Boats or Birds? The challenge of lifelong learning and 13 upcoming MOOCs for educators


I took this picture a couple of weeks ago at a point overlooking Bombay’s Backbay area where the city forms an upturned C in the Arabian Sea. I was just gunning for the fishing boat but when I looked at the picture later, I realized that I’d also caught this bird mid-flight. As I pored over the image, I was struck by the extent to which it represents the challenge of lifelong learning. The ray of light or the illumination through dark clouds is the elusive epiphany we seek through all our professional and personal development activities. It’s not easy to find because there’s a whole ocean of learning waiting for us and not all of it is appropriate or relevant. The decision we must take is whether we want to process that learning as boats or birds. If we choose to be birds, then we audit all that’s out there with a bird’s eye view, ever seeking to widen our horizons without burdening our cognition with depth in a skill or subject. Or we could choose to be fishing boats, finding the best spot before casting our nets and trawling the depths for deeper learning. 

Whether you decide to be a bird or a boat, the lifelong learner is definitely spoilt for choice and stressed for time. I managed to take advantage of a lull on the work front to complete several MOOCs in the last couple of months: MoMA’s Art & Activity, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Assessment & Teaching of 21st Century Skills and ELearning Ecologies. I’m not sure how may of these upcoming ones I’ll be able to participate in fully. They do sound really promising though. 


1. Storytelling for Change from Acumen on NovoEd | Starts September 3, 2014. 

2. Powerful Tools for Teaching and Learning: Digital Storytelling from the University of Houston on Coursera | Starts on September 8, 2014 

Creativity & Problem Solving 

3. Creative Problem Solving from the University of Minnesota on Coursera | Starts September 3, 2014 

Languages & Linguistics 

4. Chinese for beginners from Peaking University on Coursera | Starts September 15, 2014 

5. Corpus Linguistics from Lancaster University | Starts September 29, 2014

6. Shakespeare and his World from the University of Warwick | Starts September 29, 2014

Teaching & Education 

7. The Art of Teaching History from Rice University on Coursera | Starts September 22, 2014

8. Advanced Instructional Strategies in the Virtual Classroom from the University of California on Coursera | Starts September 29, 2014

9. What future for education? from the University of London on Coursera | Starts September 29, 2014

10. Digital Literacies 1 from San Diego State University on Canvas | Starts September 22, 2014 

11. Five Habits of Highly Creative Teachers from Northwest Colorado on Canvas | Starts October 6, 2014


12. Innovation: the key to business success from the University of Leeds on FutureLearn | Starts September 15, 2014 

13. Decision making in a complex and uncertain world from the University of Groningen | Starts September 15, 2014

Happy learning y’all! 

Teachers Teaching Online – a case study of the WizIQ professional development course

I’ve just completed the eLearning Ecologies MOOC on Coursera which analyses digital learning environments through the lens of seven affordances for new or transformative learning: ubiquitous learning, active knowledge making, mutlimodal meaning, recursive feedback, collaborative intelligence, metacognition and differentiated learning. The course asked participants to create a case study on a technology or elearning environment and evaluate it through these seven affordances. I explored the intriguing WizIQ professional development MOOC – Teachers Teaching Online – by Jason R. Levine which leverages the skills of experts particularly from the ELT community to share professional development skills for teachers. Here’s my case study:

Creative writing through a MoMA inspired art activity

Here’s my final project from the Museum of Modern Art’s Art & Activity MOOC. Unfortunately, I got a fairly mediocre score for it in the peer assessment with strange remarks such as activities that require imagination should be done only with children and teenagers. But then MOOC peer feedback is oh so competent and credible. In any case, I’m quite happy with this activity. Chitra Ganesh spent a month in a gallery in South Bombay creating an installation that combines Bombay inspired motifs with science fiction – that’s when I first heard of her. She’s quite a remarkable artist. I chose an older work of her’s from a MoMA gallery in New York. 

  • Subject: Creative writing
  • Target grade level range: Adult learners
  • Theme: Narratives in art
  • Artwork selection: 


6FED-620 35_The_silhouette_returns_detail in18-her-silhouette-returns-detail

  • Artwork title: Her Silhouette Returns
  • Artist: Chitra Ganesh
  • Date: October 1, 2009 – April 5, 2010
  • Materials: Cut paper, colour washes, sequins, glitter and found objects.
  • Activity Description:  What will the students do? What are the goals for the activity and how does the activity connect to the work of art? Students explore feminist iconography in a visual narrative that transgresses conventions in a scaffolded sequence of activities that leads to the creation of a piece of creative writing which is similarly unbounded by norms. Students will be encouraged to analyze and reflect on the artwork through close looking and then imagine and create their own visual narrative by focusing on a less obvious detail/part of the work. Finally, students will transform their visual narrative into writing.  
  • Reflection: What will your students (or participants) create in response to the activity? For example, will they share photographs, drawings, texts, or other documentation? Students will produce a short piece of prose fiction by developing deeper connections with the narratives representing artwork and creating meaning by producing a written narrative.

Briefly describe how your artwork and project theme connects to the overall grade curriculum.  

Art can be a powerful way of overcoming creative blocks in writing, inspiring spontaneity in ideas and originality of expression that transgress conventional styles and themes. Chitra Ganesh’s Her Silhouette Returns is an unconventional, surrealist installation that simultaneously tells multiple stories and stories within stories, and does so in a way that grabs the attention of viewers and engages them in a powerful sensory experience. These are skills that creative writers aspire to in their own work. The artwork is complex and contains a number of pop references (glam rock and kitsch of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and feminist motifs which adult learners will enjoy exploring. Her Silhouette Returns is particularly apt for the context of a creative writing workshop because the artist was originally inspired by literature – The Silhouette in Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ 1980s graphic novel Watchmen. In this work The Silhouette is a superhero who is discriminated against and murdered for coming out as a lesbian. Ganesh herself is interested in “buried narratives which are excluded from the official canon” and the work suggests “links between myth, ritual, and high and low culture as well as connections between countries and continents.” These elements combine to create a rich source of inspiration for creative writers who are learning how to break staid approaches, styles and plots in their writing.

NB: The factual information and quotes in this paragraph are sourced from an Exhibition Press Release by PS1.MoMA; accessed on July 30, 2014.

Describe two activity goals of your assignment and explain how they connect to the work of art.

To analyze less obvious details in the artwork and reflect on how they create narratives within narratives that collectively compose a surreal and complex work.

The artwork contains many strong and startling elements. There is a risk that these will overwhelm students to the detriment of smaller, intriguing details. Since the artist herself is interested in subaltern narratives, the activity’s goal is to encourage close looking at a variety of narratives including those based on smaller, less obvious details in the art work such as the distinctive pattern of eyes or the portal in the wall which reveals what is perhaps an unrelated work on a distant wall.

To imagine the progression of these narratives and create a visual storyboard that can then be transformed into a piece of prose writing.

The artist set out to narrate a number of stories through the artwork with a focus on ‘buried narratives’. The activity aims to help students uncover these buried narratives by visualizing the artist’s process in establishing multiple stories and how they came to be. The process of uncovering buried narratives which is a key element in coming to terms with this artwork, mirrors the process of discovery and development of ideas by writers.

Write clear instructions for how another teacher should lead your activity.

This activity has three phases: 

Phase 1: Close-looking through a memory activity

  • Ask students to look at The Silhouette Returns for 1 minute.
  • Put students in groups of three and ask them to turn around so they have their backs to the artwork.
  • Ask students to share what they remember from the artwork without looking at it.
  • After three minutes, have them look back at the painting and ask the following questions: 
  • – Which elements did everyone in your group remember?
    – Which elements did only one of you remember?
    – Which elements did none of you remember?
    – Why do you think you missed these details?
    – Do you notice more details now? What do you see?

Phase 2: Imagining through a visual narrative

  • Ask students to individually choose a single element or part of the artwork for example, the grass at the bottom, one of the butterflies or the face to the far left. As an optional step, distribute viewfinders if available to enable them to do this.
  • However, the detail they choose should not be something that they remember during the preceding activity. It should be something that they noticed when they looked at the artwork for the second time.
  • Ask students to focus on this one element for 30 seconds.
  • Distribute visual storyboards.


  • Ask students to start with the box on the far right. Without looking at the artwork, try to recreate the detail they were looking at.
  • Now have them to look back at the artwork and ask the following questions:
  • – Do you think your drawing is similar to or different than the original?
    – How does that make you feel?
  • Ask students to focus on their drawing and imagine what happened before this.
  • Get each student to fill in the three frames in the storyboard describing what happened before. 
  • When students have completed their storyboard, have them compare it in pairs.
  • Ask the following questions:

– Were there elements in your partner’s work which strongly reflected the themes and styles of the artwork?
– Were there elements that were dissimilar?  Did you find this unexpected or surprising? Why?

Phase 3: Transforming into a written narrative

  • Ask students to consider each of the frames as milestones in a mini-narrative arc: exposition, rising action, climax and resolution.
  • Give students time to write a paragraph on each of the frames in the storyboard narrating the story. Depending on the profile of the students, you may want to stage this activity with prescribed time limits for each frame/paragraph. Let the students know that the word ‘paragraph’ here is not meant to limit creativity but merely provide some guidance and students should interpret it as they see fit in the context of the story they are creating.
  • When students have finished writing, give them a couple of minutes to go over their work.
  • Now ask students to stick their writing on a blank wall in a manner that replicates the position of the detail in The Silhouette Returns which they used as a prompt.
  • Ask students to read at least three of the stories of their peers.
  • Wrap-up by asking the following questions:

– How close were the stories to your original impressions of the artwork and the narratives you thought it represented?
– Was it constricting or liberating to use a detail from the artwork as a writing prompt? Why?
– How has your perception of The Silhouette Returns changed after reading these stories?


Facilitators can evaluate student work from this activity in two ways:

  • Ask each student to answer this question – How has the installation piece – The Silhouette Returns – influenced your writing in this story?
  • Collect all stories and provide delayed feedback using creative writing rubrics.

Art activities for creating, imagining and connecting

I’ve been attending the stupendously enriching MOOC – Art & Activity from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on Coursera. Here’s a selection of activities I really enjoyed from the course along with my own thoughts on application in ELT, business and other learning environments.

Roy Lichtenstein_girl with ball

Activity: Expand the frame

Materials: Photocopies of a template of the artwork on a sheet of paper such that it has lots of blank space for expansion. Here’s one for Roy Lichtenstein’s Girl with Ball.

Instructions: Ask Ss to observe the the artwork carefully in what MoMA facilitators call ‘close looking’. Give Ss the templates and tell them that you are going to give them an opportunity to co-create the work with the artist by expanding the frame. They should use their imagination to answer the question “what would the artist have drawn if the frame were bigger?”

Variations: Ss focus on the character in the artwork by observing pose, gesture and expression. Then they transfer the character to an alternate setting for example with Lichtenstein’s Girl with Ball, a participant in this activity re-imagine her as a centaur dunking a ball into a basketball hoop.

Application: Creative thinking, visual narration & storyboarding, storytelling, vocabulary, fluency.

Rousseau Sleeping gypsy

Activity: Before & After 

Materials: A visual storyboard with three frames. Frame 1 and 3 are empty and frame 2 has the artwork as in this template.

Instructions: Encourage close looking and sharing of observations about the artwork in pairs. Ask Ss to use the visual storyboard to imagine what happened before and after.

Variations: Ask Ss to add text to each frame in the storyboard.

Application: Tenses, vocabulary, creative thinking, visual narration & storyboarding, storytelling

serra_to lift

Activity: Whip Around

Materials: An artwork

Instructions: Ask Ss to look closely at the artwork and go around the group asking each person to say the first word they think of. The only rule is that there can be no repetition.

Variation: Record the words Ss share and revisit them after closer investigation and discussion around the work.

Application: Icebreaker, vocabulary, review

chagall_i and the village

Activity: Visual Inventory 

Materials: An artwork

Instructions: In pairs, groups or individually, Ss make a list of everything they see in a work of art. The focus here is on description rather than interpretation.

Variation: Provide a printed inventory of words and ask Ss to circle words from the list.

Application: Vocabulary

van gogh_starry night

Activity: Blind Contour 

Materials: A painting, pencils and paper

Instructions: Ask Ss to look at a painting like Van Gogh’s The Starry Night for 30 seconds. They shouldn’t do anything at this point beyond exploring as many details as possible. After 30 seconds, ask them to pick up their pencils and place it on random spot on the paper in front of them. They should now look back at the painting and choose one spot on the painting and let their eyes wander gradually across the artwork from there. As their eyes move, so should their pencil. However, they should keep two rules in mind; they should not look down at the paper and they shouldn’t pick up their pencil. They should continue moving along the same contours as their eye for two minutes until you tell them to stop. Here’s my blind contour based on The Starry Night:

My blind contourDebrief: Ask the following questions:  What do you notice about your drawing? Does it reflect your looking? Did you focus on specific areas? In what ways does your drawing reflect the painting? In which ways is it different? Was it frustrating or liberating that you couldn’t look at your drawing while you were making it?

The rationale for this activity is that by not allowing Ss to look away from the paper, the focus is shifted from the result to the process of looking and ultimately how this influences different ways of looking at the same thing.

Application: Creativity within constraints, observation skills, differences in perspectives

Activity: Memory 

Materials: An artwork

Instructions: Ask Ss to look at the artwork for 30 seconds. Ss then turn around so they have their backs to art work. Ask Ss to share what they saw and recalled from the painting. Ss will soon realize that they need each other to piece together a complete memory of the work. They’ll also realize that they’ve missed out or misremembered certain elements. Now allow Ss to look at the painting again. Do they notice more detail now? Is there anything they didn’t notice when they looked at the painting for the first time?

Application: Teamwork, collaboration, exploring biases and blind spots.

kandinsky_panel for edwin r campbell

Activity: DJ the artwork 

Materials: An artwork, Ss will also need access to music on their phones or mp3 devices.

Instructions: Ask Ss to spend a minute looking at the artwork. They shouldn’t do anything else at this point except exploring it. They should then write down as many adjectives as possible describing what they see. When they’ve finished, ask them to read the list out aloud while looking at the painting.

Then, have them think about what sounds they would associate with each word in the list. For example, for the word chaotic, is it loud or soft; heavy or bold; light or subtle?  Ask Ss to list these words on a piece of paper. Now, have them find a type of music that has something in common with the artwork and the list they have created. Ask them to listen to the track using headphones while they look at the painting again for a minute. When I did this activity, I chose Regina Spektor’s whimsical take on Ne Me Quitte Pas to accompany the Kadinsky work above.

Debrief:  Does the music reflect the mood of the artwork? What is the relationship between what you see and what you hear?

Application: Vocabulary, fluency, observation skills, creating sensory links, multimodal learning


Activity: Everyone’s a critic 

Materials: A selection of artwork posted on your classroom walls or even better facilitate the activity in a gallery; Everyone’s a Critic game handout

Instructions: Divide Ss into groups of three or more. In each group, one person is the Critic and the others are Artists. The Critic chooses a theme from the list of themes provided in the game handout such as ‘freedom’ or ‘illusion’. Then, each artist walks around and selects an artwork that best demonstrates this theme. They then present their arguments to the Critic as to why their choice best fits the theme. The one with the most convincing argument wins.

Application: Observation skills, persuasion and influencing skills, crafting an argument

kirchner_street dresden

Activity: Postcard home 

Materials: Index cards, colouring pencils, regular pencils and of course an artwork!

Instructions: Ask Ss to look closely at the painting. What do they notice. Ask them to consider the setting of this painting. What’s familiar? What’s unusual? Ask them to imagine themselves in this scene. Now, distribute the index cards and have them write a note to a friend on one side describing their surroundings. They can use the following as prompts: What do they see around them? What do they smell? What kinds of sounds do they hear? Where might they go next?

Then, have the Ss flip over the index card and draw one section from the painting that they like. Voila, their postcard’s ready.

Application: This is just a tweaked version of a familiar ELT activity and can be used for grammar, vocabulary development and writing skills.

Postcard home

I can’t wait to try out these activities with my learners. I’ll post the activity I designed for my final project for this course shortly.