Learning U or Participatory Learning – what’s in a name? Plenty!


I love the sound of the word and how its definition applies so frequently to dicoveries and interactions on the web.

The Merriam Webster online dictionary defines it as;

the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for

It happened to me tonight. Today I proposed a new elective subject for next year’s Yr 9 students, Learning U (the name it has at the moment – thanks to Chris Prout for suggesting it).  Here’s what it’s about;

Learning U has as its focus what interests you. What are you passionate about? What would you like to explore in depth? How far can you take your own learning and what would you learn if you were given the opportunity to drive it in the direction you wanted to take? 

Students will determine the nature of the investigation they undertake based on their own personal interests. They will use a range of networking tools eg: blogs, wikis, ning networks, to engage in connective reading and writing opportunities. They will be taught how to manage these sites and how to read and write in a hypertext environment. They will learn how to behave safely and ethically in digital spaces and will work towards the creation of a positive digital footprint that they can use to promote themselves. 

Language skills, technology integration and subject knowledge of the student’s own choosing will be at the forefront of their experience. Students will be attempting to attract an audience to their writing and creative efforts and engage people in what they are doing. 

Self motivation is key, as is a willingness to write in a public space and adopt new ways of doing things.

It was accepted by the powers that be to be an elective choice for next year’s curriculum offerings. I’m excited about that; it indicates an acceptance that the type of learning I think is valuable is being considered to have merit.

Tonight, Susan Carter Morgan sent out a tweet about an interesting slideshow available on slideshare. It led me to the work of Bill Farren, a teacher I first encountered last year when I joined up with Project Global Cooling. Bill is a passionate educator with a wonderful site called Education for Well- being. His recent slideshow was about Participatory Learning.

Watching it reinforced my thinking. Participatory learning is what the elective subject I’m proposing is all about. It’s something I feel our students need exposure to; the notion that they can self direct their learning and learn from participatory culture, the people out there who want to share knowledge and help advance the learning of others.

I visited Bill’s blog to discover he is doing something quite interesting. He’s quit his job for a year, and has launched into PLearn, a one year online course he is offering to 50 participants. Here’s how he introduced it in his post;

After 15 years of working in schools and observing and reflecting on the practice, I’d like to attempt something different. I’m curious to know if it’s possible to get fifty people (or possibly an institution or two) on this wired planet to step out of the mainstream of education, if only for one class, and participate in a course that operates under a very different educational paradigm than the one they’re used to. I’d like to know if learners are willing to put their own creative desires and curiosities ahead of doing what’s educationally “safe”. Is the dissonance between how people learn on their own today and how they are taught in schools jarring enough to make them want to try something new? Can the Internet’s currently evolved state and the culture of sharing, collaboration and participation that it has fueled, lead to a new educational paradigm where independent educational contractors (IECs), working in more decentralized environments, are able to offer a variety of courses serving the long tail of educational consumers in a way that more hierarchical institutions cannot?

In order to try to answer these questions, I’ve quit my job as a teacher for next year and built an online space–a class (ParticipatoryLearning.net)–based on the principles of participatory learning, among others.

Interesting to note the idea of an ‘independent educational contractor’. What this means is that Bill is charging for the course he is offering. I can see some merit in this. At the moment, many of us willingly share our knowledge and educate others for no financial return. While that’s all very admirable, there has to be some acknowledgement that the price we pay is time. Time invested in supporting the learning of others while we spend time away from other pursuits and even our families. There is no doubt we learn much in the process, but I can tell you,  my fitness level has suffered and I seem to be tired all the time!!

I can see that Bill is trying to find balance by quitting his job, continuing his learning journey, advancing the learning of others and trying to make a living in the process.  Maybe I’m wrong (and feel free to correct me if I am Bill). Regardless, it’s a very interesting concept and a site you should visit to see how it is coming together.

I’m remaining in my job, but trying to fulfill something akin to participatory learning culture through the introduction of this elective idea. I’m hoping the students who participate (if there are any takers!!) will discover some of the excitement that I know comes from finding like souls who are willing to share and assist you in your learning.     

So thank you serendipity, in the guise of Susan Carter Morgan. You led me to Bill, who got me thinking.

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8 Replies to “Learning U or Participatory Learning – what’s in a name? Plenty!”

  1. Sure thing, Jenny. I tweeted about Bill’s “course” a few weeks ago, too. And that’s what is so great about this network. If we miss something one day, it is sure to show up again. Love the idea of your course. And Bill’s slide deck is just what I needed for my curious teachers, too.

  2. Jenny, have a look at the recent Henry Jenkin’s MIT McArthur Foundation report – it talks extensively about the culture of participation and how that plays out through the research they have done into motivation and pedagogy. Designing a course and aligning outcomes is an admirable step … best of luck.


  3. Hi Jenny. Thanks for the post and for the links to Plearn.net. (Also, thanks Susan for the tweet!)
    I applaud what you’re trying to do with Learning U. I think we definitely need to provide more opportunities for self-directed learning. As far as Independent Educational Contractors go, it seems like, thanks to available social technologies that we are at a point in time where interested learners can now connect with interested teachers. And I don’t just mean “teachers” in the strict sense of the word. There are many people all over the world doing interesting things, and with interesting backgrounds who would like to connect with learners. (see http://schoolofeverything.com/)
    My class at plearn.net is open to all, but those willing to join and pay tuition, will be given a much higher level of attention just like a student enrolled in any class but with a difference: They will get to vote on where the class goes (countries); they will get to suggest activities; they will get access to our class’s spaces so that they can publish; they will be able to request interviews, photos, video, etc.; they will have their participation catalogued into our spaces so that it can be viewed later as one might with a portfolio… We are based on the idea of open publishing, sharing, and connecting with diverse others. As those of us who blog and use social tools well know by now, it’s a great way to learn.
    Cheers, Bill

  4. Learning U is an elective I would love to see offered to students of all ages. Self directed learning is the future and more schools need to recognize and promote courses that allow students to push their learning as far as they can go.

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