Moving forward – digital literacy in corrections education programs

Today I presented at the Correctional Education Association conference for mid-western states. My Northstar Digital Literacy Assessment colleagues and I have been getting a number of requests from county jails in Minnesota about how our digital literacy standards align with what is required to pass the new computerized GED exam.  The good news is that if a learner can succeed with our assessments, he or she likely has the skills to take the GED.

The bad news is that the best way to learn how to use computers and the Internet is to use them, and many of these learning centers in jails and prisons do not allow access to the Internet.

The presentation was a starting point for me. I learned about the very real limitations placed on educators who work in prison classroom and technology labs. I also heard that they are looking for creative ways to prepare their learners for life after incarceration, and that means a life where much (beyond the GED) needs to be accomplished online.

Here’s a link to my slides.  Please post a note to me if you’d like to further discuss.

TESOL 2014 Presentation Materials

Here are my presentation materials from the TESOL International Convention in Spring 2014. I’d be happy to answer questions! Feel free to post a note to me below.

Online distance learning for adult ELLs: Promising instructional practice

Technology Integration in ESL Classrooms

Credentialing with Digital Badges

A new movement in credentialing has been growing over the past few years: the digital badges movement. Digital badges are a way to display skills learned both in and out of the classroom. They were described in as “electronic images” earned for a demonstrating skills in “multiple learning spaces, including after-school programs, summer workshops, K-12 classrooms, and universities. And once earned, the badges could follow students throughout their lifetimes, being displayed on websites or blogs and included in college applications and résumés.” They are also often used to show independent learning and skills in service and volunteering, online learning and computer skills, and job skills or work experience.

This video describes badging well.

The Mozilla Foundation has created a powerful new way to coordinate and standardize badges: “Open Badges.” It is a common system for issuing, collecting, and displaying badges earned on multiple instructional websites. Badge issuers can align tasks for badges they wish to offer with community-defined standards.  From either the Open Badges site or local agency sites, learners are referred to provider content: for example, a form to fill out or learning modules connected to assessment. Once completing a task, a learner is awarded a badge, which is then stored in the Badge Backpack, a webpage that serves as a transportable portfolio to be shared with employers or other stakeholders who need to know a learner’s skills and experience.

We’ve decided to badge our Northstar Digital Literacy Assessments, online interactive assessments that low-literacy youth and adults can take to prove their skills and find out where they need more study and practice. “Open Badges” is an ideal means by which the NSDL assessment test takers can keep a record of assessments they have passed. Through the badges system, they also have a connection to additional learning opportunities. For example, the Mozilla Web Literacy Standards offers opportunities to learn and demonstrate skills reflecting skills just above what is tested in the NSDL assessments. In this way, Open Badges provides a pathway for skill attainment, documenting learning that happens outside of the classroom, making it perfect for many of the nontraditional adult learners that are attracted to NSDL.

The badges approach to credentialing reflects the flexibility of learning opportunities afforded by the Internet. It is recognition that much learning happens outside of formal education. It is a new perspective on documenting learning and is supported by the MacArthur Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, HASTAC, the American Education Research Association, and the US Department of Education.


Collaboration and Constructivist Online Learning Models Support Cultural Inclusiveness

Smith & Ayers (2006) and Hannon & D’Netto (2007) both write about the propensity of online learning to amplify epistimologies of Western culture. If that is the case, it mitigates the potential promise of using technology to reach new audiences of adult learners and using the Internet as a tool for equity. We know that our adult basic education programs in the U.S. only serve about 10% of adults with basic skill needs.  According to Smith & Ayers (2006), most of these previously unreached adults do not share a cultural affinity with the creators’ web content, so the Internet and online learning can be perceived as another place represented by a discourse that excludes them.

Because students of different cultures learn in different ways, instructional designers and teachers must strive to understand cultures of diverse/potential student bodies to provide culturally responsive learning opportunities.  Online content could do this by using a “multiple-cultures” paradigm that is constructivist/cooperative, relevant for minority students AND helps them navigate dominant culture. McLoughlin (2000), as described by Smith & Ayers (2006) provides suggestions to ensure this type of opportunity:

  1. Learning is contextualized in action and played out in everyday situations.
  2. True knowledge is acquired through active participation.
  3. Learning is a process of social action and engagement rooted in distinctive ways of thinking, acting, and communicating.
  4. Learning can be assisted by experts and solidified through apprenticeship.
  5. Learning is an important means of participating in a social environment. (p. 409)

I’m going to keep this list in my back packet. It’s a reminder of the strengths of constructivist-modeled learning opportunities and reminds me that learning in online communities happens beyond transmission of pre-defined content.

Hannon, J., & D’Netto, B. (2007). Cultural diversity online: student engagement with learning technologies. International Journal of Educational Management, 21(5), 418–432.

Shaffer, B. (2012). Overview of Adult Basic Education in Minnesota – FY 2012. St. Paul.

Smith, D. R., & Ayers, D. F. (2006). Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Online Learning: Implications for the Globalized Community College. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 30(5-6), 401–415.

Building Trust

There is ample research and writing on building community that discusses the importance of building trust. Whether it is in a classroom or an online environment, learners must trust that the course will be a source of learning, that their classmates will be respectful and contribute to their knowledge, and (most importantly) that the teacher is trustworthy. If trust is lacking in an online environment, there is no discussion or interaction, and hence, according to Ortner (2010), no community. In other words, any socio-cognitivist aspirations the instructor or designer has about learners co-constructing knowledge will be left unfulfilled.

I have lived this as a designer/facilitator of online learning! My first troubling experience like this was with a group of teachers, new to technology, who wanted to learn more about social media and technology integration into their classrooms. I used Schoology as an online learning venue and set up modules allowing for lots of interaction. During our in-person orientation and kick-off meeting, I gave them time to play in the site and gave support where needed. When it was time for them to personalize their homepage and leave an introductory blog post, they resisted. I heard many concerns about privacy and reluctance or refusal to put anything personal online.

No matter how I explained privacy settings and the security of the site, several refused to do anything that would contribute to developing their social presence online. They were very afraid of posted information being used against them and of identity theft. I allowed them to follow their intuition and didn’t press them; however, not surprisingly, these same teachers refused to participate in the online discussion. They said that they were worried about being judged by others in the group. They didn’t see how sharing their ideas could be a springboard for learning. I see a direct connection between their unwillingness to engage socially, TO TRUST, and their resistance to share their opinions and contribute to both their own and their colleagues’ learning.

How could I have prevented this? I think I should have started with baby steps. First of all, they didn’t know me personally, so I had none of what Brookfield (2006) referred to as “authenticity”. My assurances were not enough to mitigate their fears about privacy on the Internet. I could have put all of these beginners in an isolated group and had them practice interacting using low-impact topics where we could all get to know each other. Such sheltered, unstressful discussion may have eased their fears, proving that the only readers of their writing were trusted, nonjudgemental colleagues. I hope I get a chance to try this again with newcomers!

Brookfield, S. (2006). What students Value in Teachers. In The Skillful Teacher: On Trust, Technique, and Responsiveness in the Classroom (pp. 67–78). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kelly, R. (2008). Creating Trust in Online Education. Faculty Focus: Higher Ed Teaching Strategies. Retrieved from

Ortner, N. A. (2010). Developing trust; the superglue of online communities. California Virtual Campus. Retrieved from

Social-constructivist Pedagogy and Online Professional Development in Adult Learning

Here to help. by mag3737 on flickr

Anderson & Gron (2011) write about the evolution of pedagogies afforded by technology developments in online learning. I’m just embarking on two new online PD opportunities that I have designed (with a colleague) and will facilitate. In each, the pedagogy most evident is the social-constructivist (SC) model. I think that’s crucial in order for the PD to have any lasting impact on the practice of the teachers. The organizing idea behind each of them is a Community of Practice, groups of practitioners working together to reach a shared goal. Two defining characteristics of SC pedagogy are authenticity and socially situated learning, where participants share reflection and responses to each others ideas. Through this interaction, learning can occur.

This is a new approach for many practitioners of Adult Basic Education. Most prefer one-shot workshops or conference presentations for learning (Marchwick, et al, 2008). Because of this, their first experience in online CoP-styled learning will likely determine their perception of its impact. I’m going to work hard to create supportive structure AND be responsive to their needs throughout the experience.

Anderson, T., & Dron, J. (2011). Education Pedagogy. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12.3(March).

Marchwick, K., Johnson, K., & Parrish, B. (2008). Instructional practices alignment project summary ABE transitions to post-secondary initiative: lignment of ABE and post- secondary instructional practices. St. Paul.

Establishing Community in Online Courses: When Media Complicates.


I’m planning to rework a professional development study group/course I’ve conducted for three years. My goal for the changes is to apply what I’ve learned about the impact of developing social presence and building community on constructivist learning.  Why pursue a constructivist approach? There is ample research that supports opportunities for learning that mirror problem solving in the real world and that learning happens best when students weigh their knowledge against the viewpoints and ideas of others.

One idea for promoting community is to allow different media options for course participation: podcasts, videos, and tools like Flip Grid have all be explored as text options that can help all learners feel comfortable participating.  I would love to use them!


Complication:  I just learned that I will have several deaf or hard of hearing participants in the next offering of my PD course.  Soo… how can I integrate a greater range of media in a way that supports collaborative interaction when there are DHH participants in the group?  I’m assuming that I’ll need to provide a text option for discussion. Does it also mean that I need to require a text response for every discussion? For learners who want to use Flip Grid, do I still need for them to do the writing?  Is there some tech that can automatically close-caption the Flip Grid audio in a reliable way?

Much to explore to make this work!

Rovai, A. P. (2002). Building Sense of Community at a Distance. International Rview of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 3(1), 1–8.