Light a Candle: Implementing Campfires, Watering Holes, and Caves into Online Learning


For this quarter I share reflections on ISTE Standards for Teachers. The process remains the same, but instead of unpacking the standards for students I explore the teacher context. As with my previous reflections, I use a four-step process to reflect broadly at first and then when the focus is narrowed I go deeper. First, I pose a triggering question; second, I explore various resources and research the topic in an effort to answer my triggering question; third, I integrate suggestions from my DEL cohort; finally, I seek a resolution–at least an attempt. I invite your feedback! Feel free to leave comments or find me on Twitter.

ISTE Standards for Teachers 1: Facilitate and inspire student learning and creativity

The first ISTE Standards for Teachers states, “Teachers use their knowledge of subject matter, teaching and learning, and technology to facilitate experiences that advance student learning, creativity, and innovation in both face-to-face and virtual environments.” This standard encourages teachers to provide robust and appropriate learning activities that promote student-centered learning guided by creativity and innovation. I find the implications from this standards in the higher education context especially intriguing as teachers think about their face-to-face and virtual online environments. There should be focus on bridging online and offline courses so that students get similar, but contextually relevant experiences.


How can teachers use their knowledge of subject matter, teaching and learning, and technology to facilitate experiences that advance student learning, creativity, and innovation in both face-to-face and virtual environments?

Triggering Question

How might we bridge online and offline educational experience and equip teachers to effectively teach in both environments in such a way that, as ISTE 1 promotes, advances student learning, sparks their creative energy, and leads to innovation? Therefore, what strategies and technologies may support teachers transitioning from teaching face-to-face to teaching in an online environment without relying on familiar waning face-to-face strategies that are only repackaged for online context? That is, how might a teacher implement active learning strategies in an online environment instead of repacking a lecture into a one-way asynchronous experience online?

© 2007 Ryan Ingersoll



Thornburg (2007) describes three components of an engaging learning environment. He draws on history of human survival and how tools and strategies used for thousands of years are relevant for learning environments today. The first component is the campfire. This is the place where wisdom is passed down through the art of storytelling imparting and passing along knowledge to the next generation. Students gather  around the “campfire” to learn from a knowledgeable person; usually a teacher, but it can also be one of their student peers. The second component is the watering hole. This is where people gather to connect, share ideas together, brainstorm, and problem solve as they work to understand and contextualize the information shared at the campfire. Finally, the last component is the the cave. Thornburg (2007) writes about the cave’s purpose, “We all have times in learning any subject when we need to internalize that knowledge. For Newton, it may have been under an apple tree. For Moses it was the wilderness” (p. 3). Thornburg articulates these three components as strategies that should be used in the classroom and argues for the implementation of them in online education, not by just replicating what is done in face-to-face settings.

Dixson (2012) discuses research about how to engage learners in online learning environments and what active learning strategies support high levels of engagement. In her research she finds no clear evidence that certain active learning strategies are better than others. However, she finds that requiring students to interact with their peers in the class is crucial to highly engaged learning, “[I]nstructors should consider assignments in which students interact with each other and the content of the course. Instructors need to create not just opportunities for students to interact, but the requirement that they do so” (p. 8). Furthermore, higher engagement is achieved with instructors increase their social presence in the course through multiple channels and are well-balanced in their activity across those channels (p. 8). Dixson summarizes the research writing, “Clearly the path to student engagement…is not about the type of activity/assignment but about multiple ways of creating meaningful communication between students and with their instructor – it’s all about connections” (p. 8).

These two resources provide well-balanced initial approaches to discovering ways to answer my triggering question. Thornburg (2007), in particular, discusses not merely incremental adjustments for the face-to-face to digital transition, but offers a revolutionary approach while still remaining connected to our ancient human history.


At this point I don’t have any concerns about these resources. It would be helpful to have more clear information from Dixson distinguishing active learning strategies that work best, but that is the point–as uncovered by her research. It doesn’t really matter as long as students are well connected to each other and to the instructor. After rereading Thornburg, I realize his three-prong learning environment is just that–about connections with others.


The integration phase consists of discussing the process with my cohort and professors. One cohort member shared her concerns about a fully online masters degree program she went through and that the program itself and the professors didn’t facilitate intentional online community to support students in a way that might be organic with face-to-face residential programs. For example, students may connect with each other before and after class or even during class (especially for those sitting adjacent from each other). Her experience furthered my desire to support intentional online learning environments that promote an experience where students are provided with opportunities to learn and share in community with each other throughout the online class. Thornburg’s three-prong approach to the classroom can support such community and interaction at key points in the learning process. Whereas a mass-produced flexibility at all costs program may lack the structure to support collaboration and community among students. Thus it may result in a less connected classroom experience. This elicits an important question,, what is the point of a classroom of students if there is no intentionality of the cooperative learning?

One of my professors discussed concerns about how to balance the need to push content to students without simply lecturing online. This gets at my question exactly. All too often it is easier  to replicate what is most time efficient in the face-to-face classroom to the online virtual environment without innovative thinking about what is actually needed. The art of a lecture remains a component of Thornburg’s classroom. It is moved to the campfire where the person shares wisdom with everyone. This model allows the lecture to be contained and encourages the idea of using the art of storytelling for the lecture. Furthermore, a campfire is only one piece of Thornburg’s classroom model. You still need the watering hole and the cave. With current video technologies the campfire experience could be quite fun in the online environment. For example, the professor (or other person sharing the wisdom) could make sure a time is set–TED Talk style–so that there is an expectation of an ending and the storyteller knows how to end the story well. Furthermore, it would be interesting is the storyteller encouraged their online students to pay attention to their own environment. For example, could the storyteller ask the student to turn their lights off, dim their computer screen, light a candle (the fire!), mute alerts on their devices, and focus on the story. Maybe the story teller refrains from using a slide deck and encourages students to not take notes (honestly when was the last time you took notes when someone was telling a story at a campfire?).


We don’t need to reinvent the wheel of how to do online education, but in exploring my triggering question I am convinced about the need for us to think intentionally about the stage we set for the online classroom environment. Classrooms in a residential campus are not cheap and are often equipped with furniture, technology, and other features to support student learning. When classrooms are upgraded or remodeled the campus begins a process of trying to understand what the needs are and how to best impact student learning. This was true when my library went through that process a number of years ago. Therefore, we should do the same thing in our online environment. Setting the stage involves  much more than purchasing an LMS and linking to content. We need to encourage teachers, and students, to imagine what their online classroom should be and provide opportunities for that classroom to be created online.

Building a campfire, watering hole, and cave structure can be the first step to building the virtual walls of an online classroom learning environment. The second step, is to invite the teachers and students to use those practices and design content and learning experiences that thrive in such a space.

What thoughts and ideas do you have? Have you experimented with an intentional online learning environment? Your feedback and ideas are welcome!


Dixson, M. D. (2012). Creating effective student engagement in online courses: What do students find engaging?. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(2), 1-13. Retrieved from

Thornburg, D. D. (2007). Campfires in cyberspace: primordial metaphors for learning in the 21st century. Retrieved from

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