Tag Archives: learning

The pleasures and challenges of online learning

The internet and world-wide-web have revolutionised so many aspects of society, it’s no wonder that they have changed how people learn. (It’s only surprising that it hasn’t changed more already.) Online learning has provided so many opportunities for people all over the world, that it has become extremely easy and often free to learn just about anything. This can happen in very informal ways, but also in more traditional formal classes delivered online.

Over the past years, I’ve taken a variety of formal classes. I’ve learned Portuguese (um pouco!), how the brain works, Java programming techniques, online assessment tools, how to teach the IB Diploma Computer Science course, and many more. I’ve taken courses accredited by universities and international organizations as well as courses taught by private tutors. Some I’ve paid for and many have been free.

For me, the advantage of taking online courses is that I can learn wherever I am and whenever I have time. It’s an obvious advantage to online learning, and one that’s touted by online course providers. It also can lead to some serious challenges when you have a traveling lifestyle!

A perfect case in point happened to me this summer. I signed up for an online course offered through Thinkport (I recommend their courses – very well organized and useful). I needed a few credits to renew my Maryland teaching certificate, so I signed up for the summer course on Blended Learning. I’m experienced in that, so I thought it wouldn’t be too challenging and I could easily complete it in the summer, but I also knew that I could benefit from new ideas, formal training and communication with other teachers.

I started the course while on holiday in the US, and it was easy to work in the readings, discussions and projects while relaxing in my parents’ house in El Paso, Texas. However, we’d booked an Alaska cruise to celebrate my 50th birthday (and that’s another blog post or two!) and the course required log-ins and activity every few days. So I needed to make sure I had connectivity while cruising so that I could do readings and post to the discussions. It made for some interesting early mornings, watching the mountains and whales glide by from the “Crow’s Nest” cafe while I read about keeping students engaged while online! We then left the US and headed home to Ethiopia, first spending a week in Kenya with family in our beach house. Again, I found myself watching the water while reading and posting – this time from our beach house’s roof deck looking out over the Indian Ocean. (I’m an earlybird, so I saw a lot of sunrises over the ocean while doing coursework!)

The biggest challenge came, ironically enough, when we returned home. Despite being stationary and having all my resources around me, it became even more difficult to meet deadlines. School was starting and I had to prepare my classes, as well as set up our new student information system and oversee the distribution of student laptops to all the Middle School and High School students! It was during this time that I actually missed deadlines and lost points. My instructor was kind enough to give me some leeway, but I almost took it as a badge of honour that I put my students’ learning before my own and allowed my work and learning to suffer to make sure theirs got off to a good start for the year.

With all the challenges I faced over that course, and with the slightly diminished grade due to the opening of the school year, I’m valuing the completion of this course more than many of the others I’ve done. I’m looking forward to keeping that course certificate and framing it. It’ll be a reminder of the process and what I’ve learned about blended learning – both from the content and from the process!

First Attempt In Learning

We got a bunch of new equipment to set up the new Makerspace/Robotics Lab, including a vinyl cutter. This is a fairly simple piece of equipment: you design something, then send it to the cutter which cuts your design in paper or vinyl. With this, you can make stencils, wall decals, laptop stickers, etc.

So I tried out some designs to put up on the walls. I had some ideas in my head, so I designed them in Inkscape and worked them into cut lines to run through the cutter. (You can’t just print a solid image: you need the lines that the cutter will follow.)

And I came up with this:


It was a great idea: the action word “Think” to go with the ICS Learner Profile trait of being a Thinker, a brain to lend a visual to the word. But… The brain cut out nicely, but it was extremely difficult to apply to the wall. It stuck to itself, then parts adhered to the wall in the wrong spots. It’s wrinkly and the gap between the lobes is too big.

And I realized: it’s not a FAIL, it’s a First Attempt In Learning. I learned a lot about what makes a good design for a vinyl cut, and I realized I should leave it up there to show the students. They can learn from my F.A.I.L. and try their own designs. And if theirs don’t come out beautifully, it’ll be their First Attempt In Learning.

This is cross-posted from my school blog.

Do as I do

Better late than never.

I’d required my students to write a plan for the semester and keep a reflective journal on what they’re learning. It’s an experiment, this class: a chance for the students to get credit for self-directed learning. So they’re each learning something different, something they’re interested in. One is learning business models, another programming in C++, another Art and Law… To keep track of it all and make sure they are keeping track of their own work, they have to keep a learning log and plan out what they want to learn and how they are going to learn it.

And then it struck me: I’m doing my own self-directed learning. Apart from my personal learning (a new language, investment strategies, etc), I’m also having to learn a new curriculum and teaching & assessment techniques for the IB Diploma Computer Science course I’ll be teaching next year. I’m presently taking an online course and have signed up for a face-to-face workshop, and I’m reading curriculum materials and brushing up on my Java programming. I am doing all the things that my students are doing.

So why am I not doing the tasks I set my students?

It seems to me that it’s only fair that a teacher not ask his/her students to do more than he/she is willing to do. If I am asking students to plan their learning, keep a journal, and show off their learning experience to me and each other, then I should do the same.

So I did. I’m doing the same tasks I set my students. I’m recording my work and reflecting on my learning and following a plan I’ve laid out for the semester. I explained my thinking and my work to my students and am showing them what I’m up to.

I’m not sure how important it is to them that I’m doing this, but it certainly has become so to me. It’s a good experience for me as a learner …and as a teacher. I understand better what my students are going through – not only the learning experience but also the tasks that I require them to do.

It only seems fair.

Interesting: I realize that I wrote a piece with the same name about teachers & administrators over a year ago.

Projects of Passion

 “I wish school was like this every day.”

When a teacher hears this kind of comment from a student, you know you’re doing something right. There were a number of comments like this last week from Grade 10 students. They had a week off timetable and we decided to give them a week of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) projects, plus some time to do a “passion project” on a topic/area of interest of their choosing. The students rose to the occasion and did some amazing work.

There are a few elements of the week that are worth focusing on:


JpegStudents were able to choose which area they wanted to work in. It was first-come first-served (so some got their second choice), but the students appreciated being able to pick for themselves what type of work they wanted to do.

One group of students built air-pressured bottle rockets designed to launch into the air and travel safely (with a parachute for gentle landings) a specified distance. They learned about aeronautics, hydrolics and air pressure, drag, and other important Science and Engineering concepts. Another group used SketchUp to build digital 3D scale models of campus buildings. They measured, calculated and used Trigonometry and other Mathematics concepts to make sure their models were to scale. A third group of students built and programmed robots to perform set tasks. Another group of students used LiveCode to program their own computer game. Finally, another group of students created a 3D mural to adorn the mini-amphitheatre reflecting Ethiopia, Lucy and human bones.

Students really appreciated being able to choose different projects and being more in control of their work.


Students were given an opportunity to pursue a “passion project” – to pick an area that they (individually or in small groups) were very interested in and to do a project related to that. They were given time and some guidance to the project, but otherwise allowed to work at their own speed & level.

Some students explored photography, others focused on a sport. Some continued their STEAM project, while others

created something artistic. One student created a model of an invention by Leonardo da Vinci. Another researched a medical issue and produced a poster giving information about it. A few wrote poems, while others wrote and performed songs. Several made videos about their passion, whether it was skateboarding, football, forestry or other topics.

Many students commented on how they appreciated being able to pursue their own particular interest.


JpegStudents were given a fair bit of latitude in doing their own individual passion project, and given a fair bit of leeway in the other projects regarding what they would contribute or produce. Students appreciated being given time and space to do their work at their own pace. Teachers were monitoring them and keeping them on task, but they weren’t constantly directing the students. As one student said:

“I liked getting the opportunity of exploring what interests us. I also loved the liberty that we were bestowed with. We didn’t have teachers telling us what to do for once. “


Learning – not in a classroom

photo by Learning2 CC-BY-NC-SA
photo by Learning2CC-BY-NC-SA

I had some delusions before the conference started that I might actually attend some of the learning sessions. I was looking forward to sitting in on workshops and extended sessions, getting hands-on with robots and trying out Genius Hour, trying out augmented reality games…

Boy, was I dumb. Since I was organizing Learning 2.014 – the first in Africa – I wound up spending all my time running around building schedules, printing room signs, adjusting the website, organizing prizes, unlocking & locking doors, checking up on visitors, helping vendors… and when I did have some down time I wanted nothing more than to sit down for a few minutes and just breathe. (Thanks, Maggie!)

So I didn’t attend any sessions …but I found the process of running Learning 2.014 an incredibly powerful and valuable learning experience. Even now, days after the event finished, I’m still learning and reflecting (as well as organizing and doing!).

Here are a few of my takeaways about the learning experience in organizing a conference (or other such event):


I definitely learned about the power of connections. I met people in the flesh who I’d been following on Twitter or connected by email… those virtual connections made the meetings more valuable & more memorable, and no doubt the physical meetings will add to later virtual connections. It was also brought home to me how fostering those connections can add value to one’s personal and professional life. I’d never met Trevor, or even connected with him, until he showed up at the conference. Yet he’s built things for the conference that I intended to do and added value in many other ways. I fully intend to keep that connection going!


The Devil may be in the details, but so is salvation. I got frustrated by the niggling little details – how many minutes of transition time? which key opens that blasted door? – but by paying attention to the details, a fuller understanding of and appreciation for teachers’ work emerges. That locked door means delay of preparation, which can throw off the lesson. Insufficient transition time leads to confusion and frustration. Paying attention to the details, anticipating issues and preventing problems leads to a smoother experience for all and therefore a better learning experience.


Possibly the most important lesson I learned was the power of time. Having enough of it for important activities. Having transition time. Allowing time for important tasks.

And taking some time out. Maggie Powers taught us about the power of mindfulness. I took her information to heart and took a few minutes every now and then to just breathe and self-monitor. That really helped to de-stress and to re-focus myself.

As teachers, we often worry about or complain about our own lack of time. Do we consider this from our students’ perspectives? Classes, assignments, studying, sports, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Do we give them time to be mindful, to just breathe and self-monitor?


Finally, organizing Learning 2.014 brought home to me the importance of taking risks. (Calculated ones, mind you! Not foolhardy ones.) Just running the conference was a big risk. Would we get enough participants for it to be worthwhile? Could our school’s infrastructure (and our country’s ISP) handle it? Would the learning experience be worthwhile? It was all a risky proposition.

In the end, things went smoothly and the conference was a huge success. The risk was definitely worth it. It was a bold and daring move by ICS, and it paid off for our school and the continent.

But smaller risks also paid off. Margaret Powers was an “unknown” in international schools… and she made a very valuable contribution. I signed up Nick Kwan (working in Poland) to our organizing committee, and he proved to be an incredibly hard worker and contributed much to the conference. Taking a risk with people is often a great thing to do. Most people will, if you show that you trust and believe in them, rise to a challenge and make sure your risk-taking pays off.

…so in the end, I learned much from the conference. Now I just have to go back and review the Learning2 Talks and the resources from the L2Leaders’ sessions so I know what actual participants learned!

Learning from the students

Note: this is a cross-post from my school blog, intended for parents & students.

JpegWhen you attend an educational conference, you expect to learn new things from your colleagues. They give talks, they present workshops, you network with them. They tell you about projects they’re working on, they show you tools that they use, they share information about their own schools.

What you usually do not expect is to learn from students. At the recent Learning 2.014 conference we just held on campus, however, we did!

At Learning 2.014, hundreds of teachers from around the world (Africa, Europe, Middle East, Asia, America) came to ICS for a conference about learning and educating using modern methods and tools. (“Learning 2.0” means new ways of learning – version 2.0! This generally means with technology, but not necessarily.) Presenters included invited experts, ICS faculty, and conference participants. All of them are currently (or very recently) teaching in schools – generally international schools.

To help with logistics and provide extra tech support, we enlisted the help of a number of students in the Middle and High Schools. Keith Liebetreu and Ken Gunther were the main teachers in charge, and they set up some training sessions for both Tech Support and Student Ambassadors in advance of the conference. They showed the students how to help with wifi connectivity, projecting computer screens, etc. Ambassadors were told about protocols and how to help people. Some students were shown pictures of past conference and discussed ways to get interesting and appealing photographs.

“Special shout-out to all the student ambassadors, they were great!!”  – a conference participant

IMG_20140920_113355Throughout the conference, our Student Ambassadors, Photographers and Tech Support were enthusiastic and eager. They not only agreed to take on any jobs they were asked to do, they also offered to do additional jobs. At one point, I was working with another conference organizer (Nick, from Poland) on a task. Two Middle School girls, Faru and Jadesola, had finished with the jobs they had been given and asked us if they could do anything to help us. I thanked them, but said we were doing fine and didn’t need any help. The girls asked if we would like any coffee. Both Nick and I laughed and said yes, and the girls went and got us macchiatos!

It was delightful seeing students eager to help, eager to take on jobs. While students at ICS often show independence and initiative, it’s particularly impressive and rewarding when they do this with visitors on campus!

“Highlights: the ICS students were incredibly helpful, kind, patient, knowledgeable, friendly and welcoming” – a conference participant

More than just being helpful, often our students were actually able to teach us adults some things. Here are two experiences I had that made me think and learn from our students:


During the conference, several “unconference” sessions were held in which any participant could put forward a topic of interest to them and, if there were enough people who shared that interest, a place was set aside for discussion, sharing, planning. I proposed that we hold a show of solidarity with Neil Bantleman and Ferdi Tjiong, two teachers from Jakarta International School who have been falsely imprisoned without charge for more than two months in Indonesia. Many people agreed and as I was setting up the space for a group photo, two students came up and asked what it was all about. I started to tell them, and Kate said, “Oh, yes. Free Neil and Ferdi.” I was surprised she knew about them. Aysha then said, “Can we join in?”

Sometimes we get so caught up in our own circle that we forget about and ignore others outside of it. I was so focused on international school teachers that I didn’t even consider students. Kate and Aysha (and the many other students who joined us for the photograph) taught me that I should never assume that people outside my immediate circle are either unaware or unconcerned. (Thank you for the lesson, all of you!)


I met Bamlak and asked him how things were going. (You can see his reaction above!) He told me he was learning a lot from Jeff Utecht, one of our presenters (“Learning 2 Leaders”) from the US. Jeff later told me about his interaction with Bamlak during his session.

Jeff was teaching teachers about building their (and their schools’) PLN (Professional Learning Network) through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. By building connections, we expand our knowledge and the sources of our knowledge – we also expand our ability to gather information, answer our questions and solve our problems. During part of the session, Bamlak asked Jeff if he would give him (Bamlak) a shout-out to Jeff’s over 17,000 followers on Twitter. Jeff, being kind to this young student, agreed to do so. Bamlak then offered to give Jeff a shout-out on Instagram. Jeff figured this was nice but wasn’t terribly impressed by the offer …until Bamlak showed him that he had over 26,000 followers on Instagram! (Jeff doesn’t have quite that many.)

It’s worth considering that everyone around us has strengths and excels in various ways. We may not think so, but each person we meet has areas in which they can surpass our own achievements …no matter how young (or old!).

(Thanks, Bamlak, for following me on Instagram!)

Learning 2.014

l2logocircleThis week, hundreds of international school teachers are coming to Addis Ababa to learn, connect and grow as educators. The conference is called Learning 2.014, and it is the first time a Learning 2.0 conference has been held outside of Asia.

Learning 2.0 conferences are not really “tech” conferences – they are about teaching and learning using new techniques, new tools, new emphases. Since technology is all around us in the modern world, these new ways of teaching and learning of necessity involve technology …but the emphasis is not on technology, it’s on learning. (Hence the name!)

l2logotextDuring the conference, teachers from ICS and scores of other schools around the world (we have people coming from four continents!) will participate in extended hands-on sessions about robotics, developing creativity in all learners, using games to promote learning, giving students time and tools for projects they are passionate about, and more! Participants will also network in person and online, forging professional learning networks that they can use throughout the year to get new ideas, share resources, and more..

We also have students working in the conference as photographers, technology support, ambassadors and even presenters! Parents and other students are encouraged to follow along – on the website, on Twitter, on Facebook, on Google+, on Flickr or Instagram, on YouTube… whew! Lots of ways to connect!

It’s an exciting event to have in Addis Ababa, and ICS is proud to be hosting the first ever Learning 2.0 conference in Africa!

21st Century Learning

by Public Domain Photos - Pixabay - CC0
Public Domain PhotosPixabayCC0

Read enough about education, and you’ll quickly find a plethora of posts, posters, and more about “21st Century Education.” ICS is including this language in much of its guiding documents. The school’s mission statement includes the phrase. The Board of Governors includes a “statement of understanding” about 21st Century Learning. Our Head of School writes about it in his weekly news column. It’s a phrase often used in describing school programs.

What does “21st Century Education” really mean? Why is it being discussed and promoted so much? What does it mean for parents and students? I’ll be writing a series of blog posts about this concept and how it’s being put in place at ICS over the next few weeks. (Please post questions and comments!) In this post, I’d like to explore a bit of the background and explain what it’s all about.

What is 21st Century Education?

There are many ways people define 21st Century Education, and various groups and initiatives which promote it – all of whom describe and define it in different ways. In general, the phrase refers to the fact that education is changing and must change to meet the needs of today’s learners and today’s society. In order to produce individuals who can succeed in today’s world, schools need to teach and reinforce different skills. Students must be more adaptable, more independent, and more technologically savvy.

To accomplish this, schools and educators are shifting their emphasis away from content knowledge to more skills-based learning. In the age of Google and Wikipedia, knowing something is less important than knowing how to find things out or how to accomplish things.

An excellent and simple framework for this is the “4 C’s” – championed by the Partnership for 21st Century Education. The 4 C’s are skills, offered as counterpoints to the traditional “3 R’s” of Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. (Yes, I know.) The 4 C’s have been identified as skills that will help students be successful in today’s changing world. They are:

  • Creativity
  • Critical Thinking
  • Communication
  • Collaboration

Now, do understand that these do not replace content knowledge. But they are a different emphasis.

Why is it important for our students?

In the information age, it is not sufficient to only be knowledgeable. Traditional education emphasized mastery of subjects by gaining information. Students read textbooks, listened to teacher lectures, passed knowledge-based tests. Now, a smartphone in your pocket can give anyone immediate access to a vast wealth of information. When you can carry Wikipedia around in your pocket, how vitally important is it to know the dates and outcomes of the Battle of Hastings?

This is not to say that it’s not important to know things. Students must always have a good background knowledge of history, science, etc. However, with access to all that knowledge, it becomes more valuable to students to be able to process information instead of remembering it. How do you find that information? In what way do you phrase your research question? What key words do you use? And how do you identify valuable sources of information?

And with the fast pace of change in business, science and society, the flexibility that one gains from good critical thinking and creativity skills will help our students navigate their future world.

What technology is needed?

Despite the title of this blog, 21st century education really isn’t all about the technology: it’s about the learning. Sure, we use modern tools. Computers, tablets, smartphones, etc. all have a part to play in students creating things, communicating with others, collaborating with people near and far …but that’s not the heart of the matter. The key is the type of learning. Instead of listening to a lecture, or writing a research paper, etc. students are discussing things in online forums with students (and adults) around the world. They are writing blog posts and posting online videos that others can comment on and share. They’re remixing other people’s creations to build new ways of looking at things. Technology makes this possible, but it doesn’t force it.

So what’s going on at ICS?

In a word, plenty. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be profiling some of the great things happening at ICS …and looking at ways we’re changing to promote 21st century education even more.

Welcome to the 21st century!

Future-proofing my child

I look at my daughter and wonder about what her life will be like when she’s an adult. What kind of job will she have? Where will she live? What type of lifestyle will she have?

I’m determined to help her be ready for whatever kind of life she’ll have. It’s a daunting task. As both a parent and educator, I’ve done plenty of reading and thinking about how the world is changing and what schools can do about that. I’ve recently read (and am re-reading) the very excellent book by David Price,  Open: How We’ll Work, Live and Learn in the Future. Price reflects on the changes in society brought about by technology and how that impacts learning and working. It’s a great manifesto for any concerned modern educator and it puts into context some of my concerns as a parent.

In particular, I’m concerned that school – my school and any school – is failing to prepare my child for what she will have to face in the future. I feel guilty about that as a teacher, and I hope that my work helps to improve the situation in my school at least. However, it really does seem to me that the institution of school is not & can not change fast enough to make a difference to my child.

In particular, there are a few areas that seem to be lacking in what schools (or at least my school – and most schools I know) address and emphasize in the education they provide.

Financial Literacy

Sure, school gives children some money problems in math classes, and perhaps some attempts at financial education (my school has an elective Economics class in High School), but for the most part there is no real teaching of skills needed to succeed or excel in the world of money management. Some schools may have some Home Ec classes in which students learn to balance a checkbook or prepare a household budget, but even this isn’t enough. Children need to know about and understand the stock market, investments of various types, retirement funds, etc. Ideally, there should be some learning and practicing of skills that would help them become – or at least have the potential to become – entrepreneurs.

An interesting analysis of financial literacy and education was published in the New York Times by Economics professor Richard Thaler. While decrying the state of financial literacy in the American population and the lack of financial education in schools, he discusses a meta-analysis of financial education which indicates that financial education doesn’t necessarily make financially knowledgeable people. One of the main points he & the study makes is that doing more of the type of training (schooling) that’s currently being done will not be effective. This is exactly the same point David Price makes in looking at learning in Open.

Practical Skills

While the Maker movement is helping to resurrect and revitalize the development of  hands-on skills in children, the reality is that many schools have no venues for students to learn practical skills. Any reasonably capable person should be able to perform basic tasks such as changing the plug on an appliance, checking and maintaining a car engine, changing a bicycle or car tire, and similar such skills. In addition to reading, writing and arithmetic, schools really should be teaching soldering, calibrating and repairing. The excellent book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew B. Crawford, argues that such practical “trade” skills not only are intellectually stimulating and inherently valuable, they also guarantee permanent employment: while technology has and will continue to replace or outsource many jobs from call centers to offices, there will always be a local need for plumbers, electricians, and repairpeople of every kind. Besides, if we are truly interested in “teaching the whole child” and “creating life-long learners,” then schools must help children develop the skills that will help them to become competent and capable adults who are not only knowing but handy.

Mastering Technology

Schools have adopted technology full-tilt, and my school is no exception. The use of technology abounds in schools: 1:1 laptop programs, classroom tablets, student and class webpages, etc.  However, the typical use of technology in schools is just that: using it. Teachers and students build a website using a template or form, in which they fill in the boxes set by others. Students use laptops to blog or tweet or other forms of digital writing. Students create Prezis or edit videos to give reports. None of this is particularly technological: it’s the same old projects & activities merely carried out using computers. None of this requires any fundamental knowledge of or understanding about how computers (or networks, the world-wide web, etc.) work. Some schools are starting to bring back programming and computer science as subjects – I’m pushing hard for our school to do just that – and that is important for our students’ (my child’s) futures. Work will continue to be mechanized and computerized, and the people who can actually program the computers and make the machines work will be the victors. Derek Thompson from The Atlantic has written a brilliant article about the fastest growing jobs of the decade and the robots who will steal them. If robots are taking jobs, then the students who know how to build and program the robots will be the ones in demand.

 I’ve never let my school interfere with my education.  ~Mark Twain

As a teacher and as a parent, I know that I cannot rely on School to teach my child everything. I know that I have my responsibility to her to teach her a wide variety of skills. I welcome that. I’m happy to educate my child in these as well as other areas.

What concerns me is that School is not interested in putting these kinds of areas at the forefront of education. Despite numerous intelligent arguments put forth by respected individuals, School remains entrenched in a structure of learning that is centuries old. There’s no space for programming or tinkering or entrepreneurship in a curriculum locked into Mathematics, Science, History, Literature, etc.

So, like all parents, it’s up to me.

Come here, Nadia. Let me show you how you can earn more interest on your allowance…