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Case Study of an e-Learning Ecology

Project Overview

Project Description

Explore and document a case study of an e-learning innovation—something in which you have been involved, or which you have observed in a place where you have studied or worked, or an interesting intervention somewhere else that you would like to study in more detail. A practice may be a piece of software or hardware; a teaching and learning activity that uses technology; or a case study of a class, a school or person using technologies in learning in an innovative way. Use the 'seven affordances' framework to analyze the dynamics of the e-learning ecology that you are investigating.

Icon for Transforming Teaching and Learning with an Authentic Audience

Transforming Teaching and Learning with an Authentic Audience

The Challenge

In most cases, students today are increasingly coming to school with little desire to please their teachers. A culture of extrinsic motivation has corrupted our school system and few students are learning purely for the love of learning. Much of my studies have aroused an interest in changing the paradigm of public education to win back students by cultivating a sense of intrinsic motivation to learn. I believe that a key ingredient to this transformation is creating an authentic audience for students.

This case study of e-learning utilizes blogging as a platform for writing to show the power of an authentic audience in learning and how it affects student motivation and engagement. The concept of quadblogging gives the students’ a truly authentic and global audience that will visit their blog, leave comments and return on a cycle.

Consider this, when a student publishes their work online, they want it to be really good. When they turn their work into the teacher, they usually just want it to be good enough. Providing opportunities for students that show them someone else besides their parents or teacher cares about their work has an immense effect on motivation and engagement in learning. Students are much more interested in knowing what their peers think about their work than what their teacher thinks.

Interestingly, the students that I worked with in this case were capable of identifying that feedback from their teacher was valuable for reasons different from their peers. They became aware that the teacher could help them to become a better writer. This was important to them because positive feedback from their peers was dependent upon their ability to articulate a thought and write to their audience’s expectations. Since students craved the feedback of their peers, the teacher was now considered a valuable resource in order to become better writers.

Ubiquitous Learning

Before we began the project with our students, we spent a significant amount of time scaffolding our students’ knowledge and ability of interacting in a digital space like a blog. Digital citizenship and writing to meet an audiences’ expectations were explored in depth. We also provided opportunities to examine how and why digital media like hyperlinks, videos and images are incorporated into blog post. This was accomplished by giving each student their own blog that was housed within the confines of the digital space of the classroom.

First, we went through the proper channels to get parental permissions for students to publish their work online. After the proper scaffolding was in place, we felt confident that students would behave appropriately on a digital platform like a blog. Then we had the students create their own blog. One that was open to the public for all the world to see. Once this was complete, the teacher signed the class up for a site called

The way Quadblogging works is that each Quad has a co-ordinator that ensures a smooth communication process. Each cycle lasts 4 weeks with each member of the Quad having one week in the spotlight. During the class’s week in the spotlight, their blog will be visited by the other Quad members and comments or feedback will be left. In return, every classroom commits to visiting the other members’ blogs when they are in their focus week. The result is a fast moving cycle of 4 weeks that is repeated 2 or 3 times.

Why Authentic Audience

Throughout the process of planning, implementation and now the reflection of this case study, many questions have surfaced in my mind. I want to delve deeper into this digital ecology and figure out what has made it a successful experience for both the teacher and students. In order to accomplish this, I will use the seven affordances framework developed by Dr. William Cope and Dr. Mary Kalantzis of the University of Illinois to analyze this e-learning environment.

The Seven Affordances Framework

One could argue that there is some element of all seven affordances that an authentic audience through blogging can be analyzed according to the framework. However, there are three specifically that I want to focus on for this section. First, Ubiquitous Learning, transcending the old pedagogical separations of space and time. Next, Multimodal Learning, learning in multiple ways and combining digital media to create learnings at a much deeper level and understanding. Finally, Recursive Feedback, enabling teachers to adjust instruction throughout the process of learning while allowing students to adjust to affect future outcomes.

Ubiquitous Learning

This case study does not do anything that was impossible to do prior to technology in education, but it does exemplify the ubiquity of teaching and learning in today’s technology rich classroom. According to Dr. Cope, technology affords new learning opportunities and new habits of mind. It encourages being flexible, and requires a certain type of responsibility or self-reliance. Students were not required to write a minimum number of blog posts per week nor was their grade dependent upon how much they wrote.

Nevertheless, as witnessed in the video done for this case study, time stamps of the blog posts were showing up before school, on the weekends and late at night because of their relatively unlimited access to their blogs via the school issued devices and mobile technology. Time and space was collapsed in this e-learning environment in a way that redefined what education meant to our students. They were no longer confined by ringing bells or time limits. Their blog opened up new tools for learning and connected them with opportunities to grow at a moment’s notice.

Multimodal Learning

When we give students the freedom to express themselves in a way that they feel most comfortable with, it’s amazing what they are capable of producing. A blog enables learners to understand how the platform produces which kind of meaning and to what audience’s expectations. Multimodal knowledge representations (image, sound, text) creates learnings at a much deeper level of understanding. Using a blog as a digital ecology for demonstrating learner generated knowledge by means of digital creation gives the teacher an in depth look into measuring student growth.

Recursive Feedback

A shift is taking place in education due to technology infused teaching and learning. Students are moving from passive learning, or knowledge consumers, to active learning where they are now producing knowledge. As they’re producing knowledge, feedback becomes a crucial part of that process. The internet provides an extraordinary opportunity for growth because of the ability to receive feedback from a variety of sources. Furthermore, self-assessment is critical for students to gain an awareness of what they understand, versus what they don't know. The feedback our students received in the form of comments allowed for this to happen.

Digital ecologies allow for educators to set up systems for timely feedback and this leads to improved outcomes. Not only were students getting feedback from peers, they were also giving feedback. According to Dr. Kalntzis, this lifts the student’s level of performance and understanding. Additionally, recursive feedback shifts the paradigm of measuring student growth to assessment that is for learning and not just of learning.

Quadblogging in Action

The learning activity was structured to be student-centered and give the students a lot of autonomy. The result was a dramatic uptick in student participation. In fact, engagement and motivation in learning was greater than we could have anticipated. Students were extremely motivated by the feedback they received from their peers. Through this format, the students were also exposed to different perspectives of similar content being covered in the classrooms globally.

The integration of curriculum such as World Affairs, Literature, and Language Arts became seamless and students made natural connections between their content and the content of the other classes. The ubiquity of this environment maximized the learning in our classroom because we spent little to no time blogging in class. The bulk of the work was done outside of the classroom because the students were so engaged and motivated by reading the comments from other students reading their work.

This project incorporated many 21st century skills as well as relevant content knowledge to positively affect student outcomes. The greatest impact was on students who do not typically take part in class discussions. Also, students who may not be the most popular students with their peers now felt empowered because they were not being judged by how they look or how many friends they have. They were being judged by their thoughts or opinions, and their ability to communicate these thoughts clearly through written expression. Another benefit of this project was the awareness of students that a positive digital footprint can have on their future in terms of college applications and employment opportunities.

This is a video that I created as part of the case study and it is intended to give the viewer some insight on both the student and teacher perspective of quadblogging. The video was published to YouTube on Jun 6, 2013.

I made this video in collaboration with a teacher named Jeff Jakob, (a former student of the CTER program) and his students. This video examines the benefits of providing students with an authentic audience. In addition, I reached out to leaders in the field of education and asked them to share their thoughts and experiences about the impact that an authentic audience has had in their classrooms. I feel it's important to note that there are two parts of the video when Grant Wiggins is speaking. Both of the recordings were done personally for me for this case study by Wiggins after I contacted him via Twitter. The video also includes insight from the following contributors:

Josh Stumpenhorst @stumpteacher

Ken Shelton @k_shelton

Grant Lichtman @GrantLichtman

Steven W. Anderson @web20classroom

Dr. Justin Tarte @justintarte

Brian Newman

Mostly Great, but Sometimes a Flop

During the project planning phase, the teacher and I were adamant about identifying specific student outcomes first. We felt this was important because we wanted to avoid getting caught up in the capability of technology while not actually knowing if the students learned anything significant. The objectives of this project included concepts such as digital citizenship, writing to meet an identified audience’s expectations, building an awareness of other viewpoints from outside the local community and incorporating multiple forms of digital media in order to convey an idea or demonstrate understanding.

On a positive note, we felt as though we met the objectives set forth in the planning phase of the project. However, there were additional benefits of the students’ blogs that we did not anticipate. For example, most classrooms have a small number of students who don’t typically participate in class. Some students lack the confidence to share an idea or ask a question, others may not feel “cool” because they don’t fit in with a certain group of students in the class. Whatever the reason might be, in this digital ecology, every student was thriving. No one was being judged by the preconceived notions. The audience had no idea who the “smart kids” were, or the kids who sit in the back row and get in trouble consistently.

Our students were now being judged on their ability to articulate their thoughts and opinions about the content being covered in class that week. They were writing to an audience of peers, other students who they felt they could relate to. The blog gave every student a voice and they all wanted to be heard without fear of ridicule. The fact that every student was empowered may have been the most powerful aspect of this experience.

On the downside, there is no guarantee that the other classes who were participating had the same access to technology as our students in a 1:1 school district. The lack of accessibility made it difficult for one of the classes to participate often. They were unable to provide feedback on a regular basis and did not post to their blog when as often when they were the featured class of the week. There was also a couple of instances when students had to be reminded of our digital citizenship guidelines and cultural difference. While on the surface, the students had to be reprimanded, it was also an excellent opportunity to turn the mistake into a teachable moment.

Wrap Up

Our experience with blogging was wonderful and it had a tremendous impact on the growth of these students. We watched quiet and timid students blossom into confident writers ready to tackle the blogosphere. However, my aim in writing about this case study is not for every teacher to begin blogging with his or her class this school year. I believe the key takeaway here is that it's not about the technology, but the learning opportunity the technology now affords teachers and students. Harnessing the value of an authentic audience and what it can do for the motivation and engagement of students was a decision driven by pedagogy and student outcomes.

As educators, we should show students that someone other than their teacher or parents cares about their work, it's unbelievably empowering. Challenge other teachers to expose students to the perspectives of their peers on a global scale. It's extremely eye-opening for them, especially for students who may never leave the city limits. Finally, erase the notion that publishing student work online bad or scary thing in education. Provide students with an opportunity to learn that what they post online does not go away, and that this can be leveraged positively to help them get into college or even find a job someday. What will you do to transform your classroom this year?