Schools as Factories? Alternative Metaphors for Thinking about Digital Age Schooling

metaphorswelivebyIn Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson make a compelling case for the significance of metaphor in our individual and collective lives.  As they note, “Metaphors are powerful mechanisms of the mind.” They are present in almost any sentence that we speak or write, and they help shape what we think, feel, and do.  This is equally true when it comes to schools.  Consider the example of “schools as factories for learning.”  Rows, bells, standards, grades to measure quality (like grades to measure quality in meat or shoes), emphasis upon efficiency and productivity…  This metaphor for school is so pervasive that it is difficult for us to look or think beyond it.  Factory language is widespread, as is factory thinking about schooling.  For a thought-provoking critique of this metaphor, consider reading the article on Metaphors in Education at Teacher’s Mind Resources.

Courtesy of the Illinois Digital Archives -

Courtesy of the Illinois Digital Archives –

Much of this factory metaphor fits into what many refer to as the industrial age model of learning organizations.  As such, it is popular for proponents of new models to describe their ideas in comparison to this past, by talking about post-industrial education.  The problem is that there are limits to identifying one’s ideas by what they are not.  If one seeks to promote change, then it will require new ways of thinking, speaking, and acting.  It will require experimentation with new metaphors and ways of looking at schooling.

As a way to consider alternatives to thinking about schooling, here are some interesting metaphors or perspectives from past as present.  As you have interest, try them out on yourself and with your colleagues.  See how they shape or influence thought and action in new ways. I am not advocating for any one of these right now.  Some may well have even more limitations than the factory metaphor.  Nonetheless, looking at school through a new or different lens might allow us to see things in a new light or to notice new opportunities and possibilities.

  1. Jazz as a Metaphor for Education
  2. Schools as a Learning Commons (a 16th century metaphor for the 21st century)
  3. Schools as Learning Communities
  4. Schools as Networks
  5. Schools as Sites of Translation -From the provided link, the author defines translation as, “to bear, remove, or change from one place or condition to another; to change the form, expression, or mode of expression of, so as to interpret or make tangible…”
  6. Schools as Community Hubs
  7. Schools as Learning Environments – Since there are many different types of environments, this metaphor has a great deal of flexibility, but seems to have connections to the age-old gardening metaphor.
  8. Schools as Open Social Systems
  9. Schools as Change Agents in the Community
  10. Schools as Social Organisms – This one goes back to at least 1932, but it is also a frequent metaphor in Waldorf schools like this one.
  11. Schools as Families
  12. Schools as Learning Ecosystems
  13. Schools as Socialization Agents
  14. Schools as Places for Collaborative Works of Art
  15. School as a Shopping Mall – This one is a bit dated (popularized in the 1980s), but it might still spark some new thoughts.
  16. Schools as Laboratories

Please consider adding additional metaphors and ways of thinking about schooling in the comments.

The Affordances & Limitations of Plagiarism Detection Tools


What do you think about plagiarism detection software?  This is a common question among academics.  It is really a question that begs a conversation that is much broader and deeper than you might first expect.  As with most tools and technologies, there are always both affordances and limitations.  With that in mind, I offer a few thoughts as a way to introduce some to the conversation, and to promote further dialogue among those who are already interested and engaged with the topic.  As I get started, please know that my comments are not directed at any specific plagiarism detection tool. Instead, these are general comments about various plagiarism detection tools, as well as the broader topic of academic dishonesty.


  1. Accountability – Dwight L. Moody is quoted as having said that, “Character is who you are in the dark.”  While this quote has good thumbsupbuttonwisdom in it, the reality is that most of us are a little better behaved when we know that others are watching us. In fact, there is some evidence that even, “the illusion of being watched can make you a better person.” With that in mind, it is likely true that plagiarism detection tools add a measure of accountability. If one knows that the paper will be reviewed with such a tool, it might challenge the person to think twice before intentionally plagiarizing.
  2. Blatant Plagiarism – It catches many cases of extensive and blatant plagiarism, and helps to mitigate against some (but not all) of the services that sell papers.
  3. Improved Writing – Some students and instructors note that using such plagiarism detection services help students develop better writing skills.  This is especially true as some of the services not only check for plagiarism, but also problems with a student’s writing style., for example, boasts of tools that improve writing by facilitating peer review of papers.
  4. Accidental Plagiarism – It is a helpful tool for a student who wants to catch accidental or unintentional plagiarism before submitting a final version to the teacher.  The one downside that some note is that submitting the same paper to the service multiple times can create “false positives.”


  1. False Security – It can give faculty a false sense of security.  Many types of thumbsdownbuttonplagiarism and academic dishonesty are not noticed by the software.  This is not a critique of the tools as much as a critique of over-dependence upon it for things that it can’t or was not designed to do. Many of the following limitations fit into this category.
  2. Metaphors & Stories – Suppose a student takes a story, metaphor, or illustration from a source; but puts it in their own words and fails to cite it.  That will likely not get caught as plagiarism.
  3. Sources out of Reach – There are many sources that are not in the plagiarism detection databases.  There is still a good measure of content that is not digitized or available to check against.This is even more true as learners begin to leverage the vast amount of content available on the web in video and/or audio format (TedTalks, iTunes U, Academic, Academic Earth, Khan Academy, lectures in EdX or Coursera courses, etc.).  Perhaps the student got the idea from a documentary, older paper texts, unpublished works, through interviews, etc.  Again, this is not a critique of the software.  I’m just pointing out that none of these are likely to be detected.  The software can’t be the entire plan to promote academic integrity.
  4. Source Deception – Most of the time, these tools will not pick up what I refer to as “source deception”…getting a general idea from one source, but citing it as coming from another.  Or, it will notice it, but the student has it quoted and cited, so it looks alright.  If you actually looked for the reference in the cited text, you would not find it.  This often happens when the student finds a relevant idea from a non-academic or unacceptable source, so they use it but claim that it came from elsewhere.  Unless the professor looks up every citation, this will usually not get caught.
  5. Many Types of Plagiarism – This is really just an expansion of point #2 above. There are many types of plagiarism and most of these tools target certain types, but not others.  There are several good sources on the web about this, like this article from Valdosta State University that describes five distinct types.


Plagiarism detection tools are helpful, but not adequate.  They do not replace the hard work of cultivating a class culture of academic integrity and honesty.  They do not replace the importance of instructors and students becoming informed about the broad topic of academic integrity, developing a robust vocabulary that allows them to understand the many nuanced forms of academic dishonesty. When used with this in mind, plagiarism detection tools play a helpful supporting role.  Even in these situations, there is more to writing and submitting papers than getting caught.  If we are not careful, we can frame the entire endeavor in the negative and not consider the larger picture of the intended learning experience.  That is why some, like the Composition Program at the University of Louisville, have a carefully constructed a policiy against the use of plagiarism detection software. In the case of the University of Louisville, the authors of the policy support their position with six thought-provoking points.  Whatever your opinion on the matter, this is a subject that warrants ongoing thought, attention, and discussion.  As you have interest, feel free to share a few of your own ideas in a comment, or you are welcome to move the conversation over to Twitter using the hashtag #cheatmooc in anticipation of the following.

You are invited! – If you are reading this before May 5 of 2013, there is still time and room to sign up for a MOOC that I am hosting at on Understanding Academic Cheating on Online Learning Environments. If you are interested, please don’t wait too long to register, as we are capping enrollment at 1000.  There is an online learning focus to the course, but I suspect that anyone interested in academic integrity will find it rich with good resources and conversations.

Silence in the online course: What does it mean and how do you respond?

From my experience as an online learner and online teacher, “silence” in an online course is almost always a sign that something is not right. Quite often, it is the equivalent of sleeping, staring out the window, or now showing up for a face-to-face class.  The following image illustrates some of the possibilities.

Silence in the Online Course

If you are teaching an online course and find that one or more students are silent or not active for an extended period (days or more than a week), then you might want to consider one or more of the following.

Contact Them – This seems obvious, but it first requires that you are monitoring student activity close enough to notice when a student isn’t involved.  That is part a good online instructor’s job.  Once you notice, then it is best to send them an email.  If you don’t hear from them right away, consider using an alternative email or even giving them a phone call.  If they are having technical difficulties, then email may not be a good option.  Use any communication methods that are proper and available to you.

Check With Others in the Class – Perhaps others in the class know the student.  It doesn’t hurt to ask if they have seen or been in contact with the student.  They may be able to help you get in touch.  Of course, do this in a way that is discreet and respects student privacy.

Elicit Help from an Advisor or Other Members of the Support Team – Even after repeated contact efforts, there are times when the student is ignoring you, hiding from you, or not accessible via the communication methods available to you.  In that case, consult with others to try contacting the student on your behalf.  If the student is hiding, upset or embarrassed, then this can be very effective.  It is also important because your school likely has some sort of automatic drop policy if students fail to get started with a course by a certain time or if that are inactive for an expended period.

Check the Roster, Ask the Registrar, or Ask Others Involved with Registering and Dropping Students – Sometimes students drop the course without telling you, and the system keeps their name in the class. That is usually done on purpose (even a feature built into some learning management systems) to keep a record of student activity.  This is important for when the information is necessary for financial aid or other academic appeal purposes.  Whatever the case, it might just be that the student dropped the course.

Try the Emergency Contact – If you have tried to contact the student multiple ways, as well as these other strategies, then there is the chance that something more serious happened to the student.  At this point, it is time to work with the proper school authorities to follow up with an emergency contact listed for the student (check with someone at the school, as there may well be policies and protocols in place for such things).  This may seem extreme, but I’ve had enough situations where there were serious life circumstances, and following up was the right and important thing to do.


Student “silence” in an online course demands prompt and persistent action.  In most instances, simply following up allows you to help the student work through whatever was preventing them from being fully engaged.  Very often, it helps prevent students from performing poorly or dropping the class.  it also gives you one more chance to support, encourage, coach, and mentor students…just what we want to see in an effective online teacher.



A Flipped Classroom Primer

There are a variety of working definitions for the flipped classroom.  Some define it in a functional way.  They might refer to it as having students experience the lecture (or other content) outside of class and using classroom time for deeper learning.  Others define it by highlighting an affordance of the flip.  It might be something like, “Using technology in a way that allows the teacher to spend more time interacting with students instead of lecturing.”  Or, it might be “Using technology in a way that allows the teacher to spend more time addressing individual needs of learners instead of lecturing.”

It can also be valuable to understand the flipped classroom by comparing it to another phrase, blended learning.  For some, blended learning involves replacing some classroom time with other digital learning activities.  Others define blended as simply a mix or blend of face-to-face and digital learning experiences, regardless of whether or not the digital experiences replace or supplement face-to-face learning activities.  Where does the flipped classroom fit with regard to blended learning? I like think of blended learning as the broader term, and the flipped classroom as one way of going about blending.  For a helpful visual example of this, check out the Innosight Institute’s “Classifying K-12 Blended Learning.”

The term flipped classroom has some synonyms.  You may come across journals and blog posts that call it by other names: the inverted classroom, the reverse classroom, or the backwards classroom. In these instances, the name still depends upon one’s understanding of a traditional classroom.  Largely, it is named by what it is not, or how it is different from a traditional classroom where the teacher devotes most of the time presenting content in one form or another.  Of course, many teachers do not spend the majority of time presenting content, but teach using a variety of cooperative, collaborative and project-based formats.  Nonetheless, the very name “flipped” as the opposite of a lecture-based class comes from the history of the term.

The idea of the flip has clearly been around longer than the name “flipped classroom.”  In fact, we can trace the beginnings of the flip back to the time when books and pamphlets were able to be mass-produced and made available to each learner.  As soon as media could be mass-produced, aspects of the flip became possible.  Prior to that, one of the most important roles of the teacher or professor was the dissemination of content in well-chuncked, clear, and understandable ways.  As various forms of media became more readily available (e.g. textbooks. libraries, cassette recorders), new teaching and learning strategies became possible.

With regard to the flip, the history goes back to the turn of the century, with a presentation at the International Conference on College Teaching and Learning entitled “The Classroom Flip: Using Web Course Management Tools to Become a Guide by the Side.”  Note that the title of this presentation actually popularized two phrases.  The first is the “classroom flip.”  The other is the phrase, “guide by the side.”  This is the first instance that I recall reading an article that referenced the teacher as a “guide on the side” and not a “sage on the stage.”  The article highlights a new affordance of the learning management system, allowing the instructor to make classroom lecture materials available to the learners before the start of the face-to-face class session. This allowed the instructor to plan class activities where students applied, analyzed, created, and experimented.  Having the basics down before class, students could engage in deeper and more substantive activities.  Note that this early reference focused on the affordance of taking students to a deeper level of learning.

A second article, published just a year later, focused on yet another afforadance of an inverted or flipped classroom: the ability to customize, differentiate, or meet the individual needs of each learner during the classroom. In, “Inverting the Classroom: A Gateway to Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment”, Lage, Platt & Treglia note that inverting the classroom allows the instructor to move from an industrial model of teaching and learning or a one-size fits all approach (not that they used these same metaphors in the article), to one where the teacher coaches, guides, mentors and helps each learner during the class period.

Only a few years later, between 2004 and 2007, we saw the multimedia revolution on the web.  This is the time period where companies like YouTube, Vimeo, TeacherTube, and Khan’s Academy started.  For the first time in history, people with inexpensive cameras, microphones or other capture devices could quickly create and easily share video with people around the world.  All of this, especially Kahn Academy, served to amplify the possibilities of individual teachers flipping their classroom with video lectures (not that video is required to flip…you can also have a flipped classroom with text-based content).  It is during this same period that we see the open learning and open courseware movements gaining traction, especially in the form of things like iTunes University, and many Universities creating sites where they freely distribute lectures from excellent (or at least willing) instructors.  With these developments over less than a five-year period, the teacher electing to use a flipped classroom model gained the power to leverage pre-existing media from places like Kahn Academy or iTunes University.  Or, they could just as easily create and distribute their own video content, whether it be just for their students, or freely shared on the web.

Given these developments, most any teacher with a laptop and Internet access can flip a class (of course, one is wise to also ensure that students have the necessary technologies).  For those who are interested in designing a flipped classroom by using pre-existing media, there is now a massive collective of resources at your disposal.  Check out my Diigo List as a good place to start.  It includes links to places like YouTube U, iTunes U, Academic Earth, Open Yale Courses, and more. For those who want to design their own video or multimedia, many simple and free options are also available. If you want to do screen sharing or speak over Powerpoints, you might want to try something like Camtasia Studio, Jing, SnagIt, or any number of Android and Ipad apps.  If people want to start with a straightforward video lecture, I often suggest that they try YouTube, especially given that it is free and has a very easy to use video recording tool built right into the web site (no additional software needed).  Once one creates the video content, I often encourage people to try the TedEd site, which has everything that you need to design a flipped lesson (quizzes, checks for understanding, instructions, embedded video, etc.).

Of course, it does help to think about learning experience design as well.  For that, I offer this simple visual below.  It divides the planning into three stages: before class, during class, and after class.  Many times, teachers spend almost all of their planning on the during class stage, but effective flipped classroom designs require one to be just as intentional about planning the before and after class activities.  Note in this visual that you also get three different times to check for student understanding.  You can use quizzes (formal or informal, graded or ungraded), have students reflect upon what they understood or didn’t understand (See this article on recursive teaching practices for formative assessment or checking for understanding ideas), or any number of assessment activities.

Another part of the visual below is Bloom’s taxonomy. The pre-class activities turn into times where learners focus on the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: remembering and understanding.  This is a time to get familiar with the terms, phrases, and concepts.  Too often, teachers with significant content knowledge and professors with graduate degrees spend entire class periods focusing on these lower levels, when what they most have to offer to students is their expertise and guidance in learning to think about the content at a higher level.  This visual shows that the flipped classroom design allows room for classroom activities that focus upon those higher levels of thinking as students explore projects, cases, problems, and questions.  These are often more collaborative, cooperative, student-centered, experimental or experiential activities.  Finally, once the class is over, there is yet a third stage of planning, one where the teacher can design more experiences that require the learner to dig even deeper into the content (or just to review a few basic concepts once more).  This follow-up allows the learners to test out their newly found knowledge and skill away from the class and support of the “guide on the side.”

By the way, you will notice a quote at the top of the three columns in the visual.  Those exist for a simple comparison or illustration. I compare learning new things to dating.  The “before class” stage is like meeting a person of interest for the first time.  That is where you are just trying things out a bit, simply learning about each other. Next, during class, that is like going out on some sort of date, doing something together.  That is where you really get to know each other as you spend time with each other.  Finally, in the “after class” stage, you decide to commit, perhaps in some sort of formal relationship.  That represents the stage when the learner comes to really own the content or the learning, to develop a deeper and more intimate relationship with it.  People don’t just jump to the commitment stage in relationships, and it doesn’t work well when learning new things either.

Ultimately, this simple outline for a flip helps us to design learning experiences that reflect the way that we are wired to relate and learn.

beforeduringafter flip

There you have it.  That is my quick 15-minute primer on the flipped classroom.  I hope that you find it useful.  If you have other resources to suggest or questions, please feel free to send me a quick voice message using the tool on the right of your screen (might not show up on all mobile devices).  Or, consider posting a comment.