Learning Design: Assignments, Length, and Tasty Theory

How to Design a Learning Experience that Works

Jim Groom is the wizard behind the curtain at ds106, or Digital Storytelling 106–widely known as one of the most vibrant and successful learning communities on the internet. We decided to ask him about how he designs for learning. In this chat, we tackle the following questions:

  • What were the design principles behind your course?
  • How do you develop content for an open online course?
  • How do you motivate learners in order to sustain their interest?

Learning Design: Motivation, Play and Styles

When Did Learning Get so Boring? Remember playing with Legos as a kid? You were probably relaxed, curious, and not particulary focused on what the final outcome might look like. You might have built a little bit, then decided what was working and what wasn’t, abandoned some bits, kept others and perhaps lost track of time in the process.

At P2PU we strive to create learning experiences that are like playing with Legos. When we don’t feel the pressure of time, of outcomes, of what other people are doing or of what the “right” answer is, we are able to imagine what’s possible and follow our passions.

For every learning module, consider the following design principles:

Playful projects.

How could someone make a project where they fiddle, tinker and lose themselves in it? Open-ended projects and thematic prompts help learners find their own paths and ideas. These types of assignments nurture “flow”, where learners become completely engaged and intrinsically motivated to work on an activity.

Design for all senses.

We recall information best when it engages several of our senses. Take, for example, the abstract concept of “social stratification.” How else could someone learn this concept, and even further, display that they understand the concept? They might

  • display census data on a map
  • interview 5 people in a certain radius and share the interviews on a website
  • create a video documentary about grocery stores in an area
  • create a time lapse photography about the gentrification of a neighborhood

Low floors, wide walls.

We recommend activities that can work for both beginner and advanced learners. Activities of this type have few barriers to entry ( and make use of easy-to-use tools like Googledocs or Twitter) but are flexible enough to allow advanced folks to add layers of more complex elements. That way beginners can learn from the projects of advanced learners, and more advanced students are still challenged by the project. For example, say an assignment is to create a manifesto. Both novice and experienced writers can articulate their beliefs and share core values. Experienced writers could take it further with persuasive techniques or speech writing.

Focus on themes.

Instead of encouraging learners to compete to solve a problem, select a thematic focus for a project. Instead of working deductively towards a “correct” solution, learners are free to follow their personal passions. The Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia is a formal learning setting which anchors each year with a theme: identity, systems, change and creation. The assignments learners undertake map onto those themes and prompt learners to create their own understanding of the concepts.

###Inspire with diverse examples. Showcasing a range of work inspires learners to imagine what’s possible (as opposed to what’s correct). At the same time, an array of different projects models inclusivity, builds a broad community of learners. For instance, the homepage for the 3-D printing community Shapeways features projects that range from an egg-cup to accessories to bling out your Google Glass.


Play With Your Music

For Play With Your Music an online music remixing course, learners were prompted to select their favorite song and write down where they heard the various instruments in space. From there, they created a graph to visually show where they perceived the instruments and sounds in the song.

Image of Play With Your Music project

At the same time, we didn’t want learners to feel constrained by the structure of the activity. If learners wanted to try another tool, we welcomed that creativity:

As you might have guessed, we encourage you to be creative in this course. If you find our Perceived Space Graph Template limiting, feel free to use your imagination and develop a different template than the one shared in Step 2, above. Some people prefer to work with pens, markers, and paper. For others, Google Charts is fine. If you decide to create multiple >space graphs for your song, we encourage you to edit them into a video using iMovie or the free web-based Mozilla Popcorn Maker11 synchronizing your graphs to the recording. Whatever method you use, be sure to either share a link or take a photograph of it and post a photo of it to your learning ensemble.

We want learners to feel comfortable and give them options for how to engage. Like the Play With Your Music course we mentioned above, we encourage folks to convey the information in different ways–visually (like mental maps), audially (like pronunciation clips), or via text (like readings or Wikipedia entries). We recommend that you offer content that appeals to different styles, and give learners options for what sorts of projects they might want to undertake.

Story Hack Day

For Story Hack Boston SoundCloud, MIT and P2PU hatched a plan to revamp the hackathon, peer-learning style. 44 storytellers and hackers came together to tell stories. We offered 4 thematic tracks for the day-long event:

  • Heartbeat of MIT: Soundscapes
  • Arc of the API: How to Use APIs to Tell Stories
  • Beyond Vox Pop: Creative Ways to Engage Your Audience
  • Storyslamming

The Vox Pop group wanted to showcase the different perceptions Hackers and Storytellers had about each other, and decided a series of interviews would surface those ideas. The result was an extended “chain” of conversations between the different groups:

Full recap at The Hackathon, Revamped: Recs for Mixing Hackers & Storytellers

Other peoples good ideas

What’s Creative Learning?

Motivation & Mindset

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities. Carol Dweck, Mindset

Learning Styles

In developing technologies for older learners, we try to achieve a similar effect. Our guiding principle is “many paths, many styles” – that is, to develop technologies that can be used along many different paths, by children with many different styles. Too often, educational technologies are overly constrained, such as tutoring software for teaching algebra, or simulation software for modeling planetary motion in the solar system. Our goal is to provide tools that can be used in multiple ways, leaving more room for children’s imaginations. Mitch Resnick, All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking)I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten*

Learners Constructing Knowledge

I can identify examples (as an existence proof) that constructionism can work for adults as well as children.

Teachers know that if you want to learn a new subject, sign up to teach the new subject. Constructing the course and teaching it to others is a great way of developing that knowledge.

Programmers take on new projects to learn a new method, language, context, or community. My former PhD student, Mike Hewner, wanted to know what professional game development was like. Because he’s an exceptional software engineer, he was able to land himself an internship with a game company one summer (with no prior game experience), explicitly to learn game development.


Learning Styles and Accessibility

CAST, “Post Secondary Triple Blended Courses

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