Students Learn More When THEY Do the Work

A major barrier to innovation in the classroom is teacher exhaustion. I regularly work with teachers who like the idea of trying new teaching strategies, blended learning models, and technology tools, but they don’t have the time or energy to experiment.

When I work with teachers, my goal is to get them to shift their mindsets. Instead of asking themselves, “How can I?” I want them to pause and rephrase the question, “How can students?” This shift in teacher mindset seems simple, yet it goes against most teachers’ instincts. We place a lot of pressure on ourselves to do it all. Unfortunately, that mentality robs students of opportunities to learn.

Below is an example of what it looks like to shift the work from the teacher to the student with the goal of placing students at the center of learning. The image below depicts a traditional workflow.

It’s no mystery why this approach is so draining and frustrating. The teacher is doing all of the work. After hours of grading and providing thoughtful feedback, there is little incentive for students to revise or improve that piece of writing.

In a classroom where the student does the work, that same assignment could have a dramatically different outcome.

I would argue that the student is going to learn exponentially more with the student-led approach. This second approach shifts the work from the teacher to the student. The student uses the Grammarly report to identify mechanical errors and edit their work. They have to think critically about their specific skills using the exemplar provided by the teacher and the rubric. Finally, they have to reflect on their learning and set goals for themselves in their ongoing assessment document or learning log.

If teachers design lessons that require students do the lion’s share of the work in the classroom, the benefits are two-fold: 1) teachers won’t be so exhausted and 2) students will learn more.

I hope that if teachers are not exhausted, they’ll be more willing to try new teaching strategies, blended learning models, and technology tools. This, in turn, will make their classrooms more exciting and engaging for students. It’s a win-win, but it requires a shift in our mindset!

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Netflix’s Black Mirror: A Cautionary Tale About Social Media

Last night I watched an episode of Black Mirror, which Netflix describes as “sci-fi anthology series explores a twisted, high-tech near-future where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide.” My interest in the show was initially piqued on a visit to my sister’s home in Los Angeles. She works at Netflix and has a piece of artwork in her apartment that presents a scene from a Black Mirror’s “Nosedive” episode.

The print (below) disturbed me. Though the characters are in the same physical location, they are isolated. I see this same scene when I watch my students interact (or, more accurately, not interact) during break and lunch. They are physically together but isolated on their individual devices.

Netflix (2016).”Nosedive” Black Mirror. Retrieved from

When my professor asked us to watch and reflect on an episode of Black Mirror, I decided to watch “Nosedive” (Season 3, Episode 1) to understand the context for the print that I found so disturbing. As I watched the episode, I sketched out my thoughts wanting to capture and make sense of what was happening

Lacie, the main character, clutches a phone. In fact, every character in almost every scene is holding a phone which they use to rate each other on a scale of 5 stars. Even the briefest meetings in an elevator or on the street are followed by a rating.

Lacie is fixated on her average rating score (initially a 4.2). At first, this fixation seems shallow but the viewer quickly realizes that one’s social rating directly impacts their ability to receive discounts, qualify for housing, procure invites to events, book flights, enter specific buildings, and access medical treatment.

In an effort to improve her overall score and secure an apartment in a sought after complex for highly rated people, Lacie hires a consultant to help improve her social rating. He evaluates her “sphere of influence” or the people she interacts with the most and their average rating scores. The consultant pulls up a graph of her rating trends and recommends she interact more with individuals who have a social score of 4.5 or above.

When Lacie is unexpectedly invited to a wedding, she sees an opportunity to dramatically improve her score by delivering a moving maid of honor speech to a crowd full of highly rated people. As she sets out for the wedding, Lacie’s luck takes a turn for the worse. In a world where every interaction counts and is reflected in a numerical score, Lacie quickly realizes the power other people have over her life.

Watching “Nosedive” was like watching social media gone off the rails. People already post snapshots of their lives on SnapChat, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook where others can rate and comment on their lives. Many of the teenagers I engage with on a daily basis check their social media feeds at almost every opportunity. I appreciate that social media has made it so easy to connect with and learn from others, but I worry that too much of my students’ self-worth is tied to their interactions online.

Watching this episode got me thinking…What will the next generation of social media look like? What form will it take? Will we be tempted to rate each other and not just the media we choose to share?

As I contemplated this questions and a futuristic reality where social media could be used to rate people, I stumbled onto an article describing the Peeple app. This app is designed to allow people to rate each other personally, professionally, and romantically. I was stunned. The reality portrayed in “Nosedive” felt like an extreme satirical spin on our reliance on social media and the potential dangers of our hyperconnectedness, yet here is an app designed to facilitate the same judgment and rating system that crippled Lacie and stole her freedom in “Nosedive.”

As technology develops and we move from a web of communication to a web of context, things, and thoughts, the way people interact will fundamentally change. Who will decide what that change looks like…those who develop the technology or those who use it?

Educators and parents must encourage students to think critically about how they use technology and engage in tough conversations about how technology is changing our lives and our interactions.

Technology has the power to do incredible good, but we must be proactive in deciding how it will shape our lives and what degree of control we are willing to give the technology we use.

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The Effectiveness of Online Learning Depends on Design

As students of all ages spend more time learning online, it’s worth asking, “How effective is online learning?” The answer varies dramatically and depends entirely on the design of the online learning experience.

For the purpose of this blog, I will use the lens of situated learning theory, introduced by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, to examine the potential effectiveness of online learning. Situated learning theory asserts that learning happens as a result of doing things that are “situated in” our lives providing an authentic context for that learning. Activity, context, and culture are central to this learning theory, which emphasizes the practical over the abstract. When people tackle everyday challenges, they learn. This suggests that learning must be directly tied to the learner’s day-to-day experience. However, if humans learn by participating in their lives then how can online learning be effective?

I believe online learning can be situated; however, the design of online learning must take into considerations four aspects of learning:

  1. Content
  2. Context
  3. Community of Practice
  4. Participation


Learning must prioritize the application, not retention, of information and skills in a real-world setting. The more learning is grounded in the students’ everyday experience, the more relevant and meaningful it will be. Too often the information students are asked to read and engage with online is abstract and unrelated to their lives. Instead, learning should be focused on real-life challenges.

I’ve seen several online tools and resources that do a nice job of connecting learning to life. YummyMath asks students to apply math to real-world situations involving food, sports, weather, movies and entertainment, and art. Similarly, KQED’s Do Now and StudySync’s Blasts present current events and issues for students to encourage them to connect what they are learning in school to their lives beyond the classroom.


Information and “knowledge needs to be presented in authentic contexts — settings and situations that would normally involve that knowledge.” When learning happens in context, it reflects a time, place, and culture. Learning in context makes that learning more relevant and applicable to life.

This is the aspect of the situated learning theory that seems most challenging to achieve online. However, the potential of immersive virtual reality learning may create opportunities for learners to learn in context. There are already educational institutions using virtual reality to place learners in a real-life scenario to apply their knowledge and skills. In fact, virtual reality simulation training is being used to recreate a hospital ward for student nurse education (Elliman, Loizou, and Loizides, 2016).

For teachers without access to virtual reality equipment and software, there are virtual online tours like the ones offered by the Smithsonian National of Natural History Museum or the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) interactive destination tour for kids. Although these virtual offerings create “context” for the learning, it is not reflective of the students’ day to day lives.

Community of Practice

Wenger, McDermott, and Synder define communities of learning as “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (p.4). This definition emphasizes the need for community, connection, and engagement. For learning online to be effective, students must communicate, collaborate, and develop knowledge together.

Online learning must prioritize the development of a community of practice by leveraging tools to encourage students to connect asynchronously and synchronously. Asynchronous online discussions and discussion boards are already staples in online learning; however, their effectiveness is dependent on the instructor’s ability to design dynamic prompts and the participants’ ability to engage in a substantive way.

Adding video conferencing tools, like Zoom, Google Hangout, or Skype, to online learning allows for a more immediate and human connection. These tools encourage interaction, relationship building, and collaboration more effectively than tools that only allow for text interactions online.


The individual participants in a community of practice will engage at different levels depending on their motivation for joining the learning community or the length of time they have been part of the community. The goal of online learning must be to increase participation to ensure that students are regularly exchanging ideas and learning from one another. The more online learning speaks to the participants’ interests and passions, the more likely they are to engage with the content and each other.

Incentivizing participation may also yield higher levels of participation. Some online learning uses a badging system to create a rewards system for participation. This may be helpful at the start of an online community, but the reward of learning via participation will be the true long-term incentive for participation. The more value students gain from participating in an online course and with each other, the more likely they are to continue participating.



Elliman, J., Loizou, M., & Loizides, F., “Virtual Reality Simulation Training for Student Nurse Education,” 2016 8th International Conference on Games and Virtual Worlds for Serious Applications (VS-GAMES), Barcelona, 2016, pp. 1-2. doi: 10.1109/VS-GAMES.2016.7590377

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1990). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Posted in Doctoral Work, Learning | 3 Comments