Reflecting on learning and seeing the world in exciting new ways.

On the bus to work the other day, I enjoyed listening to a TED Talk by someone who is in love with prime numbers – the bigger the better for him. Adam Spencer introduces himself as a breakfast radio host who loves maths and science. I was intrigued by the stereotypes he broke in his introduction alone.

During his talk, Spencer excitedly announces that a new prime number has recently been discovered and that this is HUGE news. It’s hard not to get caught up in his excitement.

Passion for a topic

What I enjoyed most about this TED Talk is Spencer’s passion for the topic. Prime numbers may seem pretty dry for some, but it’s clearly big news for those who love number patterns (or numbers that break them).

I’ve always maintained that I would happily listen to someone talking any topic they choose so long as they were passionate about it. Accounting processes – why not? Writing legislation? Sure thing! At a party recently, I was talking to a policy analyst who was very excited (yes, excited!) about an upcoming job interview. He talked about some of the research he and his colleagues had been doing recently on topics as varied as meeting government objectives to investigating legal highs. Although I’m not likely to follow his career path any time soon, I genuinely enjoyed listening to him describe something he loves to do; his enthusiasm truly was infectious.

A passion for numeracy

123I think that we’re generally pretty good at acknowledging the place of literacy in all its forms in our daily lives. As a society, we are getting better at celebrating literary success. We give ourselves permission to love literacy and it’s not unusual for people to talk about their favourite books or make suggestions for other readers. So why are we less passionate about numeracy and numbers? A recent UK publication, Voices of adult maths learners, identified that “… the biggest single factor in adults not taking up maths learning is fear” (National Institute of Adult Continuing Education 2013, p. 3). I find this climate of fear truly alarming and a sad consequence of lost opportunities.

I don’t know anyone who would casually scoff that they can’t read or write (and don’t want to know how) in the same way that it seems acceptable for people to ‘admit’ that they don’t like maths and were never any good at it but simply don’t care. The only exception seems to be spelling and grammar. Is this a defensive or protective strategy, where it’s easier to feign disinterest than admit fear or failure? How do we as educators go about dismantling this attitude and instead build positivity and excitement for such a vital set of life skills?

I had a primary school teacher who loved science and was particularly passionate about astronomy and geology. To this day, I enjoy a more than fleeting interest in both fields and am amazed at how much I remember learning about them from 30 years ago. Would our issues with child and adult numeracy would be different if those who are fearful of maths had a teacher or mentor who was passionate about numbers in the same way as my teacher loved science?

National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (2013). Voices of adult maths learners. Retrieved November 1, 2013, from


Last night, a friend posted a video on my Facebook wall along with a comment:

dare you to try this at school…double dare you, even. Nay! Physical challenge! 🙂

I was mildly curious, mostly because of the particular person who posted the video, and figured that it must be something related to education.

Prepare to be blown away – I certainly was.

Wow! Although I am no longer a classroom or music teacher, I found this video mindblowing, to say the least. It shows how the town of Cateura, Paraguay, which is largely built on a landfill, overcame the burden of poverty to create the Landfill Harmonic project (such a clever name!) and bring music to their community. With a bit of guidance, support and technical know-how to support their vision, it also shows the power that music has to bring hope and enrichment to everyone’s lives, regardless of where they live and their circumstances. I also love the innovative way everyday items that had been discarded as rubbish were recycled and repurposed to produce something amazing. It takes true innovation and creative thinking to see the possibilities in a seemingly worthless object and turn it into something grand. Why don’t we do this more often?

As a classroom teacher, a major highlight of term 4 each year was an annual wearable art project, where the children would design and construct creative costumes from recycled or repurposed materials then model them in our very own fashion parade. At the time, the World of Wearable Art Awards were in their early days and hadn’t yet moved to Wellington but were still something to aspire to. The creativity our young designers showed was always refreshing and they had huge amounts of fun working in groups to put together their costumes. The children also learned practical skills and the versatility of staple materials such as rubbish bags, duct tape and a glue gun – there is nothing these items couldn’t achieve or fix. But, of course, all the materials were clean with some sneakily masqueraded as ‘casually lying around at home’ when I am certain they were purchased new by well-meaning parents. I just hope the children learned that you don’t need the best of everything to create something worthwhile and that anything is possible.

It looks like a documentary about the Landfill Harmonic project is nearly finished production and will be released next year, something I will really look forward to.

I’ve been thinking about massaging this blog back to life for some time now. I often come across topical educational discussions or links to resources that are worthy of further exploration but rarely get beyond sharing them as a link on Twitter. I’ll start today with a couple of topics I’ve been recently pondering.


The jury is still out for me about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). If you’re new to the concept of MOOCs, Ryan Tracey has put together a good overview of what a MOOC is. Built with connectivist design principles in mind, the theory is good. However, the longtime online learner and facilitator in me wonders just how effective such large scale forums can be, or whether the huge numbers involved mean they are simply a recipe for online mayhem, particularly for less web-savvy users. Good organisation and clear communication is critical. I’m happy to be convinced of their worth (or otherwise).

I am starting a MOOC next week with the hope that it will help me kill two birds with one stone. The first is to experience a MOOC first-hand and the second is to explore the possible use of online badges with the suite of qualifications I am involved in developing.

Open badges

Mozilla OpenBadges logoI was introduced to the use of open badges at the elearnz Conference in Auckland recently. Since then, I have thought long and hard about how they could be used to recognise and acknowledge learners’ skills and achievements in various areas. I am interested in exploring how my organisation could develop badges for our learners and whether or not they would find them valuable.

Some initial thoughts I have about the use of badges to recognise learning:

  • What are the conventions around awarding badges to represent whole qualifications, as opposed to the individual skills or clusters of skills that the qualifications represent? Will learners expect badges for every course or standard they complete or will they be satisfied for a single badge representing the whole qualification. For example, if you take a unit standard-based qualification and award a badge for its completion (much like the physical badges some organisations offer), will those learners feel disadvantaged if other organisations offer say 15 badges for the same amount of work? Isn’t that why we register credits for unit standards with NZQA on a learner’s record of achievement?
  • I already have a couple of badges in my Mozilla Backpack. Although they are just introductory examples, they were surprisingly easy to get. I imagine that the number of badges developed will grow exponentially once the concept takes off and more organisations start using them. I wonder what value badges will hold for learners and the issuing organisations if they are presented alongside those that require very low levels of skill or application.
  • How could the skills represented by each badge be made transferrable or even comparable? Will it be acceptable or even expected that hundreds of different organisations could issue badges for very similar skills? I understand that the issuing organisation needs to establish credibility, but how apparent will this be for viewers (for example, potential employers)?

Badges: New Currency for Professional Credentials starts next week and is run in Blackboard, a LMS I have previously taught in for many years (albeit using older versions). The timing of the live sessions aren’t NZ-friendly so I won’t be attending them in real time by will view the content once it is made available. I look forward to learning more about the issues surrounding the use of badges in education and joining in the discussion.

DEANZ 2012 logoAnd so the DEANZ Conference has come to a close. It has been both refreshing and enriching having three days out of the office to be immersed entirely in the world of distance learning. Events such as this are a wonderful celebration of distance learning and show that, although we all work for different organisations, we share a common goal: quality education that is accessible for all learners. So many of the sessions I attended reflected my own experience of distance learning and teaching; so much so that I sometimes wondered if the presenters were actually talking about my work! One of the many things I love about distance education is that it can occur anywhere and at any time, that is, access to learning is not dependent on location or a particular timetable. It certainly makes sense in today’s increasingly busy society.

For me, the biggest highlight of this conference (and most conferences) was the opportunity to engage and interact with so many others working in the same field. I enjoyed meeting many people whom I have ‘worked with’ or encountered virtually over the years. I also enjoyed catching up with current and past colleagues, former managers and chief executives, students (former and current) and those who taught me back in my teacher training and university days. The education community is a rich tapestry and I am thrilled that my professional learning network is continually growing.

A big thank you to the organising committee for making this event happen. I look forward to continuing our professional conversations in the days/weeks/months/years to come. 🙂

This afternoon’s DEANZ Conference keynote was delivered virtually via video link from Tuscon, Arizona – truly modelling distance learning. Ken Kay from EdLeader21 gave a presentation entitled The 7 steps to become a 21st century school. There is much that tertiary education can learn from the schooling sector and these ideas easily apply to all levels of learning – we all face the same challenges.

What is 21st century education?

We’re already 12 years into the 21st century, but it seems like we are still trying to define what education in this century is all about. Ken pointed us to a framework on the P21 website. He talked about blending the 3Rs with the 4Cs: critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity. These are otherwise known as student outcomes, or attributes that students should aspire to, and these also need to be demonstrated by teachers as models for effective pedagogy. The 4Cs very much reflect the key competencies that support the New Zealand Curriculum.

21st century student outcomes

What are the 7 steps for implementation?

Embracing the 4Cs in principle or rhetorically is not enough to make them work. This is where an implementation strategy is necessary and Ken introduced the 7 steps model before unpacking each step in detail.

7 steps modelKen challenged us to go home and complete the MILE Guide self assessment survey and find out which elements of our practice are from the 19th, 20th or 21st century. Gulp!

I was interested to hear Ken’s thoughts about how professionals should be using the 4Cs in their own practice (and not just for teaching students). He argues that the 4Cs can and should be used as a measure for hiring, compensation, evaluation and promotion.

Ken concluded his virtual keynote by sharing a video called The 4Cs: Making 21st century learning happen, featuring student and teacher voices.

DEANZ Conference 2012

DEANZ 2012 logoA group of colleagues and I are attending the Distance Education Association of New Zealand (DEANZ) Conference this week. The day’s proceedings began with mihi whakatau with Open Polytechnic (as tangata whenua) welcoming the manuhiri (guests) to the conference. It is good to be able to make use of the wireless internet here at the venue by tweeting and blogging from the event. You can follow updates via the Twitter hashtag #DEANZ2012.

The opening keynote address was given by Professor Paul Bacsich, who we hosted at Open Polytechnic last week. Paul continued talking about his research into models for virtual schools and colleges (VISCED) and shared three institutions who are considered successful: Sofia Distans in Sweden, Interhigh in Wales and Brisbane School of Distance Education in Australia. He has generated a list of ‘Multeversity features’ for universities and tertiary institutions in the future, including bridging into and from upper secondary school learning to reduce the drop-out while still leveraging school-level knowledge. As teachers, we are constantly looking for ways to make connections with learners’ prior learning and experience and it would be good to see mechanisms in place to support this in the tertiary sector.

Professor Niki Davis and colleagues gave an invited presentation entitled A scenario guide to effective tertiary education for New Zealand in 2016. Four scenarios were unpacked: articulation, the ‘supermarket’, quality branded consortia and self-determination. Each has its benefits and limitations and ultimately the exercise is about maximising the overlap and relationships between the four quadrants to provide the most effective learning solutions. Coming from a background in “self-determination”-styled learning as a primary e-teacher, I would love to explore strategies that would enable this approach in the tertiary learning environment.

I will continue to blog and tweet throughout the conference … or for as long as my laptop battery lasts. 🙂

Paul BacsichOn Monday 2 April, Open Polytechnic was pleased to host Professor Paul Bacsich as our guest. Paul has been involved in a wide range of EU and international e-learning projects during the past 20 years and is a visiting fellow at the University of Canterbury e-Learning Research Lab during 2012. He is also a keynote speaker at the upcoming Distance Education Association of New Zealand (DEANZ) Conference in Wellington next week.

Paul’s first session was a keynote presentation for all interested staff and was entitled Virtual post-secondary institutions – Where next? With a particular focus on virtual schools and colleges (VISCED), including those considered to have dual-mode (ie blended) delivery, Paul gave us an overview of the successes, partial successes and failures of distance and virtual universities around the world and briefly introduced us to one successful model, the Open Universities Australia consortium. Various issues affecting the success of these institutions are similar to those faced here in New Zealand, including student retention, completion rates and performance-based funding.

Paul also held informal discussion sessions during the afternoon for our Faculty and Learning and Teaching Solutions staff to attend. The Faculty session was an opportunity for staff to ask Paul more questions about his work as it might relate to Open Polytechnic as well as give him an idea about the structure of programmes we offer. Paul believes that the biggest barriers to learning occur between the compulsory and post-compulsory education sectors – which is not necessarily the same thing as the gap between secondary and tertiary education.