Thoughts about the front channel … plus #S7S

While the backchannel is important to me, right now I’m thinking a lot about the front channel.

I’m teaching a course at Arcadia University this semester called Seeking Equity in Connected Learning (ED677). It’s the fifth week and we are making “how-tos” (inspired by CLMOOC this past summer), spent Wednesday night learning how-to look at student work together with my colleague Christina Puntel, and thinking about all of this in the context of this week’s theme “learning in community.”

The front channel I’m thinking about specifically right now is the graduate classroom. Specifically the graduate education classroom. I have things to say about this not only because I’m teaching this semester but because I also just recently went back to school to get my own Masters of Education (I know, I’ve worked in education for a very long time without one … hence my affinity for the backchannel you see :).

The “front” versus the “back” is language influenced in today’s world via networked technologies. The “front” refers to the way that things are done more traditionally and in our current structures and systems. The “backchannel” then is what might be happening via networks, most popularly via social media. For example there are many stories of presentations, lectures or some other sort of one-way communication – take President Obama’s State of the Union speech just recently – and a parallel conversation happening in a networked way in the “backchannel” via #SOTU on twitter (which the WH itself was actively involved in this year just to say). Conversation about the implications of a range of back channels and their relationships to the front – what Ethan Zuckerman refers to as the cute cat theory – on global events such as the Arab Spring’s have been the topic of much debate and conversation over the last few years. The development of the #fergusonsyllabus hashtag is another more recent example of a social media backchannel that was created out of need of educators to have resources to talk to students about tomorrow, much of which is missing from any textbooks more traditionally available today. And then there are much more silly examples like Left Shark which, well, I leave the implications of that to your own opinion!

So the backchannel can be a powerful place … and although it’s not always subverting, it can be a space of agency and participation bringing multiple voices into the mix (used for both good as well as evil along with everything in-between).

The front channel however is often still the locus of power and, in education, the structures we have created around teaching and learning are still the most accessible ones (despite rocketing tuition and the systematic breakdown of public schooling in this country etc etc). Ultimately, still, the front channel is still where sites of accreditation are located and therefore the power and the authority. So that’s why, for example, I went back to get a Masters in Education. And why also I am now trying to really focus on the front for a bit … as well as relationships between the front and the back as Zuckerman suggests … in order to explore true equity in connected learning.

The class that I am teaching is designed in a non-traditional way. It is entirely online (although that to me wasn’t essential; this same design can be used for face to face work too); we don’t use a LMS or any traditional learning management system that are fairly common now at Universities and colleges – instead we use all social tools that the participants in the class sign themselves up for and control their own accounts within; we have a shared ED677 blog where what we blog about is pulled into a aggregate feed; and we use a semi-public Google + community to share things with each other and the larger growing Connected Learning “Network” at Arcadia (the University gives gmail accounts so i asked everyone to enable their G+ and try out those tools too). We also kinda use twitter (still working on that!) The course is designed explicitly to be a “connected course” which you can read more about on our our syllabus.

Besides its design though, my ultimate goal in the class is really to create a peer-based inquiry driven learning environment within a graduate program. This feels essential to me for a few reasons – I really believe that at the core of the shift we are experiencing now in terms of networked communications technologies is a shift in how we think about and organize knowledge. (Many people have said this before such as John Seely Brown if you want to hear more.) And therefore I want my classroom to represent this shift – no one person holds knowledge, we all do. And therefore how much and what we can really learn is dependent on each other. And this is a key fundamental in a connected learning framework too.

Now a couple things are awkward about this. First, we aren’t all that used to being peers in graduate classes. Maybe working together in groups but not being peers alongside a professor and also being peers with wider communities thinking about something together, in this case, connected learning and equity. I realize I was asked to teach the class because I do bring specific knowledge about specific things yet I also don’t know what those participating in the class know. And in an education class – which often will contain a really exciting mix of those who are actively teaching, those who have taught for many many years, and who are just starting to think about teaching – this can be a valuable thing and I, for one, don’t want to miss out.

More awkward than that though are the grades. I am in control of grades. So that puts me in charge and in a different power relationship no matter what I try to create in terms of flatness of power in the room. Now, just to say that at Arcadia I  had the power to make this class pass/fail, but I also know that most of the folks in this class are not in environments where they can just decided to make their classes pass/fail for their students – so I wanted to make our situations parallel. And within this parallel I am asking myself, how can we practice peer-based learning in a traditional classroom environment and what does this support us in thinking about when it comes to connected learning and the equity? That’s still an active question we, and specifically I, am exploring.

The reason these exercises of mine, these inquiries, feel important to me are because I believe that if we don’t shift the ways that we think about knowledge in a classroom – that is in the front channel idea of teacher as all-knower and/or the school or the scripted curriculum as container of knowledge – then we can’t shift how we teach. Until we approach teaching as an act of learning – whether from those we consider peers or from those we consider our students – we can’t actually shift the way that we design our schools. And until we shift the way we design education we can’t actually manifest the ideals of democracy that education has the power to promise. Instead we create systems by which individuals are told to learn what others believe they should learn, never given a chance to actively practice participation and democracy at all. And when we have no practice we have nothing to build upon. And when we do this to each other as adults too – act as if one of us knows more than the rest of us – and specifically as adults learning how to teach in education graduate classes, we never will actually shift any of what we are doing! 

We have to be what we want to see in the world, ultimately. I’m not sure there is another way.

Geez … I realize this is really a long-winded way of saying why learning in community and taking an inquiry stance are so important to me. I have learned this as a member of an inquiry-based peer driven learning network of educators called the National Writing Project, which sometimes in its own backchannel ways has been referred to as a “third space.” And I have learned this from the backchannel of the Internet. So equity, for me, lies in bringing what we know from these backchannels forward into the front. There are many heros to learn from this in this work – Ai Wei Wei being an particularly inspiring one for me right now. And I greatly appreciate all of my amazing networked colleagues and all you all in ED677 for thinking about this and working on these inquiries with me.

The seven things I notice this Sunday? Connected learning (ie “It doesn’t need to be Earth-shattering to be meaningful”) … Connected learning (ie. “Every student has their own unique strengths and interests”) .. Connected learning (ie. “I have had several experiences in working in various communities just in the past week!”) …. Connected learning (ie. a Modge Podge How-to) … Connected learning (ie. high school math teachers sharing) … Connected learning (ie. coaching, learning, teaching and leading) … Connected learning (creation of new blog that works better for its author).

Yay! :)

“To work for peace and justice we begin with the individual practice of love, because it is there…”

“To work for peace and justice we begin with the individual practice of love, because it is there that we can experience firsthand love’s transformative power. Attending to the damaging impact of abuse in many of our childhoods helps us cultivate the mind of love. Abuse is always about lovelessness, and if we grow into our adult years without knowing how to love, how then can we create social movements that will end domination, exploitation, and oppression?”

- from Toward a Worldwide Culture of Love, bell hooks, July 2006

Save Mr. Frog & Ms. Cat: A Mini-Figs remix

While I have a great deal of respect for Scratch as a forum and a platform for visual programming and creation, I haven’t done that much myself in it as a creator. So I figured I would start with a remix during this week of remix and play in ED677 … Here it is: “Save Mr. Frog & Ms. Cat: A Mini-Figs Remix”

Can you save Ms. Cat from going in the water while allowing the Mr. Frog to make it to the pond? It’s kind of tricky! :)

#ilostTheGame … ED677 has been hacked!

It’s true … I lost The Game. (To find out more about The Game watch the beginning of our gathering last night with @chadsansing.)

Here’s the hack: we have been doing Find 5 Fridays (#f5f) but a proposal was put forward to instead do a #Seek6Saturday (or #Search7Sunday even to up the ante) giving us all a bit more time and space for our explorations.

Happy #S6S/#S7S all!



If you ever thought that twitter was just for sharing what you had for breakfast, then you probably never had a twitter chat with Joe Dillon regarding #techquity.

This past Wednesday evening, Joe Dillon – a colleague of mine from the Denver Area Writing Project and instructional technologist for the Aurora Public Schools – visited my ED677 class at Arcadia via Google hangout. I had invited him to come because we are starting to naming equities/inequities in connected learning and teaching and I was interested in the #techquity conversation he had been leading recently via social media:

This was also the first twitter chat that we had done in ED677. And for several of those participating, the first use of twitter at all. But bravely the group dove in … both as readers as well as tweeters. And it was not about breakfast at all. In fact, Joe took us right into a set of deep and important topics regarding the use of new technologies for learning and unpacking equity/inequity.

The design of this chat was based on work by Peter Below re: doubting/believing which has been iterated many times and in many ways by educators over the years. Joe Dillon iterated it once again, posting images of statements drawn from a set of five curated-by-Joe blog posts we had read beforehand, and then asked us to respond with I believe … #techquity or I doubt … #techquity.

For example:

1. Believe and doubt….#techquity
2. Believe and doubt. #techquity
3. Believe and doubt. #techquity
4. Believe and doubt. #techquity
5. Believe and doubt. #techquity
6. Believe and doubt. #techquity (4 minute warning.)

You can see the full transcript of our chat.

I have reflections on this to share since then that cover a range of topics related to this chat …

First, I have been thinking about the topic of #techquity and the form/facilitation of this chat to get underneath these complex systemic issues. I am struck by the power of it actually, not to finish a conversation but to start some …. I noticed this week (and yes, this is the first of my 5 things this week) that the quality of the blog posts by those participating in ED677 have just rocketed forward … I see a lot less abstract ideas and many more personal reflections about self and practice (note added: I actually love abstract - and think it’s important - but also need to get down to it too. So both/and :). And in getting to equity, I think that kind of personal and visceral response and shared reflection is necessary and promising.

I do, however, also feel like I threw everyone in this week … unintentionally? I’m not sure and I’ve been thinking/reflecting about that all week since the chat. I know these topics are big topics and in some ways I know that I do feel like we just have to go at them, together and in community, to make any progress at all. But/and I realize that we are all still new to each other, most of the participants in this class are new to using social tools in this way, and that we haven’t really had much conversation about equity yet. On the other hand, how do you get to underneath these difficult topics unless you just go there – and I mean that content wise as well as technology wise. And as adult learners I think we have to go there with our full selves and as learners and peers. If we don’t how will we ever support youth in grappling with what is hard and challenging about all of this?

I’m reminded of the Buddhist concept of approaching each thing with a beginner’s mind. And if we can do this together, what are the implications? That’s the question I am left with and in the weeks ahead I hope we can reflect on this even more as we move into a focus on our syllabus on inquiry communities, practitioner research and communities of practice (both on and offline).

(That all said … I also probably could have/should have provided a bit more support for jumping in because, as you know if you’ve ever been on a twitter chat, these things are a bit frenetic. Everyone did great though and while I am comfortable with everyone choosing for themselves whether to be a reader or a tweeter or somewhere in-between, whenever the technology and/or the content is new. And I probably also could have made that clear from the get-go … as the authorized teacher of this class, even though I am interested in prompting a peer-based way of working together, I realize I have a certain authority that I need to also accept and address in these kinds of situations. So note to self … and happy to get feedback from those in ED677 about this too.)

That’s my second find this week – both my own learning and checking in as well as how impressed I am by how everyone in the class is making their own decisions and and working through their own questions while also working with each other in these new environments. Kudos all around.

My third find this week has to go to Joe himself. I am impressed by his attention and commitment to this conversation and to his vision of continuing to support it by connecting it to other activities and conversations happening both on and offline. For example, colleagues of his joined us from the Aurora Public Schools and this is clearly an important thread of conversations happening there right now … we were also joined by Kim Douillard, a colleague from the San Diego Area Writing Project who earlier that day we had noticed online working with local colleagues to #createquity. Joe and Kim have in many ways had important impact on my own thinking over time, I always appreciate their shared leadership and insight into these discussions, and I appreciate Joe creating opportunities to bring the pieces together.

My fourth find this week is related to ongoing questions I have about how to continue this discussion about equity in connected learning (ie. #clequity). I saw Selma last night, for example, which just reminds me again how important it is to share powerful stories of change and justice … and before that I spent last weekend at Educon where thought leaders such as Melinda Anderson, Jose Vilson and Rafranz Davis encouraged conversations about privileged voices in education. Melinda Anderson, in particular, struck cords within me related to the value of ethnic studies for all students as well as a demand, as a parent, that the education community do something about the lack of educators of color in the profession in a “Connections” panel on Sunday (note to self: will try to find the livestream or transcript of this).

Then my fifth find has to go to the authors Joe evoked in this “five entries” blog post … as well as all those who continue to write/share and surface the essential questions, tensions and systemic implications of inequality and injustice whether in education or society more generally. A few things I noticed online and bookmarked just this week that relate include:

I am filled with gratitude.


Getting Started: Honoring our Interests and Connecting Online

Welcome to ED677 where we will be seeking equity in connected learning and teaching … and we will start that process by first connecting some of our own!

I am Christina Cantrill and I work for the National Writing Project as an Associate Director of National Programs. I am excited to work with you this semester. My background and experience is based on working alongside writing project educators exploring the implications of digital media on learning and literacy. A few key places to connect to some of that work are NWP Digital Is and Educator Innovator.

What does “connected learning” mean to you? Take a few moments to yourself and jot down some words that you think of when you read that phrase — and then use this Google Doc to share it with the rest of us.

And no worries … There are no wrong answers because whatever it means to you is probably exactly right — there are many ways to connect (both on and offline) and to learn through those connections. This course will be about exploring ways that we can connect and reflecting on the implications for learning and teaching.

Read more about the course via our syllabus. Please also comment on anything you have questions about, or email me those questions directly at

An Overview …

This week we will focus on getting started by getting connected and introducing ourselves to each other. A key piece of connected learning is about being networked to and learning alongside others, whether on or offline. Therefore connecting to each other as  fellow students/colleagues is an important first step; we will also connect with others thinking about Connected Learning here at Arcadia and in the wider world.

As the instructor, I will work to support your learning and connecting by establishing some patterns that you can count on and create from as the semester unfolds. And we will be using a range of online spaces to work in which will allow us to experiment with the affordances of different kinds of spaces, play with different technologies, and connect with a range of different people for different purposes.

Here’s an overview of what you can start to expect:

  1. Each Monday I will post a blog post to kick off the week. This blog will be posted at our ED677 class blog and then I will also cross-post it to our G+ Community and also to our “learning hub” at Arcadia’s Blackboard.
  2. The ED677 class blog will be a shared public space where we can connect to each others’ blogs, find a link to the syllabus and course archives, as well as always find Monday’s post. Please visit this site now and bookmark this link for easy access.
  3. Each week you will responsible to read/watch/consider a set of content that I will post that is related to the themes of the week and with a focus on equity. You are welcome to share new things for us to read/watch/consider too — we want to grow our knowledge together. See this week’s readings/watchings below.
  4. Each week I will prompt you to make something and share it on your blog related also to the theme of the week. You can choose to respond to the prompt I send but you can also decided to respond to something more interesting/relevant to you. See this week’s prompt below.
  5. At the end of every week we all will do a “Find 5 Friday” activity (or “Seek 6 Saturday” or “Seek 7 Sunday”) where we will find 5-6-7 things to share about each others’ work and/or the larger field of Connected Learning related to the themes of the week.
  6. All the while we will be working in and across several online spaces. I ask you to use all of these different spaces and encourage you to think about the different affordances of each one as you go. We will stop every 3rd week to specifically reflect on and discuss this aspect of what we are doing.

That’s the overview of this course, which might, I realize seem somewhat unfamiliar if you haven’t been part of a connected course/experience before. I’m happy to discuss any questions you might have and you can refer to the syllabus to see how this course is assessed and what the expectations are for participation.

This Week …

Honoring our Interests

Connected Learning is an approach that sees learning as interest-driven, peer supported, production-centered and oriented toward powerful outcomes for youth. What then is the role of interests in learning? What does it mean to be interest-driven? And what are the implications for equity in learning? Let’s begin our work together by honoring our own interests this week as we start to get connected.

In preparation for this week’s work, please read/watch and consider the following:

Ito, et al. (2012) Connected Learning Research Report and Agenda

Personal Stories @ Connectedlearning.TV
(watch the ones that seem interesting to you)

Blogs and bloggers to check out
(this is an open and public list … please add any of your own suggestions)

Here is a prompt to respond to on your blog (you may write or use another form of media):

Describe an interest that you had as a young person, whether or not that interest was recognized as learning in school. Write or make something about it that you can share with others … Tell us about what might have piqued this interest. How did you pursue that interest or what did it make you think about? What and who supported you as you dove deeper? In what ways were your interests connected to school, or not? What were the implications?

And don’t forget, Find 5 Friday (#f5f):

By the end of the week/weekend, find 5 things that you appreciate that others have shared. Post links to these things, with a sentence or two about them, so that we can see them too. Note: If you wait until Saturday, find 6 things (#s6s) — If Sunday, find 7 (#s7s). Here is an example from last year.

Get Connected

This course will use a range of online tools for connecting. Here are a few steps to make sure you are connected this week.

G+ Community

We will use a G+ Arcadia Connected Learning Community that is hosted by Arcadia and includes other students/educators who are part of the Connected Learning Certificate Program. This semi-public social space is meant for us to share beyond our class but still within the University.

I created a guide to Connect Via Google + that should help you do this via your Arcadia Gmail account.

Your Blog

We will each also maintain our own blog to share writing and media with the wider public. This week you should create that blog, if you don’t have one already, and connect that blog to our ED677 class blog.

I created a guide for that too: Connect Via Your Blog.


We will also all use Twitter and the shared hashtag #ED677. This week you should create a Twitter handle, if you don’t already have one, and share your new handle with us so that we can find each other.

Here’s are a couple handy guides about getting started with Twitter:

Twitter’s Getting Started with Twitter guide

Hashtags, Twitter Chats and TweetDeck for Education by Sue Waters

Question: Meeting Live Next Week?

Next week, I would like to meet online via Google Hangout, if possible. Please respond to this Doodle Poll and let me know what might be a good day/time for you.


Really excited that you are participating in this course and I am looking forward to learning with all of you. If you have questions you can email me directly at


Featured image attribution: Mural on Chestnut and 7th streets in Philadelphia taken by Jason Murphy via FLICKR cc by 2.0.