Gideon Williams

Blank Canvas.... Thoughts about getting started

Blog Post created by Gideon Williams Champion on Apr 12, 2018

This post comes from a Discussion created by Steve Burholt asking for ways to engage Academic staff when introducing Canvas (Welcome by the way Steve!) and the subsequent hour I spent looking though the amazing replies to it and links to further posts. I particularly enjoyed reading this great post by Bobby Pedersen called Horse Before the Cart. Purpose first, Canvas second. and all the comments on it. As an aside, this is without doubt the best thing in Canvas - the Community!


The post discussed the importance of placing learning first and not getting star struck by the tech. Care is always needed by anyone with a strategic role in developing digital learning to keep the evangelism in check!


Whilst I agree with comments by Bobby Pedersen and Kelley L. Meeusen , I have to confess to falling into the "This is what this tech can do for you" or with "You can do this with this tech" on more than one occasion (the digital zealot in me!) and will probably do so in future. It is sometimes very hard with such fantastic tools around.


The approach headlined by Bobby (and others) of having a discussion with that member of staff, asking questions about current practice, listening to their answers and giving them ownership of potential change is critical in establishing effective and long lasting foundations. It is important to appreciate that no two departments/faculties are the same as regards their aspirations and the digital confidence/competence of those staff working within. It therefore vital to give staff a flexible framework to work to rather than imposing a one size fits all approach.


This presents huge challenges for the person co-ordinating the process and Kona Jones great response in the above post highlighted situations that are all too familiar to those leading and implementing a new approach.


After just over a year of Canvas in our school, here are a few of my thoughts about implementing a new learning platform and managing change... Please be aware this is done in a K12 background.


Look for quick wins. For us it was the simple fact that we now had resources accessible outside of the school day. Identify champions in each subject/faculty area and develop a team around you. This can have two major positive impacts. (1) It removes you from the centre of the stage and helps prevent that top down approach to delivery with all the associated negative connotations. (2) It empowers individuals (in their own subject areas) who otherwise may not have a voice/responsibility/standing (in the more traditional sense)


Share, promote, communicate, praise, engage, encourage the successes of staff at any level. Its is often too easy to forget the teacher who has taken a major step forward by simply by introducing a PowerPoint presentation to their lesson for the more technically confident teacher that is trying out rubrics and mastery paths! We use weekly Staff Shout Outs and in other schools I have heard of ABCDs (Above and Beyond the Call of Duty!)


Get people talking. We did TeachEat Tuesdays in the first year of our launch - encouraging teachers to come along during a lunchtime to share what they have done with others. Almost every talk began with a statement familiar to all of us when teachers talk about their practice, "I don't know if this is any good..." Invariably what staff then witnessed was pretty fantastic because it was owned by the teacher, had been introduced because it was something they had invested time in and by carrying on using it, was clearly having more impact than what was in place previously.


Creative Support/Training. Finding a place for digital learning amongst a very congested and often fast changing education world continues to be a challenge. Try to move away from the traditional model of the whole school Training Day. Whilst having a day to yourself may sound like the stuff of dreams, it can quickly become a forgotten occasion without effective follow up and review. Although good work may take place during that day, it is almost impossible to replicate during the rest of the year when normal practice resumes. As such, it is often very difficult to form solid foundations to allow you to move forward. In my role,  I am very fortunate to have a significantly reduced teaching timetable that allows me to work with different subject areas on a day by day basis. This is what I do. I contact departments in advance asking them what day they would like me to work with them and what areas I can work on. I then go to the department work room and spend my time there. Teachers drop in during their non contact time either for some 1-1, small group training or to leave me tasks to work on and then share with them later. We have an Edtech 101 course where all staff are enrolled as students. The course, contains worked examples of features as well as step by step help guides, videos and notices on updates/ new features.


The Kobayashi Maru Effect. Years ago in a different school with a different platform, I remember asking staff what one thing would make the biggest change to successfully implement a learning platform and moving to a more blended approach. The overwhelming response was not greater financial rewards but more time. There is nothing more disheartening that talking to colleagues in other schools with similar roles to my own and hearing they are expected to perform the same job with a couple of extra non contact periods on top of an existing teaching commitment. The Kobayashi Maru, as all Star Trek fans know, is a simulation that cadets take part in that has a "no win" scenario. Candidates know this before they embark on the challenge. If you are going to appoint someone to manage your new learning platform then the least you can do is create conditions that are as favourable as possible right from the start. 


"The only thing I know is that I know nothing".  Good to agree with Socrates (allegedly) on this. Much of what I have learned about digital platforms I have learned from others. My background is not Computing/IT but Science. My technical know-how comes a distant second to that of my 17yr old son. It worries me that the implementation of a learning platform can still be seen either as technical task and left to/managed by technical support outside of the classroom or aligned to a particular teaching role/subject. A quick scan of the Time Education Supplement at jobs will often have digital strategy roles linked to the management of IT/Computing departments. The role has to be seen as (a). A co-ordinating role that involves the whole school and (b). A role where pedagogy is put first (This might be a bit controversial!)


Professional Development Targets. Try if you can to get your leadership team to commit to a whole school target linked to digital learning. Works best if the target is aligned to your digital strategy. Personal targets for staff are fine but can be difficult to work with given natures of confidentiality and line management structures. What can be more effective is asking departments/faculties to commit to a development plan. This is often an easier way in to support and share good practice. It is also less threatening and can have a greater impact in terms of consistency of approach and change. Lets also not forget that it is also a confirmation/promise to embrace changes and one that can help when the time comes to review.


Next Stepping Stones. I looked through the amazing Kung Fu Canvas course and marvelled at the work that has gone into that - it is awesome. What I particularly liked was the differentiated approach taken. It is so important that a new learning platform is not applied in broad sweeping brushstrokes all of the same colour and depth (awful metaphor). Individuals/Departments need to find their own path through the changes and be confident taking those steps. Having a flexible framework/training resource such as this that is fully aligned with pedagogy is absolutely critical. I have used a few resources to help in this regard. There is the Canvas Tool Guide for Teachers which was adapted from Moodle and this pyramid model which was posted for a different learning platform which I rather like:

What is good about this is that it ties aspects of pedagogy to Canvas resources and provides opportunities for development both for staff and departments (I hope its not too cart before horse?). I used this when working with departments and trying to get an understanding of where they felt they could make the best use of Canvas in their area. Although it was not as successful as I had hoped  (my own shortcomings) the idea would be that different departments would decide what Level would best support their current practice and use this as a guide when setting targets. The plan would be that for the next year, they would aim to move up the ladder. We would make the levels transparent across different faculties. My thinking behind this was primarily to  encourage different subject areas to have discussions about digital/blended teaching and learning without subject specific content getting in the way! 


Who's got your back? Finally, none of this is as effective without Senior Leadership support and understanding. We are not talking about having a tech savvy Principal/Headteacher/Deputy but someone that can see benefits in blended learning and provides you with the mandate to carry on your role with their backing during the more challenging times. I have been hugely fortunate to have had this right throughout my career and it makes a massive difference.


I've not actually talked about the role of parents and students in any of this. Important that they are not left out. Regular communication to parents is essential. Be honest, be transparent and base your discussions about the positive impacts this will bring to their child. Bring students with you on your journey. Engage them in the process, get regular feedback. Encourage students to contribute ideas. Get students creating resources!