Teaching Agency in a Technology-Infused World

The Agency Agency

Agency is a word I find I use a lot in different settings and yet, I struggle to frame the concept of empowerment for my young students in the classroom. As we near the end of E-Learning 3.0, Stephen has us thinking of the concept of “agency” in terms of learning in a distributed information environment.

Stephen writes:

We are the content – the content is us. This includes all aspects of us. How do we ensure that what we project to the world is what we want to project, both as teachers and learners? As content and media become more sophisticated and more autonomous, how do we bind these to our personal cultural and ethical frameworks we want to preserve and protect?

Wikipedia defines Agency as:

Agency is the capacity of an actor to act in a given environment.

We’re living in times where technology is nearly everywhere, for good and for ill, and for many us, even a simple understanding of what’s “under the hood” is elusive. Either we don’t care enough to look or we don’t have the skills to know even how to begin to look. We just go along and go along until it all blows up (see Facebook) and then wonder why we weren’t more attuned to the intentions of the technologies we are using.

At what moment did we sell off our data and privacy for ease of operation? When did we forget we even had any agency to begin with? This shift seems to be aligned with the often-unspoken language of “expertise” and of us allowing those with knowledge of technology to lead the way, and for us to follow blindly, for fear that those of us not as technologically-astute might break things. Even though, breaking things is how you learn.

Go on and break things.

I was reminded, as I pondered the notion of Agency, of this video of quotes I put together for a hackjam professional development session years ago, using ideas from Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed to explore this concept.

Looking deeper is important in terms of “agency” because seeing the cracks in the seams, the intention of design, the motors that make the world work gives you information, and with that information, you can make more informed choices about your actions. This is part of your agency.

Which is my I try to show how technology works to my young students — to make visible the corporate goals of profit by advertising, to introduce workarounds to problems, to question the motives of those developing the products we use. This sometimes feels like an odd fit inside a sixth grade English Language Arts classroom, but I expand the notions of “literacy” at every chance I get.

This is about reading the world, in order to write the world.

I saw the following bulleted list on the matter of learner agency in a digital world, and I thought it connected to these ideas. This comes from Jackie Gersten’s post from years ago entitled Learner Agency, Technology, and Emotional Intelligence. I wonder if the positive vibe here still holds true.

Technology also has the potential to directly enhance emotional intelligence.  Chia-Jung Lee (2011) described some ways:

  • Digital tools can connect people’s feeling to enhance emotional learning. Digital tools can support students’ emotional connection to a content or other people. This helps students learn better.
  • Technology can satisfy personal learning pace and style to support emotional learning.  The flexibility of digital tools enables students to learn based on the way that they feel most comfortable [which is directly related to agency.]
  • Digital tools can provide private spaces for students to explore difficult issues.
  • Empathy can be enhanced through emotional learning by means of technology. For example, students may develop empathy by viewing videos of personal stories of others in need; others who are experiencing some form of distress or problems.  http://teachteachtech.coe.uga.edu/index.php/2011/05/13/technology-integration-and-emotional-learning/

And then, my friend Geoff, added a thought across EL30 networks, taken from his years of supporting young writers with the Young Writers Project in Vermont. His insights about agency are worth sharing.

Geoff writes:

… we must be intentional to reach out to, bring in, support those who need it most, those without agency, opportunity and voice. I feel an affinity to this spirit with what Young Writers Project has done at youngwritersproject.org … the teens mostly those who feel isolated, unliked, outside.

Peace (thinking),

PS — Stephen had a conversation about Agency with Silvia Baldiri, and Jutta Treviranus, which I have not yet watched but am looking forward to.

Finding a Poem Among the Words of Others

Piece by Piece Comes a Poem

This week’s call for Creativity via E-Learning 3.0, coming on the heels of considerations of distributed communities, had me thinking of heading back into the words of others, and maybe finding a poem. What the poem would say, and how it would look, I couldn’t say. But I hoped a deeper and closer reading, with poetic eyes, might bring to the surface some connections and themes.

This is the poem:

And, in an ongoing effort to unpack the making of things in different learning spaces, I want to share the process of how I did it (if only for my own memory sometime in the future).

I went back to the handful of blog posts from fellow El3.0 participants and read their reflections a few times. As words, phrases and sentences resonated with me, I pulled those pieces into a Google Doc as working space. It’s sort of a messy place, with words scattered in the document. Maybe I should have noted where the words came from there, but I didn’t, and now I don’t quite remember. One could make the case that it doesn’t matter, since the found poem is supposed to be taken from words across distributed spaces anyway.

Once I had the Google Doc littered with words, I began to read through what I had there — through the lens of disparate parts in search of a whole. I opened up another document on Board.net, and began to create stanzas from phrases in the Google Doc. (Board is collaborative document platform). I resisted adding too many of own words — only those connector words between phrases. I was trying to avoid my own voice, for now, in order to surface the collective voice of us. I didn’t even use anything from my own reflective blog post.

Finding a Poem

Once I had a flow of a poem going along the seams of our discussions —  community and consensus, distributed web effects on learning, technology as a problem in search of a solution,  and more — I circled back around, and began adding my own thoughts here and there — minimally, at best — in order to find some consistent voice across the stanzas and theme. Interestingly, the process flowed rather naturally, and the Found Poem emerged rather intact (a testament to the strength of the writing of my EL30 blogging friends more than my own curation).

Thanks to the Time Slider tool in Board, you can even watch the construction of the poem unfold. I took a screencast of it in motion because this always fascinates me. It’s better when more people are involved, yet you can see some of the ways I was unfolding the poem top to bottom, and then dancing in the corners of the stanzas towards the end.

So, now I had the poem. What to do with it? Well, it seemed to me that this kind of found poem, networked as it was, deserved visuals, so I turned to Lumen5, a digital story tool, and worked to create a visual found poem that I think quite nicely captures the voice, the spirit, the reflection, the wondering and wandering of us, as a whole. I created a few comics as visual openers for the videos, too.

Peace (found it),

A Bit about Blockchain and the Distributed Ledger Effect

A Bit About Blockchain

I’ll be the first to admit: I know very little about Blockchain technology, although I hear the term more and more in different spaces as it relates to e-currency and encryption and more.

How does Blockchain relate to education and learning and teaching?

This is part of what Stephen Downes explores near the end his Distributed Ledger Technology video for E-Learning 3.0. The first section of the video is a lot of technical explanations – some of which I understood and some of which I did not — but all of it is worth watching to have a semblance of understanding about Blockchain technology.

Here, though, at the 38 minute mark or so, is where Stephen connects this Blockchain concept to educational possibilities, particularly around shared resources, trust effect, consensus and community, and access points:

Peace (in the learning),

EL30: A Visual Sense of Community, Connected

I’ve been pondering how best to represent — and more importantly, how to best connect — the various reflections that some of us have been doing related the latest task in E-Learning 3.0, which is to create a distributed web community and be part of it. We’ve done a lot of thinking, pushing back, defining and un-defining.

Consensus? Eh, maybe not completely. In the end, one of the tasks many of us seemed to have agreed upon is to write a reflection of our learning in the course with Stephen Downes and to make connections with others through that process. These shared experiences might then lead towards a sort of distributed community.

Here is my attempt, using screenshots and a collage a connected quilt, with links to blog posts, all via ThingLink. I hope I didn’t miss any bloggers. I probably did. But these are the ones that were in my digital periphery.

Peace (shared),


Comic Reflection: Some Final-ish Thoughts on E-Learning 3.0

This sort-of final reflection is for E-Learning 3.0 with Stephen Downes, and the musings of my experience — here in the form of a comic — is part of what may be a final project around “community.” I say “may” because a few of us are trying to discern a path forward with the open-ended element of Stephen’s call.

This thinking all relates to the possibility of how learning and teaching might unfold in the distributed web environment, where trust and a sense of belonging to something larger (even if you are removed from the center) is a key component to the way the future of learning, mostly online learning, might yet unfold. This is why we explored Block Chain, and elements of the Distributed Web, and Identity, as well as Credentials and Badging. Plus other topics I may have already forgotten.

One path towards Stephen’s assignment, suggested by Roland, is to create reflective posts together and those words, bound as they are by a shared purpose, create a sense of community formed around the EL30 experience. Another path, suggested by Laura, is to come to a collaborative consensus to define “community.” I’m happy to explore both ideas, as Jenny notes in her reflection, although I am not sure — as neither is Matthias, I think — either creates “community.”

Either would create connections.

Is that the same thing?

El30 Reflection Comic El30 Reflection Comic El30 Reflection Comic

Peace (in the panels),

Community vs Network vs Affinity Space

Community vs Network vs Affinity SpaceWe are beginning to explore the concept of “community” in the E-Learning 3.0 course. That word has long been one of those rather nebulous ones, which we as open learners in various platforms and spaces use as a default to suggest a gathering of people. I’m not all that sure it is the right term to be using.

Wikipedia defines “community” as:

A community is a small or large social unit that has something in common, such as norms, religion, values, or identity. Communities often share a sense of place that is situated in a given geographical area or in virtual space through communication platforms.

So what is a network, then? (It’s a little trickier to find because there are many connotations for the word.)

A computer network, or data networkis a digital telecommunications network which allows nodes to share resources. In computer networks, computing devices exchange data with each other using connections ( data links ) between nodes.

And what about Affinity Space?

An affinity space is a place – virtual or physical – where informal learning takes place. According to James Paul Gee, affinity spaces are locations where groups of people are drawn together because of a shared, strong interest or engagement in a common activity.

I find myself using these terms rather interchangeably, even when I know I probably shouldn’t be doing so. Over the years, through my reading and learning, I feel like Gee’s concept of Affinity Space has best captured my ideas around connected learning practices across online platforms.

I bring this up because Stephen is challenging the folks in EL30 to create a “community” and then to become a member of that community. He has purposely made the whole assignment open-ended, with few details, and with little guidance from the “teacher.”

Stephen writes:

As a community, create an assignment the completion of which denotes being a member of the community. For the purposes of this task, there can only be one community. For each participant, your being a member of the community completes the task.

Huh. Ok. Let’s see where this might take us …

On Community

Roland has already started to bubble up an idea.

Peace (shared),




Algorithms Ate My Homework: Thinking on Machines and Assessment

Algorithms Ate My Homework

I really appreciate how reading other people’s blog posts in the E-Learning 3.0 community sparks my thinking. A piece by Matthias in reference to Stephen Downes’ exploration of badging as possible tracking system or as an outcome of automated assessments in a decentralized Internet made me pause.

Matthias writes:

I think, for the final summative assessments deciding about the future life of a human, such algorithms are not acceptable. By contrast, for the formative assessments throughout the study, they might be perfect. With human teachers, both types of assessments are equally costly, therefore we have too few of the latter and too many of the former.

Stephen writes:

We are in the process of building society-wide automated competency recognition systems. These are already being developed for training, for compliance, for civic justice, and for credit and insurance assessment.

So far – as Matthias Melcher suggests – the only people not benefiting are the learners themselves, with their own data. And that’s what can and must change.

I am reminded of the debates still raging in my own teaching field about machine-based scoring of writing, where a software program analyzes a text and scores it. My Western Massachusetts Writing Project colleagues (and mentors and former professors) Anne Herrington and the late Charlie Moran explored this notion of computerized grading of writing, and found it incredible lacking on many fronts. I think their research still holds true today.

You can see the collection of pieces they curated for the National Writing Project.

And there is the part of the statement by the National Council of Teachers of English, which concludes:

“Writing-to-a-machine violates the essential nature of writing.”

This all came to mind as I read and then re-read Matthias reflection, in which his position is to separate out the formative work from the summative work, and to consider whether machine learning and algorithmic software might help in the formative stages, but would come into conflict with our understanding of teaching and learning in the summative. And, he suggests, if machine learning helps fill the gaps in the formative stages, an educator might have more time and energy for the summative work.

Note: I am focusing my reflections on the teaching of writing here, which may twist Matthias’ own focus a bit. I think he had a different lens in mind.

Perhaps this idea of machines for formative assessment would be helpful in some academic fields or in the larger concept of life’s learning experiences. In particular, when learning is happening and unfolding across multiple platforms and different spaces, the machine program might do a better job of tracking progress than us people do. (I think this is one of Stephen’s points — that the Decentralized Web makes it more difficult to curate your learning experiences and that algorithms might help solve this problem. Is this where block chain comes in?)

But I am a writer and a teacher of young writers, so this conversation took me in another, not unrelated, direction of thought. In writing, the formative path to a finished piece is actually where the learning and the teaching takes place. It is in the brainstorming, the drafting, the revision for mechanics and audience, the reworking … this is where the “writing happens.” And it is mostly formative, made deeper and richer when the teacher confers with the writer. It’s not a task best left for isolation.

I’d resisting having a software program tracking the path of writing like this, with word counts, and syntax reviews, and whatever else the criteria might be to evaluate a text. I’ll admit that the AI component of technology has made intriguing advancements in this field, but not enough for me to jump on board. So would one argue that it might be better for summative assessment? Um. Nope. Thinking of the machine as your audience in a final piece of writing goes against the grain of the power and intent of writing, if writing is to be authentic.

Which is not say this is not already happening. Look to many standardized testing platforms now in use across the board, in student assessments and in teacher training programs, and the shift is decidedly towards machine scoring. This is more cost-saving than quality assessment (you don’t have to pay human scorers), meaning the shift towards computers as scorer is being done for all the wrong reasons: to cut costs, not to increase learning.

At least, this seems true in the field of writing.

Peace (program it),

When You Give Yourself a Badge …

EL30 Badge site

This week’s task over at E-Learning 3.0 is to create and award a badge to yourself, and then reflect on the process. I am still very mixed on the use and effectiveness of digital badging.

I’ve had experiences in open learning spaces like CLMOOC and WriteOut (where we designed a Playlist format with badging as documentation). I still wonder about whether the intent behind badges (documenting learning) is in sync with reality (how are badges really used or they just forgotten afterwards?).

But I climbed aboard the EL30 badge bus and ventured back into Badge List, which is site we used for CLMOOC in the past. I created a new “group” for EL30 and then created a new badge for those who are making comics as critique or questioning or just sharing out learning.

EL30 badge

This is a Badge of One, I suspect, since I think I am the only person doing comics in the mix (see my collection over at Flickr). That’s OK. I am still enjoying it. I went through the process of creating the Comic Critic badge and the criteria, and set it all up. It only took a few minutes.

Then, I went through the process of uploading evidence (a comic) and submitting it for feedback and review.

EL30 Badge Comic

Then, I (as administrator) reviewed what I submitted (as participant), and awarded myself the badge. I was very generous with myself.

EL30 Badge Award

Now what? Well, I did move the new badge into my Badge Backpack. It’s another place I put things to remember, only to forget.

Open Badge Backpack

Peace (wear it proudly),



The Gap Between Open and Closed: OER vs TPT

Free vs Profit

Despite the inference in the title of this post, I don’t imagine the movement towards Open Educational Resources battling it out on the stage with profit-driven spaces like Teachers Pay Teachers. I am not sure it even has to be one (profit-based) versus the other (free-based). I just want to put both models side by side, to see what I can see.

And given Stephen Downes’ exploration within E-Learning 3.0 around OER resources, and the Distributed Web networks that might emerge for greater sharing of open resources as well as my friend Laura’s post with the question of “who pays” for hosting open content, I find it intriguing to think about these two movements in the field of teachers: One, where open sharing of resources is the underpinning of possible education change and the other, where teachers pay other teachers for their lesson plans and resources to make up gaps where school systems have fallen woefully short.

(Watch and annotate in Vialogues)

Both have some validity, although I lean more strongly toward OER, for sure. Personally, I try my best to share out project ideas and lesson plans and other resources as freely as I can (see: Video Game Design for the classroom), in the optimistic hope that somewhere, a student might be engaged in something that will light that light (you know the one) or spark a discovery that unveils something new. Ever hopeful, ever the optimist — that’s me.

It’s why I engage in connected communities and why I learn from others while hoping others might learn a bit from what I am doing. I can’t think of a time when I paused and thought, Maybe this should be behind a paywall so I can get a little honey money from the idea.

The success of a site like Teachers Pay Teachers, however, shows another model. That, of turning teaching ideas into cash. What is TPT? The site’s About Us explains and makes perfectly clear: this is a business:

Teachers Pay Teachers is an online marketplace where teachers buy and sell original educational materials.

Now, look, I have paid to download resources from TpT and I found it mostly to be a seamless experience. I found and bought some good resources that helped me in the classroom. Sure, I wish I didn’t have to pay for what I needed, but I also understand the notion that teachers work hard and deserve to make a living (maybe if teachers were paid more fairly, and respected more in society, this would not even be a discussion). When I hit the virtual check-out line at TpT, I figure I am helping support a colleague somewhere and getting a quality resource.

And there are sometimes free resources at TpT. Sort of like nibbling on samples in Costco. They hope you will open your wallet for more.

I dug a little deeper as I was writing this post and boy, I quickly realized just what a huge business model this TPT really is and how it is growing profit maker — prob not so much for the teachers, but for the company overseeing it. The folks at TPT apparently host a periodic conference that appears to teach teachers how to sell themselves and their work (read this teacher’s post-conference reflections) There are a ton of videos on how to launch into the sales site. They have job openings for teachers as marketers, and more.

I was thinking of TpT in reference to an interview I once had with Howard Rheingold, for the Connected Learning Alliance, and he asked me about TpT because he had featured another teacher using TpT.  It struck me as odd, then. Howard was exploring ways teachers use social media and resources to connect with other teachers. I could not equate what she was doing — selling to other teachers — with connected learning principles of openness.

Elsewhere, recently, I found another teacher wrote of TpT:

Selling my teaching materials on this popular website has made me a better teacher and has changed my life! — via blog

Um. Yuck. Sorry, but my hackles got up just perusing it all, the way the business model is seeping into the education model, built on the noble concept of teachers helping other teachers. A conference to help teachers sell themselves and their lesson plans? Yeah, that goes against my philosophical and moral outlook of education as a special kind of societal job, with the greater good baked in there.

Maybe that’s just me.

I am not naive — I know there is an argument to be made for teachers leveraging experience to make a living for their families. And the teacher quoted above might be suggesting that getting plans and resources ready for sale might have forced her to think more deeply about her teaching practice.

Legal Aside: if you develop lessons in the school you teach, who owns the intellectual property? The school or you?  Can you sell it? Do you need permission? I don’t even know. Some lawyer somewhere has already figured it out, I am sure.

Meanwhile, the Open Educational Resource movement (OER Commons is one of many sites) that we are exploring in EL30 is like another planet altogether. Which is not to say that the Open Educational Resource movement is not about quality, too. It is. It’s also about learning together, of sharing together, of collaboration, of considering the greater good.

The question of how to access (if you are looking) and how to distribute (if you are sharing) is a topic of great interest in many circles, particularly at the University level where the costs of textbooks are opening doors to alternatives for professors and students alike. Difficulties around how to license materials, and how to ensure adequate citation of used work, or the act of remixing the content of others  … these are all questions to be considered and barriers yet to be overcome.

But in the battle between open and closed, free or profit … I am all about the open sharing of experiences to make the world a better place. We all will need to be helping each other over that “river” (another reference to Laura’s post)– from here to there.

Teachers helping teachers (from Laura post)

Peace (beyond the marketplace),