• Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,083 other followers

  • Categories

  • Archives

The thingness of things

Give a ball to a baby and they’ll throw it.  It’s that simple.  Even though the child may have never seen a ball, she’ll throw it.  It’s kind of crazy.  Some may say that it’s how we’re wired as humans or something embedded into our DNA.  People with design backgrounds, however, see the situation differently.  It’s all about design and affordances.  The shape and design of the ball afforded throwing so the baby threw it.  There’s nothing primeval or innate.  It is just good design.

In his book, The Design of Everyday Things (1988), Donald Norman introduces the concept of affordances. An affordance, Norman writes, describes “the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used.”  In a presentation I gave recently, I defined affordances as “the thing that gives a thing its thingness.”  I probably picked that up somewhere in my readings but it captures the idea behind affordances.  Good design makes a stool afford sitting and a mug afford holding.  Bad design also affords behavior.  For example, I’m constantly turning on the wrong burner of my stove because the designers arranged the knobs in an unnatural way.  The arrangement affords misuse.  Or at least that’s how I explain it to my wife.

Because of an increased focus on the design of learning spaces, the term “affordance” is making its way to education.  Just like any designed object, classrooms can afford different uses.  A lot of attention is being paid to what types of instruction are afforded by different learning spaces.  A study conducted at the University of Minnesota examined an instructor who taught in two different spaces.  One was a formal lecture room; another was an informal classroom.  While the courses were identical and the instructor tried to teach the two classes similarly, the instructor began to incorporate more discussions and active learning strategies in the informal space.  The classroom afforded different use so he changed his practice.

People are starting to focus on the affordance of learning spaces as a possible catalyst for instructional change.  “Change the classroom and practice will follow,” they argue.  Educause recently introduced a comprehensive rubric called the Learning Space Rating System (LSRS) that can serve as a tool to assess whether a space supports and encourages active learning strategies.  Designed as a fifty-item questionnaire, the LSRS can serve a critical tool for examining the affordances of learning spaces.  The tool is broken into different subgroups that let users examine factors such as integration with campus context, planning process, support and operations, environmental quality, layout and furnishings, and technology and tools.  The LSRS stands as a critical tool for examining whether a space can afford collaborative and creative learning.

But there’s more at work than just the affordance of the space, however.  Instructors and students play a role in how space is used.  While the baby introduced earlier may throw a ball because of the affordance of the ball, it could learn other behaviors.  Maybe she’ll learn to sit on it.  Or bounce it.  Or dunk it in a basketball hoop.  Through experience, we learn and unlearn how to use the items we encounter.  And that’s the real challenge with relying on affordance to promote wholesale change in education: our own learning can get it in the way.


Whiteside, A., Brooks, D. C., & Walker, J. D. (2010). Making the case for space: Three years of empirical research on learning environments. Educause Quarterly, 33(3), 11.


Hating on PowerPoint: My take

My Facebook feed was exploding today with many of my colleagues commenting on an article on the Guardian by Andrew Smith on “How PowerPoint is killing critical thought.”  The conversation in which most of my colleagues were engaged really came down to “does PowerPoint have value in educational settings?”  Some folks posted about the need for consistency across multiple sections of classes.  Another discussed the need for focusing larger groups of students.  Some shared that PowerPoint was great for sharing quotes or images or discussion prompts.  The conversation was really lively with some friends sharing praise for a presentation style called Pecha Kucha.  In Pecha Kucha, 20 slides are shared for 20 seconds each.  With the short presentation (a little over six minutes), the presenter is forced to give concise explanations that don’t rely heavily on text-based slides.  While it might be great for a series of student presentations, I think it would tough for an instructor to use Pecha Kucha in any wholesale way in their classes.

Returning to the Guardian article, however, Smith’s main point was that the use of PowerPoint was diminishing cognitive engagement between students and instructors.  I don’t disagree.  Several years ago, I co-wrote a book titled Authentic integration with technology: A student centered approach and cited some of the same reasoning and research that Smith does.   In the book, my co-author and I write:

Because of its ubiquity, many teachers never question using PowerPoint with their students. They convert their lectures to PowerPoint slideshows thinking they are just replacing their chalkboards and overhead projectors with digital presentations. We argue, however, that before a teacher incorporates a tool into an instructional setting, she or he needs to consider the best way to use it to promote student learning. PowerPoint, while being a comprehensive presentation tool, has many detractors who argue against its use in education and elsewhere. In his article, PowerPoint Is Evil, Edward Tufte (2003), a noted theorist of information presentation, argues that using PowerPoint weakens the analytical quality of a presentation by reducing its verbal and spatial reasoning. Tufte points out that most presentation slides include 40 or fewer words, reducing a detailed argument to eight seconds of reading. This process, Klemm (2007) writes, leads to sound-bite thinking and sloganeering, which reduces the classroom discourse, especially in regard to complex material. Klemm also argues that traditional PowerPoint presentations in educational settings create an “entertain me” environment and reduce the amount of teacher-student interaction in the class. Students often lose interest in the presentation, especially when they realize that teachers will distribute the slides. Adams (2006) writes that the structure of PowerPoint templates can pervade teachers’ thoughts and constrain their lesson planning. Teachers feel forced to design lessons that fit into the PowerPoint templates of a main idea and supporting bullets. This structure does not fit well with every content area and is not a natural format for narratives. To demonstrate this, Peter Norvig, a researcher for Google, adapted Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” for PowerPoint. The slideshow reduces Lincoln’s eloquence into awkward bulleted lists that demonstrates the difficulty that users may face when trying to communicate through PowerPoint.”  (Marcum-Dietrich & Dreon, 2008)

The real challenge, however, is that while some instructors are overly suspicious of using PowerPoint, they don’t carry that same skeptical eye to other processes, procedures, and norms of practice in their classroom.  I’m a big believer in sociocultural perspectives on teaching and learning and I typically rely on the activity theory framework to visualize how learning happens in online and face-to-face environments.   In activity theory, learning isn’t just an internal process that happens inside a student’s brain.  It’s impacted by external forces like the instruments that are used and the classroom community that exists.  Developed by Russian theorists like Vygotsky, Leont’ev and others, activity theory is usually represented using a triangle of interdependent factors (see below).  While “instruments and mediating artifacts” like PowerPoint are important, there’s a lot more going on.  Beyond the use of any single tool, it’s critical that we see the importance of all of these factors and lend a critical eye to ALL of the processes, choices and decisions in which we engage in our classrooms.



Adams, C. (2006). PowerPoint, habits of mind, and classroom culture. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 38(4), 389–411.

Klemm, W. R. (2007). Computer slide shows: A trap for bad teaching. College Teaching, 55(3), 121–124.

Marcum-Dietrich, N., & Dreon, O. (2008). Authentic Instruction With Technology: A Student-centered Approach. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co..

Tufte, E. (2003) “Powerpoint is evil.” Wired Magazine (September). Full free text is available at http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html.

Reflecting on the Top Tools for Learning

This week, Jane Hart from the Center for Learning and Performance Technologies published a list of 100 top technologies for learning.  The list was compiled by surveying over 2000 learning professionals from a variety of different fields including education and industry.  The list is really comprehensive but reads a little like a motley Who’s Who? list of websites and tools.  Looking at the list, I thought it might be helpful to reorganize the list to connect the technologies to specific learning practices.  While I realize that some of the tools have multiple purposes, I’ve tried my best to include them in whichever grouping that it seemed most logical.  Some tools, however, have been included in more than one grouping due to the tool’s multiple purposes.  I’ve also added the overall ranking for each of the tools so it’s clear where the tool fell on the survey.  Lastly, I’ve organized the groupings by the number of tools that fell in each category.  For instance, the number of tools for creating audio and video content far surpassed the number of social bookmarking tools on the list.  I arranged the list below according to the number in each grouping.

Based on the list, it seems that a lot people are using tools to create audio and video learning objects for their students.  At first, this was exciting and a little concerning.  On the one hand, I was impressed that so many learning professional are getting into the content authoring business and creating learning objects tailored to their students.  On the other hand, however, I worried that the digital world could just be reflecting those didactic, lecture-based classrooms where information is simply presented to learners. Have we just made the digital world the 21st century lecture hall?

The rest of the list, however, assuages this concern.  Learning professionals are using a lot of tools to interact socially with their students.  They are also assessing their students in a variety of means.  I was honestly surprised by the number of tools for creating interactive eLearning objects on the list.  While I understand that I’m inferring a great deal into this list of the top learning technologies, I also realize that the list reflects the pedagogical motivations of the learning professionals who participated in the survey.  Based on the list, I think the educational technology terrain looks pretty promising.

Tools for Creating Audio & Video Content:

Youtube (2), Powtoon (19), Snagit (24), Audacity (25), Screencastomatic (27), Camtasia (31), Explain Everything (47), Videoscribe (48), Jing (57), GoAnimate (63), Sway (70), Vimeo (71), iMovie (76), MovieMaker (78), EDpuzzle (85)

Tools for Social Networking:

Twitter (1), Facebook (7), Pinterest (13), LinkedIn (14), Yammer (28), Feedly (36), Edmodo (39), Google+ (40), Instagram (73), Tweetdeck (80)

Tools for Assessment:

Kahoot (17), Socrative (32), Nearpod (50), Office Mix (51), SurveyMonkey (64), Quizlet (69), PollEverywhere (79), EDpuzzle (85), Mentimeter (97)

Tools for Written Online Communication:

Twitter (1), WhatsApp (21), Padlet (29), Feedly (36), Gmail (52), Google Translate (54), Outlook (62), Today’s Meet (88), Slack (83)

Tools for On-Demand Learning:

Youtube (2), Khan Academy (33), TED Talks/ED (35), Coursera (44), Pocket (49), Vimeo (71), Udemy (87), edX (99)

Tools for Creating Interactive eLearning Objects:

Articulate Storyline (26), Adobe Captivate (38), iSpring Suite (41), Udutu (53), EDpuzzle (85), Easygenerator (90), Lectora Inspire (91), SoftChalk (98)

Tools for Creating Written Content:

Google Drive (4), WordPress (8), Blogger (18), MS Word (30), Excel (56), Google Sites (68), Flipboard (86)

Tools for Creating Visuals:

Adobe Photoshop (58), Instagram (73), Canva (81), Thinglink (89), Piktochart (93), Wordle (96)

Tools for Creating Presentations:

PowerPoint (5), Prezi (11), Slideshare (20), Nearpod (50), Keynote (55), Haiku Deck (92)

Tools for Face-to-Face Online Communication:

Skype (9), Google Hangouts (23), Adobe Connect (34), WebEx (72), Blackboard Collaborate (77)

Tools for Course Management:

Moodle (15), Canvas (37), Schoology (61), Blackboard Learn (95)

Tools for Document Management:

Google Drive (4), Dropbox (6), SharePoint (45), Scoopit (60), Trello (82)

Tools for Doing Research:

Google Search (3), Wikipedia (9), Google Scholar (43)

Tools for Notetaking:

Evernote (10), OneNote (46), Notability (67)

Tools for Social Bookmarking:

Diigo (42), Delicious (100)

What’s your type?

I’ve recently been working on a chapter that I’m co-writing on games in education.  A colleague and I developed a professional development game for faculty on campus and we have a chapter in review for a book on serious games in education.  I originally blogged about our professional development game last year and it’s taken some time for my colleague and I to examine the interactions and write about it in any scholarly way.  As we started to look at some of the data from the game, one of the aspects that we noticed was the different roles that faculty adopted within the game.  Some faculty members were really competitive while others were not.  Some interacted in the fun, social aspects of the game without engaging in the challenges we included.  Others read the educational resources but did not really socialize or compete.  It was a real mixed bag.

Doing some research, however, we found that people take on different roles when they play games.  Richard Bartle was one of the first to outline the different gamer types.  Bartle was examining player roles in Multi User Domains (the precursors to games like World of Warcraft) and found that while gamers may share the same space, they may have very different motivations for playing.  Some players are intent on completing achievements, scoring points and accomplishing any goals outlined in the game.  These “achievers” work to gather as much as they can, score as much as they can and beat as many levels as they can.  They’re focused on beating the game and showcased their gamer prowess.

Other gamers are just playing the game to socialize.  In a MUD, they’re the ones meeting people and engaging in conversations.  Bartle calls these players the “socializers” in a game.  In addition to socializers and achievers, Bartle identified “killers” and “explorers.”  Killers are intent on thwarting the success of other players, either by imposing obstacles on other gamers or by harming their opponents within the space.  Explorers, however, are motivated by seeing the scope of the land and testing the limits of the game.

To a certain degree, all of the gamer types were present in our professional development game.  Some players just explored content while others just participated in the social aspects.  Others were intent on winning the game by completing as many challenges as they could.  Thankfully, we didn’t encounter any “killers” in the space but that may be due to how we originally designed the game.  While the game included competitive aspects, we build a lot of collaborative features into the challenges with participants scoring points not only on individual achievements but through group ones as well.

Beyond the professional development game, Bartle’s gamer types made me reflect on students’ motivations for participating in an online class.  While I recognize classes and games are much different, I wonder whether some of Bartle’s gamer types translate well to students’ roles in online classes.  Considering my online classes, I recognize that some students are very interested in any social opportunities to which they may have access.  They post numerous times to discussion boards and often over share in their posts.  Other students, however, simply focus on completing online modules and try tackle all of the stated goals in the class as quickly as they can.  While we may want to stifle the students trying to thwart the success of their classmates (those “killers”), we also must consider ways to get the “explorers” more involved in the class.  While it’s not a perfect taxonomy for online students, Bartle’s gamer types may provide a starting point to interacting with and motivating them.

Are your assessments SMART?

I’m helping with a colleague’s class today and providing some technical advice to her students as they complete a digital storytelling project.  She sent me a copy of the assignment and I was really impressed by the project.  The directions were clear.  The grading guidelines were coherent and well developed.  My colleague is a great teacher, so I’m not really that surprised that the assignment was so strong.  Beyond being clear and understandable, however, the assignment lived up to one of the gold standards of assessments.  It was SMART.

Before readers start thinking that I’m evaluating the intelligence of my colleague or her assignment, SMART is an acronym that’s used to describe pedagogical processes like assessments and objectives.  SMART is a useful target for instructors as they start thinking about what they want their students to do and learn in their classes.

Specific:  I think some people worry about specific assessments because they want to be a little open-ended or have students use their creativity.  Being specific doesn’t mean corralling students’ creative spirit.  It also doesn’t mean giving specific page numbers or word counts.  Specific assessments are ones that provide enough information so students know exactly what’s expected of them.  It gives them a specific target to hit and a detailed goal to obtain.

Measurable:  I had a class in college where I submitted a paper and received a B.  When I met with the instructor and asked for ways to improve it, he simply said:  “Write differently.”  To this day, I don’t know exactly what he was examining when he assessed my paper.  For an assessment to be SMART, it must include measurable entities that are clearly outlined for students.  This doesn’t necessarily mean using rubrics but it does mean outlining grading criteria with enough depth so students understand how they’ll be evaluated.

Achievable:  I once had a colleague who would include an impossible problem on every exam she gave.  She explained that it was important that the students “knew I was smarter than them.”  An assessment isn’t our time to flex our intellectual muscle or to feed our own egos.  Assessments should be designed so students with mastery of the content can achieve the goal.

Relevant and Rigorous:  I’ve seen both of these included in different manifestations of the SMART acronym and they’re both important.  Assessment should connect to students’ lives and should help them stretch themselves intellectually.  When I design assessments, it is my hope that the students see the assignment’s applicability to their lives and their future careers and that they grow from the experience.

Time-Oriented:  I’ve seen this element described as both “timely” and “time-oriented.”  While the words have different connotations, I think the spirit is the same.  Assessments occur in time and we as instructors need to be conscious of that.  Our assessments need to evolve and be responsive to time.  What may work in a few years ago may not work today.  What is a great assignment for the spring semester may not resonate well in the winter.  More than these aspects, however, we also need to consider students’ time as we design assessments and make sure that the assignments we give students have clearly outlined due dates that are achievable based on their ability and their development.

Grouping Students Differently

I’ve always struggled with creating student groups for projects.  It’s especially difficult when I’m trying to form groups at the start of the semester for some ongoing assignment that may take a few months.  At that point, I don’t really know the students or their strengths and weaknesses.  I don’t know which students are going to work well together or which students, when assembled, will form an explosive critical mass.

Over the years, I’ve tried a variety of techniques to group students.  I’ve tried mixing under-class students with upper-class ones.  I’ve tried partnering students based on their academic interests and grouping students randomly.  I’ve even allowed students to select their own groups.  Regardless of the method I’ve tried, inevitably, some groups are really successful and others languish.

This semester, I thought I’d try something different.  My wife is a school counselor at a local high school and has used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to help her students identify possible careers.  I was discussing my grouping problems with her recently and she suggested trying to use the MBTI to form groups.  While I recognize that some people question the validity of the MBTI, I also realize that using the Myers-Briggs to organize student groups couldn’t be worse than some of the other methods I’ve tried.  I also did some research.  I found a study in the Journal of Information Technology and Application in Education that examined how the MBTI could be used to foster positive collaborative groups for Information Technology projects.  Another study in College Teaching Methods & Styles Journal looked at how the MBTI could be used for team-building projects in business classes and found that the method helped in selecting team leaders and identifying group responsibilities.  After reading the studies, I felt using the MBTI to create student groups was something I should at least try.

This week, I had each student take an online typology test based on the MBTI.  The test took about fifteen minutes and I had each student write down his or her personality type (ENFJ, ISFP, etc.).  Rather than just have them look for people different than themselves, I had students identify their temperaments and then create groups with mixed temperaments.  One of the studies I read discussed how professor-created groups based solely on MBTI reduced student ownership and buy-in, which created productivity issues later in the semester.  To assemble project groups in my class, I allowed students to choose classmates as long as they had a mix of temperaments in each group.  While the process didn’t exactly go smoothly and several students initially resisted the process, I was able to eventually create project groups successfully.  Some challenges emerged, however.  Since I was doing this in an education class, there was a great deal of similarity across personality types and temperaments.  For instance, the majority of the students had the exact same personality types (ENFJ), which made it somewhat difficult to assemble diverse teams.  It was also difficult to get students to take control of selecting groups.  Since the process created an odd middle ground between instructor-assigned groups and student-selected groups, many students didn’t know how to react.  With a little guidance and some patience, however, students groups were assembled.

I honestly don’t know whether this grouping technique will work or not.  Since this a semester-long project, I won’t know the final outcome until later in the year.  Check back later in the semester for an update.

Teach like Batman!

I’m a huge comic book fan.  As a child, I remember distinctly stopping by the comic book store every Wednesday to pick up new releases and anxiously thumbing through the pages to see if my favorite super heroes survived their latest battles with some menacing villain.  As I read the issues, I often thought about the special powers the heroes had and which ones I wished I possessed.  It would be great to fly like Superman or have super speed like the Flash.  Maybe I could be super stretchy like Mr. Fantastic or turn into a muscular monster like the Hulk when I became angry.  With so many super powers available in the comic book universe, it’s hard to settle on a single one.

Growing up, my favorite hero was Batman.  I liked the costume and the Bat Mobile.  Batman was a brooding, complex character who fought crime in the shadows and used his mind to solve the crimes of Gotham City. I especially liked the fact that Batman didn’t have a super power.  He was just a guy who trained hard to become a crime fighter.  He wasn’t born on some other planet.  He didn’t get his powers by putting on a special ring or by being bombarded by cosmic radiation.  He just worked hard and was committed to his craft.  This mindset really resonates with me.  Looking at the numerous movies, books and television series that have been dedicated to the character, it seems that Batman’s mindset must resonate with others as well.

As the semester starts at my institution, I’m hoping to channel Batman’s mindset and work hard to be the best teacher I can be.  Good teaching is hard work and to be a good teacher requires that we adopt a Batman-like dedication to the craft.  While it would be great to have some teaching super power, the reality is that there are no short cuts to becoming a good instructor.  I’m reminded of this as I read a recent report on Flipped Classrooms that was compiled by Faculty Focus.  While many instructors have tried flipping their classrooms, many instructors report that it’s hard work and requires a lot of time to do it well.  As I’ve written before, I think flipping classrooms is a novel teaching strategy that utilizes classroom time differently.  It helps foster more collaboration in classroom and dedicates more time to group problem solving and authentic application of classroom content.  But it’s not a super power that instructors can develop overnight.  No instructor is going to suddenly become a better teacher by assigning some videos for students to watch outside of class.   Like Batman, instructors are going to need to work hard and dedicate time and energy to becoming better at flipping.  While flipping may be hard work, the Faculty Focus study also shows it’s benefits.  Instructors who utilized the flipped classroom model saw greater student engagement and increased student learning in their classes.  I’m sure even the Caped Crusader would be proud of those outcomes!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,083 other followers

%d bloggers like this: