January 9th, 2018 By colingally Categories: Online Teaching

Having gained my Masters online with Michigan State University and now having worked with MSU as an online instructor for the past five years I have learned a lot about being an effective online learner and teacher (and I’m still learning so I’m not perfect!). Just recently I was taking an online course with the IB and found myself on the online learning side of the fence for the first time in a long time (at the same time as teaching my online course with MSU!). It struck me how perfect an online learning experience has to be to feel really rewarding as a learner (and as a teacher). Let’s face it, coming home from your full time job and having to do more work (whether it’s teaching or learning) can be a little bit miserable. You can make your experience less miserable by following some guidelines that I’ve learned over the years.




As an Online Teacher
Modules need to be organized in a way that leaves nothing to the imagination. Students shouldn’t be guessing what is meant to be studied or worked on. Modules should not be opened if they haven’t been vetted for broken links or incorrect information. The online teacher should have their own organizational system to keep track of work submitted and assessed. My tool of choice is Google Suite. In the current course I teach in, we communicate (see below) and share a spreadsheet with all students listed, all tasks to be completed, and the dates they need to be completed. Students type “done” with a link to their work as they go through the course.
Course structures needs to organized in a way they students aren’t hunting for the place to go next. Explicitly structured learning areas is key.

As an Online Learner
A bit more difficult to ascertain as everybody’s life is different but there are some general organizational foundations you need to lay down. Create your coursework area on your desktop or in online cloud platform (ie. Google Drive). I like to put a “-” before the folder name so it stays on top alphabetically in my storage area. Create folders for each module. Create calendar deadlines for each task and set reminders. When a module opens, first read through it skimming and scanning for what the general expectations are to get a sense of what you will need to do.




As an Online Teacher
So very important. I strive to be as clear as possible with my online students. Vague and inconsistent communication from online teachers kill an online learning experience. If you say you’re going to do something then do it. Don’t have students hanging around waiting. Timely individualised feedback from the teacher in small online learning courses (not even possible in MOOCs) is absolutely paramount. Communication about each module’s (or each week’s) expectations and tasks is critical in allowing online students the time to plan their to-do list ahead of time and with the minimum amount of stress. Weekly live office hours via Zoom etc. are also mandatory.
Another false positive of online courses is the use of the discussion forum and it’s perceived use in facilitating collaboration and effective communication. More often than not these are prescribed duties a student must do. Students use it because they are told to. Not out of choice. The template of discussion forums in most CMS platforms are counter-productive in facilitating conversations and communication (step forward Moodle). In our recent courses my co-instructor and I have moved these “discussions” out onto Twitter with hashtags where at least some authentic “outside” conversations may happen. Again, not ideal, as forced communication is never the answer if students really don’t have the inclination to do so and just want that passing grade!

As an Online Learner
If you don’t understand content or instructions as an online learner it is up to you to communicate with the teacher about your situation. Although if the teacher has established an environment where communication is minimal at best; you may not bother and I don’t blame you. Waiting until the last minute before a deadline or not asking clarifying questions and just submitting work is not going to work for anyone. Online learners owe it to themselves to communicate everything and anything that may affect their progression in their course. Again, your questions should be few and far between about instructions and expectations if the teacher has communicated clearly course and module expectations.


Attention to Detail


As an Online Teacher
As an online teacher you need to look for trends and behaviour in your students and pay close attention to anything that may be inhibiting effective online learning. You also need to pay close attention to the structure of your course and assess/reflect on whether the learning journey that the students are taking is the most effective. More detailed and pinpointing exact areas for improvement in feedback to struggling students is, obviously, something that needs to be present.

As an Online Learner
Read, re-read, and read again all deadlines, rubrics, expectations, and instructions that are given along with tasks and assignments. In my experience a lot of dropped marks in assignments are due to certain assessment criteria not being paid attention to. It’s as simple as that. It goes without saying if there’s a syllabus or a course guiding document read that. And then re-read it.


Build Relationships


As an Online Teacher
This is hard and something that doesn’t always happen in online courses. Without fail, though, every time I teach a course I end up talking more often to one or two students on a more personal professional level as they may have similar interests to me or hold a similar role. We start off each course with the students filling out a document detailing what their role is and their interests and anything they would like us to know about them.  This helps us, as teachers, understand where each student is coming from and their professional background. From this we can use this information to give effective feedback and relatable stories throughout the course.

As an Online Learner
If the teacher doesn’t offer anything up about themselves (we make a short video at the start of our course introducing ourselves) look up your teacher online…yeah, that right. I want to know the teacher’s experience and expertise, there’s nothing wrong with that. I did it as a student in the online course I did in December. See what they’re up to on Twitter, if anything. LinkedIn is fair game too. What is their educational history?
Initiate conversations and be personable in any questions you may have to your teacher. They are human too and with the same stresses and life events happening. Demanding something or being overly negative is probably not a healthy start to any online relationship. Constructive criticism is always welcome of course; provide a suggested solution to any problems you may be having. The course I am teaching online recently one of our students suggested putting in anchor links at the top of our feedback document to stop us scrolling forever to find the right module. Done. Works great and I don’t know why we didn’t do it before.




As an Online Teacher
Life has a tendency to suck, everyone knows it. It’s how we deal with those life-sucking moments that affects our accountability towards jobs that we are being paid to do. I was laid up in hospital for a few days whilst I was teaching my online course this year. No biggy, I knew it wasn’t going to affect my feedback timing and I let my co-teacher know that he would have to send out our weekly message and postpone our weekly Skype call.
As an online teacher you have an accountability to all students for them to get the most that they possible can out of the online course you’re teaching. You expect them to let you know of any issues that they may have meeting deadlines and you should hold yourself to the same regard.

As an Online Learner
Life has a tendency to suck, everyone knows it. It’s how we deal with those life-sucking moments that affects our accountability towards courses that we have paid or signed up for or our schools have paid for us to take in order for you to develop professionally. Every year at least one of my online students has something come up in their personal life and every year we front-load our course by acknowledging that life happens and to please keep us in the loop if life is infringing on your ability to meet deadlines.

I’m sure I’ll add to this list as I go along my online learning and teaching journey.

October 27th, 2017 By colingally Categories: Design, MYP

Another year starts and another exciting range of Grade 8 students, each with their own unique learning background, pop up in my class list. To know the students’ backgrounds is to know how to teach.

This year I have a wide spectrum of English language learners in my classes and so I need to ensure I differentiate my instruction and activities so that all my students are supported effectively and can achieve the required learning outcomes to the best of their abilities.

So how did I start this year?

I gave myself and my students two weeks to go through a mini Design Cycle project so that the process and the MYP Design Cycle terminology (and the meaning of the terminology) can sink in and we can all get comfortable with MYP Design.

For new students, returning students, and ESL students this started off with doing the following in order:

  1. Making sure students can create a Design folder in their Google Drive and share it with me. Everything that is created digitally will be in that folder all year.
  2. Students create a Google Slides presentation with 5 things about themselves (as this was how I introduced myself at the start of class). CRITERION A: INQUIRING AND ANALYSING
  3. After the Google Slides activity, students develop some logo ideas about themselves with pencil and paper. I showed them my thoughts on my logo ideas and also some examples of famous logos. CRITERION B: DEVELOPING IDEAS
  4. Use Google Drawing to create a digital version of their chosen logo idea. CRITERION C: CREATING THE SOLUTION
  5. Reflect on the logo in Google Drawing and try to simplify it more with youIDraw app in Google Apps (eg. choose one letter and important shapes). CRITERION D: EVALUATING

In the next class I (re)introduced the Design Cycle and showed which activities from the last lesson were linked to which stage. I then got each nationality to translate each stage into their own language to further develop their understanding of what each stage involves. For a lot of our new students at our school and new students to English this was a moment where they actually started to understand what on earth I was talking about and figuring out what stages were involved in Design class.

I reversed Google Translated everything and it seemed okay!
Finally, I got them to make their own Google Slides presentation of the mini design project by adding their own images/evidence for each stage of the Design Cycle.

Phase 3 ESL Student

Phase 3 ESL Student (Used Thai translated words too)

Phase 2 ESL Student

Lessons I’ve learned from introducing and making MYP Design accessible for all:

  • visuals are essential
  • always accentuate with hand gestures (I feel like I’m playing charades at times)
  • colour coding; always use same colour for each stage of Design Cycle.
  • ask students what words translate into the different mother tongues in the class.
  • observe and mention the familiarities in words between languages (eg. French and English)
  • relate (almost) everything you do in class to core terminologies in MYP (Design)
  • repeat all of the above!
April 19th, 2017 By colingally Categories: Design, Design Thinking

As the stars aligned two things happened a few months ago. Our music  teacher was going to throw out some old musical instruments and Grade 4 were doing a unit on the global impact of consumer choices.

We decided that we would get each Grade 4 class to create a sculpture or piece of art to brighten up our campus grounds repurposing the musical instruments. Going through the steps of the design thinking process allowed for flexibility in creating ideas but also structure. Here’s what we did.


We showed each class the amount of instruments they would have as a class to create something with. We also gave 4 design parameters that the sculpture could incorporate but it was up to the students if they chose to include any of those or not. We also showed a quick video of an artist who created various sculptures with thrash to get the creative mindsets kickstarted.

Empathise and Define

Why would we choose to create a sculpture for our school grounds? Who would benefit from this and why is that important? This wasn’t a sculpture just for each class to enjoy so what must you think about when designing for other people in our campus?


We had each class get their thoughts out on our writable walls and desks to get a thinking about why we were undertaking this activity. When all groups were finished we presented our findings as a class. From this initial thinking the thoughts of our students became a little more refined in what they might want to design.


It was a good first step and the students had some interesting initial thinking about why the project would be worthwhile and who it would benefit.

Ideate, Prototype, Test

We went through all these steps before we even started creating our final product. We wanted each student to come up their own unique idea, present it to the class with why and how they chose their design idea, and then the class would vote on the best idea. It was fitting that they had just finished a unit on governments so they had a chance to put democracy into practise.


As this was project was facilitated between myself and the art teacher we wanted the students to sketch out the musical instruments before putting down their ideas. This would get them to explore the texture and the shape of the instruments and develop an understanding of how they worked and how they could be used in another form.

Then students could sketch out and annotate their designs.


One of the interesting parts of this process was that even when the perceived deadline had passed students were coming up with last minute changes and brand new ideas. One of the winning ideas (the solar system idea) was thought up in a last minute moment of inspiration.

Students then presented their ideas to their classmates with the reasoning behind the idea and how they think they would make it. They then faced some grilling questions from their classmates!


Then came the democratic vote; you could vote twice (once for yourself if you wanted). As teachers this was the hardest to sit through as we had our favourites and, yes, the ones that would be the most achievable with the resources available. As it was, the students voted for ones we felt were probably the strongest ideas. The winning votes were for wind chimes, a new bell system, and a model of the solar system.

So then the building began. There were many things happening at once, mainly painting and manipulating the instruments as the students progressed to ensure they could fit together in its final form.


Some of the projects were more painting orientated than the rest; namely the bell system and the planets. We weren’t overly worried about the students not experiencing dismantling or sawing and drilling as this was the natural progression of their ideas. The wind chime class did have to get the saws and drills out though!

So after a few weeks of creating the final products were revealed and the wind chimes are chiming, the bell replacement system is clanging (sometimes), and the solar system model is educating our guests and fellow students.


Looking back on it, it was stressful at times to give the students control over the direction as we knew our resources were limited somewhat. We made it work and the students enjoyed seeing their final creations around our campus. The solar system was used as a provocation in Grade 4’s later unit on the earth’s position in space, the wind chimes are enjoyed by our visitors to our garden, and the bell replacement system gets rattled every now and again but the bells still ring. Maybe upon reflection the students can amend that design to make it more appealing to use….

November 11th, 2016 By colingally Categories: Creativity, Design, Design Thinking

I started off our design thinking exploration this school year with a Grade 2-8 introductory lesson.

I did the classic straw tower challenge that’s par for the course in any design thinking workshop. There are other variations out there – spaghetti, marshmallows (not recommended). It’s an easily set-up activity and thoroughly engaging for students from elementary school through to middle school.

I decided to film one of the lessons so I could reflect on the design thinking process going forward.

Lessons learned and moving forward

It was a little bit of a stretch to incorporate the “Empathy” stage of design thinking but imagining the poor life of a tennis ball got the students laughing and making sure the tennis ball could rest easy on their tower.

As I move forward I’ve become more aware of the time spent on brainstorming, designing and redesigning, and testing. As this was a time constrained one-off lesson those stages were definitely present (albeit fleetingly) but with larger projects (we are currently in a one month project with Grade 4) there is more time for students to figure out why and how these redesigns are taking place.

Design thinking is a framework. A lot of projects go through this process naturally. As an educator, using the design thinking framework is a way to structure design with an empathetic core (in this day and age taking into account the feelings and needs of other people is only a good thing). With our Grade 4 project, which I will write about when complete, we wanted our students to create outside sculptures for our school. We asked why is that important for our school? Why is it important for visitors? And why is it important for students and teachers? Getting the students to think about real purpose and creating for others (not for themselves) is key.

Mistakes are hard to learn from. Students automatically equate mistakes with failure, failure with sadness, sadness with defeat. We can try as we move forward to develop a positive approach to design failure. Allow time to redesign and remedy mistakes. A lot of student groups changed their design of the straw tower multiple times as the failure was easy to see (the tower was not strong enough to hold the tennis ball). I had a student come up to me in our Grade 4 project right before her presentation to ask if she could change her design. No problem. She won the vote for her class to build her design. So, firstly she felt she had to ask to change her design – we can work on that mentality. And secondly, from watching other presentations she came up with a new and completely different design than her original one.

Constraint is interesting and seems to urge creative solutions. Near the end of rotating through the Grade 2-8 classes I removed the scissors from the materials list and I felt that the design solutions were actually more innovative and effective. The students could not cut straws anymore and were left with one size, that changed the focus to structure rather than dimensions.

The design thinking process has been adopted by some of our classroom teachers in other ways. One of our grade 4 teachers used it in Math where students had to develop a time measuring device. It would be nice for that sort of thinking to develop and not to equate design thinking with…design. Teachers liked the framework when I presented it at the start of the year – even suggesting it could play a part in conflict resolultion. Not everything has to end with a physical product.

It’s early days, both for myself and our school, in exploring design thinking. But the initial suggestions are that it is a very useful framework to encourage creativity, resilience, failure as a positive experience, and reflection.

November 4th, 2015 By colingally Categories: Procrastination

common sense

  1. good sense and sound judgement in practical matters.

German Translation: gesunder menschenverstand. Literally healthy people mind

Chinese Translation: 常识 . Literally Often Knowledge

I was recently researching some social media guidelines for teachers. During my research I came across this overarching statement about how teachers should interact with social media:

Use common sense, professional judgment, and caution.

Use common sense. What a simple instruction. If we knew what common sense was and whether we had it or not!

I would like to delve in to common sense and its place in education. We may not know it but a lot (not all) of the arguments or passionate debates we have in education revolve around the presence or lack of common sense. Somebody at the end of the day may be proved wrong and their common sense questioned.

I would like to think that if you have common sense as an educator you have your students’ and colleagues’ well-being, safety, and overall development at the forefront of all the decisions you make. This in turn develops a deep sense of mutual respect in the educational environment.

So there are some questions we need to ask ourselves first when thinking about common sense. Some of us may be in denial that we may lack common sense. These may help us ponder…

I find myself arguing against everyone’s ideas and decisions. I don’t agree with anyone! Do I lack common sense?
I dare say if you are arguing against everything and everyone you probably lack common sense. I doubt everyone else is the problem.
However if you find yourself in an establishment with rules and regulations made in a bygone era you may find that common sense today may not have been the same as the common sense of 5, 10, 20 or 30 years ago. You may be fighting against a frozen establishment lacking a current and relevant resemblance of common sense if that is the case. Scientific research and new educational methodologies can affect the parameters of common sense.

What if I don’t have common sense?  Do I know if I don’t?
You may not know you don’t (do I?!). If you find that many educators and colleagues agree with most of what you say and do (I do! To my face anyway!); you probably do possess common sense! Congratulations! Or maybe it’s that all your colleagues and people who agree with you are lacking common sense!
That’s unlikely. I think.
Of course life brings debates, discussions, and arguments; that’s natural. Two people with common sense can have a rational and healthy debate with positive outcomes. It’s the skewed ratio of heated arguments and disagreements to effective collaboration and collegiality that you may need to pay attention to.

Am I a bad teacher if I don’t have common sense?
You may not be a bad teacher but you may make ill-informed decisions and have mis-guided opinions that aren’t based on proven research, effective feedback from past experiences, or methodologies that may not stand up to debate with or inspections by your colleagues and the world at large.

Can I have moments where I just lack common sense but the rest of the time I’m good?!
Sure. Stress, fatigue, and multiple distractions can cause a lack of common sense at times. I left home recently without my lunch/keys/wallet  (all of these are accurate). I lacked common sense at that moment. I was fatigued alright?! Most mornings (up until around 7:30) I lack common sense due to me being fatigued. And grumpy.
The first step in battling a lack of common sense is admitting you sometimes lack it. I sometimes postpone major decisions until after 7:30…

How do I level up my common sense ability?
I don’t want to bring up…up bringing….but sometimes you have an innate sense of common sense because of the way in which you grew up. I think that everyone has the opportunity to step back and reassess their common sense track record and be more aware of future behavior.
There are a number of websites out there that plot out how you can start thinking about your common sense levels:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.


In the educational realm, if you want to think about yourself and how you can increase your ability to  think more clearly about your common sense abilities I’ve come up with the following areas to focus on:


You need to be aware of outside factors that may be causing you to mis-align your common sense. As I mentioned before stress and fatigue can totally mess you up. But an awareness of your own preconceptions and bias is very important too.


It’s an old adage but before rationally using sound judgement and good sense you have to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Are your opinions and decisions correct in your eyes just because you, from your perspective, perceive them to be true? It’s also important to think about the context of culture and environment. Perhaps some things don’t make sense due to being outside of the cultural bubble looking in at “strange” behaviors and habits from your perspective. Lack of cultural awareness sometimes results in things being perceived in lacking common sense. But I could go down a whole different path with that discussion..


Know that you might be wrong. Know that you’re not (always) the most important cog in a system. Know that, yes, you can make a difference but input from other people is often times essential in ensuring sound judgement and good sense have played a major part.


Don’t do everything on your own or you’ll just be in a world of you (that’s scary). A world of just you is not reality. Working with others refreshes your mindset, opens you up to different perspectives (see above) and instills a sense of worth in taking on different approaches to your work and thinking.


Question yourself and question others. Don’t take every decision and thought and go with it (I’ve been sitting on this blog post for 6 months now and have just added this part!). In tandem with collaborating you will be questioned and you will, in turn, question yourself. That’s a good thing. I’ve sent this blog post to a couple of people to read over and to see if, in general, it makes sense. Without questioning myself and receiving questions I may never know if I’m making any sense here!


We are always directing our students to reflect on their work. Why? To look back at what they did and did not do well, why they did what they did and how to improve the next time. If we, as educators, don’t look back and reflect on what we have done we will never figure out how to be better educators and to self-assess our common sense. Self-reflection is a great start but getting peer reflection too is invaluable (because your peers are not you and don’t love you as much as you do and won’t be that easy on you). Reflection is probably the most important way we can fine tune our common sense. As we work year after year we have experiences. Some experiences are great and some not so great. Reflecting on all of these experiences may eliminate any lapses of common sense that made some experiences not so great. Even remembering that horrible lesson you taught happened the day after you came back from your root canal is a good thing because you can teach it better next time with hopefully a clearer mind and less pain.

tl;dr Everybody! Let’s be more mindful of common sense!


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