Our concious selves need to play

Nothing is as new as it seems, yet new manifestations are often mystical. Take the phenomenon of the “personal learning network”, which isn’t simply a way to scrape useful materials and resources from the internet, but has come about through the ability of technology to connect an ever more diverse group of people though very simple tools such as Twitter. In many ways ‘personal’ relates to how we decode and interpret information in the network. To achieve that, we need to be able to learn. The phrase is culturally evocative among merchants and advocates of technology in learning, but really needs re-ordering and expanding in explanation.

Attempting to learn though a selective digital network of individual action, agenda, belief and interpretation emerging from variables in complex semiotic domains somehow seems less attractive.

What seems significant, is that this is happening in the outer-world, yet synonymous with ‘digital life’, and when and where it happens and if there is an optimal amount of time to do it.

My view is that most of this activity takes place outside of work, and less about skills, but social emotional satisfaction. We find joy in online networks, and is perhaps a way of de-stressing reality. It’s a voluntary action (unless you’re a scraper). We are Downtime Learners.

Personal learning networks are all about expansion, we are witnessing the evolution of activity at the collective and personal level though a myopic sense of our-selves and what matters in the world. What erks me about people who write books and espouse diagrams about what a personal learning network is that it’s not new at all, just that we can (and do) experience it though digital technologies – simply because they now exist. There are plenty of books on scholarly theories about this already. For example:

“the more we become conscious of ourselves through self-knowledge, and act accordingly, the more the layer of the personal unconscious that is superimposed on the collective unconscious will be diminished. In this way there arises a consciousness which is no longer imprisoned in the petty, oversensitive, personal world of the ego, but participates freely in the wider world of objective interests. This widened consciousness is no longer that touchy, egotistical bundle of personal wishes, fears, hopes, and ambitions which always has to be compensated or corrected by unconscious counter-tendencies; instead, it is a function of relationship to the world of objects, bringing the individual into absolute, binding, and indissoluble communion with the world at large. The complications arising at this stage are no longer egotistic wish-conflicts, but difficulties that concern others as much as oneself.” (Jung 1966, 178).

Expansion activity isn’t sought by all people, yet has a history of innovation in human efforts to achieve it. I recommend you read John Connell’s post about the Penny University – which in many ways is a version of the personal learning network. All societies have a human desire to do this – though they play out in different ways. This cultural factor will see nations who are just beginning to expand into digital networks, do it in different ways. It’s rather shallow to assume that we’re all geese flying in digital formation to a better world. It’s just a changing world.

Fredrickson and Joiner (2002) emphasize the role of positive emotions in broadening people’s capacity to learn. They say that positive emotions enhance optimistic thinking, which leads to more creative problem-solving capacities. Generally speaking, Twitter for educators is the hub of a positive shared experience. Having said that Rogers (2000) discuss a sociological model of a normal distribution of technology adoption patterns linked to internal barriers of attitude and perception: innovators (about 3% of any population), early adopters (about 14%), early majority (34%), late majority (34%), and laggards (about 14%)

She suggests that “teacher anxieties” or attitudes contribute to a teacher’s position as an innovator or early adopter.

This puts the idea of a personal learning network in somewhat of a bubble. The innovators,  small in number, are interested in expansion of activity either because they want to see different/better/alternative classroom pedagogues for all sorts of reasons or that they see it as a commercial marketplace. Perhaps both.

To sustain the personal learning network, they must cultivate a value chain. The result is that we see repetitive messages and going over old ground – as the supply route has to be stocked along the road.

There is therefore a throttle on expansion in the domain of education itself, simply due to the small numbers of innovators and early adopters and the limited interest that they can rally, and often the inability of ‘leadership’ to look further down the road to see what is happening.

I did like the idea of the Penny University – not because I’m cheap, but because learning, back in the day – and today wasn’t bound to governmental views of what learning is, or the paperwork that is issued as a result of testing.

There is no test in the Australian Curriculum that goes anywhere near assessing what I’m currently see children do in our beta-Minecraft world and consequently, as a parent, I am less interested in much of what I see people get so excited about in terms of blogs and wikis.

How do you explain the cognitive and social skills of a 5 year old is systematically designing and creating complex structures from seemingly simple material combination or a railway to connect their house to other houses. Should they be learning to install texture packs to add personal meaning? Does it matter to the ‘quality framework’ that they are teaching other 5 year olds how to navigate vast game-worlds safely and along the way learn language to systematically solve problems that isn’t understood or used by their teacher in day to day school life.

I see these as things that should emerge from joyful, play activities – which are clearly in decline in the school day, gradually being strangled out by bureaucrats. Compare the day of Kindergarden today verses a decade ago – we are teaching kids that play isn’t valuable, simply because we don’t allow it to occur.

This brings me back to the PLN, which I see as play and a game, not a digital-library or some ad-hock information hot-line. It’s a game of expansion – with very complex rules and mechanics.

I must say, I don’t care about this discussion as much as I care about this nexus between the skills children might develop though game, and social influences, broadly explored by Gee (2003, 2004, 2005).

He argues that good games have common characteristics: identity, interaction, production, risk taking, customisation, agency, well-ordered problems, challenge and consolidation, “Just in Time” use of resources and skills, situated meanings, systematic thinking and rethinking of goals, distributed knowledge, cross functional teams and performance before competence.

These are not eLearning games or educational games – as they spawn from more important domains.

Of course I will highlight game in that nexus, and wonder why game’s are continually excluded by Doctor Obvious in the Penny Universities description of Personal Learning Networks. Is there no expansion in this domain – or just none that suits the innovation/early adopter agenda?


Gee, J. P. (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.

Gee, J. P. (2004). Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling. London: Routledge.

Gee, J. P. (2005). Why Video Games Are Good For Your Soul: Pleasure and Learning. Melbourne: Common Ground

Jung, C. G. (1966). Two essays on analytical psychology. London and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Rodgers, P. (2000). “Barriers to Adopting Emerging Technologies in Education”. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 22(4), 455-472.

What emerges from under the bed

Games and what emerges from the games are not the same thing. This seems an essential message in teacher education getting excited at the idea of game based learning. However its not as simple as deciding on a game to play as it requires making sense of how games work, specifically in balancing mastery and boredom.

Professional Development in technology generally assumes an operational integration of technology-tools  into the existing system, which in itself is entirely focused on assessable, known and stable outcomes measured though essays and exams.

Deciding on a technological tool is determined by individual and organisational belief of  how well it will ‘fit’ or ‘integrate’ into known, stable practice which is ruled by constant grades and scores. Abandoning existing technologies also means abandoning methods, which in turn declares them less useful. Education hates this idea – as it constantly draws on seers of the past to interpret the future.

Generally speaking the function of technology currently is productivity. A typed up essay that suits the small amount of time markers actually spend reading it is preferable. A hand written exam is preferable when ticking off declarative knowledge, the NAPLAN allows governments to regulate and assign funding. Technology is by an large system-focused or dismissed. We find it incredibly hard to assess the soft skills, which is evident in the lack of them appearing in the National Curriculum beyond motherhood statements.

Outside of fractious formal educational, technology spawns networks of external sites and forums that support guilds, databases, and wikis, or the technological infrastructure that support solving diverse problems has become an intensely liberating factor in mass social development – which involves not only consuming, but producing and modifying knowledge in numerous form factors online. This work – and teaching about this work – takes place almost entirely in downtime and is perhaps is the exploit needed for those who never stood on the school stage as the celebrated academic elite, or never got that job because the qualification demand was high (despite the pay being low).

As a colleague suggested – everyone wants to pay a nickel for a dollar song – meaning formal education is used to call the shots in life. And yet the most innovation, the most opportunity for those yet to receive an education lies in mobile, mass access to the Internet.

Here is a game you can play with teachers as future-ologists.

Imagine two teams playing a video game online. Both have the objective of building a defensible fortress from the game control enemies. The game-world has limited resources to use in constructing this, and limited time before the first wave of bad-guys seeks to eliminate players. What happens next?

Educators will come up with scenarios based partly on their understanding of the problem and their assumption of what you asking in context. The way they will explain it will be to vocalise or to write something down – and use language that they assume you share a common understanding of.

If we set this problem to educators, they will usually want to know more information, and claim they can’t set about solving it as it has too many variables and too little information. Ask the same problem of children and you’ll probably get the same answer. What becomes interesting is if one team is children and the other adults, even more interesting if you separate them into gender.

This is the recipe that has been served up on reality television for over a decade. It’s what keeps people watching MasterChef, The Amazing Race and Survivor. It’s the same formula that broke gaming out of the arcade era into games like Tombraider.

If we set this as a text-based question in a blog or wiki – what can we learn? How helpful would it be to delve into past-research in order to try and make links between lab-rats and gamers?

What emerges from playing this game – in a game world – is useful. It can spawn a host of explorations and discussions in which those who are situated inside the game-world can explain broader, applied theory of how to solve more complex problems. They have shared experience, shared meaning and shared identity.

When people ask “which game should I use to teach grade 4 science” I can only answer that the question is floored unless you want to use a Taylorist ‘computer as a tutor’ instructional, education game. What would be better is to ask “what scientific phenomenon can we explore in a game-world”. To me that is the point of game-play – to explore scenarios that cannot otherwise occur.

This is one of the key reasons I dislike the idea of ‘gamification’ — the idea that people will declare new enthusiasm or be more work-life innovative, simply because they collect tokens or badges in a game.

What emerges from game-play in teacher education are raw materials. The building blocks of web pedagogy and social development strategies. And I’ve I’ve said before – building a personal learning network is game-play – it’s what happens next.