Choosing the (digital) pedagogical tool fit for the learning

source: @byrev

The list of digital technologies that might be used for teaching and learning is extensive. It includes: LMSs (Learning Management Systems); MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses); BYOD (bring your own device); BYOT (bring your own technology); BYOC (bring your own connectivity); makerspaces; robotics; digital portfolios; online discussion forums; blogging platforms; wikis, microblogging; back channels; audio recording and music making; image and video editing; creation of infographics, slideshows, and presentations; digital storytelling; social media; collaboration tools; mobile apps; game-based learning and environments; coding and computer programming; augmented and virtual realities; technologies for creating physical or virtual 3D models; gesture-based computing; learning analytics and statistical analysis software; online authoring tools; wearable technology; affective computing; rubric generators; quizzes; online response systems such as polls and surveys; video conferencing; cloud computing; and student feedback tools such as Turnitin, GradeMark, and PeerMark.

E-learning technologies are sometimes defined as asynchronous (any-time) or synchronous (real-time). Flipped learning is that in which traditional teacher instruction is delivered between classes via online video or presentation technologies, and class time is used for application and collaboration. Blended learning melds traditional classroom pedagogies with online learning tools and environments. Rhizomatic learning, a loose appropriation of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome in an educational context, is non-linear and not predetermined (Cormier, 2008; Koutropoulos, 2017) and heutagogical learning is self-determined (Hase & Kenyon, 2000, 2007; Netolicky, 2016). Beetham (2013a) describes e-learning as learner-centred experience that allows learners more control over the time, place, and pace of their learning and the opportunity to connect with learning communities worldwide, much like the experience of many teachers who use social media for networking and learning.

I’ve been doing some reading since I recently posted my initial thoughts about digital pedagogy and I am reassured that scholars tend to agree that pedagogy should drive the use of technologies, rather than technologies driving the way teaching and learning happens, or as an end in themselves. Digital technologies and methods are mostly seen as part of a teacher’s arsenal of tools for teaching curriculum content, skills, and understandings.

Laurillard (2013) states that, while the scope and style of pedagogy changes as technology changes, no one has yet shown that we need to change our understanding of how students learn. Higgins (2014), however, argues that technology has changed what we learn and how we learn.

The changing digital technology landscape has led to educators attempting to personalise and gamify learning, to construct open online learning environments and self-directed learning opportunities, to leverage students’ personal mobile devices for learning, and to utilise technologies to facilitate processes such as analysis, collaboration, communication, and creation. Dichev and Dicheva (2017), however, found that even though gamification in education is a growing phenomenon, practice has outpaced research and we do not know enough about how to effectively gamify education or even whether gamifying education is beneficial. Additionally, online learning such as that via MOOCs can be overwhelming and confusing to those without highly-evolved skills in managing their connectivity (Beetham, 2013b). This brings into question the equity of technologies. Who has access? Who dominates? Who becomes lost in the system or excluded from it?

Many authors note that teachers should not assume that because students are surrounded by technology they are savvy, confident, ethical, or safe users of it. Safe, ethical use of technology needs to be guided and explicitly taught, as do skills such as online collaboration and evaluating the quality of available information. Students need the skills and aptitudes to sustain engagement with digital learning, especially if it is self-directed and self-paced.

Most proponents of digital learning base their use of technologies on traditional pedagogy. Good pedagogical design, traditional or digital, ensures that there is alignment between the curriculum we teach, the teaching methods we use, the learning environment we choose, and the assessment procedures we adopt (Biggs, 1999). Importantly, a role remains for teachers as expert designers of learning (Laurillard, 2013; Selwyn, 2016) who establish learning tasks, supportive environments for learning, and conducive forms of social classroom relations. Hunter (2015) suggests the following questions to teachers:

  • Where is the pedagogy?
  • What is the content?
  • How is your choice or the students’ choice of particular technology tools going to enhance learning?

So, we need to start with the desired learning outcomes. Curriculum design comes before pedagogy, which comes before technology. Then we choose the pedagogical tool fit for the learning purpose.

It cannot be assumed, however, that teachers, even those who are tech-savvy, know how to best use technologies for pedagogical purposes. Lei (2009) found that although pre-service teachers are often digital natives who use technology extensively for themselves, they lack the knowledge, skills, and experiences to integrate technology into classrooms to help them teach and to help their students learn, even when they recognise the importance of doing so. Teachers can leverage digital technologies within a pedagogical frame, but only when we have the knowledge and understanding of available technologies and their pedagogical potential.


Beetham, H. (2013a). Designing for active learning in technology-rich contexts. In H. Beetham & R. Sharpe (Eds.) Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing for 21st century learning (2nd ed.), pp.31-48. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Beetham, H. (2013b). Designing for learning in an uncertain future. In H. Beetham & R. Sharpe (Eds.) Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing for 21st century learning (2nd ed.), pp.258-281. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for quality learning at university. Buckingham: Society for Research in Higher Education and Open University Press.

Cormier, D. (2008). Rhizomatic education: Community as curriculum. Innovate 4(5).

Dichev, C., & Dicheva, D. (2017). Gamifying education: what is known, what is believed and what remains uncertain: a critical review. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education14(1).

Hase, S., & Kenyon, C. (2000). From andragogy to heutagogyultiBASE In-Site, 5(3), 1-10.

Hase, S., & Kenyon, C. (2007). Heutagogy: A child of complexity theory. Complicity: An international journal of complexity and education4(1).

Higgins, S. (2014). Critical thinking for 21st-century education: A cyber-tooth curriculum? Prospects44(4), 559-574.

Hunter, J. (2015). Technology integration and high possibility classrooms: Building from TPACK. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Koutropoulos, A. (2017). Rhizomes of the classroom: Enabling the learners to become curriculum. In S. P. Ferris & H. Wilder (Eds.), Unplugging the classroom: Teaching with technologies to promote students’ lifelong learning, pp.103-118. Cambridge, MA: Chandos Publishing.

Laurillard, D. (2013). Forward to the second edition. In H. Beetham & R. Sharpe (Eds.) Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing for 21st century learning (2nd ed.), pp.xvi-xviii. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Lei, J. (2009). Digital natives as preservice teachers: What technology preparation is needed? Journal of Computing in Teacher Education, 25(3), 87-97.

Netolicky, D. M. (2016). Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders. Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 1(4), 270-285.

Selwyn, N. (2016). Education and technology: Key issues and debates. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Rethinking professional learning: an academic paper for JPCC

This week I’m thrilled to see my paper ‘Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders’ published in the Journal of Professional Capital and Community. This journal, whose Editor in Chief is Andy Hargreaves, boasts an Editorial Board including Linda Darling-Hammond, Michael Fullan, Alma Harris, Karen Seashore Louis, Pasi Sahlberg, Helen Timperley and Yong Zhao. My paper appears in Volume 1, Issue 4, alongside a theoretical paper by Dennis Shirley. As an early career researcher, I couldn’t ask for more distinguished company.

Even more pleasing is that the journal is open access during 2016, so free for anyone to download and read. Open access to the paper means that it can be accessed by practitioners who so often don’t get to read and engage with the literature in (often pay walled) academic journals. In fact, it has already been downloaded (at today’s count) 1689 times. Wow. That’s a bunch more times than my PhD thesis.

The paper, which draws from the lived experiences of teachers, middle leaders (often a forgotten group in education literature) and executive leaders in one Australian school, outlines the findings of my PhD around what makes professional learning that transforms beliefs and practices. It discusses my study’s response to the questions:

  1. What is the role of professional learning on identities or growth?; and
  2. What professional learning is transformational?

My PhD found that transformational learning (as defined by Ellie Drago-Severson, 2009, as that which actively shifts cognition, emotion, and capacity) is: collaborative and individual; occurring in life, school, and work; and requiring elements of support and challenge. Not only was it lifelong, but it was life-wide. For these participants, it is life experiences, as well as professional experiences, that influence their professional beliefs and practices. The following is a table, which didn’t make the final cut of the paper, shows the range of features of professional learning found in my study.

tabulated findings around professional learning

tabulated findings around professional learning

This table shows the variety of experiences that educators in my study considered transformational for themselves. These experiences included relationships with family members; role models and anti-models of teaching and leadership; post graduate study; difficult life experiences; becoming a parent; and connecting with others at conferences or via social media. It included heutagogical (self-determined) learning, as I outlined for this blog post for the Heutagogy Community of Practice.

It also included, especially for leaders operating at an executive level, the time and space for silence, reflection and thinking. The research interviews themselves proved to be spaces of learning for some of the school leaders, who saw them as an opportunity to be listened to intently and to think deeply about their learning and leading.

The participants in my study had some important cautions about professional learning and about school interventions. They cautioned that a mandated approach to professional learning, even if differentiated, might not address the needs of all professional learners. They wondered about how to honour the individual teacher and the organisational priorities when leading professional learning in schools.

The paper concludes that, while my study intended to explore the ways in which educators’ experiences of professional learning form and transform their senses of professional identity, it found that it is not just professional learning, but life experiences that shape professional identities and practices. That is, our teacher selves and teacher actions are moulded by critical experiences that tangle with and shape our identities, lives, relationships, and emotions. The best professional learning, as suggested by this study, is highly individualised and knottily enmeshed with educators’ senses of self, of who we are professionally.

Anyone who teaches knows that we cannot separate our teacher selves from our non-teacher selves. As teachers our lives affect our learning and teaching, and our learning and teaching influences our lives. For many teachers, ‘life’ and ‘work’ are well beyond blurred. We are humans who teach and teachers who exist as humans in the world. The leaders in this study tended to describe themselves as either teachers who lead or as leaders who teach; they remained teachers in their identity self-perceptions. See this post for further musings about the notion of teacher identity, that ‘being a teacher’ stays with many of us beyond our years in the classroom.

One suggestion to emerge from this paper is that we would benefit from rethinking what it is that we consider and label as ‘professional learning’. Professional learning is not hours logged on a spreadsheet or entered into an app. It is not necessarily being in a room with other educators at a course or conference that is labelled ‘professional learning’ (although it might be). It is those critical moments across our lives and work that shape the core of who we are, in and out of the classroom and the boardroom. Professional learning can be personal, unexpected, unscheduled, nonlinear, messy, unbounded, and unacknowledged.

Can we redefine ‘professional learning’ in more expansive and flexible ways? How might we acknowledge those hours educators spend blogging, or studying, or tweeting, or visiting schools, or collaborating intensively, or volunteering in the service of others? How can leaders lead the learning of teachers in ways that honour their individual learning trajectories and their own agency? How might we rethink our systems and schools in order to focus, not on hours of what is easily labelled or effortlessly deployed (staff day scattergun PD, anyone?), but on what actually engages us and changes our cognition and our capacities?