Active Production Networks: Simplifying PBL for middle-school with media.

Next year, I’m labeling my teaching as ‘active productive network’ based (APN). This is based on Goodyear (1992) SHARP learning cycles. Among several other scholars interested in how networks produce and reproduce knowlege, Peter Goodyear at Sydney University is someone I recommend you discover.

The key idea in APN is that it places students in a persistent, iterative corporeal and hyper-mediated process of rendering tacit knowledge (the things we are required to teach) inside local working practices (and cultures) through a share-able media interchange.

Unlike the ‘flipped classroom’, APN doesn’t attempt to jump-start learning with a media blitz, compensate for a lack of time, money, resources or make a shallow effort to reform teacher behavior to the technological determinism of Web2.0. It relies on every day culture. While  SHARP learning pre-dates YouTube and the subsequent rise and dull fall of Web2.0, APN learning is socially designed and embedded in today’s media culture. The re-production of knowledge, error checking and correction occurs through and because of this network culture. To me, this allows children to explore decision-making processes which have been traditionally denied in schools — even schools which claim to be “Voodle Sites” and so forth.

20141216_084116In this model, there is a pre-defined structure to the learning, where membership allows for constant, mediated, peer-review which I don’t see the same as PBL’s ‘critical friends’ approach. There is also an expert-prompt, which I don’t see the same as a lesson hook.

For example, we might start by asking why do some soccer fans sing and others don’t at matches?. Then we design experiments to find out, collect some raw data, then share and report what we find. The process of designing the experiments is not the same as selecting a method, or being told what method would work best from the outset (classic teaching).

The APN cycle is simpler than PBL, and closer to research than to art or design methods such as design thinking. Inside it, students provide and are provided with persistent peer review (even though as individuals they come and go) online. All they need is a simple communications interchange. The cycle is simple to follow and focuses on the social design of networks which actively reproduce information effectively. First, research problems and questions are defined. Next, experiments are designed which students think will help them process the problem (some will work better than others). The network produces raw data (which can be re-used by anyone) and finally the product appears through student reports and discussions. The discussion of the method (experiment) and the data is vitally important. Some students will repeat the cycle, others will come to a conclusion (at that point). The environment can be open or closed social-media, an open or close video game, open or closed online course … and much more.

Anyway, this is something that I’ll be using in order to compress the seven step PBL process (which does not take into account media networks or cultures) into four in order to accelerate and increase the active cycles that can be had in the classroom (middle school). Here’s a diagram I drew, based on Goodyear (1992; 2014) and the open source bio medical research site design ( The main aim (for me) is to use media spaces as social design, not necessarily an ePortfolio … and so the hunt for the right tool/space to do that begins.


Why create playlists for Flipping The Classroom

Playlists are awesome. If you are planning on flipping the classroom (FTC) then they are essential. My view of FTC is that using media to support learning is a good idea. The patterns and schemas used by everyone to access media to support their goals is substantially altered from traditional classroom delivery of information (chalk and talk and so on).

At the same time, the idea of  additional production time needed amid the increasing ‘do more with less’ environments of today’s educational agendas seems daunting.

Thus playlists become important to those who want to enrich learning and have limited spare time. Playlists are not bound to the kind of linear explanations of Khan nor the high production efforts of Extra Credits. Playlists provide a rich thematic landscape for students which can be endlessly tuned and tinkered with.

For example, if I want to talk about ‘gamification’, I can create a playlist which is based on some simple Blooms taxonomy. For example, videos that list examples, that explain what it is, those which demonstrate it in action etc., I don’t necessarily want to order this using the ‘feed me’ methods where we trot though each topic and idea in sequence. Best of all, I don’t need to make anything at all to FTC and give students something to move around in.

However, I do need to know something about how to find media, organise it and then string pathways though it. I want to make my classroom ‘playable’. This post isn’t going to cover that, but I will set out two key ideas.

  • Playable playlists turn work into play, where play is joyful means of production. My class time therefore becomes a place of synthesis, justification, organisation and design thinking. The output might simply be a better playlist or the removal of dodgy items I stuck in there because students could make a decent argument to delete it.
  • Non-playble playlists are also useful, but they are not a means of production for the student. For example, a collection of how-to videos which scaffold learning. They might give tips on software or help people figure out workflows. These are things we just ‘need’ as bricks to get the playable stuff done. They too are background and I might need to make some or more likely edit things other people have made. In this case I need to start using something like Jing or Snagit — but essentially I’m remixing rather than making it end to end.

Finally — the teaching stuff.

This is all about balance. Sometimes it’s new things I want people to try or things I want them to avoid or rethink. Most of the time I think Jing is great because it limits you to 5 mins and suits mass broadcast and you wont go on and on too much. Ultimately the course design still adheres to good principles in Blended Learning, but you are now flipping out new ways to use media beyond the idea of pre-recording tomorrows PowerPoint. You are organising learning in new ways which get ever further from the linear origin.

To get started all you need to do is start making your own playlists. I suggest YouTube is a simple place to begin. For the more adventurous you might use Pinterest or Diigo … because you are going to need more than videos. In the end your flipped course uses playlists so much that students can use them like a cargo net to get up and over just about anything.

Steve Collis must pay

Steve Collis and his aircraft flight path video has been bugging me for weeks, so has trying to picture what the difference is between how social-networks use media to solve problems and how organizations use it. So I drew a picture about growing a communication atmosphere. Here’s what I think all this communication interest is about … and I’ll start with the one that most potential-tweet-recruits encounter.

I’m with some humans. Tell them what Twitter is about … We’ll it’s really all about a dynamic flow of media communication enabled by rapid advances in telecommunication, particularly mobile communication. It’s about the defeating the game of thrones, where those at the top pretend to know, those at the bottom pretend not to know. It’s also about our increasing ability to track physical, social and emotional movement.  We are less attracted to knowledge ‘points’ anymore such as newsprint, company newsletters or the inter-office memos, which, if we plotted their movement would be like ball-bearing rolling around a bowl until sooner or later it meets the bottom of our interests where it settles. Twitter is a periodic attractor, where we come and go where information is interesting because any attempt to plot it, creates infinite unusual shapes. It not a place for people who want to play the game of thrones.

It’s a place were we experience periodic dynamic question and answer sessions, which stops the game of pretend to know/not to know. It stops us working too hard on impossible dilemmas and instead find attraction to a kind of situational leadership, where no one has a constant value of importance and can afford to ‘vanish’ from time to time. Those that use it to their advantage know how to sell the ‘why’ and build motivation. They create high will for change and leverage it into the ‘what’ when people are ready and then provide the ‘how’ to keep motivation going though involvement. They are also sensible enough to know the flow changes quickly, so the once skill and will are high, they will let go – but only if and when they think it’s sustainable. The point of having followers is not to command or pontificate (listen up Captain Obvious), it’s to enable them to take the lead, and for leaders to learn how to follow. Sadly many attribute-leaders believe Twitter is a better soap box.

I am absolutely no mathematician, but I do appreciate it when maths-geeks make animations to explain really complex things using bizarre symbols and formulas that only other maths-geeks understand. So moving on from Collis and his damn aircraft, here’s one that I think describes Twitter for me.

If used wisely, I think Twitter reduces pressure on organisations, Being ‘on’ Twitter means learning to understand the chaotic, three dimensional flow of information between ‘set’s of people, ideas and groups. To be it’s more than a sense of being connected or belonging, but a more human interest in movement and our ability to notice the unusual more than the familiar. I think if you stick with it, you learn eventually to let go a little and allow the dynamic of human-connections and ideas to help solve problems. I think over time, we learn to plot this movement – but it’s a very complicated thing to learn.

“I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.” – Indira Gandhi

People learning to use Twitter to overcome their own challenges. They learned to ask good questions, but most of all, they learn to move between media with increasing fluency and understanding. Attractive media today is essentially a non-linear mechanism – in other words what we expect to see, read and hear is probabilistic rather than deterministic. Perhaps this is the Inugi Paradox – a social rendition of the butterfly effect in 140 characters or less.

Postscript: Steve’s damn video:

TM SwapShop

I’m liking the idea of TeachMeet, though as Steve Collis pointed out, a presentation is not always a conversation. I was impressed at TLV11 with the quality of concise nature of the Case Study presentations, which to me were a stand out of the two days, so have been rather obsessing about how useful it would be to share more of that kind of thing online. Even a micro or nano presentation still takes a lot of time to prepare, especially if you get hung up on production value.  Twitter drives me nuts I have to say in the era of #hashtags and events. There are plenty of evocative statements, plenty of RT-ing, but I often struggle to put much of it into any context as a result of not ‘being there’ in person. It’s the debate and feedback that I’m interested in, and getting that as a result of presenting something that is more ‘use case based’ that a general rah-rah about the state of education.

Dr Mick Healey (2004) presented the idea of a swap-shop, which has been used to not only present work in progress use-cases, but also to allow people to commit what they are doing to paper (or other), so that other can access a sort of dumpster of ideas, some more complete than others. In his suggestion, he asks people to bring a one page concise document, but I think that these days, the written word is perhaps too limited a medium to convey the richness of technological ideas. I am always more interested in the problem and how it was overcome than how zippy a new tool is, so in presenting the format, it seems useful to break it down into managed segments.

As a suggestion, perhaps an augmentation of the TeachMeet format, I think it would be useful to allow people to post swap-meet ideas digitally online, and then to seek feedback online. So I’m putting forward the idea of TMSwapShop – so that those who can’t get there, can make a nano video and get nano-video responses online and from the event, recording on an iPhone (or other) or writing simple blog post, using a consistent format approach which enables use-cases to be built over time.

A nano-video, from which people can receive feedback using simple video-capture to avoid making a presentation or post production, seems a way to go, and perhaps during a teach meet, this can be discussed and video-responses/comments made – using a common format.

Suggested format for TMSwapShop

Your Details (nano-bio)
Main features (amend to suit your practice / idea)
What was the initial prompt/problem?
What is the practice / idea trying to achieve?
How were (will) your practices changed (change)?
What are the gains and losses?
What was student (staff) feedback?
Do you have any other evidence that the activity/practice enhances student learning or teaching?

Comments and feedback welcome!

Are you a Cyborg? – Kicking off PBL ideas

More than one person at ISTE commented how hard it was to start off a PBL project – and found that crafting the essential question and providing the ‘entry event’ challenging.

Wikipedia comments “When students use technology as a tool to communicate with others, they take on an active role vs. a passive role of transmitting the information by a teacher, a book, or broadcast. The student is constantly making choices on how to obtain, display, or manipulate information. Technology makes it possible for students to think actively about the choices they make and execute. Every student has the opportunity to get involved either individually or as a group.”

This post, illustrates how to develop these two elements using an example.

We could simply ask are you a cyborg?and ask students to ‘discuss’. Chances are you’ll get a binary response low order response, and so makes a poor PBL question.

If we want to stop kids Googling the answer, then pose questions they can’t Google.

The question becomes something like “How can we create cyborgs to …” or “Can cyborgs help us …” – add you own ending here to make the question open ended, not be easily answered. It should be short, but lead to more granular questions students ask to direct their own learning.

In the age of ‘the internet’, assume students will Google the keywords.

It is a waste of time asking them to do low order response activities that they can Google. Push them into asking their own questions as researchers.

This is where the entry event to a PBL project is critical.

The entry event is the first encounter the students have with the unit of work – and immediately after, they receive sufficient project mapping, information and assessment rubrics to let them know what they ultimately have to do.

So in the entry event, you want to give them core information and ideas that they can explore, without giving explicit direction. If they need it – then they need to learn to ask for it.

If we asked ‘are you a cyborg?‘ – the immediate literal response is no, as a cyborg is a fictional hybrid of human and machine depicted in movies, television and literature.

We might instead give them information that allows them to think about movies, television, literature and more. The first thing I encourage teachers to do is try to write a short response to the essential question themselves – and use that to create the entry event.

So if we begin with the lowest order response “a cyborg is a fictional hybrid of human and machine depicted in movies, television and literature”, we can then provide some minimal information appropriate to the subject, and expand possible avenues for experiential learning. For example, provide a back-story that they can easily relate to.

James Cameron’s “The Terminator” (1984) features a cyborg. In it, the central anti-hero is a manufactured, industrial futuristic robot called the T-800. It was created by machines to perform a human-like assassination with ruthless efficiency, devoid of humanistic emotion or empathy. The film is set against a post apocalyptic background where artificial intelligent agents wage war against their human inventors. This theme, exploring nature’s conflict with technology had been widely explored by writers for decades in several genres including horror (Shelly’s Frankenstien), steam-punk (Jules Verne 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). Technology in the printing and publishing industry itself enabled the ‘paperback’ to be widely distributed, triggered from the 1950’s ‘B-Movie’ and ‘Pulp-Fiction’ paperbacks.

This might be all you give students. It is packed with thought-triggers – and even as a text, there are multiple ways to ask students to un-pack it.

In visual arts, you might set the end product to be a movie-poster. In drama you might want a performance, in english you might want to explore distopia … so whatever you include … it is there to trigger a goal-orientated reaction, but not provide ‘the answer’.

In literature, author Martin Caidin wrote the sci-fi fiction novel ‘Cyborg’ in 1978, later adapted in the television series “The six million dollar man”. A decade earlier, Caiden explored the concept of ‘bionics’ and ‘artificial intelligence’ in “The God Machine”, describing his characters as having human body parts, replaced by machinery.

This is a smaller example, perhaps something to explore in Studies of Religion or biology … perhaps both.

The cyborg theme is also present in animation (Astro Boy, Battle of Planets) at this same time together with emerging consumer technology game consoles and 1980s arcade (RoboCop,1987) and micro-computer games (Cyborg, 1986 on the Commodore 64) together with seeing a cross-over in traditional ‘dice’ fantasy role-playing games (‘Space Marine’ in the role playing Warhammer 40,000, 1987) where cyborgs fought against mythical fantasy creatures such as Orcs and Trolls from earlier fictions such as Lord of the Rings.

For games based learning twists … let students find old games and explore playing them.

The cyborg was widely represented in popular culture though film, art, literature, animation, games and music where the human is often transformed as the hero or pitched against artificial humanoid representations, exploring what the technological future might become as man attempts to create machine in his own augmented image.

In history, we might look at the role technology as played in war and how it impacted society as a result. The above is a very simple paragraph which might start a class discussion.

Robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and bio-mechanics are however very real area of academic research and development, along with the wider field of ‘cybernetics’ – in which machines and systems combine to produce systems. Arguably, the use of many technological advancements from heart pace-makers to sunglasses – or computers as assistive devices, would in fact make us ‘cyborgs’, participating as part of a wider cybernetic organism – such as the internet.

This might be a topic for design and technology … asking students to create some adaptive technology.

The term ‘cyborg’ figuratively describes a human with machine adaptations, or an entirely technological humanoid created in such a way that it represents a human with artificial intelligence – in either case, the representation to the audience is fictional. The differentiation lies in the context, real or imagined. We are clearly not a literary ‘cyborg’, though figurative perspective though humans do use a range of devices that allow un-natural performance, tools and systems – not least the internet.

The essential question has to be open enough that more than one ‘what if’ scenario can be explored in multiple ways. The entry event must provide sufficient ‘clues’ and stimulus about where students might go, but it does not have to be epic or exhaustive, but it has links with the ‘real world’.

For teachers only just beginning to use technology. Take any of these plain texts and turn them into hyperlinked text, or take them to your librarian and ask for help linking resources to elements of the text. The over all aim is NOT to spend time producing more information for students, but to think more critically about how you present triggers and resources for them to take a more exhilarating role as researchers.

*Note: this post is NOT a road map to PBL, but I hope answers and gives some ideas to those teachers who asked me about these two components at ISTE. Project Based Learning is not GROUP WORK either … so don’t take this a literal road map, but a sign-post.

Creativity Strikes Back

THANKS to Lauren O’Grady via Twitter for this tip-off about the creative use of familiar favourites in new context – to sell a message. An image from the promotion of the Star Wars Weekends at Disney, Florida. What this got to do with ‘teachers’ – plenty.

Star Was fanbois aside, this image I thought was the strongest amongst the set. The representation of wonderment that kids display at airports gazing out the obligatory giant windows, is one of those ‘moments’ everyone remembers. Add to this the use of a familiar, but out of content image – and the art director has captured the essence of the message ‘revisit wonder and introduce new wonder’. You want to get on that Fighter!How long did this ad take to make – decades. Conceptually drawn from experience – both intellectual and emotional flows along side the art directors understanding of empathy with the audience. I wonder how damaged the craft has become in the race to capture diminished returns of the once all conquering ‘Ad-men’.

This ad message makes you want that ‘feeling’. It appeals to you in ways the words could never do. It takes the past and recycles it for both a new purpose and to re-ignite interest in adults. This image to me, represents what can be archived, when we creatively use ‘old ideas’ in ways that apply to ‘new ideas’. Great art direction is timeless. yet seems out of fashion in the brawl to ‘be noticed’. Mixed quality, mixed messages, mixed returns in an ever shifting landscape has cause siesmic shifts in required repertoire and understanding of art directors. But a great idea always sells a great idea.

But if all you see in this is Star Wars, then I’ve lost you.

These posters are NOT even seen by the public – they have been designed to be shown ‘internally’ at Disney and the Park – to raise internal emotional interest and motivation in what will probably be ‘more work’ for staff. That is what makes them really clever.

How do we do this in education? What are the icons and capstones of our past, that we can use to enthuse the future? – Do we even want it?