The making of a MOOC

The scenario of being asked to use a virtual learning environment, a set of laptops or devices, or indeed an interactive whiteboard is likely to be a familiar one to teachers. More familiar still might be the expectation that this technology is used in your teaching and the research evidence supporting its effective use is an afterthought.

On Monday 11 March, a free online course, entitled Using technology in evidence-based teaching and learning launches on FutureLearn with the Chartered College of Teaching and this course will prompt ways of thinking about uses of technology to support evidence-based teaching and learning so that education technology becomes the ‘final piece of the process, not its starting point’ (Neil Selwyn, 2019).


What has informed the design of this course?

From previous roles and a number of months working on online learning for the Chartered College of Teaching, I knew the lack of easily accessible research evidence that pointed towards effective uses of technology in schools. Much of what I’d encountered in the past was only really relevant in Higher Education contexts or was presented in a way that aligned to visions of transformation, and innovation, but not to inform the practical application teachers were attempting on a daily basis in the classroom, nor the large decisions being made by school and college leaders every year. This, in the main, drove the vision for the course.

Teacher Online Learning Development group

During my first few months at the Chartered College of Teaching, advertising for and recruiting volunteer members into our Teacher Online Learning Development group took place. From the outset, I’ve been keen that practising teachers and leaders have the opportunity to inform my work and so, with expertise assembled, they set about providing feedback on the various aspects of our online work, including what this course might contain. Once we had a structure in place, it was tested again on the group, before a final draft emerged to be reviewed. I am now as confident as I can be that this first run of our online course will provide a valuable learning experience to its participants.

Research engagement

Engaging with research can be a discomforting experience. We can read something that makes us question our practice; ‘was everything we though correct actually wrong all along?’ We can sometimes dismiss a finding too quickly when it doesn’t align with our own existing bias and perspective. Approaching existing research in a more measured way to decide whether or not it holds answers for our particular context will be encouraged on this course. It was important that the course began with the research evidence so that our exploration of education technologies would be anchored in that, rather than floating beyond grasp in the weightless universe of ‘transformation’ in which education technologies so often find themselves.

I have purposely used language of may and might in the course, not to sit on the fence but to be transparent that not all research has the answer for every eventuality but that it might point towards a possible avenue to explore and experiment with. I’d be glad to hear that a participant who’d been teaching for years had grown more curious about an area of their practice as a result of engaging with research evidence on this course that provoked new thinking.


If you’ve not accessed any of the articles from the special issue of Impact then you can do so for free online here. Additional articles are available to Chartered College of Teaching members. Many of these articles made their way into the course design because they pointed to the kinds of principles we wanted the course to cover. They were balanced, grounded in effective practice, and made connections between theory and practice. You’ll learn, for instance, about designing better slides and resources that align with learning from cognitive load theory and dual coding, as well as ways in which technology can support metacognition, assessment and feedback in the classroom.

Case studies

One of our biggest jobs, in a short timescale, was to ensure representation across the course from primary, secondary and SEND settings. Whilst I’ll continually work to improve this representation for future iterations, our reviews so far indicate that participants should find something to suit their context throughout the course. Each week, there are a range of video and written case studies to follow the learning from our academic contributors. One of my core aims for the course was for participants to hear directly from academics who would make the research evidence more accessible but for the voice of teachers and leaders to be strongly represented too. I believe that we can only make improvements to practice when we gather all of this influence together. Across the four weeks, I feel as though participants will have heard from voices representing a variety of contexts and perspectives (especially if they also complete the course for leaders once it launches).

What will you learn?

I’m pleased to say that we’ve passed FutureLearn’s quality assurance process and I’m now making the final edits on the course, so what can you expect to learn over the four weeks?

Each week, we begin with a focus on what research evidence tells us about a specific area of practice. Then, through written and video case studies from schools across the country, we explore how technology can be used in a way that aligns with what this research evidence suggests might be effective.

Week 1 – Understanding technology use in educational practice (3 hrs)

This week sets up the learning for future weeks by engaging with the why of technology use; we’ll consider barriers, challenges, and evaluation. You’ll be exposed to your first set of academics and a number of case studies too.

  • Why might we choose to use technology in education?
  • What are the challenges and opportunities in technology use?
  • How can we best evaluate the impact of technology use in our own context?

Week 2 – Building new knowledge and understanding using technology (3 hrs)

This week focuses on research evidence about how we build knowledge and understanding in the classroom. We’ll then see and hear from teachers making use of technology in their variety of contexts to support such practices.

  • How might concepts such as dual coding and cognitive load theory help with presenting learning effectively?
  • What makes effective pupil collaboration in the classroom?
  • How can the presentation of learning and pupil collaboration be enabled with technology?

Week 3 – Technology to support learning that sticks (3 hrs)

This week focuses on aspects of retrieval and elaboration for learning; learning that sticks. Once more, course participants will have the opportunity to select from a range of case studies that demonstrate how technology can be used to support these practices should they wish to use it.

  • How can we support pupils’ long-term retention of content learnt using retrieval practice, elaboration and spacing?
  • How might technology effectively support the retention of learning?
  • In what circumstances might we choose to use (or not use) technology as a tool to support learning that sticks?

Week 4 – Developing technology supported assessment and feedback (3 hrs)

The final week explores assessment and feedback, and the place of technology there. Participants will choose from a range of school case studies to inform possible solutions for their practice.

  • How can assessment and feedback approaches be made most effective?
  • How might technology support effective assessment and feedback approaches?
  • How might technology and research evidence support changes to marking workload?

Whilst FutureLearn’s model is for course content to be completed in each of the designated weeks, you will have access to the content for a little while after it finishes so that you can catch-up on anything missed, which is handy as there’s a school holiday just after the course finishes. There is an upgrade fee to get longer access if you’re not a Chartered College of Teaching member (£52) but the course content will be made freely available after the course run for all members (£45 per year) within your membership platforms.

Learning together

I’m keen that a learning community is established during the course where practice, experience, and reflections are shared openly. We have a number of mentors supporting the programme who will support the discussions taking place. So often, it can feel lonely learning on a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and whilst we’ll be doing what we can on the course, I recommend the following if you can achieve it back in school:

  • Gather together a group of colleagues who will undertake the course at the same time. This could be done by you, a senior leader, or a CPD leader.
  • Arrange a weekly meeting time on a morning, lunchtime, or evening best suited to you all where there will be sustenance of some kind (tea, coffee, breakfast, biscuits, cake…)
  • Discuss the learning from the week. Use some of the discussion points from the course or the reflective questions posed at the end of each week.
  • At the end of the 4 weeks, each select something you’ll try in the term ahead and maintain the group to discuss progress (except perhaps reduce the frequency of the meetings).
  • At the end of that term, get together to share your findings, preferably inviting wider colleagues along to learn from your use of technology in evidence-based teaching and learning.

If you do this, I’d love to hear from you. If the above isn’t possible in your setting then take to Twitter or a blog to reflect for yourself and connect with other course learners at the hashtag #FLEducationTech

I hope to be learning with you over on FutureLearn soon!


Selwyn N (2019) Teachers and technology: time to get serious. Impact (Special Issue 1). Available at:

Design for how people learn

In recent months, I’ve become more engaged with the field of cognitive science and what it has to teach us about effective learning. This began with facilitating a mini research project in my previous role alongside Tom Sherrington and Joss Kang (click here to read about the start of it – I really must get round to blogging about the end of it at some point!). This learning focus has progressed more recently with Issue 2 of Impact from the Chartered College of Teaching, the associated Third Space event that I blogged about here and various reading and content shared by others since then (see collated Twitter moments here).

My new role ( I can totally still call it new 4 months in!) at the Chartered College of Teaching combines a number of my interests and areas of experience – professional development, technology and engagement with evidence.


When my role began about 3 months ago, I was on the hunt for a text that might provide me with evidence-informed approaches to online learning design. I arrived at ‘Design for How People Learn’ by Julie Dirksen. I thought I’d once spotted this book being shared by David Weston but he’s certain he’s never read it so the hunt for the original reader continues. If it was you, please get in touch so the mystery can finally be solved!

This text did not fail to disappoint: the reader is taken on a journey of designing effective online spaces, supported by the science of learning.

Aspects of the approach she presented could quite easily be translated across to classroom contexts.

What follows is a collection of the main learning points from the book, framed by my own experiences and plans for future application. One of Julie’s skills throughout the book was to challenge my assumptions and existing thinking. This was welcome and I hope you’ll be enabled to do the same as you read this summary.

Design for How People Learn

One of the things I engaged with once more through Julie’s book was the importance of the prior planning, mapping and thinking.

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Whilst it seems obvious that our students would be at the heart of our planning, I find that they can become more easily lost than one might imagine; lost amongst the extensive content we’re working through, the resources we’ll make use, and inevitably the time constraints within which we’re operating. Julie reminds us to think carefully about where our learners are starting from and the destination we’d like them to reach through their engagement in online learning. Here are a couple of my own examples to evidence what this might look like –

I worked on a spelling, punctuation, and grammar project for my GCSE English resit students. There were certain aspects they were struggling with so I knew they needed to get to a space where they were proficient with these elements and were making fewer mistakes. Their gap was mostly knowledge but I also needed to consider motivation.

With the research units we’re working on at present, we want to move teachers from a position of not engaging with research effectively or confidently to a position where they are. The gaps are various and there are elements of each that need to be addressed and planned for.

Once you have a broad idea of start and end for your journey, you’ll need to look at making the destination more precise.

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The questions listed here can help you identify precisely where you want/need the learners’ destination to be. Once you have arrived at an overall destination, it will likely be necessary for you to reduce an overarching goal to make it more precise.


I was once asked to construct some online learning for leaders – they apparently needed to learn to become ‘better managers’. Inevitably, this statement needed some reducing. What they actually needed was to hone their existing coaching skills so they could engage in more effective conversations with their team members.

In my GCSE English resit example, my students needed to ‘improve their spelling’. This too needed some distillation. Students need to develop proofreading habits. Students needed to learn the spelling of 20 key words associated with the subject being studied.

When planning classroom learning, I was considering more effectively what students might achieve by the end of a lesson. I’ve since reflected that I was occupying a much higher level plane when considering what online learning might help them to achieve and this lack of accuracy likely reduced the effectiveness of the learning experience somewhat.

Whilst Julie’s book shares how using Bloom’s Taxonomy can help to define learning objectives, she also shared a framework for proficiency from Gloria Gery. I feel as though I should have come across this before but I’m not sure I have. Either way, I was looking at this particular framework with a fresh perspective.

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This framework made sense for me in what I was personally planning online at the time. I didn’t want the project to just achieve knowledge but I was aiming for competence and proficiency – the kind of proficiency that feels effortless. The design would need to be quite different to achieve this.

So to get from where your learners are to where they need to be, it’s likely that some kind of gap will need to be bridged.

According to Julie, this gap can be one of a number of things. The gap for your project might be one of these aspects, it might be a number of them. I find that this list of questions from Julie is really helpful for defining the gap, thinking deeply and testing my assumptions about the gap. I actually think these questions might be really useful for planning any kind of learning – online or otherwise.

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I think with any online learning, I’ll be using these questions at the start of the planning stage to test out my assumptions and ensure I’m certain about the nature of the gap. Often, where I’ve initially assumed the gap was skills, some deeper probing has revealed gaps in motivation and the environment (these areas are certainly of relevance to those of you planning online learning in a business rather than education environment).

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One of Julie’s recurring themes is to remind yourself, throughout the design process that what might work for you will not necessarily work for your learners. What you think is easy to navigate, will not necessarily be the same for your learners. She advocates testing as much out on your learners as possible and one main suggestion is to watch them navigate the online learning so you can see how they interact with the content as well as how they learn from it: keeping your learners front and foremost in online learning design. I reflected on how rare it is for me to have conducted this in a formal way previously – more recently, I’ve had the space to engage in this kind of work and it’s so interesting to see someone click through a space and just watch – it’s not long before you identify things in the environment, structure and layout that need to be adapted for ease of use.

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I debated for a while about whether this part would be of significance to teachers working in school or college contexts. I think it’s important to consider what kinds of learners you will encounter before planning any kind of learning but I’ve found it to be particularly important at an online level as the experience is so different and this inevitably affects engagement in different ways. The way we question, challenge & check their learning, and encourage them to collaborate enters a completely new space. I also believe I’ve come across each and every single one of these learners both in my students and fellow colleagues I’ve worked with over the years.

Motivation in particular seems to have a higher impact on learning when it’s online as opposed to the effect it might have it in the classroom. You don’t always have the same options available to you within an online environment to make eye contact, have a quiet word with, or engage a learner.

There are a range of strategies Julie shared for engaging each learner, no matter their existing levels of motivation.

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It’s clear that you’ll need to have fewer tools in your kit for intrinsically motivated learners. Maintaining that motivation includes ensuring relevance and leveraging their skills as teachers.

Julie’s suggestions for extrinsically motivated learners make sense to me based on working with a range of learners over the years. Highlighting the ways content might be relevant to them will be useful and asking them to consider in what ways a piece of content will be relevant might also help. ‘How might you use this? Where might you use this? How will this relate to your exam?’ Listen to these learners and identify where they have challenges and attempt to fit content to that. If they don’t feel like they’re making a breakthrough early on with the parts of their learning they find most difficult or frustrating, you’ll not get far in motivating them.

I knew one route into engaging my GCSE English students with online activities was to address the parts that frustrated them the most: the different between affect and effect, for instance.

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Our motivation as learners is heavily affected by our existing level of knowledge and skills. If these are at a low level and the online learning we come into contact with makes us feel stupid by assuming existing knowledge where there isn’t any, this can make us reluctant to engage in future learning. If these are high and the online learning we come into contact makes us jump through hoops we don’t need to jump through, we soon become reluctant to engage further. I think the only thing that sets apart online learning from face-to-face learning in this regard is that you’re less aware of how frustrated a learner might be feeling. It’s far more apparent when they can glare at you from across a room. So what can be done online to affect the incline when a distance exists between your journey of content and your learner?

  • An initial assessment can provide you with information about where your learners’ skills and knowledge lies and therefore what will need to happen next to begin to bridge your identified gap. Depending on the age and experience of your learner, it might be that they’re directed to material based on what the self-assessment revealed. This will especially suit your expert learners and avoid later frustration.
  • The online learning environment itself needs to be as simple as possible to use. Reducing the complexity here means that novice learners are not going to be distracted from the content being presented by an environment that is inaccessible or confusing. Walkthroughs of content and activities, step by step instructions and chunking of content can all help with this.
  • Work to leverage your expert learners’ expertise. Incorporate peer assessment, generating of content, webinars, and collaboration that will enable them to teach others.

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We’ve all had those learning experiences where you get a flood of information and all you can do is try to keep up. If you are the expert, your mental model is likely to look as the first picture does – you can structure your information because you can see the multitude of connections between it. As a novice learner, you lack this structure so you get handed a blue sweater that you can’t figure out where to place so, with a shrug, it ends up in the pile on the floor. This was one of Julie’s analogies that have stuck with me the most as I think it’s a really clever visual for the nature of learning and reminded me of David Weston’s talk on working with novice and expert teachers. An example of how helpful analogies are in learning. So what is available for us to help novices to structure their closet?

Firstly, it’s important to remember that just as misconceptions are revealed in a face-to-face setting through interactions between teacher and student, it will be significant in an online setting for you not to push out the information to your learners and for it to go only one way. We want to aim for a responsive teaching approach and that requires students to give us feedback and for us to act upon it – and I don’t mean, ‘That was a great lesson, miss!’ I mean, ‘I’m not sure about that.’ ‘This part is confusing me.’ ’Can I practise x some more?’  Too many online learning environments I’ve come across continue to rely on being a depository for information first and foremost and interaction is low. You need to bring misconceptions to the surface and deal with them so plan for the flow of information to go both ways.

Here are some ideas about how you can support the development of a structure for generating connections –

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  • Knowledge organisers are great – either to give to the students as complete documents or ideally for them to fill out as they go along; collecting their online learning. This Twitter account has a lot of existing examples for you to explore.
  • The Learning Scientists share examples of dual coding and simple icons to accompany text can be really helpful for novices to make connections.
  • This document is an interesting read about how leaders can work with their teams using storytelling. As I read it, I saw a lot of parallels with the importance of storytelling in teaching.
  • Mind-mapping tools are a helpful way to support students with structuring their learning – Creately and Popplet are online possibilities.

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Sensory memory is the first important area of memory for us to consider; Julie suggests that habituation should be of concern to learning designers. Habituation means getting used to a sensory stimulus to the point that we no longer notice or respond to it. Think about where this might exist in your life.

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This street view at the moment is quite an assault on our senses but over time we would be used to such an appearance. One harmless habituation is the buzzing of the fridge. A more harmful one is getting used to the flashing engine warning light on your car. Online learning needs to be aware of habituation for this reason – so that our learners pay attention to the right things!

So what might the implications be for learning design?

Consistency can be useful – learners get used to the format and don’t have to expend mental energy repeatedly orienting themselves to the format; instead they can focus on content. So think about font sizes and colours, layout approaches, use of images…

BUT Too much consistency can be pretty bad. Varying the way material is presented or engaged with is important so they don’t habituate too much to your approach – I think this is far more the case with online learning than it is with face-to-face learning. Variety is important. One of my favourite sites to use to consider new approaches for online learning is from James Kieft. Whilst our planning considerations, I think at the same time, it’s important to have a handful of tech tools at any one time (again to reduce cognitive load for students).

If we return to my GCSE English resit group, I began the year with just 3 technology tools for them to become accustomed to both face-to-face and in their pure online learning experiences. Only when they became comfortable with the three did I introduce others.

So variation should be meaningful and deliberate. Avoid a random font or header but aim towards intentional changes in approach to engage and motivate.

Design for How People Learn (15)Once something has attracted our attention, it moves into our short-term or working memory. If it succeeds in penetrating your short-term memory, it’s probably significant to you for some reason; you’re actively looking for it, you need to take action, or it surprises or confounds your expectations.

As new information is presented to learners, we need to be careful with its presentation (much as we need to take care over explaining, demonstrating and modelling in a face-to-face scenario) so that it enters their long term memory successfully.

Julie talks about her own ‘shelves’ – her ‘jazz music shelf’ is filled with all kinds of music and events that she associates with jazz – because she knows little about it. Her ‘shelves for 80s music’ are various and specific – for different genres, different moments in her life, things she bought on cassette.

In addition to our carefully organised shelves, we also sometimes have shelves containing unintended associations. Each of you might have developed odd associations over the years – I associate Barcelona with some delicious Haribo sweets – fizzy peaches. They sold them in small bags on their tube system and I loved them (I wasn’t 4). It was the first place I’d had them and so I’ll always associate them with that holiday – it’s not an intended connection and it’s unlikely to be on anyone else’s Barcelona shelf but it’s there all the same.

So how can we use our knowledge of unintended connections to help us design learning experiences?


The environment in which you study will become part of your association with the material you’re studying. When possible, you want to encode the information in the same type of environment where learners will also be retrieving it.

This isn’t always possible but it is worth bearing in mind that the further the learning is from the context in which it will be used, the fewer shelves will be used to store the information meaning fewer useful associations, acting as anchors, will be used. So how can we bring the context closer within the online learning space?

Present the same content in multiple contexts so it’s not always in the same format. Do they recognise knowledge or actually know it?. Build in multiple and varied opportunities for recall

One of the things we often neglect to consider is the emotional context of the learning. How often have you said to yourself, ‘I knew the right thing to do but when it came to it…’ The practice we’ve experienced hasn’t closely enough resembled reality.

I recall seeing a documentary on the BBC about Ikea. It showed a managers’ training session in India where he was teaching them to collaborate and communicate by balancing a stick of newspaper on their fingers down to the ground. Everyone got so confused about the activity itself that the point was lost. Had he actually got them to participate in an activity that would have been closer to what they’d actually have to do on the job (putting together some flatpack furniture perhaps?) then he may have experienced more success.

So how can we replicate the emotions a learner might feel in the context they’ll be acting on their learning as opposed to how they feel in the moment online?

  • Use of role-play can help.
  • Use of real-life scenarios.
  • Create a time pressure with a ticking countdown or deadline.
  • High quality video content and images can help to replicate a context. My GCSE English students recently benefited from engaging in some 360 virtual environments on Google Cardboard so that their experience was an immersive one; one they’d remember in the exam room if they needed an inspiring environment for their creative writing. One of my favourites for this Is NYTVR
  • Storytelling can be a powerful tool in helping us to move learning into the long term memory. Stories work because after years of exposure to nursery rhymes, moral tales, television programmes, and films, we are all aware of the structure of a story. We recognise and empathise with characters and they provide a sequence that is comforting and familiar. We can frame our online learning with content that makes it comforting and familiar to learners – Steps to query a database can be framed by the example of new employee, Carla, who’s been asked a last minute request by her boss.

Frame examples used as part of your online learning content so that it’s made more familiar to your learner and therefore more memorable.

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Our elephant is the part of us that gets distracted or wants to have fun. Pressing snooze on your alarm… Persuading you that the chores don’t need to be done… There’s a cost to us dragging the elephant where it doesn’t want to go: cognitive exhaustion.

Asking your learners to rely entirely on willpower and concentration is like asking the rider to drag the elephant uphill. It’s not easy or enjoyable. So – what might help us to engage the elephant?

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It’s easier for our learners to allocate their attention if they can use what they’re learning right away. Scenarios and stories can replicate this urgency online. We’re always attuned to urgent and important over important but not urgent (the email that pings to your inbox as opposed to the report presentation that needs to be written for next week).

According to a study Julie references, we have a much stronger response to an unexpected reward than to one we know is coming. Julie describes this as the difference between a £5 note you get from your grandma every birthday as opposed to the same note found in the street. We pay attention to the unexpected. If it’s expected, it becomes part of the background and we don’t need to expend any mental energy thinking about it at all. Think about automated feedback you’ve encountered in online learning – ‘Great job! You correctly identified the answer!’ Almost mind-numbingly consistent… We need to think about how this can be delivered in different or unexpected ways.

Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is when we come across something that doesn’t fit on the ‘shelf’ that we feel it should go on. Presidents of the United States. Then Donald Trump comes along – this creates dissonance and friction in more ways than one! We question it when this happens because our thinking is challenged. The new statue of Millicent Fawcett stands in Parliament Square – male, male, woman! We need to throw things at our learners that are surprising in some way or pique their curiosity. Ask interesting questions, create mystery, leave stuff out, be less helpful…

Social proof was an interesting strategy to read as part of Julie’s list and one I’m certain I used as a teacher – ‘Thanks to EVERYONE who has handed their latest practice essay in!’ ‘It’s been so interesting to read ALL the feedback from the recent trip.’ We should provide proof that this is what everyone’s doing or engaging in. This becomes a little more problematic when we’re talking about teaching & learning initiatives in education but that’s another issue entirely…

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Imagine you work taking the ticket stubs in a cinema. You rip tickets for hundreds of people every day. At the end of the day, how many of those people will you remember? The ones you had a significant interaction with (good or otherwise). If something isn’t significant, important or unusual, why would we want to remember it? This can be particularly significant if we arrive at something the learner thinks they already know.

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Creating friction is important for our learners to aid their memory. If information is just channelled online to a learner then it can easily bypass them or be skipped through at the click of a button. We want them to engage with the material: mull it over, engage in a cognitive rummage (thanks @doctob for this oh so wonderful phrase!) . We create a desirable difficulty. If you want to know more about this and cognitive load then take a look at John Sweller. We need to engage students with material without the extraneous cognitive load – like interacting with a tricky interface for instance.

We should be looking to show rather than tell on an online course wherever possible in order to move the learning experience away from being a static one.  

Move from ‘Here are the rules for when you encounter a school bus. First… to – ask them to think about the biggest concerns with a stopped school bus.

Move from ‘A highly irate woman comes into the restaurant complaining about the service – how do you deal with her?’ to ‘A woman in a business suit charges up to you and points a finger in your face. She says ‘Look! I come in here all the time and I’ not used to be treated like this…’

Look closely at the material you want to communicate to learners and focus on the parts that are most relevant. Anything else may need to be provided as a resource for later. Be ruthless about including only what’s really necessary. I’m certainly having to do this with the research units to decide what will and can be taken forward.

Misconceptions can often be dealt with more easily in the classroom. Online, you’ll need to incorporate plenty of good feedback loops where learners are asked to answer questions, give examples, and explain an idea/concept back to you.

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So we arrive at the all important practice (the part most often missed from learning environments that seek to be solely an information depository).

It’s not always easy to know how much practice you’ll need to incorporate alongside your content or indeed the form it should take. Julie doesn’t explicitly write about form but she does consider frequency as part our planning.

Design for How People Learn (21)Again, Julie offers a useful set of questions for us to ask ourselves that can help us decide on this frequency.

The distribution of new content is essential as part of your planning so as not to overwhelm but encourage your learners.

After practising, students’ hard work will need to turn into action. For many, this will be to form and maintain a new habit.

Students can be encouraged to form their own rules for implementation (it’s more likely to stick if they form them rather than you).

‘If this happens, I will…’‘If I’m presented this kind of question, this is what I’ll do…’

Introduce the habit and ask learners to brainstorm how they’ll go about achieving the goal.

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Suggest a timeframe for their habit forming – every other day for a month…How can the habit be made more visible? Provide a tracker for them to use, either paper-based or or digital. Some digital choices include Habitica, Productive, or Streaks.


Tying the habit to an existing behaviour is preferable as they’re more likely to commit to it. What could they do whilst brushing their teeth, going for a run, on the bus, planning an exam question response?


Julie’s book holds numerous examples and helpful advice about considering every facet of a student’s experience learning online. She has used many sources that rely on aspects of cognitive science as their base. This has allowed me to dip a second toe into these waters and I have a number of avenues to research and explore in greater depth now. Learning is learning, no matter what the context but the environment plays a significant role and an online one is accompanied by some specific considerations.

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Guest Blog – Technology: A propaedeutic enchiridion!

One of my favourite things to do if I get a free(!) bit of time at work is to talk to Ken Crow (Games Development lecturer at The Sheffield College) about technology. I asked if he wouldn’t mind sharing some of his thoughts with a wider audience and he kindly agreed.

Technology : A propaedeutic enchiridion! (or adventures with “The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”).

“Before you become too entranced with gorgeous gadgets and mesmerizing video displays, let me remind you that information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of the other and we need them all.” – Arthur C. Clarke.

If the title of this somewhat meandering guest blog didn’t put you off reading the rest of it (and it probably should have) then I’d like to introduce this personal reflection by recounting an experience that I had with my daughter earlier this year. Being 15 and very much into rock (Daddy’s little girl), my 15 year old Gothic progeny and I attended a rock gig at the Sheffield Arena. While shaking one’s head, gesticulating with obscure hand signals and singing along to some of my favourite tunes while simultaneously trying not to embarrass my daughter, I observed 2 phenomenon that really hit home with how I’ve have been trying to integrate technology in my teaching over the past 18 years or so.

The first was my daughter’s artistic ability to take photographs on her smartphone, edit and filter images, annotate them and send them flying into the ether in a matter of seconds using only her thumbs. She managed this typing faster than I can when sat at a full keyboard and it made me think that perhaps culturally, the term ‘All thumbs’ needed redefining for a new generation.

Secondly was the ocean of mobile phones recording the events of the evening. This particularly struck home in a technological hypocritical moment as I captured the image of hundreds of people using their mobile phones to save their memories… with, as you will have guessed, my mobile phone.


So why have I recounted these events (other than to prove that at middle age I’m still a little bit cool and can rock with the best of them)? And what impact does this have on the teaching and learning in my classroom? I’ll return to this question later but first I’d like the opportunity to muse on what I consider a significant barrier to those considering new technology in the classroom.

Fear of new-tech in the teaching and learning journey

It seems that these days not a month goes by without someone suggesting new and improved technological ways of teaching and learning. There are apps, links, web pages, theories, cycles, models, grids, tables, VLEs, blogs, tweet-meets, hashtags, learning communities, hangouts, Facebook pages, platforms, applets; the list is endless and it seems to grow minute by minute. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I was under the impression that a taxonomy was a haven where the ultra-rich invested in off-shore accounts while holidaying in the Maldives.

But how do we keep up? This content is distilled, filtered and delivered 24/7/365 at the speed of light down wires and across the ether. It’s not inappropriate to voice what is a fear for all of us, even those that engage wholeheartedly with technology in our teaching.

What is this new fangled learning thingamy and will I get left behind if I don’t use it in my classroom?

I think the answer to this question is really important. Our motivation for using technology in our respective learning environments should follow a priority of teaching and learning need and although the ‘powers that be’ may push some technology priority further up the bullet point list for the need of collating workable data, (at this point I should put in the disclaimer that the points of view of Ken Crow in this guest blog are not necessarily those of The Sheffield College), technology in the learning environment needs to be planned and follow a specific set of guidelines that places the learner and not the teacher as the focus of the learning tool.

So here is a friendly checklist that helps me decide if I’m going to use a new fangled learning thingamy in my teaching.

The Ken Crow ‘C-U-Right’ New Fangled Learning Thingamy (NFLT) Checklist

  1. Does the NFLT link my learners to resources (curriculum and supportive) that help them learn more effectively?
  2. Does the NFLT help to support the learners (those with barriers and without) in their learning journey?
  3. Does the NFLT empower the learner to experiment with new learning experiences that expand the scope of learning?
  4. Does the NFLT connect learning, learners and teachers together?
  5. Can the Learner use or access the NFLT at their convenience, whenever and where-ever they want to learn?
  6. Does the NFLT offer flexibility to learners of running on most hardware and software platforms that can interface with a multitude of environments?

If the answer to these prioritised questions is yes then I will explore an NFLT a little more closely.

You may have noticed that I left a few things out. It is my conviction that if any of the following reasons are used as a priority for using a new tool in a learning environment, there’s a reasonable chance that a teacher is just adding another admin task to (let’s face it) an already huge list of admin tasks.

I tend to shy away from motivations for using a new tool in my classroom if it is made to appeal to me with the following features.

  • It saves the teacher time
  • It collects data together in one place
  • It polices the learners’ engagement
  • It reduces admin tasks
  • It makes preparation easier

Now here’s the trick, although I expect you might be horrified by the statement I’ve just made please let me assure you that in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The right tool in the right situation that focuses on the learner rather than on other outcomes will always save me time, collect the data that I need in one place, monitor engagement, reduce that amount of admin that I do and make my preparation easier.

Perhaps I should have articulated these ideas in a much shorter statement. If I can trust a new fangled learning thingamy to be entirely learner focused it will follow as a by -product that all of the other features will emerge as an efficient use of the technology.

But not everything is rosy. I would still suggest that the most powerful tools are those where the educator uses a curriculum framework to build content. In my experience with 3 Virtual Learning Environments (Moodle, Google and OneNote) I am using a tool that means I build both structure and content. By molding my VLE to my learners and their qualification specification, all of the additional benefits of using the technology are a byproduct of the process. I believe that there is no such thing as a free lunch; learning to use powerful technological tools in our learning environments will reap benefits but it does require some effort to learn ‘up-front’. Luckily though, you’ve now got a handy checklist to measure whether you should engage with a useful tool for your teaching practice. 🙂

‘The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer’download

I’m taking this opportunity to break up my guest blog with a book review. I am a huge fan of the cyberpunk novelist Neal Stephenson and in his post-cyberpunk sci-fi novel ‘The Diamond Age’ he detailed a most extraordinary publication. Neal’s novel and the illustrated primer has had more impact on my theories of teaching than any text book I’ve read and although “Teaching Today” is probably my favourite practical teaching text, (sorry all you educational academics that poo-poo Mr Petty’s great contribution to practical teaching), the Diamond Age would go on to significantly inspire my teaching practice.

The interactive ‘Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer’ is a book where the pages are animated and the educational content changes based on the environment that it is in and need of the reader using it. (I’m not explaining how it works here but The Diamond Age is a really good read if you’re interested). The book is stolen from an upper class family and lands in the hands of a young girl from the poor side of society. Through a series of adventures, stories and characters the book first helps Nell survive and defend herself but then goes on to teach her skills that would eventually raise her social status and change her life by helping her reach her full potential. The central inspiration in my own experience of learning and eventually teaching is that the individual journey of learning is unique and is required to move the learner from their unique starting point to a unique finish line, all the while facilitating the development of a formal body of knowledge and skill.

Sometimes I see the echoes and shadows of the Illustrated Primer in tools and apps that I look at across the internet, (even in the internet itself). There is a trend in some of these tools that worries me though. In his book, Neal acknowledges the importance of the personal link between educator and learner. The book is an interface between teachers and Nell, having been hired until the job is done her teachers are motion captured into characters that deliver the learning in the book.

Teaching is a collaborative undertaking between learners and educators, I’m not sure that technology can take the place of that relationship. The internet and technology in the classroom are powerful aids in the delivery of our curriculum but can automated apps and platforms really replace the interface between a formal body of knowledge and a unique learning journey? My opinion on this is no, it cannot.

This is not an excuse for things to remain static as teachers roles may change as technology develops but there still needs to be the foundation of a personal link between learner and subject area. I am extremely wary of one-size-fits-all or automated applications applied in teaching practice. As I’ve already discussed I would suggest that a teacher needs to build their own structure and content, supported by technology in order to ensure their presence remains an important part of the learners’ journey both in the physical delivery and curriculum content.

The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer will always inspire me as a teaching tool, it’s a technical marvel as only can be conceived in a sci-fi epic but it never aims to replace the relationship between teacher and student.

Technology is so rock and roll.

So going back to the concert and my original question; What impact does my daughter’s snapchat photo editing and hundreds of mobiles phones raised into the air have on my classroom?

Technology is everywhere in the cultural experience of the learner, it is so ubiquitous as to be invisible to those that use it at every scale in their personal and college lives. Learners cannot be separated from their tech-devices, they build their interfacing lives around the devices that they use. This puts every learner in a unique position with regard to the way that they experience college life. What to learn, how to learn, how to interface and how to communicate is all influenced by their choice and use of devices.

Young people (like my daughter) learn skills that while are seemingly completely transient (snapchat picture editing for instance) are still significant in their own right. It’s easy to disregard what learners bring to college in terms of the skills that they have learned personally or at school but if we pause for a minute and acknowledge the shear breadth of IT experience that learners bring into our building, we would have to admit that there is significant skill set there.

Setting aside for a minute that I am interested in technology (no surprise there), if I ask my self, Why do I engage with new technologies in the classroom and keep my skills up to date? I would have to answer that I think it is my job to make learning compatible with the learners’ experience not demand that the learner moves toward what I traditionally know as IT skills. The discomfort that I wish my learners to feel is the challenge of the learning journey, not my demanding that they learn a traditional set of tech skills that they will never use again. If I’m being honest about how I first learned to use the internet and then made my learners use the same tools then I would be teaching Usenet groups, IRC and UNIX.

For me, embedding new technology in the classroom is not a fool’s errand to try and keep up with an ever increasing speed of development but rather is building bridges between the formal requirements of the curriculum and an ever changing, ever modern digital literacy.

See, I told you! You should have stopped at propaedeutic enchiridion!

Guest Blog – A Day Out at Google HQ

This guest blog comes from Nick Hart, a Lecturer in Engineering at The Sheffield College. He and colleagues have recently made the move to Google Classroom and so we funded his trip to an event that might provide further inspiration. Turns out, it did.


Ok so thoughts on Google…

Incredible, mind blowing, inspirational, endless possibilities, potential are all words I would use as an educator for the Google family of software.

As a dad and a human the word I would use is scary!

But with my educator hat on I have to think about the time we could save, the efficiency we could build into our working life, and the positive effect we could have on our students’ experience here at College.

In no particular order:



A fantastic way of collating information from different sources. I could see this being a great way of doing all of the following-

  • A plenary. Exit ticket.
  • ‘What a good one looks like’ (WAGOLL) activities for students to respond to
  • The forms could though be used by our technical assessor facilitators to create a record of industrial visits/work completed by student/evidence of knowledge. The information could then be collated through an extension called Autocrat and put into a Google Doc or PDF for a neat and tidy record.



Mind blowing…

Geo charts is a way of evidencing data captured as a heat map (on a map). This can then be linked to a presentation file and remain live and linked.

Something called sparkline which gives a really quick idea of what a graph would look like for one line of data.

Sheets is a spreadsheet with all the functionality of a normal spreadsheet. It will also answer questions which are worded rather than a formula. The Explore button, bottom right, will allow the user to interrogate the data with a written question.

There was mention of a couple of add-ons which I haven’t yet had chance to play with. Goobric and Doctopus both are aimed at automating marking.


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The use of the explore button was explained here and the link with creating citations which Kieran Briggs had already shown me. The students love it by the way.

If you use tools – document outline it will create an automatic heading menu.

One that I really like and is connected to the comments is the ability to download the document as a webpage. This then includes the comments and links the comments to the text written by the student. This could be useful for when we have an external verifier who can’t use Google (heaven forbid!).


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The presenting part of the Google suite (that’s what they call it). It is really making sense to switch for me, it’s just the time factor converting everything. A couple of things that I liked were:

  • The link with keep, you can include keep notes in slides and then present them within a presentation. If you change them in keep then they change in slides too.
  • You can insert a YouTube video into a slides presentation and trim the length of the video, change the start or the end point of it.


There were a few fun bits too


  • Google trends – if you search Google trends visualiser it makes a really good starter for classes.
  • My maps – again could be a starter or an ice breaker. (also great for the geography department!)
  • Be internet awesome – brilliant for younger people or people with younger minds for teaching internet safety.
  • The teachable machine – making geeks out of normal people with a camera.
  • Reverse image search, drag an image into google image search and it’ll tell you anything about it. (not people, although I’m sure it’ll do that as well).
  • Google earth time lapse – clue’s in the name.
  • Set timer for – if you type ‘set timer for’ into Google in the chrome browser, it’s an automatic timer.
  • Type in ‘fun facts’ and you get fun facts, which then allow you to talk about them in class. (‘I’m feeling curious’ will do something similar).


Really important bits –


Image available from here

Equatio – it’s an extension which I have nearly got working perfectly in class. You can write an equation in and it will convert it to text which can then be inserted into a doc. I have had a maths teacher using it today and he thought it brilliant and would save him hours preparing documents and resources.

I would also like to use it for mathematical assignments, in conjunction with a chrome book and a tablet (not an iPad type thing but a graphical input), the students could then work on their own document live and write in the text. Equatio then converts it into the document and you then have an auditible trail of evidence.

Realtime board – essentially an infinite white board. This could be superb as you could do a years work on one white board and then frame each sessions writing and be able to refer back to it later in the year. Jamboard, an expensive and small white board. Not for me, the software though could be even better than realtime board and can do handwriting recognition. But it’s the collaboration which may be better.

Forms were being used for all sorts of applications but exit tickets were high on the list as I mentioned before.


Transforming Teacher Education – Technology

This was one of the online weeks for our ‘Transforming Teacher Education’ programme and one of the easier weeks for me to engage in. It has made me consider how well our Teacher Education programmes really prepare our future teachers to develop their digital skills though. Through recent engagement with the Jisc’s guide to developing digital literacies, I question this even more.

How do you feel about using Technology Enhanced Learning in your classroom?

I am confident using technology to enhance learning. I recognise it as a tool that can encourage collaboration and creativity in particular. It allows access to lesson content that other forms of delivery prohibit for students. It is just one tool of many though and in working with practitioners, I will discourage its use for merely ticking a box. It should be used in purposeful and meaningful ways- to develop digital skills and/or engage students with learning in improved SAMR is a useful model to follow for the embedding of technology –

What are the  driving forces that would encourage you to use more technology in your teaching?

In speaking to staff about the use of technology though, we’ll often talk about employability skills and how digital skills are an ever-increasingly large part of preparing our students for work. The second thing we speak about is how it can, given a bit of time and input, save time and make work more efficient (especially when it comes to assignments and feedback). The challenges we then overcome with staff are building of confidence and skills.

Some of my favourite tech tools are (all free)-

EdPuzzle – both for flipped learning and in class to improve use of video

Google Forms– for setting quizzes outside of class and units of work for students to work through (results are automatically analysed and feedback automated too. I also use it for end of lesson reflections/reviews for students. Thinking I could input my own teaching reflections using it too…

The range of Google tools– Google sites for out of lesson resource storage and access, Google Classroom for assignment submission, Google Docs and Slides for student group collaboration and Google Communities for closed discussion spaces

Padlet– for discussion and collaboration- basically a tech replacement for sticky notes (one of my favourite tools)

Quizizz/ Kahoot/ Socrative – for in and out of class quizzes to check learning

Class Dojofor giving points to students to manage behaviour (yes- I use it with 16 year olds and adults!)

Piktochart– for my creation of resources

Adobe Spark for posts, pages and video

I could go on…

This is a good site to find new technologies from an ex-colleague @james_kieft

What are the institutional factors that enable or prevent the further use of technology in teaching, learning and assessment where you work?

For me- it’s the lack of devices- Chromebooks/tablets/laptops/PCs prevents further in-class use for me and my students as the WiFi is not overly reliable and students are reluctant to use the data on their phones. Equally, writing essays on a phone is not really the best for developing their writing skills.


My Technical Journey- Chris Phillips

During my 23 years at the Sheffield College, technology has changed at an alarming rate. When I first started, the College still used electric typewriters and then moved on to computers: the old style with the huge monitors.                                                                


At the time they were hailed as the new era; it meant the end of tippex and not having to re-type the same information over and over again- plus information could be saved and used in the future. We had boxes full of discs, which with hindsight had a very limited storage capacity!


I did a course and learnt about computers and the Microsoft suite; what it could do and how it could be utilised at work to save time and energy in your working day.

This was then the normal package to use and I found it easy to use as it evolved through the years. With the advent of each Windows package there was always something different to get used to, but the principle was the same and the majority of the time the changes weren’t too different or difficult.

Then we had a new AP for Teaching & Learning start in 2014 who shared the benefits of Google docs. He offered training and so we started on the Google journey.  For the first year it was just small steps getting used to the way Google worked and converting our application forms to Google forms.

Since Hannah Tyreman, our new manager, started in December 2015 there has been a radical shake up of the way our department works. From being heavily paper-based we have now become 90% paperless.


Google has made a complete difference to our working practice and I have to admit I was dragged kicking and screaming into this new world which felt totally alien to me.  At first I found it completely confusing and it was very hard to accept the fact that you didn’t have to save everything and that you could work on the same document as another person at the same time – a very strange feeling…

Having said this, it has been revolutionary.  Our department started with creating forms for course applications which could be sent out, completed online and when they were returned to us immediately populated a spreadsheet.  The drawback was that this turned out to be a huge spreadsheet which was hard to read if there was an enquiry.

The improvement came when Helen Hayes discovered Autocrat, which enabled us to send out automatic responses and forms to line managers- all of which were automatic.  Helen put in hours of research and work to refine the system and has created an extensive range of spreadsheets, forms and graphs which has streamlined the way the department works.

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With Helen’s patience and tuition I have now got to grips with Google and in fact use it at home for personal work.  I have totally embraced the concept of Google and all it offers. I know that I have a long way to go to be completely competent, but I am enjoying the journey (something I thought I would never say at the beginning) and look forward to gaining a more comprehensive understanding of all it offers.

For the moment it is enough to know I can use it effectively in my job role, just don’t ask me to do any formulae!

My Journey Through Google- Helen Hayes

One of the key attractions to starting at The Sheffield College was that the staff development team had already begun the journey towards Google. Since August 2015, Chris and Helen have made a truly inspiring and incredibly rapid progression to transform processes from paper to the cloud. Here, Helen shares her journey through Google:

Continue reading “My Journey Through Google- Helen Hayes”

Blended Learning Essentials: Getting Started

In a recent blog, written for @ThinkOutLoudClub on the subject of ‘Learning to Teach Online‘, I stated that the next MOOC I’d be studying would be the ‘Blended Learning Essentials: Getting Started’. Continue reading “Blended Learning Essentials: Getting Started”

#LTTO: What I learned from ‘Learning to Teach Online’

I felt that after the plethora of posts made over the last few weeks about a recently completed MOOC: Learning to Teach Online, with University of New South Wales via Coursera, (sorry about all of those!) I should generate one post as a conclusion and a summary of the key messages and learning points. Continue reading “#LTTO: What I learned from ‘Learning to Teach Online’”