Aug 04

Import 3D models into HitFilm Ultimate

Educators have been intrigued by the potential of 3D worlds to engage young learners almost since the idea of virtual worlds emerged on the internet wish lists of the early WWW. I first learned of “immersive 3d” and several projects based on the Open Cobalt platform in about 2008, and I investigated Sloodle, of which all that now remains is the Git repository. When the SMARTboard-friendly Open Cobalt flavour “EduSIM” announced you could import 3D objects from Google Earth I got very excited. I loved models as a kid, and the Google 3d Warehouse was an instant hit, even in its early days.

I soon found a model of the Kabul Museum, which some of you may know was destroyed by the Taliban but later rebuilt. I created a learning activity that was basically a scavenger hunt for images of other historical objects, which it was possible to retrieve from elsewhere in the virtual world and “hang” in rooms within the museum. Great fun and potentially educational—when it worked—but it flopped due to technical difficulties. Immersive 3D was intriguing, yes, but also time intensive, technologically challenging and, for teachers in the classroom, too much work: “…it is not clear that the investment in time in building and using the Virtual World is worth it” (Conole, 2014). Are there other ways to leverage the intrigue models, even virtual ones, hold for many people?

Film making as digital storytelling

Are aspiring filmmakers nearly as ubiquitous as the cellphone cameras they may be using to get their start? I’ve seen some evidence there are a lot of them, and it’s certainly arguable that multimedia communication is a literacy, maybe an entire set of literacies, important to develop in our digital era.

Are aspiring filmmakers nearly as ubiquitous as the cellphone cameras they may be using to get their start? I’ve seen some evidence there are a lot of them, and it’s certainly arguable that multimedia communication is a literacy, maybe an entire set of literacies, important to develop in our digital era. It may not be necessary or desirable to have everyone in the class “make a video,” but if you have an idea as to how a videographer or three could contribute to an emerging student-driven inquiry, seeking out local experts at the student level might be just the thing—maybe creating an opportunity for student and teacher to reverse roles.

Start with Google Sketchup

For Sketchup users, says Google, “…drawing is thinking. They draw to explore ideas, to figure things out, to show other people what they mean. They draw because they love it, and because nothing great was ever built that didn’t start with a great drawing.” Making thinking visible is what the best instructors do. They call Sketchup “The easiest way to draw in 3D, and from my limited experience that may well be true. The 3d Warehouse is a repository of models in many categories.

Sketchup can export 3D models as AutoCAD, Collada and several other popular 3D file formats, of which HitFilm Ultimate imports 3. I had the most success with 3-D Studio (*.3ds) files.

Step 1. Explode any groups you want to animate. Before I could select the propellor I needed to “explode” the entire model.

Screenshot Sketchup

Model: FRANCE CANDAIR by XALOC-SOLARIS selected… then Right-click → Explode

Step 2. Select the things you want to animate. Ctrl+DblClick to add entire objects (will make sense when you try it.)

Step 3. Export in a useful format. I had best results with 3DS, but I soon learned to create a folder for every model I want to work with. Some of the other formats do this for you, because if your model is in the least bit complex it will generate many image files, and with 3d Studio files they all end up in the folder you save the master .3ds file. Press Options and check Export only current selection.

Step 4. Export other parts of the model.

HitFilm bundled with Sony MovieStudio

To import 3D models you need HitFilm Ultimate, which costs money. Sadly, in many places that creates a barrier. If that’s your situation don’t give up! Install Sketchup anyway, explore the 3D Warehouse and watch the tutorial entitled “Use Scenes to save important views” which is advertised from the splash screen when you start Sketchup. Read this, and turn kids loose, let them teach you how to use Sketchup to make animations and then use whatever editing software you may have access to (iMovie? Windows MovieMaker?) to put them together in meaningful sequences. You can still use green screens place themselves right in the action.

I was introduced first to HitFilm 2 Express, which does not do 3d, and came bundled with Sony MovieStudio Platinum, essentially buy-one-get-one-free. I found the $150 very reasonable considering what the two can do together, and within several months I was offered an upgrade deal too good to pass up — 70% off the full cost of Ultimate. The Sony is far and away the better editor and renders movies on average 3 times faster than HitFilm, but unless you can spring for top-of-the-line Vegas you’ll still need HitFilm’s compositing tools and effects, not to mention text styling and animation. If you use a green screen (and you will) you’ll especially need the masking tool.

You’ll find [3D Model] on the media import dropdown menu. It analyses the model file and then displays what it found in a 3D Model Properties dialogue.

image of 3d import screen showing propeller

Propeller extracted from Model: FRANCE CANDAIR by XALOC-SOLARIS. HitFilm Ultimate offers an opportunity to tweak the “materials” of each piece of the 3d object.

Animating literally dozens of available parameters is straightforward, designating a “parent” layer and attaching “child” layers only slightly more difficult (‘cartoonish’ is just fine with me for now!) Sticking to scale, position, orientation, transparency and zoom are probably more than enough to have some fun creating your own 3d worlds.

I duplicated the propeller composite and tried some other effects

Putting Humpty together again was a challenge at first, and in the end I think a reasonably good way to get started learning HitFilm’s layers, views and tools.

The way compositing works, this project isn’t necessarily a wrap when you render the day’s creativity. I can spend some time on the script, bring in actors and create variations on “the cargo bay scene,” and when I return to render the “fly by” it will have updated.

The airplane engine came from the repository at


Further reading

Talking Points: Immersive Education Initiative [PDF] from the Immersive Education Initiative

May 20

Dynamic duo: delineating divergence with SimpleMind! & FreeMind

Image of a mind map created with Freemind.There are literally hundreds of mind mapping programs available. When I wrote about the need for 21st century collaborators to consider the ways divergent and linear thinking interact when planning and executing strategy, and suggested mind mapping software as an apt strategic planning tool, I said you can always place map nodes in a line if you want to be linear. I hadn’t yet discovered that there are mind mapping tools that will attempt to do this for you. It was the purchase of SimpleMind! for my iPhone that alerted me to the uniqueness of FreeMind.

Screenshot SimpleMind! app

SimpleMind! is available on the iTunes and Android stores.

SimpleMind! for iOS has the ability to send the map you create by email in a number of useful formats, including FreeMind (*.mm). I must admit, I had installed FreeMind and opened it only once. All I saw was what looked to me like an immature open-source interface1. But I never bothered to uninstall it, so when I checked off one of everything and clicked the .mm file SimpleMind! sent me, I really didn’t know what to expect. While on the subway, using SimpleMind! on my iPhone I sketched out a map of what “student-centred” might look like in the context of teacher education. The PDF is identical to what SimpleMind! showed on my iPhone. Hover over it, or tap-hold, to see the FreeMind version.

Student centred: student’s at centre of exactly what?

What opened looked like an attempt to take my multi linked mind map and convert it to a more linear display. The places where it failed were, by no coincidence as it turns out, parts of my map where I already questioned my links, or felt unsure of relationships. Seeing the more linear map actually helped me revise and improve upon my original idea.

Unfortunately there are connections I drew between nodes in SimpleMind! that didn’t translate to FreeMind2. I think this supports my idea that maps capture relationships that may challenge simple lists, but also that linear thinking can aid the divergent thinker by supplying order and focus. Linear thinkers can lose sight of the centre; divergents sometimes forget where to begin.

Download Freemind from SourceForge.
SimpleMind! is available for iOS and Android in a limited free version, upgradable at a very reasonable price.

The Visual Thinking Center


  1. Earlier this month I discovered XMind, a well-developed open source mind-mapper I might describe as ‘Freemind on steroids.’ I’ve already found it very effective for planning and then creating a static list for management. I hope to find time to blog it soon.
  2. XMind handles the worst of these shortcomings by noting the linked nodes “See also:”
Apr 22

What would a 21st Century “Lesson Plan” look like?

A cartoon-like self portrait Richard did in Corel Draw 3 while in teacher educationIn teachers’ college, I was the Lesson Plans guy. I had blue-rimmed glasses, hair down to my shoulders, I wore sweater vests, and one of the first things I ever did on the Internet was to share lesson plans. One of the first collaborative projects I was ever part of—using what began as a Scarborough (Ontario) Board of Education software initiative and remains with us today as OpenText’s FirstClass—to create lessons to be tried, honed and re-shared by other teacher candidates. I quite enjoyed that activity, and I think it’s time to do it again, with the rest of the Internet.

There was collaboration on line long before words like “blog,” “wiki,” “social network were coined…”

But Intranets were closed, connections were slow, hardware was expensive and there weren’t a lot of people who owned technology—even fewer who used it well in classrooms.

We had a template, we discussed it together, tried them in our host classrooms adapted and applied it iteratively, worked lessons into integrated units, collaboratively, in practice. Master teachers contributed advice—or innovative projects to extend lessons into —but it was all entirely student-instigated, student-designed, and/or student “moderated.”

Our activities were facilitated by technology, but they were pedagogical activities.

We knew the Web had power, we wanted to be literate—we wanted to read and write the web.

A button I made from a GIF created in Corel Draw 3.0Technology was there to support an idea or activity, and when an expert was needed to make the technology work it was “facilitating a situation” and “enhancing the learning environment”, not “directing technology.” In every situation it was student-centered. But we were also teachers: of the students in our host classrooms, often of our host teachers—always of ourselves, always of each other. We call reading and writing, “literacies,” and we generally expect to acquire them in great part by a process sometimes called “schooling,” but we see that it doesn’t always work, and in fact can often be gained by “learning” in other ways, generally not called “schooling.”

Fast Forward to the 21st Century

The Internet is open, connections are fast, hardware is less expensive and there are many more people who own technology—and still, we hear, too few who use it well in classrooms. This kind of learning is messy.

Video is ubiquitous… but not very interactive… they said

Teaching the Web in the 20-teens looks different in some ways, others not so much. Popcorn.js is an exciting set of modular scripts that add interactivity and creativity to web video.

Games and Gaming

Storytelling is a primeval human activity that is quite fundamental to pedagogy. All games tell stories. Learners persevere with games; learning happens. Gamification is an immensely important trend “as a means of motivation and learner engagement” and Conole quotes Gee, 2008: “The potential of gamification, however, goes beyond promoting healthy lifestyles and marketing strategies. Gamers voluntarily invest countless hours in developing their problem-solving skills within the context of games” and says 21st century learning will reflect Gee’s ‘situated and embodied learning,’ “…meaning a student is not just being taught inert knowledge, rather using facts and information as tools for problem solving in a specific context and solving the problem (Gee 2011).”

“There’s an app for that”

Educational apps and the platforms they run on have changed. Mobile is ubiquitous and it’s not as hard as you may think to make a web-based app, even take it to the next level, make it native. The Open Educational Resource (OER) movement is founded on “The belief that everyone should have the freedom to use, customize, improve and redistribute educational resources without constraint, […] However, open education is not limited to just open educational resources. It also draws upon open technologies that facilitate collaborative, flexible learning and the open sharing of teaching practices that empower educators to benefit from the best ideas of their colleagues.” Read the Cape Town Open Education Declaration.

Learning design looks beyond instructional design

Learning design is defined as an application of a pedagogical model for a specific learning objective, target group and a specifc context or knowledge domain. The learning design specifies the teaching and learning process, along with the conditions under which it occurs and the activites performed by the teachers and learners in order to achieve the required learning objectives. LD is based on the metaphor of learning as a play instatiated through a series of acts with associated roles and resources. The core concept of LD is that a person is assigned a role in the teaching-learning process and works towards certain outcomes by performing learning activities within a given environment
—G. Conole, K. Fill (2005, pg. 5)

Learning design is an holistic praxis (Conole, 2014), the planning and executing of serendipitous situations within authentic contexts, that are controlled to enable the sought outcomes (Silver, 2011). Increasingly, the learner seeks the outcome. A learning design that includes multiple participants is increasingly expected to cater to individual learners (blogosphere, incessantly).

The Learning Design Toolkit has explored and created collaborative tools for designing active, situated learning. The short clip, (originally part of my contribution to a group presentation on cyberethics and Ursula Franklin) is meant to imply that the hard work of building shared understanding is generally worth the inevitable extra effort. Communication is a 21st century competency—why would the hard work to reform schooling be any different?

21st-century lesson plan learning design

I believe Aaron Silver, in his 2011 blog post The Fundamental design of learning activities, plotted a straight course from instructional design practices that seem overly prescriptive in the age of social networking and on-demand learning objects, to a more appropriate framework and in doing so reminded us, “learning is not a noun.” In a 21st-century learning design the activity must be at the center of everything. It appears you should start with a clear idea of what is to be achieved, and then create the situation in which that can happen, choosing participants and experiences that support the intended outcomes, and strategically placing them in order.

Graphic. Activity at the center of boundaries (conditions), content, context, and participation.

Source—Aaron Silvers (2011)

Even documenting such activity can be much different in the 21st Century. How do video, blogs, and photo sites affect the recipe? 21st century activities might look like Heidi Siwak’s blog—like this. But if the ‘this’ is a “messy” learning activity, do a on an ‘app’ metaphor, or the bubbles of mind maps offer some helpful closets to stash our ‘mess?’

Can organizational change happen quickly enough to allow teachers such as Heidi, and students such as hers to flourish, or will she have to wait 15 years as others have?

In my post, “CompendiumLD for Learning Design,” I showed a “mind mapper” that has collaboration tools built in. In “Can (messy) mind maps enable tidy linear strategies within messy situations?” I show the danger of getting too thickly into context (top right image) and what I believe Aaron Silvers’s simple graphic becomes when you start adding real activities and participants (see images 1-6, created with another mind mapper, designVUE).

Image. mind map



Michael Faustino Deineka

The Faculty of Education at York University


Collins, Allan; Brown, John Seely; and Holum, Ann (1989a), Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible, American Educator [PDF].

Conole, G.; Fill, K. (2005), A learning design toolkit to create pedagogically effective learning activities, Journal of Interactive Media in Education 2005(08). [PDF]

Conole, Gráinne (2014) Reviewing the trajectories of e-learning, blogged chapter from forthcoming publication. Or start with my shorter overview [HTML]

Silvers, A. (2011) The fundamental design of learning activities. [HTML]

Siwak, H. (2014) Creative solutions are no accident [HTML]

Mar 09

Movie Studio Platinum 13 with HitFilm gets an A

Of all the UI updates we’ve endured this year, I figured SONY Movie Studio Platinum 13 was …another one. But it was long overdue and they did a great job. You need the HitFilm 2 Express bundle to get the mask tools you’ll need for chroma key and green screen work, filters and some snazzy effects you probably didn’t expect to be this easy to achieve in this price range. Together they make a great starter package for young people and people who work with them.

Other than Jahshaka, a project I’ve seen at various times and places on the Internet promising to make a comeback since 2006, I haven’t seen any great open source video editing software. Skills are in high demand, and they should be. I recorded the screen video with CamStudio, and I did some stills with The Gimp.

Classroom technology and access to it aren’t anywhere near consistent, and there are reasons to be found on several levels. Economic ones are high on the list …even cellphones and webcams, software and lights and green screen set-ups in the $500 and slightly under range will still be out of reach for some. In some areas schools must use specific tools prescribed by others, and everywhere there’s inconsistent buy-in. YouTube viewership attests to the power and popularity of the medium, the ease with which one can now produce video with impact, and the pure fun make it an irresistible medium for educators.

By 2010, 19% of Americans had tried video calls, video chat or teleconferencing online and on cell phones. There are definitely equity issues apparent in video calling patterns, making calls on line is appealing to “upscale” users. “A third of internet users (34%) living in households earning $75,000 or above have participated in such calls or chats, compared with 18% of those earning less than $75,000. […] Urban internet users (27%) and suburban users (23%) are significantly more likely than rural users (12%) to have participated in video calls, chats, or teleconferences […] Cell-owning blacks are more likely than whites to participate in video calls, chats, or teleconferences (10% vs. 5%).” (Pew, 2010). But this says nothing about aspirations to tell stories using video.

The corporate take is that video storytelling is not quite ready for prime time. But it was the $10 transistor radio in the hands of teens in the 50s, who didn’t need audiophile fidelity as long as they could take their music with them, that disrupted the vacuum tube.

What’s been missing from video is interactivity. But now there are free mashup tools like Popcorn.js and Webmaker, HTML5 timeline tools that let you pause, mix, overlay your own ideas in text and imagery, or branch off in another direction based on a user input. And video is not something that’s easy to do alone. Can a project incorporating video in a classroom setting meet all the 4Cs, the so-called 21st Century Competencies—Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity?

With tools like MSP and HitFilm, or any of the products on this list young people aren’t likely to wait to hear the marketers at SXSW are finally catching up.


Feb 02

EvaluateThat “thickly”

A Tale of Two Tweets

Two Tweets that seem at first glance to take somewhat differing positions on evaluating teachers led to these thoughts on exactly where testing fits into learning, what it looks like when it’s of benefit, and who should benefit. The first Tweet does not say what some might take it to mean at face value. If you think about it—or if you learned it at teachers’ college while preparing for a career as an educator—you’ll probably agree there’s a difference between evaluation and assessment. You may even agree with me that opportunity, ongoing assessment, reflection, peer review, coaching, scaffolding are all needed to transform practice, while standardized tests often prove absolutely nothing beyond one’s ability to take standardized tests.

Evaluation is what you do to demonstrate you’ve arrived, or how far you’ve left to go. Getting there is an iterative process requiring frequent stops—you may want to check the map, ask directions, refuel along the way. If learning is truly to become learner centred, why do reformers like “race” metaphors? Perhaps I’d like to choose my learning situation more as I’d choose a vacation spot—I might be inspired to take a side trip, seek out a long lost relative… and why not? Children are at the beginning of a learning journey. A guide on the side who knows the terrain can help reel in an overly ambitious itinerary or suggest hidden gems to the lethargic and less imaginative traveller, and in a pinch get them to the train station on time.

Where we have arrived today is due to the corporate reform movement’s itinerary, and itself begs evaluation. It has failed. Charter schools seldom do better than traditional public schools, and often do worse. They do considerably worse when it comes to equity and inclusion. Resorting to fiat and coercion are telltale signs of failure—leaders do the hard work of building consensus. Public Enemy #1, logic and an objective assessment of the current situation would conclude, is the anti-public: privatization.

The second Tweet implicitly highlights the valued added by what Clifford Geertz might have called a “thick description” of what teachers do. Geertz did not understand the subjects of his ethnographic assessments separately from the context of their situations—which is also defined more thickly than the simple question, “Where?” Thickness demands we ask also, “Who ?” “What?” “How?” “When?” and the one perhaps most critical to critical thinking—“Why?”

7 million “whys”

I Keep Six Honest Serving Men
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest …
… I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!
She sends em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes
One million Hows, Two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

—Rudyard Kipling

Humans, especially young ones, are naturally inquisitive. But we’re not infallible. Seven million questions beg seven million answers, and intuition can be wrong. Jean Lave does not understand teaching and learning as separate and distinct—her thick ethnographic descriptions of classical apprenticeships have been tapped for adaption to technology-enhanced learning “environments” for nearly 40 years, at first in great part due to the corporate backing of John Seely Brown of Xerox. Xerox in the 80s didn’t write curriculum or tell educators what to do with it. Just as SMART and a host of others today, they put educators together in collaborative, project-based learning situations and asked, “How can we facilitate this learning situation?” They designed thicker learning situations because they had described them more thickly. Then they stood back and allowed learning to happen.

“do it yourself” becomes “do it together”

Corporate money is not the problem, unfettered profit seeking is. All parents have a right to expect quality publicly funded education, all teachers have a right to fulfill their passion in 21st century classrooms of all kinds, and all students have the right to feel intrinsically motivated and grow the dignity and self respect that comes from taking charge of their own destinies.

But that means students, parents and teachers also have responsibilities, to forge thicker understandings of the (wicked) problems (e.g., things we know fail, like VAM) and take proactive charge of solutions (e.g., things we know work, like parent engagement). Looking to smaller local businesses—parents who own businesses, older siblings with work experience—for local expertise, creating and executing project-based learning “situations” might bring the community back into schools. The do it yourself approach becomes do it together.



Brown, J.S., Collins, A., and Duguid, P. (1989). “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning.” Educational Researcher, 18(l), 32-42.

Brown, A. L. (1992). Design experiments: Theoretical and methodological challenges in creating complex interventions. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2, 141-178.

Collins, Allan; Brown, John Seely; and Holum, Ann (1989), Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible, American Educator, [PDF].

Commonwealth of Australia (2007) Tackling Wicked Problems: A Public Policy Perspective, [Archived]

Conole, Gráinne (2014) Reviewing the trajectories of e-learning, advance release of pending publication [HTML]

Haertel, Edward H. (2013), Reliability and Validity of Inferences About Teachers Based on Student Test Scores, the 14th William H. Angoff Memorial Lecture, presented at The National Press Club, Washington, D.C., on March 22, 2013. [PDF]

Seemann, K 2002, ‘Holistic technology education’, in H Middleton, M Pavlova & D Roebuck, Learning in technology education, challenges for the 21st century, Nathan, Qld, Centre for Learning Research, Griffith University, vol. 2, pp. 164 – 173.

Warren, Mark R.; Hong, Soo; Leung Rubin, Carolyn; Sychitkokhong Uy, Phitsamay (2009) Beyond the Bake Sale: A Community- Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools, Teachers College Record, Volume 111, Number 9, September 2009, pp. 2209–2254 [PDF]

Jan 23

There’s still time to get edreform right in Canada, and there’s still interest in doing so

Canada’s campaign finance laws, relatively stronger unions, a slight majority of conservatives who understand the role of revenues, tradition of compassion and peace-making—I think these are some of the characteristics of a precariously perched public pride that keep, for now, an all-out US-style free-market frenzy from taking root. “Publick Spirit,” as they spelled it when the call was for 19th Century Competencies, was a virtue touted by Republicans, Federalists, Tories and Whigs throughout the shrinking Empire. @symphily, while being perhaps exceptionally articulate in his questioning, and meticulous in the quality and expression of his supporting arguments, asks immensely important questions that in my experience aren’t exceptionally uncommon amongst Canadian teacher candidates today. They are coining, learning and understanding terms such as “glocalization,” “cyber-colonialism,” “metamodal mastery.”

Just as musicianship is known to support mathematical learning, perhaps entrepreneurship might be responsibly and ethically understood in ways that support social capital, that enrich and nourish the public sphere. Practical action research, connecting theory and discourse in praxis, participatory research… these are respected techniques known for decades in Canadian faculties of education, whether or not they are associated with names like Freire, or Gramsci. Is that why Ontario teachers were able to resist and eventually overcome a neoliberal assault in ’97, to demand some semblance of evidence based assessment be included in the EQAO?

But universities will be given free SharePoint systems, corporate-stocked libraries on wheels will replace education resource centres with their specialist-enhanced collections, and venture capitalists will actively seek out in education what free-marketists call “areas of nonconsumption.” That is a turn of phrase First Nations peoples targeted by the anti-teacher, anti-public spin-off of the American for-profit venture “Teach for America” might want to critique—and might well question!

But universities will be given free SharePoint systems, corporate-stocked libraries on wheels will replace education resource centres with their specialist-enhanced collections, and venture capitalists will actively seek out what free-marketists might call “areas of nonconsumption in education” (see Christensen, Horn, and other Harvard Business School’s blogs and cookbooks). That is a turn of phrase First Nations peoples targeted by the anti-teacher, anti-public spin-off of the American for-profit venture “Teach for America” might want to critique—and might well question!

What Canada has to fear most is her tradition of complacency. What good is eschewing corporate and union capital in elections if you don’t get up and go to the polls yourselves?

I do agree with a great deal of what C21 has to say about 21st Century competencies and literacies. The SMART board is a truly engaging and open-ended tool, the kind that allows pedagogy to take wings. I think there are genuine educators at all levels of this organization, and I’ve seen them genuinely engaged. In my master’s research I was able to differentiate C21 from its American cousin P21, where a free-market feeding frenzy suggests the “p” might stand for “piranha.” But the line is all too thin and we may remind the enthusiastic Canadian publishers and education technology innovators here—you swim with sharks.

I see the words “student centred” often, and I trust that they’re written with sincere esteem. I yearn only for shared understanding of what student centred actually might look like. I think it says they get to be the ones to decide what kind of world they live in or, for a practical example, that if code is a 21st century literacy we teach kids to read and write code—not simply to buy other people’s code. The discourse and theory of disruptive innovation too can be disrupted — students and teachers adept at technology, collaboration and critical thinking will be quite capable of creating rich learning situations with or without their own choice of self-authored, open source and/or commercial products, chosen because they support the lesson—never because the lesson was designed to sell a product. Students assessed to identify strengths and weaknesses, to improve their next performance—not because there’s a contract with a far-away testing company whose CEO may expect an obscene bonus for creating numbers that will be used against them and their support systems.

With awareness, involvement and due vigilance—“jealousy” as they said when public had the extra “k”—and an understanding that democracy is a way of life, not the vote you cast every few years—genuine ITC *facilitators* of deep, thick learning, teaching excellence, and student achievement will gain favour and remain important contributors, while ITC *directors* who say they have all the answers, who employ the “power tools” of coercive disruption to push those they label “resistant to change” aside in the interest of profits and stockholder achievement, will fail and fade away.

Thank you Mr. Kierstead for your work in transforming education. Thank you Mr. Steeves for your vigilance and this essential restoration and re-framing of the critical underlying issues. Thank you also Mr. Cantor for your supporting evidence and the astute simile that inspired me to think back yet another hundred years.

Let’s protect Canadian schools and children from blind, uncritical, ideology-driven trust in innovation, and put into practice policy that rewards the genuine thickening of learning situation—differentiating informed ongoing assessment from deficit thinking and prejudice, critically evaluating whether a perceived anaemia is due to poverty, language acquisition, a learning disability, or something else—student-centred investment in students, actively learning. Investing in the supply chain that monetizes a child’s learning environment for quick gain is something that costs so very much more, and yields so very much less.


† Comment on awaiting moderation. The post is a year old; I may eventually revise or elaborate the above as a new and independent post, if after some time approval is not forthcoming. -RCF


Further thought and reflection

Morbey and class (2014) EDUC 3610: Morbey, Franklin, and Friedman. Professor Mary Leigh Morbey’s Teacher Candidates at York University consider cyberethics, comparing Morbey, Ursula Franklin and Thomas Friedman and asking, “…in light of all three writers how do we begin to think about ethics, technology, and education?” [Prezi]

Jan 18

CompendiumLD for Learning Design

When the Open University funded the Learning Design Initiative in 2007 they asked about 4 specific aspects of the topic: efficiency & effectiveness of time spent designing learning; ways to represent innovative practice; access and availability of quality support for designers; the true nature of a quality design as it appears or presents in practice. With the continued support of Jisc they’ve produced a range of tools. When the OULDI picked an open source code base on which to build a collaboration-friendly tool to visually represent “a learning design” they “…considered various drawing packages, as well as more specialised mind mapping tools (such as Inspiration and MindManager).

Please note
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In the end we choose to use Compendium, a visual representation tool, originally developed for enabling group argumentation…” (OU Website).

Compendium was already the Open University’s home-grown product. They set about adapting it specifically to the requirements of learning design, and they named it CompendiumLD. Learning Design is and evolution of traditional and established “instructional design” that provides a more holistic approach (Conole, 2014). Their tool truly does offer a “…range of flexible approaches to the design process,” the interactive SVG to the right, if you’re able to see and use it, is only one example, a “Sequence Map View.” Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) is an XML-based vector image format for graphics that supports interactivity and animation (Wikipedia). If you’re getting JavaScript alert popup message when you mouse over blame them, not me!

Learning Design emerged “as a counter measure to Instructional Design. Driven primarily by researchers in Europe and Australia, Learning Design aimed to provide practitioners with guidance and support to inform their design process which is pedagogically effective and makes appropriate use of technologies. It is seen as a more encompassing term than Instructional Design, which operates primarily at the level of multimedia; in contrast Learning Design provides a holistic approach to the design process.
—Gráinne Colone, OULDI Project Lead (September 2008 – August 2011)

On the CompendiumLD corner of the Open University’s site you can also see a “Learning Outcomes View,” and a “Task Times View,” showing how you can use CompendiumLD to deliver timed assessments. For more advanced examples, see this Peer assessment using a wiki., or an example Modelling adaptations featuring open educational resources, “a design which shows how existing open educational resources can be included in an activity structure that caters for learners with different levels of skills and knowledge” created with a perhaps somewhat dated (<frameset>, <script Language="JavaScript1.2">) but nevertheless reliable and robust1 Web Export functionality that lets you share your designs with collaborators and other learners.

If there’s anything “wrong” with Compendium and CompendiumLD, you see it in these screen shots… is it perhaps a somewhat 90s, or turn-of-the-21st-century look to the icons? Never mind! Don’t let that distract you from what you can do with CompendiumLD. If it still bothers you, you can in fact change the images, icons and stencil sets, and it’s source is freely available — if you’d like to work on the interface the community will likely be grateful. Just look at CompendiumNG if you’ve any doubts there’s a next generation coming up in the Compendium family.

As part of the JISC Curriculum Design project (OULDI_JISC), four other [higher education] institutions (Brunel, Cambridge, London South Bank and Reading Universities) have been trialing and exploring the use of the OU learning design methodology. The purpose of these pilots is to determine the transferability of the OU methodology across a range of different HE organisations. In addition the pilots will provide the project with valuable feedback about the tools and resources developed as part of the OULDI-JISC project, and the approaches we have used to introduce and embed the methodologies institutionally (workshops, special interest groups and the toolbox etc). These Universities previously worked together as a cluster group for the HEA Pathfinder Project, on which Gráinne Conole was critical friend and it is expected that this work will build on, and extend on, that project.

I’ve had a strong sense of the value of these tools—and of the entire paradigm surrounding their development2 and use that seems to me so well-aligned with the long-established findings of cognitive apprenticeship—since they first came to my attention only a couple years ago. I’m truly excited to see their work expand and continue.


Further reading

Conole, Gráinne (2014) Reviewing the trajectories of e-learning, blogged chapter from forthcoming publication. Or start with my shorter overview

The Open University Learning Design Initiative “Our aim is to develop and implement a methodology for learning design composed of tools, practice and other innovation that both builds upon, and contributes to, existing academic and practitioner research. We have been working across several OU faculties and with 4 other universities to pilot curriculum design activities and relevant supporting tools and to contribute to the broader academic work in the subject.”

Jisc, “UK’s expert on digital technologies for education and research”

Fouchaux, Richard C. (2013), Thick learning situations: paths towards a framework for 21st-century learning design, project, paper and various web applications [HTML]
[…demonstrating, if not quite explaining, its own subthesis—the impending obsolescence of the traditional paper—and the work left to be done in utilizing new forms, and raising them to the status of other literacies! My MRP, the birth of this site. -rcf]

  1. By comparison, I discovered Visual Understanding Environment (VUE), a similar tool from Tufts University, has advanced as far as image maps enhanced with an early version of jQuery, but I found it very easy to break by putting HTML or the wrong text characters into the Node Notes.
  2. Back in 2011 I tried to say it in 10 seconds, but it took me 11, and maybe it’s not entirely clear I’m talking about the same issues. What do you think? [video]


Jan 15

Overview of Gráinne Conole’s “trajectories of e-learning”

Reviewing the trajectories of e-learning – Gráinne Conole

Gráinne Conole is Professor of Learning Innovation and Director of the Institute of Learning Innovation at the University of Leicester. Her work into applications of technology in learning is trailblazing and prolific (e.g., Conole & Fill, 2005; Conole, and Alevizou, 2010; ISC report JISC 2011; Conole, 2011; Conole, 2013). In this chapter from a forthcoming book that she posted to her blog today she summarizes the state of the art very well, however you may find as blogs go, it’s still a long read. Here’s an overview. I hope it’s of interest and you’ll visit her site to read the entire thing.

Professor Conole stresses The growing importance of ICT in education and quotes from a UNESCO 2005 report that saw 7 applications of technology in learning:

  1. to improve administrative efficiency and provide a pan-institutional infrastructure for managing learning, teaching and research.
  2. to disseminate teaching and learning materials to teachers and students, usually through an LMS and resource repositories.
  3. to improve the ICT skills of teachers and students and their digital literacies and competences
  4. to allow teachers and students access to sources of information from around the world.
  5. as examples of good practice and mechanisms for sharing ideas on education and learning.
  6. provide spaces for academics and students to collaborate on joint projects. These can also be used to support collaboration for research projects.
  7. to conduct lessons from remote locations and support distance learning. This can include both synchronous and asynchronous communication.

She provides a timeline of technology’s application “…from being a peripheral innovation to being part of the core services we offer learners. Each item on the timeline is discussed in turn.

Graphic, Figure 1: The e-learning timeline, source: Conole, 2014, blog

Figure 1 shows the e-learning timeline the chapter is based on. Professor Conole discusses each of the key technological developments that have arisen over the past thirty years

Professor Conole talks about the evolution of Multimedia Authoring Tools (like Adobe Captivate and others), The Web, “Learning Objects” (which are not the equivalent of “eLearning modules,” but “precursors to the Open Educational Resource (OER) movement”), and Learning Management Systems:

Graphic, Figure 2: Components of an institutional LMS, source: Conole, 2014, blog

Figure 2: Components of an institutional LMS
LMSs provide a hub for learning materials and course delivery and often also cover the management of course registration, course scheduling, discussion forums, blog sites, student scores, and student transcripts. LMSs contain a number of tools for presenting learning materials, for communication and collaboration and for managing assignments.

Professor Conole says Mobile Devices are gaining traction because they can be “used across different learning spaces, beyond the formal classroom setting, into the home and within informal learning contexts, such as museums.” And they are.

This very important distinction is highlighted in Professor Conole’s overview:

Learning Design emerged “as a counter measure to Instructional Design. Driven primarily by researchers in Europe and Australia, Learning Design aimed to provide practitioners with guidance and support to inform their design process which is pedagogically effective and makes appropriate use of technologies. It is seen as a more encompassing term than Instructional Design, which operates primarily at the level of multimedia; in contrast Learning Design provides a holistic approach to the design process.

Gamification is an immensely important trend “as a means of motivation and learner engagement” and Conole quotes Gee, 2008: “The potential of gamification, however, goes beyond promoting healthy lifestyles and marketing strategies. Gamers voluntarily invest countless hours in developing their problem-solving skills within the context of games” and says 21st century learning will reflect Gee’s ‘situated and embodied learning,’ “…meaning a student is not just being taught inert knowledge, rather using facts and information as tools for problem solving in a specific context and solving the problem (Gee 2011).”

[The Open Educational Resources (OER) is] …promoted by organisations such as UNSESCO and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. UNESCO argues that Education is a fundamental human right and therefore educational resources should be freely available.” She concludes this section “The OER movement has been successful in promoting the idea that knowledge is a public good, expanding the aspirations of organisations and individuals to publish OER. However as yet the potential of OER to transform practice has not being realised, there is a need for innovative forms of support on the creation and evaluation of OER” noting strongly that Hewlett Foundation, Atkins et al. (2007) said “adopt programs and policies to promote Open Educational Resources” is one of the five higher-level recommendations in the conclusion to the report.

Learning occurs wherever Social and participatory media appears (quality and scope of learning varies greatly). Conole draws from her prior work (Conole and Alevizou, 2010) “a review of the use of social and participatory media in Higher Education. [the authors] adapted a taxonomy of types of Web 2.0 tools (O’Reilly 2005) developed by Crook et al. (2008) based on the functionality of different tools.” She then lists 10 tool types, 3 trends and 5 characteristics—Peer critiquing, User-generated content, Collective aggregation, Community formation, Digital personas —that we can expect to continue into the 21st century.

She discusses the initial excitement around Virtual worlds, something I was also once very excited about, about which I came to the same conclusion: “Part of the problem is in the fact that the current Virtual Worlds are still difficult to use and part of the problem is that there are not many learning interventions where other technologies can be just as appropriate, i.e. it is not clear that the investment in time in building and using the Virtual World is worth it.”

The remainder of the article is devoted to the growing role and importance of E-books and smart devices, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), arguing effectively for an alternative classification system based on 12 dimensions, and the emergence of Learning Analytics—data collection and its uses.

Professor Gráinne Conole wraps up her review of the key technological developments of the last 30 years with advice on what to look out for in the months and years ahead, where to look, and the following ideas and assertions:

To conclude, the nature of learning, teaching and research is changing as a result of the increasing impact of technologies in education. We are seeing changing roles and evolving organisation structures. In addition, disruptive technologies, like MOOCs, are challenging traditional educational business models and new models are emerging. We need to think beyond the distinction of campus-based and online learning, to focus more on the notion of Technology-Enhanced learning spaces.[41] We cannot as individuals or institutions afford to ignore technologies, we need to harness the characteristics of new media and adopt more open practices in our learning, teaching and research.
– Gráinne Conole

I first learned of professor Conole’s work in graduate school while doing a major research project, when charting a path from cognitive apprenticeship to design research took me through the realm of Compendium.

If you’re interested in these things, I highly recommend the entire piece. Reviewing the trajectories of e-learning


Professor Gráinne Conole, Professor of Learning Innovation
Director, Institute of Learning Innovation, School of Education, University of Leicester

Jan 03

Power Tools in use—wear safety goggles!

Dismantling public education

photo of the front cover of the book that inspired this post, changes to back cover on hover or touch-hold

In 2008 Clayton Christensen, Curtis W. Johnson and Michael B. Horn, through Harvard Business School, published a blueprint for the disruptive innovation of education. The plan was premised on the often repeated argument that America’s schools are failing, and that the 21st century, especially the world of technology, offered new ways to overcome, “disrupt” and ultimately replace the broken system with one that would not only make American students smarter and assure American dominance in all matters of prestige, but make a lot of HBS graduates (and of course their friends and associates) very rich in the process. Writing in the euphoria of pre-meltdown sub-prime mortgage feeding frenzy now known* as the “Great Recession (also referred to as the Lesser Depression, the Long Recession, or the global recession of 2009”) they could barely contain their excitement at the imminent demise of everything they believe stands in the way of a lucrative and rewarding educational experience: unions, tenure, and if technology delivers on all its promises, potentially that peskiest anti-learning agent of all—teachers!

“What are “Tools of Cooperation and Change?”

4-item Venn-like diagram set inside chart plotting degree of agreement on cause/effect vs that on solution/way forward. Overlay suggests strategies for dealing with each situation.

Fig 1. Organizational change — Level of agreement on cause/effect vs that on solution/way forward; overlapping interests; strategies for resolution from Christensen, Johnson and Horn (2008)

Two factors of great concern to profiteers in any arena are regulation and resistance to change. In North American education, regulation is represented mainly by state and provincial standards, and teacher unions (pg. 142); resistance to change is fundamentally “entrenched” in the cultures of all established systems. Every organization at some point faces the need to implement change. Building on prior work (Christensen, Marx & Stevenson, 2006), the authors plot an “Agreement Matrix” (Fig. 1) to illustrate where various organizations can fall along two dimensions: the extent to which people agree on what they want and the extent to which they agree on cause and effect, or how to get what they want.

“Don’t force it… just get a bigger hammer!”

According to Christensen, Johnson and Horn (2008) “Different quadrants call for different tools. When employees share little consensus on either dimension, for instance, the only methods that will elicit cooperation are “power tools” such as fiat, force, coercion, and threats” (2006, abstract). Hundreds of studies of cases falling on all points of the matrix have yielded a collection of such tools that can be used to successfully implement change. For example, sometimes people disagree because they’re trying to explain things in ways the other side can’t understand. In such a case agreeing upon a “common language” can help the parties to reach consensus. The authors rightly note that education discourse in the USA today falls in the lower left quadrant, where fiat, threats and coercion are their recommended strategies for change. “Separation” is indicated if parties’ disagreement is so fundamental they can’t compromise and can’t be coerced — dividing the conflicted parties into separate groups so they can be in strong agreement with those in their own group and remain isolated from other groups (pg. 190). But walking away is a cop out in any situation. In education especially, failure to engage from the outset is a sure sign the entire lesson will fail.

Schools, say Christensen et al., most often fall in the lower-left quadrant of the model, meaning stakeholders disagree strongly both about what they want and on what actions will produce which results. “People have tried democracy, folklore, charisma, salesmanship, measurement systems, training, negotiation, and financial incentives. All have failed. We see only three possibilities: common language, power, and separation” (Christensen, Johnson and Horn, 2008, pg. 192). It quickly becomes apparent they have no further use of the first as it may pertain to education reform. But Jeff Conklin (2006) has shown that solving problems is an iterative process. He concurs with Christensen and company that a common language is fundamental to the shared understanding that must precede transformational change, but he’s more tenacious and persistent, bringing with his stronger resolve and deeper commitment to achieving consensus a tried and true method that can be called the whip and stool of would-be wicked problem tamers. Dialogue and arguments can be mapped using successful, well documented, transparent and inclusive strategies. Just as many governments have begun to recognize (see for example Commonwealth of Australia, 2007; NCCHPP, 2012) Horst Rittel said all matters of public policy—social problems where the intersecting rights and responsibilities of multiple stakeholders might challenge an ethnographer’s skills to untangle—are “wicked problems,” and thus problems that “…are never solved. At best they are only re-solved—over and over again” (Rittel and Webber, 1973, pg. 160).

Undermining democracy

Christensen, Johnson and Horn likely wouldn’t be surprised by many of the decidedly undemocratic actions and ideas their 2008 manifesto may have inspired. But sticking only to the strategies they list, not only is it thoroughly discredited and deeply cynical to say all those methods have failed—it’s an outright, bold-faced lie.

Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) is built on wrong premises. … GERM has acted like a virus that “infects” education systems as it travels around the world. The infection can be diagnosed by checking the state of the following five symptoms.

First is increased competition between schools that is boosted by school choice and related league tables offering parents information that helps them make the right “consumer” decisions. Second is standardization of teaching and learning that sets detailed prescriptions how to teach and what students must achieve so that schools’ performance can be compared to one another. Third is systematic collection of information on schools’ performance by employing standardized tests. These data are then used to hold teachers accountable for students’ achievement. Fourth is devaluing teacher professionalism and making teaching accessible to anyone through fast-track teacher preparation. Fifth is privatizing public schools by turning them to privately governed schools through charter schools, free schools and virtual schools.

—Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish educator

Finland is among the most commonly touted successes of financial incentives, negotiation and charisma, closer to home is Ontario, where even data-positive reformers like Michael Fullan stress the need to go beyond the agreed first step of building shared understanding to consensus. Pasi Sahlberg says “To prepare young people for a more competitive economy our school systems must have less competition.” The authors of Disrupting Class encourage attitudes and approaches that have led to the vilification and dismissal of seasoned professional teachers, union busting, and legislating various degrees of privatization in order to accomplish reform.

By eliminating public schools, as Arne Duncan and Rahm Emmanuel have been doing in Chicago, and as hurricane Katrina accomplished more effectively (and honestly) in New Orleans, disruption creates new markets. We see that notion realized in the web of for profit education networks being established by such corporate operatives within education as Michele Rhee, and nurtured and furthered from within the US Department of Education by Arne Duncan. But the grassroots group Rethinking Schools says “Chicago’s model of school closings and education privatization […] The impact of those policies includes thousands of children displaced by school closings, spiked violence as they transferred to other schools, and the deterioration of public education in many neighborhoods into a crisis situation.”

Corporate solutions in education?

Today’s business and education elite …argue that a data driven management approach to oversee teacher performance should be used to reform the education system. This approach is both naive and problematic on many levels.

After a twenty year career in business, I decided to become a mathematics teacher. … I quickly learned that teaching students was far more complicated than managing adults. Why, you may ask? There are three simple reasons that I would like to share with the business intelligentsia.

  1. Your employees are paid to listen to you, your students are not.
  2. In business, employees are selected based upon a search and interview process. Teachers do not select their students.
  3. In business, an insubordinate employee is fired. An insubordinate student is merely one more challenge for a classroom teacher.
Beth Goldberg, Middle School Mathematics Teacher

Alfie Kohn (1996) exposed 4 myths of competition, finding it actually undermines individual growth and development, as well as human relationships, hindering goal attainment as it enables only one party to reach the goal at the expense of others. Christensen et al. inadvertently establish the case for holistically building consensus, a process that everyone agrees takes considerably more patience and commitment. The complex stakeholder relationships even such purposeful disrupters as Christensen, Johnson and Horn cannot deny are nothing like the employer-employee relationships to which their experience is limited. This was articulated brilliantly by Beth Goldberg, a Middle School Mathematics Teacher at Linden Avenue Middle School in Red Hook, NY and quoted by Diane Ravitch here. Teachers can not fire their students, some teachers and school administrators are also parents, schools must answer the needs of many communities of practice, not just business… “Failing to recognize the “wicked dynamics” in problems, we persist in applying inappropriate methods and tools to them” (Conklin, 2010).


As Paul Thomas points out in this article worth reading in its entirety, “The real problem with the perpetual failure of journalism and education reporting is that credible and smart analyses of educational research is now easily accessible online—for example, Shanker Blog, School Finance 101 (Bruce Baker), Cloaking Inequity (Julian Vasquez Heilig) and the National Education Policy Center.” Connected educators, students and parents must use the Internet to avoid the biased corporate narrative, which claims schools are failing and the tools or tests they’re selling are the only cure.

Christensen and his fellow disruptors are making a category error. Not all civil services need to be hyper-efficient and bargain-basement and in a state of permanent revolution… What the institutions of a democracy should do is attend to their many disparate constituents as effectively and inclusively and openly as possible without getting creatively destroyed in the process.
—Judith Shulevitz, The New Republic

Allowing corporations to lead education reform is wrong-minded from the outset. It’s completely irrational to apply Harvard Business School’s trademarked top-down disruption strategies within a sector that has no top! It’s up to students, parents, teachers, and other defenders of the Public Sphere to don safety goggles and steel-toed boots and pick up some power tools of their own. Common language and shared understanding can work both ways.

Updated: 2013-01-03. This post has been slightly edited for clarity, and to correct typos discovered after first publication. […] The (Rittel & Webber, 1973) citation was corrected: the reference was not listed but a different one, not quoted in the text, was. As the latter is available on line, rather than remove it I’ve added the link. I’ll call it ‘suggested reading.’ Updated: 2013-01-05. See Paul Thomas’s excellent suggestions for a 2014 Educators’ Agenda. [@plthomasEdD] scores EQAO Level 4 for his exemplary demo of what I mean by “donning steel-toed boots.”


* Quoting Great Recession From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. The script I wrote to do the drop caps strips all the other HTML from the first paragraph—my New Year resolution is to fix it using Ben Alman’s perfect solution.

Addenda and general rambling on…
Updated: I’ve also expressed similar ideas in much the same language here and here. I’ve also written about a superior approach to going beyond mere “common language,” instead using argument mapping in search of “shared understanding,” here and here. I first wrote about this book in grad school in 2009, and I acknowledged the authors’ professed concern for children’s learning, which I still have no reason to question, just as I see no contradiction; maybe I’ve come to a deeper understanding of the solace and redemption the inherent amorality of The Market must provide its flock. Men like Christensen & Co., Bloomberg, Gates… genuinely believe they are benevolent dictators, doing good, spreading wisdom. I’ve little problem with finding and filling so-called “areas of non-consumption,” it’s their intentional and wanton creation, nearly always at public expense, that I believe must be resisted at all cost. Here I point out that Americans have always sought quality snake oil, and can discern between cunning card-sharps whom they traditionally respect, versus villainous card cheats and overdressed, know-nothing “riverboat dandies.” The difference today is too many seem willing to invite the latter back to the table. I’m calling for something quite a bit short of hanging—but let’s stop talking to the Tony Bennett/Michelle Rhee crooks and cheats, the Arne Duncan/Jeb Bush snake oil charlatans and John King riverboat dandies of education reform.

“Where-ever publick spirit is found dangerous, she will soon be seen dead.”
— Thomas Gordon, Cato’s Letter #35, 1721.

Here’s one, although I think it’s more a case of intellectual dishonesty than inconsistency. Christensen, Horn and Johnson, somewhat apologetically almost, point to Howard Gardner’s eroded Theory of Multiple Intelligences, in part I believe to support their argument for apps in the classroom (pg. 31). They do not discuss any of Gardner’s ideas for reforming education. See Gardner, Howard (1992b) Assessment in Context: The Alternative to Standardized Testing in Changing Assessments Alternative Views of Aptitude, Achievement and Instruction, Bernard R. Gifford, Mary Catherine O’Connor, editors, Volume 30, 1992, pp 77-119. Also Gardner, Howard (1995/2011), The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and how Schools Should Teach, 21st Anniversary edition (2011) NY: Basic Books, 322 pages. [Read online]


Christensen CM, Marx M, Stevenson HH. (2006) The Tools of Cooperation and Change, Harvard Business School: Boston, USA

Christensen, Clayton; Johnson, Curtis W.; and Horn, Michael B. (2008) Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns New York : McGraw-Hill

Commonwealth of Australia (2007) Tackling Wicked Problems: A Public Policy Perspective, [Archived]

Kohn, A. (1996). Beyond discipline: From compliance to community. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Conklin, Jeff (2005) Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems,

Conklin, Jeff (2010) Summary of available CogNexus Institute, Web site, California USA, retrieved 2011-10-10. Chapter 1 available as PDF retrieved 2012-03-02.

Duncan, A. (1987), The values, aspirations and opportunities of the urban underclass, Boston, Harvard University

National Collaborating Centre for Healthy Public Policy (2012) Tackling Wicked Problems in the Built Environment: Of Health Inequalities and Bedbugs [Workshop details]

Oppenheimer, Todd (2003) “The Flickering Mind: Saving Education from the False Promise of Technology”, Random House. See also this Oppenheimer article, San Francisco Chronicle, Wednesday, February 4, 2009, “Technology not the panacea for education” HTML retrieved 2012-03-02

Rittel, Horst W. J. and Webber, Melvin M. (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning, Policy Sciences (4) 1973, 155-169.

Rith, Chanpory and Dubberly, Hugh (2006), Why Horst W.J. Rittel Matters, Design Issues: Volume 22, Number 4 Autumn 2006 [Online versions].

Sahlberg, Pasi (2012) Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland, NY: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Shulevitz, Judith (2013) Don’t You Dare Say “Disruptive” It’s the most pernicious cliché of our time,blog post at The New Republic [HTML]

Smith, M. K. (2003, 2009) ‘Communities of practice’, the encyclopedia of informal education,

Dec 21

Can (messy) mind maps enable tidy linear strategies within messy situations?

Graphic: a very messy mind map of a complex project.My research into educational, mostly open source software tools identified ones that have proven multi-tasking abilities within “authentic” learning situations (Conole and Fill, 2005; Conole, 2008). Among these, the so-called “Mind Mapping” tools stand out for what I think are several very good reasons. The image to the right, a “mind map” of a recent research project, shows the good, the bad and the ugly.

the rules common to all information systems do not cover the messy, ambiguous, and context-sensitive processes of meaning making, a form of activity in which the construction of highly “fuzzy” and metaphoric category systems is just as notable as the use of specifiable categories for sorting inputs in a way to yield comprehensible outputs.

—Jerome Bruner (1996 in Illeris, 2009, pg. 162)

It seems under-researched maybe, but I believe I saw indications, and I certainly have anecdotal evidence, that mind maps may lack meaning to people who for whatever reason(s) must solve problems in predominantly linear ways. In at least one case I’ve seen a mind map—the one of my research project at the top of the post—elicit genuine anxiety in a person with clinical anxiety disorder!

Messiness: the face of authentic learning

It’s certainly true that mind maps can get confusing. Connections become interwoven in admittedly “messy” ways—which, I argue, makes them particularly suitable to solving exactly the types of messy problems we increasingly face—although they often appear in ways that can understandably throw self-identified “linear thinkers” quite literally for a loop. It’s small wonder many people believe mind maps don’t, won’t, will never work for them. However, the same solutions cartographers have applied for centuries work in these maps too (Buckingham Shum and Okada, 2007), and are available in free tools with powerful multitasking abilities. Messiness is a fact of authentic learning situations (Collins, Joseph & Bielaczyc, 2004, pg. 19). Clinical settings and attempts to eliminate messiness can even be counter-productive (pg. 20). Describing the linear step pattern shown below in Fig. 1 (red line) Patricia Seybold says, “…we keep trying to shoehorn” Wicked Problems into that linear approach” (2013, pg. 3). I think what I’ll call linear imposition, the imposing of a linear framework or template on a non-linear situation, is at the root of Jean Lave’s “paradox” she says often causes institutionalized learning to fail (Lave, 1993, pg. 78). I believe ethnographers such as Lave have had an important impact on design thinking in education research and instructional design because of their “attempts to characterize relationships and events that occur in different educational settings. …ethnographic research produces rich descriptions that make it possible to understand what is happening and why” (Collins, Joseph & Bielaczyc, 2004, pg. 21). By “rich” descriptions Collins, Joseph & Bielaczyc mean “‘Thick,’ as in Geertz,” and by mapping these connections we contribute to the design of ‘thicker’ learning situations we hope result in deeper learning.

designVUE: lining up the non-linear

The problem is, while we may place things on lists and in lines to organize and sequence an approach, those things may have their own interconnections and internal organizations, especially if the “things” are groups of people with competing rights and interests. And so the line we draw prior to achieving full understanding of a problem is actually an imposition that changes the nature of the existing problem and causes new problems to arise. As Conklin has shown, solving problems is an iterative process.

How Humans Solve Opportunity-Driven Problems

graph plotting a linear step by step solution (red) overlayed by a process actually observed in practice (green)

Figure 1: From a 1980’s study at the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC) that looked into how people solve problems. Each peak in the green line can be understood as heading “back to the drawing board,” yet each return to the drawing board carries all the experience of the previous attempts. Source: Conklin, 2006 ©2006 John Wiley & Sons, 2013 CogNexus Group. For an excellent discussion, see also Seybold, 2013.

Mitigating Mind-Map Anxiety

Mind-map anxiety might be mitigated by applying well understood principles of cartography. Buckingham Shum and Okada (2007) say the analogy to cartographic representations of physical space is valid, providing “…an ‘aerial view’ of a topic by highlighting key elements and connections,” and calling mind maps “vehicles for summarising and negotiating meaning” (pg. 27). designVUE is one college design department’s enhancement of another university’s contribution to the open source software world and visual understanding. I think designVUE’s quick formatting tools and presentation mode lets us do some of the things map makers do. Some of these things are, or should be, in grade-level curriculum requirements—perhaps giving students hands on access to free tools like designVUE might support the teaching and learning of many.

Map coloring is the act of assigning different colors to different features on a map. There are two very different uses of this term. The first is in cartography, choosing the colors to be used when producing a map. The second is in mathematics, where the problem is to determine the minimum number of colors needed to color a map so that no two adjacent features have the same color.
—Wikipedia article

There’s nothing more linear than a time-line; as the first image shows, a mind-mapping tool makes it easy to display linear progression, so if this is the only objection, it soon crumbles. In designVUE you choose the colour scheme (“fill,” “line,” font “style”) and shape.

With the Quick Prototyping tool draw a line of bubbles in a quick succession of clicks…

mind map bubbles in a line

Image 1. In VUE you can use the Prototyping tool to draw a line of bubbles with a directional arrow between, or with standard tool place the thought bubble on a line or arrow.

Any individual “bubble” in the map may consist of much messier activities. Brainstorming, for example, is a spiral of ideas, questions, answers, and arguments. In designVUE you can use colour to visually set an activity apart, but you can also create pathways that hide and reveal specific sets of bubbles—overcome cognitive overload. Or group bubbles within each other as I’ve done here with a question, answer and pro/con set that illustrate IBIS1, a system that often goes hand-in-hand another highly successful application of mind-maps: “dialogue mapping2.”

mind map bubbles of a new color added in a spiral

Image 2. Part of a brainstorming session suggesting a circular and iterative process, shown in a different colour. With “Pathways” you can hide entire sections and choose different sequences.

But wait! Yes, there’s more! In these days of collaboration linear thinkers and their strategies are as important as ever. designVUE has a presentation tool that allows teams to construct linear pathways through maps of even the most complex dialogues, in order to gain clarity, reach consensus, and explain decisions to others. designVUE also does metadata in OpenCalais, allows you to store resources and documents in the bubbles, share maps as interactive HTML documents, reuse the same maps in multiple other maps… I’m only scratching the surface.

Image 3. Showing Pathways in the workspace. Also shown are the IBIS icons for question, idea, pro and con arguments.

The Pathways panel allows you to create standard (linear) PowerPoint-like slides and bullet points, though not as effortlessly as the commercial product. VUE’s true power as a presentation tool takes some time to appreciate and master, but if your goal is to enhance a learning situation by creating memorable and meaningful visual connections between the content, and then using the same tool to convey those ideas to an audience this tool might be what you’re after.

mind map bubbles of a new color added in a spiral

Image 4. The Pathways panel allows you to show and edit more traditional PowerPoint-like slides. In effect VUE’s “Pathways” can be separate but related presentations, or audience-specific variations on a theme.

Panel closeup. The images can be sized, additional ones and text added to each slide that need not be shown in other views:

Image 5. Closeup of the expanded Pathways Panel. The order and whether it’s shown is determined here.

In Presentation mode, hitting Enter can shift to yet another view of the groups of ideas in the presentation. There’s definitely a learning curve but my early impression is this can potentially change the way you do presentations. I highly recommend this VUE tutorial for ideas and examples.

Image 6. In Presentation mode, hitting Enter can shift to yet another view of the groups of ideas in the presentation. See this VUE tutorial for examples (note the PDF for download beneath the video player).


The types of 21st century problems we increasingly understand need taming—as they defy solving by their very nature—are “wicked problems.” This necessarily includes nearly all matters of public education, indeed of public policy as a whole, where the conflicting and intersecting rights and responsibilities of multiple stakeholders is always …messy! Governments are coming to recognize this. See the Australian Public Service Commission site for one well explained example (Commonwealth of Australia, 2007). In Canada Quebec and New Brunswick have already discovered the importance of understanding certain problems’ ‘wickedness’ in these ways. “As distinguished from problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable, the problems of governmental planning—and especially those of social or policy planning—are ill-defined; and they rely upon elusive political judgement for resolution. (Not “solution.” Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved—over and over again.)” (Rittel and Webber, 1973, pg. 160).

Mind mapping, undertaken thoughtfully and with purpose (see Jeff Conklin’s video: The Limits of Conversational Structure), has proven its value in all aspects of teaching and learning. As a teacher I used it much as John Budd did here, and as an instructional designer I use it as a graphic organizer. When mapping strategies are used to both record, and then map dialog to describe real situation, and when that’s done openly and collaboratively as in situations such as Conklin has described and reproduced in practice for years it can lead to shared understanding and conflict resolution.

I don’t think it’s fair, or rational, to presume that everyone is going to instantly drop PowerPoint and buy into a mindmap-based workflow, and that’s not what I’m suggesting. While dialogue mapping can handle wicked problems, it can also do meeting minutes, so consensus can be achieved and documented by the most mutually comfortable and practical means—and the cartographers have a single one stop tool to gather and document the entire process, or to communicate it to others.


If we embrace all the 21st century models, or “competencies” seen emerging, the primary and inescapable one at the base of many others is asynchronous collaboration via digital networks. Can it not simply be that the divergent thinkers map their thoughts in collaboration with linear thinkers who further delineate the why and how of their musings? Taking up perhaps the next most agreed upon 21st century learning objective, critical thinking, it seems likely we can seek solutions to simple problems and taming strategies for wicked ones, discerning the difference. Mind mapping tools are web enabled and metadata ready. A strategy for taming wicked problems that uses mind maps, argument mapping or Conklin’s trademarked Dialogue Mapping, keeps track of pros, cons, and rationale, and documents decisions making around simple problems, but offers a powerful tool for the building of the shared understanding that must precede consensus around the taming of wicked ones. Formal training can be found, but the VUE, designVUE and various Compendium software sites themselves, Conklin’s and YouTube are probably the place to start—to get an, ahem… visual understanding of what mind maps and mind mappers might bring to which ever debate you’re having.

Maybe “Can messy mind maps enable tidy linear strategies within messy situations?” isn’t the right question. In my experience it still requires steps and sequencing to deal with the issues, but the graphic organization—the visual understanding—provided by maps in programs like VUE and Compendium, in the right hands, can really help you get a grip on the situation. It very well may need both types of thinking, and that well may require collaboration. Maybe the question to be asking is, “Are there any concept and conversation cartographers in your workplace or your PLN?”


Read more about mind maps


  1. Issue-Based Information System (IBIS) was invented by Werner Kunz and Horst Rittel as an argumentation-based approach to tackling wicked problems – complex, ill-defined problems that involve multiple stakeholders. (more)
  2. Dialogue Mapping™ is trademarked by Jeff Conklin & CogNexus Institute, who describes it as “…a radically inclusive facilitation process that creates a diagram or ‘map’ that captures and connects participants’ comments as a meeting conversation unfolds. It is especially effective with highly complex or “Wicked” problems that are wrought with both social and technical complexity, as well as a sometimes maddening inability to move forward in a meaningful and cost effective way.” (more) [Demonstration PDF]


the assumptions proposed here amount to a preliminary account of what is meant by situated learning. Knowledgeability is routinely in a state of change rather than stasis, in the medium of socially, culturally, and historically ongoing systems of activity, involving people who are related in multiple and heterogeneous ways, whose social locations, interests, reasons, and subjective possibilities are different, and who improvise struggles in situated ways with each other over the value of particular definitions of the situation, in both immediate and comprehensive terms, and for whom the production of failure is as much a part of routine collective activity as the production of average, ordinary knowledgeability.
—Jean Lave

More VUE

The Visual Understanding Environment (VUE) is an Open Source project based at Tufts University

VUE is very well documented. The English user guide is here.

designVUE is a branch of VUE. It is an open source project based in the Design Engineering Group of the Mechanical Engineering Department at Imperial College London.

CompendiumLD is either fierce competition… or you can do as I do and use both! See the Learning Design-specific “stencils” in the screen shots. They’re easily ported to other Compendium flavours, and you could apply the concept in VUE with your own icons and very little extra trouble.


Bruner, Jerome (1996) Culture, mind, and education in Contemporary Theories of Learning – Learning theorists … in their own words, Knud Illeris ed., 2009, NY: Routledge; Edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2009.

Buckingham Shum, Simon and Okada, Alexandra (2007). Knowledge Mapping for Open Sensemaking Communities. In: Researching open content in education – OpenLearn 2007, 31 Oct 2007, Milton Keynes, UK.

Collins, Allan & Joseph, Diana & Bielaczyc, Katerine (2004), Design Research- Theoretical and Methodological Issues, The Journal of the Learning Sciences, Vol. 13, No. 1, Design-Based Research:Clarifying the Terms. Introduction to the Learning Sciences Methodology Strand (2004), pp.15-42

Commonwealth of Australia (2007) Tackling Wicked Problems: A Public Policy Perspective, [Archived]

Conklin, Jeffrey (2006) Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons., Ltd., 242 pp.

Conklin, Jeff (2006b) Dialogue Mapping Demonstration, [unspecified journal, citation incomplete] CogNexus Institute, pp. 249-251 [Demonstration PDF].

Conole, G. and Fill, K. (2005). A learning design toolkit to create pedagogically effective learning activities Journal of Interactive Media in Education 2005(08). [PDF:]. Gráinne Conole and Karen Fill, University of Southampton. Page 1 Published 26 September 2005 ISSN: 1365-893X [uses CompendiumLD]

Conole, G. (2008). Capturing Practice: The Role of Mediating Artefacts in Learning Design. Handbook of Research on Learning Design and Learning Objects. (Eds.) Lockyer, L., Bennett, S., Agostinho, S. and Harper, B. ISR Press. [Pre-print of learning design chapter on using compendium].

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning. Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, Jean (1993) The practice of learning in Contemporary Theories of Learning – Learning theorists … in their own words, Knud Illeris ed., 2009, NY: Routledge; Edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2009.

National Collaborating Centre for Healthy Public Policy (2012) Tackling Wicked Problems in the Built Environment: Of Health Inequalities and Bedbugs [Workshop details]

Rittel, Horst and Melvin Webber (1973) “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing, Amsterdam, pp. 155-169.

^ Seybold, Patricia B. (2013) How To Address “Wicked Problems” – Use Dialogue Mapping to Build a Shared Understanding and Evolve a Group’s Thinking, book review, [HTML | PDF]