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Why Playlists? Some Thoughts on What It Means to Press Play for Learning

Why Playlists? Some Thoughts on What It Means to Press Play for Learning

More than ever, our current culture of learning is entwined with database architectures and a buffet of technologies that influence how we access and experience learning, including the exploration and discovery of different pathways, and how those pathways are scaffolded.

One of the recent developments in this trend are learning playlists, which apply the thinking behind and benefits of modern music playlist technologies to educational contexts. Their potential to conceptualize learning processes and pathways that can lead to expertise development make them a compelling new area for research and design. Scaling high-quality, well-curated, interest-driven learning experiences to broad audiences, and doing so in ways that step people through these learning pathways in meaningful ways — this is something researchers, educators, and designers believe playlists and playlist platforms can do.

Playlist technologies can serve as wayfinding for learners looking for answers to questions about their interests:

What are robots about? How can I learn how to build a robot? What steps do I take to get there? What knowledge and skills do I need? Who can teach this to me? Who else is interested in this subject? Once I know how to build a robot, how can I tell other people what I learned, what I made, and what I want to do next?

With the help of mentors, educators, experts, and more experienced peers, learners are exposed to what some refer to as scaffolding (channeling, focusing, modeling, and fading) through engagement with playlist themes and structures. By engaging socially with others who share their interests, learners are invited into discourses that can help them translate their interests into key skills:

What is critical thinking, why is it so necessary across all professional career paths as well as in ordinary citizen exchanges? And what are the capacities I need to develop to become a good critical thinker? How do I go about acquiring these capacities, what sorts of exercise need I to engage in to hone my critical thinking abilities, and how do I apply them to different analytical contexts?

In their most simple incarnation, playlists are a series of sequenced steps organized around a topic or theme, which educators may recognize as curriculum materials repackaged in new vernacular. To one extent, what sets playlist design apart from traditional curriculum development are the underlying technologies that can optimize the delivery of blended, self-directed, self-paced, personalized, and connected learning. It can be a way to scale curriculum materials by linking them to an interface and functionality designed to optimize vectors for discovery and progression. Recommending and finding, curating and sharing — these are all functionalities that make playlists synonymous with 21st century music, and these affordances can be applied to learning and learning communities.

Just as music playlists have changed the way people find, explore, discover, curate, share, and listen to music, there is potential for these same technologies to have a similar impact on the way people experience learning, especially at scale. Designed thoughtfully and with intention, playlists and playlist systems can do something that is perhaps greater than the sum of their parts: they can conceptualize learning processes and pathways that ultimately lead to expertise development in all manner of subjects and topics.

On the design side, someone — an expert, a teacher, a mentor, an educator, an enthusiast — thinks about what a learner needs to know in order to progress, and sequences the steps in “chunks” that can “fork” and “branch” across related themes, or guide the learner more deeply into a favorite topic.  The aim is to guide a progression that is ideally configured to compel interest and deeper engagement in an area, whether it’s Euclidean geometry or how to mod in Minecraft.

This is the challenge for playlist designers: to think thoughtfully and intentionally about what a learner needs at any given step, the size of that step, the kinds of supports needed, how many tasks are necessary, how much instruction to give, what resources to include, how much social interaction vs. how much technology, how (and whether) to assess, how to maintain engagement. In other words, how to dynamically scaffold and scale learning that balances technology with social inputs, automation with agency, exploration with curation, and local experiences with global.

The Playlists for Learning Challenge is an invitation to think together about new design affordances and constraints in this new take on learning at scale, and how to design high-quality local experiences so that a larger global audience may benefit from the same opportunities. What prior research can guide us in this space? What will designers learn about the process? How do educators experience the process of implementing playlists? What feedback will learners have for us? We hope you’ll join the conversation and be part of this new initiative.

The Playlist for Learning Challenge application window opens April 4 and closes May 13, 2016. To learn more, visit


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