Online Learning: The tools for the job

So how come I have been able to write 7 posts on online learning and only now in post 8 start discussing the tools? The TPACK model suggests that content knowledge, pedagogy and technical skills are all necessary for a successful online course. Actually the model is directed at learning in general and not just online learning, since in some face-to-face contexts it will be appropriate to eschew technology altogether. But because for the last 15 years or so technology has been the new kid on the block, it has attracted far too much attention, especially to the detriment of the pedagogy. Therefore the visualization of the TPACK model as a trio of interlocking circles puts technology in its true perspective.

Obviously an online course cannot be run without digital tools though so what should govern our choice of tools?

Ideally, you should choose tools based on the learning outcomes. But in practice there are two strong factors that often make the tool drive your choices more than it should. These are:

  1. When a specific tool set has already been committed to. Eg being compelled to use a learning management system already purchased and installed by your institution and/or
  2. Being unaware of the additional potential affordances offered by the asynchronous digital format eg for peer review and/or assessment.

Having coached school teaching teams in carrying out action research projects over the last few years, I have experienced a few times that the tool has initially been the main objective.

Eg. the school has just taken out a two year subscription to XYZ blogging platform. What is the best way of making use of it?

This is a very tempting way of approaching the challenge given the circumstances, but if we are educators then we should always be looking primarily through our pedagogical lens. So the above situation could be reframed as follows:

Our 8th grade students need to be better at scientific reporting so could a regular requirement to contribute to and comment on a science blog help with this? If so, how exactly?

As part of a whole raft of grade specific or subject specific AR (action research) questions focused on writing and comprehension skills, this is a much more pedagogically sound AR focus than one taking blogs as the starting point.

So in the hunt for appropriate digital tools the starting point should always be, what do you want your learners to be able to DO?

Eg. learn a language, carry out scientific experiments, make better presentations, write more professionally etc.

You will find several websites which will help with that choice here.

Extend your view of what the digital tools can achieve: SAMR

Remember the 7 affordances model of my second post which demonstrated some of the affordances which are ONLY available through the use of technology? Ie that technology can extend our possibilities rather than simply be a poor substitute for face-to-face teaching. This is illustrated by the SAMR model of technology use.

The SAMR model takes as its starting point the impulse that I described in my first post to use something new by transposing something old into it. The SAMR model shows how we can progress from that initial reaction through various stages culminating in the discovery of the unique affordances that the technology can offer and that would not be possible without it. I have seen many instances for example of the Moodle VLE completely misused as a homework posting bulletin board. This lies most definitely at the base of the SAMR column. Its only advantage lies in the way that no learner can claim not to know what the homework was because they missed class that day.

Let us take the example of blogging and how we might approach that through the SAMR levels:

  • Substitution: posting homework on a blog
  • Augmentation: Allowing a class discussion to continue once the class is over through the comments function of the blog
  • Modification: Opening a blog post to comments from outside the learner group
  • Redefinition: Live blogging an event

As you look at the potential of a specific tool there are one or two factors that you could consider to rise up the SAMR ladder.

Text bias: Traditionally education and training has been very text-based but humans are more primed to process information visually and orally. Therefore, progress up the SAMR ladder could involve adding different media.

Audience: One thing digital tools excel at is at providing an audience. That audience need not be the whole world but a carefully chosen group of peers, experts or just those with an interest in the topic. Having an audience that does not simply consist of the tutor adds enormously to the authenticity and engagement of a task and is easily added using digital tools such as blogs or social networks.

Meta learning: It is increasingly recognized that thinking about learning and making learning visible to the learner are powerful strategies for effective learning. Many of the digital tools can be used to good effect in meta-learning. For example instant polls can gauge levels of understanding, back channels such as Todays Meet can involve more learners at the same time in discussions and so on.

Don’t become too attached!

Another reason to tease out the affordances you value /target in a specific digital tool is that good tools WILL disappear. Eg Posterous, Wikispaces (now only free to educators), Voxopop (now legacy software and unreliable). You should be able to say, what was it about these tools that you valued so that you can find a suitable alternative. Eg for me, the beauty of Posterous was the ease of set-up and emailing of blog posts without formatting problems, something which most mainstream blogging platforms now do.


One issue that often raises its head is the ideal balance between the best tools and number of services learners should be required to sign up to. People have asked me what the ideal virtual learning environment (VLE) is and my answer is that there is no perfect VLE. And if there were, it is probably more expensive than you or your institution are prepared to pay. This means that you are always going to want to mix and match and you have to know when to draw the line. Some learner groups will be happy to sign up to 6 different tools as part of the course while for others this will be a technological and privacy breach too far. Don’t forget that additional functionality can often be embedded using third party tools if the VLE lacks it. Eg posting audio rather than text, wiki etc.


  • Don’t start with the tools but be prepared to extend your understanding of what each tool can be used for from an effective pedagogy perspective.
  • Consider the balance between perfect and ok.
  • Be prepared to see favorites disappear and
  • Think about how to extend what you can achieve by using digital tools rather than looking for simple substitutes for the classroom based version of the activity.

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