Last Saturday I attended the 2nd annual Print to Pixel unconference. I helped found and organize the original unconference but had to take on a smaller role this year as a presenter. I love this conference because we draw so many K-12 students. In fact this year more sessions were student run than teacher lead.

I had two roles this spin around: help with our Hangouts on Air sessions and to present and attend the sessions.All of the sessions presented  revolved around being a better blogger.

Many of the students and teachers wanted guidance in how to effectively use blogging in their personal and professional learning. Thus I scrapped my idea of focusing on stop motion animation and pulled together two ideas: Flipping SSR into RSS and Exploring New Mediums for Publishing (I also did an impromptu lunch session on using Pixlr when students asked if anyone could teach Photoshop).

Flipping SSR into RSS

I have a rule for unconferences: no slide decks (unless explicitly required such as an ignite session) so I cannot share my slides. I did try to stream my RSS session live on Hangouts on Air (I did not have a webcam so you are often looking into space)

In this session I detailed how I used Feedly to track student blogs and use Feedly for students to create interest driven text focused on personalized learning.

 Tracking Student Blogs

I use my RSS feed, specifically Feedly, to create a classroom list of student blogs. Many teachers who use blogs in the classroom not connected to an LMS system (like Edublogs or kidsblogs) need a method to track and connect with their young writers. I demonstrated in this session how I create class lists, link to the websites in order to comment, and add tags of common themes I find.

What I love most about using RSS feeds with student writers is the ability to access their texts anytime. I have Feedly on my laptop, desktop, tablets, and my phone. I am always just a click away from student writing.

Creating Personalized Learning

In terms of flipping SSR into RSS I have encouraged my students to use Feedly to make individualized texts. Throughout the semester I ask them to document their learning about something not related to class. They have to build an RSS Feed, follow their topic, respond to posts, and blog about their learning.

I went through and helped the audience build their first roll in Feedly. They all wanted to know how to add Feedly to the RSS button in Chrome. Here are some easy to follow steps (like most of my tech tips from Martin Hawksey).

There was some great audience ideas around using curating tools such as Storify in combination with RSS to support learning. In the past I had students reflect on their learning in their blog posts. The audience felt a tool like Feedly would allow them to bring in resources from sites that do not have Feeds. I agree. It will be an avenue I explore.

Exploring a New Medium for Publishing

The next session I presented (though no HoA as I saw how poorly the last one turned out) focused on the use of Medium. The session was attended by some of the most prominent educational bloggers in the state and a few K-12 students. Those of us who blog regularly agreed that something about Medium drove us to try and be better writers.

We could not nail it down. We thought it might be the mix of paid and amateur writers. The beautiful typography might draw us in. The rethinking of social commenting versus stackable comments is also attractive. All of these elements draw us to Medium.

For those who do not know Medium is a blogging platform where articles, posts, and essays are curated into collections. You can follow specific authors but the real learning occurs by following collections.

What I found most rewarding  was introducing the site to a middle school student. He said he had a love for physics. Not your textbook variety physics, but the find God in the particle or in one of the eleven dimensions types of physics. We spent time searching the collections. We quickly found essays that immediately peaked his interest.

Want to start a fight in the open badges community? Bring up rigor. Challenge the point of participation badges or say something like, “I got the I blinked while breathing badge.”

I admit I am guilty of questioning badges for low hanging fruit. During the Connected Educator Month last October you could get a badge for attending almost any event. I wondered, often out loud on Twitter, if this approach made sense.

Christina Cantrill of the National Writing Project often pushed backed. Christina made the argument that the evidence for the participatory bags is just that, evidence. She explained to me that different badges have different value and you could even have leveling up badges. As Christina explained it, rigor means nothing, it is relevance of the badge to the community that matters most.

As I have become more and more swayed towards Open Badges (due to the evangelizing efforts of Ian O’Byrne and Doug Belshaw) I keep returning back to this question: What do we get when badging for participation versus badging for competencies?

VIF International

I found my answer yesterday during the The Badge Alliance Teacher Badges open call. Mark Otter and Julie Keane shared their learning platform that they use as part of their efforts in teacher preparation and global education.


The call was great. Seeing badges in the wild, specifically connected to teacher preparation and professional development, really helped to formulate my thinking. To date VIF International has awarded 592 badges to teachers in their community.

Behaviors versurs Competencies

I am sure this debate has played out int eh badging research community for quite some time. Like I said, I am a recent convert so I am stumbling into  many of the lessons others have already  learned.

Mark and Julie make a distinction between competencies and the behaviors that they would like to see in their community.Teachers can earn badges when they share evidence that demonstrates competencies.  This often includes  lesson plans.

To recognize behaviors that help support online communities and professional development Mark and Julie created a point system that translates into stars. So you can earn points for things such as logging in, posting to a forum, and commenting on another post. These are not behaviors  that provide evidence of growth. Yet these behaviors are crucial to building critical mass in online learning spaces.

I think as I start to develop badges, specifically for summer Gear Up Programs I help run, I will try to bake in a similar approach. Lets keep badges for competencies and use other metrics to reinforce behavior.


As a teacher, participating in this type of research [Design based] gave me the opportunity to work toward solving challenging pedagogical issues in my classroom with collaborators who were experts in the field; it was fantastic professional development for me. As a researcher, I get to see what happens when a promising practice is put into action in a particular context. Everyone wins – students, teachers, and researchers.  -Sarah Hunt-Barron

Last night the Literacy Research Association sponsored their sixth netcast. We focused on formative research and how this translates to the classroom. Two themes kept reoccurring throughout the talk around new metaphors for education.

  • In order to empower teachers we need to consider teaching more of an engineering career.
  • We also using the principles of design thinking, need to rethink the concept of rigor in research.

This new mindset would help transform research and professional development.

Teaching as Engineering Science.

Formative, or design based research does not begin with a question. Instead you start with a goal in mind. Then you develop learning activities, grounded in literature to reach this goal. As you begin the work you take note of factors that enhance and inhibit the goal and enter into a process of iteration. Basically it boils down to, “How can we design something and what can we learn from designing it?”

Education in terms of practice and research benefit when we draw on engineering and a design metaphor. We need to create situations for students to design their won learning and engage in MakerEd. We need to think of our own practices as teachers in terms of a constant iterative practice based on reflection and a goal for the greater good.

Rigor or Vigor?

The panelists also held a wonderful discussion on what should count as rigor in educational research. They discussed the amount of data analysis necessary to do formative experiments well. It involved a constant examination of quantiative and qualitative factors through numerous design cycles. Just like engineers teachers and researchers need to build things and change what does not work.

I found myself on a train during the show so spent more time on Twitter as wifi on Amtrak did not allow me to watch the live. I brought up the idea that maybe rigor does not work as a modifier for research. After all rigor means to be stiff. That does not seem to share principles with iterative design.

Jeremy Lenzi shared a wonderful idea with me. Maybe we need research with vigor and not rigor.

Vigor, mean to life, to be lively, anyone who has spent time doing classroom research knows fidelity can be out of reach beacuse we are talking about lively spaces. The panelists argued that the greater good and the pedagogical goal should drive research. Sounds more like vigor than rigor to me.

Professional Development and Formative Design

Just before the show I also participated in the weekly #edchat on Twitter. We all discussed ways to improve training teachers get once they work in the field. I see many parallels to the panelists talk in terms of improving education through high quality professional development.

Teachers need to design their own professional development. They shoudl create this design cycle around a pedagogical goal. Then over the course of their “learning cycles” teachers can use a process to see whta works to reach that goal and change what is not working.

The goals can from many places. Teachers might have to develop student learning objectives for their evaluation systems. Maybe the teacher and  her building administrator work together to  develop goals after formal observations. Finally teachers might just choose a goal such as improving internet comprehension and seek out opportunities to learn about pedagogy rooted in research.

The design cycle works for professional development. Teachers just need to build iterative design and reflective teaching into everyday practice.

Professional Development Built on Design Thinking

When selecting professional development to attent teachers should make sure opportunities to make, create, break, and iterate are included. There is no need for districts to spend thousands of dollars to see speakers. We have YouTube for that.

Spires & Young (2012)
Spires & Young (2012)

Formal professional development should revolve around the design cycle. For example at the New Literacies Institute we build the class around inquiry. Background knowledge is taught before the conference through learning modules. At the conference itself teachers choose a pedagogical goal. Next researchers work with teachers to  identify digital texts and tools that align to that goal. Using these resources participants  create learning activities that should enhance the goal. Finally they bring the project back to the classroom and iterate.


Design thinking has reshaped my vision of education. Every aspect from teacher preperation, to curriculum, professional development, and research needs new models and metaphors. We need to consider design thinking as a guiding principle, an overarching theoretical perspective. As an end result the act of iterative teaching and reflective practice  will then get ensconced in every classroom at every level.

My favorite time of year rapidly approaches. For the last three years I have had the honor of serving as co-chair and co-organizer of the Massachusetts New Literacies Institute. Each year we refine our model to ensure participants engage in personalized inquiry learning.

Screenshot 3:26:14 11:53 AM

Massachusetts New Literacies Institute
July 8-10, 2014
Holyoke Community College
Holyoke, MA

This year I am excited to announce our first blended conference. By flipping our instruction we have reduced the cost and schools can now send even larger teams of teachers.

Screenshot 3:26:14 11:51 AM

More importantly a blended approach makes greater pedagogical sense. We will meet as community online before we gather face to face in Holyoke. This will allow us to focus on key shifts in the field and enrich our understanding. Then when we all come together for the face to face sessions we can focus on transforming our instructional practice through the use of digital texts and tools.

This year we will focus on the instructional shifts required by the Common Core State Standards and explore how to enhance these shifts with technology.

The best professional development experience I have had in thirty years.  -Participant

What is the Massachusetts New Literacies Institute?

The Massachusetts New Literacies Institute brings together hundreds of educators from all grades and subject areas for three days of rich in-depth professional development. MNLI uses a blended model of delivering content. This consists of pre- Institute activities followed by the three days of hands-on experience with leaders in the field of literacy research.

Before attending the Institute, participants will complete three media-rich learning modules on the cornerstones of New Literacies: Online Reading Comprehension, Online Content Construction, and Online Collaborative Inquiry. These learning events will include videos, learning activities, and synchronous chats. They will prepare the participants for the three days of hands-on digital text and tools sessions.

During the Institute participants are immersed in a series of hands-on technology workshops. Small groups, led by a member of the MNLI team, will focus on enhancing their instruction and supporting the Common Core State Standards and other state initiatives through the integration of digital text and tools.

What I learned at MNLI has changed the way I teach forever -Particpant

Cornerstones of the Online Research and Media Skills Model

The Common Core State Standards expect student to have the online research and media skills necessary to for college and career readiness. How do you prepare students to be ready for technology and careers that do not exist? Instead of focusing on specific tools the MNLI team puts pedagogy first and focuses more on social practices of New Literacies  rather than tools we use.

New Literacies examines much more than just using digital tools. It is an examination of how digital tools allow us to express a sense of agency, while negotiating meaning within different social contexts. Using this theoretical underpinning we  believe online research and media skills involve three cornerstones: online reading comprehension, online content construction, and online collaborative inquiry.

Online Reading Comprehension

The skills, strategies, and practices necessary to question, locate, evaluate, synthesize, and communicate online information from multiple sources and modes.

Online Content Construction

Process by which students construct and redesign knowledge by actively encoding and decoding meaning in digital spaces.

Online Collaborative Inquiry

A group of learners, either global or local, who reach a common outcome through multiple pathways of knowledge.

If you could only attend one conference for the rest of your life make it MNLI -Participant

Learn More

If you want to learn more about our institute please visit There you will find registration information, conference details, and examples from the past conferences.

Each Wednesday, from now until June, I will also release new information and posts related to the conference.

I look forward to seeing you this summer.


I just finished Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton. A great book that leaves the reader with the realization that you cannot do Twitter wrong. The book tells the tale of Twitter’s birth and rise and each founder had a different view of how users should “do” Twitter. None of these visions ever came true.

So I want to push back against Molly Shields idea that we are doing Twitter chats wrong. Instead we need to envision Twitter Chats as, or as part of, affinity spaces. Yes what many were calling Problem Based Learning #PBL in the #edtechchat on 2/10/2014 does not qualify as PBL. Most of the ideas, if PBL was on a specturm would barely register as projects.

Who cares. You cannot “do” Twitter wrong. It is what Evan Williams, founder of Blogger and co-founder of Twitter, called, “Push button publishing for the people.”

In Affinity spaces the act and space itself IS the endeavor. It is the publishing for the people, not the people that make Twitter chats engaging. Yet there is no endeavor without the people. Molly took issue with those people who label themselves as gurus and asked us to follow ideas instead. I understand her concern and do encourage folks to follow knowledge and not people, but I do not take issue with others curate their online identity.

Edu Allstars??

Maybe allstars is over the top, but there is precedent. Michael Robertson, founder of, coined the term middle class rock star. It is the idea that based on social networks and two tailed economics anyone can eek out an existence as a musician.

Twitter chats, minus the income for most, are no different.  Educators are simply trying to eek out professional development and not a living. They are the endeavor and the participants of the affinity space.

Twitter Chats as Affinity Spaces

Molly’s assumption  that the Twitter chat on PBL was void of knowledge was slightly off. #Edtechchat has seen huge growth so participants need to discover what level of rapids  in the fast moving stream they are most comfortable swimming in. Maybe you like the fleeting tweets reaffirming your beliefs. I myself try to divert into a deeper side pool and float around awhile with a few ideas.

The ability to choose your level of involvment with varying levels of knowledge transforms  Twitter chats into an affinity space. JPG in Situated Learning and Language lays out principles of affinity spaces. I simply poached them from Wikipedia.

1) The affinity in these spaces is to the endeavor, not other people. 

I spoke of this above. It it the act of engaging around content that matter most.

2) Newbies and masters share the space.

Molly is an expert on PBL. Her post is part of the affinity space. The citations and articles she read may help the majority of newbies looking to expand their knowledge.

3) Some portals are strong generators. The computer can be used to create new characters or any aspects of the game.

Gee is big on learning portals. I do not want to get to into it beyond the idea that Twitter is an entry portal for many to start to learn more about #PBL. You go to Twitter for motivation, connections, and links. These will take you to new places, like Google+, for deeper learning.

4) Content organization is transformed by interactional organization. The idea that creation can come from more than simply site designers, but from users, is a hallmark of these spaces. In affinity spaces, the way in which interactions are organized shapes the content of the game/site. Users – not just site designers – can help create, shape, and reshape the site and its content. Suggestions are welcome and encouraged, and site designers often use the suggestions of users to reform site designs and configurations.

While #edtechchat had a moderator and founders neither shapes the space. We do. My space is different than yours. I use a Tweetdeck column for #edtechchat and a second column for list of a few participants I know I often engage in.

The moderators might use the Q1/A1 format but we as users (and I don’t) do not have to abide by this practice. We customize the space.

5) Both intensive and extensive knowledge are encouraged. Extensive knowledge is seen as broad, less specialized knowledge about many aspects of the space. Intensive knowledge is in-depth knowledge about certain aspects of the space.

So when Twitter feels like an echochamber that is okay. It does not take long for the massed for #edchat, for example, to declare Twitter the best tool they have ever known. Newbies might need the reinforcement of extensive knowledge.  Others in the space, as Molly did, may choose to point out common misconceptions. I myself like to gather in the pools of intensive knowledge.

For example, I often engage with those that I  call the #CommitteeOfSnark. Usually consisting of @nathan_stevens, @jdferries, @professorjosh, and a few others I am missing. The group usually adds a snarky hashtag. They  often provide insight in 140 characters of satire. The level of complexity of their tweets point out misconceptions while making me laugh. It is hard to be funny in 140 characters. It is even harder to do it instantansously.

I also look for others ways to engage with intensive knowledge. During the #eddtechchat I had a wonderful conversation on one of my favorite all-time poets William Blake with @ericafterschool.



— Eric Wolarsky (@EricAfterSchool) February 11, 2014

6) Individual and distributed knowledge are valued.

The fact that we are still taking about PBL and #edtechchat shows us why it is okay for the echochamber to point us towards new connections. I am in no means in expert on PBL. I did not study it and to say I use it would be a lie. In fact I often believe PBL, while a pathway to deeper learning, may not be the most efficient pedagogical choice for some domains.

7) Dispersed knowledge is encouraged.

Link and share. Use Google Scholar during Twitter chats.

8) Tacit knowledge is encouraged and honored. Members do not have to lead or design; those who wish to “just play” are valued as much as those who wish to contribute more substantially to the site.

This is most important. Many in the #edtechchat are just beginning to play with Twitter and PBL. Let them.

9) Many forms and routes to participation are available.

10) Different routes to status are inherent in the game.

Status in online spaces is a strange thing. I gave up on tracking follower counts a long time ago. Yet I do look at me analytics each week to see how people engage with the content I both share and create. Some may call themselves eduall stars, or middle class rockstars. For me if we fell like we are making a difference and learning a little more each day, well that is status.

11) Leadership is porous and leaders are resources. Like the concept of “third spaces,” affinity spaces see “neither One…nor the Other…Rather, participants are something else besides, which contests the terms and territories of both

Molly is both a leader and participants. In fact I have never met her. I only know Molly through Twitter. So I am thankful she pushed my thinking.

You cannot “Do” Twitter wrong. It is just one of many portals to our Affinity Space of connected educators. If you want to learn more about PBL its okay to check in with Twitter, You will make connections and find resources. Then you can head to Google+ for real learning.


Do connected educators rely on community? Can you simply dictate the creation of community?  I have long argued that attempts to force community on educators is a misguided policy. Instead I draw on Gee’s ideas of Affinity Spaces.

Affinity Spaces

I find the notion of Gee’s affinity spaces to be a useful frame for examining connected educators. Too many of us  quickly jump on the notion of a community. This often leads to superficial connections that may last as long as a Twitter stream. Instead of thinking in terms of community, which denotes a sustained membership   defined by culture, we need to think in terms of spaces. Affinity Spaces.

Spaces are different than communities. For me to be a connected educator you first need to identify the space where folks with like minded interests gather. Then you need to develop your own space to connect to this existing network.  This in turn allows you to design your identity, your spaces, and your networks (Gee, 2004).

Gee identified 11 principles of affinity spaces. I tend to group these into three over arching frameworks. Affinity Spaces and communities difer in three important ways: membership, teaching and making, and knowledge.

Membership in Affinity Spaces

Membership in communities is often defined along race, religion, geography and borders. In affinity spaces the members is fluid. Connected educators will come and go.  This ebb and flow mainly exists because affinity spaces have  low barriers to join. Think about #ce13. If you have a twitter account you can participate at the most basic level. Increased involvement, unlike communities, self-organizes around interests.This plays out in leadership levels too as it gets distributed without any organized hierarchy while new members and masters share the space.

Teaching and Making in Affinity Spaces

Simply put teaching is doing. Making is teaching. Doing is making. Okay, not as simple, but the point is both teaching and content creation involves joint action. The spaces itself helps to mediate learning through social practices. The content is made by doing and through doing people learn. That is why affinity spaces, have many teachers. As mentioned newbies and masters co-mingle and this allows for “Just in time” teaching (Gee, 1996).

Teaching and learning are also embodied actions. They involve the space just as much as the actors. This is very important for Connected Educators. The places we gather, whether online such as Twitter chats or face to face at an #edcamp  mediate our learning just as much as those we learn with.

Knowledge and Affinity Spaces

Affinity spaces encourage multiple pathways to knowledge. In fact Gee discusses many ways of knowing: intensive, extensive, individual, distributed, dispersed, and tacit knowledge. All of these pathways contribute to the space and allow learners to demonstrate knowledge growth. Affinity spaces also allow for varying levels of expertise with multiple types of knowledge. In essence learning is connected and through collaborative inquiry across different spaces knowledge within the space grows.

Examining my Affinity Spaces

When I began this post I thought about some of my affinity spaces. Gaming, hobbies, etc. Yet the most pwerful affinity spaces for me, and in line with #ce13 are those that swirl around my professional life. I loosely call my affinity space the “Writing as Making” crowd. We gather through many portals, ways into Affinity Spaces. I join up during twitter chats using hashtags (#fycchat, #engchat, #clmooc, #teachtheweb). I gather around with folks at #hackjams and tweetups at national conferences. We attend sessions together at NCTE and LRA. We read and comment on each others’ blogs. We participate in MOOC’s (which I argue only work well for me when they involve affinity spaces).

The Writing as Making crowd (in which I place my self squarely with a noob label) move me. There is varying levels of expertise and no leadership. Yes NWP and Digital Is help set up the Connected Learning MOOC. Sure folks moderate Twitter talks. There are netcasts and podcasts, but I found much more than formal learning. I found a space where I can grow and contribute.

Applying principles of Affinity Spaces to my Teaching

I believe you can’t have an affinity space with forced membership. Therefore saying I will just create a PLC or a PLN in my classroom is foolish. Therefore I try to draw on the principles of learning that Affinity Spaces taught me. So my first goal as a  teacher educator is to have every student leave our class knowing that they are a reader and writer. If I can accomplish I feel have met the major outcomes of my writing intensive classes.

Students must design their identity (Gee, 2004) in order to see themselves as teachers of reaidng and writing. In order to do this they must know they are readers and writers. Designing identity is a central tenant of my writing classrooms.

I also want my teachers to build spaces that allow multiple pathways to knowledge to flourish.  It requires the classroom, both physical and networked to provide guided practice andto store and reinforce knowledge through daily routine. I try to model this principle in my classroom.

I also try to encourage  and model networked learning for my students. I do my best to use open resources and an open classroom. I am teaching my classes using Google as a Free LMS. While my students have the legal right to privacy I encourage everyone to document their learning in public spaces through Blogger.

I still have much work to do, but at least I know I can find the people to help in my affinity spaces.


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