Thursday, 31 December 2015

New #CBL Infographic

I believe it was Plato who said that no person can go into the same river twice. Not only has the river changed since the first entry, but the person has changed as well. 

A few months ago, I changed the name of my blog from "On the side of technology" to "Connections-based Learning". I'm not sure of the effects of a name change in Blogger, but for me, it helped clarify what I'm working on.

I started this blog with a focus on tech in the classroom. It was only a few years ago that I did the unthinkable (at that time and place) and allowed students to not only use their cell phones and tablets in class, but to use them for learning. I was "on the side" of using technology in the class. I also thought that the name leant itself to other blogs ... "on the side of..." whatever else I was into. 

As my learning morphed and changed I was really taken by what this connected world did for propelling my thinking. When one is faced with an almost endless supply of ideas on social media, it's hard to ignore the disparage between the status quo and the "what could be".

I want that same thing for my students.

I want them to be able to see what is really out there and be compelled to:
- embrace it
- change because of it
- have an effect on it

Connections-based Learning was born out of my desire to take Project-based Learning to the next level. The true learning that comes from a genuine project is through relationship. How are we fostering these connections in the class in everything we do, not just the projects we take on?


The Connections-based Learning infographic and the Whiteboard Interactive video have been ways to take a snapshot of what this new focus on learning is about.

Serve the Community. Plant a garden where there isn't one. Sing at a retirement home. Work on making the environment better. 

Help Organizations. Raise money for non-profits. Test out products for startups. Hold workshops for companies. 

Question Experts. Email questions to experts in a field. Have projects that ask students to seek out experts. Skype in experts into the class.

Share the process. Present to the class your findings, whether your connections panned out, or didn't. Record your learning in a portfolio. Share what you're doing with the rest of the school. 

Show the World. Tweet out the learning. Get feedback from outside the class. Seek out a genuine audience.

All these action steps, my classes have done and I can attest to the meaningfulness of the activities and significance of the learning. 

But to the last of the 6 facets: I had "Work as a Team". This was a carry over from my project-based learning focus: students working in groups to achieve project goals. I want to capture something else, though. Yes, I still think that group projects are worthwhile for many reasons. But learning activities don't have to be in a group. Sometimes it's me who brings in the expert. Students collaborate to create questions but it is different than the standard group project. I want students to read and respond meaningfully to each other's learning blogs. This is also a different focus from group work. So I've changed the sixth facet to "Feedback Meaningfully" using feedback as a verb. It's a little clunky but it gets across the point. There's probably a better way of saying it out there. Maybe you've got a suggestion?

Defining Connections-based Learning is a work in progress. But I think you know it when it is happening. It is defined more by classroom feel and student buy-in.  True experts are sharing with your class. Students are involved in making a difference. 

I am ready to take CBL to the next level. I am hoping to find some educators out there who have been looking for a way to push their learning, a way to describe the changes in their teaching as a result of wading into this connected world. Are you ready to jump into this river with me?  Connect with me if you are. 

Monday, 28 December 2015

2015: Year of the Digital Portfolio

A reflective quiet has blanketed the Robinson home.  It's not something I expect to last. 

The bustle of family over for the holidays, the excitement of presents under the tree, the fullness of church events . . . all over for now, giving me a moment, albeit a small one, to reflect on my learning in 2015.  The benefits of blogging are that not only do I have snapshots of learning to go back to, but the people have weighed in on their weightiness.  I not only get to see what has been important to me, but also what has been meaningful to others.  With that in mind, I will reflect on the top 4 Connections-based Learning posts of 2015.

Digital Portfolios: Where to start Part 2

I spent a lot of time this year reflecting on digital portfolios.  What started as a simple question on my blog blossomed into a whole series on starting digital portfolios.  I didn't want the focus to be on the nuts and bolts of it but more to take even a further step back: what needs to happen in ourselves as educators before we jump into the world of digital portfolios.  Part 2 was by far the most popular of the posts as it looked at what awesome educators were doing with their portfolios.  It also gave me a chance to talk about the different platforms and apps that teachers were using. Digital Portfolios: Where to start Part 1 emphasized the need to develop one's own portfolio while Digital Portfolios: Where to start Part 3 demonstrated how digital portfolios transform our teaching.  This was a great series to work on as I got to seek out the amazing things that were happening with digital portfolios far and wide.


The Connections-based Learning post called #FamilyBloggingMonth came in as the third most read post of 2015.  I have to admit that I had great hopes for province-wide participation in this event.  I had grandiose ideas of families breaking down walls and coming together around their blogs in the month of November.  That parents and children would spend most of the month in a veritable virtual group hug loving on each other as they came to a deeper understanding of each other's inner child.  That dogs and cats would put aside differences and join paws with the blogging mice and unite in the spirit of connection as they barked, purred and squeaked out a chorus of "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

It didn't play out that way. 

Moreso, I found that it was a chance to share with colleagues and a few of my connections on Twitter the importance of getting parents to read and comment on student blogs.  I did squeeze out a post from my own father in Remembering Education Past and made sure I got my own students to share their blogs with their parents AND get their parents to comment.  But you watch out for November 2016.  Practice up your Kumbaya and Trust-fall skills because #FamilyBloggingMonth is not going away.

Meaningful Comments: Why?

Well the whole #FamilyBloggingMonth thing got me thinking that we can't just say to our students: "Comment on each other's blogs, please" and watch magic happen.  We have to teach them how to do it.  That started a series of posts on commenting.  I went through the who's, why's and how's of commenting, sharing ideas and actual comments from my own school as I facilitated comment learning for multiple classes.  Once again, a great learning experience for my students and myself.

Who needs a Digital Portfolio?

The second most read post in 2015 was about me sharing my own digital portfolio story in Who needs a Digital Portfolio?.  I had to write this post.  We were sitting around the table as educators at my school talking about how to instill the importance of digital portfolios in our students.  It became very plain to me that my own story was the perfect testimony for this.  My digital portfolio made a difference in my life.  It got me my job.  I don't know how to make it any more plain.  It is worth it.

This post has been excellent to have to share with students at my school.  You might want to share it with your students.  It communicates better than simply saying, "Class, you have to put effort into your digital portfolio."  My story plays out for my students as they see me day after day, doing what I love.  Hopefully that can be your story as well.

As the quiet fades, and the bustle begins, I can see that for me 2015 was the year of the Digital Portfolio.  What was 2015 for you?

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

#CBL Behind Bars

"Do you ever get days outside the prison?"

The tweet caught my eye.  I had stumbled upon what I would call David Billiikopf's version of Connections-based Learning as I was scrolling through my twitter stream.

I had to check this out.  I looked deeper.

There was some activity going on here that shocked the pants off me.  Could I have really stumbled on student conversations from the comforts of the classroom to ones behind bars?  I had.

A prison teacher, David Billikopf, was having his students communicate with Terje, a teacher from Norway.  The students locked up in a juvenile correctional facility were learning about Norway while the Norwegian students were learning about the life of a student inmate.  Amazing.

Of course. I had those internal questions: How can they maintain prisoner confidentially, is online management of behaviour an issue, basically ... How can you do this?  But they were doing it.  And doing it beautifully.  You can read all about it here: Our Twitter Class Adventure Continues or follow the #norwask hashtag.

Questions posed by the students

It didn't stop there.

Mr. Billikopf's students began sharing poetry with their counterparts. Here is one shared over twitter:

The response was so meaningful.

And the story will continue.  This is why human connection is so powerful.  The interaction is genuine.  A relationship builds.  People are humanized.  Crafting what is said and done becomes important.  And learning happens. . .important, individualized, meaningful learning.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Connections-based Learning in action

Learning begins with a good question.  Preferably one you have absolutely no answer for.

In Connections-based Learning, the process starts with a desire for students to seek out meaningful connections.  The first action is to ask a question that opens the door for those connections.  I wanted my students to learn about re-world electricity use, so I asked this:

Basically I asked: "With whom can you connect to learn or do something about electricity?"  I was shocked at how far my students would take this. . .all the way to Poland.


A Skype chat with an employee in a Polish electrical company where
we learned that 80% of Poland's electricity comes from fossil fuels
One group had a connection with someone who worked in the power industry in Poland.  A Skype chat was set up and the class not only learned about Poland's electricity situation but about Poland itself.  The real-world connection brings an understanding of what is going on currently, not what was happening at the time the information was written.  CBL also gives the students a chance to speak into another's situation.  Questions were posed as to what Poland's future plans were to get them to move to more renewable energy sources.  Our students got to share there concern about the environment and encourage the seeking out of better ways to produce electricity.

A depiction of a real-life BCHydro interview produced using IMovie
Connecting with experts is just one avenue students can take in their Connections-based Learning.  Another possibility is to work together to strive for real-world change.  In this particular activity we had students trying to hook up generator companies with homeless shelters.  We had students contacting Me to We and Clean Energy BC, hoping to have an influence on the building of more wind farms.

I love the creativity students use to share the story of their experience.  One group interviewed our own BCHydro producers of electricity.  They put together a mock up of the interview in an IMovie that they put on their blogs.  Another group shared their interview with a BCHydro employee in the context of developing a Power Outage Safety Kit.  In CBL, it is great to see what type of angle the students use to communicate their learning.  Not every organization responds, but the requirement is to tell the story around the connection.  What was learned through the process?


An interview with our principal on our school's
power conservation actions and hopes for the future

We also had students looking to our own school, wanting to ask what we were doing to steward our energy use and what the future holds for better school-based conservation.  These students interviewed our principal and shared school priorities for energy use, plus dreams for the future, including device charging stations hooked up to stationary bikes.

Connections-based learning is about sharing out our experiences.  This is often done through our digital portfolios.  One really cool thing that came from this #CBL was that one of the students wrote an article for the school newspaper on her #CBL experience.  You can find the article here.


Connections-based Learning prizes re-world connections.  Open the door wide to leverage those connections for learning. 

Then hang on.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Meaningful Comments: Who?

In Meaningful Comments: Why?, I looked at why good comments are important and the ways they can propel learning.  In Meaningful Comments: How?, I shared the discussions in my classes on how to make good comments: ask questions, expand on ideas, and share your story.  I was reminded in that post by commenter Bruno Winck that when you disagree with the author let them know by respectfully stating your thoughts.  Of course, this is in the hopes of both of you expanding your understanding.  When that happens, it is important for the author to not take things too personally (and delete objectionary comments) but more, to see this as an opportunity to learn and grow.

In this post I want to focus on who should be commenting on each other's work.  In this connected world, work done by the student shouldn't just be seen by the teacher.

Students commenting on each other's work

Publicly commenting on another's work, as Tom Whitby commented in Meaningful Comments: How?, is a relatively new thing.  Other than in peer editing, some kind of gallery walk activity, or an audience-question-time after a presentation, it just isn't done in our classrooms.  Often student work is for the teacher's eyes only.  But I want to state that there is something meaningful about students commenting on other student's work.  When you have to make a meaningful comment, you have to understand both what the author is saying and how you feel and think about it.  The wheels have to turn.  I think all of us Ed blog readers and writers know the feeling: "This is a great post but I just don't have the energy to intelligently synthesize my thoughts and put them into words.  I'll just hit like."  Commenting requires committing valuable resources.

If your hope is to have a community of learners, then your students should be commenting on each other's work.  They need to learn together in a safe environment that promotes sharing.  They need to be involved in each other's learning.  Furthermore, it brings them to operate at the highest level of Bloom's taxonomy: analyzing, evaluating and even creating (their response).

[Bloom's Taxonomy photo, “New Blooms Pyramid“, by Andrea Hernandez licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.]

Teachers commenting on student work

I've talked a lot about teacher commenting in this series particularly on how it promotes student learning.  In the comment above, it is the teacher who gets to learn.  Either way, learning comes from the dialogue.  The initial post is a shotgun approach to learning; it is the comments that target in on personalized learning.  I would go as far as to say: if you find yourself having to choose between commenting on student work and grading it, I suggest you comment.  The comment propels learning while the grade puts an end to it.

Principals commenting on student work

In this connected world we live, right from his or her office, a principal can connect and encourage a student.  In fact, they need to get in on the action.  What a way to put one's finger on the pulse of what is going on in the classes but to read and comment on what the students are doing within their classes!

Parents, other teachers . . . really anyone

What an excellent learning conversation going on here...from one student's post.  A parent, two teachers, and several students propelling each other to do and to be better.  Parents having a window into what is going on in the class. Other Math teachers chiming in on the student's learning.  Students encouraging each other along in the material.  This is what being in a community of learners is all about.


In the hopes of more genuine comments for my students' work from those outside of the school, I thought that I would end this post with a learning opportunity.  Here is a Flipboard magazine of some of my students' blogs.  Please take a moment to check their digital portfolios out and possibly expend some energy and make a comment.  I know they would love to have some of your input into their learning.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Remembering Education Past

As part of Connections-based Learning, I made a challenge to those around called #familybloggingmonth.  My desire was to not only bring an awareness of student digital portfolios to parents but also to create a culture where people young and old are sharing with those who are most important to them: their families.  In honour of #familybloggingmonth here is a post from my father, Brian Thomas Henry Robinson. It illustrates what education looked like in a different time and place.  It celebrates the power of story.

Never spend any time behind a horse during fly season

It was often on dark and stormy evenings that the story teller would drop by.  He would stand in the small living room in our farm house and spin his yarns.  Neighbours would come over after supper to sit with us and stay for a tale or two.  This was a part of our education living in the 1940's near Tempo, Northern Ireland.  We had little to offer the “story man” as we kids called him but he had his supper and a place to lie down before he moved to the next village.  His stories carried us to worlds unknown.  The tales were riveting to all who came.  The small room was in a fog of pipe and turf smoke.  There was only light from a single kerosene lamp and the glowing embers of the hearth.  There we small children sat on our wee stools and listened.  We had no electricity or running water.  In fact, it was my job was to carry water to the house each day.  During the late hour listening to the story, sometimes my grandparents would curl up in a nook built into the fireplace that had a small bed with a drawstring curtain.  Then soon the snoring would start and we would have our laugh.
Our school was one room about a mile from the 34 acre farm named Edenmore.  We never travelled far and if we did it was by horse cart or by bike. Education was very directly played out by a teacher who handed out corporal punishment without a second thought.  I recall the older boys telling us to make sure we carried a horse hair in our back pocket in case we got into trouble. It must be, they would say, a tail hair from a white or beige horse.  Sure it was then we were to sneak it out and place it across our palm prior to getting the cane, a trick that would render even the hardest whack painless.  The punishment was dealt out if you got two wrong in spelling or whatever was decided by the teacher. No need to say that that type of "hurt-protection" never did anything but to make those watching laugh that another young one was duped.  It was another early lesson in life. 

Every day we continued to learn from our parents about the value of work, the value of  listening before you speak and to enjoy stories and music.  These lessons I bought back to Canada.  Many years later I graduated from Concordia then went on for my masters at UBC. It was almost seventy years when I first travelled back with my young brother and renewed our wonderful heritage.  We found our old farm and the school that is a heritage building.  We got to sit on the same benches as we did and the memories came rolling back like the time the teacher fired his rifle from inside the school at a rabbit that was helping itself to his cabbages in his garden. 

Being able to read the newspaper was an avenue to the world outside but that was often the end of education for farmer's children.  Learning was more about life experiences than the usual study lessons.  For instance: standing behind a horse anytime is not good but much worse during fly season ... you either get hit by its tail or kicked in the head by one of its back feet.  Basic learning: quick and absolute.     Helping to birth a cow or shoe a horse was often more important than school homework. Learning was basic back then.  And the learning continues even for an old 79er like myself.

I'm not saying we need to go back to all that.  But I am saying we would do well to remember.


Monday, 16 November 2015

Connections-based Learning in Living Education eMagazine

This post by Sean Robinson was originally published on p.31 in: 2015 Fall Edition Living Education eMagazine (Vol. XIV)
2015 Fall Edition Living Education eMagazine (Vol. XIV)

We are all looking for something to base learning on. We see it in the contemporary educational titles: project-based learning, passion-based learning, competency-based learning, inquiry-based learning.  These titles may seem like buzz words but they are important; they set the tone for teacher conduct, curriculum foci, and student actions.  Should we base our learning on projects?  Passions?  Competencies?  Student inquiry?

Each of these educational titles is a way to guide the priorities of our pedagogy.  “Blank”-based learning methods, in particular, are an attempt to describe a learning process that is meaningful to students.  With project-based learning, genuine reality-based projects become the vehicle for learning. With passion-based learning, students’ passions are leveraged for learning.  In competency-based learning, learners focus on progressively mastering smaller elements of a greater learning objective.  And with inquiry-based learning, students form skills around developing great questions that can’t simply be “Googled”.

With all these methods of structuring learning, it begs the question: do we really need another ‘blank’-based learning? 

Ponder how these meaningful learning approaches include interpersonal connection.  In project-based learning, we see collaboration as an important element.  Students often work together as part of a group while completing projects.  Imagine how better the process might be if the focus of student activity includes fostering effective collaboration among team members, building relationships with community partners and topical experts, and sharing learning with the world.  It would take project-based learning to the next level.
We also see connection in passion-based learning.  An environment where students feel connected to one another provides the safety to reveal passions.  Is it possible to take this further? As student passions are discovered, embraced and leveraged during the school year, could groups with common passions work together with outside organizations to achieve common goals?
The mastery focus of competency-based learning requires a good teacher-student connection.  Understanding where students need to work is a key component.  Students who have mastered a certain concept shouldn’t be inundated with its lessons.  Students need to work on concepts that are tailored to their needs, not a one-size-fits-all shotgun approach.  Without a great teacher-student connection, these needs can go undiscovered.  Imagine the effect of a teacher focused on making a strong connection with each student and supporting students as they discover their own target zones for learning.
And connection is also found in the tenets of inquiry-based learning.  A sense of community and connection is crucial as students develop and share their genuine questions.  Could the students build a connection with others outside the school who are also working on finding the answers? Could students partner with those around the world who have the same concerns, the same wonderings, the same dreams?
The idea of connection is weaved throughout these four approaches and the many others that are popping up.  In some cases interpersonal connection is already a part of the process but could be developed further.  In other cases, adding a focus on connection changes the whole dynamic of the learning.  Could it be said that what underlies the meaningfulness of these approaches is the human connection?  Connecting with the teacher.  Connecting with the class.  Connecting with the community.  Connecting with experts.  Could there be a method of educating that is based on these connections?

What is Connections-based Learning?
Connections-based Learning is a not a new way of doing education.  It’s a new way of seeing education.  It celebrates the way connections are formed and leveraged through education.  It reminds us to seek ways of learning that facilitate the building of relationships.  It declares that significant learning requires a significant relationship.  Connections-based Learning makes it a priority to leverage interpersonal connection at each step of the learning process.  Whether it is the teacher-student connection, the connection with members of the class, school, and community, or the connection with experts in the field of study, thought is given to maximizing these relationships.
Teacher-student Connection
Fundamental to learning is the teacher-student relationship.  Good teacher-student connections help students learn.  It has been found to be true time and time again.  In her NYU Steinhardt article, “The Effects of Teacher-Student Relationships: Social and Academic Outcomes of Low-Income Middle and High School Students”, Emily Gallagher gives a plethora of studies that support this idea:
Aligned with attachment theory (Ainsworth, 1982; Bowlby, 1969), positive teacher-student relationships enable students to feel safe and secure in their learning environments and provide scaffolding for important social and academic skills (Baker et al., 2008; O’Connor, Dearing, & Collins, 2011; Silver, Measelle, Armstron, & Essex, 2005). Teachers who support students in the learning environment can positively impact their social and academic outcomes, which is important for the long-term trajectory of school and eventually employment (Baker et al., 2008; O’Connor et al., 2011; Silver et al., 2005). - Gallagher (2013)
While working with inner city schools, James Comer found that the strong social bonds that help students develop the proficiencies to learn were missing.  He created the School Development Program in 1968 to help schools recreate those social bonds.  It worked.  The students he worked with began to thrive.  Students flourish in a positive teacher-student relationship.  Asking questions, seeking to understand, treating students as individuals, and making time to build relationships are crucial to building that connection with a class. As James P. Comer says: "No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship".  Robinson, S. (2015)
Connections within the Class, School, and Community
But learning through connections doesn’t stop there.  Why does the student, who never writes more than a few sentences, write pages to the buddy or the pen-pal?  It is the human connection.  Why does the learning seem to become galvanized for the student who tutors another?  It is the human connection.  Why is the whole of a group working together greater than the sum of its parts.  Human connection.
Picture a class studying Aboriginal Education.  The class looks at culture, customs, and artwork.  They draw pictures. They hear stories.  And they never once talk to an aboriginal person.  That is a missed opportunity to get firsthand information, to build a relationship, to honour another.
Now picture a Home Economics class developing cooking skills.  The teacher has made a connection with a local homeless shelter and once a week, the students cook there.  Picture how that one connection will impact the students.  Picture how it might affect those at the shelter.  Connections add meaning and they provide opportunities to make a difference.
Connections with Experts
As Lee Crocket, Ian Jukes, and Andrew Churches state in Literacy is not enough: 21st-century fluencies for the digital age:
Electronic technology in wired, and wireless communications has quite literally meant the death of distance.  There has never been a time in which distance has meant less than it does today.  Students learning about civil war could be talking directly with kids in Serbia or Afghanistan.  Kids trying to understand the impact of oil spills could talk with students in Louisiana, Mississippi, or Florida.  Students want to understand the impact of natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis could talk to students in Japan or New Zealand. – Crockett, L. (2011) p. 69
Learning in the 21st Century must take advantage of the connected world we live in.  We are no longer confined to study other countries from afar.  They are only an email, text, tweet, Skype-chat, Google Hangout away.  And whether it is space, politics, animal behavior, or dinosaurs, there are numerous experts to contact.  All the students need to do is ask; they might be surprised who responds.
Human connection leads to well-being.  In Kelly McGonigal’s TEDtalk on "How to make stress your friend", she states:
And the cool thing is that all of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support. So when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress. I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection. – McGonigal, K. (2013)
If we were to base our teaching on anything, I believe it should be developing connections.  The classroom becomes a thriving environment of learning.  We make local or global contributions that can in turn teach others.  We become healthier people.  With a focus on developing relationships, there is no need to teach good citizenship.  As they work on these connections, students are being good citizens.
Connections are accessible to all.  Anyone can get an email address.  Anyone can ask a question.  As I have been having my students make connections, I have found the reception to be excellent.  Researchers, academics, agency leaders have responded to a simple question: “Could you help us learn?”  And what a difference it makes when students are asking real people questions.  They are engaged.  They bring their best.  They feel important.  They become part of a global process to advance understanding.  And they learn.

Crockett, L., Jukes, I., & Churches, A. (2011). Literacy is not enough: 21st-century fluencies for the digital age. Kelowna, B.C.: 21st Century Fluency Project.

Gallagher, Emily. (2013). "The Effects of Teacher-Student Relationships: Social and Academic Outcomes of Low-Income Middle and High School Students" Applied Psychology Opus. Fall issue. Accessed July 2, 2015 on the World Wide Web:

McGonigal, K. (2013). Transcript of "How to make stress your friend" Retrieved July 27, 2015 from TED IDEAS WORTH SPREADING on the World Wide Web:

Robinson, S. (2015). “What Relationships do for Learning” Retrieved August 28, 2015 from ON THE SIDE OF TECHNOLOGY on the World Wide Web:

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Meaningful Comments: How?

In Meaningful Comments: Why, I shared the power of commenting.  I looked at the idea that we must get beyond comments like "Great post!" and move into leveraging the potential a comment has to propel learning.  I used the idea of "comment" in a general sense: not just blog post comments but any kind of comment on student work from anyone, parent, peer, or teacher. I then shared actual peer, principal, and parent comments from student blogs to illustrate why commenting is so crucial.

In this post I want to take some time to talk about some commenting guidelines.  This again is a post for teachers, parents and students alike.

I remember reading a twitter stream started by Tom Whitby.  He asked:

He went on to say:

What I believe he was getting at was the idea that people misunderstand the purpose of a blog.  It is not just for reading but for interacting.

So what does that interaction look like?  Is it something that is intuitive or something that needs to be taught?  

I recently spent some time in classes talking about what good commenting should look like.  I was finding that when I asked students to comment on each others' blogs, the comments were really only two or three words.  The comments were like a rubber stamp, basically saying: "Yep. I commented.  I did what you asked.  Now Robinson, get off my back." I couldn't tell if the post was even read. I wanted to change the culture of commenting at my school. 
So I brought up this idea with my grade 9's: what makes a good blog post comment?

At first it was like my students were brainwashed with the old "Two stars and a wish" concept. There was talk of helping the other person with their grammar and spelling, of constructive criticism.  It was as if commenting was like peer editing. 
For each class I visited, I asked them to dig deeper. I would share with them what I remember hearing George Couros say recently about the "I can help you with your grammar" comment. He said something like: "If someone reads a blog post of mine and tells me that I ended with a dangling participle, they've missed the whole point."

Then I asked my students to read a blog post of mine, Who needs a digital portfolio,  paying particular attention to the comments at the end of the post.  I wanted them to tease out some guidelines for good commenting.  Basically, now that we know why we should comment, how then shall we do it?

I kept track of the student answers.

This group had a lot of focus on the form of the comment. It should be relevant, specific, appropriate, on topic. The part that seems to propel learning though (and I'm getting at propelling learning for the author, commenter, and the following reader of the post and comments) is:

"Ask questions"

Once one question is asked, the post becomes alive. The author has to defend, clarify, utilize, explain his or her ideas. The commenter gets a chance for personalized learning. The conversation begins. I have written whole posts (in fact a series of posts) because of one question in a comment. 

I got some great answers with this group.   There was some focus on "what could be changed" here but I really like where we were getting to with:

"Expand on what they are saying and add your own ideas"

With this thought, it was like the comment discussion moved from how can I help you, to how you can help me, to how can we help the world?  How can we move ideas forward?

Again here we hit the idea of good grammar, formatting, paragraphs, not from the author's point of view but from the commenter. And that is important.  It is a good habit to read over what you are about to post.  But the guideline that propels learning is:

"Share your own story"

My story is affected by hearing your story?

I love when a commenter shares about what they're doing in their class as it relates to what I am doing.  It's not just sharing information; it's like we are working together on something.  Instantly we become partners in this thing called teaching. Both our worlds expand.

Ask your questions.  Add your ideas.  Share your story.  Three guidelines for commenting that propels learning.

In some sense, good commenting is intuitive. These ideas were all student generated with minimal instruction.  But in another sense, the power of commenting must be switched on in people. It has to move from "it's for you" through "it's for me", to "it's for us".

That culture is building in my school. It is fun to watch. Sure, I see the odd "S'up" and "Great post, Bobby".  But more often than not, I see students interacting with each others' ideas.  "Show the class" is one of the tenets of Connections-based Learning.  It is crucial as we spur on the collaborators of the future, to have our students develop habits that propel learning in each other.  Growth here becomes exponential.  And I'm excited to see where it goes.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Meaningful Comments: Why?


Meaningful commenting is a crucial skill.  Teachers must learn it; students must learn it.  I can't emphasize enough how important this is.  But I'll try.

We all know that feedback reigns supreme over numbers to propel learning. In No Grades: coming to a school near you, I shared a Ruth Butler (1988) study showing the effects of comments over numerical grading.

On both convergent (single answer) and divergent (idea generating) tasks, giving grades or grades with comments didn't just stop the students from improving.  The act actually made students do worse than they did before.  I finished that post with this statement:

Grades seem to beget the need for grades.  They are not as effective as comments in improving learning.  And adding comments to grades seems to be about the worst thing you can do.
- No Grades: coming to a school near you
I think this study, and my own experience, is in the back of my head as we look at developing a school-wide digital portfolio strategy within my school and embark on #FamilyBloggingMonth in November.  Something is keeping me focused on the idea that creating a culture of commenting in a class (and in a school) is crucial.  I don't want to focus on grades vs. comments here.  I thoroughly discuss it in that post.  Here, I just want to discuss how comments fit into the big picture of learning.

Some might be asking: so what are you talking about, Robinson? Feedback on student assignments or blog commenting?

Are they that different?

If the point is learning: a comment is a comment. 

It doesn't matter if it is:
- a teacher commenting on a student work handed in
- another student commenting on a student's work
- a parent writing a comment at the end of a student-led conference

So what can a comment do?

I had my Digital Literacy students do a review of a Science App of their choice.  I am going to use a few of the comments that ensued to illustrate "what a comment can do".  I will let the comments speak for themselves.

A comment can:

Help the reader get more information.

Student to Student

Start a learning conversation
Student to Student

Improve the post

Student to Student
Encourage the student

Parent to Student

Encourage the student to dig deeper
Principal to Student
This is just the tip of the iceberg.  Meaningful comments can do so much.

Simply saying "Great post!" really doesn't extend the learning at all.  So much more can be done when we take the time to make meaningful comments.  I would like to encourage us all to take that time and include more meaningful commenting into our practice.  There's no telling what a comment can do.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

What they're saying about the #digitalfootprint


I spent the last week talking digital footprint with hundreds of students at my school.  As they develop their digital portfolios, we wanted make sure our students had a conversation about digital footprints, particularly their own.  We asked students to Google themselves, to picture how their footprint is seen by others, and to reflect on some strategies to keep a good digital footprint.

I shared several videos on digital footprints with the students.  This one showed the sheer vastness of information present online about us these days.  From ultrasound pictures to RIP notices, our "digital dossier" grows at an alarming rate and sticks with us throughout our lives.

After sharing this video, I would relate true stories about online interactions that got people into hot water.  A politician who had to step down, an employee who lost her job, all through online behaviour that that they had no clue would come to haunt them.

Another video, by Michelle Clark, included an excellent Spoken Word on the digital footprint.  I emphasized this line in it.

"Whether its Youtube, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, before we upload, download,
type on those keys, press enter; we need to slow down, take time, think, consider; how will this instant information impact our hopes and our dreams, how could this careless communication be interpreted or released?"

And I think my students got the message.  Here is a shot of their Padlet response to my presentation.

And while some might look at that and think: Good work Robinson, you got the job done, you got your point across, something inside me said otherwise.  In fact, I think I missed the whole point.

What's missing?

What is missing is that yet again I had focused on the "Do Not's", the "Watch Out's", the "Caution's".  Where was the inspiration?  Where was the delight of sharing thoughts with people around the world?  Where was leveraging the portfolio for global good?  Nowhere.  True, the students seemed to get the message of be careful online.  But could I have sent them that message couched in an idea that their portfolio could have amazing potential?

As I returned to the classes to follow up, I felt I had to start things off differently.  I first showed this video below by Bethanie Gourley a grade 11 student from Arkansas.

I love the message here.  It wasn't just that Bethanie got to hear from Casey Neistat, her favourite filmmaker.  It was that she used her portfolio for what she was passionate about.  It showed the power of the digital portfolio.  And her experience was such that she just had to share about it, and make this video.  Showing this video to my students was a great jumping off point to have them consider their passions and how their digital portfolio could be meaningful to them.

I showed them my idea of "Random Acts of Commenting" where they could make an encouraging comment on a post that pops up on their reader.

I let them develop their portfolio, change the theme, make it their own.

I let them to embed a video meaningful them, work on their About Me page, and customize.

Then I let them play.
Really, in some ways it's out of my hands now. I may think I can control my students' portfolios ... but it's their portfolio.  The more I hand it over to them, the more they'll manage it with care and attention. And the more I'll be surprised with where their footprints go.


Digital Portfolios: Where to start? #3

 Digitalportfolios: Key #3: Teach Differently
This is the long awaited third and final part in a series on digital portfolio first steps.  In this series, I have been sharing what I call keys to starting digital portfolios.  In Digital Portfolios: Where to Start Part #1, I share that teachers need to have a digital portfolio themselves to have any credibility when asking students to develop theirs. In Digital Portfolios: Where to Start Part #2, I share that the second key is to take a look what others are doing with digital portfolios.  I shine a light on portfolio platforms such as Freshgrade,,,, and and the teachers who are using them.

The final key to starting digital portfolios will maximize the potential of the portfolio.  It is the real game-changer.  Through this key you will realize that the portfolios are going to ask as much from you as they ask from your students.  Student work is now on display and that work has to be individual, meaningful, and show growth over time.  It's not business as usual.

Key #3: Teach differently: Ask yourself how digital portfolios will change your teaching.

The digital portfolio is not just a place where students can display their work.  They can also demonstrate their understanding of an idea or their proficiency in a skill.  They not only can give answers, but explain reasoning.  And they now have to defend their ideas as others comment on them.  This is no static summative display board.  This is a dynamic learning and growing space.

How does that change my teaching?
     - now that I know that parents are looking at this, how does that change what I do in the classroom?
     - now that I know prospective employers are looking at this, how does that change what our projects look like?
     - now that I know that these are student portfolios (not teacher hand in boxes) how does that open the door for choice?

Let's think about that for a second.  Would a completed integers worksheet be the best to demonstrate competency in a certain area, or would a video of the student explaining their understanding of integers be better?  Furthermore, could that video in turn help a younger buddy class with their understanding?

And again, would a completed lab where students have followed the instructions to a tee be the best activity to show that students understand the scientific method or would students' own inquiry into their own question, creating their own experiment and data, best demonstrate understanding?

I saw this play out today as I looked at the reader that updates every time a student in our school posts.  Here are two of the posts that came up from Bree Mireau's Science 10 class (although I could have picked any number of excellent posts flowing through the reader).

Kinga and Mona: "Magic Science"

Matty and Jaron: "Science is Magic"

These student videos show so much more than a lab handout with all the parts filled in.  The students got to choose an experiment that interests them.  They got to show their competency in carrying out the experiment.  They were able to explain what happened.  There is no question that they know what happened during the experiment; they are teaching it!  These videos are now a permanent part of their digital portfolios.  If you were interested in hiring a lab assistant, would seeing something like this have an impact on your choice?  I think it would.  But portfolio content like this can only happen if the teacher opens the door for it.  What will you open the door for with your digital portfolios?

This bookends Digital Portfolios: where to start? Thank you for walking through this with me.  More than providing a step by step method to starting digital portfolios, I hope that you found something here to cause you to think, that you will move ahead in your digital portfolio journey--possibly not in the way you thought but maybe in the way you hoped, and that these posts have inspired you.  And where our inspiration leads, our feet follow.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Digital Portfolios: where to start? Part 2

Digitalportfolios: Key #2: teacher inspiration

In Digital Portfolios: Where to Start Part #1, I shared that the most important way to motivate students to embrace their digital portfolio is for their teachers to have a digital portfolio themselves.  In fact, I make the case that the one requiring students to maintain a digital portfolio must not only have a place that they share their learning online, but be able to give stories of how it has made a difference.  This allows teachers to not only model the process of keeping a portfolio, but illustrate reasons why keeping a digital portfolio matters.

While, the first thing to do is take a long hard consideration about managing your own digital portfolio, the second also requires some reflection.  As with the first, it is not always self-evident, but when you take part in this key, you'll see why it really matters:

Key #2: Get inspired: take a look at what others are doing

Jumping into a portfolio system without looking at what other educators are doing ignores the tremendous resources out there.  All too often, the cart is loaded before one takes a look at the paddock of horses.  It is crucial to take a look at what students are sharing and how they are sharing it.  Here I will show just a few examples.  There is no order to these links and it is definitely not an exhaustive list: simply a place to start.  Click on the titles to see these portfolios in action.

Daniel Boyle's Honors History Site

Dan Boyle, a Humanities teacher at Triton Regional High School, decided to have his students build web pages over blogs.  He shared this with me on Who needs a digital portfolio?:

I love how he uses a padlet to display student avatars that lead to the students' twitter feeds and web sites.  The students' sites have a running blog plus multiple classroom links to a variety of shares utilizing a plethora of apps.  Videos, Pixton comic strips, mind maps are just a few of the ways students show their learning.  A look at Dan Boyle's students' portfolios will definitely expand your mind as to the possibilities out there.


Here I am using Freshgrade to capture a student's project

As a teacher interested in giving students opportunities to share learning and make connections, I have kept a connection with Freshgrade since 2012.  Freshgrade is a platform that helps teachers capture evidence of learning in the moment.  Whether it is text, pictures, audio, or video, the captured evidence is uploaded to a student's portfolio where students and parents can easily access it at any moment.   The platform has been evolving over time.   Now with parent and student apps available, I have been able to use Freshgrade as as Learning Management System, keeping a connection with students, sharing assignments with them, and giving feedback.  For those looking for a way to share class activity in moment of learning, Freshgrade is definitely something to check out.

What's going on in Mr. Solarz' Class?

The Padlet that leads visitors to the Paul Solarz's student portfolios

When you visit Paul Solarz's Weebly page (, you find connections to all his students' portfolios over several years.  Once again, a padlet is used to make getting to each portfolio easy.  What a great idea to use a class picture to share the links to each portfolio.  Here we find student created speaking avatars called Vokis, field trip and science fair Youtube and GoAnimate videos, podcasts and more.  Paul has been called a digital portfolio guru and is definitely one to follow when embarking on portfolios.

Guitars and Fireflies

Jodie Deinhammer shared with me her students' portfolios from 2014-2015 year as I made a call out over twitter.  She uses a Google blogspot platform to lead to students' sites.  Once again, these portfolios share a bevvy of different online technologies that students can use to share learning.  As I looked through them I was drawn in by the excellent use of picture links to share post content.  As I clicked on Ariel's, I was inspired by her Smore flyer sharing learning about healthy brains, her analysis of the white and gold dress, and her piktochart infographics.  As one goes deeper into this portal, you can see thoughtful posts, effective use of media, and excellent citations.

High Tech High Digital Portfolios

Immediately, it is obvious that High Tech High's Media Arts ePortfolios seem completely integrated into the fabric of learning.  Not only do you see easy access to the student portfolios from this portal, but you can see the teacher portfolios right there.  You can feel the importance placed on digital portfolios right from the get go.  This Google site is a portal to students' sites ( again) that allow the students to embed downloadable documents, powerpoints, videos and pictures in each post.  Navigating through the portfolios felt like travelling through a Wiki as project challenges and students projects all seem connected.  It feels like teacher and student alike work at developing this learning portal together sharing their learning alongside each other.

Ms. Lirenman's Learners

Karen Lirenman on blogging in the early primary classroom

Karen Lirenman has been a longtime proponent of student blogging and shares her student's public portfolios using the platform.  She tells how her students' digital portfolios help her students connect with the world in this video.  What I love about Karen's students' blogs is that I can see the conversation taking place between student and teacher as she comments on the students' thoughts.  If you thought that primary students were too young to maintain digital portfolios, think again.

Riverside Secondary Edublogs

At Riverside, we use an platform for our students' digital portfolios.  The above link is a flipboard magazine of some of my students' Science and Technology 11 blogs.  While you won't find many online technologies used (our Canadian privacy laws keep me hesitant from having my students sign up for these), you might find that we work hard to encourage students to personalize their portfolio, share honest reflections and visit and comment on each others' posts.

And the list of excellent student portfolios could go on. . .

In putting together this post, my horizons were definitely broadened.  It was wonderful to see how students embrace their portfolios, making them their storehouse of learning.  I was impressed with the endeavours to have teacher and student learning alongside each other.  I was amazed at the number of educational apps out there to help students share and connect.  I haven't even scratched the surface of sharing the possibilities out there so please comment and share more examples of the amazing things students can do with their digital portfolios.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Digital Portfolios: where to start? Part 1

#digitalportfolios : Key #1 for student motivation

In Who needs a Digital Portfolio, commenter Kristine Hodgins asked about first steps for creating a digital portfolio.  A great question.  I answered, but I thought the question merited more reflection.  Where does a teacher start when inspired to have students build digital portfolios (ePortfolios)? What are the next steps once the passion hits? You might be expecting me to start with: choosing a platform, getting admin on board, or informing parents. These are early steps.  But I think there are three things that really should come first.  I'll call them keys.

You might be surprised.  These keys may be steps that you hadn't really thought of.  They are, however, crucial in answering the question: Where to start?  In order to give each of these keys some focus, I will give each a post.  This first one of the three, I believe, is the most important and often the most overlooked:

Key #1: Develop your own digital portfolio

From a student on eportfolios:

In terms of promotion the problem is the people trying to explain it have probably never used it so in a way they have no clue what they are talking about, basically. To put it frankly – after listening to them you would be like, Okay so you as an outsider who never even used it is telling us we should do this because it is the best thing since sliced bread but you have never used it – you can’t find someone who did use it – you don’t have enough information to tell us how to use it – and now you’re telling us use it and we’ll grade you on it – this kind of makes it hard for students to accept or appreciate it.
- Tosh D. et al. (2005)

David Tosh, Tracy Penny Light, Kele Fleming, and Jeff Haywood, from universities in both Canada and the UK, did a study called Engagement with Electronic Portfolios: Challenges from the Student Perspective as they introduced ePorfolios to university students.  They mention that most studies on portfolios look at the effectiveness of the portfolio from the teacher's perspective.  This was a unique study in that its focus was the students' experience.  The results were extremely telling and should be read by anyone planning to introduce digital portfolios to their students.

One message that came through loud and clear in their study was that the students had a hard time embracing a digital portfolio when they felt their teachers hadn't.  It was like students were saying: "if a digital portfolio is so important, then why don't you have one?  It can't be that important if the person who is asking me to do it doesn't even need it."  This screams hypocrisy to our students and has a huge impact on student acceptance.  Tosh further comments:

If students do not accept the e-portfolio as a holistic means with which to document their learning in different contexts and, more importantly, agree or wish to use the e-portfolio as an integral part of their educational experience, then the potential impact the e-portfolio could have on learning will not be realised. - Tosh D. et al. (2005)

The Tosh D. et al. (2005) article covers a range of important ePortfolio elements: buy-in, motivation, assessment and e-portfolio technology but their "bottom line is that students need to know why their knowledge is important."  Not only do we need to share our examples of digital portfolios, we need to share stories of how our portfolios made a difference for us.  How are our digital portfolios important to us?  How can a student's portfolio be important to them?

I learned about the Tosh study from Dwayne Harapniuk (It's about Learning: creating significant learning environments). He had used my blog as an example of an educator ePortfolio.  This lead me to read his blog post.  The post is full of ePortfolio examples including ones from Teachers and Principals.  Mr. Harapniuk's ePortfolio is an excellent example of an educator modeling an online portfolio.  This he has been doing since the late 90's.  He also is a firm believer that the educator asking students to maintain a portfolio, should have one to share.  This perspective is painfully clear in the title of his post: Show Me Yours and I Will Show You Mine - Eportfolio Examples

More than acceptance, the digital portfolio requires "embrace-ment".  Motivation is the crux of the matter.  I mention to educators in a post called PBL:Q and A that:

One's soul must be mined.  Mining is dangerous; but how else can the gems be found.  I like to think that the best learning is better caught than taught and this mining leads to a better person facilitating the learning.  Added to that, the students need to see their teacher as a risk-taker.  If teachers can put themselves out there, the students will be all the more willing to do the same. - Robinson S. (2013)

In this post, I was referring to teacher as chief risk taker in Project-based Learning.  But even more-so, this applies to the digital portfolio.

- One's soul must be mined (see what I mean in Kim Ondrik's blog (here)
- Passion for the digital portfolio is better caught than taught.
- The teacher must be the chief risk-taker as we ask students to put themselves out there in this digital world

I came into our school library the other day and my principal Anthony Ciolfitto (whose wonderfully thoughtful educational blog is here by the way) came up to me with a smile and pitched me an idea.

"How about we make this corner area here in the library a collaboration zone.  We paint this wall with whiteboard paint and add a digital projector facing this wall here."

"For teachers or students?" I asked.

"For both.  What a great area for students to come to and work on group projects together.  But also, what a great way to let our students see us teachers collaborating.  We can model what we are asking our students to do right here."

Amazing.  Imagine teachers in the school library working alongside the students--pitching ideas to each other, brainstorming, planning.  Imagine students nearby--watching, listening, catching the idea that we are all learners.

We can model what we are asking our students to do right here.

It works with a collaboration area, with project-based learning, and with digital portfolios.  The students need to see it in action, not from a distance, but from nearby.  From their teacher.


Tosh, D., Light, T., Fleming, K., and Haywood, J. (2005). Engagement with Electronic Portfolios: Challenges from the Student PerspectiveCanadian Journal Of Learning And Technology / La Revue Canadienne De L’Apprentissage Et De La Technologie, 31(3). Retrieved from Aug. 3, 2015

Robinson, S. (2013) PBL: Q and A. On the side of technology. Retrieved from Aug. 3, 2015