Unlocking the Potential of Online Learning Spaces: Interview with Clarence Fisher

September 11th, 2013 No Comments Features

clarens fisher

Our featured educator this week is Clarence Fisher, a fulltime teacher residing in a rural community.

Even from Here is a reflection of his belief that geography is irrelevant on our hyper connected globe, and aims to paint a picture of what a truly connected class could look like. When he’s not teaching, Fisher writes articles, gives presentations and immerses himself in new possibilities for learning.

He also likes to get involved with research to improve what happens in classes and is currently involved with efforts to redefine literacy and what it means to be literate in this twenty-first century, technologically advanced society.

He has won a number awards for his outstanding teaching and innovative integration of technology into everyday learning, including the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching. His class has been featured in Technology and Learning, CBC, CNET, MSN and the brand new book New Literacies in Action. 

As someone who is so involved in combining online technologies with the traditional learning environment, Fisher views online learning as a way to combat social injustices.

“I have been involved in a number of learning communities of different types. Some of these have been focused on teachers, while others have been with students,” he says.

“It is impossible to deny the power and potential of online learning communities. I live in a community of approximately 1000 people; a small, isolated place. Yet, because of the technology we have, I am connected as a professional with others all around the world.

The same is true of the students in my class. Over the years, we have had opportunities to work with students from across Canada and around the world. I am growing more interested in the potential of online learning spaces to combat social justice issues. How can we bring education, learning and information to people and places who would otherwise not have access?

I believe that we are still early in our understanding of how to do these things best and still have a lot to learn about creating effective spaces.”

One of the central topics of Fisher’s blog is online communities for learning, and he points out that these online spaces give learners the opportunity to connect with likeminded people anywhere, at any time. However, he also cautions that not all learning platforms and software packages are the same or equal, so it’s important to choose carefully.

“Online communities can take many different forms and look different depending on the people involved and the goals for that community. Such tools must be chosen carefully to match the goals that you have in mind.

Online communities extend the spaces, places and times that learning can happen in. In the past, school lasted from 9 – 3:30. Now, kids can be anywhere and can connect with people at any time.

As well, online communities give learners the opportunity to connect around topics they are passionate about. Living in a small place, myself and my students have the option to find others around the world who are interested in the same things that we are, no matter how obscure the topics are.”

Fisher’s own community, which started out quite some years ago, when blogging in class was still a novelty, is known as “The Idea Hive,” and has always been about connecting students with the outside world and giving them the opportunity to have their ideas and voices heard.

“We started off as one of the original classes in the world that was blogging and the idea Hive is what we called ourselves,” says Fisher.

“Over the years, The Idea Hive has been a space that has connected with students around the world. We have worked with students in large cities such as Los Angeles, Bangkok and Shanghai as well as students in communities even smaller than our own. We’ve worked with architects in Chicago and nurses in Botswana.”

Fisher shares that his experiences with The Idea Hive have taught him and his students many lessons about creating effective online learning spaces. However, one of the most important things he believes it has taught them is that no matter where you live around the world, there are always positives and negatives to living there.

“We were working with a class in Los Angeles one time and the kids in my small, isolated community felt they were at a distinct disadvantage to these kids from the big city,” he says.

“However, as the conversations continued, the students from LA were amazed that we have a beach and a lake right in the centre of our community; that we can go fishing practically anytime and that the kids here can ride their bikes with their friends whenever they want.

Their lives in LA were very different from ours and it took some time for my students to see that they have something that others found value in. It was a good lesson for them to learn.”

As a teacher, Fisher has been utilizing online learning spaces since the early 2000s, and comments that he has seen countless advances in the capabilities of such spaces online over the past 8 or 9 years.

“Think of the web without YouTube, without Skype, without Google Docs, blogs or Twitter. This is where I started working online with students,” he says.

“Once I did start making some connections online, one of our original projects was called International Teen Life. We brought kids together from North and South America as well as Asia to examine the significant issues that teens in their nations had.

It was an amazing and empowering experience, but a tremendous amount of work. We used wikis mostly, we ftp’d video files back and forth and found other platforms to bring us together. There were few synchronous tools for us to use.

We set out to prove that 13-year-old students from around the globe could connect with each other using free online tools for creative purposes. We succeeded, but it was a struggle.

Tools now work together in much better ways allowing people to move information quickly, cheaply and easily around the globe. Simple things like embed codes make a dramatic difference in what is possible.

I’m a big supporter of open source tools and the control that they give teachers and learners over the capabilities and design of their spaces. A few tech skills can go a long way to helping people take control over the environments they create.”

Alongside his belief that the integration of technology into education can transform teaching and learning, Fisher remains aware of the limitations and downsides of new technologies.

“As an advocate of technology in education, I am always both worried and fascinated by what I call either the “shiny gadget syndrome” or the “app trap.” One way or another, both of these things speak to the fact that you cannot buy change.

You can buy all of the technology you want, but unless people are motivated to use it and to look reflectively and deeply at how they are teaching and what their goals are for the students, you might as well save your budget dollars.

I am also growing increasingly concerned over issues of online privacy. I have always been concerned with online safety, but, after the revelations we have had this summer over the tracking of what we are doing online by a number of governments, I believe that the tools that we are using need to come under increasing scrutiny.

This moves beyond ease of use and budget issues to now include ideas of morality. This once again speaks to choosing tools that are open source that we have control over and which allow us to control the information that our students are creating.”

Fisher also believes that educators should ask themselves the question; “Are we using technology to change teaching, or to enhance learning?” He points out that not all technology is transformative or has the ability to change the possibilities for learning.

“This is an idea that I am beginning to think more about,” he says. “Who is the technology for? There are many apps and platforms that allow us to track information about our students and micro manage the presentation of individual discrete skills. Do these things enhance learning?

I would argue that they might allow us more control over smaller bits of what our students are seeing and the content they are presented with, but it is not technology that is transformative. It is not changing what is possible in learning.

Apps that are simply making decisions to present students with a certain math question based on whether they have answered correctly or incorrectly the previous five math questions are not doing anything to connect students globally, or to present them with another side of an issue or allow them access to content that they couldn’t have without that tool.

Some technologies are transformative; they change the possibilities for learning. Some of the most powerful are ones we have had for a while: blogs, wikis, and Skype, for example, completely change what is possible. An app that presents a student with a math question on the other hand isn’t doing much to change how we learn.”

When it comes to tracking and managing what students are learning in an online community, he believes that it is important for educators to strike the right balance between supervision and trust.

“The most basic premise in online communities is about building trust. We must supervise our students in online communities, gradually releasing control to them over the space. Now, this happens in a number of ways, over time and is dependent on many different factors such as the age of the students.

As a teacher, you cannot simply set your students loose in online spaces. We must take on many different roles: teacher, mentor, disciplinarian, community member for example. We must be active in these spaces just as they are.

Doing these things will allow us to notice things; to track the progress of a student’s writing and assess their ability to handle conflict or dig deeply into a topic.

Working in an online community is not a sidebar to their main learning if you want it to be successful. It takes time, energy and a lot of work for students to be successful in these spaces.”

To share his expertise on utilizing online communities to enhance learning, Fisher has created a short guide to online communities for educators, which aims to guide others through the process of creating online learning spaces.

One of his main pieces of advice for educators looking to create online learning spaces similar to his own, is to capitalize on the tech skills that students already have.

“Some of the most powerful communities I’ve seen for students are communities outside of schools. Examples include such things as wikis surrounding a video game, or a fan fiction writing site or students taking and posting photos online.

There are thousands of these sites that are created, controlled and curated by young people. I think that educators should be aware that some students are already doing these things and that we can capitalize on the skills that these students have. We can use them as mentors and teachers.

For teachers, I would advise people to move quickly, but to plan carefully. What are the goals for your community? Why do you want to start one? What are your plans to support it?

As I mentioned earlier, not all software packages and platforms are equal. Decide what you want and need and then build up from that starting point.”


Marianne Stenger is a London-based freelance writer and journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. She’s particularly interested in the psychology of learning and how technology is changing the way we learn. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneStenger.

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