to modify these games to bring them in line with my content objectives and the inquiry process. Based on recent understandings and excellent examples of game based learning designed by our ISPP Ed Tech Coach, Matthew Dolmont, I am changing my thinking on computer gaming in the classroom and plan to geek out in order to learn how to develop games, lessons related to these games, and systems of assessment for game based units of study.

Firstly, I must clarify the types of games I see being of most value in the classroom. I’m talking about developing gaming situations that:

  • allow students to interact with real life concepts we have focused on during previous instruction;
  • provide students with the potential to inquire into concepts and ideas that normally would be impractical or impossible during normal school time for reasons of time, space, materials required, etc.;
  • encourage the use and development of higher order thinking skills with a digital focus;
  • give an instructor a perspective on the students’ understanding of concepts by allowing for a collection of data in the form of chats, anecdotal notes, screen shots, post gaming blog post reflections, etc.;
  • establish an environment in which students can practice geeking out, being part of an online learning community, and collaborating on a digital project.

Based on what I have learned so far about gaming, it seems that the most useful types of games to develop would be simulation, role playing games, possibly with real time strategy elements and always with an educational purpose in mind. I’m not thinking about action, combat, and first person shooter (FPS) games that as educators we often find with math kill and drill type games, although these definitely have a place in the classroom as well.

Please tune in for part 2.

Lange Nacht der Computerspiele 1.JPG
By Die SchreibfabrikOwn work, CC BY 3.0,

Making Connections to Connectivism

We ARE connected…Jondi and Spesh knew this long ago…


As Week 2 comes to a close in my COETAIL Cohort 6 existence, I’m starting to become more familiar and comfortable with the amount of information we have been taking in, aided by my Feedly, Twitter, and Flipboard accounts and my general increased organisation with my use of Google Chrome, Zotero, and iCloud accounts to sync bookmarks, information source lists, and notes across home and work computers, and mobil devices. Diigo is a new one for me this week, but the very first article in our COETAIL section of this aggregator proved to connect strongly to issues around my information consumption in the past two weeks.

This article, about a Dutch journalism platform called De Correspondentdescribes how links added to blog posts and other web based publications can distract readers from an article and what systems De Correspondent has set up in its publications to allow readers to read distraction free, while still being able to tailor their experiences based on prior knowledge.

I wish I had read the article earlier and will seek to follow De Correspondent’s methodology in my own blog posts, as I realise, I have been continuously going off on reading (and learning) tangents and may have caused others to do this. For example, it took me about an hour to read Time to Redesign Curriculum for the Digital Age due to my following of links in an effort to determine to what extent my own teaching meshes with education that was required during the age of industrialisation (think 19th and 20th centuries). At the very least, I will try to make sure that I give readers some information about a link before I offer the choice of a clickable diversion. Hopefully, those of you who started reading this section are still here…

Hello? Anyone?

(Note to previously addressed readers…I’m going to deviate from De Correspondent’s method of not distracting readers through use of in-article hyperlinks here. This is partially because I’m not a De Correspondent writer and thus do not have immediate access to their “info cards” linking system that present tidbits of information within the same web page itself if you want to know more about a topic discussed in an article of theirs.)

I took another look at George Siemens’ A New Learning Theory for the Digital Age which outlines his addition to theories of learning that teachers trained in western education pedagogy have usually inquired into as part of their requirements for licensure. From the outset, I found it useful to once again orient myself to the theories that Siemen’s is grafting his on to, and the coordinating theorists, namely:

Ok, thinking back, I remember it all…Skinner – Behaviorism, conditioning and positive reinforcement. I never thought much of this learning theory, but it seems to make most sense in the field of animal husbandry. Piaget – Cognitivism, right! Schema and brain is like a computer making connections. With this theory, we started to see a bit more optimism and independence in learners. Constructivism – Vygotsky! Yes, now we are really cooking. People learn best in the company of others. Zone of proximal development. Gotcha.

Finally, we come to a new theory, Siemens’ Connectivism which builds on where Piaget and Vygotsky left off and adds the unforeseen element of technology to human learning. From a very basic perspective, this new developing theory sounds to me a lot like Constructivism, but taking into account the massive capabilities, possibilities, and endless networking potential of the internet and all of our gadgets that run off its incessant streams of information, data, and human innovations.

In his manifesto, Siemens poses some questions. I thought a useful starting point for my diving into Connectivism would be to see if I had any natural beginnings of my own answers to his questions. Mr. Siemens, here you are:

  • “How are learning theories impacted when knowledge is no longer acquired in the linear manner?”

I would think they stay the same. People still learn things in a rational manner. People still learn loads from other learners and people (thus we have our blossoming Cohort 6).

  • “What adjustments need to made with learning theories when technology performs many of the cognitive operations previously performed by learners (information storage and retrieval)?”

Well, I would think that memory becomes less important…unless it comes to having a conversation, for which you need to keep track of your own knowledge while processing new knowledge from another learner. But what is more valuable? A fleeting conversation where the ideas disappear? Or a lasting conversation on a blog?

  • “How can we continue to stay current in a rapidly evolving information ecology?”

Well this course has begun to answer it…by being part of a Cohort of learners, or a community and reflecting on our learning with a group of other chaos-nauts exploring the world of the internet together. Also, by using available tools which help organise and filter the information and feed it to us. (Such as Feedly and Twitter, apps I’m currently using.) However, I’m making a guess here that there are many learners out there who are NOT staying current.

  • “How do learning theories address moments where performance is needed in the absence of complete understanding?”

This is an interesting question…I sometimes jokingly refer to it as channeling…being able to, on a moment’s notice, get as complete a picture of whats happening and act on it. This happens a lot in music. However, I would think that as learners, we grasp at continuously emerging information. Perhaps information that is coming out second by second. Our minds, with training in order to avoid shutting down, continue to attempt to reach understanding while being open minded and flexible enough to not panic in the absence of complete understanding.

  • “What is the impact of networks and complexity theories on learning?”

I think one impact is that we have more experts to choose from. Also, there is a higher possibility of getting the right answer or confirmation of new understandings through similar responses from others all over the network.

  • “What is the impact of chaos as a complex pattern recognition process on learning?”

I would say all learning is making patterns out of chaos. To a child, the alphabet is chaos and makes absolutely no sense…but within a few months of development, usually around preschool or kindergarten, the human brain can recognise and make connections necessary to link patterns of lines, sounds, and images sufficiently to understand and use the alphabet. Perhaps the first “network” was the first text created. Or…the first time anybody left something around for someone to see or use after the original person was not around anymore…cave paintings? Tools? Fire? Experiencing chaos, I would think, stimulates learning, as long as the learner is not upset in the absence of immediate understanding.

  • “With increased recognition of interconnections in differing fields of knowledge, how are systems and ecology theories perceived in light of learning tasks?”

Well, to illustrate my point, I will borrow a diagram to illustrate ecology theory.

Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Theory of Development.jpg
Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory of Development

CC BY-SA 3.0,

I would think that individual learners, while still existing in these systems, learn from sources far beyond the traditional realm of “expert others” that might exist in an individual’s microsystem of school, peers, and family. To a certain extent, I would also think that an individual’s learning need not be circumscribed by the macrosystem as the internet allows learners to go outside their macrosystems and reach expert others who indeed may be embedded in other macrosystems. Indeed, in looking at this diagram of various systems, and if one considers internet to be part of the mass media, then perhaps macrosystems now exist within exosystems; or perhaps the internet should be considered an entirely different system that exists beyond macrosystems.

After beginning to understand by trying to answer the questions Siemens had himself asked back in 2004, I also felt that it would be useful to connect each principle of Connectivism to my own understandings:

  • “Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.”

As learners have to be comfortable with this principle, don’t we? For the minute we start invalidating the opinions of others, or demanding one single answer, or accepting one response, it would seem that we have stopped learning. We are satisfied.

I’m also making connections to this sort of principle and the IB Learner Profile, which posits that learners are “open-minded”.


  • “Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.”

This reminds me of what a member of another learning cohort once told me, “I don’t know everything, but I know where to look to find out.” I’m also seeing this from a non-lurking view point as well. As Utecht states in Reach (2010, p.17) it is important for learners to set themselves up as nodes of information as well in order to increase the power of learning networks and communities.

  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances.”

Learning may reside in a blog, or an app, or a device. It is the sum of someone’s learning or it is a demonstration, evolving, of someone’s learning. I like this thought a lot. When one of us in a network, no matter how big or small that network is, has learned some knowledge and shared it in some recorded fashion, it potentially exists to teach another. I also think this is one of the most interesting principles of this theory and where the complete technology tie in comes through.

  • “Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known.”

This is almost antithetical to some traditional views but gels well with some newer ideas of what it means to be knowledgeable. Again, however, I’m thinking about the IB Learner Profile, especially in its description of learners as inquirers.

  • “Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.”

This also connects to the Learner Profile. Learners must be caring and committed to their learning. If we see learning as never-ending, it only makes sense that one must continue to create strong connections to other learners to keep the process going.

  • “Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.”

I’m wondering here, can we sometimes see connections that make no sense…or connections that are phantasmal? Or perhaps this is the nature of innovation. In the Primary Years Programme, we stress the importance of understanding the concept of connection and encouraging children to make and look for connections. Also, as teachers of literacy, we ask our young readers to make connections between texts and themselves, their worlds, and other media.

  • “Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.”

This also makes sense if knowledge itself is seen as an endlessly morphing and developing entity.

  • “Decision-making is itself a learning process.”

In this principle, I see so many connections to my own understanding of learning. Learners should demonstrate independence. I see science inquiries and how choosing different ways to proceed can alter an experiment, for example.

And here I am…living the connectivist dream. Leave me a comment! What do you see in these principles and how would you answer the questions?


Where Am I in Web 2.0?

As I read Jeff Utecht’s treatise, “Reach” I reflected on my own personal learning experiences regarding the advent of web 2.0 and my relative feelings about this event. In fact, I distinctly remember back in 2009 or 2010 cramming into my small international school’s secondary computer lab with 30 teachers where the computer teacher discussed how web 2.0 had arrived, what it was going to look like, and how we teachers were going to be amazed at the possibilities for students and for us to create content on the internet.

Having just finished teacher training, I had used Wikispaces to collaboratively write documents, had chatted and messaged on Skype, had used web based “classrooms” like Blackboard for distance learning, had posted items on a digital portfolio platform, and had seen amazing Prezis, Moodle systems, and research ideas presented by my peers. I had even created a webquest about fossil fuels and had tried my hand at website design using Arachnophobia.

I, however, would never have believed back in 2009 what I and students would actually be capable of doing in terms of sharing our learning, interests, and lives online. I would also not have guessed that blogs, and the near infinite information available to all internet users, were going to redefine learning far beyond the confines of the classroom. I also, similarly, would not have guessed that just as I was beginning to teach in my own classrooms, that I would be having to think far beyond those four walls in terms of my own learning and the learning of my students.

When Utecht referred to  Personal Learning Networks (PLNs), I immediately thought about and examined what I have identified as my own learning communities, a similar concept. I wanted to know, in my own learning have I demonstrated connectivism learning theory. I like to test theories like this by examining my own learning.

Scroll around the grounds until you feel at home…

I see that I am probably less technologically connected to many media platforms than learners a few years younger than myself, but I still make a good deal of connections with other learners through digital means. As I have inquired more into technology, I have found forums to be extremely useful in helping me to solve all types of computer related problems. I have also used sites like to increase the functionality of my computer that I would have never dared before. In this way, I perhaps I am proving that “Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.” (Siemens, 2004). I learn about my far away family and friends, as they do about me, from Facebook. I learn, for examples, montuno rhythms and guitar strumming patterns over You Tube.

I am definitely, at this stage, a lurker, or someone who is just observing and learning from most professional network communities in which I’m involved. I would have to say, these include Google communities even from my international school. I’m aiming, as a result of my participation in this COETAIL cohort, to become more of an active participant in these communities.

I do admit, that I find some aspects of technology and connectivism a bit terrifying. When Utecht described, for example, the case of the young IBM employee based in Shanghai who he felt had been employed because of a developed talent to “learn, unlearn and relearn quickly” (2010), I both admired the man’s ability but also got nervous. I know, we are all lifelong learners. I could learn music, a hobby I have picked up over the ages, from now until the day I die, but it makes me antsy and uneasy to know that my professional knowledge, especially regarding technology, needs constant updating and flexibility. Just when I have BEGUN to get comfortable with one app or in teaching that app, along comes a new one to try that needs quick evaluation, experimentation, and a methodology for teaching it to children. Or, as in my case, when I became very comfortable with teaching older students how to collaborate with Google Apps for Education related apps, my job necessitated a move to working with very young children who would not benefit necessarily from my preexisting knowledge. Or would they?

Or even beyond the technological realm, just realising sometimes that a teaching method we are using might be outdated, but we have not had time to keep up with latest developments in order to update our practice; these situations cause teachers to be constantly on edge and looking for new information. I mean we are dealing with the learning of people everyday, and this is not a matter that any of us take lightly. We want to be using methods that others have tried, tested, and can testify about.

I really appreciated Utech’s suggestion on using technology in the form of RSS feeds, such as, in my case, Feedly, or social network apps like Twitter to do some of the work of searching for this new information for us. As I lay my head down to sleep this evening, my first blog post somewhat finished, my Twitter and Feedly apps are quietly listening for new methods of teaching reading to early elementary students which, hopefully, I will read over breakfast and coffee in the morning.





Hello to the COETAIL Cohort 6!

Hi everybody! My name is Jon Banules and I’m an EAL teacher at the International School of Phnom Penh, in Cambodia

I’m very excited to start blogging, sharing with, learning from, and collaborating with all of you here in the COETAIL Cohort 6, especially since I got started on my technological travels at least in part due to what a friend of mine was learning in a past COETAIL cohort. He was so jazzed about the ideas flying around in his courses that he inspired me to go get my own Google certification.

Today, I’m taking it a step further and actually going down the COETAIL path myself. Pleased to meet ya!


Pirate of the Khmer-bbean