Later this morning I will be a member of a Panel on the topic of “Flexible Learning“, at the 2014 BC Distributed Learning Conference. [Updates added after the session.]

We will each be given 3-4 minutes to share our opening remarks, and with those remarks we could have one slide. Here is the slide that I created:

Images credits: The Delta by Evan Leeson Auburn by Gary Sauer-Thompson Acrobaticc! By fa73 Underground by Nikos Koutoulas Compass illustration by Alan Klim leicester map 1610 by zaphad1
Image credits:
The Delta by Evan Leeson, Auburn by Gary Sauer-Thompson
Acrobaticc! By fa73, Underground by Nikos Koutoulas
Compass illustration by Alan Klim, leicester map 1610 by zaphad1

Here is my breakdown of the slide and what I have to say about it.

I’ll both start and finish with Blended Learning. For quite some time, Distributed Learning  was synonymous with Distance Learning. Today the term blended learning is almost a ‘buzz word’ with versions of flipped classrooms and technology integration helping redefine the term. But I think we are only 5-7 years away from the term ‘blended learning’ being obsolete in the same way that the term Distance Learning is now.  Here is an analogy to think about: The move from ‘Distance’ to ‘Distributive’ learning was the switch from having a ‘phone extension chord’ to the cordless phone. The switch from ‘Distributive’ to ‘Blended’ is the switch from a cordless home phone to cell phones. Now, the ubiquitous use of data-rich phones everywhere is similar to the leap we will see.

Blending won’t be something done to classes or students, rather it will be the modus operandi… the way teaching and learning happens. In fact, even ‘distance learning’ could have synchronous ‘face-to-face’ meetings in virtual worlds. It will be an exception to the norm, in a very short while, to have a class that is strictly face-to-face or solely online/asynchronous. (I just joined a MOOC with colleagues, where local cohorts were suggested, just one more place the ‘blending’ is happening.)

For my metaphors on the right side of the image I’m hesitant to over-explain them since it is my hope that the message behind each one of them will resonate with everyone, well beyond my simple examples. So, please only see these as examples, and hopefully come up with your own connections. If you are inspired to do so, share your own examples in the comments, or in your own blog post!

First, I’ll mention that my target audience will be Ministry of Education staff, Administrators (Principals and Vice Principals), and Educators. To me these are all ‘Educational Leaders’, if you are an educator, then by default you are a leader. I think that at times I had more influence over educational change in my school as a teacher leader than I’ve had as an administrator. I share these 3 levels as my target audience and as the primary places where the shift in metaphors can have the greatest impact on student learning.

The metaphors address specific opportunities to create more flexible teaching and learning experiences, where blended learning becomes as invisible as the wireless networks on which the online components of the blend occur.

Streams NOT Silos

Images credits: The Delta by Evan Leeson, Auburn by Gary Sauer-Thompson
Image credits:
The Delta by Evan Leeson, Auburn by Gary Sauer-Thompson

We need to remove a few silos from education. They represent the narrowing and defining of concepts and subjects and outcomes into segregated sections which hinder  flexibility for students and teachers alike.

For teachers, an example of these silos can be ‘units’ which are sometimes treated in isolation of each other: Photosynthesis, animal biology, and weather are all discussed as separate entities, devoid of conversations around ‘Big Ideas’ such as climate change, genetic engineering or endangered species (all of which can have meaningful connections to some overarching Math and Social Studies concepts). Think of these ‘Big Ideas’ as streams that flow across subjects and connect outcomes that would normally stay isolated in ‘subject silos’.

For school leaders, the silos look like departments or single-block timetables, or even the distribution of teacher offices. This list is as small or big as your imagination.

For ministry staff, I fear that he new curriculum has not been daring enough. It has juggled ‘silos’ around. Thankfully the number of required outcomes were reduced, but the K-9 changes look like they were still written within subject silos. (By wonderfully passionate teachers who care deeply that topics within those silos don’t get ‘lost’.)

We need cross-curricular themes that both recommend and invite multiple ‘streams’ across courses and subject areas, so that we don’t have to have our best, most innovative teachers collaborating across subject areas, but grasping at weak relationships that touch on, but don’t delve into concepts in different subject areas. Instead, the entire curriculum needs to be theme-based, interconnected, with ideas ‘flowing’ across subject areas. Then, when teachers do connect and collaborate, they get to share their subject area passions through projects that permit not only flexibility, but also depth.This will allow us to spend time deeply uncovering the curriculum, rather than shallowly covering it.

Scaffolding NOT Standardization

Images credits: Acrobaticc! By fa73, Underground by Nikos Koutoulas
Image credits:
Acrobaticc! By fa73, Underground by Nikos Koutoulas

We are lucky in BC. We don’t live in a standardized US State. That said, we have at the start of the Graduation Program (Grade 10) six out of eight mandatory courses and 3 standardized Provincial exams. And although the exams are only worth 20%, the Fraser Institute uses the results to rank our schools.

To the Ministry of Educaction, I implore you to stop this madness. Think of the BC Education Plan as a shift from ‘school as a track race’, to ‘school as personalized rhythmic gymnastics’. To then share one test result as a primary measure to rank schools is like judging rhythmic gymnastics with stop watches – remnants from the days of ‘school as a track race’. Here are two easy solutions: 1. Get rid of the Provincial Exams. Let portfolios and other more meaningful assessments replace these tests; or, 2. If you must keep them, allow districts to share their results data with you as district-wide data. Districts will still have opportunities to use the data to inform practice and offer support where needed, but then we can say goodbye individual school rankings!

School leaders, stop giving new teachers the hardest loads and most preps. The rights of passage to teaching should be filled with mentorship and collaboration, not the highest number of preps in the school, or the hardest classes. Overwhelming new teachers forces them to teach to the lowest common denominator, to reduce their teaching to using available resources and ‘packaging’ the learning into something manageable… Creating the very teachers you’ll complain about a few years later. Also, in this time of flux, be brave! There are amazing educators that are challenging the status quo, make sure you are leading the charge, providing the support and the scaffolding to make this happen, rather than getting in the way because TTWWADI (That’s The Way We Always Do It)… because things are conveniently standardized.

Educators, how standardized are your courses? How much choice do your students have? Does every student, (no matter what reading skill, English language level, or interest in related topics), get the same lesson, information and support? What can we do to scaffold the learning where it is needed, and to help students build their own scaffolding and explore beyond required outcomes when they are interested in doing so? Learning management systems are valuable, but they can also be standardization traps!

Compass NOT Map

Images credits: Compass illustration by Alan Klim, leicester map 1610 by zaphad1
Image credits:
Compass illustration by Alan Klim, leicester map 1610 by zaphad1

One of my favourite metaphors is ‘Teacher as compass’: “We point in a direction, (not necessarily the direction that the student is going), and we are a reference point or guide to the learning.”

At the Ministry level, one thing that the compass represents is future planning. To paraphrase Mark Hawkes, BC e-Learning Coordinator: ‘We need to move from Classroom learning vs Distributed learning… To just Learning!’ If we agree that we are moving towards ubiquitous blended learning, as suggested many times during this conference, then we need to face the facts that funding of courses for Distributed Learning will have to change and likely merge with classroom funding at some point.

Currently, the funding model in Distributed Learning is the map that we are stuck following. What’s challenging is that policies and laws (not always in that order) change with little notice, and entire programs end up being unsustainable when new rule-following-maps are laid out in front of us. In such a time of change, we need a clear, long term compass direction to help guide our program decision-making.

For Administrators and Educators in Distributed Learning, we need to think of our role as compasses as we move to a future where blended learning is what school looks like. The transition is happening very fast, and we need to be the ones that influence change. Currently, in many cases, blended learning means that the face-to-face component is a more traditional class/lesson. We need to think about what our synchronous meetings with students look like and point the way to other options.

One such way is for us to make our face-to-face experiences events rather than more traditional classes. A few examples:

A writing class gets together once every 6 weeks for ‘poetry cafe’ style readings of their writing (not just poems). Students connect during these times, but continue to connect online, providing feedback to each others’ writing. The face-to-face experiences helps students connect later online. We have a teacher that didn’t only do this, he also had the students connect with art classes and they created a published book of writing and artwork.

A Math class could get together (face-to-face or virtually) to solve messy questions that go beyond the Khan Academy (or Content Connections) algorithm -focused video ‘instructions’.

A photography class meets in park and works on depth of field, or rule of thirds, or composition photos that are later shared online for feedback and critiquing. Students that can’t make it to the park to can still do the assignment on their own.

Chemistry labs can be run with multiple labs happening at once, with students getting credit both for doing the labs and also for being mentors for students that are further behind than them.

These are quite a few creative ways that we, as DL educators, can influence blended experiences in a meaningful way. We can be the compass that helps guide us all on the journey to providing  flexible, engaging blended learning opportunities and experiences.


So how do these metaphors resonate with you?

How can you move from silos to streams, from standardization to scaffolding, and from maps to compasses?


The Flexible Learning Panel:


  • Jan Unwin ~ Superintendent, Graduation, Ministry of Education
  • Verena Roberts ~ Chief Innovation Officer – Consultant, CANeLearn
  • Graham Johnson ~ Teacher, School District #23
  • Bonnie Jeansonne ~ VP of BC Educators of Dist. Learning, FVDES
  • Bruce Hildebrandt ~ Regional Admin., Heritage Christian Online
  • David Truss ~ VP – Open Learning & Inquiry Hub, Coquitlam SD43


  • Kim Hart ~ BCDLAA Executive
  • Gord Holden ~ Immersive Tech. Specialist, Heritage Christian Online
  • Al Mackay-Smith ~ BCDLAA
  • Clint Surry ~ DL Teacher, Developer, D2L Support, SIDES

9 comments on “Flexible Learning Opportunities

  1. One slide: three minutes?

    Clearly you have put enough content onto the slide that you could speak for an hour or more. I find myself nodding along with all of your points and I know that you’ll knock it out of the park. Come on out east and we’ll give you much more than three minutes! 🙂

  2. Dave, this is brilliant use of the short time you have to present. you are helping to move us from fossil fuel education to hybrid and ultimately green energy education!
    Kudos and keep up the great work. Joe.

  3. I really appreciate the away you’ve set up the idea of streams as a vehicle for Teachers “to share their subject area passions through projects that permit not only flexibility, but also depth”. I think it’s so powerful for our learners when we can create these conditions. I too had hoped to see a new curriculum that made these connections more explicit.

    How do you think we can best equip Educators to think and work with a “stream” mentality? How can we share our learning provincially so we can build on one another’s work?

    Thanks for the post!

    1. Great questions Steve!
      I said in a blog post: We aren’t in the ‘teaching business’, rather we are in the ‘learning business’.
      “I think there needs to be a recognition that we aren’t in the ‘teaching business’, rather we are in the ‘learning business’, and if we aren’t constructing a teaching model that supports teachers in their learning then we need to redesign what a teacher’s day looks like!”

      A big part of teacher learning is collaboration time… opportunities for teachers to get together, not on their preps, but during times embedded into their day, to specifically work on cross-curricular and cross-subject/topic connections.

      As for sharing our learning provincially, that’s a great idea! Not sure what the best venue is for that, but would love to see someone start one!

      Thank you for your comment!

  4. Hi Dave – great post. You thoughts about the new ministry curriculum resonate with my concerns. One of the areas that you might want to mention is the lack of planning for class blends. A reality for most of us in public education is a two grade blend, eg. grade 6/7. Some schools are even looking at a 6/7/8 blend to maximize flexibility. No where in the proposed document is there a mention of a plan to teach students in these configurations.
    I hope any future revision will include curriculum structures that support the reality in our classrooms.

    1. Hi James,
      I’ve been in a school where we have had to do things like create 1 Grade 2/3 class and two Grade 3/4 classes and so the idea of scope and sequence really proved challenging, as would a 6/7/8 blend as you described. I think ‘Streams not Silos’ really helps to tackle that. Think of having ‘streams’ over a 3 year span: Pollution, Climate Change, then Population. All three can involve topics across the different subject matters and if those themes are across the school, it wouldn’t matter if a student switched classes after a year or two, or if they came to the school from another school that had not taught the same topics the year before.
      These could be year-long themes, or just a month to 2 months long… Each could involve teacher led inquiry (for example, charting data – with older students using more complex ways to represent their learning) and student led inquiry (where students have developed their own questions, although even in the teacher led charting data example, the data chosen can also be student driven).

      Are you thinking of other ways that the curriculum could support greater flexibility, if so, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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