Developing a Rubric for Assessing the Tools We Use to Teach and Learn

We view our educational environments holistically. When a teacher and student enter a space, whether that space is a physical room or a virtual tool it tends to define their perceptions of possible interactions within that space. Rarely do we critically examine how different kinds of tools shape our collective experiences or conversations.

Consider for a moment the explicit and implicit messages that these spaces are sending to those interacting within them.

Annotated "Standard" Classroom

Active Learning Classroom

This same kind of analysis can be applied to our interactions with virtual spaces and how they interact with our physical environments.

Consider what kinds of questions might be raised by the three “spaces” pictured above:

  • What kind of instruction is most likely to occur in this space?
  • What kind of instruction is the student likely to expect when entering this space?
  • What kind of instruction is the faculty member likely to gravitate toward when confronted with this teaching environment?

Even as available tools have proliferated since the blackboard- projector-desk paradigm, our selection and purchasing of systems have by and large been dominated by the non-instructional parts of the institution. The somewhat predictable result has been a hodgepodge of experimental spaces designed with little regard to the actual teaching modalities that were being attempted there. Couple this with the problem that most teachers, much less students, know little about design and you have a recipe for ineffective sets of tools. Mismatches between modalities and environments inevitably resulted in calls for changing human software through “professional development” in order to adapt the faculty (and students) to new technologies. This is fundamentally backwards. Humans should dictate their technological needs based on their needs and goals; not the other way around. We a tool to help us figure out our tools. The intent of the Teaching Toolset Triangle (T3) is to design that tool.

To simplify the process it is best to break down tools into sets that have similar characteristics. However, note that there is considerable overlap between the three categories and no tool, much less category, clearly sets us on pathways toward a particular pedagogical mode. The intent here is to develop a sophisticated perception of shades of gray, not try to get to black-and-white solutions.

Physical Toolsets What do you need on campus?


  • Conversations – Physical environments allow impromptu and planned conversations to take place with immediate feedback and interaction. At present, they are the best platform for engaging in this kind of activity.
  • Immediacy – Physical environments allow for students to be fully “in-the-moment” at a level more difficult to achieve in virtual environments
  • Human Contact – As Lave and Wenger point out “learning is an integral and inseparable aspect of social practice.” (Lave and Wenger, 1991, p. 31) Physical spaces allow teacher, mentors, and peers to interact on an authentic level that transcends what is possible in virtual environments.
  • Performance – As Shakespeare famously wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” There is an element of theater in all physical interactions that is accentuated when those interactions happen live in the physical world.
Draft Connections between Physical/Proximate Tools and Learning StrategiesPhysical Toolsets and Teaching Strategies

Virtual Toolsets What do you use online?


  • Persistence – Unless they are recorded (and then often put onto “virtual” platforms) human activities in physical environments are ephemeral. Content and interactions situated online are accessible long after the fact. This is a significant advantage to the persistence of digital footprints. Properly configured, this presents the student with the opportunity of reflecting on his or her learning journey.
  • Automation of Processes – Computation can aid and automate processes such as record-keeping and calculation, freeing up instructor time for more creative activities related to teaching and learning.
  • Asynchronicity – The persistence of online content and some activities allow for considerable asychronicity of student activity. This can constitute a significant benefit to those students juggling other responsibilities such as work, family, or athletics. However, there is a cost in the form of isolating the learner who is working at a different time as his or her peers and this can have significant negative impact on the efficacy of Socio-Cultural and Collaborative teaching strategies.

A Special Note on Virtual Toolsets: Like in physical spaces the subliminal messages that virtual spaces send out matter a lot for the type of learning is likely to occur there. Also, like physical spaces, subtle differences in user experience have significantly impacted the experience of both teacher and learner. However, unlike physical spaces, virtual spaces are easily redesigned and often subtle design choices can loom large in the more disconnected world of virtual toolsets. Therefore, the survey makes some generalizations in the name of simplicity. Individual platforms, such as Learning Management Systems and Videoconferencing Systems deserve explore detailed exploration of the biases of a given product toward one form of teaching and learning versus the others. Also, subtle changes in the software can result in significant changes in the user experience, altering the analysis of the systems in questions. Pedagogical questions must be central to the design, selection, and adoption of these tools just as they are with the selection of tables and chairs. Mindful design is even more essential in a fluid, data-driven environment.

Draft connections between virtual/digital tools and learning strategiesConnecting Virtual Toolsets and Teaching Strategies

XR/AR/VR Toolsets True Online Campuses?

XR systems are still in their infancy, especially when it comes to user/instructor developed content. However, like other, similar technologies in the past, these barriers will start to come down and it is possible to envision XR systems that are as easy to customize as Minecraft or a WordPress site. XR systems are starting to offer distinct, high touch, high feel experiences that have the potential to bridge some of the gaps between physical and virtual environments. What follows are some speculative ideas of what is being developed and/or might be possible within the next 5 years using XR technology. It is possible to construct the same mapping of pedagogical strategies onto these toolsets but until practical experience becomes more common these will be difficult to evaluate in the manner of the tools listed earlier in the survey.


  • Adaptability – XR has the potential to be adaptable as any other well-designed digital platform, allowing for the instantaneous modification of environments, to cite just one example.
  • Persistence – Like other digital tools, XR environments can be persistent and easily duplicated once created.
  • Immersion – Like physical spaces, XR environments offer the capability to fully immerse an individual in an activity or environment.
  • Physical/Digital Fusion (AR) – The Augmented Reality subset of XR allows users to overlay a digital footprint over their perceptions of the physical environment like a customizable heads up display on a car.
  • Blend Synchronicity with Asynchronicity – XR environments may blend the immediacy of synchronous interactions with others in the environment with the ability to record or freeze interactions within that environment for asynchronous future analysis and learning.
Speculative draft connections between XR/VR/AR tool and learning strategiesConnecting XR to Teaching Strategies

NEXT: Connecting Toolsets with Instruction – The Teaching Toolset Triangle and Survey

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