Designing Instruction Using Layering Services

I have been writing about layering services for several years. Layering is my effort to create a general umbrella for multiple services that allow an educator/designer to add elements to existing content with the goal of improving learner understanding and retention. The existing content could be a web page, a video (youtube video), a pdf, or a graphic. The elements could include such things as highlights, notes, arrows, questions, and discussion prompts. While what I write tends to be aimed at educators, these services can also be applied by learners. We are all learners and probably are familiar with highlighting and annotating. Layering expands such additions.

I see layering as a way to think about the design of improved flipped classroom video, online learning and studying, digital literacy and content evaluation, and efforts by educators to make greater use of noncommercial content in place of textbooks.

As I have explored more and more services and as more services have been created over the past several years. I have begun categorizing these services. My existing system appears below. I am most interested in Category 1 because this group of services and content would take advantage of the use of existing online web pages and videos in a way that I see as fair to the content creators (preserving copyright and income opportunities) and a way to develop skills relevant to the use of online content outside of the classroom (digital literacy).

Category 1two servers/independent content. My focus in the original edition of this book was focused on this category of content. Examples of this category involve a real time combination of content from a source with added elements layered on this content from a second server. The combination is created when requested in contrast to a stored combination of a source modified in some way. I think the difference I am describing here is important as it addresses a copyright issue and what might be concerns of the authors of the original content. The content creators may intend that their content contain ads or record hits associated with the original web site as a source of income. Content that is captured in some way and then modified to be provided from a different server would not address these concerns. So, in this approach, a request to the server providing the layering service sends a request to the server providing the original content and then adds elements on this content before sending the composite to the learner. The original content creator is credited with hits on the original server and any compensation related to clicks on embedded ads. The layering service may be free or may require payment for the addition of layered elements and other capabilities. Examples of this type of service include:, InsertLearning, Scrible.

Category 2One server, independent purchased content. This category of service provides the opportunity for layering elements and possibly collecting and using information generated by these layered elements making use of commercial content provided by an independent source. As the eventual user, you don’t purchase the original content because the layering service collects the money and then compensates the source. It would be possible to purchase the original content, but then not have access to layering capabilities. The examples I have in mind typically involve digital textbooks. Examples of these layering services include: Glose, Perusall, Kindle/Diigo. I list Kindle in combination with Diigo because many are familiar with Kindle books, but the highlighting and annotating capabilities of a Kindle book can be extended using the capability of Diigo to offload the layered content, organize this content using an outliner, and share this content with others. 

Category 3One company offering both a layering capability and content. In this example, a company that provides digital content and  includes layering capabilities that can be used with this content. An example would be Newsela

Category 4User can upload content to a service providing layering and collaboration capabilities. Examples include Google docs, Edji, Kami, PlayPosit.

Layering Primer

I have written a Primer explaining how layering services can be used to modify existing online content to be more appropriate as an instructional resource. The Primer reviews the elements most commonly available in these services and how they can be applied most productively by both educator and learner. The Primer also includes tutorials for two services appropriate for web pages and two services appropriate for online video. Both paid and free services are considered.

Reviewing this blog for earlier posts tagged with layer identifies a few services should you be interested in descriptions of several other services.

Help Cue

Exploring social media I happened across this post describing a service called ClassroomQ. The idea makes a great deal of sense for the time we are in and the challenges educators must address. The idea is simple, but meets an obvious need. ClassroomQ provides students, say students in a hybrid every other day approach to reduce face to face class size, a way to get the attention of teachers when the students are working at home. The service adds a button that the students click and the service adds the student’s name to a cue. The teacher consults this cue when time allows and the teacher then knows who has been waiting the longest to have an issue addressed.

I decided to see if I could create my own version, but I should say ClassroomQ has a free version and I don’t want to demo my version without giving credit.

I was able to produce an alternative to this service using Google Forms and Sheets. The process was straightforward. Here is a quick version of how I did it. I started in Google Sheets to create a new sheet with three identified columns – name, email, and request (column attribute needs to be set to the type of data collected – text). A menu option in Sheets allows the Sheet to generate a Form. I then opened the form to add an image (the student raising her/his hand) and to make small adjustments in appearance. This form could be made available in multiple ways. As a demonstration, I am providing it as a URL (below). The idea is that you could create a similar setup and offer the URL or an embed code to your students.

The form as displayed for the student looks like this.

The following link shows the entire form.

After the form has been created, I returned to the form and added a column of checkboxes. Adding this after the form allows something in the sheet that is not in the form. The idea is that the teacher would use this form to identify the students who have requested assistance and check off the student when the teacher has responded. Educators probably don’t need student emails so this column may not be required.

Screen record think alouds

Complex cognitive skills such as reading comprehension are an instructional challenge partly because it is difficult to explain what the learner should do when executing the desired skill. Often, learning becomes a trial and error process with someone indicating the success or failure of attempts. The method of reciprocal teaching offered a different approach. In this strategy, the teacher first applies a specific skill related to the desired general skill (comprehension) and thinks aloud while making the effort. With reading, the skills in the original approach were to 1) ask a question, 2) make a prediction, 3) identify a confusion or difficulty, and 4) summarize. The teacher would first read a paragraph and then engage in one of the skills while verbalizing. Students would then try to execute one of the subskills after reading the next paragraph.

This approach can be generalized to other skills and I have often tried to explain how I would apply the approach in a classroom setting. What always came to mind was the teacher standing in front of a group of students with a computer, projector, and white board. Show a portion of content and apply the strategy.

I recently encountered an article from the Reading Teacher with very much the same idea, but executed in a different way. This article proposed that both teachers and students could apply this general strategy, but apply the strategy by making use of a screen capture video program. The author noted that students are spending more time learning from online resources and why not use this same content to develop cognitive skills taking advantage of the opportunity to record the screen and audio while working online.

In thinking about this approach, I can think of several benefits. First, students may not be teaching in face to face settings for a while. Recording such efforts would allow teacher and students to share their efforts to execute a specific skill. Second, use of this approach might be most effectively and efficiently applied with individual students taking advantage of recorded content.

White, A. (2016). Using digital think?alouds to build comprehension of online informational texts. The reading teacher, 69(4), 421-425.

Social reading is a thing

It happened again. I think I have some unique insight and after playing with this unique insight for a year or two I learn that it is not unique at all. I am working on a revision of my book on the instructional and learning opportunities of what I call “layering”. I have been focused on one implementation of layering which involves the educational repurposing of online content (web pages and video). I noticed that there were tools educators could use to design more effective learning content using such existing resources and I have been trying to identify design guidelines classroom educators can use. Then, I discover there were several companies that have found a way to apply similar techniques by working out agreements allowing learners to interact with the content developed by traditional textbook companies. Somewhere in the process of exploring these new businesses I came across the phrase “social reading” and began to consider what this concept might offer as an educational tactic. I bet most of those who read this post have not encountered this notion of social reading, but this type of awareness is what I consider my job. I should have known social reading was a thing, 

As so often seems the case, social reading has historical roots even if these roots do not involve the use of an activity as an instructional approach. Learned folks would quote favorite passages to each other. This brings to mind those who quote scripture so if passage quotation is considered an early form, social reading goes back a long way. A more recent incarnation might be book clubs and you may have participated in this social activity. Academics often engage in a related activity called journal clubs in which folks gather to discuss a recent journal article all have read. A digital version might be represented by a service such as GoodReads [].

The digitization and cloud storage of digital content offers new opportunities for social reading and brings us to the type of thing I now explore. If you are a Kindle user, you may have experienced a very basic component of social reading. If you turn on the feature, the content you read may contain the highlighting (underlining) of the passages most frequently marked by earlier readers of the same book. Amazon offers this feature as a way to allow a type of communication among readers as they share what is most important or interesting. Digitization and cloud storage allow multiple capabilities for annotating and offer the opportunity for both purposeful communication among readers and the designation of just which readers should be involved in this asynchronous communication.

 This is what I think is important. Here is what else this makes me think about. It is the purposeful use of such capabilities that I think offer such great opportunities for thinking and learning – teacher to student, student to student, and student to teacher. I think such opportunities are not widely recognized so I still think my focus has value. I encountered a detailed exploration of social reading dated 2013. I include the citation at the end of this post. I always review the reference section to such works to identify research articles I might read. I found nothing directly related to educational practice. Interestingly, I also found most of the citations identified international authors rather than U.S. scholars. So, there may be some “not invented here” involved in the limited embrace of social reading among the educational authors and researchers I read. 

Social reading is a thing and there are educational opportunities in applying the capabilities of the services and tools for the purpose of developing reading skills and learning from reading. Use the layering tag associated with this post to identify earlier posts on tactics I might now describe as social reading.

Cordón-García, J. A., Alonso-Arévalo, J., Gómez-Díaz, R., & Linder, D. (2013). Social reading: platforms, applications, clouds and tags. Elsevier.

Kahn Academy for teachers

The Kahn Academy has created a summer course for educators. The proceed at your own speed course (what else would you expect from the Kahn Academy) takes you through how the Kahn Academy works, what the teacher does, what the student sees, the principles that guide the full approach, mastery learning, and using analytics to improve instructions. The course is a combination of videos and activities.

I have been a fan since first watching Kahn’s TED talk and assigning his book (One World Schoolhouse) in a class. I was a fan of mastery learning long before Kahn had anything to do with education. As Kahn’s efforts have matured, his content and delivery system have advanced to the point of becoming a bit intimidating. This course is well worth the time if you are interested in using the system with your students.

White House pushes mandatory school opening

Today, I watched the first three panels from a White House event focused on the importance of opening schools in the Fall. Other then the session consisting of the President and wife, I have been unable to locate video of the other sessions for sharing [summary].

Many of the sessions relied on a recent report from the Academy of American Pediatricians which argued that school plays many important functions in the lives of the young and the health risk to children and adolescents is quite small. Given the health benefits of face to face education (activity, food, identification of out of school problems such as abuse, mental health benefits related to being with peers and adults outside of the home) and the terrible educational performance of online education, it was important that the young experience face to face education. 

There is a conflict between optimal academic and social/emotional learning in schools and strict adherence to current physical distancing guidelines. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that schools “space seating/desks at least 6 feet apart when feasible.” In many school settings, 6 feet between students is not feasible without limiting the number of students. Evidence suggests that spacing as close as 3 feet may approach the benefits of 6 feet of space, particularly if students are wearing face coverings and are asymptomatic.

The statement on social distance is similar to the position taken on other guidelines. I would describe this position as “it will be difficult to implement many of the suggestions familiar to most aware of CDC guidelines so take these guidelines as recommendations and not requirements”. The report from the pediatricians acknowledges that it has focused on young people and not the adults (teachers, school personnel, parents, etc.).

Here is the summary of the AAP findings from the NYTimes

Secretary of Education DeVos was part of the first panel of the day and later had more direct contact with Governors.

The issue I have with the presentations made by the WH panels and the AAP is that the positions taken did not involve discussion/interaction with other experts who might have different opinions or represent different populations. I have many questions: Did the short period of learning from home most schools experienced in the Spring represent a fair test of distance education and the role of technology? Certainly, distance education is the means by which many now learn (including many programs for educators) and what about these programs is different from what students experienced in the Spring? Would more schools and educators be able to offer a more productive approach if given more training and time to prepare? My understanding of plans for implementation offers a fuzzy picture of what resources will be available and I know in some situations schools are cutting and not adding human resources I would think would be essential to deal with the new reality (health care experts in schools, mental health experts in schools, additional personnel to handle the added requirement for those who cannot or will not participate in face to face learning).

My expertise is more in considering educational issues, but I also wonder about what seem to be inconsistencies, many recently surfaced, that seem to contradict the AAP position. For example, the notion that the danger of the illness and the spread are not a significant issues for young people. I am seeing reports that the age issue recently has been moving to younger and younger individuals. For example, this from Edina, MN, as reported in the Minneapolis Star Tribune [I live near the boundary between Richfield and Edina].

So far in Edina, the city has reported 35 COVID-19 deaths and 393 cases, including 98 cases involving people 19 and younger. Edina is unusual in that children and teenagers make up its largest age block of COVID-19 cases.

Another recent medical issue concerns the distinction between the danger of spread via droplets vs aerosol. The concern regarding aerosolized transmission has implications for the danger of spending extended time in a confined area and the importance of air circulation which may be inadequate in many school classrooms. [Scientific American]

I simply don’t like the President, Secretary of Education, and Governors making demands that are tied to financial incentives for schools. While these are difficult decisions and the AAP did take a definitive position, there are other categories of experts with different perspectives that need to be considered. I am not yet convinced that a model that rotates students between Face to Face and online instruction does not make the most sense and would be the best solution when it comes to the health of all concerned. Political pressure can be exerted on different entities and educators make a target that is simply too convenient.

As always, I encourage your review of the sources I have summarized to reach your own conclusions.