Do You Integrate Technology?

Recently, I stumbled upon a fantastic blog, Neela shares thought-provoking ideas for gamification, eLearning, and how to design inspiring courses in Moodle. Through humour and solid examples, she gets educators thinking about what it means to design with intention.

If you are inspired by Neela’s work, I recommend checking out her Twitter account. It was here that I discovered this fantastic graphic:

Original author unknown

Start with SAMR

This chart reminds me of a classic ed tech model called SAMR, which stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition. Oftentimes, when educators incorporate ed tech into their classroom, they focus on substituting a traditional paper and pencil method of learning with a digital one. For example, instead of writing responses on paper, students type their answers into a Word document. Unfortunately, this doesn’t elevate students’ learning experience; rather, it is just another way to collect information.

When we have a good sense of the lesson’s objectives and then focus on how to augment, modify, and redefine the lesson by using technology, we can extend what learning is possible. We can excite students and engage them in their own learning.

Looking for some ways to move past substitution? Check out the EmergingEdTech website for inspiration!

Integrate Rather than Use

I love to reflect on the graphic above because it focuses on student-centred learning. It helps me picture the kinds of experiences I think are important for students to have. Best of all, it helps me focus less on myself and more on the students.

While the SAMR model gets us to think about how we want to incorporate ed tech, the graphic challenges us to answer the why. Using the SAMR model along with this chart is a deadly duo.

Try it Yourself

When designing an ed tech lesson, I recommend starting with the lesson objectives, then using the SAMR model (A is ok, but M and R are even better), and finally reflecting on this chart to ensure appropriate ed tech integration.

How Does Fair Dealing Work for Educators?

Fair Dealing Decision Tool

The Biggest Myth

Want to know the biggest myth that even the most seasoned educators buy into? Anything on the Internet is fair game. Even if the intention to use an online source is for educational purposes, it doesn’t mean we can use it how we like. We have to make sure the dealing is fair.

Fair Dealing 101

In its simplest terms, fair dealing means that you don’t have to get permission from the copyright owner to distribute (i.e., deal) part of (or in some cases, all of) copyrighted work. This only works if the purpose of distribution is for education, research, private study, criticism, review, news reporting, parody, or satire.

Litmus Test

How do you ensure that you are following the fair use rules? Best practice is to follow two simple guidelines:

  1. Ensure the distribution is for one of these reasons: education, research, private study, criticism, review, news reporting, parody, or satire.
  2. Establish that the dealing is fair. This can get a bit complex, but best practice is to reproduce only short excerpts. A short excerpt could include up to 10% of a copyright-protected work, an entire artistic work such as a painting or photograph, a chapter from a book, an article from a periodical, a newspaper article, etc.

Basically, you only want to use as much of a copyrighted work as is necessary to achieve your educational purposes.

But What If . . .

When I started digging into fair dealing a bit more, I came up with all kinds of questions. At which point I called the copyright office at the University of Alberta. Here is what I learned:

  1. Avoid copying multiple passages or chapters from the same copyright-protected work, as this would not be considered fair dealing.
  2. Make sure an LMS site is password protected and that non-students don’t have access to the course materials. Otherwise, this could be considered copyright infringement.
  3. Link to YouTube videos when possible instead of embedding them in a course. Linking is not copying.
  4. Be careful when putting a journal article PDF into an online course. Each journal has different sharing permissions. Best practice is to link to a journal (except for the Harvard Business Review, which oddly enough, does not permit linking!)
  5. Try to find the eBook version of a book if you want to scan and post multiple chapters online. This way you can just link to the digital book. Otherwise, the university may have to pay for copyright permission to share the scanned copies online.
  6. Scroll to the bottom of the web page when you find an image you want to use online. If there are no specific terms of use or copyright information, you can use the image.

I think the ultimate best practice is to always give credit to the original work, and check in with a copyright specialist if you’re ever unsure!

Creative Commons is Always an Option

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization seeking to make it easier to share and reuse materials online. Creative Commons is best known for its copyright licenses, which helps make it easier for owners of copyright material to decide how they wish to share their work. These licenses also provide clear guidelines for users such as educators to use the original work.

I like to search for Creative Commons material first (especially when it comes to photos and videos), because I think their cause is extremely important in the digital age. (If it’s not possible to get in touch with the original copyright owner, who wants to wait x number of years for it to be in the public domain?! The information will probably be irrelevant by then. Rant over.)

When it isn’t possible to use Creative Commons material, I make sure to use materials that adhere to fair dealing and always cite the original work. This practice acknowledges the work of the original author and encourages students to do the same.

An Amazing Fair Use Tool

Navigating copyright can become extremely complicated. I recently learned about a Canadian platform called the Fair Dealing Decision Tool, and I’m so glad I did. If you’re not sure if you need copyright permission, using this online tool can walk you through the steps.

Give it a try!

Avatars in Learning

I’m building a course where I want to use avatars as character personas. Each avatar represents a different learner, with a unique background and learning needs. I started to explore using cartoon avatars, which was (quickly) vetoed by our design team, but it was still fun to create amateur cartoon personas in Illustrator. I thought I’d share here what I learned.

Designing Avatars

I began by finding images on Google Search and then pasting them into Adobe Illustrator for inspiration. I used the pen tool to trace images and then updated the features to make it my own. I’ve only traced images in Illustrator a handful of times, so it was a good opportunity to practice.

Here are my first forays with cartoon avatars:

The top image, Caroline, is my most recent approach. I can already see a major difference between Caroline and Amy, at the bottom. (Yes, I named them. I’m not attached, you are.) I still have a lot to learn in Illustrator, but I feel way more confident using some of the tools!

You’ll notice I designed the characters so they appear to be popping out of the circles. Ever since reading Tom Kulhmann’s post on creating 3D pop-outs in PowerPoint, I wanted to try it for myself! I think this technique can make a character more appealing and welcoming. It looks like my characters are almost gesturing for the audience to come into the screen and join them in learning.

My design team suggested that we use photos of people from a recent photo shoot. Then we are going to use special effects in Photoshop so they don’t appear like an image, but rather like a character. I think this approach will work, and it’s aligned with my vision for the course. But I was sort of hopeful I could use these cartoon characters. Maybe next time…

Learning with Avatars

When I think of avatars, I tend to think of the avatars from the 90s: weird looking characters with robotic voices. Not approachable! I think avatars have come a long way since then, but I also recognize that they aren’t going to reach all learners.

I plan to use my avatar characters to guide learners through different learning themes. They aren’t the main part of the course, but rather they help to supplement students’ learning. When students are learning about a specific topic, they are given scenarios about the character and then have to make decisions. I think this can take pressure off the learner to feel like they always have to have the right answer. It can be comforting to make a decision and then see how the character responds to the consequences.

The eLearning Coach wrote a blog post about the value of using characters to create an emotional connection with learners. I think when characters are relatable and still look human, they can make that connection. I find that most characters in Articulate Storyline look a little too cartoon-y (or unapproachable) for my purposes. Instead, using photos of real people or even creating your own characters can have more impact.


Before using avatars or characters, I think it’s important to think about how they’re going to support course content and how students might relate to them.

Just sticking in a character won’t help students process information or create an emotional connection. But when a character is fully developed and has its own personality, students can relate and even connect in a deeper way than had the content just been presented to them!

Transactional Distance

The first time I heard about transactional distance was from ed tech guru, Kim Peacock at MacEwan University. Kim taught me the value of recognizing that the distance between teacher and student is much more than geographical when learning goes online.

What is Transactional Distance?

As Moore (1997) suggests, “with separation there is psychological and communications space to be crossed, a space of potential misunderstanding between the inputs of instructor and those of the learner” (p. 22). In the classroom, it is (somewhat) simple for instructors to monitor student withdrawal, confusion, and engagement. An expression is sometimes all it takes for an instructor to know when someone is on the right track or veering off of it. We don’t have this same luxury when we teach online.

If instructors aren’t aware of this transactional distance or take steps to close it, trouble can occur. When I took an online design course, the instructor was not actively present in the discussions. In fact, it was almost complete radio silence from her during the entire semester. Students didn’t feel like they could even send her questions. We felt largely unsupported during the course. In fact, I’ve never felt so lonely in my learning journey.

Taking small steps to bridge the psychological distance is a step in the right direction. But we can do better than that with intentional design and teaching strategies. To take this a step further, Moore (1997) argues there are actually three variables important for minimizing transactional distance: instructional dialogue, programme structure, and learner autonomy.

Instructional Dialogue

According to Moore (1997), “the term ‘dialogue’ is used to describe an interaction or series of interactions having positive qualities that other interactions might not have. A dialogue is purposeful, constructive, and valued by each party” (p. 23). Dialogue is beyond simple interaction, because dialogue advances student understanding and carries learning forward.

The first time we had to make a discussion post online, a course instructor responded to every person’s post by adding to the conversation or asking thoughtful questions. In this way, she added value and effectively modelled a strong reply. She then told us that she wouldn’t be responding like this every week, unless she needed to clarify something or add to the conversation in some way. This was excellent because then we had clear expectations of her involvement in the discussion posts.

Other instructors have turned to using communication media outside the LMS, such as Slack channels, which come with its own set of challenges. What’s most important when considering instructional dialogue is selecting the most appropriate way to interact with students with a purpose of dialogue that couldn’t be achieved otherwise. For example, another instructor of mine created a video to provide feedback on an assignment. In this way, she created a dialogue by providing legitimate feedback that advanced our understanding of some course concepts, and we got a better idea of what she was looking for. We also got the opportunity to respond and ask questions. Not many students taking in-person courses get this kind of opportunity!

Even media that provide only 1-way dialogue (worksheets, lectures, screen recordings) has some level of interaction. However, the relationship between instructor and teacher will be much stronger when appropriate media is chosen that encourages 2-way dialogue. If constraints such as class size and instructor time is a barrier, consider hosting web chats or cohort discussions to minimize transactional distance.

Programme Structure

The second variable, course design/programme structure, is the way in which a course is designed to be supportive of individual students’ learning needs. Unfortunately, we tend to design courses similar to television programs. They are highly structured and polished, with no opportunity for students to disrupt regularly scheduled programming.

We want to avoid designing a course that doesn’t allow for legitimate student dialogue and input. While it can be difficult to design a course with a somewhat flexible structure, it’s possible to leave enough room for students to explore and discover, too. On the other hand, if there is too much distance between instructor and student, students will make their own learning decisions and use a level of autonomy that may not serve them. Of course, this level of autonomy is dependent on the course itself, the group of learners, and the instructor’s style. Finding the right “mix” will be important to consider during the course design process.

Some ideas to incorporate student input into the course, thereby limiting transactional distance:

  • Schedule an online chat to discuss assignment expectations and specific questions with students.
  • Ask students what they’d like you to “Start, Stop, and Keep” doing in the course. Make sure to respond to these submissions!
  • Support learner motivation by asking challenging questions (or getting them to ask questions), asking them what they want to get out of the course, and giving them options (choose-your-own-adventure style).
  • Have students challenge particular experts in the field after watching a video clip or listening to a podcast.
  • Give students plenty of opportunity to practice what they are learning (low-stakes or ungraded quizzes, peer feedback).

Learner Autonomy

“Learner autonomy is the extent to which in the teaching/learning relationship it is the learner rather than the teacher who determines the goals, the learning experiences, and the evaluation decisions of the learning programme” (Moore, 1997, pp. 26-27). To me, online learning can present the opportunity for a more democratic, collaborative learning experience between instructor and student.

However, online learning assumes a level of self-directed learning that students may or may not be prepared for. This is why it’s so important to incorporate dialogue and solid design principles into the course. Small design “nudges” can orient students in the right direction. A nudge can be as simple as breaking down a large assignment into smaller tasks. These tasks can appear on a “to-do list” that students see on the course homepage. This small design nudge helps learners understand the assignment requirements in a way that’s not overwhelming. Of course, some learners will require more direction and instruction than others, but this can be discovered as the course unfolds.

Thus, while it’s important to offer choice and autonomy, it’s just as important to teach students the skills to succeed in an online environment. For example, most students would appreciate learning about successful time management and study strategies to succeed in the course. By supporting students as they learn to self-regulate their own learning, we are equipping them with the skills they need to learn in environments that will continue to evolve.

What can you learn about what students need simply by asking or polling them?


What excites me about online learning is the opportunity for students to be involved in the process of constructing and sharing their knowledge. Students will have varying levels of comfort in sharing what they are learning, especially as they are learning it. I’ve found that encouraging students and being personally vulnerable in how I put myself out there to learn, can make all the difference.

Now that I’ve designed online courses and participated in them, I don’t feel as nervous as I did taking my first online course. But remember, while it may seem like a small leap for students to learn online, it’s not. They will experiences new challenges and be pushed in ways they haven’t before. For them, this change in learning is more than spatial or geographical. It’s a change in how they connect, learn, and share. Applying the three variables of transactional distance can help us prepare students for this new way of learning, growing, and ultimately experiencing the world.


Moore, M. (1997). “Theory of transactional distance.” Keegan, D., ed. Theoretical Principles of Distance Education, Routledge, pp. 22-38.

Image of girl on Mac taken from

Estimating Course Workload

Every now and then, you stumble across a tool that makes you stop and think, “how am I just learning about this now?!” This is one of those tools.

Rice University developed a free tool to help instructors estimate course workload. Since such a common question from students is, “How long will this take?!” I can see this tool coming in handy. Students really appreciate when they have a good grasp of the course requirements and expectations. This tool helps students plan out their schedules, and this level of transparency can add credibility to the course. It can show students that the instructor wants them to succeed. Instructors may even share with students how to plan in advance to manage their course workload and keep up with the flow of the course.

Unfortunately, not a ton of valid or reliable research has been done on the topic of estimating course workload. What I like about this tool is that it’s obvious the creators have done their research and then created something that’s as accurate as possible, given the available information out there. Read about the research behind the tool here.

The tool offers a fairly good estimate of how much reading, studying and prep work will be required (outside of class time) each week. In addition to this estimate, the creators allow users to manually adjust the time something can take to complete. If an instructor thinks an assignment or reading material may take a bit more time, it’s easy to make the adjustment.

I think the most valuable aspect of this tool is that it gives instructors a better understanding of their own expectations. Are they asking too little, too much, or just enough? In grad school, I worked on a group assignment in which we had to develop a whole course program. A fellow group member developed a lesson plan in which he assigned eight articles for students to read before class. I didn’t think this was necessary and voiced my concerns, but my argument fell short. Perhaps if I had this tool at the time, I could have better demonstrated my concerns…

Try it out for yourself here:


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2 Ways to Give Power Back to Learners

As a facilitator, it’s all too easy to do the work of being a student. Instead of letting students struggle or form their thoughts, we offer a “here, let me…” or a quick “oh, I can show you.”

We’re just trying to be helpful. It’s human nature to offer a hand when you see another person struggle. But in the case of learning, that helpfulness can actually be a hinderance, especially to novice learners. So, how do you resist the urge to be “helpful” and step back to let learners do the work of learning?

I offer two helpful strategies: the deliberate pause and the arm hold.

Deliberate Pause

Taking a deliberate two second pause in front of a class can feel like an eternity. How about a six or seven second pause? The time seems to move at glacial speed.

Oftentimes during a lecture or presentation, we’ll throw out a question to students. It will probably be predetermined, and we might even have a specific answer in mind. We’ll wait an uncomfortable second or two, and then either answer the question ourselves or move onto the next topic.

It can be tough to fight the natural reaction to avoid an awkward pause. But taking a deliberate pause and letting learners do the work of learning allows them to sit with their thoughts and feelings. It gives power to learners as they grapple with complex ideas. Prior to this experience, we as facilitators have had the opportunity to think deeply about the question at hand. Learners haven’t. This might even be the first time they’ve thought about a certain topic.

So, ask a question and then take a deep breath. Count to six or seven seconds in your head if you need to. And then try not to expect an immediate reaction from learners. Remember, if they do give an immediate reaction, perhaps they aren’t thinking deeply enough about the question at hand. By giving students time and space to answer a question, we’re promoting deeper learning because they have time to think of good answers (which isn’t usually their first answer).

Another tip is to reframe the question. Sometimes I’ll ask the initial question and then follow it up after 5-6 seconds with “put another way. . .” You can also try moving to a different spot in the room or adjusting a piece of jewelry. These tasks give you something to focus on other than the discomfort of waiting for the discussion to begin.

Arm Hold

Another great strategy to give power back to learners is what I call the “arm hold.” I actually learned this strategy from watching Barbara Oakley in her wonderful MOOC called Learning How to Learn. It is one of my favourite resources on how to study and learn effectively.

She discusses the natural tendency of teachers to want to “help” learners by taking over. Whether it’s taking over the mouse or writing out the equation, we can’t help ourselves. We want the learners to “get there,” and that usually involves showing the learners exactly how to get there. But if they can’t get there themselves, have we really succeeded? I don’t think so.

To overcome this reflex, try crossing your arms behind your back. For example, if you are helping a student solve a problem, cross your arms so you can avoid writing the equation or solution for them. Today, I was trying to help a student troubleshoot an Internet problem. My initial reaction was to grab the mouse and take over the computer. But then the student wouldn’t know what to do the next time something like this happened. So I crossed my arms and helped guide the student by asking questions and guiding them along when necessary.

These strategies will give learners more autonomy and show them that you trust them to get “there”, wherever there may be. Give it a try and let me know if it works!


Wait image taken from Unsplash:

Writing Instructional Content

Over the past few months, I have experienced my fair share of finger cramps from typing on the keyboard. I have written short stories, storyboards, manual instructions, a workbook, and a professional development course. Writing is one of my great passions, and like anything worth doing, it takes dedication and a trust in the “process.” Even if part of the process means staring at a blank screen for 30 minutes!

The writing I do now is very different from what I’ve done in the past. It’s different from the essays and personal reflections I had grown comfortable with. Nowadays, my writing is for an audience of diverse learners. Here’s what I’ve learned so far about writing instructional content.

Use Plain Language

You know what I really learned? I love–LOVE–using adjectives and adverbs! I didn’t realize it until I used Hemingway Editor, which is a tool I’ll describe later on. Now that I’m aware of this *ahem* issue, I’ve been focusing on getting rid of the excess and writing as simply as possible. Using adjectives and big words adds unnecessary baggage to people’s cognitive loads.

In The Measure of My Powers (highly recommend), Jackie Kai Ellis describes how she learned to write well. First, she learned that the beauty of reading is the experience of piecing together the meaning for oneself. So she applied that lesson to her writing. Instead of telling readers that a flower is beautiful, she would describe the delicate petals and its soft purple hues. I’ve taken this message to heart and when possible, try to show readers rather than tell them (in as plain language as possible).

Use Parallel Structure

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve helped students edit their papers. When I used to help particularly strong writers who already had solid ideas, I would focus on writing conventions like parallel structure. I can spot it a paragraph away in other people’s writing, but in my own writing, these errors seem to become invisible!

Here is an example of parallel structure:

  • Run to the post office.
  • Deliver the letter.
  • Treat yourself to pizza afterwards.

Each bullet begins with a verb, making these sentences parallel in structure. If one of the words began with a noun, it would look awkward. In Grammar Girl’s post, she describes that our brains are wired for patterns. Using patterns such as parallel structure is better for learning!

Remember the Active Voice

Oh man, this one is tough for me! For some reason, it feels so natural to write in the passive voice. Here is an example:

The form was completed by an office worker.

In this case, the thing being acted on (the object) comes first, followed by the actor at the end (the subject). When the sentence is active, the subject precedes the object, like this:

The office worker completed the form.

It takes less brain power to read an active sentence. Plus, a sentence written in the active voice is much clearer!

Consider the Reading Level

When I write instructional content, I aim for a Grade 8-10 reading level. Of course, this totally depends on the context for which I am writing. I have found that writing at this level for my current learners works well for them.

Microsoft Word has a build in readability test called Flesch-Kincaid. I have found many issues using this test. For one thing, it has problems identifying passive sentences. As well, it’s not always correct and can sometimes make your writing more confusing. A good tool I use is Hemingway Editor. You simply paste the text into the editor box, and the app provides helpful information about passive sentences and overall readability.

I have noticed that I sometimes obsess over my writing when I use the Hemingway Editor app. I wish I could find the study, but I remember reading that teaching grammar can actually have an adverse effect on students’ grammar. When we teach the rules in isolation, we lose sight of the big picture. This is what sometimes happens when I use the app. I focus on the sentences in the little box and sometimes the outcome becomes disjointed from the rest of my writing. This is one thing to consider when using these tools!

Write Conversationally

Although learners aren’t our “bros,” I find that writing as if in conversation with the reader or writing dialogue can help them connect to the material. Of course, it totally depends on the audience and purpose of writing. But 9 times out of 10, I would much rather read something written in a pleasant, conversational tone than something that sounds like it was written for an encyclopedia.

A good way to check the writing’s tone is to read it out loud. And when you’re writing, don’t try and make it sound perfect and squeaky clean. I think many learners appreciate the “realness” of a piece, so long as it stays on topic.

Use Graphics

Because I love writing, I often focus on the visuals last. I am trying to get out of this bad habit, but it takes a great deal of effort. Whenever I sit down to write something, I try to ask, “Is this the best way to introduce this material? Perhaps a visual or simple diagram would do the trick instead!” I’m not knocking the power of the written word, but people really do digest material more readily through simple graphics.


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