Connecting the Virtual Dots: An interview with Dr. Terry Anderson

by Luc Viatour

I have an admission to make. (Wait for it.) I am a proud alumna of Canada’s Open University, Athabasca U. Back in early 2001, on maternity leave from a high school in Western Quebec, I started a graduate degree in distance education at AU.  I had long searched for a program that would speak to my professional interests and suit my personal circumstances. AU was a great fit and afforded me the opportunity to connect with professionals of all description, from all over the world, who were equally committed to learning…online and off.

Since then, things have obviously changed, not just in terms of technology but also in terms of pedagogy. So, I thought, who better to re-connect with and ask about the latest evolution of distance education (DE) and technology enhanced education than one of my former teachers at AU, Dr. Terry Anderson. Dr. Anderson is not only a professor, a widely published author, Canada Research Chair in Distance Education, and the Director of the Canadian Institute of Distance Education Research (CIDER),  but he’s also a genuinely nice guy who allowed me to interview him from his home in Edmonton a couple of weeks back. Here are the salient bits…about third generation DE pedagogy, technology and building networks:

Can you break it down for us? What is connectivism and how is it different from constructivism?

Dr. Anderson answers: Well, it has been argued that it is just an enhancement and isn’t that much different. In fact, there are articles that say that is just good constructivism.  But George Siemens, who coined the term “connectivism” in an article from 2004, basically says that it’s premised and based upon there being an active network, both in the hardware sense and the resources/people sense, AND that the learning happens when you set up the network so that it can be used to apply to real life problems, or for study.  The theory also states that machines can have intelligence as well.  Really, it goes beyond the idea of a constructivist environment, which is often group based, and people are either working collaboratively or individually, constructing their own knowledge… sort of all within their own heads. Connectivist pedagogy is really a Net pedagogy because it suggests that it’s more important to have a connection and to be able to ask somebody about something or consult a resource, than it is even to know it or learn it. Accessibility and currency are critically important these days. So, what a connectivist pedagogy does is to help students build networks that expand beyond their classroom and beyond their teacher. It allows and encourages them to create artifacts that they share on the Internet. They can contribute to, comment on, and take care of these resources and collections.

What is expected of teachers and learners in order to be successful using a connectivist pedagogy model?

Dr. Anderson answers: First of all, there’s a technical side. You need to have self-efficacy so that you’re not intimidated. You have to have some trouble-shooting skills, because there are blockages and there are half-formed networks and nodes…all over the Internet. One has to be able to start and re-stop, stop and re-start, and just be a good Google searcher amongst other things! Secondly, you have to have a comfort level such that you’re willing to expose limited parts of yourself in order for others to be able to make connections with you. The people who think that their sense of themselves has to be hidden in a private world are really turning away from opportunities and from learning. And thirdly, you need media literacy skills, because of course the Internet isn’t just text, there’s a growing interest in animation, movies…you name it.  The instructional design for connectivism is really now just starting to evolve. People are creating learning activities which usually contain (in some way) the creation of artifacts and the development of social capital through building networks but this new model has been criticized because it doesn’t have any built in learning designs. They’ve been created afterwards from a psychological theory of learning. And that’s where we’re at now.

Let’s talk technology for a minute. What have you been using lately to connect with your students?

Dr. Anderson answers: I’ve been trying to wean people off of Moodle (e-learning platform) to use the Landing (AU’s social networking site) for a number of reasons, but mostly because it’s persistent. It doesn’t go away at the end of the semester, and it allows students to establish a social presence and to try to do some learning that goes beyond just the course. That way they have a chance to meet some other people both in their own program and in the university at large…and possibly to join other groups like LinkedIn, for example.  We’re focusing on what we call a “boutique” social network, which adds a level of control, privacy and exclusiveness (which are not things the web is great at!) so that it’s not Facebook. It’s under the control of the university. But what really differentiates environments like the Landing is that you can confine the data to a group, or a selection of friends, or to two teachers, or to the whole world including Google search engines. So, you get to control who gets to see it, whereas if it’s in Moodle, nobody gets to see it except people in that class and then it disappears. So, you can see how that fits in with the notions of connectivism. Building that social capital within the course but allowing the tentacles of the Landing to reach out, as people are comfortable doing. Students are getting the practice and at least serendipitously meeting other AU students…because that’s what DE has really lacked. Now, it hasn’t reached critical mass, I’ll admit that, but if and when it does, it could be quite revolutionary for DE. Currently, AU has about 3000 people registered but only 800 are truly active.

Lastly, do you have any tips or ideas on how to build and sustain online community?

Dr. Anderson answers: Well, if I knew the answer to that I’d probably go public and be a zillionaire by now. No, really…it’s hard! The analogy we often use is that of a gardener. You can’t just walk out into a field and throw around some seeds, you have to dig the ground and make it soft, and then you have to put the seeds in the right place. Then, you just can’t walk away from it and hope that it’s going to live. You have to keep fertilizing it and watering it. You need strong leaders, you need content, and you need a really good push system. When you join a group, the Landing allows you to turn off the email notifications but by default they stay on (we learned that early on!). It used to be the other way around, but then people would join a group and there would be some activity there, and then they would forget about it because it wouldn’t get pushed to their email. It builds that way. If you go in there and it feels like a ghost town, then it’s kind of hard to generate initial enthusiasm.

And then, (like the dedicated gardener that he is), Dr. Anderson encouraged me to join the Landing, have a look around, make some connections, give my feedback, tell my story. He seemed convinced that the work we do here, at LEARN and within the larger community, would surely inform practice somewhere else and vice-versa. 


References for further exploration:

Anderson, T. and Dron, J. (2011). Three generations of distance education pedagogy. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. Vol 12 (No 3). Retrieved from

Schwier, R. (2011, Aug 5). Interview with George Siemens about connectivism. Retrieved from,

Siemens, G. (2004) Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.  Retrieved from,

Terry Anderson’s Blog: The Virtual Canuck




Learning to Blog – Blogging to Learn

A number of teachers have been blogging, sharing their best practices and examining their teaching. I know I have learned from many and continue to do so. Students, too have been blogging, some on their own by choice and others as part of their classes.

Blogging initially got a bad name as many individuals navel-gazed about their private lives. Will Richardson was one of the first educators to see the tool as an avenue for reflection, for conversations and for learning. I started reading his blog in 2005 and was inspired. I have tentatively blogged since then, trying on different blogs over the years (one reviewing all the early music concerts I went to, another reflecting on education, a couple of travel blogs and one, inspired by a photo a day on Flickr which is a combination of photography and writing). Each provided an opportunity for writing for different purposes and each helped me grow as a writer and as a learner. The bonus was that each brought in an unexpected audience and that affected how I saw myself as a writer. I became part of a community.

I just read an interesting post “ Can writing online make students better writers” by Jayme Jacobson.  She quotes from a book by Cathy Davidson, Now You See It. This is what struck me as she spoke about students…

I discovered something curious.  Their writing online, at least in their blogs, was incomparably better than in the traditional term papers they wrote for the class. In fact, given all the tripe one hears from pundits about how the internet dumbs our kids down, I was shocked that elegant bloggers often turn out to be the clunkiest and most pretentious of research paper writers.” (p. 101)

I am sure much of that has to do with writing for an authentic audience and having a real reason to communicate.

I now have the book on my iPad and will be reading it. (Incidentally, when I went to find the link to Will Richardson, it was on his page of books that are influencing him).

Students, too can benefit from writing for others. There are some great blogging platforms for students that build in the security needed to monitor unwanted comments.

Each year Edublogs holds  two periods of student blogging challenges – ways to make for better blogging (you do not have to be using their blogging platform to take part). Some of their ideas include using other tools to enhance the blog. The students learn to communicate well, to comment on the blogs of others and to learn from the comments they receive. This is a great opportunity to get your class involved in blogging, whether it is the first time for your class or if they are already bloggers. The challenge builds in the possibilities of getting comments from other students as well as from mentors. Students are from a variety of countries so you can build in some cultural exchanges. I’m planning to sign up as a mentor for the first time. If you are not yet ready to blog with your class, you, too, can try mentoring to see the kind of work others are doing.

If you are interested in starting to blog with your students, here is a leaflet that will help get you started. It was created by Silvia Tolisano of Still not convinced? Have a look at this blog post on the benefits of blogging.

Learn more about blogs and blogging from the LEARN site

Susan van Gelder



A Critical Conversation About Literacy Part III: A Place to Start in Today’s Classroom

by Melanie Stonebanks

You don’t have to have all the answers. You only need to know the questions to ask.

"It's a Book" by Lane Smith - You Tube trailer

As has been discussed in the previous two postings on this topic, critical literacy is a way to use texts to help children better understand themselves, others, and the world around them.  Using children’s literature, teachers can help their class through difficult situations, enable individual students to transcend their own challenges, and teach students to consider all viewpoints, respect differences, and become more self-aware.

There are many activities that are already going on in our classrooms that build critical literacy.  Reading novels written from the point of view of a child from another culture or set in another country; sharing stories about families and their religious traditions or considering the lives of young people like them who lived through war, persecution or poverty; as well, when we ask our students to write from the point of view of someone else; all of these classroom experiences are ways of developing critical literacy. As Melissa Thibault (2004) reminds us, these activities all serve the same purpose: they help the student to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to learn to understand other people’s circumstances and perspectives and to empathize with them.

In order to properly prepare our students to be literate in this ever changing technological and multimodal world, we teachers need to reflect upon and challenge our own beliefs and understanding of literacy.  Harwood (2008) advocates that “educators need to challenge children and provide balanced literacy opportunities that value the social-cultural construction of knowledge while reflecting the diversity of children’s lives.” She strongly supports the notion that classroom “opportunities to collaborate, discuss, critique, deconstruct, and reconstruct a multitude of meaningful and radical texts (Kohl, 1995) are equally important in literacy development as learning to identify phonemes of sound.”

For the sake of brevity, the definition of “radical texts” has been borrowed from Leland, Harste, Ociepka, Lewison, and Vasquez’s (1999) suggestions for choosing critical texts. Radical texts chosen for elementary aged children should meet the following criteria:

  • Texts don’t make difference invisible, but rather explore what differences make a difference;
  • Texts enrich children’s understanding of history and life by giving voice to those who have been traditionally silenced or marginalized;
  • Texts show how people can begin to take action on important social issues;
  • Texts should explore dominant systems of meaning that operate in our society to position people and groups of people;
  • Texts should not provide “happily ever after” endings for complex social problems.

Children can be encouraged to think critically and answer critical questions that will enable them to examine their own insights as well as those presented in texts, which is at the heart of critical literacy programming. Teachers need to encourage children to challenge the status quo of what is represented within texts, asking questions such as:

  • Whose voice is heard and whose voice is left out?”
  • Who is the intended reader? (For example asking, is the text intended for specific groups of people and if so how is that group portrayed?)
  • What was the world like when the text was created?
  • What does the author want you to feel or think?
  • What does the author expect you to know or value?
  • What does the text say about boys (about girls)?
  •  Is it important that the main character is beautiful (powerful/wealthy)? (Harwood, 2008)


Luke, O’Brien, and Comber (2001) suggest the following key questions:

  • What is the topic? How is it being presented? What themes and discourses are being expressed?
  • Who is writing to whom? Whose positions are being expressed? Whose voices and positions are not being expressed?
  • What is the text trying to do to you?
  • What other ways are there of writing about the topic?
  • What wasn’t said about the topic? Why?

This list is not exhaustive, and the critical questions that arise will often depend on the children and the issue involve. There is no single ‘recipe’ of how to incorporate critical literacy within an elementary school curriculum so teachers need to work against the “commodification” (Luke & Freebody, 1999) of critical literacy, as they begin to recognize the important benefits of fostering children’s critical viewing of texts. Harwood (2008) does well to remind us that children’s interests and questions should also be incorporated into the literacy curriculum and form an important addition to the critical questions that arise. By honouring children’s own natural curiosity and using their inquisitiveness as a starting point, greater depth and engagement with texts is possible.

A list of picture books to support critical literacy can be found here

A question that my husband and I always put to our pre-service education students when discussing the concept of curriculum design is the “So what?” or “Why?” question.  We push these soon to be teachers to consider deeply the impact that their choices of what they will bring into their future classrooms will have on the children under their care.  This is probably one of the most challenging exercises in lesson planning.  Analyzing the overt and covert effect of one’s chosen methodology and material on a widely diverse group of learners is incredibly time consuming and at times frustrating if all aspects are considered thoroughly.

Now, not one to ask of others something I would not do myself, I end this posting with the questions “Why teach critical literacy?  What difference will it really make in the lives of elementary students and teachers?”  In all honesty, I believe the difference of enacting a program of critical literacy into one’s English Language Arts curriculum as compared to my own literacy learning as a student, student teacher and teacher is profound.  As opposed to a basal textbook, scripted or worksheet driven reading program, a true emancipatory literacy curriculum which, in the words of Lankshear and Lawler (1987) is a literacy curriculum that enables students to become properly literate, a literacy of hope and possibility, of affirmation and acceptance; a literacy that challenges us to look beyond our limited cultural assumptions and worldviews; a literacy that not only legitimates students’ voices but allows them to see that they are part of the continuing human dialogue, and that their lives can make a difference is what needs to be put in place.  Without a doubt, it will take a great many more hours to develop and there will be numerous mishaps along the way but the empowerment and sense of self that will be fostered in that community of learners is well worth it.

The following sites are good places to continue reading, thinking and teaching about critical literacy in your classroom.  Enjoy!


References for further reading can be found here:

Harwood, D.  Deconstructing and Reconstructing Cinderella: Theoretical Defense of Critical Literacy for Young Children. Language and Literacy, volume 10, issue 2, Fall 2008. Retrieved from

Kohl, H. (1995). Should we burn Babar? Essays on children’s literature and the power of stories. New York: The New Press.

Lankshear, C. & Lawler, M. (1987). Literacy, schooling, and revolution. New York: Falmer.

Lelande, C., Harste, J., Ociepka, A., Lewison, M., & Vazquez, V. (1999). Exploring critical literacy: You can hear a pin drop. Language Arts, 77(1), 70-77.

Luke, A., & Freebody, P. (1999). A map of possible practices: Further notes on the four resources model. Practically Primary, 4(2), 3-8.

Luke, A., O’Brien, J., & Comber, B. (2001). Making community texts objects of study.

In H. Fehring & P. Green (Eds.), Critical literacy: A collection of articles from the

Australian Educators’ Association. Newark, NJ: International Reading Association.

Thibault, M. Children’s literature promotes understanding. LEARN North Carolina, 2004. Retrieved from



Top 10 Reasons I Love Working with LEARN’s Online Teachers

by Dianne Conrod

Creative Commons license

I wish to take the opportunity provided by Quebec’s Teacher Appreciation Week (February 5 – 11, 2012), to salute the online teachers with whom I have the pleasure of working.  This year, LEARN provides synchronous online courses to twenty schools in five boards and a few private schools.  LEARN’s online teachers, Kerry Cule, Peggy Drolet, Audrey McGoldrick, Alessandra (Alex) Pasteris, Paul Rombough, and Andy Ross, are:

1 – Talented!  The above-mentioned individuals are very talented people who could be doing many other things but they choose to teach and their students are grateful!  They are experts in the subject areas they teach but have many talents and interests beyond these areas.  Ballroom dance, social media, sports, astronomy, website design, yoga, baking, and gardening are just some of the passions of these amazing teachers.

2 – Creative!  Problem solvers all, they tackle the challenges of working online with gusto.  They explore and push the limits of online tools.  They design innovative activities to engage students they can’t see.  Creativity and innovation are encouraged in their students, too.

3 – Enthusiastic about teaching and technology! These six wonderful teachers get very excited about online tools.  There are so many great web-based tools but when they find one that fits perfectly with how and what they teach, then I see some excited teachers.   Some of their favourite tools are blogs, VoiceThread, Explorelearning, GeoGebra, Google Docs and Prezi.

4 – Persistent!  I love their push to keep learning, discovering, and questioning, and helping students learn, discover and question for themselves.  They don’t give up… on kids, with tech issues, on what they believe in.  Some call it stubborn, but their persistence is what gets them and their students to the next level.

5-Inspiring!  They inspire me, their students and each other.  What amazing team players!  Every week at our staff meetings, there are at least two teachers who have something new and amazing to share about something they tried in class that they are excited about.  If a colleague has a question about something they need help with in class, others are anxious to share and support.

They also share to inspire the greater community through other work at LEARN. See #6.

6 – Hard working!  They work incredibly hard over long hours, as teachers do, to prepare for classes.  These teachers contribute beyond the teaching they do in the classroom.  Below are links to just a few samples of the fine work they do outside of the classroom:

Blog posts:  here, here, and here.

Some online teachers are also LEARN consultants responsible for maintaining the Social Sciences and Math and Sciences pages and Twitter feeds for  LEARN.

And others have participated in special projects featured on the LEARN site (you must be logged in to view some of these projects): Career development podcasts, Success Checker, Physics videos

7 – Student-focused!  It isn’t all about the teachers – the students take centre stage.  Whenever a teacher tells me about a creative activity in class, he/she always says, “The kids were amazing!”  They connect to, care for and develop mutual respect with these students even though they do not meet them face to face.  With smaller class sizes and the ease of communicating outside of class hours, there are many opportunities for online teachers to help students individually.

8 –Funny and positive!  Their enthusiasm and good humour is contagious!  I love sitting in on online classes.  I always learn something and I always laugh.  Classes are fun!  Students interact with their peers and teachers in a relaxed positive way.  Even on their bad days, LEARN’s teachers still talk about how much they love teaching online.

9 – Lifelong learners!  They love to learn. These online teachers are constantly growing and improving.  Whether in PD sessions, at conferences, through professional reading, in learning networks using social media, or in university courses, the teachers are always learning.  They learn from students and they learn from each other.

10 – Open!  Their hearts and minds are open to new ideas, students, criticism and differing opinions.  They are open to taking risks and making mistakes.  They model this openness to their classes so that the students are not afraid to try and fail either, learning from mistakes.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week to Andy, Paul, Alex, Peggy, Audrey, Kerry and to all of the teachers in Quebec!  Thank you!

Please feel free to add comments of appreciation for the teachers you work with.

Dianne Conrod