Part 2

Part 3

Richard Fouchaux February 2013

Thick Situations: paths towards a framework for 21st-century learning design.

Part 2 — Making thinking visible: from theory to practice

“One of the reasons that there is so much dispute about interpretation may be the divorce of theory from practice. The theorists of interpretation explicate methods only conceptually, without applying them… The practitioners… do not explicate their interpretive methods; … Since theory and practice illuminate each other, more rapid progress could be made if theory and practice were integrated…”
—Thomas Scheff (1986)
Knowledgeable folk who wish to share their knowledge can make their thinking visible in a great number of ways (Reiser, 2004), so I will set some boundaries: I am interested in Web browser based online learning, i.e., learning situated, at least in part, in virtual space and viewed using a Web browser, whichever Web browser that happens to be, running on whichever device the visitor happens to be using, including assistive technologies. I'm interested in the software, mainly open source software, that supports collaborative networks and collaboration, and ways the three main document types of the World Wide Web—HTML, CSS, JavaScript—can be leveraged to support learning.

I begin with an underlying assumption computers and mobile computer technology are being used to create, present, and/or support the resources and activities I'll discuss; equitable access is an important dimension, but immense, so I'll elaborate on only briefly, in section 3.

First I will argue that designers of learning activities must become better drivers of the vehicles we’ll be travelling in, even if we see our main role as navigator, even if most of the real driving will be left to professionals. Knowing the rules and what the vehicle can or can not do, being able to explain clearly the route to be taken, plan logically the sites to be seen, sense when to fuel or schedule pit stops, are all key to being a successful navigator; in the world of rally car driving the navigator is usually called the co-driver (Inak, 2009).

“there is a gap between the potential of technologies to support learning and the reality of how they are actually used and that this is due to a lack of understanding about how technologies can be used to afford specific learning advantages and to a lack of appropriate guidance at the design stage”
(Conole et al. 2007a).
Learning designers should not be looking to IT directors to tell us what tools we must use, but engaging with IT facilitators. All collaborators share a common goal: to create environments not merely supportive but conducive to the activities we imagine, to assure they provide rich opportunities for learning. Bridging the gap between technology's potential and its current state of employment will require teachers and other designers to learn more about the hardware, the software, and the components and programming languages that make them work. By collaborating with educators IT facilitators will inevitably learn more about pedagogy (Conole et. al., 2007).

This may seem daunting, and yet I will assert it need not be, and furthermore that there's no better time to begin than now1. I will present activities that are engaged using a modern Web browser and a text editor. I'll constrain the detailed discussion to three technologies2—HTML(5), CSS(3) and JavaScript(1.8)—attempt to map some uses of them directly to the 4 elements of learning environments according to the cognitive apprenticeship model, and recount some results I've been able to accomplish almost entirely by using informal learning strategies and the Internet. I'll begin though by laying out one last theory of my own, which I feel is demonstrated within the activities that follow. I am suggesting that, when combined in the form of a Web browser-based application, the three aforementioned technologies supplant the role formerly played by documents and manuscripts. As suggested by such terms as “the semantic web3” they form a grammar.

Web “apps1” are wider, deeper documents, suited to presenting “thick descriptions”

Written communication developed from glyphs and ideograms that are essentially an attempt to collect, condense, organize, and display thought. Alphabets, it is generally believed, evolved from the Phoenician practice of using the first sound of a well-known Egyptian hieroglyph, an ideogram, to name the symbols we now understand as consonants and vowels, a process called acrophony, that I argue achieves even greater consolidation of information. In a blog post [November 1, 2012 ] I elaborated on how authors and editors have for centuries used techniques such as footnotes (Grafton, 1999), structures of headlines and teasers to be “continued next page,” and graphic organizers such as symbolic icons in what are in essence attempts to extend the ability of the finite document to contain and convey information (see Fig. 1). Here I further suggest that the motive behind this incessant drive to pack the written page with more information than it can physically hold is to illustrate the communicator's thinking: to make thinking—including the thinking behind the choice and sequencing of the particular information—visible. These techniques have all migrated easily to the World Wide Web and the three free, libre, and open (FLO) technologies that underpin it—hypertext markup language (HTML), cascading styles sheets (CSS) and JavaScript (JS)—have extended exponentially our ability to pack content.

Web designers extend the width and depth of documents in a number of ways, many of which are analogous to older practices from the print world, or attempt to enhance and extend them1. Wikipedia footnotes2 appear at first as normal footnotes, but there's no need to seek fine print at the bottom of the page because when your mouse hovers above the familiar superscript number, the footnote text is displayed in a “popup,” very near the text or idea its purpose is to elaborate (see Fig). This aspect strongly reinforces what Richard Mayer called the spatial contiguity principle: people learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen (Mayer, 2005).

When enhancements take the form of interactions and the visitor can make choices that affect the content she's interacting with we should perhaps begin to question how appropriate it is to call these “documents” (Finlay et al., 2004). Many web sites we encounter nowadays look and behave as desktop applications, and we increasingly refer to them as “web applications.”

We're beginning to acknowledge how such technology impacts traditional views of schooling, but I suggest have yet to fully appreciate how it affects traditionally accepted literacies. Can we still get by with only the “3Rs?” Beyond the “ between the potential of technologies to support learning and the reality of how they are actually used...” (Conole & Fill, 2005) is a gap between how we define literate when we are preparing to read and write documents, and the literacies we'll require if we hope to read and write applications. I'm not advocating that every classroom teacher become a programmer. I'm arguing that familiarity with web application programming and the common vocabulary it promotes will be increasingly essential to effective collaborations between instructional designers and the extended networks with which they will inevitably engage in the process of delivering learning experiences (op. cit.) (Conole, 2007). Cousin (2010) refers to the “informed amateur.”

How might Web apps align with the framework?

In this section I lay out the four main elements of learning environments according to the cognitive apprenticeship framework with their components [Appendix B], and offer Web-based technologies that can drive, support, or enhance their role in designing learning experiences. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, only to start us thinking. Some of the suggestions can easily be applied to more than one stage and element, but further below I'll discuss software that offers other ways to depict such connections without cluttering the list or repeating items1.


Domain knowledge, say Collins, Brown and Holum (1991), is the collection of concepts, facts and procedures pertaining to a specific topic, and as the word “domain” conveys, these are situated in a community or culture of practice. The learning experience must in the design stage consider, and in the execution stage convey, the heuristic, control, and learning strategies that accompany this particular knowledge in this particular domain. Heuristic strategies are “tricks of the trade;” control strategies help us choose between alternative solutions; learning strategies underlie them both.

Social networks, chat rooms and online meetings1 can connect people who physically may be in widely separated locations. Web applications can incorporate technologies such as RSS and ATOM to aggregate relevant material from anywhere on the Internet and place it in your learning environment. Many sites now follow YouTube's lead and allow you to embed their content in your own site. Twitter, for example, provides a “widget” that can collect “Tweets” of people and search terms, which updates in real time.

Methods—strategies with technology

Collins et al. (op. cit.) list the following strategies, which provide a helpful checklist. As a designer at the brainstorming stage you can aim to include multiple examples of each. Aziz Ghefaili (2003) has a comprehensive and tabular rendition of mappings [Appendix C] which is remarkably consistent with today, considering the 10 years that have transpired since.

  • modelling can often be done with video, web cams and screencasts.
  • coaching has been accomplished in a variety of ways on line, from the forum or conferencing to webcasts and self-paced tutorials.
  • scaffolding is expert support. The Internet offers many ways to permit guest participation in a forum, for example, in real-time chat sessions, or by video conference. Popular blogging and content management platforms such as WordPress and Drupal, both with large developer communities, provide easy ways to set these up. But this is not a trivial arena, it is rife with conceptual thresholds yet to be crossed (Meyer, Land, Baillie, 2010). There is still much need for research and what is already known has a long way to go to reach ubiquity. Quintana et al,. (2004), and Reiser, Brian J. (2004) are among those who have explored digital enhancements to scaffolding. “The aim of scaffolding design is to find ways to use the nature of learners' interactions with the tool to help shape their thinking in productive ways… Attempts to provide structure may focus attention and highlight critical features, but the problematizing is only effective if the students can make the connections in bridging from their own intuitive strategies to the structures enforced by the tool” (Reiser, 2004) (Quintana et al., 2004). [Appendix D]
  • articulation and reflection are about the participants' chances and means to reflect and verbalize their learning, in the experts' presence and/or amongst peers. Online forums and conferencing are useful. An idea for an authentic means of articulating that emerged from a workplace conversation I had involves the use of the “versioning” software Git1, which is used in multi-programmer software development environments was the following, which can be adapted beyond software development to any computer based project wherein files in a directory are changed and worked on over a period of time.
  • exploration can be made possible in some technology enhanced learning environments by making specific software available, and in others by granting permissions that are sometimes, mistakenly I would say, reserved for the instructor. Granting all participants the abilities to create and arrange things in an online environment can be risky but also rewarding. If the topic is Web design using JavaScript, HTML and CSS then provides a secure “sandbox” setting in which you can fiddle with scripts and play with ideas without having to commit them to files or transfer them to a web server, and there are analogous tools for other disciplines.

WordPress is ideal for a single user blog, or an educator with a classroom. I believe anyone who can use a common word processor can learn to install their own WordPress and learn to administer it2. Drupal is especially good at forums, but its vastly more powerful architecture and capability comes with a vastly steeper learning curve I'd urge novices to delay until late middle school or high school. If your school or organization has something already, why would you bother with either? You learn more. You'll teach in new ways. You can get away with breaking things. You can set permissions to allow collaboration to draw out local experts. They're authentic; both can lead to viable, marketable skill sets. Penn State University is highly active in Drupal development. Their eLMS learning management system runs on Drupal (, they've contributed a MOOC module (see and Project Ulmus (, a project designed in part to make Drupal easier to use for course management.

Program assessment

It is a curious criticism that in their early work Collins et al. do not say all that much about assessment. In an earlier section I said I believe there's an implicit understanding that certain tasks require demonstrating mastery of prerequisite skills, and a strong implication that formative assessments can be embedded and injected into control strategies (1991:13), but not until later work on Design Research (e.g., 2007:21, 26-27, 29-30, 34-36) is assessment discussed in all its variances—formative, summative, self-, peer-, etc., along with evaluation (and redesign) of theory, program, and process—and with practical examples. Bass and Eynon (2008) suggest challenges to traditional assessment may be inherent in digital learning situations and that, “…faculty who design for this kind of development in new media environments have found that they have to create new ways to stimulate and capture artifacts of student learning that reflect expert processes that are different from traditional summative assessments.” Smyth (2009) has raised similar flags, as well as concern about time and staff transitions required for adoption and their impact on institutional norms (page 123).

I submit that the messy and iterative nature of situated learning environments contribute to liminality (Cousin, 2006, 2010) (Meyer, Land, Baillie, 2010) pointing to a need for alternative assessment repertoires to apply to both student and program performance, and that reciprocal teaching, assisted by technology, can be leveraged to focus the search. Research and personal experience suggest there are further opportunities to draw out local expertise using videography, podcasting, and digital storytelling (Barrett, 2005) (Smyth, 2009). These typically require greater hardware and technical support.

Lizotte et al., (2003) report on their research applying base rubrics to assess explanations as a way to knowing:

Student explanations in two successive enactments of our chemistry curriculum were analyzed using explanation rubrics aligned with key learning goals emphasized in the instructional materials. Data from the first enactment revealed specific student competencies and difficulties with components of explanation. These data were immediately usable as feedback for revising the instructional materials to better align with assessments and learning goals. In the second enactment, following curriculum revisions, students’ explanations demonstrated greater pre-posttest gains relative to the first enactment. (page 2).

I don't know that this specific two-for-one instance offsets all Smyth's concerns, but it seems to indicate there are potential gains that likely can be leveraged to motivate uptake. Lizotte et al. conclude:

We presented data garnered through use of a base rubric for one way of knowing, explanation. The base rubric offers a number of advantages:

  • An instrument for breaking down student “knowing” to reveal key student competencies and difficulties with ways of knowing science content.
  • Provides data about student performances that are immediately usable to teachers and researchers for revising curriculum and instruction.
  • Adaptable to any science content via specific rubrics, promoting consistent assessment of ways of knowing demonstrated by students across content and over time (in this case, over two enactments).
  • Alignment of assessments with instructional materials and learning goals derived from content and ways of knowing, providing sensitive measures of what students understand.
We hope to extend these conclusions to other ways of knowing shortly, and offer a set of base rubrics to the science education community. (Lizotte et al., 2003:12)

In the figure we see Lizotte et al.'s (2003) graphic depicting an assessment-driven design model using base rubrics. Barrett's (2005) Digital Storytelling Research Design Literature Review compiles specific rubrics. Smyth's (2008) specifically recommends further research into ways of knowing via leaner to learner interactions using video.

Have participants reflect often and provide opportunities to share what went on “behind the scenes” of their learning, perhaps by emulating “The Making of…” ones many of us are familiar with from DVDs. Turn that data back on itself utilizing rubrics and the learners' own impressions. This model “…deliberately prefaces the learner and the learning design with a view to refocusing the emphasis of online and distance pedagogy away from the affordances and on to the learners” (Smyth, 2009).

Each of these researchers implicitly acknowledges a basic fact of digital learning. That is the central importance of the story, narrative, dialog—the narration—to which everything else is synchronized. This is why commercial elearning production tools like Adobe Captivate centre around the timeline.

With only an Internet connection it's possible to create “mashups” from diverse sources, as for example, which uses only HTML5, CSS and JavaScript to create an environment similar to Captivate on a creative social network model that you can sign into for free. Thanks mostly to the open source community it is increasingly true that there are solutions for every budget and comfort level.

As my aim is to push the reader to push your own comfort level further, in the section immediately after this I'll present a simple Web app project you can do. But first I'll describe a more advanced project in which I created a “jQuery Plugin,” an HTML5 tool to control events on a web page by synchronizing to audio and video, even as I direct you to popcorn.js, the plugin mine really wanted to be all along. Popcorn.js “…is Mozilla's HTML5 video and media library for the open web. It allows web developers, filmmakers, artists, designers and others to easily create timeline based web productions. Popcorn.js helps simplify media API and implementation differences between browsers and includes a powerful event system and a rich plugin architecture and plugins…Anything you can do on the web can be turned into a Popcorn.js plugin, and become part of a timeline-based web experience.” The URL above shows people will put such tools to diverse purposes, from remixing existing material, for example a TEDNet talk1, to documenting social injustice like Stop and Frisk2 to listing 101 things they intend to do before age 303. These are engaging and creative activities, learning situations encompassing a wide range of so-called competencies, that are currently taking place outside most classrooms.

In the next section I look at sequencing in the digital age. So much of what we do as educators, and in life, is linear, yet we must now also prepare for the asynchronous and divergent. Our tools and pedagogies must accommodate.


I've seen no evidence the most widely used tool for sequencing long-range plans, unit plans, lesson plans and the daily schedule is not the same one it was throughout my teacher training, the word processor, emulating the typewriter that preceded it, modelled after the beautifully hand-written ones Mrs. Wiegner used when I was in 6th grade, kept on her desk in a large weekly planner she let us to check for ourselves when in doubt about homework and test schedules: a list. By the end of each week she'd written all over it, and started filling every margin.

The authenticity we're courting is better achieved by using day-to-day tools people a) own b) are likely to encounter and c) may at any time use in the course of school, work and play. Calendar software can push important dates to web pages, cell phones and other mobile devices.

In workplaces we encounter scheduling and work-flow software. The latter most often help us visualize the thinking behind a plan or process using symbols that indicate steps, milestones and alternate paths or choices.

Henry Gantt designed project management charts that have been with us since the early 20th century (Gantt, 1919). Project management software may be useful for planning all or part of so-called project- or inquiry-based learning experiences. The features are available from makers of most commercial office software and several open source projects exist. I've used one named Gantt Project, and I'm aware of another called Open Workbench. They allow you to add tasks and resources (including human ones and their schedules) to a calendar. At least one university has studied applications of project management to elearning and found it to foster favourable situations for learning, concluding “…the project management processes provided the means for knowledge sharing and knowledge management within the areas of eLearning and Project Management” (Laxton and Applebee, 2010).

Audio and video can be timed to trigger events. At the end of this section I'll describe such a tool I created, and a site based on some open source projects that extends this idea to let visitors create their own mashups of content from all over the Internet.


Social-networks as learning tools: connecting people

Blogging software has found a dual role in content management. Popular free accounts can be easily obtained at and, the teacher-centred edmodo platform combines Facebook-like look and feel with features especially for teachers and recently marked a 15 million user milestone1. WordPress is reasonably easy for any fairly computer-savvy individual to install and manage, and as I'll develop further below, I believe do-it-yourself is a step towards developing 21st century literacies. Drupal is a powerful open source system that can support large multi-user communities, blogs, forums and an immense amount of customization.

Such sites and platforms support thousands of words, multimedia, collaboration and interactivity yet they seem to lack something only the “micro-blogging” platform Twitter provides. Research is nascent, but Naaman et al. (2012), describing what they call “social awareness streams,” showed that only about 20% of tweeters are rightly characterized as “informers,” those who post and follow for purposes of sharing information. The other 80% of Twitter activity they studied inspired another new term, “meformers” those who post “Me Now” messages. “Indeed, the figure suggests that while Meformers typically post messages relating to themselves or their thoughts, Informers post messages that are informational in nature” (pg. 192). But if as reported at September 5, 2012 there are 100 million active Twitter users monthly that's still 20 million people from which to build a PLN. The element of self-promotion that motivates many Twitter users should not be ignored, however.

Twitter's place is at the hub

So-called “authenticity” in learning can be understood as the extent to which the learning is situated within a community of people who share some united interest in the knowledge being sought or produced, or common idea of its value. (Kolb, 1984) (Lave and Wenger, 1991) Sociology is an integral element of the authentic learning environment (Brown et al., 1989) (Collins et al., 1991).

There is now plentiful evidence that a growing number of educators, and many more who think of themselves as stakeholders in education generally, are using social networks (Lowe & Lowe, 2012). More than a few sites and software applications have emerged to compete for parents’, students’, teachers’ and administrators’ attention, seemingly from everywhere, all at once. There are powerful new ways to create, manage and share your own resources and an overwhelming number of great resources available from others. (Wenger, 2006a; Collins et al. 1989a;). But while site like Pinterest may drive a great deal of traffic to blogs, the micro-blogging tool Twitter’s unique feature set has helped establish its role at the hub.

Social networking platforms and tools are already impacting and supporting learning in at least three ways. First, social networking itself is a tool or skill set for learning. Social networking can be used to deliver curriculum. And social networking can be utilized in collaboration to create learning experiences. Teachers seem to find articles such as 30 Twitter Hashtags For Science Lovers2 and 50 Ways to Use Twitter in the Classroom3 immensely helpful, but they do add up. Most of probably hundreds of such no-doubt wonderful ideas that appear on a person's timeline often get swept away in the "digital noise" (Ferriter, 2010). A classroom teacher's bookmarks may include Edmodo, YouTube, and Facebook, Teachhub, PBL-Online and Edudemic, but it's increasingly clear that Twitter has emerged as the hub at the centre.

Teachers use Twitter to plan field trips, chat with industry professionals, connect classrooms, facilitate research, post supplementary materials, to engage students in the classroom, parents outside the school, and colleagues and administrators in networks they can design according to need and interest. Researchers and practitioners are testing strategies and we see best practices and other trends emerging. Successful networks start with a vision, create trust and build consensus, support internal development, evolve mechanisms to deal with inevitable conflict and frustrations, connect data analysis and instructional improvement, and build a knowledge base (Wenger, 2003) (Graham & Ferriter, 2009) (Junco, Elavsky & Heiberger, 2012).

New Twitter users commonly describe an experience curve that travels from scepticism, trial participation, conversion (getting it), dramatically increasing usage and connections (Levine 2007, Stevens 2008, Seimens 2008, Shepherd 2009) through to potential overload (Sierra 2007).

—Tweed project literature review, (Lowe & Lowe, 2012)

It's not surprising to learn that “design of teaching strategies and practices related to virtual engagement and collaboration is instrumental to achieving positive educational outcomes,” but some early research suggests not all are equally ready, that students may need “…to improve their capacity to initiate self-directed, collaborative practices as a means to more effectively take ownership of their learning” through incorporating new technology. Early research also suggests that successful classroom Twitter use requires that professors must participate, and Twitter use must be both structured and required (Junco, Elavsky, and Greg Heiberger, 2012) (Collins, Joseph, Bielaczyc, 2004).

Learning to use Twitter to grow an effective Personal Learning Network (PLN) is not the same as learning to use it as a tool in a learning situation. What you tweet, when you tweet it, the length of your tweets, whom you retweet and who retweets you are all factors in getting established on Twitter (@shoq, 2009). You can over-use hashtags or under-use them, and good use of images in tweets can make your tweets twice as engaging. (, 2012). My personal experiences in now almost two years on Twitter can be described as trial and error.

Using Twitter

I've described joining Twitter as walking into the woods and venturing into the trees. You pick a handle and write a “bio.” My lifelong nickname, a not unreasonable 7 characters, was taken, so I hastily opted for a 12-character variation a former roommate invented, not foreseeing how often I'd miss those 5 extra characters. For the first few weeks I simply walked about my piece of forest tweeting to the folks who happened to be nearby. I soon discovered how to use hash tags to locate like-minded individuals. Your Twitter network is the list of other Twitter users whose “Tweets” you “follow.” There is prestige and credibility associated with having larger numbers of followers, which usually goes with a high ratio of “followers” to “following.” As I contributed and engaged my acceptance by others also grew, and was reflected in a growing list of followers. As I learned my way around I ventured into other parts of the woods, made new contacts and shared different kinds of information with my network, or our information with other networks. So goes Twitter apprenticeship.

I didn't warm to Twitter instantly. My first genuine engagement, when I dropped the last of any scepticism, was outside any of the interests I stated in my bio. The two”hash tags” that first revealed the power of Twitter to me and I'd wager a good number of others were “#Jan25” and “#Tahrir.” I was seeing cell phone pictures in the morning of events sometimes barely minutes after they occurred that wouldn't appear on traditional news outlets until that night, if at all.

Celebrity seems to guarantee followers, but everyday people do a number of things to attract and keep followers. These can include social niceties, such as tweeting “Welcome new followers!” or “Thanks for the Retweet” at appropriate times and “Follow Fridays” when people share and recommend their favourite “follows” accompanied by the culturally recognized hash tag, “#FF.”

TweetStats is a service that reveals a great deal of information about how people actually use Twitter. One tab shows how many Tweets happened, when, in reply to whom, from what kind of device, and top retweets for a particular user. On another you can visualize the data as a word cloud4 (called a TweetCloud, naturally) of top mentions and topics, and once you’ve done so for an account you can track “follower” and “unfollower” statistics from that point forward. If you have an idea of a rubric5 demonstrating engagement and on-task behaviour, or other standards you wish to establish in your environment, either for your personal learning community or any experience you design using Twitter, TweetStats can already report some enlightening information. It seems to me this is a direction in which educators can push for further development or show initiative with their own open source projects. [, accessed 2011-2012]

From my unscientific survey of my own TweetStats and “timeline” I've come to sense a great deal about what I can and can't do to maintain my followers list. An important aspect appears to be listing your interests accurately in the “bio” and sticking to tweets that reflect them. I experimented with posting highly political tweets reflecting a single political point of view and lost many education-centred followers, but gained large numbers of others. By contrast, many who seemed to follow for political and ideological reasons don't seem to flinch after days of education-only tweets. I tried creating other accounts for specific topics, and that practice seemed to have some merit, but using a pseudonym seems to have both positive and some negative effects. All of these aspects merit further research in light of Twitter adoption. Research is still limited (Lowe & Lowe, 2012), requiring larger more inclusive studies and more diverse methods (Junco et al., 2012).

Business is also driving a great deal of research into social media, its usage, and ways to track, analyze, anticipate and ultimately to monetize people's behaviours on Twitter and other social networks (Thomas, 1992) (Christensen et al., 2008) (Lowe & Lowe, 2012).

Putting it all together: design research, learning design; 21st century competencies, or literacies?

In the preceding paragraphs I've followed each branch of the cognitive apprenticeship framework proposed by the ILR, mainly in the 1980s, to forge paths to what I am calling computer-assisted learning situations, I've named software and general classes of software that are available to us today. Google is a good resource for wire-frame and storyboard sites and applications. As a designer, even when you believe that you have a full inventory of content and methods, that you've charted a complete itinerary of your story's plot, sequence and setting, and you have as overall an understanding of your audience's sociology as one can have, execution remains abstract until it actually takes place. Designing contexts is creative, but above all, design is purposeful (Hoadley, 2002).

Design learning “…is a creative process that offers new ways of thinking and sharing ideas in a group. …design is a process in which problems can be discussed and solved; the educational atmosphere is open to new ideas and design is seen as a generic cultural activity. [The] …aim is to research how to understand people’s creative mind in the design learning processes and how to learn, develop and practise it in the learning environments of teacher education, schools and day care centres…” (Ruismäki & Ruokonen, 2011). The goals of design learning are iterative, transformational and process focused (Seitamaa-Hakkarainen, 2011).

The next section looks at efforts to put these findings into practice in two areas. The first example is the story of an open source mind-mapping program that has been adapted to learning design. The second introduces digital storytelling, and I'll point out the role of synchronized narration in common training modules, with examples including a tool of my own, some open source projects that get it as well, and some ideas to situate these for learning.

Introspection and iteration

At the World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications in Vienna in the summer of 2008, Conole et al. (2008) referred to a 2007 internal report of the Open University, a review of forty-four case studies made up of interviews with teachers across different subject disciplines within the Open University focusing on how they were using technologies in their courses, how they designed the courses and what support mechanisms they used (if any) and concluded that design is “inherently... messy, creative and iterative” (page 5).

Elsewhere Conole has said educational textbooks leave the impression design is linear, but in practice designers “...juggle a range of questions, focusing on different aspects of the design process at different points in time... Therefore any form of support or tool for the design process needs to be cognisant of this messy, multifaceted and iterative approach.” (Conole, 2007 draft). Andreas Harrer (2008) concurs. Noting methods of software engineering are seldom used in learning system design, he thinks combining different software engineering approaches—example architectures (e.g., reference architectures, architectural patterns, and frameworks), implementation-oriented approaches from the field of software engineering (e.g., patterns, component-based design, and re-factoring), and formal tutoring process descriptions, and then relating them to each other creates a pattern language that can tidy up the corresponding messiness within tool design (Harrer in Pahl, 2008).

The goal of learning design research and the objective of tools such research inspires is to “capture and represent practice” while “making effective use of tools and pedagogies.” Innovative taxonomies and matrices were among representations uncovered at Caledonian Academy (Glasgow) by the Models for Learning project (Mod4L). Narrative case studies emerged as a popular means of analysis, and a sequencing strategy, “temporal sequences,” was outlined. A design concept borrowed from architecture, pattern languages, has also been explored (Schmidt et al., 2000) (Finlay et al., 2009). The Pattern Language Network for Web 2.0 in Learning (Planet) project “…aimed to develop and demonstrate an effective community-based mechanism for capturing and sharing successful practice, based on the pattern approach. A pattern describes an effective solution to a recurrent problem embedded in a specific context and is characterised by being drawn from successful practice rather than from theory, …however, the process of eliciting and capturing patterns from authentic practice is not trivial and is rarely an inclusive community-based activity. It is this problem that Planet has sought to address.” say Finlay et al. (2009). Harrer has looked at the intelligent tutoring system (ITS), also often called intelligent tutoring system [ITS]) through this lens, but “the pure architecture description does not provide guidance in software development…” and so “…from the perspective of computer science—ITSs are hardly comparable” (Harrer in Pahl, 2008).

Guided support—scaffolding—in the form of toolkits and planners, have been conceived and created to facilitate the design of learning activities (2007 draft:2-3). Colone et al. caution the latter can be too prescriptive and the former too abstract. Their project, the

C21 & P21: A 21st Century Learning Framework for Canada, and a Partnership for 21st Century Skills;

Canada and the US are both engaged in efforts to improve education, and both countries have identified goals and objectives. In Canada Computer and Digital Technologies are a 21st Century Competency because “The 21st Century is a technology and media driven environment and digital literacy is an essential competency for both learners and teachers” (C21, 2012:10-11) [Appendix E]. In the US they've identified 21st Century Skills because “…we live in a technology and media-driven environment, marked by access to an abundance of information, rapid changes in technology tools and the ability to collaborate and make individual contributions on an unprecedented scale” (P21 2-pager:1-2). In both countries we do this for nation building “Effective citizens and workers must be able to exhibit a range of functional and critical thinking skills, such as: Information Literacy, Media Literacy, ICT (Information, Communications and Technology) Literacy…” (pg. 2). Canadians believe “Public education is a community and societal enterprise where all Canadians share both the responsibility for and benefits of providing high quality and modern learning opportunities” (C21, 2012:4). Both initiatives use the word “authentic” to describe the kinds of situations we need to create in order to nurture 21st century skills. Both initiatives are led and financed by the world's largest corporations and are steeped in neo-liberal free-market rhetoric and values (Apple,) (Reid, ) ().

Creating a mobile Web app is an authentic 21st activity with a certain allure. I've developed an approach to this that requires almost no prior knowledge, provides short term gratification and opens the door to much deeper engagement.

Digital storytelling

“Storytelling and learning are inextricably intertwined because the process of composing a story is also a process of meaning-making,” says Gail Matthews-DeNatale (2008). While any story delivered by any digital means meets the generic definition, work at the Center for Digital Storytelling has refined that to “a 3-5 minute video produced by someone who is not a media professional, typically constructed as a thought piece on a personal experience that is important to the author” (page 4) (See Dr. Matthews-DeNatale's “Webology,” 2008, Appendix H).

I've suggested storytelling has a role in assessment of both the learner and the learning situation (Ghefaili, 2003) (Smyth, 2009). But I sense the role of storytelling is much “thicker,” if you will. The idea of narrative has thoroughly entered the public lexicon, we hear it regularly in newscasts []. I've taken a course entitled “Discourses of Race, Racist Discourses.” We ask, “So what's your story?” We stick to our stories. Stories compel us. “I'm not sure I believed her, but I gave her 10 bucks for a cab—she sure told a good story!”

In teaching, storytelling has been used to “…enhance self-esteem, develop critical thinking, model behaviors, and to teach cultural sensitivity and communication skills” (Davidhizar & Lonser, 2003). Baldwin and Dudding (2007), have compiled 44 pages of compelling evidence of the practical applications of storytelling in their online reference, “Storytelling in Schools: Quantitative Studies, Innovative Projects - A Reference Guide.1,” and powerful statements from groups like the Youth, Educators and Storytellers Alliance (YES! Alliance; [Appendix F]). Digital storytelling can “[encourage] a historian, for example, to delve into multimedia applications while exposing a computer scientist to the ideas of narrative through family lore. Creating and watching digital stories has the potential to increase the information literacy of a wide range of students.” (ELI, 2007). I believe the fundamental centrality of the narrative—the story—to any learning situation is why multimedia content creation tools from PowToons2 to Captivate3 are designed around a timeline interface that permits the synchronization of audio or video to other events and objects' appearances, timed to emphasize the story being told. I wanted to do that with a Web app. I found that with Google and my well above average but completely unschooled familiarity with JavaScript I was able to make a simple presentation tool that runs in a Web browser. I'll share the code and concept here, and suggest it as an eventual extension to the Web app project I sketch out more completely below.

jSyncWithMedia: an HTML5 “jQuery plugin” to sync page elements with media

JavaScript is technically a scripting language, it's typical role is to enhance interfaces and create interactions on Web pages. jQuery is a JavaScript framework, a library of prefabricated constructs and conventions that allows coders to “write less, do more” (jQuery motto; see Web-site). Programmers don't know every language; they know what syntax is, they know where and how to look things up. Programmers are very often experts at learning how to learn. If you want to make something for the first time with HTML5 audio or video and jQuery you can start by reading the Application Programming Interface, or API.

Time code

Google “HTML5 audio and video API” and you will get over a million results, but I chose the 3rd one from the top when I searched it, the W3C's “HTML5 Video Events and API4”. In object-oriented programming I want to know what properties, methods and events the object “exposes.” Properties are characteristics like width and height, currentTime or paused. Methods are also called functions, which means they get parentheses after their names, and are mostly commands, like play(), pause(), or mute(). Sometimes you can make the command more specific by putting something in the parentheses to pass to it. Events will happen, are happening, or happened, e.g., ended, loadeddata, or timeupdate. When I thought about it a bit I realized for my main purpose I only need to know one property, the currentTime, and one event, timeupdate. I didn't worry about any other events until I wanted to roll credits, then I started “listening” for ended. As it happens, the audio and video elements have almost identical methods and events and many of the same properties. The full jQuery API is at

jQuery gets its name from its ability to ask questions, but it's more like x-ray lenses; give an element a unique id and jQuery will find it, tell you what it's doing, reveal its inner workings, steal its identity, …even clone it! There are many places to apprentice informally in jQuery on line. jQuery for Designers5 and the tutorials there, made by Remy Sharp, are superb examples of instructive digital storytelling based on thinking out loud. jQuery is really just a command to give the unique object(s) or class(es) you pass it the extensive set of enhanced properties, methods and events the imaginative jQuery community has rolled in6.

The next most important thing to know about jQuery is that it supports community-contributed “plugins.” A jQuery plugin typically focuses a specific set of jQuery tasks on an object or class of objects for a specific purpose, like setting cookies, or transforming a list of images into a slide show. jQuery uses CSS and HTML to find things. In CSS, unique objects start with a “#” Classes start with a dot “.” Generic HTML tags have neither. To do something with all the paragraphs (

) on a page you say jQuery('p'), to get paragraphs you've styled to contain quotes (

) you say jQuery('p.quotes'), if it's the unique paragraph you said was for the Einstein quote (

) you don't need to remind jQuery it's a paragraph or a quote, just call jQuery('#AlfredE'). jQuery is so valuable to programmers they gave it a shortcut, “$” so you can just type $('#AlfredE').

I wanted to sync items to my media, so I created a class of items I called .syncItem. As quick as jQuery is, you only want to send it searching once, so you copy it as a variable and work with the copy. The statement: $media = $('audio,video'); gets all the audio and video elements on your page (I use the dollar sign to remind myself it's media with jQuery superpowers). $syncItems = $('.syncItem') gets every image (), div (
) or other object I designate a syncItem. The only other thing I need is a way to tell when something is supposed to be on or off. HTML5 knew I might ask something like that, so it gave me a customizable data- attribute. I can put anything I want after the hyphen, e.g., data-on. I was courteous though, and put “jswm” in between, in case another plugin wants to turn something on or off.
/* Check items' on/off as media plays */ $media.on({ timeupdate : function(event) { var cT = this.currentTime, cTd = cT.toFixed(1) ; if ( DEBUG ) { console.log('Syncing items... '); } /* The each() command runs other commands on each item in a group */ $syncItems.each(function(i,item){ var neg1, on, off, turnMeOn, turnMeOff, n, msg, theTxt = $(item).text() ; /* I break the logic up so I can visualize and understand it: * give variables meaningful english names, then I lay them * out in a line and try to account for all possibilities. * How would a programmer do this? */ neg1 = parseFloat(-1.0); /* just being clear */ /* Get the value of the on and off attributes */ on = parseFloat( $(item).attr('data-jswm-on') ) || neg1 ; // if there's no on, set -1 off = parseFloat( $(item).attr('data-jswm-off') ) || 0 ; /* Set data-jswm-off="-1" * for a "The End" or credits screen * * I gave variables names that tell what they do ...and that I can remember. */ turnMeOff = ( off <= 0 || ( off > 0 && cT >= off ) ) ? true : false ; turnMeOn = ( ( on <= 0 && on > -1 ) || ( cT >= on && cT < off && turnMeOff === false ) ) ? true : false ; n = i + 1 ; // This logic should be looked at for ways to improve. if(turnMeOn === true && turnMeOff === false) { $(item).attr('aria-expanded','true'); } else if (turnMeOn === true && turnMeOff === true || (turnMeOn === false && turnMeOff === false) || (turnMeOn === false && turnMeOff === true ) ) { $(item).attr('aria-expanded','false'); } });/* ^end $media.on */ } /* ^end $media.on */

This is not finished code, it contains flaws. Would a formal computer class find any value in fixing it, or start over from scratch? I didn't know all the data- attribute could accomplish, so I read it from the elements themselves in the each() function, which can't be optimal. The program attempts to read this information for as many items as I mark class=”syncItem” as many times per second as the timeupdate event fires. Scalability, the ability of a program to continue working well under increased load from more users and data, is one of the main things Tantek Çelik said separates programmers with computer science backgrounds from “jQuery plugin monkeys” like me (Fouchaux, 2011 blog post7) (Miraglia, 2010a). That said, I've placed as many as 45 “syncItems” on a page and the program still runs well and catches the timings. The end user's browser and system make the most difference in this regard, as JavaScript runs on the “client side,” not the server. The “JavaScript engine” under Google Chrome's hood is their “V8 JavaScript Engine” and is said to execute code more quickly than other engines8. A quickly-emerging JavaScript technology that has a built-in V8 engine is “node.js” and it's already changing the way developers think about Web applications (Miraglia, 2010b)

Timeline interface

So far the only way to set the timings is to hard code them in. How do we get from listening, jotting down timings with pencil on paper then typing them in and fine tuning, and I soon found I wasn't prepared to work so hard… Adobe Captivate's timeline is so advanced compared to anything I was ever going to do myself.

I did come up with something, and again it was largely the result of inforrmal learning and intrinsic motivation. But this one falls back on job training I had years earlier in XML and CFML (ColdFusion Markup Language.) Audacity is an open source audio format that generates files with the .aup extension and subfolders filled with raw audio output. For reason I don't recall I opened a .aup file with my text editor one day, and noticed it's really an XML file that stores all the information about the raw audio in the subfolders as text.

XML, as I like to say in presentations, is like the Universal Translator in Star Trek, it allows applications to “talk” with each other in their own language. Many programs, including ColdFusion, have XML libraries and can easily read and manipulate the data within XML files. I was able to use the label feature from Audacity to set start and end times, read the file with ColdFusion and generate the HTML code I needed in a fraction of the time it took to do it manually. Figures 11 & 12 show the interface in Audacity and its output; Fig 13 shows a test page with code generated from the audio file “labels” track. The details and code can be found on my blog9.

Mozilla's Popcorn.js project is a robust, collaborative open source project that accomplishes elegantly what my project attempts to do. They've built an all-HTML5 media mashup tool at I feel has great potential to engage people in situations where learning can't help but take place.

Open University Learning Design Project, complemented the theoretical/analytical side of their research with the development of a learning design tool and workshops to support its adoption. The tool is an adaptation of an open source “mind-mapping” or brainstorming tool, Compendium. (pp 4-5).

In the next section I'll discuss this category of software that makes thinking visible by allowing the user to label and annotate objects that represent ideas, goals, or arguments and draw links between them or to resources that relate to them and indicate the relationship or connection. There is now a good selection of mind- or concept-mapping software educational experience designers will find very helpful in making their thinking visible, by offering ways to illustrate the connections between the four main pieces of every learning environment. Nearly all of these programs are built with Internet collaboration in mind. Such software can find a role in lesson planning (Conole, Brasher et al., 2008), lesson plans (I'll offer an example of my own), and as John Budd (2004) and others have found, in the lessons themselves.

Mind (idea/concept) mapping: connecting concepts and ideas

Mind mapping and brainstorming software allows us to document and support the rationale behind choices and the connections between ideas. For those who design and develop learning situations they can be design platforms or unit planners (Conole, 2007), shorter lesson planners, or underpin the lesson itself (Budd, 2004).

I've written about one such program, Compendium1, and I’ve tried my hand at mapping an understanding of cognitive apprenticeship. First I simply listed the pieces of the Collins, Brown and Holum (1991) framework, assigning symbolic icons to imply their role, positioning them visually so as to reflect their hierarchy. Then I use colour-coded arrows to indicate relationships between them. In the software these objects can all be opened as dialog boxes, which can store further details. “Mouseover” or “rollover” effects (anything the software does in response to a user placing their mouse pointer over something on the screen) let you peek inside.

Two close-ups of the maps within:

The maps above list the parts of the framework. In Compendium you can draw additional items as you brainstorm and you can put terms “inside” other items, for example double-click the Content->Questions icon and find the actual questions stored inside. You can label the lines, change the directions of the arrowheads or put arrowheads on both ends. You can also export an interactive version in HTML2 and other formats.

Gráinne Conole of The Open University, UK has researched the use of Compendium specifically as a tool for the design of learning experiences, and they have developed a branch of the application known as CompendiumLD, for “Learning Design,” (Conole, 2007draft, 2007a, 2008) and a recent report has discovered many benefits of this tool's visualization abilities to the process of designing learning experiences (Cross, Galley, Brasher, and Weller, 2012).

I learned on December 15, 2012 in Compendium Institute Newsgroup Digest #1389, that Compendium itself will receive a long overdue overhaul, and the source code seems to be finding its way to more friendly repositories. A recording of a Compendium developer meeting3 contains details, and may also be of interest to see how Compendium is used to add idea-mapping to the task of recording minutes4.

Visual Understanding Environment (VUE) is another idea-mapping tool, with a highly intuitive interface and some features that make it very convenient for presenting the maps you can make as presentations. Like Compendium you can stuff the nodes with lists and documents or link to outside resources. It has a feature for connecting to shared repositories. VUE can perform Connectivity Analysis of the links in complex maps, revealing thick connections. VUE uses OpenCalais5, a meta-data web service that connects similar types of data by category and context. There is work under way to integrate these features with Drupal6 and WordPress7. The result for designers of Internet learning situations are expanded immensely with quick access to a global database of related resources to import into projects, and a greatly expanded audience for the resources and situations we create. Wikipedia has lists of free and proprietary mind-map and idea mapping software. I’d like to try it all at some point but thus far I looked at “VUE,” or Visual Understanding Environment, a project at Tufts University. I found it to be very intuitive, it has a large and versatile set of features, produces a result similar in many ways to that of Compendium, and it can be used as a unique and powerful presentation tool. Also like Compendium they have a user community and a gallery that will tell you far more than I possibly can.

Budd points out some very significant differences between the mind map and the traditional, linear outline and states these have powerful implications for learning:

…note that each branch is captured by a single key word, not a phrase or sentence. Using single words reduces ideas to their core. Important ideas are not obscured by extraneous words, and new associations are not limited by more specific phrases. …The central point in the Mind Map must always be an image because the brain is drawn to an image more …differences in the size of the branches and the associated words are used to reinforce associations and to add emphasis. …the use of color is important in creating Mind Maps. …many Mind Maps use one color for each major category to aid in organization. …These differences can make Mind Maps powerful tools. …Research on memory and learning emphasizes the importance of associations, and the radiant structure of a Mind Map with explicit branches promotes associations. The use of color for different categories can also make more powerful associations. The use of emphasis in a Mind Map, for example with thicker main branches and larger printing, can also help the recall of information. The focus on using single key words can foster more expansive connections, and confining the entire Mind Map to a single piece of paper allows one to see the entire picture at once and perhaps stimulate additional associations. (Budd, 2004:37-8)

John Budd’s article is accompanied by samples of hand-drawn maps that, in my opinion, also reveal how far technology still has to go to match humans’ capacity for expression. Neither Compendium, nor from what I’ve seen so far VUE, has the ability to vary the width of connecting arrows, let alone supply the “branches” of a map with bark [n.b. Since first writing that sentence I've seen many others that do thicknesses (still no bark). See "Vic's list" at the end of this post]. Educators can do much to influence the design of software by engaging directly with software developers and designers on social networks like Twitter. You do not need software to use mind maps in lesson plans.

Mind Maps can be used to add active and collaborative learning to courses. Students are engaged in active learning as they wrestle with ideas, associations, and categories in creating a Mind Map-they are creating their own Mind Map, not simply looking at one created by the instructor. The exercise is collaborative because the Mind Maps are created as a small group effort. A collaborative relationship between the instructor and students can also be established as the instructor helps with the constructions of the Mind Maps, but as a “guide on the side” not as the “sage on the stage” (Budd, 2004:42).

Because of the reliance on hierarchies, says Budd, concepts or classroom exercises that do not fit traditional outline structure are probably not good candidates for the creation of a mind map. Even in early explorations of collaborative concept mapping software I’ve noticed, in forum discussions and newsletters, a common motif that points to another criticism: mappers often say things like “this works for me” while maybe the internal logic isn’t quite as apparent to everyone. I believe such criticism can be overcome by perseverance, collaboration and openness to feedback.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, "Triple A-S" (AAAS), maintains The Strand Map Service (SMS). This service includes a JavaScript API for developers8. As the site tells us, “The SMS JavaScript API lets Web developers insert interactive AAAS Strand Maps into Web pages using JavaScript and place custom content into the bubble inside the maps.” See Appendix G for an example showing how AAAS uses mind maps to display connections between outcomes and strands across grades, or browse The National Science Digital Library (NSDL) HTML/CSS/JavaScript version on line (AAAS, 2012).

I’ve experimented using Compendium to take notes in meetings, for sorting research, choosing between possible software solutions, and for planning. I’m now very interested in presentations using VUE. When it comes to mind mapping software I now often find myself saying, “This works for me.”

Mind-mapping software is recommended at the 8th grade level by the United States' Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21 Common Core Toolkit, 2012). The Canadian parallel, C21 Canada: Canadians for 21st Century Learning and Innovation, speaks of ubiquity of WIFi and mobile devices. Both projects speak of new literacies, but neither speaks explicitly of programming, let alone informal learning. In the next section I'll outline a project in which participants who may start out with minimal or no programming skills create a Web app suitable for a mobile device. I'm presenting this project-based approach to acquiring 21st century competencies as a mind map. As you will see, I found VUE very easy to begin using quickly for an overall picture of the elearning situation, but I believe the learning-design-specific features of CompendiumLD might present a clearer picture of the task itself for users when I master both equally (see accompanying CD or

Project: Creating a mobile Web app

Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) is now in version 5, and for the first time in many years the upgrade comes with greater freedom (Berjon et al., W3C, 2013). In the activity I've designed a single participant can work alone to create a shell that can be used as a show & tell about an interest or hobby, a wrapper to hand in assignments in a variety of classes, or could house a tool to assist with some other task, for example a word or character counter.

My first attempt at using CompendiumLD was actually to describe this activity, which I had in mind for some time even before my awareness of CompendiumLD. It's a PBL situation in which participants create a web app they can access from their smart phone. It looks and behaves like a sophisticated app, and as a project has as many options and extensions as a situation designer can imagine and pull resources together to execute. At its most basic it consists of 2 tasks a single person can complete in about 30 minutes, but if you had 30 people they'd work in groups and extend the project accordingly—in other words this project scales1 well. The first task is to download and install the server environment, and the steps are:

  1. Install a well-known portable web development environment,
  2. learn to start and stop the web server,
  3. learn what and where the root folder is and create a sub-directory to hold a personal project,
The second task is to create a basic 3 to 5 page web app using a template provided in advance. This stage has opportunity for play, experiment and improvisation. In a classroom setting groups may well start healthy competitions.
  1. Copy the template from the Web based tool into a plain text editor,
  2. customize it with information related to your idea and save it as “index.html” in the personal Web folder created in the first task,
  3. create at least 2-4 other “pages” and link them with each other. At this early stage be sure to use lists and buttons to set up navigation,
  4. explore the jQuery Mobile site and see what is available. Try copy/pasting some of the items you find there into your application2.
The concept map in Fig 14 was made with the Tuft University Visual Understanding Environment software, and appears in interactive form on the accompanying CD and at Unfortunately when I pasted HTML code directly into VUE´s information dialogs it was interpreted literally, breaking the exported image map3. These can be fixed manually by someone with adequate knowledge of HTML, but it would be frustrating for the average user. While the learning curve seemed steeper and the interface somehow more “dated” I found CompendiumLD, from The Open University UK, to be a robust and powerful planning tool, with features I suspect may correlate with the Guidelines and Strategies for scaffolding design discussed above [Appendix D], as well as Gráinne Conole's (2005 with Karen Fill, 2007, 2008 with others) research, that guided its development. Fig. 21 shows icons I think use “representations” to bridge user understanding. This use of icons demonstrates a way to “…provide visual conceptual organizers to give access to functionality” (Quintana et al., 2004). Figs. 22 and 23 show tasks recast as activities within the larger activity. Arrows can be color-coded and labeled, and might indicate progression through steps or another relationship, depending on the types of nodes being joined.

I hope the individual track can be accomplished quickly by anyone interested in the idea. You can put together “snippets” of code from the lesson plan and the Web resource and alter them to get the hang of it, but you'll need a good idea, wireframes and storyboards up front to make a truly meaningful app.

The full scope of a group project is not fulfilled here—practitioners and designers should know their audiences and add details accordingly. I recommend extending the individual activity with a Human Rights, Our Community or About Me theme, which contain intrinsic motivations and are open to participant interpretation. Designers should know up front who'll be available as experts (e.g., friends and family, community, local businesses), and in what capacity (online? In person?), and set up a small-working-group jigsaw. Groups should do a lesson in making storyboards and wireframes, and follow up with a well planned project brainstorming before actually building their application.

Find the project on line at and accompanying CD.