Sunday, June 25, 2017

Teacher Accessibility Via Different Communication Channels

At the end of each semester I reflect on how successful or not I was in communicating with students. Making myself accessible to them is an affordance current technologies provide educators who recognize that learning and meeting course objectives become a direct result of how teachers and students dialogue with each other. And as much as I reflect on past experiences and plan going forward, the way I ultimately communicate with students is part intentional (planned out beforehand), part incidental (emergent). Although tweaks to communication channels are to be expected, I have found it useful to prepare in how I will converse with students so that from day one I am able to set the tone and technological “infrastructure” (e.g., social media) needed so that learners subsequently receive the timely feedback they need to succeed. Therefore, decisions about teacher accessibility underpin the way feedback loops (teacher/student exchanges: initiation, response, and comment) exist as precursors to assessment and instruction.

Next semester (fall of 2017) I plan to teach three writing courses to learners enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program in English language teaching: fifth semester composition course and two first semester writing I groups. The fifth semester composition course consists of learners at a B1-B2 level who will be writing academic essays, business correspondence, and creative writing work such as poems. The writing I groups involve learners at an A1-A2 level learning about paragraph unity, coherence, and cohesion. The classrooms they occupy are equipped with broadband via WiFi and a computer monitor that is also connected to the Internet so that content found online can be accessible as a whole group and individually, in and outside of the classroom. Learners also have various forms of accessing content outside of class by accessing the departmental computer lab, Internet caf├ęs, and personal accounts with Internet service providers.

Teacher accessibility that is the infrastructure where much of the learning is to take place hinges on a teacher’s educational philosophy, type of communication, and mode of communication. The term teacher accessibility is not only meant to define teacher-to-student exchanges, but any exchanges students engage in that remain relevant to educative experiences that align with course objectives (e.g., student-to-student, expert-to-student, etc.). The reason for using teacher as an adjective of accessibility has more to do with showing a level of responsibility an educator has in facilitating how educational philosophy, types of communication, and modes of communication come together for an overall purpose.

Teacher accessibility begins with an “internal audit” of individual teaching preferences that live within a formal educational context such as in a school or institution. Thus, an educational philosophy addresses the following key questions in this regard:

  1. What do I teach? (content)

  2. Why do I teach? (rationale)

  3. How do I teach? (method)

  4. To whom do I teach? (audience)

  5. Where and when do I teach? (content delivery).

The fifth question, Where and when do I teach?, relates to the flipped classroom and how mobile technologies provide content delivery that leads to purposeful student engagement. Collectively, these five questions reveal ideologies, theories, and philosophies about teaching and learning that form one’s system of beliefs about one’s own teaching practice.

As a teacher employs an educational philosophy, different types of communication emerge. Types of communication are typically classified as being synchronous, asynchronous, and semi-synchronous. Synchronous communication happens in real time as often is the case when classes meet face to face (offline) or via video conferencing (online). Asynchronous communication happens over time as when students and teachers discuss homework in and outside of class, typically lasting over the course of a few days. Asynchronous communication can also occur online as when students post comments and replies through online forums, for instance. Semi-synchronous communication — sometimes referred to as microblogging — is a third type of communication that typically constitutes shorter types of (written) correspondence that is either in real time or nearly in real time. This form of communication usually remains long enough within the social media channel so that both real time and intermittent forms of exchanges can coexist.

Taking into consider an educational philosophy and the three types of communication, the various modes of communication is also a key element to making a teacher accessible to students. Current technologies continue to widen the possibilities as to where and when communications between teacher and student occur. Simply put, the mode of communication may exist within and outside the classroom and online and offline channels. In a flipped classroom scenario, a teacher may make a lecture or tutorial available to the learners via YouTube (online) and may either ask them to access the lecture before (outside of) class or in some cases, during class. Bringing together notions of educational philosophies and types and modes of communication, what follows is an example of what I plan to do for next semester in terms of making myself accessible to students.


My educational philosophy

My educational philosophy is to facilitate learners in becoming more apt to form valid, reliable, and unbiased arguments, provide innovative solutions to real-life problems, make decisions that resolve cognitive conflict by developing understandings through a difference of opinion or perspective, and create innovative ways of communicating with others. My role is to move learners from being dependent, to independent, to interdependent individuals who are not afraid to take chances, share their successes and failures with others, and are concerned for the well-being of not only themselves, but for others as well. My goal is to help others become more daring, sharing, and caring individuals.

Reflecting on how accessible I should be with students for next semester, I link my educational philosophy with the most appropriate types and modes of communication that potentially lead to greater student engagement and higher academic achievement. As all three classes I teach relate to developing the writing skill, each learner will maintain a shared Microsoft Word online document that is viewable to everyone but editable by only the learner and me. Hence, all three types of communication are possible both in and outside of class, although I anticipate that mainly asynchronous communication will result. Also, Microsoft Teams offers several different ways to communicate with learners:
Conversations (Teams — Semi-synchronous)
Files (OneDrive — Asynchronous)
Content (OneNote — Asychronous)
Outcomes (Planner — Asychronous)

Conversations, files, content, and outcomes in aggregate offer forms of communication that may be synchronous, semi-sychronous, and asynchronous as well as emerging in and outside of the classroom. The reasoning for using Microsoft Teams (Teams, OneDrive, OneNote, and Planner) is to have options in the types and modes of communication so that as the course transpires, adaptations to assessment and instruction can be made as needed.

On July 5, 2017 (11:00 CST), I will be on the Ser Lumen radio program and will discuss (in Spanish) teacher accessibility as it relates to my own teaching context.

How do you make yourself accessible as an educator, tutor, leader, etc.?

Originally posted to Medium.

Radio UAA (radio broadcast in Spanish)

Empower Everyone

Philosophically, I agree with Lew’s overall thesis in Don’t “empower” anybody, but the meaning of empowerment and its employment aren’t so cut and dry. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the word empowerment, as it simply comes down to semantics.

Understanding the meaning of empowerment will depend on how one defines power (and empowerment for that matter). For the purposes of this discussion, I define power as…

the ability to do or act; capability of doing or accomplishing something.

Let’s now compare definitions of empowerment, which will begin with my definition first, followed by Lew’s definition.

to enable or permit [how I define the term]

to give power to (someone); to make (someone) stronger and more confident [Lew’s definition]

Using my definitions, I would then expand the notion of empowerment as follows:

enabling or permitting someone to do something, to take action, to become capable of doing something, or to accomplish something

In contrast, Lew offers an interpretation of what empowerment means as follows:

The key words here are “give” and “make.” Empowerment means you’re transferring power to someone else. You think someone else needs you — your permission, your influence, your talents — to do something. And I don’t ever believe that’s the case.


Depending on the context and the individual, people move between moments of dependency, independency, and interdependence — the goal being one of interdependency. So, employees do need their superiors just as superiors need their employees. Humans succeed to the degree they become interdependent.

A leader enables others to act and to become more knowledgeable and skillful as long as these actions align with organizational and individual goals. In this sense, leadership becomes an entitlement and is not limited to rank, position, or title. Indeed, leadership facilitates the transition between dependency, to becoming independent, then ultimately interdependent. Think of the meaning of leadership as being ontological as opposed to epistemological.

So, let’s not throw out empowerment and power just yet. The reason why there are multiple definitions in the dictionary for a single word is because people use the word in different ways. Semantically speaking, the problem has more to do with certain interpretations of the meaning of power than how some interpret the meaning of empowerment; regardless, let’s continue using both terms (with appropriate definitions) so that we continue having the right conversations about their meanings in terms of promoting proper leadership skills for the future. If we continue having the right conversations long enough, perhaps some of the current definitions of power, empowerment, etc. will become archaic.

Originally posted to Medium.

Giving Grades is not All Bad….

This week I read Chiaravalli’s Teachers Going Gradeless along with follow up remarks and felt compelled to share my thoughts on the matter in a slightly longer post. So here it is…

Going Gradeless

Regarding the grade less/gradeless continuum, I’d view it a bit differently. Gradeless (no grades) and a grading system (one or more grades) are dichotomous, an all-or-nothing proposition — teachers either assign a grade for the class or they do not. A true gradeless scenario (like the U. of Michigan’s Residential College) is a completely different context in my view. Presumably, students receive comments (based on criteria-based evidence) related to their progress and outcomes from a pass/fail perspective and are less inclined to be ranked with their classmates (generally a good thing). Because giving grades is only one form of summative assessment, the question becomes then if this is just doing away with grades only or doing away with all forms of summative assessments like badges, rubrics, etc. Even when assigning a rubric score, students are inclined to rank themselves in order to determine how fair they were evaluated.

Implementing Less Grades

Regarding the implementation of less grades (one or more grades), a continuum does exist. But the difference here is that students are (again presumably) more inclined to rank themselves by comparing their grade(s) with their classmates (generally a bad thing). Even by assigning one grade at the end of the course, I feel students will compare themselves with their classmates, which rarely adds to the educative experience. For me it’s not enough to resign to the idea that assigning only one grade (at the end of the term) is inherently better than assigning more grades throughout or is better than a more “traditional” approach where formative assessment is lacking. 1) There are alternatives to using formative and summative assessments that can address this challenge and 2) most agree to the benefits of frequent and timely doses of formative assessment in terms of their benefits to learning.

Sanchez & Dunworth (2014) found that graduate students receiving written feedback from tutors was oftentimes difficult to understand. In a university where grades were assigned, content from written feedback was hard to interpret for students when trying to align formative assessments (from written comments) with summative assessments (from receiving a grade). In other words, students perceived “a lack of consistency between formative and summative feedback” (p. 9). Even though some of the participants of this study were international students, I believe that these results remain generalizable to most students in high education of all levels. The study also discusses different challenges students face in receiving timely feedback such that changes that affect the final grade can be made before specific due dates.

Personally, negotiating with students at the end of the term their final grades is simply too little, too late. If this type of communication is going to exist, then it should exist throughout the term. Students benefit from receiving provisional grades throughout the course with the understanding that changes to these grades can be made with evidence of higher academic achievement.


It’s not enough to compare gradeless or grading less learning designs with more “traditional” designs of saturated amounts of summative assessments, but to tease out the current complexities of what gradeless and grading less actually mean in a variety of contexts. Nor is simply grading less necessarily optimal over a concerted effort to provide timely feedback throughout the educative experience that includes both formative and summative assessments. Teachers rely on a variety of forms of evidence to make better inferences to students’ understandings.

Originally posted to Medium.

Personalized Learning: A Beastly, Binary Buzzword… Begone!

Personalized learning (PL) does exist, but not in the way most tend to use the term within the context of formal education (e.g., schools). The website, Getting Smart, has long promoted the term PL, which although is a for-profit business covering educational topics, does manage to publish many non-PL topics that are worth reviewing. But in What Does Personalized Learning Mean for Teachers, the Getting Smart Staff describes new approaches to teaching and learning (under the umbrella of PL) as follows:

  • Meet the needs of each child

  • Adjust teaching practice

  • Give students “voice and choice”

  • How to achieve mastery learning

  • How to consider student input within the process of learning

Taking each of these in turn, I’ll outline why the term PL is not needed and usually leads to convoluted discussions around education.

  • Meet the needs of each child: Consider the term differentiated instruction (DI), which refers to students making decisions about course content, learning processes, academic products or learning outcomes, and learning environments based on the readiness levels, interests, and learning profiles of the students. Personally, I would omit from this definition learning profiles since it’s too similar to the idea of “learning styles” — something that has more to do with course content than actually any preconceived set of learner characteristics driving daily decisions about curriculum, assessment, and instruction. Thus, in terms of formal education, DI is based on readiness levels, interests, and the curriculum, where a written, taught, and tested curriculum exist in aggregate as a set of iterative and reciprocal networked nodes or actors. Therefore, what a student needs is derived from current readiness levels (i.e., understanding the gap between what a student knows and what they should know), interests (i.e., there is a low level of interest in the curricular goals), and the written, taught, and tested curriculum itself.

  • Adjust teaching practice: Adjusting one’s teaching practice relates to assessment. Formative assessment comprises of adjustments to learning tactics (the student’s responsibility) and to instruction (the teacher’s responsibility) for the purpose of promoting higher academic achievement. This can also occur through dynamic assessment when summative assessments (e.g., grades, badges, etc.) are followed by formative assessment episodes (e.g., turning a multiple choice exam into a learning activity), after having found out that student achievement was subpar. Although formative assessment blurs the line between assessment and instruction, it is still much like DI in that much of the decision making remains a negotiation between teacher and student.

  • Give students “voice and choice”: Giving students voice and choice is directly related to DI as it provides students the opportunity to choose content, process, product, and/or learning environments depending on the context. DI empowers students to take more responsibility for their own learning by democratizing education in terms of what, how, why, when, where, and with whom learning experiences are to occur. Nothing here is personalized nor individualized… just students making decisions about their own learning within the context of formal education.

  • How to achieve mastery learning: Mastery learning sounds good, but what does it mean in practice? How does one reify the idea that a student masters a concept, understanding, a set of skills, etc.? Setting behavioral objectives perhaps (i.e., per Bloom’s taxonomy), but the problem is that possible learning outcomes involve a vast number of performance verbs that go well beyond a simple taxonomy or even a set of competencies. In reality, performance verbs educators rely on to infer whether a student has learned or not are both intentional and (more importantly) incidental or emergent. Plus, Bloom’s taxonomy is more about assessment than setting predetermine learning objectives (how they are commonly used today) to drive instruction. Wiggins and McTighe’s (2005) six facets of understandings (with aligned performance verbs) gets closer to more expressive-like outcomes by assigning a particular set of criteria or standards around specific performance tasks scheduled over the course of term, but leave room for certain knowledge to emerge. Finally, DI forces educators to take into consider what the student views as mastery learning since they are encouraged to make decisions about course content, learning processes, learning outcomes, and learning environment.

  • How to consider student input within the process of learning: Again, DI allows for student choice in terms of content, process, product, and learning environment, and does so by understanding that these relationships allow student and teacher to better define their roles within the educative experience.

What personalized learning means for teachers is that the term personalized learning is no different than the term learning: Learning cannot help but be personalized because there is only one person who can personalize it: the learner. So, because it is so ubiquitous, it cannot not exist. A learner is constantly personalizing learning based on a particular set of forever-changing circumstances: what the student knows, what materials a student has access to, and the personal relationships a student maintains. It is impossible for a teacher to personalize learning for a student — it is like saying that a teacher is going to learn something for the student.

Example 1: A student takes a course where there is zero differentiation such that the student is unable to access any other content, must adhere to one learning process dictated by the teacher, much complete one give product, and the only learning is to occur in class. Those in the PL camp would likely refer to this example as one that lacks personalization; that is, it lacks personalized learning (and probably individualized learning as well). Even within these learning constraints, the student will personalize her own learning by using any tactics necessary to maintain an educative experience. If there is any criticism in how this course is implemented, it comes mainly from the teaching practice and not necessarily the learning tactics. Differentiated instruction, WHERETO (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), assessment practices, etc. are the issue and not personalized or individualized learning.

Example 2: A student takes a course where there is a high level of differentiation but the student still struggles or fails the course. Let´s assume there are no learning disabilities and student makes every effort to achieve the objectives of the course. Contrary to example 1 above, DI, WHERETO, assessment practices, etc. might all be favorable, giving the students many opportunities to learn but the issue here might be the learning tactics or strategies that the student employed. Teachers also have the obligation to bring about awareness of learning strategies that provide wisdom (knowing what to do when one does not know what to do). The student (not the teacher) learns which strategies work best under different situations in order to make the educative experience more personal, yet all the while remaining personalized. The educative experience is never more or less personalized; it is personal, for better or worse. Stated another way, a PLN always exists but can either be purposeful or serve no purpose.

What teachers can take away from this is that students can become better learners by understanding their own personal learning network (PLN). For this discussion, a PLN is defined as ideational, material, and human connections or relationships that interact with each other for a particular purpose. The learner remains at the center of this aggregate set of ideational, material, and human nodes as relationships remain, grow, and diminish. What a teacher can do is to bring about a metacognitive awareness of how to maintain, grow, and prune a PLN for a particular purpose, like achieving personal and curricular goals simultaneously, for instance.

Educational stakeholders often use the term “personalized learning” to mean a shift in power usually from the teacher to that of the student. I have also heard the term used to promote technologies that use algorithms to tailor the learning experience for the student. The term, individualized learning is also used, which tends to confound the issue even more. But learning is personal, not personalized nor individualized. Personal learning, as in cultivating a personal learning network, is the recognition of greater learner autonomy in how the learner interacts with content (ideas), materials, and individuals. Personalized learning can only come from the learner if learning is understood to occur within a PLN, which occurs by degree or along a continuum. Personalized learning is not a dichotomy; it is not an all-or-nothing proposition. (Personal) learning, like a PLN, is continuous and by degree, and will forever be a sociocognitive (networked) experience that remains fluid as the individual changes over time.

We don’t get smart nor are we getting smart… we get smarter.

Originally posted to Medium.