The challenge of course design


At the start of the school year I was asked to be part of the intermediate arts rotation and it was decided that I would create a digital photography curriculum that could be repeated every 5 weeks with a different group of students. Groups meet once a week for 90 minutes.


After some research I found a great resource, Tony Northrup’s DSLR Book: How to create stunning digital photography ( and I have built an introductory course around this. Students do not have to purchase the textbook. It is basically a teacher resource only. However, I do tell students that I am using this book as the main resource for the class and they are encouraged to buy it themselves if they develop a keen interest in digital photography.

Presentation of lessons via Google Sites

Lessons are laid out in a Google Site using the Announcements template for each week’s lesson. All lessons are displayed in a section called ‘News’ in the website. Lessons are ‘released’ on a weekly basis and until release they are kept in an Archive section of the website that is not visible to the students. The front page of the Google Site has an Announcements widget embedded that shows the latest lesson.

Lesson structure

  1. The first lesson has been used to set students’ folders up in Google Drive, getting to know their camera and doing a basic exercise to identify subjects or topics to photograph. At first I had the students set up folders called Photography and Journal. The Photography folder was intended for storing students’ best photos since they were encouraged to take lots of photos but only keep 3 to 5 photos when they were done with the lesson. The Journal folder was intended for writing short explanations of why they chose the 3 to 5 photos every lesson.
    • Reflection 1: I had found that the folder creation and consequent organisation were confusing to students. So I have consolidated the folder creation to a Best Photos folder only. The Best Photos folder contains one folder for every week’s lesson. This folder contains the best photos of the week as well as the explanation of why those photos are the best photos of that week.
    • Reflection 2: Recently Google Classroom has been released. Since Google Classroom has a Turn In function, I have stopped asking students to use the folder structure above since the Turn In function makes the submission of the best photos and the explanation of why they are the best photos much more intuitive, i.e. the tool fades into the background and the focus returns to the learning. I will still ask students to create a Photography folder in Google Drive so that they have one place where they can store all of their photos.
  2. During the second lesson students watch a short video clip by Tony Northrup that gives them 6 quick tips to improve their photography right away. Students also get the opportunity to share any photo editing apps they have used on their devices. I allow students right from the start to use photo editing apps to ‘improve’ the quality of their photos. After students have watched the video, they use the rest of the class to go and take some ‘thoughtful’ photos, i.e. not just randomly shoot subjects but try to identify subjects that are worth shooting. They need to pick 3 photos from the 20+ photos they have taken and write me why they are choosing those photos.
    • Reflection: I am trying to train students to take more time when they are taking photographs since careful composition takes time. This works well for most students, but I find some students are disengaged because they are not able to internalise the value of taking more time to take photos. I need to find a way to draw them into this exercise. I will possibly have to think of contextualising the lesson in some way, i.e. allow them to identify a specific topic they are interested in to take photographs of.
  3. In the third lesson I briefly introduce students to five principles of composition, i.e. rule of thirds, rule of space, having a focal point, simplifying a composition and changing your angle of view. A copy of what I say is published on the Google Site for students’ reference.
    • Reflection: This lesson has worked well most of the time. Initially I asked students to submit 5 examples that showcase each of the 5 principles of composition. Students did not have to submit a written explanation for their choices. This has proved too much for students to accomplish despite encouraging them to submit the same photo for each principle of composition whenever possible (the encouragement being that a great photo showcases most of the principles of composition). I will reduce this to three in future but ask students to explain their choice. This will encourage them to think about their thinking. Students will possibly have to use an app that allows them to annotate their photos, e.g. Notability or Skitch.
  4. In the fourth lesson students are introduced to 5 more principles of composition, i.e. showing scale, the use of lines, the use of patterns, the use of natural frames and symmetry. Once again a written copy of the lesson is published on the Google Site for students’ reference.
    • Reflection: This lesson works well too. Students were asked to submit 2 examples of each principle explained in this lesson with an explanation of why the photos chosen showcase the relevant principle of composition. However, I find that at this point students are starting to fall behind. For some reason students do not see unfinished assignments from the arts rotation as homework …
  5. In the fifth lesson we consolidate the previous 4 weeks’ work and I work with students to ensure they have completed all of their assignments. Students who are finished with all of the work are encouraged to find more subjects to take photos of or to take time to learn more about the photo editing apps they have been using.
    • Reflection: This lesson has proved to be an important lesson to help students complete the unit.

Overall reflection

I am looking for ways to enable students to own their learning, i.e. develop skills to manage self, and to add differentiation but ensure students are able to accomplish the learning intentions. Most of the tasks in the lessons outlined above are relatively open-ended but with clear expectations. This encourages managing self and adds a level of differentiation to the curriculum since students will use unique pathways to accomplish the learning intentions.

Recent research to understand the dynamics of MOOC’s have shown what most experienced teachers know: when the content is delivered in a modular way, students find the accomplishment of learning intentions more manageable. This got me thinking that if I package the principles of composition as mini modules and allow students to choose their own learning path through the modules, it may personalise the learning experience more and so both contextualise and differentiate the learning for the students.


I plan to redesign the course. During the first two weeks students will start the course in a prescriptive way since this will set them up for success.

  • Week 1: Set up Google Drive, get to know your camera and possibly show the 6 Quick Tips video by Tony Northrup.
  • Week 2: Explain the rule of thirds (since this is probably the most fundamental principle of composition), give students an opportunity to develop a basic mastery of the rule of thirds and allow students to share their favourite photo editing apps. Students will also be given an opportunity to play around with these apps and use them to create a photo from a photo they have taken that showcases the rule of thirds.
  • Week 3 – 5: Post 9 mini modules on Google Sites that students can complete in any order but they have to complete 3 modules a week. Each module will have a mini video presentation that will be accompanied by a text explanation. Students will have to post their completed work in the Digital Photography Google Classroom.

I hope to post some feedback later. To lifelong learning!

The importance of timelines


I have the amazing privilege of team-teaching year 7 and 8 technology in a modern learning environment (one of a few things I do as technology activator). It is an exciting journey that I absolutely love because we have observed that modern learning environments (MLE’s) have positive affective outcomes on students and MLE’s have a tendency of exposing areas of improvement in your teaching. In this post I want to reflect specifically on the importance of setting a clear timeline for the learning in project-based learning tasks for intermediate students in MLE’s.

It may be helpful to give my reflection some context. At this point we do not have a space that has been purpose-built for technology, so we have to use a general purpose modern learning environment to accomplish the learning. Almost all of our students have iPads although some students are using Android tablets and Netbooks (a.k.a. mini laptops). Technology class for each year level is scheduled once a week for a double period. We have chosen a project-based learning approach to technology. The students get a different project every term. This term the students are building bridges.

We attempted to put together a unit that would take students on a logical, manageable progression through the design process using ’stations’ since we did not have enough tools for the whole group. We introduced some of the principles of bridge design with an app called Bridge Constructor that was available for both iOS and Android. Students then made a sketch of their bridge based on a set of guidelines they were given. The next step was to show them as a group how to make a basic technical drawing on a 1:1 scale of their bridges that consisted of a frontal and bird’s eye view. As individual students completed an adequate technical drawing, they were able to get a 1.8 m 12 mm x 12 mm piece of wood to mark out the pieces of their bridge for sawing at a measuring station. They would then move on to the sawing station and afterwards they would hammer and glue the bridge together at the construction station (most students are at this stage at the moment). We also created an additional bridge design task for students who were in-between stations in which they solved a contextualised challenge that required a bridge to be built. Students do not have a definite timeline for the project’s mileposts, i.e. research, sketch, technical drawing, measuring, sawing, construction, but they are reminded at the start of every technology class of what needs to be accomplished.

One can argue that although this task is open-ended, it is scaffolded to make the task manageable. Furthermore, the absence of a definitive timeline for the project’s mileposts enables differentiation since students tend to accomplish the different tasks at different speeds. However, I have observed two aspects of this approach that concern me.

  1. What does an engaged student look like in a technology class in a MLE? Almost all of the students appear to enjoy their time in technology but I often see students in conversations that have little to do with the task they are busy with. Does this represent the workplace? Could it be that if there is a clearer timeline that students will be more focused?
  2. When you don’t set a timeline for the mileposts in a project-based learning task, some students just don’t seem to be able to progress through the task no matter how much positive encouragement they are given. Unless you take their hands and walk them to the milepost step-by-step, they just don’t seem to be able to get there. I am wondering about what the root cause is for this lack of self-management skills. Either these skills have not been taught or students are not developmentally ready for the level of self-management required. The latter is quite possible since individual students’ rates of academic, social and physical development are quite unique at this age. One size definitely doesn’t fit all.

So I want to propose that well-structured problem-based learning tasks are excellent learning opportunities for intermediate students as long as they are accompanied by clear timelines that include definite dates for the mileposts to ensure students make adequate progress and utilise the time they are given for learning relevant to the task. So, this is what I intend to change in future term plans.

Am I realistic? Any other comments?

Some edtech tools

Our staff members shared the following

  • Write About This ( – This is an excellent app to encourage writing in reluctant writers. Students can often verbalise ideas that result from a writing prompt really well but when they have to write the ideas down, they are unable to do so. With Write About This they can make an audio recording of these ideas first and then type it out while they listen to what they have said. Teachers has seen an immediate improvement in the quantity and quality of students’ writing.
  • It now works in New Zealand! Go to and sign in with your GAFE ID ( if prompted. You will be offered a choice of using it as a teacher or a student. If you sign in as a teacher, you can create your own Google Classrooms. If you sign in as a student, you will be prompted to enter the class code. The teacher needs to give the class code to students to populate their classroom. For a really great introduction to Google Classroom, please visit
  • Google Classroom adds a dynamic back channel to your classroom and (I think) this is especially helpful in modern learning environments. It has great potential to enable your students to own their learning.
  • Another great feature is an online submission box for assignments – very similar to the ‘dropbox’ in many learning management systems. This has been one of the major missing components in the GAFE classroom and I think most teachers will welcome this facility.
  • Elim Christian College uses Teacher Dashboard (, a classroom management tool for GAFE, that enables you to have a peek into students’ online behaviour in the blended (online) classroom. Google Classroom and Teacher Dashboard compliment each other really well and I think the combination of the two tools will enable teachers to run an effective blended learning environment – the (almost) perfect combination of a teacher-directed and student-centred classroom as recommended by Prof Hattie in his Visible Learning research.

The philosophy behind our use of technology

How intentional are we about transforming the learning in our classrooms with the technology that is now available to the teaching profession? The JC staff took some time in their teams to evaluate how they have been using technology (devices, apps, etc) in their curriculum, trying to decide whether the technology has been used in a substitutional or transformational manner. This has proven to be a really helpful exercise and I believe it will help us transform our pedagogy in a meaningful way. As a reminder, here is an explanation of the SAMR model that I have found on Twitter.



Teaching with Google Classroom – first impressions

This morning there was an email in my Inbox telling me that I have been invited to take Google Classroom for a test drive … exciting, eh? Here are some first impressions.

Setting up a class is relatively straightforward. After I signed in, I was guided through the intuitive process of setting up my first class. You first need to give your class a name and you can also define it even more by adding information about the section you are teaching.

Create a class

The class is then created for you and you are greeted with the Google Classroom interface, i.e.


Google Classroom comes with a number of cool templates that is easy to change by clicking on Change Photo (bottom right of the header image).

I think the user interface is quite intuitive with the classic ‘hamburger’ in the top left taking you to a screen that shows all of your classes or gives you the ability to create a new class. ‘Stream’ is the ‘social’ part of your course and contains all of your class activity (assignments, announcements, etc) and ‘Students’ gives you the ability to add, remove or email your students (as long as you have Google Mail activated).

It is easy to add new assignments and it is simple to add all of your resources to an assignment since Classroom integrates tightly with Google Drive. You can set a due date for an assignment and upcoming assignments are easy to see at the top of the sidebar on the left.

I team teach Technology in a modern learning space with @stevevoisey and @philippaisom. We have been able to use ‘Stream’ with great success in our class today, i.e. posting teaching tips and assignment information for all students as the lesson progressed. Students had the ‘Stream’ open in their browser (most of our students have tablets).

Probably one of the most exciting features of Google Classroom is the ability of students to ‘Turn In’ assignments. In typical Learning Management System fashion, students are not able to change what they have submitted after they have turned it in, even if it is a Google Docs / Sheets / Slides document. Classroom accomplishes this by changing the students’ submission to ‘Read Only’ for them and transferring editing rights to you as teacher. But wait, there is more! After you, the teacher, has graded the assignment, you can ‘Return’ it to your students. This time you lose your editing rights and the students regain their ability to edit their documents – a great feature for a feedback and revision cycle. It also mimics what usually happens in a classroom anyway – very exciting!


Will try to keep you updated on what I discover. To lifelong learning!

Cross post from

Christian education and change

Christian education and change

Christian educators are people who understand and embrace change, we are people that constantly evaluate and critique our practice because it is a fundamental part of our worldview, i.e. we never arrive while here on Earth since God is constantly working out His salvation in us, perfecting our relationship with Him by teaching us holy worship that brings glory to God.

If you are a Christ-follower and a teacher, let’s dialogue about this.

To lifelong learning!