Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Category: thesis Page 1 of 24

Exploring the relationship between learning design and OEP

Another year and another institutional grant opportunity around openness. This year the focus is on Open Educational Practice and is

designed to raise awareness and understanding of open educational practice (OEP) across USQ and to provide the opportunity for USQ academics to experiment with OEP in courses and programs.

What follows are some early ramblings that have arisen from discussions with various folk about whether or not we might submit an application.

What is Open Educational Practice (OEP)?

I think getting common agreement on an answer to this question will be a major challenge, and not just for us.  Stagg (2014, p. 154) writes

There is evidence to also suggest that OEP is, after ten years, neither widespread, nor well-known (Conole, 2013; Conrad et al., 2013

Wikipedia, amongst much else, offers this on OEP

Open educational practices (OEP) are teaching techniques that draw upon open technologies and high-quality open educational resources (OER) in order to facilitate collaborative and flexible learning.[1][2] They may involve students participating in online, peer production communities [3] within activities intended to support learning [4] or more broadly, any context where access to educational opportunity through freely available online content and services is the norm.[1] Such activities may include (but are not limited to [1]), the creation, use and repurposing of open educational resources and their adaptation to the contextual setting.[4][5][6] OEP can also include the open sharing of teaching practices[1] and aim “to raise the quality of education and training and innovate educational practices on an institutional, professional and individual level”.[7]

What might we do

Initial interest is focused on actually trying to share and re-use open content between different contexts.  Not just making content open (OERs), or using open content (OERs) to produce our own teaching materials, but exploring how, if, and what happens when you try to set up an OEP ecosystem between educators (what about learners? hopefully they’d be included) in different contexts.

So far we’ve identified three possible “contexts” in which we might be able to explore

  1. Between similar courses within a single institution
    One likely participant teaches a course to pre-service teachers based on the Technologies learning area. Another colleague and I have been tasked with developing a course for another program to help pre-service teachers learn about both the Arts and Technologies learning areas. Can we engage in a bit of OEP between these two courses? Not to mention the two cohorts of learners in each course.
  2. Between similar courses between institutions.
    There are other Universities that teach similar courses. Can we engage in a bit of OEP between these courses between universities? Not to mention the different cohorts of learners?
  3. Between universities and teachers.
    In-service teachers may benefit from what’s done in these courses. In-service teachers could definitely help improve what’s done in these courses. Can we engage in a bit of OEP between teacher educators, pre-service teachers, and in-service teachers.

#3 might be a step too far in a year long project, but…

Learning design

When this rough idea was circulated one of those included mentioned some commonality with some earlier work on “Implementing effective learning designs”.

I’ve always been a bit of a learning design skeptic, but off I went to explore this idea. Cameron (2008) was amongst the first papers I came across. The research questions in Cameron (2008, p. 45) certainly resonate with my early thinking about this project (in the following, I’ve replaced “learning designs” with “open educational practices”

What open educational practices can be readily adopted by particular disciplines as templates for best practice?
What pedagogical issues emerge from the implementation of open educational practices in particular contexts?
How can identified barriers to academics’ adoption, adaptation and reuse of open educational practices be overcome?
How can the adoption of effective open educational practices be facilitated by the use of supports and scaffolds, such as, a learning activity planning tool?

The last one is a bit of a stretch, but these still appear to be in the same ballpark.

Learning designs are descriptions of learning and teaching processes that are known to be effective. By abstracting what is known to work into a learning design it is hoped that these designs can be communicated and shared between teaching staff, especially staff who do not have expertise in designing learning. It is hoped that learning designs can act as a pedagogical framework that will help teachers create enhanced learning. This is done by customising the generic learning design in ways appropriate to the context.

If this description is somewhat appropriate, then learning designs are about producing abstractions of good practice and then encouraging others to customise those abstractions to their context. I wonder about the level of tacit knowledge involved in creating those abstractions and the gulf it produces between the creators and users of learning designs.

OEP versus Learning design

As mentioned above the notion of OEP is very much up in the air.  The understanding I’m using here is that OEP is about making the practices I use, and subsequently the artefacts I produce, in my teaching open for others to see, consider, reuse, and re-purpose. Unlike learning designs, it won’t be going through much of a process of abstraction.

What is being shared will still be very contextual. It will be bundled up with the assumptions that I and my environment bring to my teaching. Assumptions that will range from the administrative, technological, pedagogical, etc.

This will make it very difficult for other people to understand what I’ve shared, let alone understand why it is the shape it is, let alone reuse what is shared in their context. This could perhaps all fail.

However, if someone takes the time to engage with that contextual baggage, perhaps they may learn a different way of thinking about a problem. Or better yet, by engaging with my practice they might pass on to me a different way of thinking about a problem.

By sharing the very different models we bring to the act of teaching (and learning) we have to revisit and perhaps remodel our conceptions of teaching. i.e. to learn.

I’m not sure that the use of learning designs require the same level of learning. Since its an abstraction with context removed, does this makes it easier to reuse a learning design than to engage in OEP? Does this also mean that you a likely to learn less by reusing a learning design?

If the contextual difference between those engaging in OEP is too much, does this decrease the likelihood of OEP being adopted and having an impact?

What if you were sharing heavily contextual OEPs within fairly similar contexts, would this impact adoption and impact?

What are the contextual factors that influence adoption and impact?

Design funnels and complexity

Just before I started writing this I read this blog post from Dave Snowden summarising some thinking about Complexity Theory and design thinking. The post suggests that design thinking (emphasis added)

is appropriate in the complicated domain of Cynefin and to some extent as a complex to complicated transition method. But it falls down in the complex domain. A parallel point is that it originates in, and is appropriate for, product creation but starts to have problems in a service environment. The points are linked because service is nearly always complex, product complicated

The post gives an overview of some difficult territory which I need to read and ponder more. But what strikes me is that it can be argued that teaching is a service, not a product. Thus design thinking, if you accept Snowden’s argument, is probably not appropriate for teaching.

Also, at some level the production of learning designs follows a logic similar to design thinking. It aims to understand the complexity of teaching and reduce it to a complicated collection of learning designs that can be reused.

OEP (using the definition above) is about opening up the complexity of teaching so that you can see what others are doing and more easily question, share, and repurpose what they do in your context. i.e. learn.

The problem is that the modern neo-liberal university doesn’t really want to accept and work with complexity. That’s too uncertain and impossible to manage. It wants/needs to reduce complexity to obviousness or complication (using words from the Cynefin framework). Preferably complication because that’s the realm of the expert.


Cameron, L. (2008). Implementing effective Learning Designs : An overview of an ALTC Competitive Grants Program project. In L. Cameron & J. Dalziel (Eds.), 3rd International LAMS & Learnign Design Conference (pp. 43–49). Sydney. Retrieved from

Stagg, A. (2014). OER adoption: a continuum for practice. Universities and Knowledge Society Journal, 11(3), 151 – 164. doi:10.7238/rusc.v11i3.2102

Extending a little thought experiment

David Wiley has posed a little thought experiment that encourages reflection around levels of automation and “personalisation” within a University course. Judging by my Twitter stream it appears to have arisen out of a session or happening from the ELI conference. The experiment describes a particular teacher purpose, outlines four options for fulfilling that purpose, and offers a standard against which to consider those options.

It’s a thought experiment that connects to a practice of mine and the growing status quo around higher education (at least in Australia). It’s also generated some interesting responses.

I’d like to extend that experiment in order to

  1. Reflect on some of the practices I have engaged in.
  2. Highlight some limitations with the current practice of e-learning in Australian higher education.
  3. Point out a potential problem with one perceived future for e-learning (replace the teacher with technology).

First, it would be useful to read Wiley’s original (and short) thought experiment and the responses.

Types of extensions

There are a range of ways in which the original thought experiment could be extended or modified. I’ll be looking at the following variations

  1. Modify the teacher’s purpose. (The support extension)
    In Wiley’s experiment the teacher is seeking to acknowledge success (score 80% or higher on an exam). Does a change in purpose impact your thinking?
  2. Clarify the context. (The inappropriate massification extension)
    Does the nature and complexity of the educational context matter? Does it change your thoughts?
  3. Add or modify an option. (The personalisation extension)
    Wiley gives four options ranging on a scale from manual/bespoke/human to entirely automated. Some of the comments on Wiley’s post offer additional options that vary the relationship between what is automated and what is manual/human. Generally increasing the complexity of the automation to increase it’s level of “personalisation”. At what level does automation of personalisation become a problem? Why?
  4. Question the standard
    The standard Wiley sets is that the students “receive a message ‘from their teacher’ and that students will interpret the messages as such”. In a world of increasingly digitally mediated experiences, does such a standard make sense?
  5. Change the standard each practice is being measured against. (The “connection not the message” extension).

The support extension

In Wiley’s experiment the purpose is stated as the faculty member deciding

that each time a student scores 80% or higher on an exam, she’ll send them an email congratulating them and encouraging them to keep up the good work

What if the purpose was to

Identify all those students who have not submitted an assignment by the due date and don’t already have an extension. Send each of those students an email asking if there’s a problem that she can help with.

This is the purpose for  which I’ve recently developed and used an option similar to Wiley’s option #3.

Changing the purpose doesn’t appear to really change my thoughts about each of the options, if I use the standard from Wiley’s thought experiment

to ensure that students are actually receiving a message “from their teacher” and that students will interpret the messages as such.

With an option #3 like approach, it’s possible that students may not interpret the message as being “from their teacher”/personal. But it’s not sufficient for me to stop (more below)

But it does rule out an automation option suggested by @KateMfD

Email is bad enough, but faux email? Why not make them badges and be done?

A non-submission badge strikes me as problematic.

The inappropriate, massification extension

Does the context within which the course is taught have any impact on your thinking?

The context in which I adopted option #3 was a course with 300+ students. About 160 of those students are online students. That is, they never aren’t expected to attend a campus and the geographic location of most means that they it would be impossible for them to do so. I’m directly responsible for about 220 of those students and responsible for the course overall. There are 2 other staff responsible for two different campus cohorts.

The course is 100% assignment based. All assignments are submitted via a version of the Moodle assignment submission activity that has been modified somewhat by my institution. For the assignment described in this post only 193 of 318 enrolled students had submitted assignments by the due date. Another 78 students had received extensions meaning that 47 students hadn’t submitted by the due date.

The tool being used to manage this process does not provide any method to identify the 47 that haven’t submitted AND don’t have extensions. Someone manually needs to step through the 125 students who haven’t submitted and exclude those that have extensions.

Having done that the teacher is then expected to personally contact 47 different students? Many of whom the teacher will never meet face-to-face? Many of whom chose the online study option due to how well asynchronous learning fits their busy life and part-time study? Even though attempting to personally contact these 47 students is going to consume a significant amount of time?

Another problem is that the system provided by the institution doesn’t provide any other choice than to adopt Wiley’s option #1 (send them each an email). Not only does the system NOT support the easy identification of non-submit, no extension students. It provides no support for sending a bulk email to each student within that category (or any other category).

In order to choose Wiley’s other options a teacher would have to engage in a bit of bricolage just like I did. Which tends not to happen. As an example consider that my course is a 3rd year course. The 300+ students in my course have been studying for at least 3 years in an online mode. Many of them for longer than that because they are studying part-time. They will typically have studied around 16 courses before starting my course. With that in mind here’s what one student wrote in response to me adoption option #3

Thank you for contacting me in regards to the submission. You’re the first staff member to ever do that so I appreciate this a lot.

Does a teaching context that has seen significant massification unaccompanied by appropriate changes in support for both students and teachers make any difference in your thoughts? If the manual options are seen to take time away from supporting other (or all) students? What if the inappropriate massification of higher education means that the teacher doesn’t (and can’t) know enough personal information about (most of the) individual students to craft a meaningful, personal email message?

The personalisation extension

Wiley’s options and some of the responses tend to vary based on the amount of personalisation, and how much of the personalisation is done by a human or is automated.

A human manually checking the gradebook and writing an individual email to each student seems to strike some as more appropriate (more human?). Manually sending an email from a range of pre-written versions also may be ok. But beyond that and people appear to start to stuggle.

What about the option suggested by James DiGioai

scripting the criterion matching step, which informs the teacher which students are above 80%, and pushes her to write bespoke messages for each matching student. She automates the tedious part of the task and let the teacher do the emotional work of connecting with and support her students.

Is it the type of work that is automated that is important?

What about the apparently holy grail of many to automate the teacher out of the learning experience? Are we fearful that technology will replace teachers? Can technology replace teachers?

Or is it the case that technology can and should

replace many of the routine administrative tasks typically handled by teachers, like taking attendance, entering marks into a grading book

Bringing us back to the question of where do you draw this line?

Question the standard

Wiley’s standard is

our faculty member wants to ensure that students are actually receiving a message “from their teacher” and that students will interpret the messages as such.

The assumption being that there is significant value to the student in the teacher sending and being seen to send a message written specifically for the student. A value evident in some of the responses to Wiley’s post.

In this “digital era” does such a standard/value continue to make sense? @KateMfD suggests that in some cases it may not, but in Wiley’s original case it does

But an email of encouragement strikes me as a different kind of thing. It’s intended either to be a personal message, or to masquerade as one. Political campaigning, marketing, all the discourses that structure our lives, and that we justly dismiss as inauthentic, reach for us with the mimicry of personal communication. “Dear Kate” doesn’t make it so.

Is the “is there a problem? can I help?” message that I use in my context one that can be automated? After all, the purpose of the message is that I don’t know enough about the student’s reason for not submitting to personalise the message.

What if the massification of higher education means that the teacher doesn’t (and can’t) know enough about (most of) the students to craft a personal message? Alright to automate?

I have some anecdotal evidence to support this. I have been using options at or around Wiley’s 3rd option for years. An “email merge” facility was a feature we added to a system I designed in the early 2000s. It was one of the most used features, including use by teachers who were using a different system entirely. This facility mirrored the functionality of a “mail merge” facility where you could insert macros in a message that would be replace with information personal to each individual.

One example of how I used was a simple “how’s it going” message that I would send out a key points of the semester. One response I received from a student (which I’m sure I’ve saved somewhere, but can’t find) was along the lines of “I know this is being sent out as a global email, but it still provides a sense of interaction”.

Suggesting that at least for that student there was still value in the message, even though they knew I didn’t hand craft it.

The “connection not the message” extension

Which brings me to my last point. The standard for Wiley’s thought experiment is based on the value of the message being and being seen to be a personal message to the student. That’s not the standard or the value that I see for my practices.

For what it’s worth I think that the “7 Principles of Good Practice for Undergraduate Education” from Chickering and Gamson (1997) are an ok framework for thinking about learning and teaching. The first of their 7 principles is

  1. Encourages Contact Between Students and Faculty
    Frequent student-faculty contact in and out of classes is the most important factor in student motivation and involvement. Faculty concern helps students get through rough times and keep on working

The standard I use is whether or not the practices I use encourage contact between my students and I. Does it create a connection?

Whether or not the students see the message I sent as being personally written for them is not important. It’s about whether or not it encourages them to respond and helps a connection form between us.

In the case of the not submitted, no extension students I’m hoping they’ll respond, explain the reason they haven’t submitted, and provide an opportunity for me to learn a little more about the problems they are having.

While I haven’t done the analysis, anecdotally I know that each time I send out this email I get responses from multiple students. Most, but not all, respond.

For me, this standard is more important than the standard in Wiley’s thought experiment. It’s also a standard that my personal experience suggests that moving further up Wiley’s options is okay.

It’s also a standard which argues against the complete automation of the personalisation process. The reasons why students haven’t submitted their assignment and the interventions that may be needed and appropriate tend to represent the full richness and variety of the human condition. The type of richness and variety for which an automated system can’t (currently?) handle well.


Using social bookmarking to enrich the learning environment

Another day and another short presentation showing off a particular aspect of learning and teaching. This time social bookmarking.

Blog for learning. Why? What? How?

Today I’m giving a 10 minutes spiel on why, what, and how I make use of blogs to support student learning in one of my courses. The slides for the talk will will be available below.

What if our digital technologies were protean? Implications for computational thinking, learning, and teaching

David Jones, Elke Schneider

To be presented at  ACCE’2016 and an extension of Albion et al (2016).


Not for the first time, the transformation of global society through digital technologies is driving an increased interest in the use of such technologies in both curriculum and pedagogy. Historically, the translation of such interest into widespread and effective change in learning experiences has been less than successful. This paper explores what might happen to the translation of this interest if the digital technologies within our educational institutions were protean. What if the digital technologies in schools were flexible and adaptable by and to specific learners, teachers, and learning experiences? To provide initial, possible answers to this question, the stories of digital technology modification by a teacher educator and a novice high school teacher are analysed. Analysis reveals that the modification of digital technologies in two very different contexts was driven by the desire to improve learning and/or teaching by: filling holes with the provided digital technologies; modelling to students effective practice with digital technologies; and, to better mirror real world digital technologies. A range of initial implications and questions for practitioners, policy makers, and researchers are drawn from these experiences. It is suggested that recognising and responding to the inherently protean nature of digital technologies may be a key enabler of attempts to harness and integrate digital technologies into both curriculum and pedagogy.


Coding or computational thinking is the new black. Reasons given for this increased interest include the need to fill the perceived shortage of ICT-skilled employees, the belief that coding will help students “to understand today’s digitalised society and foster 21st century skills like problem solving, creativity and logical thinking” (Balanskat & Engelhardt, 2015, p. 6), and that computational thinking is “a fundamental skill for everyone” (Wing, 2006, p. 33). Computational thinking is seen as “a universal competence, which should be added to every child’s analytical ability as a vital ingredient of their school learning” (Voogt, Fisser, Good, Mishra, & Yadav, 2015, p. 715). Consequently, there is growing worldwide interest in integrating coding or computational thinking into the school curriculum. One example of this is the Queensland Government’s #codingcounts discussion paper (Department of Education and Training, 2015) which commits the government “to making sure that every student will learn the new digital literacy of coding” (p. 9). It appears that students also recognise the growing importance of coding. The #codingcounts discussion paper (Department of Education and Training, 2015) cites a Microsoft Asia Pacific survey (Microsoft APAC News Centre, 2015) that suggests 75% of students (under 24) in the Asia Pacific “wish that coding could be offered as a core subject in their schools” (n.p.). While not all are convinced of the value of making coding a core part of the curriculum it appears that it is going to happen. Balanskat & Engelhardt (2015) report that 16 of the 21 Ministries of Education surveyed already had coding integrated into the curriculum, and that it was a main priority for 10 of them. Within Australia, the recently approved Technologies learning area of the Australian Curriculum includes a focus on computational thinking combined with design and systems thinking as part of the Digital Technologies subject. This is the subject that is the focus of the Queensland government’s #codingcounts plan and it has been argued that it may also “provide a framework upon which female participation in computing can be addressed” (Zagami, Boden, Keane, Moreton, & Schulz, 2016, p. 13). The question appears to have shifted from if coding or computational thinking should be integrated into the curriculum, toward questions of how and if it can be done effectively in a way that scales for all learners?

These types of questions are especially relevant given the observation that despite extensive efforts over the last 30+ years to eliminate known barriers, the majority of teachers do not yet use digital technologies to enhance learning (Ertmer & Ottenbreit-Leftwich, 2013). It appears that the majority of teachers still do not have the knowledge, skills, resources, and environment in which to effectively use digital technologies to enhance and transform student learning. The introduction of computational thinking – “solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behaviour, by drawing on the concepts fundamental to computer science” (Wing, 2006, p. 33) – into the curriculum requires teachers to move beyond use of digital technologies into practices that involve the design and modification of digital technologies. In recognition of the difficulty of this move, proponents of integrating computational thinking are planning a range of strategies to aid teachers. One problem, however, is that many of these strategies seem to echo the extensive efforts undertaken to encourage the use of digital technologies for learning and teaching that have yet to prove widely successful. At this early stage, the evaluation and research into the integration of computational thinking into the curriculum remains scarce and with a limited amount of “evidence as to how far teachers really manage to integrate coding effectively into their teaching and the problems they face“ (Balanskat & Engelhardt, 2015, p. 15).

However, attempts to integrate coding or computational thinking into the curriculum are not new. Grover and Pea (2013) identify the long history of computational thinking, tracing it back to recommendations for college students in the 1960s and to Papert’s work with Logo in K12 education in the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, Maddux and Lamont Johnson (1997) write of “a steady waning of interest in student use of the Logo computer language in schools” (p. 2) and examine a range of reasons for this. In the late 1990s, the dotcom boom helped increase interest, but it did not last. By the 2000s the overall participation rate in IT education within Australia declined.  With an even greater decline in enrolments in software development subjects, and especially in female participation (Rowan & Lynch, 2011). The research literature has identified a range of factors for this decline, including the finding that “Students in every participating school joined in a chorus defining the subject as ‘boring’” (Rowan & Lynch, 2011, p. 88). More recently the rise of interest in computational thinking has led to the identification of a range of issues to be confronted, including: “defining what we mean when we speak of computational thinking, to what the core concepts/attributes are and their relationship to programming knowledge; how computational thinking can be integrated into the curriculum; and the kind of research that needs to be done to further the computational thinking agenda in education” (Voogt et al., 2015, p. 716). In this paper, we are interested in exploring the related issue of how and if widespread common perceptions of digital technologies may be hindering attempts to harness and integrate digital technologies into both curriculum and pedagogy.

What if the digital technology environments within education institutions do not mirror the environments in contemporary and future digitalised societies? What if our experience within these limited digital technology environments is negatively impacting our thinking about how to harness and integrate digital technologies into curriculum and pedagogy? What if thinking about digital technology has not effectively understood and responded to the inherent protean nature of digital technologies? What if the digital technologies provided to educators were protean? Might this have an impact on attempts to harness and integrate digital technologies into curriculum and pedagogy? It is these and related questions that this paper seeks to explore.

The paper starts by drawing on a range of literature to explore different conceptions of digital technologies. In particular, it focuses on the 40+ year old idea that digital technologies are the most protean of media. Next, the paper explains how stories of digital technology modification by a high school teacher and a teacher educator were collected and analysed to offer insights into what might happen if our digital technologies were protean. Analysis of these stories is then discussed and used to develop an initial set of implications for practice, policy, and research for attempts to harness and integrate digital technologies into curriculum and pedagogy. The paper suggests that an educational environment that is rich with protean digital technologies appears likely to have a range of positive impacts on attempts to harness and integrate digital technologies into curriculum and pedagogy. However, such an environment requires radically different mindsets than currently used within educational institutions, and is thus likely to be extremely challenging to create and maintain.

Digital technology: A protean meta-medium, or not?

The commonplace notions of digital technologies that underpin both everyday life and research have a tendency to see them “as relatively stable, discrete, independent, and fixed” (Orlikowski & Iacono, 2001, p. 121). Digital technologies are seen as hard technologies, technologies where what can be done is fixed in advance either by embedding it in the technology or “in inflexible human processes, rules and procedures needed for the technology’s operation” (Dron, 2013, p. 35). As noted by Selwyn and Bulfin (2015) “Schools are highly regulated sites of digital technology use” (p. 1) where digital technologies are often seen as a tool that is: used when and where permitted; standardised and preconfigured; conforms to institutional rather than individual needs; and, a directed activity. Rushkoff (2010) argues that one of the problems with this established view of digital technologies is that “instead of optimizing our machines for humanity – or even the benefit of some particular group – we are optimizing humans for machinery” (p. 15). This hard view of digital technologies perhaps also contributes to the problem identified by Selwyn (2016) where in spite of the rhetoric of efficiency and flexibility surrounding digital technologies, “few of these technologies practices serve to advantage the people who are actually doing the work” (p. 5). Digital technologies have not always been perceived as hard technologies.

Seymour Papert in his book Mindstorms (Papert, 1980) describes the computer as “the Proteus of machines” (p. viii) since the essence of a computer is its “universality, its power to simulate. Because it can take on a thousand forms and can serve a thousand functions, it can appeal to a thousand tastes” (p. viii). This is a view echoed by Alan Kay (1984) and his discussion of the “protean nature of the computer” (p. 59) as “the first metamedium, and as such has degrees of freedom and expression never before encountered” (p. 59). In describing the design of the first personal computer, Kay and Goldberg (1977) address the challenge of producing a computer that is useful for everyone. Given the huge diversity of potential users they conclude “any attempt to specifically anticipate their needs in the design of the Dynabook would end in a disastrous feature-laden hodgepodge which would not be really suitable for anyone” (Kay & Goldberg, 1977, p. 40). To address this problem they aimed to provide a foundation technology and sufficient general tools to allow “ordinary users to casually and easily describe their desires for a specific tool” (Kay & Goldberg, 1977, p. 41). They aim to create a digital environment that opens up the ability to create computational tools to every user, including children. For Kay (1984) it is a must that people using digital technologies should be able to tailor those technologies to suit their wants, since “Anything less would be as absurd as requiring essays to be formed out of paragraphs that have already been written” (p. 57). For Stallman (2014) the question is more fundamental, “To make computing democratic, the users must control the software that does their computing!” (n.p.).

This perceived 40-year-old need for individuals to use protean digital technologies to make their own tools in order to fulfil personal desires resonates strongly with the contemporary Maker movement. A movement that is driven by a combination of new technologies that increase the ease of creation, a cultural shift toward do-it-yourself practices, and is seeing people increasingly engaged in creating and customising physical and virtual artefacts. Martinez and Stager (2013) make this link explicit by labelling Seymour Papert as the “Father of the Maker Movement” (n.p.). Similarly, Resnick and Rosenbaum (2013) note the resonance between the Maker movement and a tradition within the field of education that stretches from Dewey’s progressivism to Papert’s constructionism. Resnick and Rosenbaum (2013) see tinkering “as a playful style of designing and making, where you constantly experiment” (p. 165) for which digital technologies – due to their association with logic and precision – may not always appear suitable. A perception reinforced by the evolution of digital technologies after the work of Kay and Goldberg in the 1970s.

The work of Kay, Goldberg, and others at Xerox PARC on Dynabook directly and heavily influenced Apple, Microsoft, and shaped contemporary computing. However, Kay and Goldberg’s conception of computers as a protean medium where tool creation was open to every user did not play a part in that shaping (Wardrip-Fruin & Montfort, 2003). In fact, there’s evidence that digital technologies are getting less modifiable by the end-user. Writing about how our relationship with computers is changing, Turkle (1995) argues that we “have become accustomed to opaque technology” (p. 23). Where early computer systems encouraged, even required, people to understand the mechanism of the computer, the rise of the GUI interface hides the mechanism behind the simulation of a desktop or other metaphor. Limiting users to clicking prepared icons and menus. Desktop personal computers once had an architecture that enabled enhancement and upgrading. While increasingly mobile devices are typically “not designed to be upgraded, serviced or even opened, just used and discarded” (Traxler, 2010, p. 5). The decision by Apple to prevent the creation of executable files on the iPad means “that you can’t make anything that may be used elsewhere. The most powerful form of computing, programming, is verboten” (Stager, 2013, n.p.). But it’s not just the design of technology that hardens digital technologies.

As noted above, Dron (2013) argues that technology can be hardened by embedding it “in inflexible human processes, rules and procedures” (p. 35). Resnick and Rosenabuam (2013) make the point that designing contexts that allow for tinkerability is as important as designing technologies for tinkerability. The affordance of a digital technology to be protean is not solely a feature of the technology. An affordance to be protean arises from the on-going relationship between digital technologies, the people using it, and the environment in which it is used. Being able to code, does not always mean you are able to modify a digital technology. Selwyn and Bulfin’s (2015) positioning of schools as “highly regulated sites of digital technology use” (p. 1) suggest that they are often not a context that are designed for tinkerability through the provision of protean digital technologies.

Even though the context may not provide protean digital technologies, this hasn’t stopped educators modifying digital technologies. Jones, Albion and Heffernan (2016) examine and map stories of digital technology modification by three teacher educators by the traces left in the digital landscape and the levels of modification. Table 1 provides an overview of the levels of digital technology modification used by Jones et. al. (2016). It ranges from simply using a digital technology as is, through changing its operation via configuration options (internal and external), modifying the operation of a digital technology by combining or supplementing it with other digital technologies, and finally to coding. Table 1 suggests that digital technologies can be modified via configuration, combination, and coding.

Table 1: Levels of digital technology modification (Albion et al., 2016)

Type of change Description Example
Use Tool used with no change Add an element to a Moodle site
Internal configuration Change operation of a tool using the configuration options of the tool Change the appearance of the Moodle site by changing Moodle course settings
External configuration Change operations of a tool using means outside of the tool Inject CSS or Javascript into a Moodle site to change its appearance or operation
Customization Change the tool by modifying its code Modify the Moodle source code, or create/install a new plugin
Supplement Use another tool to offer functionality not provided by existing tool Implement course level social bookmarking through Diigo
Replacement Use another tool to replace/enhance functionality provided by existing tool Require students to use external blog engines, rather than the Moodle blog engine



This paper uses a qualitative case study to describe and explore the potential value, impact, and issues faced by educators when they seek to treat digital technologies as protean. The aim being to offer some initial responses to the question “what if our digital technologies were protean?” As this is an attempt to understand a particular social phenomenon as it occurs in real-life it is well-suited to the case study method (Aaltio & Heilmann, 2010). Data for this case study is drawn from the authors’ own experiences as educators. For Jones this draws on his experiences as a teacher educator at the University of Southern Queensland from commencement in 2012 through 2015. During this time his main teaching responsibility was for a large – over 300 students split evenly between on-campus and online students – 3rd year course within the Bachelor of Education. For Schneider, this draws on her experience as a teacher at secondary schools (neither her current school) within south-east Queensland in 2014 and 2015 teaching grades 7 to 12 in IT and Business subjects.

The authors’ experiences provide a number of advantages for the purpose of exploring the potential impact of protean digital technologies. Both authors have: formal tertiary education in fields related to the development of Information Technology; undertaken professional work within Information Technology; and, later trained as Secondary IPT teachers. Consequently, both authors see digital technologies as more inherently protean than those without an IT background, and have the knowledge and skills necessary to modify existing, somewhat less than protean, digital technologies. While not an activity currently broadly available to all educators, the authors’ experience and knowledge provide an indication of what might be possible if digital technologies available to educators were more protean. At the same time, the authors have different cultural backgrounds (Australia and Canada). The case also explores the impact of protean digital technologies within two very different educational contexts: tertiary and secondary education. The tertiary education context involves a large course with hundreds of students in both on-campus and online modes. This large and diverse student cohort means that there is significant use of digital technologies with online students learning solely via digital technologies. The secondary education context involves a greater number of smaller student cohorts with digital adoption in a state of flux and still primarily delivering teaching and assessing learning with traditional, non-digital means.

The authors engaged in an iterative and cyclical process that involved the gathering, sharing, discussing, and analysing stories of how, why, and what digital technologies they had modified while teaching. Both authors drew on personal records and writings in the form of tweets, blog posts, email archives, and other documents to generate a list of such stories. These stories (Jones: 16, Schneider: 10) were written up using a common format, shared via a Google document, generated on-going discussion, and led to an iterative process of analysis to identify patterns and implications. A major part of the analysis was grouping the stories of digital technology modification via: the purpose (e.g. improve administration, model good practice, teaching, or learning); cause (e.g. inefficient systems, non-existent systems, missing functionality); impact (e.g. save time, improve learning); and, the type of change (as per Table 1). From this analysis a number of evident themes were extracted and are described in the next section.

Themes evident in stories of protean technologies

Upon reading each other’s stories, both authors were immediately struck by the level of commonality between the stories both had told. Not so surprising was that all stories told of attempts to improve learning, teaching, or both. However, even though these stories were taking place in very different types of educational institutions there were three common themes prevalent in stories from both authors. The three themes were: filling holes (14 stories); modelling effective practice (12 stories); and, mirroring the real world (7 stories). There were, however, significant differences in the amount of coding required for these stories and the levels of digital technology modification undertaken.

In terms of coding, eventually none of Schneider’s ten stories involved the use of coding. Two of her stories did initially involve coding (Yahoo Pipes and Java), but she subsequently implemented other modifications that did not require coding. Seven of Jones’ sixteen stories involved coding using Perl, PHP, or jQuery/Javascript. This suggests the digital technologies can be modified without necessarily being able to code. However, it does raise questions about the reasons between the greater prevalence of coding in Jones’ stories. Is it due to the greater reliance on digital technologies within the specific context? Is it his longer work history within higher education? Was Jones less fearful of getting in trouble for wandering away from officially mandated practices? Is it his longer engagement with modifying digital technologies for learning and teaching? Or, are there other factors at play?

Figure 1 describes the level of digital technology modification (as per Table 1) evidence in the stories from each author (some stories involved more than one level of modification). All but one of Schneider’s stories involved supplementing or replacing digital technologies provided by the school. This suggests some significant perceived limitations with the school digital technology environment. Jones’ stories were almost evenly balanced between configuring provided digital technologies, or supplementing/replacing them with different digital technologies.Story Modification.png

Figure 1: Number of stories per author for each level of digital technology modification

Four of Schneider’s stories and ten of Jones’ stories of digital technology modification were designed to fill holes in the functionality provided by institutional technologies. In her very first story (Digital grading using Excel) Schneider outlines her use of Excel spreadsheets to supplement the school’s requirement that teachers update paper-based student profiles located within a dedicated physical folder kept in the head-of-department’s office. Her use of Excel spreadsheets to supplement the required practice provided necessary support for teacher tasks such as maintaining student progress records and discussing progress with individual students. Practices that the school practice did not support – the hole to be filled. In the story “Web scraping to contact not submits” Jones describes a similar hole in an institutionally provided technology. In this story, the University’s online assignment management system provides no mechanism by which students who have not submitted an assignment and have not received an extension can be identified and contacted. Instead, Jones had to use a combination of Perl scripts, regular expressions, manual copying and pasting, and an email client to fill the hole. The value and difficulty in making this particular modification is illustrated by the following quote from a third-year student who was contacted via this modification.

Thank you for contacting me in regards to the submission. You’re the first staff member to ever do that so I appreciate this a lot.

Six of Schneider’s stories and six of Jones’ stories of digital technology modification were intended to improve student learning. These were all driven by a combination of modelling the effective use of digital technologies and/or adopting enhanced pedagogical practices. In “Moviemaker to introduce teacher and topics” Schneider describes how the production by her of a movie trailer for her subject is intended to model the use of digital technologies to visually present information, but also to engage students. In “Course barometers via Google forms” Jones  describes how functionality provided by the University LMS is replaced with Google forms as a way to more effectively gather student feedback, but also model a technology that they may be used by students in their practice. That both authors primarily teach in subjects related to the use of digital technologies would appear to suggest that prevalence of the modelling theme may be reduced for teachers of other areas.

Four of Schneider’s stories and three of Jones’ stories suggest that the institutionally provided digital technologies do not always appropriately mirror the capabilities of real-world technologies and subsequently negatively impact learning and teaching. Both authors share stories about how the visual and content capabilities of institutional learning management systems fail to mirror the diversity, quality, and capabilities of available online technologies, including social networking software. Consequently, both authors tell stories of creating teaching related websites on external blog engines. In “Creating a teaching website with Edublogs” Schneider outlines the visual and functional limitations of the official Learning Management System (LMS) and how use of Edublogs saved teacher time, was more visually appealing, and provided a more authentic experience to students of services they are likely to encounter in the real-world. Schneider also tells stories where computer hardware and network bandwidth provided by the school to students is supplemented through use of personal resources from both students and herself. The story “Encourage student use of phone hot-spots” tells of how the widespread inability of school Internet connections to fulfil learning needs was addressed by encouraging those students with access to use their mobile phone hot spots.

In general, the modification of institutional digital technologies does not come without problems, risks, or costs. Both authors make mention of the additional workload required to implement the changes described, especially when such changes aren’t directly supported or encouraged by the institution.  Such cost can be assuaged through on-going use of the changes and the benefits they generate. However, these types of changes can challenge institutional polices and be frowned upon by management. In “Hacking look and feel” Jones  describes how an institutionally mandated, default look and feel for course websites was modified to avoid a decrease in functionality. A story that also describes how the author had to respond to a “please explain” message from the institutional hierarchy and was for a time seen as “hacking” the institution’s online presence. Similarly, in “Encouraged students to hot-spot with their phones to connect to the web” Schneider describes one digital technology modification that both broke institutional policy, but also enhanced student learning. It is not hard to foresee situations where the outcomes of these stories may well have been considerably more negative for those involved.

What if? Discussion, implications and questions

The perception of digital technologies as protean does not appear widespread within educational institutions. What if our digital technologies were protean? Since designing the context for tinkerability is important (Resnick & Rosenbaum, 2013), what if the context within educational institutions were designed to enable, encourage, and support all teachers and learners in the modification of digital technologies to create the tools they see as necessary to best support their learning and teaching? Understanding and correctly predicting the potential implications and outcomes of such a radical transformation of the complex environment of an education institution is difficult. Hence the following are presented as a tentative exploration of some possible future states and are seen more as questions for exploration and confirmation than firm predictions. The assumption underpinning the following implications and questions is that the experience of the authors described above can be used to generate some indications of what might happen if our digital technologies were protean.

Filling holes – bricolage

One of the reviewers of this paper made the following observation

Some of the tinkerability/evidence of protean behaviour sound rather like the old idea of a kludge – a ‘quick and dirty’ workaround for some computer processes

As noted earlier in the paper, almost 40 years ago, Kay and Goldberg (1977) recognised that any digital technology that attempted to anticipate the needs of a diverse user population would end up as “a disastrous feature-laden hodgepodge which would not be really suitable for anyone” (p. 40). Over recent years the digital technologies used within educational institutions are increasingly enterprise information systems. Systems – such as Learning Management Systems – intended to fulfil the needs of the entire institution and are perhaps more likely to fulfil the prediction of Kay and Goldberg. Jones, Heffernan and Albion (2015) offer a range of additional examples of how institutionally mandated digital technologies are often not suited to specific educational aims and contexts and thus generate the need for ‘digital renovation’.  An example of Koopman’s and Hoffman’s (2003) description of how some “work-arounds are necessary because the computer or software as originally designed simply doesn’t address the problem or task at hand” (p. 72). Koopman and Hoffman (2003) argue that workarounds should not be seen as users departing from officially condoned uses of technology (illustrated above by the increased chance of organisational censure the authors digital renovation risked), but rather as the legitimate practice of adaptive design where the users are helping finish the design of the digital technologies.

A perspective mirrored by Turvey (2012) who argues that the construction of pedagogical tools does not end with production, but instead such tools continue to be refined through “use within a complex ecology of mediating influences, as teachers exercise agency over the development of their professional practice” (p. 114). Further echoed by the argument of Mishra and Koehler (2006) that “there is no single technological solution that applies for every teacher, every course, or every view of teaching” (p. 1029) and that instead quality teaching “requires developing a nuanced understanding of the complex relationships between technology, content, and pedagogy, and using this understanding to develop appropriate context-specific strategies and representations” (p. 1029). Jones, Heffernan and Albion (2015) describe how the protean possibilities of existing digital technologies can be used to engage in ‘digital renovation’ and thus create educational possibilities specific to particular teaching contexts.

Would digital technologies that are protean better support teachers engaging in digital renovation activities that “fill the holes” between those digital technologies and the context-specific requirements of learner and teacher? Would teacher engagement in context-appropriate digital renovation activities lead to improvements in the quality of teaching and learning? If existing digital technologies are largely not protean, what is the nature of the “holes” that are currently experienced by learners and teachers? What impact does an inability to “fill these holes” have on teachers and their workload, sense of agency, their perception of digital technologies, their learners etc.?

Modelling the effective use of digital technologies

The digital technologies subject from the technologies area of the Australian Curriculum defines computational thinking as “A problem solving method that involves various techniques and strategies in order to solve problems that can be implemented by digital systems” (ACARA, 2014). Workarounds, kludges, and digital renovation are examples of the application of computational thinking by users to solve problems that they face. Engaging in digital renovation allowed Schneider to model the application of computational thinking for her secondary computing students. With the incorporation of the Australian Curriculum’s digital technologies subject into the compulsory curricula, the advantages of being able to do this now expand to a majority of teachers. However, as noted above there is the question about whether or not this broader sample of teachers have the experience, knowledge and skills to take advantage of this opportunity. To address this problem a range of professional development opportunities are being made available to teachers.

In the context of ‘technologising literacy education’, Lankshear and Bigum (1999) develop and describe four principles for “guiding further developments in technologizing classrooms” (p. 445) and then show how those principles are seen differently by an ‘insider’ mindset and an ‘outsider-newcomer’ mindset. The first of these principles is ‘Teachers first’. This principle recommends that teachers must first be aided in “making use of new technologies to enhance their personal work before learning to use them in their teaching” (p. 453). The argument is that in order for teachers to be able to make appropriate pedagogical decisions around new technologies “they must first know how to use those technologies for their own purposes (and any benefits of doing so) for their own purposes” (p. 453). Lankshear and Bigum (1999) argue that the intent of this principle is “easy to subvert” (p. 460) by practices “designed to put teachers into classrooms with improved technological skills and understandings, but within the confines of the newcomer-outsider world view” (p. 460). On the other hand, an insider world view focuses both on the importance of addressing teachers’ on-going needs, but also on developing new alliances and articulations around learning, teaching, and the new technologies. Professional development alone is not likely to be sufficient to allow teachers to model computational thinking. Protean digital technologies would seem to be at least a catalyst, if not a pre-requisite, for teachers and others to be able to begin modelling computational thinking in the context of the requirements of the digital technologies subject.

Would the widespread availability of protean digital technologies better enable teachers to develop and model computational thinking? What impact would this have on student learning? Will the absence of protean digital technologies hinder teachers’ ability to develop and refine their computational thinking abilities? Can protean digital technologies help support the creation of new alliances and articulations around learning, teaching, and digital technologies within schools? What other types of support and changes would be required to develop such alliances and articulations? What new alliances and articulations would or should be developed?

Mirror the real world

The introduction of the digital technologies subject into core curricula is being done to ensure that students leave school with the skills necessary to engage in a digital world. It has been suggested that within Australia the introduction of the “compulsory Digital Technologies curriculum may provide a framework upon which female participation in computing can be addressed” (Zagami, Boden, Keane, Moreton, & Schulz, 2016, p. 13). On the other hand, in critiquing school mathematics Lockhart (2009) suggests that “there is surely no more reliable way to kill enthusiasm and interest in a subject than to make it a mandatory part of the school curriculum” (p. 36). A major part of Lockhart’s (2009) critique of school mathematics is a complaint about “the lack of mathematics in our mathematics classes” (p. 29). A problem that arises from a complex set of factors including “that nobody has the faintest idea what it is that mathematicians do” (p. 22) which leads to “forced and contrived” (p. 38) attempts to explain how what happens in mathematics classes as relevant to daily life. Margolis, Estrella, Goode et. al. (2008) found  that classroom practices associated with the teaching of computer science in American schools “can be disconnected from students’ lives, seemingly devoid of real-life relevance” (p. 102). Echoes of the limited relevance problem was found by Rowan & Lynch (2011) in post-compulsory information technology secondary courses in Australia. Margolis et al (2008) argue that it is important that teachers be able to demonstrate to students the relevance and significance of computer science to students’ lived experience, but identify that typically teachers have not received any support in developing approaches that meet this need.

The renewed interest in computational thinking and digital technologies arise from visions of the future, such as that seen by the Queensland Government where digital technologies are “fundamentally transforming the world of work and generating new ways of doing business on a global scale” (Department of Education and Training, 2015, p. 11). A vision of a future real world that is very different from the experience learners and teachers have of digital technologies within schools. As identified by Selwyn and Bulfin (2015), an experience heavy on regulation, standardisation, pre-configuration, directed activity, and on institutional and not individual needs. Suggesting that the prevalent school digital environment is unlikely to help prepare learners and teachers well for the future, fundamentally transformed world. Suggesting also that the teaching of computational thinking within schools may fall into the same trap as the type of school-based mathematics critiqued by Lockhart.

Are current, school-based digital environments suitable for preparing learners and teachers “to understand today’s digitalised society and foster 21st century skills like problem solving, creativity and logical thinking” (Balanskat & Engelhardt, 2015, p. 6)? Would an environment with the widespread availability of protean digital technologies better mirror this future world? What challenges exist in making school-based digital environments better mirror a future world that has been fundamentally transformed by digital

Discussion and Conclusions

This paper has posed the question “What if our digital technologies were protean?” To provide some initial responses to this question the paper has explored what is meant by protean digital technologies and analysed stories of digital technology modification from a high-school teacher and a teacher educator. Analysis of these stories revealed that these educators were driven to modify the available digital technologies while attempting to improve aspects of learning and/or teaching. These attempts at improvement aimed to: fill holes in the functionality provided by the digital technologies; model effective practice with digital technologies; or, better mirror real world digital technologies. Only seven of twenty-six stories of digital technology modification required use of coding. The majority of digital technology modification stories involved the configuration or combination of digital technologies, often to replace digital technologies provided by the organisation. Using this experience as a foundation, the paper has used a range of literature to develop some initial suggestions for what might happen more broadly within education if our digital technologies more protean. Given the complex nature of education and the difficulty of predicting the future, these suggestions are framed as questions for further exploration and confirmation, rather than prediction. However, the authors do suspect that the impact of more protean digital technology within education would be positive for both the teaching of computational thinking, and more broadly for the use of digital technology to enhance learning and teaching.

Actually exploring whether or not this is the case will be quite a challenge. Not the least because the idea of protean digital technologies is diametrically opposed to the existing digital technology environment within most educational institutions, and indeed broader society. Enabling more protean digital technologies within education would need to engage with existing widely held perspectives and practices around difficult issues such as accountability, efficiency, resourcing, risk management, and student safety. This task is made more difficult by the question about whether or not those engaged  with such discussions bring – as identified by Lankshear and Bigum (1999) – an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider-newcomer’ mindset. An ‘outsider-newcomer’ sees “the world as the same, but just more technologised” where the insider sees how pervasive and protean digital technologies means that the world – and subsequently educational institutions – “is radically different” (Lankshear & Bigum, 1999, p. 458). The insider view appears more in line with the espoused rationale behind that rise of computational thinking and coding in schools. However, there remain questions about how much of the rhetoric around digital technology-enabled transformation of society. More pragmatically there is the question of how to provide protean digital technologies within education institutions? A question that might be answered by drawing on research on creating computationally rich environments for learners. Such as Grover and Pea’s  (2013) potential principles including: low floor, high ceiling; support for the “use-modify-create” progression; scaffolding; enable transfer; support equity; and, be systemic and sustainable. Principles that might fruitfully be used to break education out of its traditional norms and structures and allow us to finally explore the question “What IF schools were not encumbered by traditional norms and structures, and technology, social capital and pedagogies were used to their true realisation or potential?”


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Mapping the digital practices of teacher educators: Implications for teacher education in changing digital landscapes

Paper presented at SITE’2016. One of three papers awarded the Ann Thompson TPACK Paper Award.

Authors: Peter Albion, Amanda Heffernan, David Jones


Almost 40 years since the first personal computers appeared in classrooms Education is still awaiting transformation on the scale experienced in other parts of society. The replacement of digital immigrant teachers by a younger generation of digital natives has not made the anticipated difference. That metaphor is discredited and new perspectives are needed. In this paper the metaphor of digital visitors and residents is adapted to support examination and mapping of the digital practices of teacher educators according to the traces they leave in the digital landscape and levels of modification to tools as supplied. Questions are asked about the degree to which teachers and teacher educators need to modify tools or create their own in order to better adapt ICT in support of learning and teaching.

Priming the Future

In his introduction to an Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) report on Technology and Australia’s Future (Williamson, Raghnaill, Douglas, & Sanchez, 2015), Australia’s Chief Scientist commented that humanity would be better served by ‘future-priming’ rather than ‘future-proofing’ (Chubb, 2015) since the future is something we create through our actions in the present rather than necessarily a threat. The report itself laid out four key messages: technology will drive long-term economic growth, technology will transform the workforce, Australia can leverage technology change for societal benefit, and forecasting future technology development is challenging. In essence, we are in a period of rapid technological change and future citizens need to be prepared through their education to adapt creatively and manage, rather than be shaped by, technological change.

If our future generations are to be prepared for adaptability to technological change as suggested, then education in the present must deal with a cascading series of challenges. Changing the capabilities of graduates from our schools and universities requires that the teachers responsible for their education must change their practice. For teachers to change, their own preparation and professional development must change and that requires change in the practice of teacher education and teacher educators. Hence questions about the technological capabilities required of teachers inevitably raise questions about the capabilities required of teacher educators.

As recognized in the ACOLA report (Williamson et al., 2015), many of the technological changes to which we must adapt are based on digital technologies in whole or part. Hence there is increasing emphasis on digital technologies in education. The Australian Curriculum (ACARA, 2015) includes digital technologies in multiple guises. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is included as one of 7 general capabilities, incorporating investigating, creating and communicating with ICT, managing and operating ICT and applying social and ethical protocols and practices. The curriculum lays out a learning continuum and expectations for how ICT should be represented within the 8 learning areas. One of those areas is Technologies for which the recently endorsed curriculum includes two related subjects to be taught from Foundation to Year 10. Design and Technologies is an updated version of a subject that has been taught around the country in varying forms over the past couple of decades. Digital Technologies is a new departure with a focus on computational thinking in conjunction with design and systems thinking. It includes some required study of programming alongside study of hardware, including robotics, and data design. Over and above the inclusion of ICT in the curriculum there is a general expectation that ICT will be used effectively for learning and teaching across all curriculum areas. One indicator of the prevalence of that idea was the Digital Education Revolution, a national project initiated in 2008 with a series of measures including funding to provide laptop computers to all students in Years 9 to 12 (Jamieson-Proctor et al., 2014).

Priming Teachers for a Changing Future

There are teachers in Australian primary schools doing excellent work with ICT in support of learning and teaching across the curriculum while at the same time embedding the ICT general capability and engaging with elements of the new Digital Technologies curriculum. However, it seems certain such teachers are a small minority and that many primary school teachers risk being overwhelmed by the perfect storm of ICT general capability, Digital Technologies and ICT-enhanced pedagogy. A requirement to engage seriously with coding, which will be literally a foreign language for them, may push them too far. Schooling has often been a convenient location to send problems identified in the wider society. The consequence has been an increasingly crowded curriculum and uncertainty about the knowledge required of teachers.

The challenges of preparing pre-service teachers (PSTs) to enhance learning and teaching with ICT have been widely canvassed and the associated challenges of supporting teacher educators to model the behaviors desired from PSTs have been examined (Jones, Heffernan, & Albion, 2015). Those challenges have been described as “wicked problems” (Mishra & Koehler, 2007) for which solutions are elusive. Nevertheless, “Integrating Technology in Teacher Education” has been identified as a “solvable challenge”, one that “we understand and know how to solve” (Johnson et al., 2015), with the proposed solutions ranging across competency training based on national standards, using ICT to recruit and train teachers for technology integration, and specially produced training resources. Variations of these approaches have been tried over the past 30 years but the challenge persists and it is tempting to ask how the new projects are different.

Early observers of the limited application of ICT by teachers in their classrooms easily leapt to the conclusion that the change was difficult for teachers unfamiliar with ICT but that the arrival of a new generation of teachers who had grown up with ICT would make the difference. For several years this idea drew support from the meme about digital natives and immigrants (Prensky, 2001) but subsequent examination of the evidence debunked that concept, likening it to a form of ‘moral panic’ (Bennett, Maton, & Kervin, 2008). Other researchers have confirmed that the age-related fault lines suggested by Prensky’s metaphor do not exist. In reality, the rate of development in ICT means that we are all perpetual immigrants required to adapt to a constantly changing and unfamiliar landscape.

Granted that adaptability is a desirable quality in a time marked by rapid technological change (Williamson et al., 2015), there are questions around the nature and degree of adaptability required of graduates from schools, their teachers, and the teacher educators who prepare them. Tools and practices that are familiar as analogues can be adopted easily. For example, word processing was widely adopted based on its similarity to using a typewriter and email and other communication tools have followed, though there is often little sophistication of use and advanced features are mostly neglected. Spreadsheets and databases have been much less widely adopted and very few ‘immigrants’ have attempted to learn a local language and engage in coding. What level of adaptation will, or should, be required of teachers and teacher educators? Is it realistic, as seems to be suggested by the Queensland Government (DET, 2015), to expect all to engage in learning and teaching coding? If coding is the new literacy required by every student, then how will teachers and teacher educators make the necessary transition? The type of ‘moral panic’ induced by the native/immigrant meme can limit our ability to understand what motivates individuals’ engagement with digital technologies and make it more difficult to understand and develop the capability and desire for individuals to engage with digital technologies (Connaway, White, Lanclos, & Le Cornu, 2011).

White & Cornu (2011) introduced the Digital Visitor and Resident (V&R) model as a framework to understand how people engage with digital technologies, especially the participatory web. The V&R model does not assume that either age or gender determines engagement with digital technologies. Instead it focuses on examining what is done with digital technologies (digital activities) and why. The V&R model uses a space/place metaphor. A Digital Visitor sees the digital space as a collection of disparate tools that are used to achieve specific tasks before beating a hasty retreat, leaving little evidence of having entered the digital space. A Digital Resident sees the digital space as an environment to inhabit, build relationships with other people, and project identity(ies). For a Digital Resident there is value in inhabiting the digital space. The visitor and resident modes are not exclusionary, with individuals likely to practice a mixture of both, dependent on the goals or tasks they have set themselves from time to time. The V&R model was used as the primary framework for a three-year longitudinal study (Connaway et al., 2011) to understand the motivations behind, and types of engagement with, digital technologies by a sample of students and scholars from late secondary students through experienced academics. This study led to the development of a V&R mapping tool that has been used to explore how students and scholars are engaging with the digital services provided by institutions.

This paper adopts and adapts the V&R mapping tool to explore the motivations and engagement with a digitally rich learning space by teacher educators with the hope that such an approach can help understand how and why teacher educators are engaging with digital technologies. Given the growing level of interest in computational thinking and the identified importance of the protean nature of digital technologies (Jones et al., 2015) this project has a particular interest in exploring how and why teacher educators engage in practices where they modify the digital tools provide by institutions, and adopt or create new digital tools to serve their pedagogical purposes.

The remainder of the paper offers a brief description of the participants and process used for data collection followed by a description of the mapping dimensions as adapted for this study. It will then present some examples of stories and describe their mapping on the axes before proceeding to derive some implications for teacher education.

The Queensland Government has recently launched a new action plan for its next phase of educational advancement (DET, 2015). One aspect of that plan includes a commitment to implement the new Digital Technologies curriculum from 2016 with a focus on the “coding and robotics skills needed by students for their future”. According to the website, “coding has quickly become the new literacy and a ‘must have’ for every student”. The launch included a hashtag, #codingcounts, and invitations to “join the conversation” by completing online surveys.

Understanding and mapping digital practices

Participants and process

The data for this research are provided by stories of the digital practices undertaken by each of the authors within a teacher education program that has up to 70% of its students studying some subjects online (Albion, 2014) and has identified digital learning in various forms as a strategic priority. This particular sample is seen as likely to provide useful insights due to the apparent digital richness of the learning environment and the diversity of the three authors. Given the strategic importance of online learning in this context, teacher educators are required to make significant use of digital technologies. However, as reported previously (Jones et al., 2015) there has been the need to engage in a range of practices to address limitations in institutional practices and technologies. Each of the authors also represents a cross section of experience (20+ years in teacher education; 4 years in teacher education; 3 years in teacher education) and digital literacy (proficient user but no formal qualifications; graduate diploma in Information Technology; bachelor degree in computer science and PhD in information systems).

Each author was asked to generate a list of stories where they have modified (broadly defined) digital technologies while undertaking their role as teacher educator. Each story used a consistent format of four parts: a descriptive title; a description of the change made; an explanation of the rationale; and, a summary of the outcomes. All stories were added to the same Google document ( allowing each participant to read the others’ stories. Each participant then located his or her stories on a map (Figure 1) adapted from the V&R mapping process (White, Connaway, Lanclos, Hood, & Vass, 2014). As an exploratory process the story creation and mapping process was iterative. The final maps (Figures 2-5) from each author were then used as the basis for discussion and analysis.

The map

While informed by the original V&R mapping process (White et al., 2014) and attempting to retain its overall goals to understand digital practices, the change in focus in this work has led to adaptation of the V&R map (Figure 1). The V&R map remains as a Cartesian graph with an X- and Y-axis. The X-axis retains the Visitor and Resident scale, but with the scale understood to start with individual use of a tool and then proceed through increasingly large groups of people including: individuals; small groups; whole course cohorts; multiple course cohorts; and eventually onto the open web. Given our focus on why and how teachers are modifying digital technologies, the original scale of personal/enterprise for the Y-axis is replaced by a scale indicating the level of modification summarized in Table 1. While the focus in this project is on how digital technologies are modified, “use” is retained in the scale so that the map can be part of broader explorations of the digital practices of teachers. Table 1 describes the levels of modification used on the Y-axis of the map and Figure 1 represents the template used during initial mapping of stories. The mapping process was iterative, with the template and dimensions subject to refinement as stories were mapped.

Table 1: Levels of modification for Y-axis

Item Description Example
Use Tool used with no change Add an element to a Moodle site
Internal configuration Change operation of a tool using the configuration options of the tool Change the appearance of the Moodle site with course settings
External configuration Change operation of a tool using means external to the tool Inject CSS of Javascript into a Moodle site to change its operation
Customization Change the tool by modifying its code Modify the Moodle source code, or install a new plugin
Supplement Use another tool(s) to offer functionality not provided by existing tools Implement course level social bookmarking by requiring use of Diigo
Replacement Use another tool to replace/enhance functionality provided by existing tools Require students to use external blog engines, rather than the Moodle blog engine.


V&R modification map

Figure 1: Axes used for mapping stories

Stories and themes

Part of the ‘wicked problem’ of ICT in education (Mishra & Koehler, 2007) is the particularity of each context. Hence it is important that teachers be able to modify or contextualize their learning environment. The mapping exercise encouraged the authors to review the various ways each of us has modified our course learning environments, and identify that while some of our practices skewed toward the ‘resident’ dimension, our behaviors generally remained primarily in the ‘visitor’ dimension. A wider spread in behavior was identified in the modification dimension, with practices evident from the lower end of the scale and the ‘use’ of tools as they were initially intended, moving through to the higher end of the scale and the ‘replacement’ of tools that were deemed to not meet our needs.

David's V&R modification map

Figure 2: David’s V&R modification map

Peter's V&R modification map

Figure 2: Peter’s V&R modification map

Amanda's V&R modification map

Figure 3: Amanda’s V&R modification map

Minor Modifications: Internal and External Configuration of Tools


The stories provided us with examples of practice at each level on the modification scale. For example, at the lower end of the scale, Amanda achieved minor renovation of the learning space through the internal configuration of the layout of the weekly study schedule page on her course site within the Moodle Learning Management System (LMS). This is traditionally an area where students are provided with an overview of the semester’s work and default headings provide students with information about required readings, module work, and assessment information. Amanda adjusted the traditional headings and layout to provide two streams of sequencing throughout the course, directing students towards course content as one stream and employment information as the other. As a result, she was able to configure the tool to better meet the needs of her course and its participants, all of whom are in their final semester and looking towards employment and career development as well as their coursework.


At the next level, David and Peter both provided examples of practice where they used external configuration of tools to meet their needs. David identified the use of jQuery and CSS to modify the operation of the course environment’s university-wide standardized look and feel. The key outcome of this configuration was that ongoing cultivation of the learning environment was not halted by the university’s new streamlined look, and students were able to access the course content in a way that was more functional and efficient. Similarly, Peter made use of AppleScript/JavaScript to more efficiently organize student groupings within the online environment based on data managed in a spreadsheet. The external configuration of the grouping option enabled Peter to have greater control over group composition according to factors that were identified as being important (such as geographic location, age, or other demographic factors).


These minor modifications at the internal and external configuration levels are representative of some of the stories shared by the authors, and the practices above are indicative of renovations being made for pedagogical as well as administrative purposes, enabling us to configure the learning environment for our needs. More advanced modifications were also identified within the stories, resulting in higher levels of customization and the tailoring of learning environments to our needs, as well as the needs of our students.

Major Modifications: Customization, Supplement, Replacement of Tools

During the mapping and analysis of practices, it became evident that David and Peter worked more in these areas of customizing, supplementing, and replacing tools than Amanda did. Their level of expertise and experience no doubt plays some part here in enabling higher levels of customization of tools through the use of coding. However, all three of the authors was able to identify some practices at the replacement level, wherein an internal tool was replaced with an external tool that better suited our purposes.

David and Peter identified practices of customization, providing examples of modifying codes within the tools to meet their needs. Peter described his use of HTML and CSS to arrange the display of Twitter and Diigo in boxes on his Moodle sites. In previous semesters this had been a simple inclusion but the shift to the new look and feel of the institution’s LMS removed the ability to use pre-existing blocks to do this. Instead, Peter had to modify the code of the page, using the browser inspection tools to deconstruct the HTML and CSS in order to customize the layout of the page and place the code for the required content.

Similarly, David’s practices at the customization level included the installation of his BIM activity module, enabling students to use blogs outside of the institution’s own tools and register them within his course environment. David outlined a number of reasons for the creation and implementation of this activity module, ranging from pedagogical reasons (enabling his students to connect with networks outside of the course) to administrative processes (the inclusion of marking interfaces and options into the module). Even though David is the designer and maintainer of the BIM activity module, the mismatch between the functionality of this tool and the requirements of the learning design led David to undertake some supplement level modifications.

At this higher level of modification, David and Peter detailed practices within the supplement level, many of which minimized administrivia by enabling system tools to interface more efficiently. For example, David used his coding skills to develop a collection of scripts and tools referred to as ‘know thy student’, providing him with information about students with the ease of a single click, which would otherwise take over ten minutes and multiple webpages to unearth (Jones and Clark, 2014). This supports David’s teaching in both a pedagogical sense (enabling him to better know his students and meet their needs more effectively), and in a practical sense, ensuring the value of his time is maximized by having this information readily and easily available when needed. David’s use of practices at the supplement level frequently resulted in streamlined processes that saved time and unnecessary additional work, with another practice being identified that more easily supported the process for finalizing course results. Through a collection of Perl scripts and spreadsheets, David is more easily able to undertake the potentially onerous process of finalizing results in a large course with over 300 students enrolled. David also had a number of other supplement stories with names including: ‘Diigo’; ‘Google docs’; ‘Gradebook fix’; parts of the ‘Book authoring process’; and, ‘A duplicate Moodle’.

Peter’s practices at the supplement level were equally effective in enabling efficient use of time to undertake administrative processes. He was able to develop a Greasemonkey script to assemble and display simple statistics for comparing results from different markers in his courses. With 150 students over 4 offers, and markers being typically casual staff with limited experience of the course, Peter felt it necessary to guard against any systematic advantage that might occur for students in one or other offer because of marker differences. Rather than the traditional method for comparing marks by markers, which requires exporting data from Moodle to a spreadsheet and constructing formulas to generate statistics, Peter developed a script to perform these calculations. Again, this is pedagogically sound and ensures equity in marking and assessment for all students, regardless of their circumstances. The ability to renovate at this level saved Peter a significant amount of time.

Examples of practices at the final level of the modification scale, replacement involve the teacher replacing an internal tool with a similar external tool. Examples of these practices were very limited in our story collection. One example of replacement was of Amanda making use of Vimeo rather than the institution’s internal media repository to organize and share videos so that other users, including students’ mentor teachers and past students, can access certain videos and presentations. The use of Vimeo also allows Amanda to embed videos within pages and reflects the internal configuration level, where existing tools are enhanced. David had two – somewhat similar – stories of replacement both based on the use of external blog engines to replace institutional systems. In ‘Escape the LMS` the primary course site for a Master’s course titled Networked and Global Learning was moved from the institution’s Moodle to a blog hosted on In ‘Student space as their space’ students in an undergraduate ICT and Pedagogy course were required to create and use a blog on an external blog engine for reflection and building a personal learning network, rather than use an institutional e-portfolio or the Moodle blog. It is arguable whether these two stories are truly examples of replacement, rather than stories of how to supplement.

Discussion and implications

The aim here has been to use the metaphor of digital visitors and residents to examine and map the digital practices of teacher educators, in particular, those practices that involve the modification of provided tools or the creation of new tools. This is important due to a range of factors, including: the perceived value of teachers being able to modify or contextualize their learning environment; the protean nature of digital technologies; the growing prevalence of digital technologies within curriculum, learning and teaching; and, the argument that being successful in the future will require such skills. The focus here has been on the stories of digital modification practices by three teacher educators operating in a learning environment where use of digital technologies is compulsory. These stories have been examined and mapped using a modified Digital Visitor and Resident mapping process.

The analysis has revealed that all three teacher educators – regardless of perceived digital literacy – have engaged in a range of practices where the digital environment was modified. The greater digital knowledge of two of the teacher educators did increase the breadth and complexity of modifications. While there a few examples of modification at the replacement level, most modification was at the supplement level or below. By default, the digital learning spaces offered by the institution are limited to course participants; hence they are not part of the open web. This is evident in that most of the modification stories tended to congregate toward the Visitor end of the spectrum. It is interesting to note that all of the stories of replacement involved moving learning out onto the open web. Looking more closely at the stories suggests that there were two underpinning reasons for the modification activities. The first was to improve the efficiency of institutional systems or practices, and the second was to enhance learning through specific learning activities not directly supported by institutional systems.

This suggests that there is value in teachers being able to engage in digital modification practices to customize and contextualize the digital learning environment to the needs of themselves and their learners. It raises questions about how broadly digital modification practices are amongst teachers, the outcomes of those practices, and how any perceived inability to engage in digital modification practices is impacting student learning and the teacher experience. Experience engaging in these digital modification practices suggests that institutional systems and policies are not always able to recognize the need for teachers to engage in digital modification practices, let alone allow and enable such practices. What is the impact of these limitations on digital modification? Do digital modification practices become more important only in a learning environment – like that described here – where the use of digital technologies is a compulsory part of the learning and teaching experience? What, if any, digital modification practices do teachers in a more blended environment engage in?

We are operating in a learning space where we must use digital technologies. We have no choice. This is different from many other learning spaces. There is a chance that increasingly more learning spaces will have some level of compulsory digital technologies. The stories and maps arising from this work indicate that it will be likely that teachers will have to engage in activities that modify the provided digital technologies.

This work is exploratory. As such any findings may be specific to the particular institutional context and the three teacher educators. The broader value of these findings will need further testing and consideration but the V&R lens seems useful in terms of revealing new insights into educators’ use of ICT.


ACARA. (2015). The Australian Curriculum.  Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) Retrieved from

Bennett, S., Maton, K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 775-786. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00793.x

Connaway, L. S., White, D., & Lanclos, D. (2011). Visitors and residents: What motivates engagement with the digital information environment? Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 48(1), 1-7. doi: 10.1002/meet.2011.14504801129

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Jamieson-Proctor, R., Redmond, P., Zagami, J., Albion, P., & Twining, P. (2014). Redefining education for the digital age: a snapshot of the state of play in three Queensland schools. Paper presented at the Australian Computers in Education Conference 2014, Adelaide, SA.

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Jones, D., & Clark, D. (2014). Breaking BAD to bridge the reality/rhetoric chasm. In B. Hegarty, J. McDonald, & S. Loke (Eds.), Rhetoric and Reality: Critical perspectives on educational technology. Proceedings ascilite Dunedin 2014 (pp. 262–272). Dunedin. Retrieved from

Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. J. (2007). Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPCK): Confronting the Wicked Problems of Teaching with Technology. Paper presented at the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference 2007, San Antonio, Texas, USA.

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White, D., Connaway, L., Lanclos, D., Hood, E., & Vass, C. (2014). Evaluating digital services: a Visitors and Residents approach. Retrieved October 22, 2015, from

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Wright, F., White, D., Hirst, T., & Cann, A. (2014). Visitors and Residents: mapping student attitudes to academic use of social networks. Learning, Media and Technology, 39(1), 126–141. doi:10.1080/17439884.2013.777077


Finishing tweaks to Moodle book search block

A previous post recorded some early exploration of what tweaks might be necessary to be made to the Moodle book search block. The original code for the block and the tweaks I’ve made are available via GitHub.

Current status

This is something I started before Xmas. Coming back to it in 2016, I’ve finished off item #1 of the todo list below. What I’ve done is described in more detail below.

In essence, I’ve replaced the old Book search method with the method used in the forum search mechanism.  This

  1. Removes the SQL injection problem;
  2. Improves support for standard search approaches (e.g. use of double quotes); and
  3. Slight changes the default treatment of title and content.
    i.e. Old search mechanism returned a match only if all parts of the search string appeared in either the title of the book chapter OR the content of the book chapter. (A book chapter equates more closely to a page in the book, than a collection of pages).   e.g. a search for copyright creative would only find pages where both words appear in either the title or the content.The new search mechanism returns a match if all parts of the search string are find in the title or the content. e.g. a search for copyright creative would find pages that had copyright in the title and creative in the content; copyright in the content and creative in the title; both copyright and content in the title; and, both copyright and content in the content.

Giving back to github

Bugger, didn’t have these changes managed via git.  Stick it back in my repository for this block and create a pull request for the original.

 Original to do list

The to do list I’m working from includes:

  1. Remove the sql injection problem;  DONE.
  2. Improve the search results format;  DELAYED
    e.g. as illustrated in this image.
  3. Provide a bit more scaffolding about how to use the search mechanism (e.g. use of ” + and – etc) DELAYED
  4. Provide an advanced search form/mechanism; DELAYED
    e.g. as shown in this image which is a modification of Forum search interface.

Remove the sql injection problem

As of yesterday, an initial modification had been made to the block to adopt the approach used by the Forum search block.  This needs to be further tweaked, tested and improved.  Steps include:

  1. Install a vanilla version of the Book search block for testing
  2. Move the “get identifiable” books into a function.
  3. Finalise and test the move to the “Forum search” approach.
  4. Explore what other changes might be possible

Vanilla book search for testing

Clone a version of the block straight from the original, stick it in a v_search_books directory and update the code to use this slightly different name (v = vanilla)

Can it install?  Yes.

Can I add it as a block?  Yes

Does it work? Not yet

  • Change the hard-coded URL to put to new location
  • The language strings aren’t working. Why? Need to rename the language file.

Working and it appears that they are producing the same output.  My tweaks yesterday were better than I thought.

Relocate “get identifiable” books

This is basically a cosmetic/personal preference change.

Finish the move to the “Forum search” approach

Parameters && get_in_or_equal – this is done and working.

The old search block when searching for “copyright creative” generates the following (partial) SQL

( bc.title ILIKE ‘%copyright%’ AND bc.title ILIKE ‘%creative%’ ) OR
( bc.content ILIKE ‘%copyright%’ AND bc.content ILIKE ‘%creative%’ )

The forum search method (that I’ve adapted for searching books) for the same string generates the following SQL  (I’ve manually replaced the parameters with the actual string)

OLD    ( TITLE = A && TITLE = B ) or ( CONTENT = A && CONTENT = B )

NEW ( TITLE = A or CONTENT = A ) AND ( TITLE = B or CONTENT = B ) — possibly more inclusive and better

 (bc.title ILIKE "%copyright%" ESCAPE E'\') OR (bc.content ILIKE '%copyright%' ESCAPE E'\')
 ) AND
 (bc.title ILIKE '%creative%' ESCAPE E'\') OR (bc.content '%creative' ESCAPE E'\')

Support for – and +: the existing block supports the following searches

  • “copyright creative” – search for whole strings. Old doesn’t support it. New does. NEW is better
    • old - (( bc.title ILIKE '%"copyright%' AND bc.title ILIKE '%creative"%' ) OR ( bc.content ILIKE '%"copyright%' AND bc.content ILIKE '%creative"%' ) )

      This is actually including the double quotes.

    • new – ((bc.title ILIKE ‘%copyright creative%’ ESCAPE E’\’)
      OR (bc.content ILIKE ‘%copyright creative%’ ESCAPE E’\’))This is what is expected from a normal search.
  • copyright +creative – to ensure that it’s a word – new is using “proper” Postgresql approach. Old is using a regular expression kludge. NEW is better
    • old

       (( bc.title ILIKE '%copyright%' AND
             bc.title ~* '(^|[^a-zA-Z0-9])creative([^a-zA-Z0-9]|$)' )
      OR ( bc.content ILIKE '%copyright%' AND
          bc.content ~* '(^|[^a-zA-Z0-9])creative([^a-zA-Z0-9]|$)' ) )
    • new
      ((bc.title ILIKE "%copyright%" ESCAPE E'\') OR
           (bc.content ILIKE "%copyright%" ESCAPE E'\'))
      AND ((bc.title ~* "[[:<:]]creative[[:>:]]") OR
               (bc.content ~* "[[:<:]]creative[[:>:]]" ))
  • copyright -creative – has copyright but not creative  – largely the same.
    • old
      (( bc.title ILIKE '%copyright%' AND
          bc.title !~* '(^|[^a-zA-Z0-9])creative([^a-zA-Z0-9]|$)' )
      OR ( bc.content ILIKE '%copyright%' AND
          bc.content !~* '(^|[^a-zA-Z0-9])creative([^a-zA-Z0-9]|$)' ) )
    • new
      ((bc.title ILIKE "%copyright%" ESCAPE E'\') OR
          (bc.content ILIKE "%copyright%" ESCAPE E'\'))
      AND (NOT ((bc.title ILIKE "%creative%" ESCAPE E'\') OR
           (bc.content ILIKE "%creative%" ESCAPE E'\'))) 


Explore other changes



Improve results format

This particular task includes the following sub-tasks

  1. Rewrite the interface using a renderer
    I haven’t used the rendered approach and no bugger all about it.  Might be too much work for now.
  2. Improve the interface.


Improve the interface

The current search results look like this

Book search (existing)

The earlier mock up I produced looks like this

Some possible improvements include:

  • Nest book and chapter titles
    As shown above, the current search interface repeats the name of the book “Copyright and what you can use” for each chapter.  A different interface might be to next book, chapter, and sub-chapters.
  • Include the module/topic name in the hierarchy
    Book’s typically fit within a module/topic. Including that in the search response would likely help the user orient themselves to where the discovered books reside on the broader site.
  • Show some of the matching content.
    Provide a snippet of the content matching the search for each chapter. In much the same way that Google does.

Advanced search form

Tweaking Moodle book search

A couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation showing off some work from the Moodle open Book project. The middle of the presentation was a live demonstration of the Moodle Book and various features. At one point in the presentation members of the audience (including a number of academics who used the Book module in their Moodle sites) gave an audible gasp. This occurred when I showed off the search block for the Book module. A tool that allows the user to search the contents of all the books in a Moodle course. The gasp indicated just how much teachers and students desire this feature. A feature I’ve been calling out for quite some time.

The GitHub repository has been around for 2 years. So why isn’t this block more widely available in Moodle sites? There’s a security flaw in the code and is somewhat unfinished.

The Moodle SQL injection page outlines at least two broad steps that Moodle code should take to prevent a nefarious person from gaining inappropriate access. These are

  1. Using appropriate parameter cleaning mechanisms on data coming from outside of Moodle (e.g. search terms entered into a form).
  2. Using provided Moodle functions to retrieve data from the database (e.g. search the database for content in a Moodle book)

The Moodle book search block currently meets #1, but fails #2.

The following aims to explore and hopefully remedy this problem.

Current status is that some initial changes have been made to a local version of the block that borrows lessons from the forum search.  Need to spend a bit more time on this, but it’s on the way.

The form

The form for the block currently passes the following information.

Added by the block code

  • courseid; and
  • page.

The user is able to enter data into: bsquery

The processing

Apart from standard processing the main searching is done in a function named search which

  • Deals with some apparent differences between flavours of SQL between databases.
    Seeming to point to a problem in how it’s engaging with databases. DOES FORUM SEARCH DO THIS
  • Focuses attention on books the user is allowed to read.
  • Generates strings containing SQL statement
    See below for the format.

    • Supports + and –
  • Uses get_records_sql to retrieve any matches
    Not using placeholders, which is a problem.

A search for “copyright” generates a SQL statement similar to the following

SELECT DISTINCT bc.* FROM mdl_book_chapters bc, mdl_book b
        WHERE b.course = 12 AND IN (..long list of book ids)
        AND bc.bookid = AND bc.hidden = 0 AND
        (( bc.title ILIKE '%copyright%' ) OR
         ( bc.content ILIKE '%copyright%' ) )
        ORDER BY bc.bookid, bc.pagenum

Each word added to the search phrase adds options to the “ilikes”

( bc.title ILIKE ‘%copyright%’ AND bc.title ILIKE ‘%creative%’
AND bc.title ILIKE ‘%commons%’ )

Questions include

  • Can get_records_sql be replaced with get_records
  • Can the database dependency be removed
  • Can placeholders be used

Comparison with forum search

The forum search is an accepted part of Moodle.  Checking how it works might provide some inspiration to copy.

Has a slight be compartmentalised structure

[code lang=”php”]   $forums = forum_get_readable_forums($USER-&gt;id, $courseid);[/code]

Has to deal with a lot more complexity than the book search.

Uses $DB->get_in_or_equal

Makes use of a method search_generate_SQL to do as the name suggests.  This is something that should be worked into the Book search block.

Initial testing and that is working.  Dig a bit and it makes sense.  Also seems to tidy up the code a fair bit.


Book github tool: producing some HTML5

Following on from the work late last week and the lovely feedback provided by @rolley it’s time to convert some plans into action.

The aim is to modify the under-development Moodle Book github tool so that when it concatenates the chapters from a Moodle Book resource into a single HTML file, the HTML file is structured HTML 5 semantic elements.

An initial version is apparently working. Though it still needs some checking and likely tweaking.

You can view the output on GitHub (at least you can at the moment) as raw HTML.

Side benefits

As part of my testing of the code, I ran the HTML produced by the tool through this free online HTML 5 outliner. The outliner parses the HTML and its semantic elements and constructs an outline of the content. In much the same way that the Moodle Book module currently does via other means.

Here’s what the Moodle Book interface looks like for my test “book”.
Moodle book ToC

It shows the Moodle Book design feature in terms of hierarchy. The Moodle Book only has two levels: chapter and sub-chapter. Won’t do three levels within a single book.

The image below is a screen capture of the output generated by the HTML 5 outliner on the single HTML file produced by the Moodle Book github tool.

Auto outline

There are more than two levels here.

The Untitled Section

First, there’s the “Untitled Section”.  I need to identify where that’s coming from something wrong with:

  1. the HTML 5 my code is producing; or,
  2. the outliner tool.

I tried a few variations to address #1, didn’t work. May need to find another auto-outliner of HTML5.

More levels

HTML 5 outlining doesn’t stop at the use of the section and article elements I’ve added in.  It also makes use of the heading elements and other parts of the HTML.

e.g. the first page in this book (titled “The perils of copyright”) includes a H3 title for a section of that page. The section is titled “How do you ask?”.  Which is the second part of the outline produces by the auto-outliner.

The next heading “It can be embarrassing if you don’t” is a sub-chapter in the Moodle book.  The trouble here is that both are showing up at the same level.  Not quite the behaviour the best fits.

However, there is some potential in this auto generation of the outline. Might be useful for other purposes

Need to

  1. Test out what’s working and what’s not here.
  2. Explore a bit more with what other tools produce HTML5 with semantic elements.
  3. Update the Moodle book github tool so it imports this content.


Moodle book to a single file: which format?

The Moodle Book github tool allows the import/export (pull/push) of Book content from/to GitHub. The content from the Moodle Book is stored as a single file on GitHub. One of the many unanswered questions about the tool is the format of the exported file. The current format is a bit of dodgy HTML with divs, classes, and ids.  Aim here is to figure out if and how the HTML 5 semantic elements might provide a more useful method.

Given that my last serious web development role and interest was 10+ years ago, some of the following is likely to be a bit silly.  It’s not helped by the fact that the online explanation of some of these elements differ and the whole semantic element thing appears to be somewhat less than widely supported and used.

HTML 5 semantic elements

Are a collection of elements/tags in HTML 5, including <article> <aside> <header> etc that are intended to help define different parts of a web page and thus make it easier to share/reuse data across applications. Sounding exactly like what is needed here.

All are probably relevant, but the more immediately relevant include:

  • <article> – Specifies independent, self-contained content.
    Good match for an individual book. Includes sections.
  • <section> – A section in a document.
    Good match for a book chapter (or sub-chapter)? Can be nested.
  • <header>  – for either a document or section
    Could be used within a section to specify the title of the chapter from the book, but also appear on the page when viewing the single file.
  • <footer> – for either document or section
    Could be used within a section to hold icons for next/previous (getting optional here)
  • <nav> – defines a set of navigation links
    Thinking this could be added to the github file by the tool to add navigation links within the file.  Ability to jump to specific chapters etc.
  • <aside>
  • <details>
  • <main>

Structure for the single github file

Which brings me to to the following. Note: the Moodle book calls every page a chapter or a sub-chapter. A sub-chapter(s) is nested within a chapter.

[code lang=”html”]
<title>Title of book in Moodle</title>

<article data-title="Title of book in Moodle" data-introformat="1" data-customtitles="0" data-numbering="1" data-navstyle="1">
<h1>Title of book in Moodle</h1>
<div>Introduction to the book from Moodle</div>

<section data-pagenum="1" data-contentformat="1" data-title="Title of 1st chapter from book">
<h1>Title of 1st chapter from book</h1>

<section data-pagenum="2" data-contentformat="1" data-title="Title of 2nd chapter (and a sub-chapter) from book">
<h1>Title of 2nd chapter (and a sub-chapter) from book</h1>
Content of the sub-chapter from the book

<section data-pagenum="2" data-contentformat="1" data-title="Title of 3rd chapter from book">
<h1>Title of 3rd chapter from book</h1>
CONTENT OF THE 3rd CHAPTER from the book


Entering HTML like that to get pretty coloured in WordPress is harder than it looks.

Testing the structure is quite easy given this online outliner.



My first question is whether or not the above is “valid” HTML 5? The outliner seemed to like it.

The second question is whether or not the above will work? Not from a HTML 5 perspective, but my code.

Which picks up the following questions

  1. Do the data attributes play nicely with semantic elements?
  2. Should the title be both a data attribute and in the header element?
  3. Should I rely on the parsing code to auto-generate pagenum?
  4. Should I rely on the parsing code to identify chapters and sub-chapters?
  5. Are there any nice existing javascript resources that will auto-generate the navigation between chapters? (Or do I have to write something?)
  6. Are there any nice CSS resources that will style semantic elements nicely? (Or do I have to write something?)
  7. Will the PHP parsing code handle semantic elements (and data attributes)?

Moodle book and GitHub: working together

A major aim of the Moodle Open Book project has been to connect the Moodle Book module with GitHub. The intent was that such a connection would enable the easy sharing of content that is currently largely locked within the LMS, not to mention improving the authoring process for the Moodle Book module. Earlier this week I gave a presentation in which I demonstrated a working connection between the Book module and GitHub. The following post illustrates how this connection works.

This connection is implemented as a Moodle book tool, i.e.  an extension to the Moodle Book module that can be installed on any current version of Moodle. The code for the GitHub tool is available from this GitHub repository. The current status of this code is that it works, but is ugly (as the screenshots below will illustrate) and incomplete. The intent is that to get a working first version contributed to the Moodle Plugins database by early 2016 (end of January hopefully).

This work is funded by the USQ Open Textbook Initiative.

What is github?

If you don’t know what GitHub is, then I suggest you take the time to read the following or anyone of the many other resources on the web that explain GitHub.

Summary of how it works

The Moodle Book github tool currently works by

  1. Connecting a single “book” (a collection of web pages) created using the Moodle book with a single HTML file in a GitHub repository.
  2. The tool keeps a track of the relationship between the “book” and the HTML file and tells you if they are the same or different.
  3. Provides the ability to
    1. push the content of the “book” onto GitHub, and
    2. pull the content of the GitHub file back into the “book”.

Once the content of the book is on GitHub, this means it can be shared, modified, and updated by anyone via any means.

Hopefully it might become common for other people using Moodle to use the Book github tool to import books authored by someone else from GitHub into their Moodle course.

I’m certainly looking forward to being able to create and modify Moodle books outside of Moodle and using GitHub to migrate my changes back into Moodle.

Demonstration of how it works

The following contains a range of cropped screen-shots illustrating how the tool currently works. Click on any of the images to see a larger version.

A Moodle Book

First, let’s start with a Moodle book.  Here’s what one looks like in my course site.

001 Moodle Book and github

It’s just a collection of web pages.  But it does provide the Table of Contents and the “next page” and “previous page” navigation. It’s also a full part of Moodle hence services like activity completion can be used.

Make a change

Let’s make a change to this Moodle book.

002 Moodle Book and github

Can you see the rather pointless change (“**** SHOWING OFF GITHUB TOOL ****”) that I made to that page? Let’s assume that this change is important and responds to the experience of learners.

Is the Book github tool installed?

I want to save this change and the book to GitHub.  To do this the Book github tool needs to be installed.  Is it?

To find this out I look at the Book adminstration menu, which on my institutions Moodle theme looks like this.  Can you see evidence of the GitHub tool?

003 Moodle Book and github

Create the connection between book and github

To create (or check) the connection between the book and github I click on the GitHub link.

Authorise with your GitHub account

The first time you click on the GitHub link within Moodle, you will be redirected to GitHub and will see something like the following

004 Moodle Book and github

The github tool assumes that you have a user account on GitHub. This step is the github tool asking you for permission to use your GitHub account. Everything the github tool does on github will be done using this account.

If you agree to this you will see the connection page. This page allows you to configure the connection between the book and github, and also to view the status of that connection.  Here’s some of what I see.

Under construction: The current interface for the tool is very much under development. What you see is the minimal interface necessary to get all this working.

005 Moodle Book and github

In this case a connection has already been established.

In it’s current state the github tool expects you to provide two components for the connection

  1. the name of the GitHub repository; and,
  2. the full path to the specific file within the repository to connect with.

Currently the tool then combines these two bits of information with your GitHub username to arrive at the location of the file within GitHub.

I could change the connection to point another file on GitHub, but I’ll stick with this one.

Under construction: At the very least the ability to specify the github username and perhaps the branch (or similar) for the github file needs to be added.  Perhaps the option to copy and paste a github URL and have it checked and parsed?

View the file on GitHub

My username on GitHub is djplaner which means that the URL for the file that this book is connected to is

If you click on that link, you can see the current status of the file on GitHub. When I wrote this, the file on GitHub looked like the following

006 Moodle Book and github

The book is a sequence of web pages. When pushing a book onto GitHub the Book github tool combines all of those web pages into a single HTML file. That HTML file includes some additional HTML to help the Book github tool pull the content back into the book.

Under Construction: The format/structure of the HTML produced by the Book github tool’s export/import is still undergoing some refinement. Use of HTML5 semantic tags is on the list.

View the file as a web page

If you look closely at the image above of the github tool showing the connection you should see

View the file as a web page.

If you click on that link you will see something like the following (depending on what changes I’ve made since I took this screenshot)

007 Moodle Book and github

Under Construction: This uses a free service to display a GitHub file as a web page. How this is done also requires a bit more work.

Under Construction: At the moment the HTML is a simple concatenation of the book pages. Very soon this will be modified to include some additional markup and some basic style sheets. The aim is that when you view this HTML page you will see a table of contents and be able to navigate it like a book.

What’s the status of the connection?

Underneath the details of the connection the Book github tool page shows a simple summary of the status of the connection. In the image above, the status is

The book has been revised since the last push.

This is because of the change I made to the book earlier in this post. That change means that the GitHub file is now out of date. It’s not the latest version of Book.

Update the GitHub file

At this stage I can decide whether or not I want to update the file. When and if I update GitHub file will be entirely up to me, the source of the book I’ve edited, the changes I’ve made etc.

But if I do wish to update the GitHub file, I hit the “Push” link and see something like the following.

008 Moodle Book and github

First, there’s a brief warning just to make sure that you know that pushing will probably make the content of the book open to all to see.

Second, there is a space to enter some details (a comment) about the changes you are about to push onto GitHub.  The details about the push are visible in both GitHub and the Book github tool. The details about the push are useful for understanding what changes are being made.

Once I’ve entered my comment, I hit the push button and hopefully see a report of a successful push.

009 Moodle Book and github

This means that the GitHub file has been changed.

View the file on GitHub

If I view the file on GitHub, that change should be visible in the change below

010 Moodle Book and github

The first change is that the comment/details I added about the push is visible in the row with the blue background (“Just showing off for the blog post”). That row includes my username, avatar, and how long ago the change was made. The second change is that the HTML for the file now contains the change I made in the Moodle book up above. I’ve highlighted it in green to highlight it.

View the change history

If I return to the Book github tool to view the connection, I can see the following

011 Moodle Book and github

The Status has been updated to indicate that the Book and the GitHub file are now the same.

You can also see that the “Change History” for the connection now includes the same comment/details (“Just showing off for the blog post”) that showed up on GitHub. Can you see the link “commit details” in the Change History?

The link takes me to GitHub and shows me the following colour coded summary of the changes that were made to the file by this commit.

012 Moodle Book and github

The green and red colours are used to indicate the additions (79) and deletions (128) made by this commit. This is much higher than you’d expect from the simple change I made.  This is because I’ve been playing with the code.

Note: you should be able to click on the link and see the same page. Even though I’ve subsequently made changes to the file on GitHub, I (and you) can always take a look at what the file looked like at this particular point in time.

View the file on my computer

So far we’ve been using the Moodle book and GitHub to view and change the file. There are GitHub clients for a wide array of software and hardware. For example, there is a GitHub application for Mac OS X that I can use to make a local copy of the GitHub repository on my computer.

The following image is an example of a Mac finder window showing my local copy of the repository.  It shows that the version of the Copyright.html file (the one we’re using for the Moodle book) was created and modified yesterday.

013 Moodle Book and github

With the repository files on my computer I can then use all my normal applications to edit and view the file.  If I double click on the Copyright.html file in Finder, this is what I see.

014 Moodle Book and github

Note that the “SHOWING OFF” message is missing.  That’s because the copy on my computer is behind that on GitHub.

Update it

To fix this I use the GitHub desktop tool to pull the latest content from GitHub to my computer. Having done that I see the following when I view the Copyright.html file on my computer

015 Moodle Book and github

All up to date

Make a change

The change I made to the file is silly. I can’t leave it there, I need to remove it.  There are currently three methods I could use to make this change:

  1. Directly on GitHub.
    GitHub provides a means by which to directly edit the files via the GitHub website.
  2. Using the Moodle Book.
    I could go back to Moodle book where I first made the change, delete what I added, and then use the Book github tool to push it back to GitHub (and then pull the change to my computer).
  3. On my computer.
    Change the file on my computer, use the Desktop GitHub tool to push that change back to GitHub, and then use the Book github tool to pull the change back into the Book

I’m going to use the last option.

Due to my age and background, I use the vim editor to edit HTML

016 Moodle Book and github

But you could use any HTML editing tool you wished to make the change.

Push it back

Time to push these changes back to GitHub using the Mac GitHub application.

017 Moodle Book and github

Note how the application does a very nice job of highlighting the change I’ve made.  The text I removed is highlighted by the dark red background.

Just like with the Book github tool, I get the chance to enter a some details/comment about the change I made.  In this case, “Remove the showing off”

Check GitHub

On GitHub the file now looks like the following

018 Moodle Book and github

Can you see that the message within the blue background row has changed to “Remove the showing off”.  The message I used on my Mac to commit the change.

What’s the status of the connection

Let’s head back into Moodle and the Moodle book github tool to check the status of the connection between the book and the github file

019 Moodle Book and github

As you can see “The GitHub file is ahead of the book.” and you can also see that the “Change History” is now headed by the message “Remove the showing off”.  Matching the message shown on GitHub in the previous image.


In order to update the Moodle book with this new content, I need to pull the data from GitHub into the book. Click on Pull and see the following warning

020 Moodle Book and github

The pull process will replace the existing content of the book with the content from GitHub, hence the need to be sure.  I’m happy with that so go ahead and Pull

021 Moodle Book and github

If I check the status via the Book github tool it will show green – the book and the github file are the same.

View the change

And back to look at the book to see that the change has been made

022 Moodle Book and github

What’s yet to be done


More work is required to get a version 1 ready use. There are a few “under construction” indicates listed above and a list of issues on the tool’s GitHub repository.

Anything missing?  Then let me know, or better yet, fork the tool repository, make the change, and generate a pull request


Once version 1 is complete, the task will be to get it installed within the institution and then start working with people who want to use it. In particular, explore how it might be used within my institution to transform current practices.

Opening up and enhancing #moodle books with GitHub, ePub, etc.

On December 1 I gave the following presentation. Titled “Opening up and enhancing Moodle books with GitHub, ePub, etc.” the presentation reports on the work I’ve done as part of the Moodle open book project. In particular, it will describe the “why” and “what” behind the development of the Moodle Book github tool. A tool that integrates with the Moodle Book module and allows the Book module to push and pull it’s content from GitHub.

The focus of the project is to move beyond the focus of the open textbook being the product (the actual book). The focus for this project has been on improving the authoring process. With a particular aim to move toward an idea summarised by Licklider & Taylor (1968)

we believe that we are entering a technological age in which we will be able to interact with the richness of living information- not merely in the passive way that we have become accustomed to using books and libraries, but as active participants in an ongoing process


The slides below book-end the presentation. The middle of the presentation will be a live demo showing off the integration of the Moodle Book module and GitHub.

This blog post gives an description of how the Moodle Book github tool works using screenshots.

As you’d expect, the code for the Moodle Book github tool can be found in a GitHub repository. The code is somewhat functional, but a little messy and limited. Development is on going.



Licklider, J. C. ., & Taylor, R. W. (1968). The computer as a communication device. Science and Technology, 72(2), 1–3.


Homogeneity: the inevitable result of a strategic approach?

Is homogeneity an inevitable end result of a strategic approach to deciding what gets done?

The following presents some evidence to suggest a potential strong correlation.

What is the strategic approach?

In Jones and Clark (2014) we suggested that contemporary universities (along most other organisations) increasingly use a strategic approach to decide what work gets done. We described strategy as

following a global plan intended to achieve a pre-identified desired future state.

It’s where a bunch of really smart people get together. They analyse the current situation, identify the requirements and the challenges, and then decide that the entire institution should do X. Where X might include: a particular strategic vision; a single set of graduate attributes for the entire organisation; a particular approach to branding and marketing; the selection of a particular information system etc.

Once the strategic decision is made, the entire organisation becomes focused on moving toward the various institutionally approved strategic goals. Doing anything else is seen as inefficient, inappropriate, and is to be rooted out.

The underlying aim of the strategic approach is differentiation. To set the institution apart from the other institutions. To give various stakeholders/customers/clients a reason to go to this institution first.

How does that work out for them?

It’s Hard to Differentiate One Higher-Ed Brand From Another

This page reports on a study of 50 US-based higher education institutions and includes quotes such as (emphasis added)

found that the mission, purpose or vision statements of more than 50 higher education institutions share striking similarities, regardless of institution size, public or private status, land-grant status or religious affiliation, or for-profit or not-for-profit status….
statements may accurately represent the broad views and aspirations of education leaders and their institutions. And they probably differentiate the institutions from financial service and retail companies

Interestingly the suggested solution to this problem is to forge “a strong organizational identity only starts with establishing and committing to a clear and differentiated purpose, brand and culture”. i.e. yet another strategic approach.

The sameness of graduate attributes

Few a few years know there’s been a fetish that has required each Australian University to develop their own set of graduate attributes. These are meant to indicate what are the unique attributes of a graduate of that institution. To demonstrate the unique value that the educational experiences offered by institution adds to the development of their customer student. Surely this must be the most obvious place of differentiation and distinction. Something the truly captures what is unique about each university.

Oliver (2011) does a scan of the literature and practice around graduate attributes identifies that

Universities’ most common generic attributes, apart from knowledge outcomes, appear to cluster in seven broad areas:

  1. Written and oral communication
  2. Critical and analytical (and sometimes creative and reflective) thinking
  3. Problem-solving (including generating ideas and innovative solutions)
  4. Information literacy, often associated with technology
  5. Learning and working independently
  6. Learning and working collaboratively
  7. Ethical and inclusive engagement with communities, cultures and nations.

(p. 2)

Strategic Information Systems

And the other fad over recent years has been the adoption of Strategic Information Systems such as ERPs and LMS. If the institution adopts the same system and works effectively together to leverage its capabilities we will be able to gain a competitive advantage over the opposition. Well, no.

Over 20 years ago, Ciborra (1992) argues

Tapping standard models of strategy analysis and data sources for industry analysis will lead to similar systems and enhance, rather than decrease, imitation (p. 297)

Which is why e-learning within Universities is increasingly infected by LMS-based courses using institutional standard course site designs, a digital repository, a lecture capture system, an e-portfolio, and a couple of other standard systems offering the same broken experience. Whether your LMS is open source or not, typically doesn’t make a difference.

The solution

Ciborra (1992) suggested

How then should “true” SISs be developed? In order to avoid easy imitation, they should should emerge from from the grass roots of the organization, out of end-user hacking, computing, and tinkering. In this way the innovative SIS is going to be highly entrenched with the specific culture of the firm. Top management needs to appreciate local fluctuations in practices as a repository of unique innovations and commit adequate resources to their development, even if they fly if the face of traditional approaches. Rather than of looking for standard models in the business strategy literature, SISs should be looked for in the theory and practice of organizational leaming and innovation, both incremental and radical. (p. 297)

Or as we argued in Jones and Clark (2014)

Perhaps universities need to break a little BAD?

Instead, universities like most organisations, are attempting to solve the problems of the strategic approach by doing the strategic approach again (but we’ll do it better this time, promise).

Insanity by Albert Einstein by Mimsen, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  Mimsen 


Ciborra, C. (1992). From thinking to tinkering: The grassroots of strategic information systems. The Information Society, 8(4), 297–309.

Revising week 1 of EDU8117 – Networked and Global Learning

The following is a description of how I’ve gone about revising the Week 1 material for EDU8117, Networked and Global Learning. The intent is to demonstrate how a tool can be used for something a little different.

The problem

The content for week 1 is a longish web page. It was created in a hurry last year and could use some re-jigging. I need to read through the material and ponder what changes to make. The problem is how to record those thoughts in a way that allows me to focus on reading through the material initially.

If the material was in a Word (or PDF, or Google) document I would probably end up using Word’s (or Acrobat’s, Google doc’s) annotation facility to mark up the text and add comments. But it’s a web page and I’m not going to venture into the wilds of converting back and forth between HTML and other formats.

The solution

Luckily, I do use Diigo which will allow me to annotate web page, and that’s what I’m using. I’m reading through the web page and highlighting sections and making comments on sections I think will change. Once I’m complete, I’ll open the blog post in the WordPress editor beside another browser with the annotated version and make the changes.

The result

Here’s what part of the web page looks like with the annotations.

Original NGL Week 1

And the corresponding information in Diigo. You’ll be able to see that yourself if you visit my Diigo library. That link is actually to Diigo’s list of all links I’ve tagged with “annotate”. I’ll try to keep this the only one.

Diigo annotations on NGL Week 1

It has the advantage of leaving a visible record of the changes I’ve made. Even after I’ve changed the original web page, Diigo has done a reasonable job of keeping the highlights and annotations in place.

It also provides the potential advantage of making explicit

Does branding the LMS hurt learning

The LMS used by my institution is Moodle, but the institution has “branded” it as “Study Desk”. Meaning students and teachers talk about finding X on the “Study Desk”. They don’t talk about finding X on Moodle. The following suggests that this branding of the LMS may actually hurt learning.

Update: Via twitter @georgekroner mentioned his post that has some stats on what institutions are branding their LMS.

Google the name (information literacy?)

The biggest course I teach is aimed at helping pre-service teachers develop knowledge and skills around using digital technology to enhance and transform their students’ learning. Early on in the course a primary goal is to help the students develop the skill/literacy to solve their own digital technology problems. The idea is that we can’t train them on all the technologies they might come across (give them fish), we can only help them learn new technologies and solve their own problems (teach them how to fish).

A key part of that process is the “Tech support cheat sheet” from XKCD. A cheat sheet that summarises what “computer experts” tend to do. One of the key steps is

Google the name of the program plus a few words related to what you want to do. Follow any instructions.

How do you “Google the name of the program” if the institution has branded the LMS?

Does branding the LMS mean that students and teachers don’t know “the name of the program”?

Does this prevent them from following the tech cheat sheet?

What impact does this have on their learning?

A brief investigation

Early in the year I was noticing that a few students were having problems with “Google the name”, so I set an option activity that asked them to create a “technology record”. i.e. a record the names of all the technology that they are using. The idea is that having a record of the technology names can help solving problems. I included in that “technology record” that they specify the name of the software that provides the “Study Desk”.

There were 40 (out of ~300) responses including

  • 10 that identified uconnect, the institutional portal;
  • 8 that weren’t sure;
  • 8 that didn’t provide an answer for the Study Desk question;
  • 4 that identified their web browser;
  • 4 that firmly identified Moodle;
  • 3 that identified Moodle but weren’t sure;
  • 2 answered with the URL –;

20% of the respondents were able to identify Moodle.

These are 3rd year students. Almost all will have completed at least 16 courses using Moodle. These are students completing an optional activity indicating perhaps a slightly greater motivation to do well/learn. A quick reveal that most of the students have a GPA above 5.

The still don’t know the name of the LMS.

I wonder how many teaching staff know the name of the LMS?

Does this hurt learning?

Perhaps if everything works with the LMS then this doesn’t create any problem. But if the students wish to engage with social and information networks beyond the institution, they don’t know the common name for the object they want to talk about. That has to hurt learning.

I imagine that there are librarians and others who can point to research identifying the inability to know the correct search term hurts search.

What do you think? Does branding the LMS hurt learning?

What does this say about learning analytics?

What do the following two artefacts say about learning analytics?

Perhaps I’m being just a bit too cynical.

Horizon report predictions

The NMC Horizon Reports are (Johnson et al, 2013)

a comprehensive research venture established in 2002 that identifies and describes emerging technologies likely to have a large impact over the coming five years in education around the globe (p. 3)

Each year they list those technologies. The following table summarises the mentions of learning analytics as one of those “emerging technologies like to have a large impact…in education” from the annual Horizon Reports each year from 2009 through 2015

Year Time frame Important developments in Ed Tec
2009 n/a
2010 4 to 5 years Visual data analytics
2011 4-5 years Learning analytics
2012 2-3 years Learning analytics
2013 2-3 years Learning analytics
2014 One year or less (#2) Learning analytics
2015 4 to 5 years Adaptive learning technologies

Birnbaum’s fad cycle

The following image (click on it to see a larger version) is taken from Birnbaum (2000, p. 5) and describes Birnbaum’s life cycle stages of the fad process in higher education. In particular, it shows his proposition that these fads enter higher education from a non-academic sector.



Birnbaum, R. (2000). The Life Cycle of Academic Management Fads. The Journal of Higher Education, 71(1), 1–16.

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Cummins, M., Estrada, V., Freeman, A., and Ludgate, H. (2013). Horizon Report: 2013 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

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