Technology and Participatory Learning

As part of recent reading I have been reminded that digital technology is generally being used in schools to repackage learning through a different medium (computers instead of books) for the curriculum which, in NSW, concludes with the Higher School Certificate.  As a system, profession and industry, education, and those involved in it, have not yet maximised nor mastered how technology can best accelerate and amplify learning. As part of the education continuum, students have learnt that assessment ranks are all important going into the concluding examinations and teachers have learnt to often teach to a formula, one that best prepares students to answer questions on an individual basis.

The flow on effect of this approach shapes learning prior to the HSC years, from Years 7 to 10. So too does the competitive nature of NAPLAN and the continued government rhetoric about our nation being “internationally competitive” with tolls such as PISA. Basically, students are encouraged to find the right answer for the test with a ‘yes/no’, ‘either/or’ culture. It may well be that we heed the advice in Teenagers and Technology as referenced in Selwyn (2014); that is, for teachers and parents to acknowledge that young people deserve some support, interest and even guidance from adults in developing uses of digital technology that are genuinely meaningful and empowering rather than an all consuming chase for the best result!

Davidson and Theo (2010) encourage us to ask how this paradigm, a paradigm which values individual (student, schools, national) effort and success, actually supports the learning styles of today’s youth and prepares them for increasingly connected world which awaits them. However, Davidson and Theo (2010) soon answer this question by forthrightly arguing that the days of conventional learning institutions are over, “unless those directing the course of our learning institutions realize, now and urgently, the necessity of fundamental and foundational change.”

Ross (2012) urges educational leaders and decision makers to rearrange the elements of learning and reshape audience expectations about the learning experience when discerning the possibilities afforded by digital technologies. They strongly suggest learning, “should be created in spaces that are not highly structured, the way most e-portfolio environments are” (Ross, 2012:262). Such thinking may even lead to John Spencer’s Ten Alternative Assessment Strategies being undertaken more and more in the school setting.

Participatory Learning acknowledges e-portfolios and other digital learning environments as places where  people can make meaning through collective engagement. Davidson and Theo (2010) articulate participatory learning “begins from the premise that new technologies are changing how people of all ages learn, play, socialize, exercise judgment, and engage in civic life” Davidson and Theo (2010:12). Furthermore, they write,

“Participatory learning includes the many ways that learners (of any age) use new technologies to participate in virtual communities where they share ideas, comment on one another’s projects, and plan, design, implement, advance, or simply discuss their practices, goals, and ideas together” (2010:12).

Ray (2014) highlights clear links between participatory learning and Maker movements. I always (incorrectly) saw Makerspaces as physical places where physical products were produced. In a digital virtual world I now understand that is also about, “students building the next generation of web applications” (Ray; 2014:8) through platforms such as Scratch where students can create and collaborate in building web-based projects and products, all while learning code.

Participatory Learning allows for self-guided informal learning which is recognised, for example, with digital badges through  MacArthur Foundation. Furthermore, games like ‘Quest Atlantis’ are characteristic of participatory learning. Challenges within this game, “require students to make choices that affect how events unfold and impact on other characters” (Ray 2014_a:13). Furthermore, there have been documented learning improvements with greater engagement, higher test scores and “54% play because they want to, not because they have to” (Ray 2014_a:13). There is also Whyville online Civics game where teens and pre-teens learn and play together with their own elected officials, town square and beaches. Such games offer,  “a place where the actions of a 10 year old can have a significant impact on the world” (Sasha Barab in Ray 2014_a:13).

Above all else, what I note regarding participatory learning is that hierarchies are negated and failure is encouraged and seen as part of the learning process. This encouragement, acceptance and acknowledgement of failure as being valued rather than despised, presents a welcomed challenge around the traditional the ‘pass or fail’ syndrome associated with standardised tests and numerous summative assessment tasks. In saying this, there is thinking we may need to ‘reframe’ failure. Our young people associate terms such as ‘Epic Fail’ and ‘Massive Fail’ with people who have fun poked at them through the production of videos such as Top Fails 15 and 12 Funny Massive Fails. Therefore, it may well be that we speak about the “iteration and process of one’s way of making it to the answer through errors and connections” (Ray, 2014:19). Whatever the case, wouldn’t it be great to see Andrew Miller’s Freedom to Fail Rubric, become commonplace in schools.

Your comments are most welcome.



Davidson, C, & Theo, D (2010). The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age  MIT Press Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England.

FW: Thinking. (2013, June 19). Is technology a threat to our education? [Video file]. Retreived from

Ray, B., Jackson, S. & Cupaiuolo, C. (Eds).(2014). Civics: Participating in a digital world. MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Initiative.

Ray, B., Jackson, S. & Cupaiuolo, C. (Eds). (2014_a). Participatory learning. MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Initiative.

Ross, J. (2012). The spectacle and the placeholder: Digital futures for reflective practices in higher education. InProceedings of the 8th International Conference on Networked Learning (pp. 227–244). Retrieved from

Selwyn, N. (2010). Looking beyond learning: notes towards the critical study of educational technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(1), 65–73. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2009.00338.x.

Selwyn, N. (2014). Education and ‘the digital’. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 35(1), 155-164. doi: 10.1080/01425692.2013.856668.

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