Keynote Presentation

On Tuesday, August 18th, I’ll be presenting some of my thinking about Critical Digital Participatory Practices to educator colleagues at the Ottawa Catholic School Board. Slides here. Full text will be posted after the presentation for anyone who missed the talk.

Full Text of the talk here: 
Thank yous — to Alison Kinahan, and to the OCSB for the opportunity. Thanks to participants for giving me their very precious time this morning — a real gift, given the particularities of this back-to-school moment.
As a settler Canadian, I would also like to acknowledge that this talk has been developed on the traditional unceded territories of the Algonquin people.  
I don’t usually start my talks with this emoji…but somehow, today, it feels like the right one. I’m not sure how you feel. To me, the world has felt rather topsy turvy — in part, because Education — a cause to which every person on this call is undoubtedly committed — feels like maybe it’s shifting, changing or taking a turn toward something that is necessary, but not necessarily better for kids, communities, families, teachers. There is a lot of talk about this pandemic moment being the time to “reimagine” education — and it won’t likely surprise you that the loudest voices for this “reimagining” tend to come from tech companies who stand to profit handsomely from this global digital pivot. However, as my colleague Andy Hargreaves wrote recently in a Washington Post OpEd, 
Slide 3
When they get back to school, children will not need more of the anytime-anywhere Big Tech strategy. […] Learning in the here and now in school will need more human and less hybrid learning. It will need less technology, or more judicious use of it, than most kids have experienced during covid-19.
Slide 4
 My talk, today focuses on the judicious use of tech. My goal is to help you find ways to support your learners in becoming more connected, more critical and more confident users of digital texts and tools, in ways that allow them to become adults who have thinking frameworks that enable them to question the role of digital technologies in their lives. 
My talk is inspired by the work of many people, but in particular, it’s inspired by a question posed by Luci Pangrazio in her book entitled Young People’s Literacies in the Digital Age — she asks “How have we arrived at a situation in which we adapt to technology, rather than it being adapted to us?”  
I’m going to assert that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can leverage digital tools in ways that are more humanizing and more empowering — but, as a community of educators, we get a lot of mixed messaging about digital technologies and we need opportunities — like this one — to talk about setting priorities that align not just with the surface-level, Ministry mandated directives for “distance learning” or technology use, but also with deeply held understandings of what Education (big E) is for in the first place — which, for me centres on helping children develop critical mindsets that will enable them to participate fully in all aspects of their lives in Canada and around the world.
From my perspective, this moment — as disruptive as it feels to me — may be an opportunity to start a new kind of critical ripple effect. Out of this digital necessity, we could educate a generation of kids and teens to be more critical of digital systems than ever before; 
they could graduate ready to reject or change digital systems and structures that we use, but don’t always critique — even though we know digital platforms are used to disinform, to polarize the public, and to predict behaviours in ways that many scholars, including Ezter Hargittai, Cathy O’Neil, and Sara Wachter-Boetcher have shown widen gaps among the most privileged and the most vulnerable in our communities.
The title of my talk is Unpacking the complexities of participatory digital literacies practices for K-12 learners. And to do this unpacking, I’m going to make three assertions about technological systems and the ways that we think about them in education that will lead us to think about how to teach participatory digital literacies practices through a CRITICAL lens. For me, a critical lens helps us to focus on the design of systems, on who benefits from those systems, and on teaching students to become more aware of the ways that digital platforms and networks shape how they think, feel and act.   
So, I’m going to do that classic structural thing that English teachers are always trying to teach their students to do. I’m going to tell you my three big assertions, define some things and then present my arguments for each assertion, okay? 🙂 
My first assertion is that the digital infrastructures that have been integrated into our systems of schooling over the past 25 years (or so) have fundamentally changed our teaching and learning ecosystems. You might be thinking that this is pretty obvious — but in this part of my talk, I will spend a little time thinking through what has been gained and what has been lost along the way. 
Second, I assert that technologies and technological systems are often seen as these impossibly complex, almost impervious, incomprehensible magical black boxes that can really only be known by the techies over in IT or by Silicon Valley computer geniuses — but that when we think this way, we also give away power that can make us — and our students — feel vulnerable. In this part of my talk, I’m going to explore what this means for the choices we make abou using digital tech in our teaching.
My third assertion is about solutions. I assert that one way to work toward a future where citizens use digital tools in humanizing, critical ways, that work for THEM, includes an intentional focus on instructional practices that centralize — rather than avoid — digital collaboration, digital design, creation and participation. 
Before we move on, I need to define what I mean by digital literacies, by digital literacies practices and by critical digital participation practices. 
Okay — so digital literacies. For me, digital literacies are all of the skills, practices, mindsets and ways of thinking needed to make meaning with digital texts, from digital texts, and in digitally mediated environments. My colleague Megan Cotnam-Kappel and I have used this image to orient participants in our Digital Equity research project. And you can see that for us, digital literacies are integrated, and include digital reading, writing and participation. And you can see from this image that for us, participation includes practices such as collaboration, discussions and sharing of work in digital environments. 
Slide 12
And finally, this idea of critical digital participation practices — what do I mean by critical digital participation practices? Well, these are meaning-maknig activities that informed by knowledge of how digital systems are designed, organized by the values that they advance, and the interests they serve. 
In effect — it’s helping kids to understand the design of the medium so that they also understand the message. 
Writing about the participants in her research study, Luci Pangrazio (2019) writes that… 
And as she notes, education about the use of digital media in schools usually focuses on cybersafety — and the orientation in these educational programs is typically rooted in fear. 
She also found that the narrative of the digital native has made young people feel like they ought to know — which puts them in the position of not wanting to say they don’t know things…AND it has led educators to feel as though the kids “know more than they do” so…
One teacher in our study, when asked about participatory practices said…
Just to cue your own background knowledge and get you thinking…here are some questions to hold in mind as I present my three assertions.
My first assertion is that the digital infrastructures that have been integrated into our systems of schooling over the past 25 years (or so) have fundamentally changed our teaching and learning ecosystems. Had the pandemic happened in 1995, we would have been mailing packets of information to kids and using the TV à la Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street to connect with learners. 
So, this is not a new idea — Neil Postman has written about this extensively (e.g., Technolpoly (1992; 1998) And in March, Punya Mishra blogged about Postmans’s ideas in relation to online learning. 
So as we, Educators, move toward more critical understandings of digital systems, I think it is important for us to ask what is gained, and what is displaced through tech-driven change? When I think about “ecosystems” or ecologies, I am reminded of the metaphor of the mangrove that Andy Clark uses in a book called Being there which explores human cognition and the way it develops. 
If you’ve ever seen a mangrove tree or a mangrove forest, you know that there are these big visible roots that grow down into the soil — and that these forests grow at the water’s edge — in warm, tropical places — not Ottawa. The thing about mangroves is that the trees actually sprout from seed that float along the water and sprout. And they actually create NEW soil because they trap sediment that is also floating by in the water. Over time, they actually grow into these huge forests with SOIL that has been created by the trees — the soil wasn’t there before and the water that sustained the development of the trees in the first place gets, well, displaced. Do you see where I’m going with this metaphor? So, tech in education is maybe like the mangrove that sprouts and changes the local ecosystem — the mangrove forests eventually displace the water in which they first sprouted. 
But the water is still there, right? And I think that is an important thing to hold in mind as we think about critical responses to tech change. 
In this table I juxtapose some of the gains and the displacements of this moment…
What is gained?
Certainly, this shift toward digital systems has meant that we can provide some continuity of schooling for learners. When all of the required infrastructure is in place, these systems do allow us to communicate in ways that transcend the barriers of time and geography. We can still teach students who live around the city or around the world without having to meet in the physical classroom at a particular time — and we know that, when done well, with plenty of human supports and training in place — online learning can be effective for middle- and high-school learners for sure (e.g., Barbour…Ferdig Cavanagh, Borup et al. ) So there are possibilities and gains, for sure. 
But we also know that some things are lost, don’t we? The loss of immediacy limits our ability, as teachers, to use all of our senses, in the moment to understand our learners’ needs. This constrains assessment and it can also constrain the building of meaningful relationships. And it also means that for us to regain the connectedness that undergirds teaching and learning we need to develop new ways of being and doing — and so do our learners.  
As participants in these socio-technical systems, we have to ask ourselves — are we using these technologies in ways that serve US and our learners? So often, we get caught up in a focus on the tech itself — in how to post this to the LMS or how to share that document, or in wondering about whether our activities align with policy. These concerns keep us so busy that we may not step back to think about our learners and THEIR needs or about our human needs as educators to also feel connected to the activity. 
And so, in this calculus of gain vs. loss in the midst of ecological shift, I think we can set boundaries, and participate within technical systems in ways that preserve the productive practices that are most important in our disciplinary work. If, for example, we have to use synchronous videoconferencing because some new policy demands it, then as teachers, we can use our professional judgement to set the terms. 
We will only use that time to amplify student voices and perspectives OR to read aloud to our young learners so that they have access to a range of narrative structures, to an extensive vocabulary and to modelled reading, to prosody that supports reading comprehension OR that we will only use synchronous videoconferencing to meet with small groups to brainstorm ideas or to talk about their needs. And all the while we can MODEL these practices and establish participatory norms for our learners so that they see how to use these tools in ways that SERVE them and that respect their humanity and the humanity of their classmates.
And this leads me to my second assertion — 
Often, we don’t teach students to participate, collaborate, discuss, share their ideas using digital systems because we are uncertain of the risks. The systems and perhaps the policies around these systems are black boxes — we receive the policy directive and are asked to follow it, but the logic undergirding the policy is made less clear to us — so we do what we’re asked but we don’t always know why. We use certain technologies and not others — which is fine — but to fully exercise our professional judgement, we also need information that allows us to know why certain technologies ARE actually better choices than other ones. 
Often, we know enough to be justifiably skeptical but because we’re uncertain about how the technology actually works, we have justifiable doubts that diminish our ability to exercise critical judgment. And so, sometimes, we just avoid the problem altogether. Because it’s safer.
As educators, we have a duty to protect children and teens from risk…so we tend to opt for the “zero tolerance of risk” option (Pangrazio, 2019, p. 144) but this means that we also limit critical digital literacies learning opportunities that, IF integrated at scale, would equip learners to question systems and come to know more about how to be, act, and respond in participatory digital environments — even when things get a bit sticky. And this where research by Sonia Livingstone and her colleagues at the EU Kids Online project  helps me to think through the problem. 
Livingstone’s work — online activities are not entirely “individual” concerns — rather, her work shows us that online activities are, like pretty much everything else about child development, situated in layers of multidimensional factors. At the centre of this model, though, we see that risks and opportunities are part of the same box…and that they are connected to practices and skills…
I’d like to suggest that as an educational community we don’t need to accept technologies as mysterious black boxes that are allowed to frame our pedagogical practices without being questioned and critiqued.
As a community, we could ask the same decision-makers who make policies about technology-enabled learning to also provide easy-to-use risk-reward tables — that they develop in consultation with corporations, the OCT and legal counsel — for the digital tools we are asked to use in our instruction so that we can make pedagogical decisions in full knowledge of privacy information, and in full knowledge of pros and cons for our learners. Organizations such as Common Sense Media do some of this work for us in their reviews of digital tools — and our provincial OSSAPAC is meant to review digital resources and software tools. BUT their work is black-boxed. The information provided is limited. Can we use this tool — sure. We get the license — but is there information available to us about what is happening “under the screen” so to speak? Are we informed about how the tool works or why the tools has been approved or what concerns were raised during the review process? Not really. So, the mystery of the tech is actually preserved through these incomplete processes of review. And to me, this is no longer okay — because assertion 1 — the ecologies are changing and so too must our expectations for digital transparency.
My third assertion is that if we’d like a future where citizens know how to use digital tools in humanizing, critical ways, that work for THEM, then today, we must focus — with intention — on instructional practices that centralize digital collaboration, digital creation and participation IN VIEW of information ABOUT the way that digital tools shape our conversations. 
These participatory practices enable learners to gain new insights into how digital tools work and don’t work. Back to Livingstone, we can open opportunities to develop practices and skills and the critical perspectives help us to mitigate — or at least be more aware of — the risks. So it’s about engagement WITH CRITIQUE. 
In real terms, what can we do to support the development of this much needed critical orientation? 
Well, in our study we asked teachers around the province about the instructional practices that they would recommend, and  four practices were recommended over and over again. Modelling, role play, practice and discussion.
And what about at different ages? How do we do this?
For our youngest learners, critique begins in helping children learn to express agreement and disagreement in respectful ways; to participate in collaborative digital games where they might interact with classmates, and then to discuss, with guided support from you, about how the game sets the rules for them, framed their conversations, and how they feel about that. Constraint is always part of technical systems — but children could learn, from an earlier age to notice the ways that the games shape their activities and to wonder why the game was designed that way. 
For our junior-level learners, who –teachers told us — are often just learning to use keyboards to type (slowly!) and whose digital lives are often expanding to social media platforms such as TikTok or to interactive gaming environments such as Roblox or Fortnite, lessons on critical digital participatory practices are important. 
Activities might include scenario-based role play that encourages students to actively question the culture of a digital media environment, or that helps them to formulate responses to sticky situations, to test these out in class, and to discuss how their words, actions, their choice of emoji affect others. Teachers could also make their own thinking thinking visible by noticing the way that digital tools force certain responses, or by wondering aloud, as they compose a digital message, about how their message will be received.
SLIDE 26 — 
Children and teens at any age can learn to create digital products. 
Although I’m moving into strategies for older learners here, there are certainly ways to adapt these next ideas for younger learns too. Digital design opens up new ways to notice the mechanisms at work beneath the screen, inside of the technical systems we use, and to notice how these systems shape and constrain thinking. 
As an example, During this COVID summer my nine year old became a masterful creator of TikTok videos (that she was only allowed to share with a small group of friends she knows in person) and through that creative, multimodal play, she learned about transitions, audio and video layers, sound effects and filters. Her use of the app became a great conversation starter about risk vs. reward with social media platforms — and it also helped her to see how video creators use certain tools to elicit a certain emotional responses. That is powerful knowledge. Because she tried to elicit surprise, or to impress people, or to include her dog in her videos in ways that made people say “awww” she came to see how videos act on HER. And after two months of using the app every day, she decided to delete it — in part because she had figured out the formula, got a bit bored and well, she and her friends moved on to another interactive gaming environment. 
Interestingly, this app has been in the news recently because of concerns about whether the app is gathering information about user location and from users’ clipboards — which could expose sensitive information and of course, because of questions about whether the company that owns the app would be ever be required to divulge user information to the Chinese government (Wired, July 2020). Most of the grade 4-6 teachers we interviewed told us that their students were using TikTok at home. The popularity of this app means that students might be receptive to critical conversations about how it works, how people use it, and whose interests are served when we upload content to the platform. By developing charts with students that outline the pros and the cons of TikTok we could help them to develop new vocabularies and critical frameworks for evaluating other digital tools too.
Our adolescent learners need multiple and diverse opportunities to practice participating in digitally mediated conversations for a range of academic purposes over time — and in ways that push them to question how out-of-school digital activities might be framing their in-school digital practices. They need to write collaboratively, they need to negotiate with peers and teachers; they need to co-construct mind-maps, use video conferencing applications to discuss, reflect, and to wonder. They need to hear their ideas held up in the presence of others and receive respectful commentary (Kuhn…) AND they need to have difficult conversations about how their literacies practices — their words, the timing of their responses, their choice of emoji — impact others? 
We also understand that students need more information about how the Internet works — about the corporate interests that drive the design of platforms and systems — to become critical digital participants — they need to know about algorithms, metrics, personal data, profiles, online communities, data storage, security and privacy (Pangrazio, p. 156).
And — I would argue that to become critical, social-justice oriented digital participants they also need to learn — in school — to use these tools. I think there at least three ways that we can prepare students to know more about systems. First, we can open possibilities for students to tell their own stories — using video, audio, or other forms of multimodal composition — in ways that disrupt problematic discourses that are perpetuated via digital media if not challenged (Watt, 2019) — here I think about Dr. Diane Watt’s incredible scholarship with a group of young, muslim, Somali-Canadian women here in Ottawa who create youtube videos in which they use humour to challenge inaccurate beliefs about who they are and what their lives include. To me, this is a brilliant example of how we can prepare young people to sort of take back digital spaces and places in ways that honour and respect their humanity; 
Second, I think we can enter into conversations that help students recognize the ways that digital networks are used to misinform and amplify harmful messaging.
I recently learned about the Global Disinformation Index — a tool that uses four analytical pillars to predict the trustworthiness of news sources online. I don’t have data to confirm this…BUT…I hypothesize that introducing teens to this tool could help teens to also use similar lines of questioning in their own consumption of information or before they share information. This could be a conversation starter in media studies classes, but also in history and world studies classes. 
Finally, I think that we can bring students into meaningful discussions of how to participate in digital spaces critically and in ways that advance social-justice causes that they feel passionate about. 
A great example of this is the way that the K-Pop community — and particularly BTS fans — recently supported BlackLivesMatter Protesters. As we know, after the brutal death of George Floyd — the world erupted in protest — again — and this time with very clear calls to #DefundThePolice. Many police services have requested that the public send in videos of persons causing “trouble” or “inciting unrest” which — of course — means that they were looking for #BlackLivesMatter protestors who are calling for police departments to be defunded because of the way that black communities have been subjected disproportionately to violence by systems of law enforcement. So what did KPop fans do? Well, they edited short video clips of their favourite KPop stars, and started sending them in to these snitch lines — which gave protestors more time to mobilize, and caused a bit of chaos in police services as their servers crashed. This same community has also flooded #maga and #bluelivesmatter channels with photos of KPop stars. Which is pretty clever. Subversive, right? But definitely an informed, critical digital participatory practice. And one that could be used in discussions with our students as a way to open up meaningful debate about the risks and the rewards of these types of critical participatory practices. 
I’d like to end my talk by sharing insights from a brilliant study conducted by my uOttawa colleague Megan Cotnam-Kappel and her co-author Carrie James from Harvard University and that I would be happy to share with anyone who would like to read the full text version of the work. 
In this study, these researchers interviewed young people who self-identified as politically engaged and who use social media in various ways to advance points of view and to engage in dialogue using a range of strategies. These young people identified certain participatory strategies such good — telling a personal story, asking questions, using a respectful tone, using verifiable evidence to support claims, or using humour or a light tone to get their points across. On the flip, taking a disrespectful tone, or using personal attacks were seen as not-so-good strategies. These young people also developed a range of strategies for getting out of sticky unproductive conversations — like not engaging with personal attacks, and avoiding emotionally charged conversations. The young people in their study also shared concerns about their critical digital literacies practices in social media spaces — for example, they worried about the real impact of their voices in very crowded networks; they also wonder about whether they can every expect to change really change anyone’s mind or whether they just talk to the people in their networks who already agree with them — reflecting, in my view, these students’ awareness of the ways that algorithms systematically organize posts using assumptions of “relevance” and as Eli Pariser told us a decade ago — creating filter bubbles. 
James and Cotnam-Kappel offer a range of ideas for educators looking to support students in their development of critical digital participatory practices.
They encourage educators to create situations where students can…
Again, the voice of a teacher from our research helps us to situate the importance of critical digital participatory practices for our learners today.
There might be calls to “reimagine” education right now, but systems have already been changing. Maybe what’s most important is to re-center on the things that can be displaced in hurried techno-centric realities. 
I think we can focus on the human.
I think we ask for greater transparencies that divulge the inner-workings of digital technologies so that we feel more informed and more able to design teaching in view of both risks and opportunities.
I think that we can teach participation using a CRITICAL lens So that they feel equipped to change systems in ways that work better for  THEM, rather than the other way around.

Learning to Teach Online : An Open Educational Resource for Pre-Service Teachers

Child typing on a laptop

Teacher candidates at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Education will be doing all of their course work online this fall. Their experiences will give them new opportunities to consider not just what it means to learn in online environments, but also how to teach online. To support their thinking and learning over time this year (and beyond), my colleague Dr. Hugh Kellam and I developed an open educational resource that includes six modules focused on what we think are the most important ideas to consider when designing online learning activities and environments for students. The course is freely available at and although we continue to edit and integrate video content, we felt it was important to announce the course this week because, with back-to-school just a few weeks away, we know that school leaders and teachers are beginning to plan for online instruction this fall. Even though our intended audience is pre-service teaching colleagues, we hope that in-service teaching colleagues will also find something of value in the work. 

The course architecture is linear and easy to navigate. Modules follow a consistent, predictable organizational structure. We begin each module with an overview of learning outcomes, and offer estimated times to complete the reading, reflection and practice activities. In every module, we provide lists of the references used to inform our work. These references lists can be used by anyone looking to learn more about the research on online teaching and learning, or about methods of instruction that support student learning in any context — face-to-face or online. 

Here are the titles of the modules in the course: 

  • Teaching Online: Relationships are Everything
  • Equity and Accessibility: The Foundations for Good Online Course Design
  • Planning, Pedagogies and Learning Management Systems: The Nuts and Bolts of Online Teaching
  • Assessment and Evaluation in Online Courses
  • Establishing and Modelling Norms in Online Courses
  • Meeting Standards of Practice in an Online Practicum

We are grateful to many colleagues with specialized expertise in online teaching and learning in Canada and the US who provided very valuable recommendations for improvement. Thanks to Gladys Chin, Dr. Leigh Graves Wolf,  Dr. Ian O’Byrne, Dr. Diane Watt, Dr. John Richardson, Heather Swail, Paul McGuire and Tracy Crowe for their generous insights. The course is better because of your feedback. Errors, omissions and oversights, though, are entirely the responsibility of the authors. Hugh and I continue to work on this, but hope that at a time of incredible uncertainty in education, this work can offer teachers a reliable information source to inform their pedagogical decision making.

Although the course is self-paced, we invite conversation about the course to take place on Twitter using the hashtag #OTL4K12 (online teaching & learning for Kindergarten-Grade12).

New Research Project : Creating conditions for Digital Equity in Ontario

This week, with my colleague Dr. Megan Cotnam-Kappel and research assistants Jean-Luc Ciocca, Sima Neisary and Alison Cattani, we launched the first phase of a new, SSHRC-funded Insight Development Grant called Exploring the Digital Lives of Youth: Creating Conditions for Digital Equity in Ontario. During this phase of our work, we will be interviewing Ontario teachers who work with students in Grades 4, 5 and 6 about their students’ digital activities, literacies skills. To learn more about the study, I invite you to visit our project website:

Recruitment Poster for Digital Equity Study

Clarity, communication, connection: Priorities for our global pivot to online teaching


I’ve been thinking all week about what really matters as teachers everywhere try to reframe their courses in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Honestly, I think it all comes down to clarity, communications and connection. No matter the technologies we use, what really matters is that we do our best to lay out a clear plan, to communicate that plan to students, and that we do what we can to support our learners in ways that reassure them and enable them to stay connected to one another and to us.

I wrote a little thing for my colleagues at the Faculty of Education — it’s part reflection and part list of ideas for how to move to online instruction. If it’s useful, please feel free to share with others.

La version française ici.                                          


I think it is essential to begin by underlining that nothing about our current moment has precedent. We are all figuring out what this means; we are all feeling uneasy.

For this reason, we must acknowledge that any methods we develop as educators to maintain “business as usual” for our students can never truly accomplish this goal. Everything that follows in terms of the tips and recommendations I offer are informed by my beliefs that (a) good teaching is always about relationships, and (b) that in the midst of a global public health crisis that requires us to physically distance ourselves from one another, we should make pedagogical decisions that emphasize our humanity, and our capacity to connect in supportive ways. 

Networked technologies make it possible for us to connect with one another. However, it is also important for us to recognize that tech overwhelm is real, and that providing too many resources, or offering up too many opportunities for our students to connect can be anxiety inducing. In times like this, we might feel compelled to direct students to videos, free resources, and ideas for how to extend their learning from home. I would wager, however, that less of this will actually be more for our learners who need to see the clearest path from this moment of unprecedented upheaval to the accomplishment of their goals, both short-term and longer-term. 

This same sense of overwhelm can have a similar effect on us — the very people charged with creating the right learning conditions for others. Last week, when it became clear that Universities around the world were starting to transition to online instruction, my social media feed blew up with recommendations, resources, tips and tricks for what to do. People were panicked as they hastily worked to move face-to-face courses online. Some of my colleagues in EdTech started offering livestream drop-ins to share promising methods of online instruction and to discuss how to create the right learning conditions for all. These sessions went on for hours and hours, and I found myself wondering whether such approaches might actually contribute to, rather than alleviate, the sense of overwhelm that, as a community, we are feeling. Although the instincts to support, and to offer grounded recommendations are truly heartfelt and well-intentioned, I also know that large-group discussions can lead some people to question their own preparedness, to feel less well equipped than others, to compare their skills to those that others seem to have…and that this really can erode a person’s confidence. For this reason, I decided to simply share a Google Doc (revised into a blog post) with some thoughts for all of you. Nothing fancy.

Together, I know we have a LOT of expertise to share — expertise that might help us to clarify what it means to teach online in our Faculty. For anyone feeling unprepared or overwhelmed as they think about how to pivot to an online modality, please remember that YOU are the most important educational technology in any classroom — online or face-to-face — for your students (Gretter, 2017). The email messages or announcements you write to reassure your students, the provision of a clear plan, the intentional instructional choices you make to ensure they will finish out the semester — these are the things that will matter more than anything else. And so, dear colleagues, take heart! You are already enough!! You know the learning context, you know your students, you know what learning is most essential, you know how to make your learners laugh, and how to reassure them. 

To that end, here are a few ideas that anyone could use as they think through how to (re)design their lessons for the next couple of weeks. 

Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Instruction

This is probably the most important decision for you to make — and the right solution for your course (given the quick turn-around time imposed by COVID-19 restrictions) may land somewhere in between these two approaches.

Asynchronous online designs do not require real-time attendance by students or by the professor. This means that students can complete the online work when it works for their schedule and from any Internet connection. Typically, asynchronous units of study can be designed in a learning management system (LMS). At uOttawa, we use Brightspace by D2L as our institutionally supported LMS. Many LMSs exist, however (e.g., Canva, Schoology, Edmodo, BlackBoard, Google Classroom). In my experience, every LMS has strengths and weaknesses — none seem ideal, none do everything a teacher wants, or in ways that seem immediately intuitive. So, if you hate the LMS your institution provides, you’re not alone 🙂 In my view, however, now is not the time to go searching for something better. Do what you can with what your institution provides and accept that a certain amount of satisficing will just be part of what this whole moment involves.To demonstrate my point, a baking story for you: Last night, we ran out of chocolate chips at our house because, well, I have been stress baking for five days (am I the only one who does this?). To keep spirits high around here, I made my kids their favourite banana cake for dessert. Without chocolate chips, I had to substitute with chunks of unsweetened chocolate because, well, it was all we had left in our pantry and, well, social distancing (why go to the store if I don’t absolutely have to?) The results? Well, the chocolate sort of tasted terrible — and yet, the cake is ¾ gone and two members of our family (who shall remain nameless) had it for breakfast.  So, it’s not the very best banana cake I have ever made…but also not entirely inedible. See what I mean?

Do the best you can with what you’ve got.

Synchronous online designs. Synchronous online activities require everyone in the class to connect through an online conferencing system at the same time. This approach typically leverages a digital technology such as Zoom, Adobe Connect, unHangout, Skype, or Google Hangout to create a virtual classroom that everyone can join into using a special code or hyperlink that the teacher generates and then shares with their class. Synchronous sessions usually involve video, audio and a space for chat, where students can type questions, or share links to resources that are germane to the class discussion.

Benefits of synchronous instruction include the ability of the prof to deliver an online lecture of sorts — keeping in mind that attention spans may be a little shorter even than they are in face-to-face sessions. Students can also see the prof, and see one another in synchronous sessions. Break-out sessions for small groups can be designed with some video-conferencing platforms, which can support student engagement and knowledge construction. Significant limitations of this approach, particularly when we have had to transition so quickly, include access and Internet speeds. We cannot necessarily assume that all of our learners will have ready access to Internet connections from their homes, or that they have laptop computers that have webcams. Most university students do seem to have smart phones, and most videoconferencing platforms do have mobile apps for iOS or Android devices that can be downloaded free of charge. For synchronous sessions, we should expect that many of our students will be connecting via Mobile device and that this will mean their ability to toggle between screens or to participate in some aspects of a synchronous session could be limited. 

Design Tips for Asynchronous Learning

Keep the structure of your lesson or unit of study simple. If you are designing more than one lesson or unit of study, be sure that you use the SAME structure every time. This helps learners to navigate the environment with confidence, which decreases their stress. Here is a quick screencast that shows you the structure that I have used in a hybrid course that I am currently teaching. Notice that I always begin with an Introduction to the topic and provide links to other resources, materials or activities that students will need.

Consider recording a brief screencast using a technology such as Screencast-o-Matic to show students how to navigate the online resources you have created for them. Explain and show them where they can find essential documents. Place this introduction at the top of your online unit…or in the Overview to your new online course environment so that students know to click on this resource first. Here is an example of a screencast that I have created in past to help students understand how to navigate their online course.

I would recommend keeping your introduction a bit shorter than this one. I should have broken this up into two separate videos…but you can get the gist of what I mean by watching the first couple of minutes.

To discuss or not to discuss : That is the question. Discussion boards can be the best and the worst of asynchronous learning. Given that there are only a few weeks remaining in our semester, you might consider asking students to post up resources, or discuss key ideas — but do keep in mind that the more you impose rules on how discussions should proceed, the more restrictive and inauthentic the discussion begins to feel for students. You might ask that everyone respond to a particular topic, or share an idea…but this might not be the ideal time to ask everyone to post and then respond to two other colleagues. Consider too, whether you want to spend your limited time reading and responding to all of those posts? Maybe you could encourage students to read a few posts and respond when it feels authentic for them. I find it is usually a good use of my time to read through the points shared in discussion and write up a synthesis of the ideas expressed for the class.

Connect with your students via email, and through feedback on their assignments. This may actually be the way to connect best with your students. Send them all messages that help them to stay updated on what is happening in your course. And maybe even take a little extra time when you’re grading their assignments. Given them a few extra bits of feedback that will help them to know you are invested in their development as a learner. In the fully online courses I teach, time and time again, students tell me that beyond anything else, feedback on their work is what they truly appreciate most. 

Should I record a voice over of a powerpoint lecture? Maybe. But if you can support the voice-over recording with a transcript of what you say, it will be more accessible for more students…and allow them to go back to review what you said as needed. Consider breaking up your lecture into smaller chunks. Shorter (like in chunks of 5-7 minutes per video) typically works better for more learners online. 

Design Tips for Synchronous Sessions

If you’re running a synchronous session, be sure to send out an agenda to your students for the synchronous course session in advance. Ensure that all of the links needed to join in, plus your plan for how things will be organized are outlined for students in advance.

A few norms for hosting successful synchronous meetings include:

    • Everyone who is able wears headphones to minimize echos in the online platform;
    • Anyone who is not talking puts their microphone on mute so that pets, children, doorbell etc. in the background do not disrupt the online meeting;
    • Before starting the online class session, check that everyone in the class can hear you. If you’re videoconferencing, you can easily ask learners to give you a thumbs up if they can hear you. That way, you can see who hears you…without everyone talking over one another; 
    • Questions from students go into the chat — and whoever is leading the discussion (professor or another student) refers to the chat on regular intervals so that questions are addressed. For large groups, you might even want to assign a student to monitor the chat and interrupt you when important questions come up; 
    • Expect technical difficulties. At the start of the session, tell students what to expect if things go sideways (as they often do). If the platform crashes, tell students where they can find the materials you have presented (maybe you will email it to them, or you will put it up in a Google Drive, or you will post it in Brightspace for them). If students lose their connection, tell them to leave and try logging back in as possible. It is unrealistic to teach and solve technical issues at the same time. Unfortunately, this will be one of the downsides of synchronous approaches — but there may be asynchronous ways for students to access the materials. Plan for these situations in advance, and let people know what to do so nobody feels stressed out when things don’t go exactly as planned. 
    • Consider hosting open “office hours” so that students who have questions can just drop in to the VideoConferencing environment to talk with you about their assignment, or about a course concept. 

If you have additional ideas, please feel free to add them in the comments section below. We’re in it together, doing our best with the time and resources we have to provide the best possible experience for our learners.

Stay healthy and stay connected, everyone.

CBC’s Ontario Today with Rita Celli: Is mandatory online learning a big deal?

Yesterday, I had the privilege to speak with Rita Celli, host of CBC Radio’s Ontario Today, and with callers from around the province, about the issue of the proposed mandatory online learning courses for Ontario high school students. As work by Michael Barbour, Randy LaBonte and their colleagues has shown, Ontario already has the highest proportion of student enrolment in hybrid and fully online courses in the nation — so I am left to wonder what is gained by making online learning mandatory for every student, particularly in light of research by:

  • Dr. Beyhan Farhadi (2019) that has shown that in the Toronto District School Board, online learning has already created what she calls “geographies of inequality” that follow lines of racial and class-based inequalities in Ontario’s largest city. It seems that in Ontario, mandatory eLearning would deepen divides and create another context that does not serve youth who are already systemically marginalized;
  • Dr. June Ahn and Dr. Andrew McEachin (2017) with 1.7 million students in Ohio that has shown, “Across all subjects and grade spans, we see that students in e-schools score significantly lower than students in traditional charter and public schools, even conditional on a variety of control variables”.  In this study, scores for Grade 10 students enrolled in online charter schools were lower for math, reading, science and social studies in comparison to their peers attending publicly funded high schools and bricks-and-mortar charter schools;
  • Dr. Dick Carpenter and colleagues in Colorado (2015) that has shown that in math, specifically, grade 10 student performance is statistically significantly lower for students attending online schools when compared with their same-age peers attending bricks-and-mortar high schools. Given concerns about math learning and instruction in this province, does a mandatory eLearning policy undermine significant efforts and leadership on revised mathematics curriculum and teaching practices by thousands of colleagues?
  • The Canadian eLearning Network (2019) whose recent report raises issues reported by many of the insightful callers on yesterday’s show — rural and remote communities have insufficient Internet infrastructure to support the proposed plan and in fact as noted in this research brief, “The existing system would need to scale by more than 10 times requiring a significant investment in technology access and connectivity and a 10-fold increase in local supports”.

A recent report by colleagues at Michigan Virtual School suggests that online learning can be effective for students. However, as they outline in their recent publication, A whole school approach to virtual learning, stand alone online courses do not serve students most effectively. Instead, supports need to be put in place to ensure:

  • that coursework is designed in ways that are culturally sustaining and responsive;
  • that meet students’ social and emotional needs (think motivation, engagement, feelings of belonging, and connectedness that are so essential for our learners);
  • that teachers are very well trained and supported (technically, pedagogically) to support their students’ learning.

I haven’t seen any kind of plan from our province that leverages this kind of evidence-informed model. I did, however, read this statement to the media from November 21, 2019. Ontario brings learning into the digital age.

  • Ontario-teacher supported online learning does not mean that the learning will be supported by teachers working in publicly funded schools. A mandatory law like this one opens the door, as it has done in the US, to private entities who hire certified teachers to teach online high school courses. Maybe Ontarians want this kind of private school option for their kids. To ensure that the learning is not simply “transactional” though (i.e., parents pay, kids do the minimum to get the credit) it will be important to consider a review of current standards for the development and delivery of online courses. Evidence from the National Education Policy Centre  in the US does, however, suggest that courses developed by publicly funded school districts tend to be of higher quality, as measured by student performance outcomes.
  • Learning in engaging ways with diverse digital technologies is already happening in Ontario schools and in the eLearning options already available to students. Students don’t need mandatory eLearning to experience “hands-on, interactive features, simulations and collaboration with their peers across the province”.
  • Infrastructure. In the statement, the Minstry of Education suggests that “All Ontario students and educators in all publicly funded secondary schools will have access to reliable, fast, secure and affordable internet services at school, in all regions of the province by September 2020. Many courses will be designed to not require connectivity to complete the course material.” I question how this will happen and whether it can happen on this timeline. Also, if courses are designed to not require connectivity to complete the course materials…ummm…then are they or are they not online courses?

I was struck by the very astute insights offered by every caller into the show. I invite you to have a listen to the conversation here.

Among the worries: The design of the courses, the communications offered, the limited possibilities for differentiation of instruction and assessment, the cost of high speed connections, especially in rural communities across the province, the lack of access to meaningful collaboration with peers, the demands that eLearning places on parents who have to assume supporting roles for their children when they struggle.

Among the positives: The ability to reach ahead during high high school, and the ability to have flexible options as an adult learner finishing up a high school diploma while also working and parenting.

In a click: Podcast with Jamilee Baroud

I had the chance to meet up with Jamilee Baroud this week to record an episode for her new Podcast called In a Click. Jamilee is an up-and-coming superstar in the ed-tech/critical digital literacies research community and it has been such a privilege to work with her during her PhD program at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Education. Here’s our conversation — 40-ish minutes of us talking about technologies, research, teaching and learning, deep fakes, embodied cognition, VR, makerspaces…and my first ever research project that helped me to reflect deeply on the complexities of digital technologies, teaching and learning. It as a lot of fun to do this — and I feel really lucky to have been invited onto Jamilee’s show.

I hope you will join me in following Jamilee’s work at In a Click as she shines light online.

What if we taught kids about social media by asking them to reverse engineer it?

Bait. By Zoë Hagerman. All rights reserved.

A couple of weeks ago, the parent council at our neighbourhood school hosted an evening lecture by a prominent social media expert. Earlier that day, the speaker had also given tips to all of the junior and intermediate kids in the school, my nine-year-old daughter included. I decided I should probably go to hear the talk so that at home, we would have a shared understanding of the messaging.

The intention of the talk for parents was to highlight the dangers of social media use so that they would feel more empowered to set clear, informed parameters for their children. The speaker made some useful suggestions for parents, based on his experiences in the field of cybersecurity and increasingly as a go-to resource for families who are trying to cope with the often heart-wrenching consequences of social-media activity gone seriously wrong. Given the grave consequences of cyber-bullying, and online harassment, including the unauthorized sharing of images in ways that malign or harm, the speaker’s strong position on the issue of how to parent or how to teach kids to (not) use social media holds a certain validity. He recommends rules, guidelines and consequences when kids break the rules. In his words, “You are the parent. You are the judge and the jury. You can take away their phones.” Sensible, right?

And yet, I left the evening feeling that beyond telling my kids what not to do (e.g., don’t sext; don’t be naive — if you create it and share it, it can be re-shared with anyone; don’t use your phone in your bedroom) the speaker offered me and the other parents in attendance no long-term, realistic, daily methods for supporting better choices, or for having the kinds of conversations that Sonia Livingstone and her colleagues at the Global Kids Online project have found to be supportive of online resilience.

I’m no “digital parenting” expert, but I do study digital literacies and how we can teach kids to critically evaluate information online. I’ve probably read thousands of articles about teaching and learning in complex systems, and about the ways that teachers can teach digital literacies skills through inquiry and multimodal composition. I teach graduate students on these topics and even lead a summer institute for teachers where we think deeply about digital literacies instructional strategies. And what I’ve come to learn through all of this work is that kids learn in environments where their experiences are honoured, where they feel respected and where there is trust. I’ve also learned that kids learn in guided activity. When they create things, have the opportunity to benefit from more informed perspectives and can reflect on their learning in the presence of a teacher and peers, they’re more likely to acquire advanced critical digital literacies skills (e.g, Coiro, Dobler & Pelekis, 2019; Mills, Stornaiuolo, Smith, Pandya, 2018).

I’ve recently finished Luci Pangrazio’s new book, Young people’s literacies in the digital age: Continuities, conflicts and contradictions (2019, Routledge) and in it, she offers an important provocation for teachers and parents that has me thinking about new ways to help children understand the way the Internet works.

Through her analyses, Pangrazio unravels the diverse and multifaceted ways that young people understand social media. It seems that young people are using social media to write themselves into the world, and to come to know who they are.

Pangrazio writes, “With ongoing technological development and innovation, digital communication and sociality are constantly in flux. […] digital media platforms no longer exist in a separate sphere and, […] have become intertwined with the fabric of everyday life. Social media now mediate the ways in which young people write themselves into being (Sunden, 2003). ” (p. 101). [italics added by me for emphasis]

And yet, the participants in Pangrazio’s study seemed to have limited understandings of the corporate drivers of these important identity spaces. In school, she explains, “the main education in regard to digital media came through cybersecurity programmes” (p.130). And although the programs offered some important information, the messaging was usually meant to “shock” students rather than equip them to be more critical of the way these media are designed.

As I read this, I was thinking about the potential consequences of our need as parents and teachers to “protect” kids from the dangers of the Internet by restricting access. If social media platforms are a part of every day life for young people, and have become a key sphere for identity development, then maybe kids also need more conversations that help them think deeply about how and why these technologies are shaping their identities. Part of the solution, it seems, might be to help kids realize how and for what purposes social media platforms are designed.

In schools, Pangrazio recommends instruction that helps young people understand how the internet is structured (p. 156). The problematic discourse of the digital native has led many teachers (and parents?) to believe that kids know how the Internet works — but evidence suggests that they don’t. Young people often overestimate their knowledge and need explicit instruction that can help them know how what the Internet is, where it comes from, how it is regulated, and used by diverse stakeholders for diverse purposes. To become critical users of social media, young people also need opportunities to unpack the complex design principles driving social media platforms and how information is used by social media companies to advance their corporate missions. Pangrazio suggests that young children can begin by learning key vocabularly such as platforms, algorithms, metrics, personal data, personalisation, profile, online community, security, privacy (p. 156). For older children, she suggests a range of activities that invite them to “reverse engineer” the design of the Internet and social media platforms as a way to reveal the underlying intentions, purposes and design decisions that people have made. “Not only would this approach build technical understandings of digital media, but it would also encourage young people to think about how the architecture of the platform shapes users’ preferences.” When we understand how and why things are made the way they are, we are always more empowered as consumers, users, participants, and citizens.

I would argue that arts-based, multimodal opportunities for expression need to be part of the ways we teach young people about the Internet too. When I ask my fourteen year-old about social media, she usually tells me that she only uses Instagram to DM her friends and doesn’t post anything because it makes her anxious. She doesn’t have Facebook or Snapchat. And yet, I know that this might change. I want to keep having conversations that will help her navigate identity construction in digital spaces, but as I have come to learn, there is no forcing a conversation with a teenager that the teenager doesn’t want to have.

So, she might not want to talk, but it seems she will draw. Entitled Bait, my daughter has used her preferred medium (art) to expose the interests and the architecture of social media. She is reverse engineering — in her spare time — to make meaning. In the image we see a small, child-like character looking longingly at a heart — the promise of connection — under an iphone/deadfall trap that is propped up by a stick. Peeking out from behind the trap we see Instagram and Snapchat poised to pull the wires/string. In this work I see my daughter being incredibly critical of the trap that is social media. I see an awareness of the bait that these companies use to lure in users. As humans, she seems to be suggesting that we crave connection and these companies know it, so they design platforms that are as irresistible as cheese to a mouse.

There are significant implications for this type of drawing as a way to provoke students’ understandings of how the Internet and social media work. Most importantly, evidence suggests that our instructional practices at school and our parenting strategies at home have to include much more critical dialogue about the way social media are designed. Limits are part of the solution, but we have to also create opportunities that allow our kids to understand and be critical of socio-technical systems that may not serve their interests or wellbeing.


Coiro, J., Dobler, E. & Pelekis, K. (2019). From curiosity to deep learning: Personal digital inquiry in Grades K-5.

Mills, K. A., Stornaiuolo, A., Smith, A. & Pandya, J.Z. (2018). Handbook of writing, literacies, and education in digital cultures. New York: Routledge.

Pangrazio, L. (2019). Young people’s literacies in the digital age: Continuities, conflicts, and contradictions. New York: Routledge.

For additional information about parenting in a the digital age, check out Parenting for a digital future, a research-informed resource curated by Dr. Sonia Livingstone and her colleagues at London School of Economics.

CSSE-SCÉÉ19: Layered literacies practices during a Maker activity

À la conférence de la Société canadienne pour l’étude de l’éducation à Vancouver, ma collègue Julie-Anne Turner et moi présenterons nos recherches collaboratives, faites avec Megan Cotnam-Kappel et Janette Hughes, sur les dimensions des littératies observées au cours d’une activité Bricoleur. Voici les diapos où nous résumons notre projet.

The working draft of this article is available for download here.

Suggested citation: Hagerman, M.S., Turner, J-A., Cotnam-Kappel, M. & Hughes, J.M. (2019). Layers of online reading, research and multimodal synthesis practices while Making: A descriptive study of three fifth-grade students [draft]. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Society for Studies in Education (Vancouver, Canada). Retrieved from