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September 2012
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Being a Designer of Learning

September 24, 2012   

Recently, teachers in our Blended Learning grant project met for the first time to learn more about what Blended Learning is, and to get an idea of the work we hope they will accomplish this school year through the program.  The grant funding provides release time to work together collaboratively to backwards-design at least one unit that will be delivered  to students using blended learning.  We designed this professional development for the teachers using blended learning: direct instruction pieces such as how to use Moodle to set up a course, and other tools to support the learning such as Google Docs, blogs, and wikis are all available via tutorials on their Moodle course.

Last year, the teachers that participated in this project seemed bogged down by all of the technology tools and many just didn’t embrace the backwards design aspect, resulting in various levels of completing the project and successful impact with students. This year, we are changing things up a bit.

This change came about as a result of attending Advance UBD training with Grant Wiggins in July.  I wrote earlier about one of our big take-ways from this –we need to think like a designer –a designer of learning. This applies not just to teachers designing learning for the classroom, but to those of us charged with designing learning for teachers. We used the Understanding by Design process to design this professional development course.  The first step in the process is to determine what it is we want students (in this case teachers) to know and be able to do.  Here is our transfer goal:

Students(Teachers) will be able to independently design, develop, and evaluate authentic learning experiences and assessments incorporating contemporary tools and resources to maximize content learning in context and to develop 21st Century knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

From here, we determined our goals for understanding and acquisition goals for our teachers:

The students (teachers) will understand that an intentional shift in content delivery and instructional practices, away from the traditional schooling model, transfers the ownership of learning to their students.


  • What Blended Learning is and how it helps students
  • What UBD is and how it helps students
  • What 21st Century learning is and how it helps students

This gave us a much better place to begin designing our learning activities, always looking for alignment to assure we are on target to help our teachers reach these understandings.

Last year, our kick-off meeting focused on Moodle. We gave a brief presentation on what Blended Learning is – then proceeded to focus the majority of the workshop on getting each teacher onto Moodle where they could start building the online portion of their course.  We did provide a series of tutorials on the backwards-design process which they were expected to have watched prior to coming to the first work session, though we know that few did (Moodle provides pretty good stats on that)- and the result is as we should have expected – the focus was on the technology, and not on how to design learning.

This year, after deciding on our learning goals for the teachers, we knew this had to change. We decided it was critical to focus this first half-day workshop on bringing teachers to an understanding of the importance of being designers of learning, and to have a unified understanding of what blended learning means.  Rather than just telling them how we define these concepts, we started with a Socratic Seminar. We believed this kind of activity would be a way to honor the expertise in the room, let them construct their own knowledge, and to model and activity that they might use with students.  A brief but thought-provoking blog post by Anders Norberg was used for the Socratic Seminar. The 6 small groups were randomly formed, and each group had a good mix of teachers from different grades, levels, and subject areas.  The resulting discussions were rich and insightful.  It was tempting to jump in and steer their conversations, but our team recognized the importance of allowing the conversations to go where they needed to go.  Fears about technology and in many cases a lack of technology gave way naturally to discussions (“Is this what we are supposed to be talking about?”) to find answers to the guiding questions “What is Blended Learning” and “Why Blended Learning.”   At the end of the 20 minute conversations, they shared out with the whole group and had pretty much nailed the definition on their own.

Following this, we gave a  brief presentation on Blended Learning, (offering the definitions given in the Innosight report)  and then moved into an activity to help teachers understand where Blended Learning fits in the learning design. Each participant was given a strip of paper with one element of learning or teaching printed on it.  We projected the Venn Diagram you see below:

Teachers were asked if the item would be classified as something that mostly would be in a traditional classroom, blended classroom, or could be in both.

Some of the elements that they needed to place on the diagram included:

-Online Quiz
-Face-to-Face collaboration
-Video Podcast
-Students playing games
-Database resource link
-Instructional Design
-Formative Assessment
-Students reading a textbook
-Teacher lecturing
-Project based learning
-Motivated, Successful Students
-Online collaboration
-Threaded discussion

The “aha” for our teachers was that nearly all of these elements could fall into any area of the chart. This became clear as the person with the title, “Instructional Design” and the person with the outcome, “Motivated, successful students” placed their strips of paper on the diagram.

Another “aha” moment was that as a Designer of Learning, they manipulate all of the other pieces- but to create a blended learning environment – they need to allow students to have some element of control over time, place, path, and/or pace.  .  As a Designer of Learning, they decide which elements are best delivered in a traditional manner, and which could be enhanced through technology. As a Designer of Learning, they decide what is best taught through direct instruction, and what might be self-paced.  Direct instruction –what many think of when they hear the term “teaching” – is just one of the elements. A Designer of Learning carefully plans how all of the elements will be deployed   to assure that students achieve the learning goal.

Reimagining Environments for Learning

September 9, 2012   

In the movie Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name, we make contact with aliens and are given instructions on how to construct a space-traveling pod, presumably to be able to travel to visit this alien world. After a series of mishaps, the main character, Dr. Arroway (played by Jodie Foster), is strapped into a chair inside the pod to set out on the journey.

The interesting thing about this space pod is that the aliens did not include a chair of any kind in the plans for the space pod. The engineers felt it was critical for the safety of the person traveling in the pod to be in some kind of chair.  It was the way things had always been done in Earth’s space travel experience.

Shortly after the journey begins, and she is shown to be traveling through a series of wormholes, the chair begins vibrating intensely, and it is obvious that this is causing some distress and discomfort to Dr. Arroway.  When she notices her necklace break loose and that it floats effortlessly inside the pod, she releases herself from the chair. Almost immediately after Dr. Arroway releases herself from the chair, it breaks off its pedestal and violently crashes into the ceiling.

This scene reminds me of our current educational practices: students all learning the same thing at the same time, in the same space, using the same textbook.   It worked for previous generations, so it should be good enough for present and future students, right?  Students are in effect, strapped into a chair, and given very little wiggle room to really explore things in-depth, follow their path of interest, creatively problem solve, or practice other vital learning skills.  We seem to lack the imagination or ability to break free from the environments that we have always built for learning.

It is said that it is more difficult to unlearn old ways of doing things than to learn something new. So many people are weighing in on the need for educational reform, but with such limited visions of how to go about preparing today’s students for the world in which they will be living, with its profound technological advances and ability to access unlimited information, communicate globally, create, and share new information and ideas. How can we structure learning to allow students time to practice these skills, while still assuring students receive the needed base of knowledge to actually do something with the information they acquire?

While we are seeing more and more use of technology in classrooms, it is not often in transformational ways .  Technology has the potential  to personalize the learning experience for each student – yet as long as teachers feel the pressure to “cover content” – they are wary of using valuable class time or taking the risk of letting students use technology to explore and learn things that they are passionate about.

Let’s reimagine what learning looks like through the power of technology. If the structures we have in place such as traditional classrooms, schedules, seat time requirements are holding us back- then we need to open our minds to new possibilities.