Virtual Classroom Project Reflection

Cross-posted to Leigh Blackall's work on the islands of jokaydia in Second Life is truly inspiring. We've had many discussions since he agreed to take part in my Virtual Classroom Project and it's been fascinating to observe his progress. I envisioned the Virtual Classroom Project as an opportunity to explore alternatives to our traditional notions of teaching, learning, and, specifically, learning space design. I'm pleased that Leigh, the project's first Educator-in-Residence, has taken up that challenge by sharing a unique and thought-provoking concept. I cannot wait to see the finished project and am looking forward to further discussions with Leigh.

Before I delve into my first reflection on his work, I'd like to encourage you to follow his progress and take part in a virtual workshop that Leigh and I will be hosting this weekend on the islands of jokaydia, the home of the Virtual Classroom Project.

Leigh's Project - A Brief Introduction

 Virtual Classroom Meeting (April 14, 2008)

As soon as Leigh announced his plans for a virtual prototype of a learning space based on the principles of permaculture design I was hooked. I realized that, to Leigh, the Virtual Classroom Project presented an opportunity to address learning as a fundamental part of our daily existence. "Leigh's ideas," I wrote in my project notes, "suggest that he wants to explore the process of de-institutionalizing learning. He seems interested in asking why learning cannot be grounded in informal places, places that we take for granted, such as our homes." But Leigh took this one step further. If our place of residence is to serve as a focal point of learning in our lives, then we need to start asking ourselves some crucial questions about the kinds of places we inhabit and the relationship between those places and the environment. In other words, Leigh believes that the process of de-institutionalizing learning cannot lead to creating places that are as insensitive to the natural world around them as the big institutions that currently dominate our lives and, specifically, education. One could extend this argument and ask "What exactly are children learning in a school that does not have a recycling programme? What are they learning in a building that's surrounded by concrete?" I think that Leigh's project effectively addresses both of these questions.

Leigh's use of permaculture design, defined by Wikipedia as "an approach to designing human settlements, in particular the development of perennial agricultural systems that mimic the structure and interrelationship found in natural ecologies," suggests that he is interested in exploring to what extent human beings can be engineers of their own self-sufficient and ecologically-friendly environments. His design revolves around the notion of sustainability and is based on re-using discarded shipping containers because, as he says,

they are readily available for reuse, reasonably cheap, structurally sound, transportable (obviously), durable, and come in remarkably good dimensions for proportioning an efficient living and working space.

But Leigh does not use these containers to re-create the kind of institutional, impersonal teaching/learning space that we've all experienced in our lives as both teachers and learners. Instead of building a classroom, a lecture hall, or a place formally designated as a space for teaching and learning, Leigh decided to build a

family house that is large enough to host 15 or so people from time to time, but practical as a family home; that is fully self sufficient in providing for its own energy, water and food needs; that is a system that produces no waste; and that uses building materials and structures that are reused, portable and make minimal impact on the area being occupied.

Leigh's Project - Key Ideas

In one of his blog posts devoted to the Virtual Classroom Project, Leigh states that he is interested in

efficient use of space and resources; space design that is conducive to inquiry learning and skills training; and [...] every single aspect serving some form of opportunity for learning.

Let's think about this carefully - "every single aspect serving some form of opportunity for learning." What this means to me is that Leigh wants his family home to be more than just walls. The physical space here is not designed to be a mere container for teaching and learning. Instead, the space he's building is a kind of portal where every aspect of its design can lead an inquiring mind to discoveries about sustainability, permaculture design, or the environmentally friendly lifestyle. For example, the solar panels that he's planning to use and the small wind turbine already in place can lead to an interesting discussion on energy consumption.

Virtual Classroom Meeting (April 14, 2008)

Virtual Classroom Meeting (April 14, 2008)

The shipping containers, the very walls of the house, can lead to a discussion on reusing and recycling.

Virtual Classroom Meeting (April 7, 2008)

The roof of the dwelling and the glass floor panels inside the house can lead to a discussion on the importance of natural light and the need to reduce our dependence on electricity.

Virtual Classroom Meeting (April 14, 2008)

In short, the building itself provides numerous opportunities to discuss our ecological footprint and engage in discussions about the environment and eco-friendly lifestyles. Now, the question is, where would you rather learn about all of this - in a sterile classroom that looks like all the other classrooms around the world, or in a unique family home built upon the principles of permaculture design? Would you rather learn this from a teacher who has to deliver a unit on sustainability or from an individual who is passionate about the environment and whose home and lifestyle attest to his commitment to the environment?

What really fascinates me about Leigh's prototype is that, in addition to making us think about sustainability and the environment, Leigh also explores the notion of de-institutionalizing or deschooling society. His project revives some of the key ideas of Ivan Illich. During our discussions over the past two weeks, Leigh's comments about his design led me to re-visit my thoughts on informal education, lifelong learning, and community. Specifically, his ideas and the way he is implementing them remind me of Illich's notion that institutions tend to dehumanize people and commodify learning. Consider this passage from Ilich's Deschooling Society:

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby "schooled" to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is "schooled" to accept service in place of value (Illich, 1973).

In other words, our students tend to think that teaching equals learning. Learning and knowledge are commodified and transform education into a process of consumption rather than exploration. In addition, as Illich argues in Deschooling Society, schools discourage other institutions from assuming educative roles and tend to be places of confinement rather than liberating engagement. De-institutionalization, Illich argues, can take place when we recognize that education "relies on the surprise of the unexpected question which opens new doors for the inquirer and his partner." This kind of inquiry can take place when the instructor abandons what Illich calls "skill drill" instruction and focuses on helping "matching partners to meet so that learning can take place." Learners, he continues,

should be able to meet around a problem chosen and defined by their won initiative. Creative, exploratory learning requires peers currently puzzled about the same terms or problems. Large universities make the futile attempt to match them by multiplying their courses, and they generally fail since they are bound to curriculum, course structure, and bureaucratic administration. In schools, including universities, most resources are spent to purchase the time and motivation of a limited number of people to take up predetermined problems in a ritually defined setting. The most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern (Illich, 1973).

Leigh's project reminds me of some of Illich's alternatives to teaching institutions. Specifically, the family home that he's building can become a place where those who are "currently puzzled about the same terms or problems" can meet outside of institutional constraints and engage in exploratory learning. It's a place that supports what Illich referred to as "life of action:"

I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, on our engendering a lifestyle which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a lifestyle which only allows to make and unmake, produce and consume - a style of life which is merely a way station on the road to the depletion and pollution of the environment. The future depends more upon our choice of institutions which support a life of action than on our developing new ideologies and technologies (Illich, 1973).

After numerous conversations with Leigh and after reading his reflections, I see his virtual project as what Illich calls a convivial institution. It's an institution that, unlike school, is not based on coerced membership. Instead, it encourages human interactions that are based on autonomy, creativity, and exploration. I also see Leigh's project as a potential learning web and I'm looking forward to discussing this aspect of his work with him over the next two weeks.

If you're interested in Leigh's views on learning and would like to explore his prototype (still in progress), please join us this weekend on the islands of jokaydia (Click here for details).

The Embedded Practitioner

My first entry on this blog, posted on February 22, 2005, marked the beginning of my doctoral research on blogging communities. I was interested in what happens when a group of grade eight students is given a place where they can engage as writers and move away from the "schooliness" of traditional class work. When I started, I really did not know what to expect. I had high hopes, but no preconceived notions or expectations. And now, three years later, the research is done, and I am very happy to report that I have successfully defended my PhD thesis. It was a fascinating journey. I learned a lot about writing in online environments, about student interactions online, and about fostering student engagement in online spaces. However, one of the most personally relevant findings of my research was the impact that it had on me - the teacher-researcher.

During my defense, I focused on all the key findings of my research, but paid particular attention to my conclusions on teacher professional development. My research taught me a lot about the role of the teacher in an online class community of writers. At my defense, I used this painting by Caravaggio, the Italian Baroque master, to elaborate on what my research findings suggest about teacher professional development:

Taking of Christ by Caravaggio Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ

Before I explain why I chose this painting, let me first elaborate on Caravaggio as he himself is an important figure to consider, an important role model for 21st century teachers. Caravaggio's work was revolutionary. He was an innovator in his time who rejected established conventions. Instead of painting epic scenes with masses of people and religious symbolism (as was the established norm), he chose to focus on the personal struggles and experiences of his subjects. He chose to highlight the individual. The subjects he chose were mere mortals, representatives of the working class - the poor, humble, ordinary people of his time. The faith he depicted in his work was the faith of the simple, uneducated masses, not the faith of the grand Biblical narratives. Caravaggio focused on what he saw around him. His paintings feature wrinkled, aged faces, torn clothing, and unadorned, simple, often neglected interiors. Truth, in other words, truth as he saw it around him on a daily basis, was more important to him than conventions.

So, what does all of this have to do with teaching in the 21st century?

That painting by Caravaggio has became for me a metaphor that I like to use to explain the role of the teacher in a blogging community. Since I'm using it as a metaphor, I am interested only in its visual appeal - the placing of the subjects, the light that penetrates the scene, and the fact that the man carrying the lantern on the right side of the painting, the one who looks with interest over the heads of the two Roman soldiers, has been identified as Caravaggio's self-portrait. (Caravaggio is well-known for inserting his self-portrait, inserting himself, so to speak, into his paintings.). I believe that, much like Caravaggio in this painting, a teacher in a blogging community should enter the context that gives rise to his or her work. Caravaggio portrays himself as one of the characters. He becomes implicated in his painting. He is both subject and artist ... and that is why I think this painting is so relevant to my research and can help convey the redefined character of teacher presence in online communities. It makes visible some key implications of my study in the field of teacher professional development.

What this painting says to me is that we can gain a better understanding of our classrooms-as-communities if we immerse ourselves in them. In the manner of Caravaggio, teachers should weave their readerly, personal voices into the fabric of classrooms-as-communities. What my experiences illustrate, and what the painting metaphorically emphasizes, is that teacher professional development in the 21st century requires that we look closely at how to most effectively embed ourselves in our practice and in the experiences and interactions of our students. Professional development in the networked world requires that we look closely not only at what we do as educators but also at how we are embedded in educational contexts. Much like Caravaggio, we have to narrate ourselves into existence through participation in our classrooms in a way that is non-authoritarian, readerly, and conversational.

Much like Caravaggio in this painting, we need to be present in our classrooms as providers of light. Our guidance is needed and important. But, too often, our guidance becomes authoritarian and fails to take into account the voices of our students. We don't often peer questioningly over the shoulders of our students. Instead, we impose the content and pre-define the learning trajectories for our students. Why don't we take the time to just listen and observe once in a while? Those of us who give our students the freedom to define themselves through their work in classroom communities know how much we can learn by listening and observing. We should not be afraid to step down from behind the lectern and move to the edge of the community, where we can redefine our presence as that of a participant, as one of the voices, not as the voice that dominates, demands, and evaluates. What Caravaggio's painting reminds me of is that I can be just as helpful as a facilitator if I engage from the sidelines and do not dominate the community as its focal point. Let student voices remain in the centre, let them be the focal point of the community where they interact, engage, and learn.

This reconfigured approach requires a difficult shift in our understanding of classroom practice. It requires that we accept a new dethroned position and become embedded practitioners - embedded in the classroom interactions as readers and participants, not evaluators and overseers.

That brings me to another important point: What's Next?

My research has led me to some important and timely questions about teacher professional development - questions that I hope to be able to work on in the near future:

  1. How do we prepare teachers to teach 21st century learners whose lives are based on rich interactions in multiple online environments?
  2. How do we help new teachers move away from what Marshall McLuhan once called the "imposing of stencils" and adopt a practice of probing and exploration?
  3. How do we help new teachers acquire the courage to transform their classrooms into communities of learners and transform themselves into participants who can embed themselves in those communities?

My study and experience provide some answers, some of which I addressed on this blog in the past, but they are just starting points that will need further attention and elaboration. I believe that this process begins with opening ourselves up to the language of possibility and recognizing teachers whose work in the classroom can help us redefine not only our own classroom presence but also our notions of professional development. We need what Paulo Freire calls "curiosity as endless questioning." He describes it as

movement toward the revelation of something that is hidden, as a question verbalized or not, as search for clarity, as a moment of attention, suggestion, and vigilance ... there could be no creativity without the curiosity that moves us and sets us patiently impatient before a world that we did not make, to add to it something of our own making (Freire, 1998, pp.37-38).

In other words,

[...] there is no such thing as teaching without research and research without teaching. One inhabits the body of the other. As I teach, I continue to search and re-search. I teach because I search, because I question, and because I submit myself to questioning. I research because I notice things, take cognizance of them. And in so doing, I intervene. And intervening, I educate and educate myself. I do research so as to know what I do not yet know and to communicate and proclaim what I discover (Freire, 1998, pp.35).


Recently, Al Upton, an award-winning teacher from Adelaide, Australia whose work I've admired for a very long time, was forced to close his classroom community that has proven over the years to be of immense benefit to his students. He was forced to disable the classroom community by the Department of Education and Children’s Services in South Australia despite the fact that he used it to teach his students about online safety and received parental permission to carry out his project. The Department of Education is worried that some material on his class blog may put the students at risk of being identified by outsiders.

Al and I never met and we never corresponded, but I've been following his work for years and have always found it innovative and inspiring. In my opinion, Al is an embedded practitioner, someone who listens, observes, and is constantly searching for and researching new ways to improve himself and bring greater educational value to his classroom practice. I hope that he will soon regain his freedom to bring the world into his classroom and the classroom out into the world.

Works Cited:

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom. Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Rowman & Littlefield, New York.

Conversation with Pre-Service Teachers - Teacher as Learner

First of all, thanks to those of you from Brigham Young University who added your thoughts to my first post on the set curriculum. I enjoyed reading your comments and learning more about your concerns and questions regarding teaching 21st century learners. As you can see, this is a conversation that can continue for a long time, and I hope that it will continue this week and even after our Second Life meet-up on Monday. Today, I want to respond to your questions about student-teacher relationship and technology. I've selected the following questions from the list you sent me:

You mentioned that sometimes you end up talking about things not within the curriculum while you are establishing relationships with the students. What would you consider the balance to produce such effective bonds, but also obtain the goals of vigorous curricula?

To what extent do you think you can expose yourself as a mere human being, and not a teacher in your blogs and classroom settings?

Through your blogs, you make yourself seem more “human” to your students and they get to know you on a personal basis. Does that affect the way they treat you as a teacher?

What difficulties do you anticipate as the students start to perceive you in your other role as someone who can learn from them? Do you think that you will come upon classroom management problems? What feedback have you received from the community about your use of technology in the classroom?

How do you censor how much you should tell or show your students about yourself?

Do you ever loose the respect of the students when you actively show them you don’t know everything about your given subject?

These questions reveal the same apprehensions that I experienced when I first decided to redefine my teacherly voice and modify my classroom presence. They betray fear of losing control and the reputation of the content expert. I think it's understandable - we are taught, after all, that in order to become successful and effective teachers, we need to become experts in our chosen fields and project an aura of expertise. Parents and students expect the teacher to be knowledgeable. Consequently, the decision to "learn with the students," to use one's own personal blog in the class blogosphere, to engage as a participant and a co-learner, often leads us to think that we will lose the respect of our students and that we will no longer really teach. The question immediately arises - how will my students benefit from being in my class if I don't actively teach them?

At the same time, it would be silly to try to use blogs or wikis, for example, and try to preserve the traditional type of teacherly presence. These new tools demand that we assume the role of a facilitator and a co-learner. They really don't work very well when the teacher insists on being in complete control and dictating how students engage as learners. They demand a more democratic and participatory approach.

So, how do we reconcile the new technology with the traditional expectations of most parents and students that we enter the classroom as subject experts? How do we encourage personal inquiry in our students and also maintain the traditional teacherly voice?

Needless to say, as the new technologies open up new vistas for exploration and personal engagement, educators struggle with how they can best meet these traditional expectations and adapt their practice to suit the new reality of a more conversational and participatory approach to learning brought about by the new tools of web 2.0. Leigh Blackall echoed many of my thoughts on this topic when he expressed this dilemma and the resulting frustrations in one of his recent posts. His ideas prompted me to comment on the process of losing the teacherly voice. I'd like to reiterate here the thoughts that I shared in response to his entry.

Losing the Authoritarian Voice

First of all, I've come to the conclusion that losing the teacherly voice is not the equivalent of losing the voice of an expert. When I first started blogging with my students and using my blog to learn and not just dispense knowledge or post evaluative comments about my students' progress, I was under the impression that, in order to lose my teacherly voice, I would have to stop being an expert. I thought that, in order to be a participant and a co-learner, I had to learn along with my students. It took me a while to realize that I was wrong. How can I possibly say to my students that we will be learning together about Elizabethan drama, for example? I already know a lot about that topic. I cannot pretend that I don't. In fact, I probably shouldn't because they are in my class to learn from me, and they expect me to be their guide and introduce them to the topic.

And so, the challenge is that when I try to divest myself of my teacherly voice I need to remember that this process is not about losing the voice of the expert but about losing the voice of the traditional authoritarian teacher who enters the classroom as an official persona armed with a pre-defined set of goals and very specific lesson plans for his students to follow. It is about giving the students the freedom to engage with ideas that they find relevant and interesting, not about dictating every step of their learning process.

I believe that it is important to lose the authoritarian voice, the controlling voice, but not the voice of an expert who chose to teach because of his passion for the subject. The students need to see that the instructor is someone who lives and breathes whatever it is that they’re studying, that they have in their midst someone who has a wealth of expertise.

I think that the best way of losing that voice is to say the following:

"I've been teaching Elizabethan drama for a long time, but there are still many things that I don't know very well. So, this term, while you research Elizabethan drama and related topics that you find interesting, I will research one specific aspect of Elizabethan drama that always interested me but that I never really had a chance to explore."

Saying this to my class suggests that I still see myself as an expert. It also shows that I am a learner, someone who wants to use his blog to research things he's passionate about. The voice of an expert is still there in that comment, but the traditional teacher persona has disappeared.

Modeling Personal Investment

In one of my recent posts, I suggested that I had decided to use my own blog as a more personal space. I decided to give it a meaningful title and blog about things that I am interested in: film, music, architecture, human rights. Clearly, most of these entries have nothing to do with the work we do in class. But the point here is to lead by example, to show the students that I am more than a subject expert, that I am a multi-dimensional being whose life is not limited to Elizabethan drama, or essay writing, or grammar, or reading Victorian novels. It shows that blogging is about reflection and thoughtful engagement with ideas that are important to us. How can I expect the students to take blogging seriously, if I use my own blog in the class blogosphere only to post assignments and evaluations? They need to see that blogging is about personal investment.

This strategy can have a very positive effect on building a solid relationship with my students. They get to know me as a person, not just a teacher. They see the richness that is in every human being who engages with ideas and shares his or her thoughts. When they see how much you care about different things in your life and how much time you take to reflect on them, their respect for you as a human being and a teacher can only increase.

Does all that writing about things that are important to me personally detract from the curriculum? I don't think it does. I do think, however, that it redefines what we mean by curriculum. It redefines the curriculum because it shows the students that any topic is of value if it studied in reflective manner, if it is approached as a field to be explored. Northrop Frye once said that "it takes a good deal of maturity to see that every field of knowledge is the centre of all knowledge, and that it doesn't matter so much what you learn when you learn it in a structure that can expand into other structures." In other words, knowledge is not a series of fragmented and carefully compartmentalized units (although school does a great job of presenting it that way). Young people who see that their teacher blogs about things he finds meaningful are more likely to see blogs as personal spaces where they can be themselves and explore ideas that are personally relevant. They begin to see their blogs as a powerful medium for research, communication, expression, and reflection. (For a very insightful glimpse into a classroom where personal engagement works very well, check out Graham Wegner's Starting Next Round Of Personal Research Projects.

Once they engage as individuals, once they find something that they want to explore as independent researchers, they become hooked and committed. This presents a perfect opportunity to work with them individually on specific skills that can help them improve their work and learn how to more effectively communicate their ideas. In other words, I don't need the whole class to study the same thing in order to help them become better writers, readers, researchers, or critical thinkers. In fact, my chances of helping them develop in all those areas are much greater when I can interact with them in the context of their own research. Instructional conversations work well only when the students' sense of ownership is already present.

In other words, I think it's important for me to redefine my teacherly voice so that the students see me as a learner and not only as an educator. I think it's important to show them that learning happens when we engage with ideas that we find personally meaningful. Of course, in order to do that we must first be prepared to grant them the freedom and provide the forum where they can become independent researchers. That, let's face it, is not always easy.