Monday, 23 February 2015

Encouraging learner voice and choice

Offering learners more voice and choice is increasingly being advocated as a way to improve engagement and personalise learning. Edna Sackson, from Inquire Within, also mentioned this to me following an earlier post. One of the ways in which I have attempted to achieve this is to give learners the choice of what finished product to submit at the end of the assignment. As ever with this particular assignment, student groups could choose any topic within the broader scope of genetic engineering (e.g. GMOs, cloning, forensic biology etc). However, instead of specifying a finished product that involved a report, or a PowerPoint presentation to the class, I gave them the option of what kind of final product to submit.

Upon completion of the assignment final products submitted included infographics produced in, presentation-style reports in Prezi, and PDFs created via Google Slides. Many of the students were unfamiliar with some of these applications, and so were finding their feet with them to some extent. One interesting observation was a student who was explaining to her group members how to find their way around Adobe Illustrator. This was a good example of the teacher stepping back and ceding peer teaching opportunities to the students – I’ve never used Adobe Illustrator in my life! Other spontaneous peer teaching included students showing each other tips and tricks in Photoshop.

Student feedback following an evaluation at the end of the assignment was generally positive, with some neutral responses. Encouragingly, there were no negative responses, although Thai students are often reluctant to criticize even via anonymous evaluation forms!  

Reasons learners gave for enjoying the assignment included the freedom it offered them, that it was fun, it enabled them to use their creativity, and it offered them the chance to learn new skills, such as how to use Prezi or make infographics.

I also asked learners what aspects they would change or improve. Suggestions ranged from having groups present their work to the rest of the class (even if the final product was not a traditional presentation format) to requesting that I assign (!) topics to groups because some groups were deemed to have chosen “easy” topics. Obviously, this latter suggestion would somewhat defeat the purpose of this exercise.

I’ll finish up with a couple of direct quotes from the students regarding this assignment. The first quote supports the idea that learners appreciate the chance to be creative, the second one – well, what can I say!

I really love this project because we have to use lots of skills not only understanding and writing but we also have to be creative to make an easy-reading infographic”.

Its kind of fun using technology with the subject which seems to be boring like biology”.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

What do online discussion forums offer second-language learners?

In my last post I outlined how online asynchronous discussion forums (ADFs) fit into the SAMR model. This week I’m going to outline some of the additional benefits that ADFs can provide to English language learners (ELLs) specifically, and for learners more generally. This is something quite close to home for me as a teacher, since the learners I work with are Thai high school students. Their first language is obviously Thai, but at my school they receive the majority of their lessons in English.

Language plays a crucial role in learning, both for metacognitive awareness, or learning how to learn, and in the formation of higher mental processes (Murphy, 2008). ADFs afford learners the opportunity to practice their written language skills, and also provide those students who are less confident about speaking English the opportunity to prepare their answers before posting them.

In addition, by participating in an online debate, students have an opportunity to learn more than simply a list of decontextualised knowledge items – they also gain critical thinking, debating, English language, and scientific research skills. In other words, ADFs afford the development of critical literacy, which includes recognising multiple and contradictory patterns of thought, and engaging in moral/philosophical critique (Davies, 2008).

It has been noted that by using authentic situations, such as a debate about a topical area where science impacts society, English language skills and subject area skills can be improved simultaneously. The development and use of specific language functions, such as explaining and hypothesising, are seen as parallel to science learning processes (Stoddart et al., 2002), e.g. when ELLs participate in an online debate they are developing both language and science skills. Recent studies of a professional development intervention with elementary teachers, aimed at simultaneously improving both science and literacy skills of ELLs in multicultural settings, have shown achievement gains in both areas (Lee et al., 2008; Lee et al., 2009).

Finally, subject area literacy can be enhanced by engagement in culturally authentic activity. Debates around controversial topics, such as stem cell research or vaccine use, are an example of this, reflecting as they do real-world debates held both within the scientific community, and between the scientific community and the wider community at large. Learners are seen to be able to move along trajectories that are not discontinuous as they move from school social practices to more general social practices, also an important feature in the development of lifelong learning skills (Roth and Lee, 2008).

I personally feel that ADFs offer a variety of affordances that make them an invaluable tool for 21st Century learning. I would be interested to hear how other teachers use ADFs in their context!


Davies, B. (2008). Constructing and deconstructing masculinities through critical literacy, in Hall, K., Murphy, P., and Soler, J. (eds.). Pedagogy and Practice, London, Sage in association with The Open University

Lee, O., Maerten-Rivera, J., Penfield, R.D., LeRoy, K., and Secada, W.G. (2008). Science achievement of English language learners in urban elementary schools: Results of a first-year professional development intervention. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 45, 1, pp.31-52

Lee, O., Mahotiere, M., Salinas, A., Penfield, R.D., and Maerten-Rivera, J. (2009). Science writing achievement among English language learners: Results of a three-year intervention in urban elementary schools. Bilingual Research Journal, 32, pp153-167

Murphy, P. (2008). Defining pedagogy, in Hall, K., Murphy, P., and Soler, J. (eds.). Pedagogy and Practice, London, Sage in association with The Open University

Roth, W.M. and Lee, S. (2008). Science education as/for participation in the community, in Murphy, P. and Hall, K. (eds.). Learning and Practice, London, Sage in association with The Open University

Stoddart, T., Pinal, A., Latzke, M. and Canaday, D. (2002). Integrating inquiry science and language development for English Language Learners. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 39, 8, pp.664-687

Monday, 2 February 2015

Using the SAMR model to conceptualise asynchronous discussion forums

Asynchronous discussion forums (ADFs) are text-based, online forums that individuals can access at a time and place of their choosing. In this post I will discuss how ADFs can be conceptualised for learning at all levels of the SAMR model developed by Dr Reuben PuenteduraThe SAMR model offers a way to consider the different levels at which technology may be integrated into teaching and learning: Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, or Redefinition.

The obvious case to make here is that ADFs can facilitate an online debate that acts as a substitute for a more traditional classroom debate. There are similarities between the two approaches in that the debate would generally involve a topic that generates a certain amount of controversy, for example embryonic stem cell research, and learners would be expected to employ critical thinking skills and evidence-based arguments. The key differences are that in an ADF-mediated debate, learners would be practicing written rather than oral language skills, and they would have more time to gather evidence and make their case. 

Although ADFs could be substituted for a classroom debate, they need not replace it entirely. They could be used as a pre-debate activity, providing learners with an opportunity to gather evidence and refine their arguments. Alternatively, the classroom debate could be used as a lead-in activity to generate interest for the subsequent online debate. In either case, the ADF augments the classroom debate by affording learners a space in which to engage in dialogue over a longer time frame. 

This brings us to the modification aspect of ADFs, where learners can engage in a debate for longer, and potentially more deeply, as well as providing direct links to evidence that supports their case. They and their peers have more opportunity to evaluate these evidence bases, and thus they are moving away from what is offered by a traditional classroom debate. 

ADFs can redefine the traditional classroom debate by extending learner agency, for example by providing opportunities for knowledge creation as opposed to knowledge acquisition (McCormick and Scrimshaw, 2008). By posting to an ADF students are able to synthesise what they have learned, express it in their own words, and negotiate meaning with their peers. ADFs thus enable learners to engage “in the dialogues through which knowledge is constantly being constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed” (Wegerif, 2006a). This would not be possible in quite the same way during a classroom debate because of the more fleeting nature of verbal interactions.

An additional agentive feature of ADFs is that they look both forwards and backwards, pedagogically speaking (Lankshear and Knobel, 2008). That is to say, they provide learners with an opportunity to explore new understanding, whilst also demonstrating existing knowledge and skills. Consequently, there are more opportunities for students to learn from their peers, rather than from their teacher.

A further important affordance of ADFs is the increased opportunity for learners to engage in higher-level thinking. When I analysed the forum statistics following an ADF debate I assigned to my Grade 10 students, the number of views far exceeded the number of posts, supporting the notion that many students were reading the existing discussion before posting, i.e. engaging in higher-level thinking before participating, rather than simply posting for the sake of it. This is consistent with Saade and Huang’s (2009) findings from their university-based study of learners using an ADF, and is arguably an advantage ADFs have over traditional classroom debates, where learners don’t necessarily have the time for higher-level thinking before making a contribution.
ADFs also clearly demonstrate how technology can facilitate social learning, i.e. computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) (Stahl et al., 2006; Wegerif, 2006b).  They are computer-mediated communication environments that “turn communication into substance” (Dillenbourg, 2005, in Stahl et al, 2006, p.12). Or, put another way, ADFs reify learners’ participation in a discussion, leading to the negotiation of meaning (Wenger, 2008). 

ADFs can record learner activity as well as being a product of their thinking. These records of interaction and collaboration have been identified as potentially important resources for improving intersubjective learning (Stahl et al, 2006). Intersubjective learning considers that individual meaning making comes about through social interactions with others, and is partly constituted by those interactions (Suthers, 2006). It could be argued that traditional classroom debates afford this as well, but again the asynchronous nature of ADFs allows more time over which these interactions may occur. 

A final point about ADFs is that they provide a great opportunity for metacognition, or making learners’ thinking more visible. For example, the forum software I use has a peer-grading facility. As learners grade the contributions from their peers, it helps them to focus on what they could do to improve their own contributions, and thus they are thinking about how to improve their own learning. I feel that ADFs can be conceptualised at each level of the SAMR criteria, including the key levels of modification and redefinition, for the reasons outlined above. In a future post I will return to ADFs and discuss how they may be used to enhance both general and subject literacy.


Lankshear, C. and Knobel, M. (2008). New ways of knowing: Learning at the margins, in Hall, K., Murphy, P., and Soler, J. (eds.). Pedagogy and Practice, London, Sage in association with The Open University

McCormick, R. and Scrimshaw, P. (2008). Information and communications technology, knowledge and pedagogy, in Murphy, P. and McCormick, R. (eds.). Knowledge and Practice, London, Sage in association with The Open University

Saade, R.G. and Huang, Q. (2009). Meaningful learning in discussion forums: Towards discourse analysis. Issues in Informing Science and Information Technology, 6, pp.87-99

Stahl, G., Koschmann, T., and Suthers, D. (2006). Computer-supported collaborative learning: An historical perspective. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (pp.409-426). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Available at last accessed 01/02/2015

Suthers, D.D. (2006). Technology affordances for intersubjective meaning making: A research agenda for CSCL. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 1, 3. Available at; last accessed 01/02/2015

Wegerif, R. (2006a). Dialogic education: what is it and why do we need it? Education Review, 19, 2, pp.58-66

Wegerif, R. (2006b). A dialogic understanding of the relationship between CSCL and teaching thinking skills. Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 1, pp.143-157

Wenger, E. (2008). Meaning, in Murphy, P. and Hall, K. (eds.). Learning and Practice, London, Sage in association with The Open University