Building a Connected Classroom

flickr photo shared by opensourceway under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

As I begin to put off assembling my promotion and tenure file I have thought often about the open classroom. This has caused me to reflect on my teaching (really need to get this stuff stuck in a binder not a blog) I realized that my five year journey has lead to a trek across the web. I have tried to bring in principles of connected learning and open practices to my classroom.

In the past this has involved using #GAFE as a Free LMS (before Classroom). The rationale being that most districts, even those iOS based, had become Google Apps For Education. Plus it was all I knew, and easy. A single log on to blogging, RSS (still shedding a tear Reader), collaborative documents, video hosting and live hangouts, Streams on Google+, and content and student portfolios on GSites. It still sounds tempting.

But I made a commitment to try Open Tools. This year, as I try to shove all these bytes into binders (no technology or Web allowed during P&T…..sorry), I wanted to share my workflow.  I primarily use three tools: WordPress, Known, and Hypothesis.



This is the course hub.  The library where you check everything out and find links to the different pathways through the class. I have a shared hosting plan with Reclaim Hosting. I have built a course template so to say so I can easily add new courses as I develop them or port them online. Wordpress powers the web. It can power your class well.

The only real drawback for WordPress has been the constant vigilance required for security. I wanted to use the BadgeOS plug-in. This required  registration to allow the general public to enroll. I used BuddyPress This meant a constant hunt for plug-ins to stop the barrage of spam enrollments. If I am to use BuddyPress again I will not allow for registration but will manually enroll. The thought of even doing that is the reason I probably will not use BadgeOS.


This is our coffee shop. It is where we gather to read. is a social annotation tool. It has fundamentally shifted my teaching. Instead of talking about texts I am talking in texts.

All of the posts are public and licensed for reuse so this makes privacy a bit tricky. So I create a few options for students. First I review the benefits of learning in the open to build a web presence. Then we discuss the use of pseudonyms. Finally I let everyone know that hard copy offline annotations or notes are acceptable. I hear private groups are coming soon.

(Here is a how-to video that shows ways to use within blackboard).



This is our Stream. I don’t need a physical metaphor for our network. It would seem foreign. Known is a blogging and social networking platform. I use it as a place for students to push all of their content. Every student in the class mantains their own place online. I want them to own their own learning rather than do it in the open.  They benefit from both. Our Known stream is where we share our community. It does take cultivation. Streams, just like any “LMS” like space, can devolve into file sharing systems with no iterative feedback between classmates. I am getting there.

Many of my students have chosen Known as their blogging platform. I also provide instructions for Blogger (for folks with Google accounts) and sites. I hope many of my students take their blogs with them. Few rarely do, but students approaching graduation have turned to me with regret, wishing they had built up a web presence (Dear Universities everywhere, building a portfolio and a presence are not the same thing). Known offers great hosting packages for students.

My favorite feature though is the control over privacy. I have always kept my class streams private. Before Known I used Google+, but now I can have a public stream that empowers students to make decisions over their privacy.

On every post students can select whether to make them public or shared with the class. This has helped me as a teacher as well. I give critical writing feedback to my students. They are learning a new genre of blogging while being held to traditional academic standards of writing (plus gifs, lots of gifs). I can use the private post function to give important feedback without hauling the student out on the parade grounds for a dressing down.

The one drawback I have run into is the comment feature. It is off by default, and the way public thinkers, especially women and minorities are treated I understand. Yet this takes a few emails to get everyone to turn on their comments. My other issue is the lack of an RSS feed for comments. It might sound strange but I use the RSS of comments as an assessment tool and a public nudge to support a community of writers.

Next Steps

I need a better RSS feed. This is my personal workflow for class and needs to live side by side the stream. I currently use Feedly Pro so I can include a reader. I like it. I can make my collections public and set up a feed for each class. I can only link to the feed. i can npt embed it yet.

I love what Laura Gibbs has done with InoReader. So I know what I want is possible. I have seen people like Alan Levine build stuff for Connected Courses. My favorite is probably Mozilla’s Planet feed that Atul Varma turned me on to. Now I am way over my head in terms of being able to take the Git Hub repo and do something with it but close to what I want does exist.

Laura has built it. I think I need to follow all of her excellent instructions and try out Inoreader.

I just need to get smarter or wait for someone smarter build the RSS reader for the classroom. In a perfect world it would work like JSTimeline. I have a spreadsheet template. I would add the student name, the rss feed for the blog, and the rss feed for comments (huge chance of human error here). I press a button and out pops out a pretty stream of student writing.  I would want to be able to have a firehose, sort by comments, student, etc.

The right tools are meaningless without community. We need to understand that bringing in open practices and connected learning to web novices requires scaffolding. An acceptance of failure and a constant forking of plans. I have taught with no stream and just RSS, just  stream, and both. The format doesn’t really matter. Our forum does. We need to come together,

I haven’t moved everyone totally out on social networks yet. I have required Twitter chats but I find many are hesitant to try. Instead I try to model the use of social media in my learning and leading. I will see if it catches on. I just don’t feel right mandating someone sign up for social media. I have created private pathways for all three tools and I do the same for social media. I wonder, however, if I should require Twitter,

At least for now I can say I built a class that:

  • uses open source tools
  • allows students to own their own data
  • has privacy options (or I can create a private pathway).
Terry Elliot asked me to explain how I try and bring the principles and core values of connected learning into my classroom. This dialogue came about after I posted an ignite talk defining,  or rather poaching, the meaning of connected learning. I use transmedia teaching.

What is transmedia?

Transmedia storytelling involves an unfolding narrative across many digital new platforms. This is different than cross-platform (like a comic book, novel, and movie edition). Transmedia requires the unique content that authors and makers newtowrk together into one larger narrative.

What is transmedia teaching?

My emerging definition of transmedia teaching evolves from the principles and values of connected learning and the work of Gee’s embodied literacies. Gee argues that when we discuss digital technologies for learning we need to always begin with the purpose and and not the tool.

Once we have a pedagogical goal we then “network the tools” (Gee, 4:53). It is in this networking of unique content across multiple tools that defines transmedia teaching.

Every classroom has a space for learning, and this space consists of content (Gee, 2004). I give my students mutliple portals to interact with this content across many different media platforms. Sure we have our main portal (a class website hosted on Google Sites and class network as a Google+ community) but I encourage my students to network to otehr content and tools through this main portal.

As of now I have been more modeling transmedia teaching but hope to see greater diversity in the portals students are using to enter our learning space.

My Transmedia Teaching

I am going to once again refer back to Gee and use portals to define the networks and technologies we use as part of our transmedia teaching. Portals act as generators in that they lead to new content for our learning space (Gee, 2004). These are often digital texts and tools.

The Printed Word

The first technology we use is probably the most efficient tool I know for deep learning. The printed word. We use both a book and research articles (though these are both in electronic form). Our common texts include:

boyd, d. (2007). Social network sites: Public, private, or what? The Knowledge Tree, 13. Available:

Downes, S. (2005). An introduction to connective knowledge. Stephen’s Web. Available:

Gee, J. P. (2013). The anti-education era: Creating smarter students through digital learning. Macmillan.

McVerry, J. G. (2012). TPACK and the new literacies of online reading comprehension. In S. Kadjer & C. Young (Eds.), Research in ELA and technology: An edited collection. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

O’Byrne, W. I. (2013). Online content construction: Empowering students as readers and writers of online information. In K. Pytash & R. Ferdig (Eds). Exploring Technology in Writing and Writing Instruction.

Richardson, W. (2008). Footprints in the Digital Age. Educational Leadership. Available:

Ruffini, M. (2012). Screencasting to engage learning. Educase Review: Available:

Students are also encouraged to share texts from outside our common reads. These pour in from YouTube, Pinterest,  and RSS feeds.

We then interact with this content across different tools and networks and this interaction then changes the content in our space. For example we still use discussion questions and have academically focused discourse around the readings.

Yet I also encourage students to make the reading social. As I read I annotate and share my thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #edu522.

To date no student has joined me. I learned this lesson early on. I do not force students through portals (except the primary portal). Instead I try to model the potential during my normal every day use. So I see Twitter as a tool I am using for instruction that cuts across different networks nodes. It is unique content


We began the class by creating 6 word mainfestos on digital teaching and learning. To accomplish this task we used one of Mozilla’s webmaker tools Popcorn.

Synchronous Video Chat

We also use Hangouts on Air as a tool for both synchronous and asynchronus video chat. This allows us to personalize the class and rely on expression to gauge each other’s learning.

 Screencasts and Online Video

In our current module we are focusing on building online spaces for learning using video. We have been creating a variety of screencasts or videos. The students began by teaching us something that they are passionate about (hopefully non-educational). They then had to choose a pedagogical goal and make a video for that goal.

I tried to model and teach this practice across many different tools. I have used scribing, animations, and screencasts.

I also shared other great content instead of building what is already done. Such as Michael Kennedy’s video on Mayer’s principle of multimedia learning.

Finally I screencast all of my feedback to students at the completion of each model. Due to the personal nature of these videos I do not share them here but I find it to be one of the best tools in my transmedia teaching toolbox.

Each of the videos I share are create are designed to introduce or reinforce new content while also modeling how a digital text and tool can be used.

Dispersed Media

We also have content joining our space from areas outside of the classroom. The video I shared on connected learning was uploaded by someone else to Vialogues.  I then reshared this with the class. Another Vialogue was then posted as a response to my video on  affinity spaces. This unique media made its way into the space we use to learn.


Transmedia teaching builds on the values and principles of connected learning. By having content networked toggether across many different digital texts and tools we strive to reach our shared pedagogical goal.

I am not there yet. I haven’t got the civic engagement component totally built into the classroom yet. We do, those of in the class, have a shared purpose united around a pedagogical goal of improving our instruction with digital texts and tools.


There I said it. I am not awed by the latest and greatest in social media as a method to transform my online pedagogy. In fact after a semester of experimenting with Google Apps as a free LMS I have decided to cull down to a few basics. Google+ (except Hangouts on Air) may get the axe.

Too Many Tools

Throughout the semester I have been informally surveying my students about my instructional design decisions. The course, in its original design, used Google Sites to organize learning in modules, embedded Google Groups for discussions, blogger for reflective writing, and Google+ for sharing and discussing research.

Students often noted that too many tools were utilized. Many also adapted to the tools and created a workflow I never intended. For example I asked students to review teaching videos and post a critique to Google+. Some chose just to create a post on Google+ other wrote their critique on their blog and shared a link on Google+.

So I decided to experiment. In the last set of modules (one teacher created the other modules created by students) I tried just to use Google+. Here is my initial follow up reflections.

Academic Discourse

A comparison of the literary discussion on both Google Groups (embedded into my course website) revealed more in depth and text based discussions on Google Groups compared to Google+. The students also posted more follow up questions and larger word counts.

The quality of written response does not bother me though. This could be easily remedied. I could model more academic discourse within Google+. With time the students could engage in text based discourse on Google+. The “read more” feature though demonstrates Google+ is not meant for long form writing.

Better yet I could take an idea from my students. Some of my participants wrote an initial response on Blogger and shared a link to their blog. I could, for example, have all initial responses to reading be a blog post and all follow up discussion be comments within Google+.

This approach has a few pitfalls. Google+ enabled comments on blogger do not appear under the initial link shared by the author. Furthermore the commenter has to make sure just to share it within our community or the comment as well as the blog post go public. While I encourage students to learn in the open they have a right to privacy.


I have long feared the tyranny of the immediacy on stackable social media. I tried my best to mediate the situation by creating a category for each module and encouraging the use of hashtags. Even with these steps students struggled with navigation. Often when you click on a category Google+ may display an algorithmically determined “best” content. You can click to see the posts sequentially but not all students realized this.

The automatic hashtags, when trying to use an LMS, actually hampered navigation. I had to teac h students haow to search within Google+. I believe in the mantra whenever students must make inferences as to the location of materials you have made poor instructional design decisions.

I tried to organize their activities and encourage students to post their responses under my initial post. Yet this was not always possible. For example in one of my learning activities students had to post an original poem they created on Google Docs. You can not share links, docs, and prompts in replies to post Thus students had to create a new post, follow the correct naming protocol. As the modules were self paced and could be completed in any order this lead to a cluttered feed.


Video is such a powerful tool in online education. No not my pre-recorded lectures, but artifacts of student work. In my f2f class students had to submit written mini-lessons. I did not have enough classroom time for everyone to present their teaching live. Yet in my online class everyone had to record themselves teaching a mini-lesson.

There was a stark difference in thee quality of feedback I could offer. In almost all instances every student included modeling in their lesson plan. Yet when I watched videotaped lessons it was not always present. This provided formative data that students did not fully grasp modeling. If I just used my paper based method for grading I would have thought the opposite.

Hangouts on Air are the best pedagogical feature of Google+. Even if I drop Google+ as a learning space I would still utilize Hangouts. Hangouts on Air though again raise privacy concerns. I do let students know they can immediately go in and switch a video to private after the Hangout is completed but for a short time anyone anywhere can see what students are doing. This is a violation of basic privacy protections in higher education.

Instead of HoA I might have to do video parties instead. This would require creating circles for my entire class and then circles for each group. Students would have to record their screens while throwing video parties. I of course would like to encourage students to use HoA but if any one student wants to keep their learning private I cannot use HoA.

Next Steps

Even though I believe organizing my course around Google Sites over Google+ is better instructional design I am not ready to give up completely. Next semester I am teaching multiple online classes. I am debating setting one class up on Google Sites and the other class up on Google+. This would be a great self study.

Google+ is a powerful learning tool. I use it every day. I just wonder if it is better for more informal or less structured learning rather than a formally designed class. I find so much values in communities on Google+. I get just in time instruction and engage in wonderful conversations. I still want to see if I can translate this into my classrooms.

I had argued earlier in #CE13 that we really need to think about developing a web presence and not a portfolio. As you know I am using Google Apps as a Free LMS for a writing intensive class I currently teach. I am focusing much of my work on modeling and teaching multimodal composition.

My students are developing a web presence (which they may choose to keep private). They have developed a blog, a Google+ account, and participate in our Modules on Google Sites. They create infographics using Glogster, classroom diagrams in Google Draw,review children’s literature on Wikispaces, and participate in book discussions using Google Hangouts on Air.

I realized though the web presence does not have the necessary reflection and curated documentation of growth necessary for portfolio assessment. Yet using Google as a free LMS is going to make the inclusion of portfolio assessment not only efficient but logical.

The students, by developing a web presence, already have collected their learning artifacts. I realized this when I scrolled through our Google+ Community. The students had all just uploaded a reading mini-lesson they could teach.It was the performance assessment for our reader’s workshop module. Sharing the videos on Google+ allowed for easy feedback and reflection.

I can not teach writing instruction without a focus on portfolio assessment methods. Nor can I teach multimodal composition without students developing portfolios of their own work. So I have decided to make my last module focus on the devlopment of a portfolio.

I hope to do this in Google+ (instead of a Google Site). This is where I am looking for help and feedback. I am thinking about having students develop a Page within Google+ at the end of the semester. I am thinking they could highlight blog posts they wrote, videos they created, and document their learning process. Do folks have any experience with developing Google+ Pages? What are the limitations? Are my ideas possible?

Related Posts


It works. Simpicity in design. Simplicity in workflow. Google Apps as a free LMS just works. That is at least according to the early feedback from my students.

Let’s contrast this with the recent launch of Blackboard’s Learn 9:

Message Three

We have discovered a problem in Learn 9 that is causing issues in Discussion Postings.
In some instances, student replies to other student posts are appearing empty. In testing the issue, we have found the problem is occurring because the initial post made by the student was copied and pasted from Word into the text editor.
Until a permanent fix is found, we ask that all students avoid copying and pasting from Word. If you wish to work offline, you can save your Word document as a .txt file and then copy and paste. This will strip any offending code from the text prior to copying and pasting.
For any faculty who have already discovered this issue in their course discussion postings, we do have a fix that can be applied so all the discussion replies can be seen.

Message Two

Dear Southern Connecticut State University faculty, staff and students,

In the eventuality that we continue to experience instability on our learning management system, Blackboard Learn, we are providing some information and a few suggestions that may help minimize the effects of not having access or having slow access.

For Students

· Do not wait until the last minute to submit.
· Keep a copy of all submissions for safekeeping.
· If you timeout while taking an exam, try to immediately log back in. In most cases, you will be able to continue where you left off.
· Compose items offline using Microsoft Word or plain text editor.
· Report all issues to your professor.

For Faculty

· Be flexible
o Provide a larger window of availability for items.
o Accept submissions via email when the system is unavailable.
· Do not select “force submission” when creating tests. This allows students who timeout to go back into the test and resume.
· Download assignment submissions and work offline: download assignments
· Download the grade center for safekeeping: download grade center
· Use Banner to email your classes
· Contact the helpdesk ( 203/392-5123) for assistance in troubleshooting issues that you or your students encounter.

In the meantime, the System Office and the ConnSCU institutions are continuing to explore permanent solutions, and we will keep you updated. Thank you for your patience

Message One

Dear Southern Connecticut State University faculty, staff and students,

As you know, the Blackboard Learn 9 learning management system in use by all institutions in the ConnSCU System is working intermittently, unreliably and slowly. The System Office and all the institutions in the System are exploring possible solutions. Regrettably, it will most likely take months to solve these problems. We will keep the community informed as new information becomes available.

As you can see BB Learn 9 does’t work, at least not well. To be fair this has more to do with server issues on the State of Connecticut side than it does with the learn 9 platform. In Connecticut all of our universities and community colleges were merged into one behemoth bureaucracy. This of course lead to IT nightmares. UCONN, where I also teach, was given autonomy from the ConnSCU and Blackboard does not have as many issues (Each school in UCONN also has an IT staff almost equal to the size of our entire University so this may help as well).

To the students the cause of the problems do not matter. For the students Learn 9 does not work. For my students, however, Google as a Free LMS does.

In fact, after two weeks of the course I posted an anonymous, and optional survey for my students to complete. Overall the results were very positive. Students love the hybrid approach using Google Apps. They are slightly overwhelmed with the number of tools involved. Finally they prefer to have direct instruction (via recorded lectures) included with the hands on performance assessments.

Students ranked the tools on a scale of 1 (lame) and 5 (Totally awesome).

Tool Averge
Google+ 3.285
Google Groups 3.14
Blogger 4.14

Too many Tools?

I then asked students if there were too many tools. All of the students, except one, expressed some confusion over Google Groups or asked that we just use Google+ instead.

I can’t lie I am slightly hesitant. As you know I do not think stackable Social Media posts have the best affordances for ongoing student discourse. A quick, and unscientific, content analsysis confirms my belief. The posts on Google Groups are much more in-depth and cite the readings. The posts on Google+ appear to be more one offs with very little follow ups. This of course could be an artifact of how I segt up the class. If I asked for students to reply to prompts fromt he readings on Google+ maybe it would be different.

We as the Google as a Free LMS should study this issue.What happens when the same prompts are given in Google Groups and in Google+? How do the students feel? Are they overwhelmed by the tools?

Due Dates and Module Learning

I also tested up two different set ups for my expectations. In the first module I had strict benchmark due dates throughout the module. In the second module I just had a targeted date to finish the module. Based on the results of the survey all but one student preferred the benchmark due dates rather than the flexibility of just one end date.

Supporting Student Learning

I also asked about ways to support student learning. The students, with a mean score of 4.28 all wanted me to record and post lectures. This suprized me. I did not believe students wanted to sit through 30-40 minutes of direct instruction on their own. Yet the hits on my YouTube channel confirm that they are watching. The students, also with a mean score of 4.28, like text based tutorials over video tutorials for any tool or assignment (I used Skitch and Google Docs).

I was posting the lectures as my introduction videos. Yet students with a mean score of 3.85 asked for short introductory videos describing each module.

My Plan Moving Forward

I am going to stick with the class as I built it. The students woould like a reduction in tools so I may try moving the discussions to Google+ for one or two modules later in the semester.

I will continue to record full lectures for the class.

I will start to record short 5-10 minute introductory videos explaining the expectations and objectives for each module.

I will post the discussion questions for each module ahead of time to give students a purpose for their reading.


All right, knock this *** off! I HAVE BEEN HAVING A VERY BAD DAY! I just got out of jail this morning! Already I’ve been shot at, I was on a bus that flipped over 17 times, b***h tried to stab me in the bathroom, and somebody blew up my Porsche! I am in a BAD g**** mood! Now I usually don’t step in on things like this, but this “FREE LMS GOOGLE APPS” is going to help me straighten out the rest of my day! So I suggest you all back up, and let us go about our business!

Okay my first 48 hours with Google as LMS were not that bad. Jn fact in terms of rolling out a new LMS the process moved seamlessly. It was our official blackboard account that flipped me over 17 times. Some odd script in the ConnSCU system resets and locks my class every time.

Screenshot 8:30:13 1:59 PM
So what have I learned in my first 48 hours in buidling my clas (note this is a public copy, my actual class is private in order to comply with a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo) :

Hybrid Models

My class is a hybrid model. I am glad. I set the first two sessions just to ensure everyone is able to create a Google ID (using gmail or an existing email), create a Blogger account (with G+ comments enabled),register to Google+, and be invited to our Google Groups.

I did two things to make this happen. I embedded a Google form right on my course homepage. The first assignment was to sign up. I also modeled creating an ID and signing up for Blogger. I then have spent some time today making screencast tutorials (interrupted by a drive to DC and three children who need to learn to sleep around my work schedule).

Signing up students has provided some small challenges. In my class only a sprinkling of students had previous experience teaching and learning in online spaces. That is also part of my motivation of using Google Apps for a Hybrid LMS. As teachers they will not have access to expensive LMS tools. They will be able to use Google Apps.

Discussion Models

I am using two discussion models, both Google Groups and Google+ Community. I did this for two reasons. First I do not believe, as I have written about before, that stackable comments are the best tool for academic discourses. I need my pre-service teachers to practice methods for text based discussion. I want them to engage in discussions that drive them deep into texts. The ephemeral nature of social media just does not offer the right affordances.

Yet I want to create a sense of community. I want students sharing articles and videos and original writing. Thus Google+ community. I have loved the format. Students are currently posting introductions and will soon be sharing blog posts and resources.


I posted a syllabus and I included detailed timelines of all assignments in each module. I was tempted to try and design the class completely module based with students being able to move through the course at their own pace. Yet I was afraid I would lose the critical mass necessary for effective online academic discourse.

The class is also a credit bearing semester long endeavor. If I teach this as a MOOC in the future (with the option of enrolling for credit) I will move to a more open module approach.

In the end of 48 hours, Eddie Murphy is delivered back to prison. Yet in my first 48 hours of Google as a free LMS I am finding it quite liberating.