Leveraging Cloud-based Technologies to Enhance Personal Learning Environments

Below is an article that I co-authored with Scott Adamson (Head of Department Science) and Christine Beckmann (Head of Department English) for an upcoming conference presentation.


To respond effectively to the changes in society, both technological and social, learning theories and pedagogical practices of education must undergo constant revision, refinement or even revolution (Guder, 2010), such that students may effectively face the challenges brought about by the information and knowledge society (Pettenati & Cigognini, 2007). Educators are faced with attempting to teach in accordance with a paradigm shift caused by emerging technologies whilst effectively preparing today’s learners for the world as an outcome of this shift.  Bell and Pape (2012) described:

“The paradigm shift in learning associated with emerging technologies increases the scope of change beyond individuals, classrooms and institutions and provokes shifts in roles and power relations.  For these reasons we need to look beyond traditional theories of learning in education” (p. 107).

This places a responsibility on curriculum designers to enact teaching and learning practices that are relevant to present and future needs of students. The concept of teachers as curriculum designers is predicated on the fact that implementation decisions lie in the hands of a particular teacher in a particular classroom (Colbert et al., 2008).

An Imperative to Change

The contemporary teacher-designer has access to digital technologies with extensive pedagogical affordances and the potential to transform the learning environment when utilised appropriately.  Through their use, the learner has the opportunity to create, share and organise their personal learning environments as well as to engage in collaborative activities.  There is a fundamental shift in the way students can learn, consume and produce new artefacts through the thoughtful and informed implementation of a suitably designed curriculum and learning environment (Tu, Sujo-montes, Yen, Chan, & Blocher, 2012).  Advances in technology allow the student experience to be more interactive and distributed, including the means to be actively involved in incredibly complex networks of information, resources and instruction (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998).  Shared and networked experiences are key differences between connectivism and other learning theories and, as learning environments, should be reflective of the collaborative learning and social environments discussed.

Connectivism as a Learning Theory

Maintaining a store of knowledge internally is no longer seen as critically important, provided that there is access to suitable knowledge through the students’ created networks (Guder, 2010).  Siemens (2004) proposed the learning theory connectivism as a way of conceptualizing learning in the digital age, believing that students derive their competencies from making connections and, by including technology and connection making as learning activities, presenting a model that acknowledges the societal shift associated with digital technologies within which learning is no longer an individualistic activity and connective knowledge can be described as distributed knowledge, spread and shared across more than one entity.  Weblogs, videocasting, collaborative authoring sites, video conferencing, Learning Management Systems (LMS) plus other Web 2.0 tools have become mechanisms that enhance learning networks and allow students to utilize distributed or connective knowledge (Downes, 2006).  A strength of connectivism lies in the principle of creating a lifelong learner who is connected to sources of knowledge that are current and that knowledge is no longer simply obtained through a course of study.

Personal Learning Environments

Connectivism provides one means of understanding the power of personal web resources which allow a networked student to transcend the concept of classroom through the creation of what are described by Drexler (2010) as personal learning environments (PLE).  The organisation of the resources into suitable connections in a learner’s network empowers the student.  A PLE places the control and the ability to connect with subject matter experts in the hands of the learner, providing autonomous, diverse and creative knowledge development.  The idea of the PLE is that the management of learning lies with the student, not the institution, as has been the case with more traditional use of technology within education (Boitshwarelo, 2011; Downes, 2006; Drexler, 2010).  The role of the teacher within this construct is to facilitate and to guide the creation of a learning environment that provides the opportunity for students to receive learning through modes and methods that best support their learning needs.  The emergence of cloud based technologies such as Office 365 and Google classroom presents classroom teachers with the opportunity to create and develop an environment for students that extend their learning beyond the classroom.  This environment should allow for exploration, problem solving and discourse in which the learner is actively refining and constructing knowledge (Pugalee, 2001).

Affordances and Practices

1.  The Mathematics Classroom

The use of integrated cloud based technologies and collaborative tools allows the mathematics classroom to move beyond transmission style teaching as the primary method of content delivery.  Transmission style teaching alone provides an inadequate framework to think and act in a connected world, particularly when developing a creating, synthesizing and developing mind (Colbert, et al., 2008; Koehler, Mishra, & Yahya, 2007; Marais, 2011; Richardson, 2009).  Affordances of cloud based technologies are the extension of connected learning that moves it beyond the physical classroom.  Using Office 365 to host a teacher created class workspace created through OneNote is an approach that is proving to be one effective example of mathematics teachers implementing a networked learning environment. Within a shared class workspace, students are: presented with content that has currency; provided the opportunity to receive timely feedback; connected to distributed knowledge from a variety of information sources; and afforded the ability to collaborate.  It transforms the learning environment from a largely individualistic experience to a more networked, information rich, connected experience.

2.  The Science Classroom

Strategies relating to feedback (particularly student to teacher), student self-verbalising, self-questioning, meta-cognitive strategies and reciprocal teaching are afforded by the open, collaborative, connected classroom available using Teacher Creator shared OneNote, synchronized via Office 365.

Trials implemented within the science classrooms of a metropolitan school include those relating to feedback, where the power of student to teacher feedback is maximized by gauging all individuals’ progress in their shared Student-Teacher workspace.  In such a space students can engage meta-cognitive tasks that make thinking visible, including self-verbalising and self-questioning, and the identification of key components or processes in problems posed or concepts addressed.

Meta-cognitive strategies are applied in the Student-Teacher workspace to elicit from learners the higher level thinking skills of modification, creation and evaluation as students write questions shared within the Collaborative workspace, creating revision spaces, distilling complex concepts into efficient summaries and comparing their collective work with that of others. Seeking examples of ‘good’ questioning, effective summaries and the noting errors, corrections and, most importantly, misconceptions also illustrate these skills.

Reciprocal teaching, aids understanding and transfer, empowering students as they develop and re-formulate questions, working and explaining solutions, identifying key components as they break down challenging concepts with screen-casts that allow for repeated access, replay, asynchronous and just-in-time learning.

The implementation of such strategies while building PLEs allows students to regulate and to take ownership of their learning through variable modality, content, pacing, time allocation and sequencing.

The additional data also affords an enhanced student-teacher relationship, with teachers hooked into student PLEs typically knowing their students’ learning capabilities and application better, that is, knowing their students as learners.

3.  The English Classroom

Emerging understandings about learning networks and their place in the educational development of students today is working to reshape the contemporary English classroom.  Lessons encouraging students to be better writers, readers and speakers take many form but these classroom activities, when examined objectively, often fall back to the tried and true formula of guiding students through a process of attempting a task, gathering feedback, refining the first attempt and extending into new and improved versions of the original response.  The dialogue between teacher and student guides this process but until relatively recently such conversations have been limited by the time available in a given lesson and the mechanics of trying to impart feedback in ways which are useful to students and sustainable by teachers in a pen and paper world.  Cloud based technologies, learning management tools and social media which allow teachers and students to engage in digital dialogues, to directly connect ideas from the world of literature to applications in the local community and which provide a space to share learning and to connect with others engaged in a similar journey of discovery, have opened up a world of interactions which have heretofore been difficult to sustain.  The English classroom today increasingly draws on video-casting technology and audio-visual applications as a means of facilitating a learning-focused dialogue which is not limited by lesson time or margin space.  Students use collaborative spaces to capture their emerging understandings in a variety of different contexts and from a variety of different perspectives. For learners this digital landscape means much greater control over how they access feedback, how they process such input and how they contribute to wider communities of learning.


Learning should not just take place in class, under specific conditions and for a limited period of time.  It should just as easily take place in non-formal, informal and life-long settings (Pettenati & Cigognini, 2007). Connectivism is an assertion that learning is primarily a distributed networking process where knowledge for the learner is no longer limited to the course of study through a classroom, but extends beyond through active networks, limited only by the strength and dimensions of the connections.  The utilization of cloud based technologies by teachers allows them to create open learning networks that provide students with opportunities to collaborate and to develop their own PLEs.  Engaging in this transformative practice enables teaching and learning to be relevant to the present and foreseeable future needs of learner.


Bell, C., & Pape, S. (2012). Scaffolding students’ opportunities to learn mathematics through social interactions. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 24(4), 423-445. doi:10.1007/s13394-012-0048-1

Boitshwarelo, B. (2011). Proposing an integrated research framework for connectivism: Utilising theoretical synergies. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3), 161-179. Retrieved from: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/881/1816?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

Bonk, C. J., & Cunningham, D. J. (1998). Searching for learner-centered, constructivist, and sociocultural components of collaborative educational learning tools. Electronic collaborators: Learner-centered technologies for literacy, apprenticeship, and discourse, 25-50. Retrieved from: http://publicationshare.com/docs/Bon02.pdf

Colbert, J. A., Boyd, K., Clark, K., Guan, S., Harris, J., & Kelley, M. (2008). Handbook of technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPCK) for educators: Routledge, New York, NY.

Downes, S. (2006). Learning networks and connective knowledge. Retrieved from http://www.ingedewaard.net/papers/connectivism/2006_Downes_learningNetworks_and_ConnectiveKnowledge.pdf.

Drexler, W. (2010). The Networked Student Model for Construction of Personal Learning Environments: Balancing Teacher Control and Student Autonomy. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 26(3), 369-385. Retrieved from http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet26/drexler.pdf.

Guder, C. (2010). Patrons and pedagogy: A look at the theory of connectivism. Public Services Quarterly, 6(1), 36-42. doi:10.1080/15228950903523728

Koehler, M. J., Mishra, P., & Yahya, K. (2007). Tracing the development of teacher knowledge in a design seminar: Integrating content, pedagogy and technology. Computers & Education, 49(3), 740-762. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2005.11.012

Marais, N. (2011). Connectivism as learning theory: The force behind changed teaching practice in higher education. Education, Knowledge & Economy: A Journal for Education and Social Enterprise, 4(3), 173-182. doi:10.1080/17496896.2010.556478

Pettenati, M. C., & Cigognini, M. E. (2007). Social networking theories and tools to support connectivist learning activities. International Journal of Web-Based Learning and Technologies, 2(3), 42-60. doi:10.4018/jwltt.2007070103

Pugalee, D. K. (2001). Algebra for all: The role of technology and constructivism in an algebra course for at-risk students. Preventing School Failure, 45(4), 171-176. Retrieved from: http://search.proquest.com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/docview/228455386/fulltextPDF?accountid=13380

Richardson, S. (2009). Mathematics teachers’ development, exploration, and advancement of technological pedagogical content knowledge in the teaching and learning of algebra. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education (CITE Journal), 9(2), 117-130. Retrieved from: http://www.citejournal.org/articles/v9i2mathematics1.pdf

Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1), 3-10. Retrieved from :http://www.ingedewaard.net/papers/connectivism/2005_siemens_ALearningTheoryForTheDigitalAge.pdf

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: Learning as network-creation. ASTD Learning News, 10(1).

Tu, C.-h., Sujo-montes, L., Yen, C.-j., Chan, J.-y., & Blocher, M. (2012). The integration of personal learning environments & open network learning environments. TechTrends, 56(3), 13-19. Retrieved from: http://gateway.library.qut.edu.au/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/958639673?accountid=13380

What is the ‘right’ tech for your class?

One of the most common questions asked by teachers is about the ‘right’ type of technology they should be employing in their classroom.  There can be a feeling, from teachers, that they are falling behind by not wholly embracing the affordances that emerging digital technologies provide, particularly when they hear various teachers discussing their recent digital ventures.

To ask what technology should be used is putting the cart before the horse, it is essentially the wrong question.  The question should be directed wholly on the learning environment and the teaching and learning that is taking place, improved teaching and learning must always be the primary goal.  The question that needs to be asked is what do I want to have happen in my classroom and what leverage can I draw from available digital technologies to achieve this.  The right technology should, and must, enhance the student learning.  Jaime Casap (@jcasap) highlights the fact that technology is not the magic bullet, great teaching is the pillar that supports learning.  The technology that teachers use in the classroom should serve to support and enhance a particular teaching moment, the technology alone does not make the lesson memorable.  However, it does provide avenues for engagement that were previously unavailable in the classroom.  For example, using Google Earth as a flyover in a Geography classroom, Socrative to instantly poll students reaction to a poetry piece or Desmos as an interactive introduction to Calculus are just three examples of affordances that allow today’s teachers to enhance the learning environment.

There is always a reluctance on the part of some teachers to engage with digital technologies in their classrooms. One commonly heard mantra is that they have taught this way for 15 years with solid results so why change. Some teachers are just overwhelmed by the pace of the changes, the fluidity of the affordances that are offered and simply ‘shut down’ and revert to their safe, standard practice.  The latter is understandable while the former requires challenging.  Another barrier to successful integration of appropriate technologies is the fact that technologies will fail, fact.  Be flexible, have a fall back position, the majority of teachers utilised their fail back position for over ten years. Don’t drop the technology and claim it ruined your lesson

To look at the question of what is the ‘right’ technology for your class, the learning experience must be foremost in a teachers mind.  Transmission, pen and paper, OneNote collaborative spaces all have a place in today’s classroom.  To feel that it is all or nothing with respect to engaging in creating a connected learning environment is not a balanced approach.  Remember, technology does not make poor teaching better, technology provides affordances for good teachers to enhance their learning spaces.

EduTECH 2015 Conference #EduTechAU #EduTech15

Over the last three days I have been lucky enough to attend the EduTECH 2015 conference (#EduTech15) that was held in Brisbane, Australia.  Currently I am in a Masterclass examining what it means to be a Global Educator, run by Steve Wheeler (@timbuckteeth) and the discussion is centered around the creation of Personal Learning Networks.  So I though…what a timely moment to try and re-engage with blogging.

One of the key ideas/points/recurring themes from the conference is that classroom teachers/educators need to share more.  Sharing and networking with other educators is seen as a vital step for teachers in this age of emerging digital technologies and shifting practices.  Teachers are doing some amazing things with the affordances that digital technologies present, yet we don’t often hear about them.  Teachers, by their nature, tend not to publicise what they are doing.  Often feeling that what they are doing is not particularly special…but it actually is!.  One of my roles at school is to develop and present PD to staff and, without exception, I am always learning from the people who attend.  Teachers are finding ways to use and apply digital technologies in ways that are just simple and brilliant. What they are doing in the classroom is fundamentally driven by the goal to improve learning.  Teachers are increasingly asking the question of what they want to have happen in their classroom, and then utilising the appropriate technology to help achieve this, often modifying and adapting as they go.

The second point from the conference that I felt was noteworthy was the keynote from Eric Mazur (@eric_mazur)  titled “Assessment – the Silent Killer”.  Eric presented an interesting look at alternative ways to assess students that incorporated ideas of collaboration and authenticity.  The keynote was both enjoyable yet incredibly frustrating.  Frustrating as it demonstrated how assessment could be conducted, in a way that enhanced learning, that is so at odds with the current program that exists within the Qld system.  The current way of assessment in senior mathematics is largely pencil and paper, timed tests with emphasis on the ability to remember.  The tasks that are set are at odds with encouraging students to take risks and be creative.  How do we change this to incorporate the ideas that Eric discussed?

The third and final point that resonated was during the talk by Robert Baker where he stepped out and made the assertation that the device does, in fact, matter.  Numerous talks, blogs and papers highlight the fact that talking about the ‘tech’ is a mistake and we should solely focus on learning, a feeling that if we are talking about the device then we are missing the point. I am currently using a Surface Pro 3 with OneNote in an O365 environment, which has created the perfect storm for me in terms of work flow.  The stylus of the SP3 allows me, and the students, to interact via a paper and pen style.  I find this incredibly useful as a workflow as it allows me to discard the keyboard and work in a largely unstructured way.  I feel that the affordances provided by the Surface Pro 3 stylus are powerful and actually can have a transformative impact on the interaction I have been students and teachers and, consequently, impact on the learning environment that I am constructing.

EduTech15 was very busy, informative and provided opportunities to (I) extend current practices as well as (2) providing some confirmation that we are on the right track.


Small steps, big possibilities

When discussing with a class of senior mathematics students how we could more effectively use the precious contact class time we have, one student jokingly responded by saying she needs me there at 8.00pm at night when she is grappling with applying the concepts picked up in the lesson that day. The comment was made in a humour but it ignited the class into a discussion on how we do actually spend the contact time that we have. Was it the most efficient and effective use of time, given the digital technologies at our disposal?

The conclusion that this class came to was that the limited face to face time would be better spent collectively developing deeper understandings, problem solving and connections of the coursework rather than a lecture style transmission of content, with follow up questions to be done at home. This discussion moved me to investigate, develop and deliver the next couple of units modelled on a ‘flipped’ classroom approach.

The flipped classroom approach exists in a variety of forms but, with respect to my mathematics classroom, we started by attempting to reverse the typical lecture and homework elements of the course. The purpose of this was to free up contact time in order to investigate problem solving in a collaborative environment where discussions and further consolidation of key concepts could take place in a teacher (mentor) supported environment. The theory lessons, which were the student’s first exposure to the new material, were screencast and accessed through the school Learning Management system and students were tasked with watching the lessons, taking the relevant notes and preparing followup questions prior to the next lesson, this was, essentially, their homework. In a nutshell, the experience was largely positive for both students and myself.

The idea of screen casting a particular topic with a view to flipping the classroom was further extended and adapted to include videos that demonstrated particular techniques in mathematical content, methods of solutions to particular questions or procedures and 5 – 6 min ‘highlights’ from the lesson each day. Each served a different purpose, including an avenue for students to review and consolidate previously taught material, see exemplar solutions, catch up on specific content after being absent. All aspects that, as educators, we can see as providing an extended opportunity to support student learning. This was seen as a simple and effective method in which the advances in digital technology can allow the student experience to be more interactive and distributed.

The design and development of a digitally supported learning environment should focus on individual and collaborative learning facilitated by digital technologies. When knowledge processes change, they should not only change ‘what’ is known but also how learner’s come to ‘know’. Learning should not just take place in class, under specific conditions and for a limited period of time. It should just as easily take place in non-formal, informal and life-long settings (Pettenati & Cigognini, 2007).

I think that this places a responsibility on educators to enact teaching and learning practices that are relevant to the present needs of students, which include technology and connection making. A question we need to be asking is, what are the learning practices of the students and how do digital technologies mediate this learning, both individually and collaboratively?

My school now has a YouTube channel in which teacher created screencasts are linked (or embedded) into the LMS providing students with a greater degree of flexibility and, to some extent, greater control of the learning experience. Each week teachers are widening the circle of features that are uploaded that support the student learning experience. For example, a screencast of an English teacher giving a critique on a piece of argumentative writing is a wonderful way to help unpack the criteria that students need to address for a that particular item of assessment.

The use of a Microsoft Surface Pro 2, in particular the annotating features that the stylus provides, has been a game changer . It allows teachers to easily present, highlight and annotate presentations as they are being captured. Two new additions that are being further investigated are the Mix add-in for PowerPoint and the shared online collaboration and discussion that can be hosted through Microsoft Lync’s. Coupled with the MSP 2 device, Mix and Lync’s are two digital technologies that have the potential affordance to extend the learning platform and experiences beyond the classroom. One key positive with respect to the Mix add-in is that it utilises resources that have been previously created by a teacher, namely the PowerPoint. Mix provides the teacher with the opportunity to include audio, annotations and screenshots to an existing and familiar technology. The quiz app and the analytics associated with Mix also addresses a key aspect of the successful flipped classroom, that students are actively engaged in the learning.

No doubt the advances in technology have allowed the student experience to be more interactive and distributed. As teachers, it is incumbent upon us to examine, investigate and trial new and different techniques that utilise the digital technologies. How do we best take advantage of what technology allows us to do?


Pettenati, M. C., & Cigognini, M. E. (2007). Social networking theories and tools to support connectivist learning activities. International Journal of Web-Based Learning and Technologies, 2(3), 42-60. doi:10.4018/jwltt.2007070103

ISTE 2014

Just finished spending four days at the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference in Atlanta, Georgia.  The conference was huge, with thousands of educators, presenters and exhibitors descending on the two buildings of the Georgia World Congress Centre.  Huge amount of information, discussion and sharing of ideas that will now take the best part of the next few months to break down, prioritize and begin to implement.  Best news is the abundance of resources and support, as well as new ideas, that were received at the Conference.

One of the highlights of the conference, for me personally, was the talk by Jaime Casap (@jcasap). Jaime is a Google Global Edu evangelist and presented some excellent points with respect to how teachers need to transform traditional learning models.

Secondly, meeting and discussing with teachers, coaches, tech experts from around the world was both enjoyable and highly informative.  Strange how the same problems have no national boundaries.  Bandwidth (lack of), lack of time, need for better hardware etc. are all international issues.

Google and Microsoft were both out in force and both deserve kudos for a greater focus in providing infrastructure that will support teachers to develop learning spaces and environments that will promote the problem solvers of the 21st Century.  I really believe the Surface Pro 3 (and even the 2) has a game changer with respect to the stylus and the quality it produces as an input device. I have been using a Surface Pro 2 for about 3 months and it is an excellent device producing resources for students and teachers alike.