Blog Post

Participatory Learning

After yesterday's long post on complicated subjects (evolution, naturalselection, metaphors and the complexity of language, and CertifiedDeconstructionists!), today I went back to a former post on"Participatory Learning" and embellished it, including with the url'sof some of the exciting progress being made by our winners for ourfirst Digital Media and Learning Competition. Here's the url for thatexpanded post:


I'm also reblogging the body of that posting right here:



We are promoting the concept of "participatory learning" as part of theMacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning initiative, and asone of the three prongs of HASTAC (the other two emphases of HASTACbeing creative technologydevelopment and critical thinking: we believe all three should beintegrated and part of contemporary intellectual and social life andlearning).
Because so much of our formal education today isbased on a model ofindividual achievement of test scores, of filling in the right answerson standardized tests, in certifying and passing boards and so forth, aterm like "participatory learning" needsdefinition. We've all but forgotten that for most of human history,learning was a process, it was collective, it was collaborative. It isreally only since the nineteenth century that formal education hasbecome a regulated and specialized certification process as much as itis a learning process.
Whatthe Internet offers is a way to promote a more organic (funny term forthe digital!) form of participatorylearning. In participatory learning, one learns through and byinteraction with others, in a processwhere each person builds upon the other--available to anyone anywherewho has access to the Internet (whether via a fancy laptop of one'sown, the $100 laptop, a cell phone, or what is available at a locallibrary or community center). In participatory learning, the process isas exciting as the result because many different kinds of people, withdifferent specializations and skillsets and experiences, can contributetogether. They can each contribute a part that is then elaborated bysomeone else and then taken over by someone else who runs with it,until the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, and whereeach person learns by contributing.
Wikipedia, the largest accumulation of knowledgethe world has ever known, is an excellent example of participatorylearning in action. Through blogs, wikis, social networking tools(Facebook, MySpace), multimedia sites (YouTube, Flickr), and many manymore, anyone in the world with even a little access can be a citizenjournalist, reporting on pollution (see The Daily Polluter, apublication online by one of our DML I winners:,assessing the truth or lies or inconsistencies of political candidatesor trying to chart who contributes to their campaigns and where theirmoney might be going (,or using online multiplayer games where students and youth can work outnational policy and put idealism into practice for peace orhumanitarian rescue instead of point-and-shoot "fun" ( Howard Rheingold is creating a whole series of vlogs illustratingsocial media at work as learning tools to promote participatory media. You an view those at:
Participatory learning underscores theprocesses by which we can learn together. Wikipedia is the mostamazing (and it truly is amazing) collective participatory learningproject the world has ever known. But there are so many other examplesand we are building more and better tools to promote this accretive,cumulative, process-oriented, problem-solving mode of participatorylearning all the time. There are also an infinite number of blogs andwikis out there for those suffering from (and who have accumulatedtheir own wisdom for handling) chronic diseases, for home schooling,for fandom, or for advocacy.
Another example from our DML I Winners: Self-Advocacy on Line ( ) is a website and online newsletter and networking site for those making advocacy for change for people with disabilities. And lots of youth meet on line for fun, social life, and, not incidentally, learning too in virtual environments or in online multiplayer games. Games for Change ( is dedicated to community activism and social change mediated through participatory learning communities on line and RezEd ( is a hub you can visit to find out about learning and virtual worlds).
The point is that, yes, we learn from experts. But we are also all experts in some things and, in participatorylearning, we share our expertise and we improve it by interacting withthose who have different expertise and differences of opinion. Ideally, participatory learning is to formal education what communityaction is to the machinery of organized goverment. One does notcontradict the other. Rather, the former (participatory learning likecommunity action) takes the principles and makes them real,interactive, and important in daily lives. You don't need to be acertified teacher to share your knowledge just as you do not need to bea politician to care and take action in your community.
Lots of interesting people have written about the various aspects ofparticipatory learning and how transformative it can be, and everyonehas catch-phrases: The power of organization with organizing (ClayShirky), convergence (Henry Jenkins), Web 2.0 (Tim O'Reilly), the longtail (Chris Anderson) smart mobs (Howard Rheingold). The bottom line isthe idea that, together, many people who may not even know one another,can use digital tools to create learning communities where they fosterand improve and contribute to ideas, solve problems together, and findsolutions to either small issues or enormous ones such as globalwarning. In participatory learning, you don't need a degree tocontribute, all you need is expertise, ideas, and a shared commitmentto furthering a goal or an ideal. You can even work together tocustomize, build upon, and improve the very digital tools you use tolearn from as part of the process of learning.
A recent NY Times article ("If You Have a Problem, Ask Everybody!") talked about all of the quite amazing work that groups are able to concentrate on and do together, solving problems previously thought unsolvable through collective contribution of their knowledge. This NY Timesarticle emphasizes the importance of many minds thinking together. In thiscase, even practical problems are being solved by participatorylearning and so are some of the most thorny, recurrent problems inmodern science, social science, and the humanities. Participatorylearning is the future. And, if HASTAC has anything to say about it, itwill also become a major part of the future of higher education.
Ireally like the idea that someday theNobel Prize might go to "ordinary people" who, collectively and byparticipating together--through what we are calling "participatory learning"--may well come up with a cure for cancer ora better understanding of protein folding or some other major breakthrough in modern science.
Special thanks to Flickr member Will Lion for posting this image. For more of his photostream and full documentation, please click on the photograph. The image from Second Life is from "Holy Meatballs," part of the RezEd project. The third image is from the South Bronx Fab Lab project where garbage from Manhattan, dumped in the South Bronx, is refabricated into saleable, recycled merchandise, using state of the art computer fabrication methods and then old fashioned hand-craft and industrial fabrication. Participatory learning takes as many forms as your imagination!

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