The 2018-2019 Council on Learning and Teaching Excellence continues to explore the implementation and assessment of VIU’s Graduate Attributes. My group is focused on ways students can represent their learning. One challenge we’ve identified is that students are unfamiliar with the attributes, or are unable to recognize an attribute within themselves. Without making this connection, students don’t know what they are trying to represent. Our group is using a survey approach to learn more about how students interpret the graduate attributes. From there, we hope to create tools to help students identify specific attributes that are most important to them, or ones they wish to strengthen, and suggest ways they can illustrate growth in those areas.

Unfortunately, my class schedule for Foundations doesn’t work well with the Human Anatomy schedule. This means I needed a new plan – a new experiential activity. I’ve decided to have my students explore VIU’s Learning Matters website, to see if there is anything they think should be added or changed from a student perspective. What they have found so far is that the site is very busy, and even though it contains a lot of good information, many of my students simply don’t want to spend the time reading over the content to find what they are looking for. The students also feel that information is lacking in two areas:

  • how to manage the stress of being a student (particularly from a student point of view)
  • science specific learning tools

The end result is that many of my students will be working on projects around self-care and curating science tools. I’m looking forward to seeing what they put together.


As an experiential learning exercise, my Foundations students worked with Human Anatomy students to create learning resource for anatomy that would ultimately be shared with the ‘wide world’ outside their classroom. My students were the experts on learning, and the anatomy students the experts on content. As we reach the end of the semester, here’s my thoughts:

One of the biggest fears for me was getting my students to buy into the idea of acting as ‘consultants’ for another class – to make it work and not be a loss of learning time (I used 5 full classes for this project). To tie the activity to my course content, I used the experience to ask students to reflect on group work strategies and giving and receiving feedback. Aside from the usual ‘we don’t know them’ discomfort from the students, my students also expressed a very real fear of not being ‘qualified’ to provide feedback on learning. The logistics of meshing two different classes with two different schedules together was also a challenge – but I had a great partner!

What was exciting? After the first meeting, even though they had only been in class 3 weeks, my students realized that they actually knew quite a bit about how to learn. A WOW moment for me was after the second group meetings that week when my students said the discussion went better because they ‘figured out how to ask better questions’. This was one of the strategies we were working on! The second set of meetings in November were so different from the first. The students (both classes) were much more talkative. The PHED 201 students obviously had pride in their projects, and were eager to solicit more feedback from my students on how to improve their learning resource. After reading over the draft projects, my students expressed concerned that the anatomy students were lacking a tool (Bloom’s taxonomy), so they took it upon themselves to bring copies with them to the meetings to share.

What have I learned? Best laid plans… the project changed dramatically from the first iteration. I had to pull back on how much I initially thought my students could complete. The entire process was experiential for me; continually reflecting on how activities went, and then adjusting – most of the time on the fly!

I made it through the first run of my new course (FNFS 105: Elements of Anatomy and Physiology: Strategies for Success in Health Sciences)! During the spring semester, I maintained a journal of my thoughts on how each class went in the pilot of FNFS 105. A new name is definitely in the works, as most students (and myself) had trouble remembering the incredibly long name we had given the course.

At first, writing a journal entry for each class seemed manageable, but then I hit midterm and became so busy it was hard to find time to sit and write. I ended up filing in some of the missing pieces at the end of the semester (and beyond), making some of the later reflections less valuable than the initial ones. However, I did take away some important lessons from this experience. I was doing what I was asking the students to do, although their reflections were much shorter. At the time, the writing was challenging, but now that I am reading over my notes I am finding them invaluable for planning the next run of the course. The students have mentioned that they also found the reflections hard to write at first, but by the end of the semester they were comfortable with the process and enjoyed looking back to see what they had accomplished.

My reflections ended up being useful in a way I hadn’t intended. In the spring (May) I was invited to participate in CIEL’s Council for Learning. I joined a group that would focus on experiential learning and chose my FNFS 105 class as the target for introducing more experiential learning. I used my reflections from the first run of the course as a discussion starter with CIEL staff (in July) that were helping with the experiential team. From the reflections, I realized I needed to change the order of topics, and spread some of the topics (such as how to ask questions) throughout the course. Another very large change to the course was a student mash-up between my class and Dr. Mattar’s PHED 201 class. Our students will be working together to create digital learning resources for the online textbook we both use. His students provide the content knowledge and mine the best way to learn the content. We’ll see how it goes!

I had the great fortune to attend the EdMedia 2016 conference in Vancouver June 28-30 at the Sheraton Wall Centre. I had never attended an international conference, and was very excited to hear how other educators used technology in their classrooms. The following is my summary of the speakers I attended.

Tuesday June 28

The keynote speaker for the day, Dirk Ifenthaler, described the challenges (and benefits) to using learning analytics to enhance student learning and make program choices. The key to analytics success is to use learner generated data, but this can be difficult to collect, as students may have valid privacy concerns.

There were several presentations related to building collaborative learning communities online. I have some great tips for creating successful online groups (questions for pre-group surveys). A main focus for many of the presentations was universal design and the importance of using a variety of media (including closed captioning) when designing online (or face to face) lessons. Some presenters focused on older adults and how their learning process may differ from younger adults. These presentations were very helpful considering ABE students in one class can range from 18 to 60 years old.

Wednesday June 29

The keynote speaker for the day, Laura Czerniewicz, presented a very interesting perspective on open education. In particular, she asked the question ‘what is open’, as this seems to be different around the world. She spoke from a South African perspective, and had very interesting views on the impact of the proposed pan-Pacific trade treaty on copyright and sharing of materials.

One of the issues with working in groups online is ‘social loafing’, or the ‘I’ll just let everyone else do it’ approach. Several of the presentations addressed this issue, with strategies to help minimize loafing. Digital storytelling was a large piece of Wednesday’s presentations, and I learned some new activities that could transfer into my ABE classes.

Thursday June 30

Saul Carliner, Thursday’s keynote speaker, argued that technology often presented as ‘new’ and ‘innovative’ is just a reiteration of something that came before. Any technology will have early adopters, but can often have a slow start to broad acceptance.

One of my favourite presentations of the conference was Jon Dron’s ‘how to demotivate students’. He identified several things instructors often do that can actually hinder student learning even though we think it should be helping. I also enjoyed a presentation on “Labvideotory” – a series of instructional lab videos created by a lab instructor and his graduate students. These videos helped their students feel more confident and comfortable in the lab, as students were to watch the videos prior to attending the lab. I took away some ideas on how to improve my students performance in chemistry and biology labs in ABE.

Engage. Grow. Fostering Community Online.

Last week (April 19-21) I attended the Digital Learning Conference 2015 in Burnaby with my colleague and OLTD cohort member, Lisa Lewis. It was a great opportunity to connect with people such as Mary O’Neill (@maryjoneill), Randy LaBonte (@rlabonte) and Avi Luxenburg (@aluxenburg) (OLTD instructors) and some of my OLTD cohort. This well-attended conference was a great generator of new ideas and gave Lisa and me our first opportunity to present.

The opening keynote speaker, Dave Cormier (@davecormier), used an analogy of a rhizome to learning. Rhizomes, aggressive, chaotic, and resilient can be hard to contain, following their own path. This is how learning should be; not contained or restricted. “Success is never finishing (learning)”. We were asked to consider why we school, what we are schooling and ultimately what do we want school to be for? There were lively discussions amongst the participants as well as on the twitter backchannel (#2015DL).

My focus for this conference was to collect information on how others are incorporating blended or flexible courses in their traditional face-to-face schools. I attended a seminar by Jeff Stewart (NIDES/Navigate) who described how they tackled the challenges of ‘traditional’ learning by incorporating Web 2.0 tools and choice via various Academies. I am not sure how this model could be applied in Adult Basic Education, but I am inspired by the idea of including community activities, leadership and project-based learning in our program.

Heather Corman and Julie Shields presented their thoughts on Independent Learning Centres. These centres are a place for students to work on courses via distance learning but with a support teacher in the room to answer basic questions. They have met with great success, providing opportunities to students to take courses they would otherwise be unable to. The greatest tip for success was to ensure that expectations were clear – that it was a class and not computer ‘play’ time!

Avi and Mary’s presentation suggested strategies for building community in online and blended courses. Creating social tension may work for some instructors, while others lean towards appreciative inquiry. Both presenters agreed that it was necessary to have a cohort model to build a successful community for learning.

Lisa and I presented early on the last morning of the conference. To see the slideshare of our presentation, check out the link below. I think it went amazingly well, especially as first-time presenters at a very well attended seminar. We challenged our participants to create a digital mindmap of our presentation, and some jumped right in and tweeted a copy to the rest of the conference participants. I was very happy to have the opportunity to both attend and present at this conference, and hope to present at another conference in the future!

Mindmapping – Harnessing the power of student collaboration:

2015 DL Conference collaborative notes:

minecraft logoImagine a game that allows players to create what they want, where they want, and (usually) with whom they want. This is Minecraft, and far from the glossy, intense graphics of many video games today, Minecraft uses a basic block to create everything from land to trees, animals, buildings and people. Despite the low-tech graphics, kids (and adults) spend hours completely immersed in the game. Perhaps the promoters of Minecraft provide the best reason… “in Minecraft, no one can tell you what you can or cannot do.”minecraftedu logo

Minecraft is available in two different platforms; ‘regular’ Minecraft and MinecraftEdu. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, depending upon whether you are looking at it from a player or educator perspective. Sansing (2013) provides a good comparison of the two. Minecraft’s strength lies in its unlimited capability for open-ended play, where everyone in the world is a peer (teachers and students alike). As players become more skilled with the game, they naturally ‘level-up’. Minecraft can be played individually or as multiplayer, and while some servers are ‘white-listed’ many are easily accessible by any player. Servers without vigilant moderators may be a concern for younger players who may experience ‘griefing’, ‘trolling’, foul language or bullying. (See This “Minecraft” Community Is Saving The Lives Of Children With Autism” for an example of the impacts of this behaviour.)

In contrast, MinecraftEdu is teacher-controlled via integrated classroom management tools. While still encouraged to build and interact with the environment, students are required to complete tasks created and monitored by the teacher. Players that are already skilled at the game may find this restrictive. For those unfamiliar with the game, MinecraftEdu includes a ‘Tutorial World’ – an introduction to the basics of Minecraft through team puzzle solving. MinecraftEdu is a multiplayer game only and the teacher has control of who is allowed into the game. As moderator, the teacher can ensure that inappropriate behaviour is not allowed.

MinecraftEdu is useful for keeping students on track if using the game to meet a learning outcome. There are many custom blocks in the Edu version that are not available in the standard Minecraft game, such as ‘home blocks’ that can be used to teleport a student back to a specific spot, or ‘information blocks’ that can store messages or other necessary information. The only way I found to provide instructions (that would not fit on a sign) in Minecraft was to write in a book and store it in a chest.

AnWorld-of-Humanities-Map-Feb-20131other huge advantage (from a teacher’s perspective) of MinecraftEdu is the ‘World Library’ of teacher-created lessons and activities. After spending more hours than I want to count creating my tiny little build to teach area and perimeter, I would greatly appreciate being able to search already created worlds that may only need slight adjusting to meet my own personal teaching requirements. Let’s be honest, I also wouldn’t mind simply touring around in some of the worlds myself.

From a teacher’s perspective, Minecraft would be suitable for small group or individual projects. Students that already had their own Minecraft account could choose to use the game as a way of showing their learning. It allows for maximum creativity and personalization. MinecraftEdu, only available to schools, is suitable for delivering specific content in whole-class lessons. Access to this platform at school would help ensure universal access to all students, as not everyone can afford an account or have the technology to play the game at home.



Sansing, C. (2013, Sept. 24). Minecraft or MinecraftEdu at School? Pros, Cons, and What it’s Great For. Retrieved from

What is MinecraftEdu. (n.d.) In MinecraftEdu Wiki. Retrieved from

children-593313_1280I am not a gamer. I am baffled at how my kids can spend hours playing games like Minecraft and Circles. Part of me feels like they are wasting their time. I’ve been known to list a variety of ailments they will experience if they keep staring at the screen like that. But they are completely, totally engaged to the point that they often don’t even hear me when I try and ask a question. No, I don’t think they are just being teenagers but are in ‘flow’, that state of being completely absorbed in what they are doing.

What is it about games that grab their attention? Jim Gee (2013), in “Principles on Gaming”, describes 13 Principles of Game-Based Learning grouped into three categories; empowering learners, problem-solving and creating a deeper understanding. As I watched his video, I found myself thinking that many of his principles seemed like good teaching and learning strategies in general. I even recognized a few as principles that I follow in my classroom, despite the fact that I generally don’t use games in my teaching practice.

Problem-solving is often overlooked by students (and teachers) in favour of memorizing facts. There is always a long list of things they need to know and sometimes it seems quicker to simply give students a list of facts and tell them they need to know it. However, as Gee puts it, “you can’t be an effective citizen in the world if you can’t solve problems”. Two of his principles of problem-solving, using well-ordered problems and ensuring problems are pleasantly frustrating fit well with my teaching philosophy and my own approach to learning. When teaching a subject like chemistry or math, I like to begin with a basic type of question, allow time for practice, and then add one more piece to take the question to the next level. I like to see students working their way up to the more complex problems, filling their toolbox with tools along the way. This is much like a game; as Gee describes, each level is designed to teach a player how to solve one type of problem which sets them up for the next level. When problems do not connect to each other, students often have difficulty buying in to the importance of what they are learning.

I also think it is important for problems to be a little challenging for students. Gee describes a game as “good problem solving with a win state”. A sense of accomplishment fills a classroom when students successfully answer a problem (complete a level) that at first seemed overwhelming. Jane McGonigal (2010), in “Gaming can make a better world”, describes how successful we feel when we can start with a problem (or level) that is something we can achieve, but still hard enough that you need to work at it. If problems are too easy many students often tune out, feeling like they already know the content.

Deep understanding is achieved when you can remember and use knowledge throughout your lifetime. System thinking, one of Gee’s principles in the “creating deep understanding” category, fits well with my approach to learning and teaching. My passion has always been science, and system thinking (or model based reasoning), as Gee points out, is “the foundation of scientific thinking”. The world around us contains many complex systems, each with different variables that interact in a variety of ways. As a science teacher, I try to encourage students to explore the interconnectedness of the world around them. For example, in biology I have students make mind maps to connect various human body systems together, explore how they interact and find ways they are similar to one another. In chemistry we bring together many different tools to solve more complex problems. The potential of systems thinking is such that McGonigal posits if we could tap into the collaborative power of gamers we could solve all the world problems.

Even though I tend to avoid them, I can see the strengths of well-designed games. The principles that Gee has outlined are not restricted to a digital world; they are practical principles that can be applied just as effectively to a classroom lesson.


Gee, J.P. (2013, Nov 13). Jim Gee Principles on Gaming. [Video file]. Retrieved March 23, 2015 from

McGonigal, J. (2010). Gaming can make a better world. TED2010. [Video file]. Retrieved March 23, 2015 from


BioLab by Amy CC BY 2.0

As our education system experiences greater pressure to get more done with less (equipment, teachers…), science teachers may begin considering the use of online labs to partially or completely fulfill the laboratory requirement. Online science labs are not created equal. There is a difference between a virtual lab and a simulation. The earliest online lab activities were predominantly virtual, in that they mimicked an actual lab experience by providing minimal interaction and feeding participants the data. Simulations, often but not always created by computers running algorithms, provide a more realistic, hands-on feel to an online lab (Keller, 2008). Both have their place in science education.

It’s not just K-12 that may be feeling the pinch. Universities are turning to virtual labs to help relieve the backlog of students needing to take introductory science courses that have a hefty lab component (Rivera, 2014). Running extra sections of labs costs money, in terms of both personnel and wear and tear on lab equipment. If students can get the same experience at home, why shouldn’t they?

That to me really is the sticking point. Are students getting the same experience that they would in a hands-on lab? I don’t think so. Virtual labs are great for many things, including reinforcing concepts learned in class, learning the names and functions of various equipment (especially if your own lab doesn’t own a fancy spectrophotometer or gel electrophoresis setup) and being able to safely explore questions like “What will happen if I mix this and this?” During this week’s Virtual Lab seminar, our group reviewed some fantastic virtual lab/simulation lab websites that ranged in difficulty of both content and user interface. But with all of them I feel that there is a sense of isolation; one of the things I think students enjoy the most about hands-on labs is the chance to talk to each other and help figure things out together. This is missing from online lab work.

It is not always possible, especially if your class is 100% online, to blend hands-on with virtual labs. But my experience this past semester with a blended approach in Biology 067 (Biology 12) (1/2 of our labs face-to-face, 1/2 online) has been very satisfying. Students seem to like that they have some time ‘off’ to work on their online lab on their schedule, but appreciate being able to handle real equipment, such as preparing a microscope slide and viewing your own cells. There are some issues with marking of online work, as students don’t always ‘get it’ (again, probably because they are working in isolation) and the labs tend to take a bit longer to mark. But I think a solution to this may be to provide a preamble for each online lab that discusses the major concepts and helps direct students to some of the observations they will be making. I’m sure I could put together a list of FAQs based on the labs I have marked.

Will virtual labs ever go away? I don’t think so. But I don’t think they will ever completely replace the real thing.



Keller, H. (2008, May 5). Science Labs: Virtual Versus Simulated. THE Journal. Retrieved from

Rivera, C. (2014, November 15). For some students, virtual labs replace hands-on science experiments. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

This week has been such a whirlwind. Even though I was (happily) assigned to one seminar I felt like someone at the dessert table looking over wanting to taste that one over there too! The end result was me dipping in and out of other seminars, sometimes getting caught up in a particular conversation, and trying to remember to come back and check in with the posts in my seminar. In the process I feel that I have absorbed so much information that there is a mash-up going on in my head.

How does sustained or disruptive innovation fit with my philosophy? I believe that learning is more than memorizing. Emerging technology I might choose to use in the classroom needs to encourage deeper learning. While I think there are uses for tools that ‘drill and kill’ concepts, there is so much information in the world outside the bricks and mortar that I want students to figure out how to access, absorb, and process this information. The sustaining models (e.g. flipped classroom) seem to still be teacher-centred instruction, although I could see setting up project-based learning in this format. For example, when it is a group of students turn to rotate into a computer lab, they could conduct research on a specific topic which could then be brought to the next station (perhaps discussion group).

I like the flexibility of some of the disruptive models, such as a la carte or enriched virtual. What bothers me a little though is how easy it would be to become isolated from your peers. Students have often said that collaborative work (not group work but discussion) is one of the best ways for them to learn. If students are all working on different courses or are at different points in the same course it becomes challenging to have this discourse.

It is important for me to have a teacher presence with my students. This doesn’t mean that I have to be in charge, but any model I use would need to have some way for me to communicate with my students and help them feel comfortable interacting with me and other learners. This would differ depending upon the group of learners I am working with; some groups of adults need to have the face to face interaction with the instructor to help with ‘becoming a student’. Others would be fine with a once a week required class and completing the rest of the work online.

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around how to set up online content to effectively run some of the models. For example, in an individual rotation each student follows a set schedule either designed by an algorithm or a teacher. This to me says I would either need to subscribe to a provider of some sort for the learning analytics, or I need to be sure to have enough time built into my day to assess each individual and be on top of their personal plan. I do this in a minor fashion for my literacy math class, and even though I only have 16 students this can consume large parts of my week. After lurking in the gamification seminar, I think I need to explore this topic a bit further. Gamification seems like it may be a way to provide personalization for this particular group of students while keeping them engaged.