Are teacher preparation programs dangerously irrelevant?

This is in response to a blog post with the same title. The title attracted me I’ve just started work within a teacher preparation program and have some concerns about such programs being irrelevant.

Very briefly, the post reports on a study the interviewed 39 US-based national award winning teachers (part of this project). The aim being to learn about what worked for the top teachers.

31% of the 39 completed a traditional four year teacher certification program. Online 10% (4) of the 39 agreed that their official teacher training was relevant to their current practice.

It appears that these teachers came from a number of fields and that their training in that field influenced their teaching more heavily than teacher training.

I like the post because it adds some evidence to argue against an over-emphasis on standardisation and credentialism of teaching. i.e. if you haven’t done X, Y and Z you can’t be registered as a teacher. Not that is inherently a bad idea, it’s just when it gets taken to extremes…

And I don’t think anyone could argue against the ineffectiveness of traditional professional develop as illustrated by the photo in the original post. But…

Some problems

This study doesn’t really establish causation.

It doesn’t answer, and probably doesn’t aim to answer, questions like:

  • Are these teachers national award winning teachers because of their non-traditional background?
  • Are there other teachers who have non-traditional backgrounds that are not national award winning teachers?
  • Are there non-traditional background teachers who are very bad teachers?
  • Will ignoring traditional teacher training and focusing on non-traditional training create a greater percentage of good teachers?
  • Do teachers with non-traditional backgrounds succeed in the current system because of the nature of the system or some other factors?

The question of purpose

To figure out if something is irrelevant, the question has to be asked “irrelevant for what?”. What’s the purpose of teacher training. The purpose of traditional teacher training may not be to produce the type of teachers who win national awards. I can quite easily see a few educational bureaucrats being quite happy with the relevance of traditional teacher training.

Traditional teacher training certainly has its flaws. As does traditional training for just about every field. Whether or not its irrelevant is probably another type of question.

How to replace the lecture?

Almost 16 years ago I gave my first presentation at an academic conference. It was AusWeb’96 and I was talking to a paper titled “Solving some problems of university education: A case study”. I started out my presentation with “Lectures suck!”.

Some additional encouragement to study
I proceeded to explain why I thought that, especially in my context of a course with 26 students on-campus and 62 off-campus. Including Allen in Cyprus (see the photo).

Fast forward to today and I’m about to take on a course with at least 120 students off-campus, 60 on the campus I’ll be teaching, another 60 at another campus, and yet another 40 or so at another campus. Guess what? There is still an assumption that there will be a 1 hour lecture and 2 hour tutorial for the on-campus students. It is also typical practice to record the lecture (either live during the on-campus lecture or pre-recorded) and make that available to the off-campus students. These off-campus students also get a synchronous online “tutorial” in Wimba.

And this is for a course that seeks to show pre-service teachers about the transformation of learning and teaching made possible by Information and Communication Technologies!!!!

My challenge now is to figure out what (if anything) I can do to move away from what I see as far from terrific modelling of the course message.

My question to you. What good examples have you seen of University courses replacing lectures and tutorials for something different, something better?

A contextual aside

This should not be taken as a criticism of the folk who have taught the case before. The decision about how to teach a course has to be taken within a given context and I’ve yet to see a University context that is truly conducive and encouraging of transformation in learning and teaching. It’s mostly tweaking around the edges.

All of the infrastructure, software, policies and expectations at a university are based around lectures and tutorials. You can’t get fired for giving a lecture. You can annoy an awful lot of students by not meeting their expectations of a lecture.

Which is not a reason to do avoid this, but it is a reason to weigh up the effort required against the other requirements of being an academic and having a family. e.g. 16 years ago when I did the first transformation I was single. I now have a wife and three kids.

Having the time and energy to adopt any transformation is going to be a factor.

Vague current idea

Without any great thought, my current idea is to use a the Moodle book module to create a “learning path” for each week. The path would use a lot of external video, audio and other resources to provide the “content” and use various Moodle (discussion forums, database etc) and external services (Google docs, Twitter etc) to activities. The idea being that all students are able to work through this material when and where they want.

The current scheduled lectures and tutorials would be used for f-t-f and perhaps online opportunities for students to talk with me. Preferably, I’d cancel some of the tutorials and instead invest the time in participating in the course with the students. Interacting with them and responding to their problems, questions and participation.

It’s better at home: One contributor to why ICT integration in schools sucks

I’ve come home early today from my new job within a Faculty of Education at a University. Entirely because the quality of the technology I have at home far exceeds the quality of the technology I have at work. The following suggests that this little anecdote highlights one of the contributing factors as to why the quantity and quality of ICT integration in schools is less than good.

Some consensus?

There seems to be broad consensus that the quantity and quality of the use of Information and Communication Technologies within schools (and I’ll add universities) sucks. Sure, there are some really brilliant work being done by a lot of talented educators, but those contributions form but a very small percentage of the overall education system.

There is also broad consensus that the quantity and quality of ICT integration must significantly improve. The Australian government is apparently spending $2 billion dollars to achieve this, a not insignificant amount. We have to be ready for the digital world.

The wrong end of the stick?

As part of that funding Australia has the Teaching Teachers for the Future project.

aimed at enabling all pre-service teachers at early, middle and senior levels to become proficient in the use of ICT in education

As always there are some good people doing some good work in this project.

But it also seems to be fundamentally flawed.

I’ve heard the rationale for the TTF explained this way:

  • It’s obvious that ICT integration in schools sucks.
  • It’s obvious that new teachers (as well as existing ones) are somewhat sucky at using ICTs.
  • Hence there must be flaws with the preparation new teachers are receiving at University.
  • So, we need to fix this

    by building the ICTE capacity of teacher educators and developing online resources to provide rich professional learning through exemplar packages. The project involves all 39 Australian teacher education institutions.

I don’t deny that there may be some flaws with the preparation new teachers are receiving at University. In fact, I’m likely to create some of those flaws in my new job.

But having a special project with additional funding to create exemplars is not going to create a long term transformation.

Limitations of the school/university environment

One of the reasons it won’t create long-term transformation is that it will do little to change the environment within the institutions. An environment within institutions which is struggling to keep up with what is happening outside.

For example, I’ve just been employed as an academic in an Education faculty. I’ve been employed with a focus on ICT integration. I’ve been employed at a time when the Government is spending $2+ billion dollars on the Digital Education Revolution (including the TTF) and when my new university has a mantra of “digital first” (i.e. when designing learning experiences think about digital experiences first, rather than on-campus etc first).

Given this context, you might expect that the ICT resources provided to academic staff would be designed to engage with the demands of the broader context.

But no, the technology I provide myself at home is better than what is available at work

  • At work I have a Windows Desktop PC with a MOE that includes an out of date version of IE. I can only work with this machine in my office.
  • At home I have a Mac Powerbook with all the latest software and all my papers, data, software etc. It goes with me whenever and where ever I need it. Including to work where I use it instead of the Windows PC.
  • At work I have a network connection for which the Twitter URL shortener ( is blocked. Hence I can’t easily follow all the useful resources my tweeps share.
  • At home I have a network connection that is as fast as the one at work, but without the filtering.
  • At work I make do with 17″ Dell monitors that struggle to output a horizontal resolution of 1200. It’s an ergonomic nightmare when the monitor at your eye level has a worse resolution than your laptop screen below eye level. You either make do with restricted screen space or a cricked neck.
  • At home I have a 24″ Apple Cinema display that will do a horizontal resolution of 1900. Something that makes all the difference when you’re reading and writing papers, websites, blogs etc.

When such a gap exists between what is happening within an educational institution and what is happening outside, it must have ramifications.

If ICT integration is so important, why do I have better tech at home?

Better provided tech or a paradigm shift?

The “solution” to this problem doesn’t necessarily mean that the mean stingy university should give me better technical tools. This might be an indicator of a change in paradigm. Rather than assuming that the university has to provide me with all my technology, perhaps it’s time for the university to work with the technology I already have.

I don’t think that the paradigm shift has happened yet, but the whole BYOT/BYOD movement is starting to be suggested of one likely future.

Either way, there appears to be a gap.

BIM to Moodle 2.x – Step 2

Disclaimer: I started this post in November 2011 and never posted it. It is essentially a development diary for some initial steps in development BIM for Moodle 2.x.

It is probably of almost no value to anyone but me.

Current status: A BIM activity can be added in Moodle 2.x and some of the functionality works, but not all. A fair bit of porting has to occur to ensure BIM uses all the Moodle 2.x APIs.

So I have a version of the old bim code ported to be recognised by Moodle 2.1. I doubt very much that it actually does anything as much of the code still needs to be modified to run properly in the new version of Moodle. That’s the story that the following development journal entry tells.

The first step is, of course, to make sure the changes I’ve made are saved on github these remain unusable, but at least the changes are somewhat safe.

Create a course

With Moodle 2.1 running on my laptop, I need to create a course in which to create bim activities. Easy enough and now to create some friendly users

  • s00[123] – students.
  • t00[123] – teaching staff.

And they are enrolled and all with different roles.

Create a BIM activity

And now to try and create a BIM activity. Turn editing on, add a BIM activity….and error

Coding error detected, it must be fixed by a programmer: Url parameters values can not be arrays!

in the course/modedit.php file.

Time to see if the server is configured to give me all the gory details about errors. Nope. Ahh, that’s better

line 60 of /mod/bim/mod_form.php: call to MoodleQuickForm->addHelpButton()

A quick check reveals the new signature. Some code changes and….

The BIM configuration screen is shown….problems to fix, include

  • Help icons not showing help.
    Problem with new signature usage. Fixed.
  • The Heading is quite large.
    Seems to be out of my hands. Will leave for now.
  • The “About BIM activity” is showing up as “empty” even when data entered, which prevents submission.
    Remove the requirement and use the intro editor

Bugger, that actually works. It is displaying the activity I’ve created. I have commented out all the code in view.php. But that’s still a bit of a win.

At this stage, there is a bunch of code that isn’t even being included in bim when Moodle 2.1 runs it. There is certain to be problems there. The current plan is to slowly uncomment and fix bits of this code. The order will, hopefully, be

  • Coordinator – the teacher role configuring the activity.
  • Marker – at least the subset that can be done without student feeds.
  • Student.


The idea here is to remove the “Yay it works” and get Moodle to run the coordinator code.

  • Update ~/view.php
  • Mmm, the “has_capability” thing isn’t working.
    In the short-term, turn this off and see what the code might do.
  • show_coordinator doesn’t produce any output.
    Ahh, problem in my debugging code. Remove that and it seems to be working. Even the tabs are generated, woot.
  • bim_configuration_screen is generating some errors, probably due to inappropriate headers etc.
    Yes, there was a print_footer where it wasn’t needed. Actually, I can see the need to remove the header stuff from ~/view.php and push it down – as per bim. Initially this has been done. Seems to work.
  • Still using print_string and print_heading in a lot of the code.
    print_heading is deprecated.
  • Each of the tabs in coordinator nav not producing output
    This is because the code is commented out and for each one there is/will be errors.
  • get_all_students (part of manage marking)
    Uses an IN SQL approach that is deprecated.
    This is something common used in a couple of places. Time to fix it. Here’s a one off solution (so I remember)
    list( $usql, $params ) = $DB->get_in_or_equal( $ids );
    $student_details = $DB->get_records_select( "user", 'id ' . $usql, $params );

At this stage, the initial pages for each of the tabs for Coordinator are working. There remains additional work, but time to move onto marker.


  • TO DO – The help icons are not being placed nicely, nor generating the appropriate text.
  • The View/Mark posts links aren’t really looking like tabs
    Add a box around it. Need to make this pretty in the next round.


  • Use of record_exists, doesn’t have array.
  • Remove bim’s simplepie stuff and go to the Moodle default ….all working.


Most of the basic code for bim2 is working, but the capabilities aren’t. i.e. identifying the type of user and sending them to the right function.

Mmm, all are working, but not the coordinator.

Thinking about Moodle course design

Over the next couple of weeks I am going to be responsible for the design of a Moodle course site. This will be the first time in almost 5 years that I’ve been the academic responsible for a course site, the first time in Moodle and in fact the first time in an “LMS” I didn’t design. Add to this my on-going feelings of discomfort about the affordances of Moodle’s course structure (scroll of death etc.) and the observation of some truly ugly Moodle course sites and I feel the need to be further informed.

The following is a collection of sites and resources I’ve gathered to inform my design of the course site. What have I missed? What are the really good resources for Moodle course design?


  • A very recent effort from Mark Drechsler that gives a introduction to the basics concepts of Moodle course design.
  • Some material from the University of Ballarat (which I’ve referenced previously), very basic background.

Avoiding the scroll of death

  • Video showing how to “Make your Moodle course page look like a webpage”.
    This feels like the “workaround” solution to me. It’s a case of using the linking capability of the web and some unexpected aspects of Moodle (if you reduce # of topics to 1, the other topics remain but aren’t visible) to workaround Moodle’s actual supposed structure.

    I believe this “working around” bites you in the rear-end when you go to copy the course for the next offering. The “workaround” links tend to point back to the resources/activities from the last offering, not the current, which leads to all sorts of confusion.

    Another video that uses the same “unexpected aspect” for something a little different.

  • Description and video of a similar, but slightly different approach to improving navigation.
  • The collapsed topics course format is somewhat related and as it happens is installed at USQ.
  • A blog post that combines a bit of design 101 with four Moodle design strategies.
  • A blog post showing some of the alternate course formats.


  • A presentation on best practices for course design.
    The principles include:

    • Don’t use more than 3 font styles per page.
    • Maintain consistency.
    • Don’t use the course page for content.
    • Do use the course page as a launchpad.
    • Don’t be the one doing all the work (I didn’t get this one).
    • Do let the students participate and collaborate.
      Ahh, the problem with the previous point is a site that contains only content and no ability for students to do something on the site.
    • Don’t make folk scroll side to side.
    • Make sure the content fits.
    • Don’t forget about the value of logs??
    • Don’t over do the activity names, keep them short and sweet.
    • Use labels to guide students.
    • Don’t be afraid of white space.
    • Use topic summaries for titles.
    • Don’t force users to scroll and scroll and..
    • Use images to enhance your course.
    • Simplify delivery.
    • Don’t be afraid to branch out???
    • Give your learner’s completion tracking. (a Moodle 2 feature I believe)
      i.e. turn on a Moodle feature for them to “tick off” what they’ve done.
    • Don’t overdo the conditional activities.
      I think the Moodle dailies breaks this one.

Up a level

The following resources take a step back and connect the low-level task of layout the Moodle course site with the broader task of designing the course.

  • Joyce Seitzinger’s Moodle course design: a high-wire act presentation from Moot’NZ.
    Gives a good “best practice” overview of how an institutional environment/process should work with academics working with learning designers (use appropriate word).

    Does have links to some useful resources. Especially the very useful Moodle tool guide.

  • Article in the IRRODL journal title “Universal instructional design principles for Moodle”.


  • Also from this week is an article describing some “cool course design” from the University of Sussex.
    Seems to break the blocks and scroll of death model. Includes pointers to example sites you can login as guest.

    It appears that this is achieved through a new course format called pages. Which I believe means that the local Moodle admins would have to install the course format into Moodle before it would be available. Apparently Moodle 2.3 will have this.

  • The Moodle dailies.
  • A Moodle instance that lets you see three different course formats (social, topics, and weekly) in Moodle.