Open Learning


Open Learning and the Personalization of Education: The Dawn of Personal Learning Environments and Self-Regulated Learning

Status: DRAFT

Commonly quoted in career training manuals (and elsewhere) is the figure that 75-80% of what we learn is “informal” in that it is outside a more “formal” academic or training context, instead occuring during a persons normal workflow in which the learning is vital to the individual’s ability to perform their work. Coupled with this as well is the idea that a deeper and more lasting learning occurs by way of these informal, intensively process-oriented experiences that makes up such learning. This chapter examines these open learning experiences; the qualities and traits that potentially define these periods of learning; and contrasts them with closed or more formal learning practices present in most academic environments.

Open learning is quite pervasive. It is profoundly social on account that it can, and often does, happen wherever people do work together of any kind, and happens almost continuously for learners encountering the new and novel. Young people, by example, use games, media, and social networks in their private lives to enhance experiences and create informal or self-regulated learning opportunities that are deeply personal and connected to their sense of self identity. They have a certain vulnerability to these technologies according to researchers like Sherry Turkle (2012) in that these experiences often capture their affect and imagination wholesale in a way that their formal classroom experience does not. This affective and cognitive vulnerability, largely related to the infusion of enabling technologies into private and socially-based interactions, will be examined in another chapter.

As we enter this next era in public education for our public education system on a path to “the future,” we are faced with many challenges that have at their center a significant paradigm shift of teaching and learning  that governs the relationship among teacher and student. These shifts for the most part are being influenced by several key trends such as a) the influx of informal systems of learning resources (Sefton-Green, 2012), b) personal learning networks and environments constructed on informal resources (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2012), c) the technological platforms that facilitate learning interactions (Schmidt, n.d.), and d) how these systems disrupt the expected group learning process, individual development, and the teaching and learning social environment (Reynolds & Chiu, 2013).

What are the potential consequences for future learners and how might we respond as a community of practitioners focused on the integral components of our cultural systems that shape the future of our society and its youth? This article attempts to briefly describe open learning and some suggestions about the traits that define it as well as the affordances it conveys to learners. It also suggests reasons open learning might be having an impact in today’s teaching and learning environment as a way of framing potential responses to these shifts. Lastly, the hope is to invariably provoke some thinking and discussion about the use of digital learning resources, educational technology, and informal learning processes in a formal or closed learning environment as both an agent for change and as a potential barrier for our schools as they seemingly struggle with adapting to new realities of living and learning in the coming century.

Disruptive TechnologiesInformal LearningDisruptiveTech

Awesome Tool! Thanks?
Community generosity brings 3D printing to a classroom

It is gratifying to have the support of a larger community interested in the success of all students and the opportunities for students to have access to the latest technologies. It is also easy to appreciate how the introduction of a powerful, new technology tool, let alone several of them being introduced simultaneously, can be a source of great consternation for teachers and learners as they struggle to integrate them in their lives. Many technologies have a significant learning curve for an experienced technophile, can be unscrupulous or practically insurmountable for the a neophyte. In addition, one might scarcely have mastered the previous device or program before another gee-whizz gadget captures the imagination or limelight of the people. Keep in mind that these rapid transitions are occurring in the context of structures and institutions that are modeled to provide foundational, and until recently, stable, skills and knowledge in language arts, mathematics, and related sciences.

The transformations that inherently accompany the introduction of disruptive technologies into formal education settings invariably, and understandably, often lead to significant disconnects between the imaginal aspirations such tools inspire and the embedded expectations that constituted our public education system; namely the equitable opportunity for every individual to realize a relevant and useful educational experience. This clash is evident in the struggle with which organizations and institutions, both public and private, are scrambling to understand and describe the transformational phenomenon that are already underway in education as a result of social, cultural, and technological change, rather than defining the specific path by which these experiences many teachers and learners are having daily might be guided to becoming a coherent and productive basis for education in the present and into the future. Efforts at defining what might be required are, to be sure, difficult because innovation has come to outpace the capacity of many of our existing structures to anticipate and respond in a timely way. This has led to various voids of authoritative solutions in which individual teachers and learners are often finding their own unique path through the labyrinth of ubiquitous and fecundate information, resources, and imaginative sensibility that makes up the emerging education terrain.

Driving to the Future

By way of setting the stage for some of the perspectives presented in this article, pointing to prior art that potentially exhibit, and in some cases exemplify, the qualities and assertions made may be helpful. The examples that follow are attained first hand (whenever possible) and are student created products developed through largely project-centered pedagogy. The first example titled The Scenic Route was created in response to two primary, student centered objectives. First, how can visual metaphors convey a concept with out linguistic cues, and second, what is the technical process for animating an inanimate object as the subject of this metaphor. The claims associated with the assessment of this particular product are that it is a) a task that involves literacy deeply and in multiple forms (i.e., it is trans-literate), b) the voice and choice made in producing this product is inextricably linked to the student’s own connections to the learning outcomes as well as their interest in those outcomes, and c) the product is a snapshot of the student’s personal journey toward individualized mastery of both knowledge (namely, literacy) and technical abilities (21st Century skills and digital production) as they iterate and work through various solutions.

Some important points to keep in mind as we proceed further are:

  1. Content standards, be they formal or informal in nature, are but one aspect of many criteria that lead to a successful learning process and product produced. This theme will arise many times in evaluating such work since the open nature of this style of learning is often highly process oriented–sometimes at the expense of successfully mastering the intended content. However, one can imagine, and research shows, that iterative attempts and failures in the pursuit of a lofty goal can be fruitful in learning benefits.
  2. The interest that gets sparked in learners which leads to a desire for a greater level of mastery and craftsmanship is often evoked through a community of like minded individuals where one becomes exposed to many gee-whizz samples of exemplary work by others. One cannot always artificially construct or predict the source for enabling student engagement nor, in the same way, provide a garden path directing work to a pre-determined conclusion. Doing work that is pre-packaged and pre-destined to specific outcomes, while frequently necessary for primary learners, can prove to be soulless and bereft of significance for those who seek a more fulfilling and meaningful experience.
  3. Learners will frequently only seek out explicit instruction when they sense the need for it or are feeling stuck. As a result, some of the deeper qualities that are implicitly generated through the work are a) a greater tolerance for failure and resilience of recovery, b) increased determination and perseverance in the face of difficult tasks, and c) greater flexibility and an openness to alternative perspectives that may prove superior. The benefit of these outcomes are evident in broad adoption of these learning goals by many institutions.
  4. If the task allows for many potential solutions, and the resources, culture, and habitat are sufficient to the purpose, learners can readily adopt an attitude that leads them to frequently hack a curriculum in ways that make it distinctly personal. Providing a structure for this type of action is particularly potent in a networked age which affords both abundant opportunity and potential to every person.
  5. Learners, with the aid of some knowledgable guidance, co-determine the criteria for outcomes and success metrics. Once again, the learner’s need for autonomous action is paramount for creating an engaging and relevant experience. For this reason, we must look keenly at the relationship which governs the learning environment and the individuals who occupy it.

Self-Organized Learning

Based on an initial project in India (also see video below), Mitra et al (2010a) have proposed that learners–specifically children– are capable of self-organizing their learning when provided a catalytic ingredient (in this case, a computer) and given minimal support other than the opportunity to learn socially. This style of learning has been termed minimally invasive by proponents as way of differentiating it from formal education in which didactic instruction is central and activities are scaffolded significantly. In advocating for the introduction of this style of learning in schools, the researchers posit that lessons presented in traditional didactic fashion impose an artificial limit on student progress largely determined by expected curriculum levels and teacher misperceptions of a child’s learning and understanding capability. These perceptions are likely institutionalized into education structures not only in the form of curriculum, but also in seemingly innocuous features like age-based social groupings that can be indifferent to high degrees of variance in individual capacity, resources, or development. By deconstructing such broadly accepted and prevalent structures, or not imposing them in the first place, self-organized learning will presumably guide learners into an individualized path supported by the social configuration that organically arises. In this model, the social nature of learning creates an internalizing factor that helps learners in constructing their understanding of new knowledge, concepts, and skills by connecting it to what they already know and can do. Ideally, this same social learning will also challenge existing constructs that may have been outgrown or proven erroneous. This “active construction” of knowledge occurs when learners are situated to think and talk, particularly in a collaborative and explanatory way, about their learning and it’s challenges with others.

The jest of this particular line of research is that learner’s, when either inadvertently of intentionally provided with relevant tools for learning and left undisturbed, will typically self-organize their activities and social interactions in a way that facilitates their own, self-defined learning goals.

Mitra (2010b) also describes a mindset that accompanies self-organized learning environments (SOLE). A SOLE Mindset is driven by learner interest and choice that creates a more sustainable or life-long learning capacity in individuals. He also recognizes that learning in a collaborative social context allows learners to enhance the internalization of learning by diffusing a strong learning practice among the group that is subsequently observed, modeled, and, eventually internalized in individual participants (see Bandura, 1977, for more on social learning theory). The primary purpose of the social context, be it an organic group of kids or a professional learning community, is to provide learners with access to knowledge and technique relevant to a task as well as the encouragement needed for perseverance. In a formal context, Mitra states that the educators who will be most effective are those that are “great witnesses, supporters, and structure-providers, but not answer-suppliers.”

In addition to the above qualities, the SOLE also provides an environment which nurtures the individual’s innate sense of curiosity while allowing for the coupling of their previous experience or knowledge to new concepts. To realize a high level of achievement in a SOLE, leaners should also be flexible in their ability to “unlearn” or re-think their existing beliefs and assumptions so that they are open to experimenting with ideas and making errors on the path to having an experience that may be transformative.

Constructed Open Learning

The SOLE model, as conceived in the initial Hole-in-the-Wall experiment described above, might well be thought of as a “pure” or organic manifestation of an open learning system catalyzed by the introduction of a computer into an existing social environment. What emerges is organic in the sense that actions by the group and individual’s in the group are derived from innate capacities in each that acted collectively and independently in a transformative way. That is to say, their was minimal or no structure, process, or authoritative figure present to guide or mold the outcomes as their might be in the makeup of a more closed learning system. The term “closed” is used here to indicate a learning structure composed of a pre-defined set of curriculum, tasks, and pedagogy that is directed toward specific learning outcomes. In practice, one would not often find purely open or closed systems as described. More likely, a learning environment would exhibit traits that are both open and closed to a varying degree. The point being that there exists a broad spectrum of learning systems of which, for purposes of this article, the terms “open” and “closed” define the possible descriptive limits.

Learners can seek out open learning for various reasons related to needs in both their private and public lives. The task here is to describe how traits of open learning systems can inform a more traditional closed system of learning and conversely, how the structures of a closed system might enhance, and possibly improve, the effectiveness of those informal channels of learning referred to here as open. In other words, we are looking at potential ways to construct an open learning environment by identifying the qualities for such a system to function. Another task that will be required, perhaps at a later time, will be to define the pre-existing conditions or pre-requisites for open systems to take hold and thrive.

There are many emerging examples of this potential blended approach to learning that are both for-profit and non-profit–although this delineation can be blurred by the presence of premium, paid-for services within the context of an otherwise free platform. Open education sites, commonly referred to as MOOC, can be evaluated against both the open and closed criteria for learning. The open university or MOOC acts both to extend the formal learning environment by providing the resources normally associated with academic institutions in an open manner. However, they can also serve as an alternative to those same environments by re-contextualizing academic content in an open system that values a learners goals over the intended learning outcomes. Learners, i other words, only engage in content and tasks that may interest them. This dichotomy is achieved by transferring the learner from the closed context into a separate and open learning context.


MOOC poster mathplourde” by Mathieu Plourde {(Mathplourde on Flickr) – Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

By contrast, an example of an open learning experience being infused into a formal/closed learning environment can be seen in the wildly successful Hour of Code in which learners of many ages are given an open opportunity to develop knowledge and skills in coding within the existing learning structure and context. Yet, while exhibiting many of the qualities of an open learning experience, the Hour of Code represents a highly constructed (and costly to produce) experience that can hardly serve as a widespread model of open learning to be easily replicated.

Abundance vs. Scarcity

We need look no further than international climate discussions to witness first hand the dynamic between conceptions of abundance and those of scarcity. Abundance thinking looks to the intelligent utilization of resources for solutions while scarcity thinking looks to conservation and preservation. Abundance dictates solutions through greater technological innovation while scarcity calls for prudence with such technologies. One could, of course, argue to the exact opposite of this view, but that is the nature of dualistic thinking that polarizes dialogue rather than complex thinking that seeks possible solutions emergent from seemingly opposing positions.

For examples of both of these viewpoints, see Diamandis, P. H., & Kotler, S. (2014). Abundance: the future is better than you think (Free Press paperback edition). New York: Free Press. and Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2014). Scarcity: the true cost of not having enough.
In a similar fashion, education is transitioning from a scarcity perspective modeled on an industrial era of capital and resource intensive activity, to one of abundance modeled on the free and open flow of information. To be sure these two perspectives are still fully existant and actively negotiating. It is useful in the interim to offer a few of the more potent aspects of this transformation that are affecting a shift toward more open learning systems.

The Commoditization of Digital Resources
There are many pundits advocating for the free flow of digital resources and information as well as those that assert that, while production cost for such resources may remain, the costs associated with their reproduction and transport are increasingly approaching zero on their own. This trend is emergent with educational resources as well, where networks of interest increasingly provide much of the content, processes, and resources needed to master an array of topics at little or no cost (with the exception of the users time and energy perhaps). The trajectory seems to be having and will likely continue to have a profound impact on existing producers of educational technology in the same way that other, digital content-based providers have already experienced. The roles that these legacy providers fulfill in the delivery of learning–similarly to the role of the teacher–must continue to evolve toward being progenitors of the future rather than custodians of the past.

The Quantity, Quality, and Accessibility of Digital Information
Similarly to the ubiquitous availability of digital content is the gravitation to an increased quantity and quality of information, as well as the same movement toward services that encompass the consolidation and curation of information online. These new systems go far beyond advanced searching capabilities to include critical organization and delivery efficiencies, as well as tools that supplement personalization and assessment. In some rare cases, they also amplify the interactions of people to create a social environment that is both high-tech in delivery and high-touch in affordances they provide the user. If good quality content is indeed moving toward a nominal value, then worth in educational technology systems will inevitably be generated by the presence of these later features.

Always On, Networked Lives
It is not difficult at this late stage of the digital age to envision a time soon approaching when that which is not somehow networked is largely not considered or, perhaps, even found relevant to the learning process. The anytime, anywhere nature of the mobile network has thrown many systems into disarray, without a definable center or trajectory. The social and psychological implications of new forms of human interaction have yet to be duly studied or understood in a way that can help us to anticipate what the potential for benefit or harm will truly be in time. In introducing networks of open learning into the educational mix, learners are afforded the opportunities that, while newly minted, promise great dividends in the areas of cognitive and socio-emotional growth.

Global Sharing and the Social Economy
Other arguable measures of value in the digital information age are the elements of share-ability and sociability of learning content. The reach of both groups and individuals has been vastly augmented by the advent of interconnected, global channels that, while still governed by human dimensions, are largely indifferent to localized norms and unpredictable in their impact. New forms of social value are created daily by the confluence of previously unacquainted elements in the digital space. As we strive to understand what the latent meanings of these new social relationships are and the potentials they may have for learning, we can also observe clearly that they have significance for engagement in learning, and to some degree, the effectiveness of learning as well.

The Ascendence of Multi-literacy
Learners and educators are increasingly called to possess a broad repertoire of literacy capabilities which encompass both text-based as well as digital-based communication forms. Individuals as a result, need to be able to interpret and construct meaning in a range of communication platforms, as well as represent ideas in many distinct, but inter-related semiotic systems. Styles of literacy learning denote our core social beliefs and perceptions of what literacy is and who may qualify as a literate person. From one perspective, the digital expressions that are for their part directing us toward becoming once again an orally-based society, can potentially have a profound impact on other literacies related to text-based activities like reading and writing. Just as text-based literacy has dominated literacy practices for some great length of time, new enabling technologies like speech to text transcription may eventually lead toward preference of other forms of literacy practice.

Formal and Informal, Open Learning and Teaching
There potentially exists a “sweet spot” of engagement that embraces both formal and informal channels of teaching and learning. People embedded in today’s learning eco-system are engrossed in investigating the frontiers of tomorrow’s educational landscape. The tools and abilities we currently possess are but a foreshadow of what may come as these efforts consolidate into concrete social and cultural change. Central to these emerging structures is the factor of change as an implicit component. The learning forms which potentially endure, feasibly will be the blend of elements which fit most contentiously to the fluid demands of learners.

See also e.g. Rose, M. (2014). Why school?: reclaiming education for all of us for an additional perspective.

In a world of abundance . . .

From global climate change to mass cultural migration to mass global extinction, many of the world’s most wicked problems–and opportunities–are largely invisible without the aid of technology and the deluge of information that accompanies each. We don’t really know what the jobs of the future are going to be; what systems of language will be most relevant; or economic systems most predominant.

A possible difficulty in thinking about and addressing complex issues as a culture and as a society is a peculiar mindset that is largely reductive and often literal in its approach to ideas. This particular stance tends to drive understandings out of grays at the periphery of thinking, and toward well heeled and often polar perspectives that may have a better fit, but which exclude a great deal of potential knowledge. In anticipation of addressing this statement further in another article, the purpose here is to simply presence a broader context for the more specific task of understanding the why and how of challenges confronting learning and teaching.

By way of illustrating how certain knowledge can be somewhat unscrupulous without access the appropriate tools, abilities, information, and context, excerpts for two longer TED talks are presented here in which the links between various assertions made thus far might be developed. Links to the full length video follow each excerpt.

Aaron Koblin: Visualizing ourselves … with crowd-sourced data

Chris Jordan: Turning powerful stats into art

Adaptation and Personalization

A common encounter in today’s secondary classrooms, and even some intermediate and elementary levels, are students utilizing technology to construct digital media representations–hopefully linked to some form of learning outcomes. Whatever the context, one can easily survey students engaged in these activities and determine that many of the tasks demanded in the development of many of the digital forms can, and often do, a) rely heavily on a certain level of design thinking and refinement of creative practices, b) have a high level of complexity that requires both critical and analytical thinking skills to supplement the creative process, and c) immediately confront the learner with a learning curve for gaining proficiency that can be significantly steep and potentially discourage further inquiry without there being an adequate level of dedication from the individual to learn the task or sufficient support and resources.

Informal LearningPersonalized

In the above image from a high school, a student is shown developing a first-person perspective game scenario in which one of the tasks for successful completion requires the student to learn how to 3-D model various complex objects. In a typical school year, students are in individual classrooms for approximately 180 hours per year per class. In that time, a teacher may cover subject matter that spans a broad array of topics or tasks for building skills and knowledge. In comparison, it is not unusual for students to spend an equivalent amount of time mastering a single activity in the pursuit of their interests and desired outcomes. In the case previously mentioned, the student spent approximately 142 hours becoming proficient within the 3-D modeling program and rendering a single object from it.

The learner centered the video below depicts the documentation and reflection process utilized by a secondary student attempting to learn the skills and practices involved in the discipline of parkour. While the activity itself is not specifically scholastic in nature, it nonetheless exhibits many or all the traits one might expect in an open learning system.  As you observe the short video excerpt, note how many of the students thoughts, actions, and affect readily align with the traits of engaged learners so many teachers crave and speak about.

Qualities of Open Learning

To compare your own observations, a list of qualities that can be observed in this particular video are presented here based on this authors direct knowledge of the participants and tasks involved. This list is not necessarily exhaustive, but provides a point of comparison and further reflection.

  • The curriculum as such is self-directed by the learner and generated by connections to a community of practice.
  • The learning is highly adaptable to the capability, interest, and prior knowledge of the learner.
  • The learning, while highly valued by the learner, is still easily accessible with few if any barriers to participation.
  • Learning and practice is highly goal oriented (e.g., to master a specific action).
  • The learner is contained in a supportive habitat and culture that provides appropriate resources for achievement.
    • In addition, this environment also provides a context that establishes the boundaries of competency and desired outcomes.
    • It further establishes for the learner the norms, traditions, and limits of learning for that discipline along with parameters for expanding knowledge within that discipline.
  • The feedback the learner receives is immediate, relevant, and continuous.
  • Outcomes are mastery-based in that potential progression to the next level has specific and limiting pre-requisites of precise skills and knowledge.
    • In addition, mastery is largely achieved only through the challenge of extensive iteration, adjustment, and perseverance  through a well established praxis.
    • This mastery-based progress determines potential cohorts of learners rather than demographic or psychographic traits.
  • The process by which learning occurs carries equal weight to the outcome of that learning.
  • There is a readily available community of diverse teachers and mentors who bring varied styles, technique, and levels of mastery.
  • Risk and failure are key elements of the learning. In fact, one could say that they are required.

Challenges for Formal Education Systems

Open concepts of learning present some challenges to existing education structures. Unlike open learning that may occur in the private world of the learner (in their home or outside of a school environment), open learning in a public education setting may experience barriers that arise from well established traditions within what is thought of as a “formal” learning environment. A few challenges that open learning may encounter in k-12 or post-secondary learning environments are:

Transparency of the classroom: In an open learning environment, there is a shift toward a more shared working space and greater visibility from a larger community of teachers, mentors, and facilitators. As a result, many classrooms that have been previously a closed system of a teacher and students will experience a shift toward greater plasticity of roles and relations filled by a cadre of contributors both inside and outside the school organization.

Resource and knowledge sharing: As learning becomes increasingly open, learning communities will rely more heavily on networks focused on learning resources and practices for finding and delivering on their learning needs. This may mean that single purpose curriculum, developed and delivered in a closed environment should become increasingly less valuable to both teacher and students. In addition, individuals and groups contributing to learning networks will likely develop their own norms around social equity and value based on how reciprocal its members are in contributing to the communal pool.

Peer and mentor driven learning support: Traditional forms of teacher-driven instruction are quickly giving way to more learner-centered, experiential forms of learning. As this shift occurs the support and scaffolding needs of the classroom will inevitably require practice that is more contextually guided. The term “Guide on the side” has been frequently used to describe this shift in the teacher role in contrast to a “Sage on the stage.” However, a more fitting metaphor might be that of the “Sherpa on the path.” A Sherpa has the benefit of having walked the path many times before the novice makes their attempt. They are knowledgable of the pitfalls. A Sherpa walks the path often side-by-side with their ward and when appropriate, leads the way to define a safe route. Anyone with experience with a task can be a Sherpa and guide others to success.

Learner autonomy and control: Greater student autonomy and control also translates as less control for teachers over the learning process. This can be an unsettling prospect for many classroom teachers whose professional preparation programs emphasize their own expertise and classroom management as primary skills for credentialing. While still prevalent in teacher professional development, these precepts can be at odds with the style and goal of open learning.

Technophobia or lack of personal interest in educational technology: The technologies underlaying open systems of learning can have steep learning curves as mentioned and require that practitioners maintain their own capacity for staying current with changes in the technical environment. Some teachers may not see themselves as technicians in this way. However, without dedication to the technical craft that is enveloping our educational structures to accompany the craft associated with instruction and pedagogy, it seems unlikely that an individual can sustain relevance in the new learning economy.

Cost of purchase, update, repair, and training: A high-tech, high-touch education experience may have significant startup and maintenance costs associated with it in terms of purchasing and maintaining resources and devices as a technology platform for learning and engagement. This means that open education benefits greatly from leveraging resources as an open rather than closed network. Those systems unable to leverage learning networks may find it difficult and costly to stay current with rapidly changing technologies.

Open vs. Closed Learning

Closed Learning is at a basic descriptive level, an institutionalized and highly structured system. It focuses on standardizing skills and knowledge as predictable outcomes, assessments, and operates on a reward system that is extrinsic to the learner.

Open Learning is self-guided and relies on learner’s engaging in trial and error, asking for help only when they need it, conversing with peers and mentors, observing others in similar practices, reflecting on their own practice, and driven by the interests and goals of the learner based on intrinsic rewards and motivators.

While advocating for a more open-style of learning in most situations, both systems present benefits and challenges for different groups of learners dependent on the objectives of the learning and the intention of the learners. By comparing the qualities of both, a practitioner might be able to perceive opportunities for developing a blended approach to their teaching and learning practices.

Compliance vs. Creativity

As a thought experiment using the mundane task of designing and building a chicken coup, some distinctions might be made in comparing how different learning approaches can lead to distinct outcomes of learning. While the example may seem at first insignificant, the hope is that it can be extrapolated to more high stakes learning tasks. What is important is to understand what criteria, knowledge, and skills are needed to produce a result that is less of a “cookie cutter” solution and rerflects the unique qualities that each learner can potentially bring to the task.

Task: Design and Build a Chicken Coupe

Criteria for product:

  • House two or more chickens
  • Protect foul from predators
  • Fit in a typical urban yard
  • Accessible for feeding
  • Easy access to eggs
Formal Approach Informal Approach
Informal LearningFormalApproach

In a closed system of learning that utilizes formal and standardized criteria for assessment, a learner strives to meet the criteria in a manner that is “good enough” to demonstrate compliance to and proficiency of the knowledge and skills asked for.

Informal LearningInformalApproach

In an open system of learning that utilizes personalized learning and goals for assessment, the learner is still responsible for meeting any formal learning objectives, but has ample opportunity to develop and explore novel solutions based on interest and needs.

Comparing Further

Closed or Formal Open or Informal
Uniform learning for all learners as a means of leveling practice Customized/personalized learning for each learner
Teacher is the expert and go to person for answers Diverse knowledge sources are utilized as needed
Standardized assessment to determine proficiency achieved with criteria Specialized performance to assess success against personal goals
Knowledge is absorbed and maintained to the extent that it is needed for performing the task at hand Reliance on varied outside resources that can be accessed anywhere, anytime when needed now and in the future
Coverage of standards and the text resources that define those standards Use of existing knowledge and the explosion of new information as it arises to create new contexts
Learning by assimilation to standardized knowledge, skills, and outcomes Learning by doing that can lead to novel results

Key Features

Some of the key features that help create a more open learning experience are:

Learning is largely unstructured and involves asking questions, observing peers, and uncoordinated, self-directed learning tasks rather than a sit-and-get, lecture-style approach. (see e.g. Attwell, 2007).

Learning is non-local: Leaners and teachers use any-time, any-where learning networks for universal access to material, posting reflections on learning as well as task artifacts like design documentation, and commenting on other peer contributions. In a formal environment, this might mean that learning and communication extended beyond class time and physical location to be more inclusive of non-formal resources and outside mentors.

Learning is self-directed: The learner has ample opportunity to choose technologies and resources appropriate to their goals and the project objectives rather than pick from a pre-defined set.


Informal LearningHARDWORKThe following video clip may help provide a practical case study demonstrating some of the features discussed. It depicts the progression of style and form developed exclusively by students as they worked to master studio production processes. The original intent of the students was a student-led news production developed and produced by students for students. Productions were produced weekly and the excerpts represent the progression of the student form over a two year period. As the viewer will see, students first utilize an existing form for their initial attempts. Over time, they make various autonomous choices and learn skills and knowledge that help them to discover their own format which,  while still largely adherent to the dictates of the medium, display the unique form and voice of the students who created it.

Pre-requisite Elements

Within the broader formal or closed context where this example takes place, it is valuable to keep in mind several pre-requisite elements that will help learners be more successfully at open learning tasks:

Resources: In the classroom, online, and in the community, learners should have easy access to the materials and technology they will need to maximize their learning and experiences. This may mean significant investments in technology infrastructure and learning networks to facilitate access. Also included in this category are the resources available within the individual in terms of their attitudes, beliefs, capacities, and individual resources. A position of lack, rather than abundance in these areas will undoubtedly hamper the overall quality and affectiveness of learning.

Culture: Teachers and learners act to co-create a safe place for exploration, play, and creative expression. Included in this task is the explicit acceptance of divergent or tangential thinking and action, a less hierarchical classroom structure, and the absolute necessity of failing forward.

Habitat: The learning environment or classroom should be a physical space where learners are physically comfortable, facilitates both individual and group learning, and, above all, nurtures and facilitates imagination and creativity. In other words, learners should desire to be in the space they learn in.

Partial Bibliography

Attwell, G. (2007). Personal Learning Environments-the future of eLearning? Elearning Papers, 2(1), 1–8.

Bandura, A., 1977. Social learning theory. General Learning Press: NY.

Dabbagh, N., & Kitsantas, A. (2012). Personal Learning Environments, social media, and self-regulated learning: A natural formula for connecting formal and informal learning. The Internet and Higher Education, 15(1), 3–8.

Mitra, S., & Rana, V. (2001). Children and the Internet: experiments with minimally invasive education in India. British Journal of Educational Technology, 32(2), 221–232.

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Mitra, S. (2010b). How to Bring Self-Organized Learning Environments to Your Community

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The Transliterate Student


The Transliterate Student: Finding and Creating Meaning in a More-than-Text-Based-World

Status: DRAFT

In addition to the foundational mechanics of learning and using language in education, the ability to use language to construct meaning and represent our perspective of the world is of paramount importance. These two tasks, while language intensive in many cases, are not solely reliant upon ones ability with language itself, particularly in a high tech society. Communicating understanding and meaning comes from the ways that experience interlinks with our textual knowledge of a situation. The feeling tone and imaginal aspects of experience is just as much a part of our interpretation of meaning as the words that we choose to communicate it; in as much as words point primarily to the perceived image at the center of every narrative rather than standing apart from that image. Words may help us to elaborate and describe our meanings, but it is the image itself that carries the core of meaning and from which we construct our representations as well as further our creative and imaginative construction of our reality. Humans are at the core of being, image reading and making creatures. Without imaginal representations, people would be condemned to a descriptively literal interpretation of reality. Image, as carrier of analogy or metaphor, allows for the translation of meaning across any mode of representation such that we are able to detect the relevance–in that the communication contains some level of relevance–largely independent of the media through which we are communicating.

The premise explored here is that multiple literacies as a foundation of literacy education furthers the goals of education overall by enabling an engaging platform through which learners can both encounter content and express their own understanding of the encounter. Some of the more rudimentary ways that media technology contributes to a 21st century education can be seen in the short film below where an informal setting is used to allow students to experience, through first hand and supplementary encounters, some of the topics that they have studied in the classroom. In this case, students travel to the local Veteran’s Home to assist in the collection of oral histories from the Home’s residents. In addition to creating an archive of first person accounts of historic events, students are able to ask their own questions and pursue their own curiosities around the topics that arise.

In addition to displaying aspects of an open learning system (explored in another chapter), the video also may contribute to an understanding of how students might encounter multi-modal forms (i.e., those encompassing multiple media) of literacy practice in the context of what Van Leeuwen (2005) refers to as a socially constructed semiotic system. These types of systems are complex in that they require multiple levels of interpretation beyond linguistic interpretation. As an example, one of the students conducting the interview is of Japanese decent and must navigate a specific level of meaning in the interviews related to the interviewee talking at length about direct hostilities with the Japanese people during Word War II.

Local newspaper coverage can be read here: Oral History Project

Viewing this activity as a new form of literacy task can be helpful in extrapolating some of the qualities that fall out of this style of engagement for learners.

Linkages Between Learning Modes: An integrated approach and process helps to connect the dots of learning by linking a learner’s formal endeavors to informal practices that allow for exploring deeper meanings in the information they receive. Students are able to develop connections between information they receive from other sources and experiences they have first hand.

Networked Learning: The experience extends their education beyond the resources of the physical classroom and takes them into a broader, linked community that integrates concerns beyond the silo of any specific discipline they may be studying in school. In other words, students get to see how academic knowledge manifests in every day life all around them in an integrated way and share that learning back to the broader community.

Creative Expression: Students are allowed to develop thinking beyond a specified curriculum and bring their own judgments, talents, and values to the table in their encounter. The learning gains personal value for the individual because cognitive analysis and problem solving occurs simultaneously with affective learning.

Diversity of Experience: The mode of learning broadens a student’s perspective by immersing them in a diverse and sometimes unfamiliar culture or environment that they do not normally encounter.

Active Participation: The task requires that the student act to further their understanding and engage physically and mentally–both cognitively and emotionally–with the subject at hand. They are embedded with the subject in a way that connects their own personal narrative with the stories they study.

The Context for a New Literacy Practice

In a large study, Kaiser Family Foundation found that children engage with media technology some 11 hrs. per day.

Source: Kaiser Family Foundation, Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds, 2010.

This national survey found that technology allows virtual 24-hour media access as children and teens go about their daily lives, creating a context in which the amount of time young people spend with entertainment media has risen dramatically, especially among minority youth.  At the time of the study, 8-18 year-olds devoted an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes (7:38) to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week).  Contrast this with the 30-35 hours per week they would be engaged in a formal classroom setting. Also, because they spend so much of that time ‘media multitasking’ (using more than one medium at a time), they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes (10:45) worth of media content into those 7½ hours. It seems reasonable to assume that these figures have likely continued to increase rather than decline given the further prevalence and penetration of digital sources in both the public lives and private lives of everyone.

Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds is the third in a series of large-scale, nationally representative surveys by the Foundation about young people’s media use that is part of a broader Program for the Study of Media and Health.  It includes data from all three waves of the study (1999, 2004, and 2009), and is among the largest and most comprehensive publicly available sources of information about media use among American youth.

A highly relevant finding of this study to the discussion of literacy practices for this and future generations is data that shows only a small fraction of a young person’s time is spent with text-based, print media. The vast majority of media interaction (and thus literacy praxis for young people) is with non-text-based digital media that utilizes multiple forms of image and auditory representation through always on, networked devices. Again, this trend has only accelerated over the ensuing years and we are just beginning to experience the profound shift that these trends are having on how we think about doing literacy education as well as on an individual’s perceptions of what qualifies as a literate person and literacy practice.

Attempts to Define a New Normal

We are just beginning to understand the social and educational impact of new media forms as they take hold of our lives and our imagination. While many researchers in the past sought to understand certain social ills in relation to media effects vis-a-vis mass media like television, we are arguably heading toward a media rich environment that appears to be far more integrated in the way that media technologies are woven into our social fabric and therefore, potentially far more influential and affective than previous divinations of media effects might have previously prophesied.

Along with a robust, and often reactive discourse dissecting media and technology use in education as alternately “game changing” or over-rated or terrifying, we are left with a fragmented image of what the benefits could potentially be if a systematic and well-funded effort were made to assess, design, and implement evidence-based frameworks into our education structures. The fact that the school is such a high stakes environment where wholesale reform risks sacrificing an entire generation of individuals to the political and economic whims of current fashion is reason enough to maintain a high degree of skepticism about, and some level of inertia against any such movement. However, two dilemmas have created a new urgency to an otherwise stalemate situation:

  1. The exponential rate at which change can and is occurring due to a highly technological and networked community has created an undeniable force of global social, political, and economic transformation. In addition, it seems that this same force (or forces) are enabling the rapid creation of novel information forms that, while maintaining fidelity to epistemological convention, are none-the-less rapidly expanding the boundaries of systems such that many traditional social structures—in excess of and including education—are straining to adapt. Chief among the subjects of these rapid adaptive scenarios is the human psyche as well attempting to “fit in” despite monumental social and biological constraints. This paradigm shift—by virtue of the same tools that have instigated it—is also in the process of being documented and described while it concurrently unfolds. Our dilemma lies in the sequence of events in which networked systems manifest new social interactions, or memes if you prefer, that often circumvent current social designs and potentially lead to reactive responses that are dependent upon existing descriptive language and value systems rather than a more imaginative approach that might help guide individuals in the choices they make. As another way of framing the dilemma, our behaviors with technology are proceeding our deep understanding of it and thus outpace possible conscious and moral evaluation of the outcomes we are getting as a result.
  2.  As we seek to describe and marshal our journey into this brave new world by way of polity in action, the degree to which education reform endeavors promote emancipative goals as opposed to goals directed toward maintaining status quo ante, and current knowledge and systems of control is of paramount concern. The structure of education in the future can be either informed and designed by reflective processes, and shaped through communicative actions seeking emancipation of discourse (see Habermas) and greater authenticity, or vis-à-vis ideologically frozen relations built on distorted dependencies of power and control. The democratization of information flow and enabling media technologies has pierced the veil of existing power and control structures making the containment and governance of ideas and information less tenable. The genie has left the bottle. Only through communicative rather than instrumental reform actions can the educational system dialogue with new learning and social patterns emerging from the populist use of information and communication technologies and thus follow suite in the organic emancipation of information and ideas that is occurring already by default.

Another way of framing this hypothesis is to acknowledge the way in which new information and communication technologies have created an environment that is counter to existing models of pedagogy which place knowledge transfer from an authoritative entity to a subservient at the center of the epistemological exchange. The existing system utilizes instrumental action in relation to knowledge creation largely based on maintaining existing historical knowledge structures. New media promote communicative action in relation to knowledge creation and seeks to emancipate information that it might settle on novel solutions. This unfettered exchange of ideas and information requires no authoritative regulator or special means of access. As such, attempts at applying existing control structures upon what is fundamentally uncontrolled and unregulated exchanges are ill conceived at best and stifling to progress at worst.

An attempt at such instrumental or control oriented adaptations to a “new normal” are quickly being reflected in college and career readiness programs and in the adoption of vehicles like Common Core Standards where there is some attempt to integrate standards related to “21st Century” skills; skills that target behaviors of plasticity and adaptability rather than of rigidity and compliance. However, many of these new forms tend to be disruptive to existing structures as they usher in a paradigmatically different set of values than those of the containing system. For this reason alone, we will likely experience one of two outcomes from a systemic change that integrates new new media and technologies: a) the reforms will succumb to institutional inertia and be rendered stagnant over time, or b) the reforms will take hold and become significant agents of change such that systems surrounding them will alter significantly enough to create evolutionary changes within education and the related literacy practices. Evidence of this is springing up in the form of open universities, academy and charter schools, flipped and blended classroom environments, and in open, alternative forms of learning assessment and validation based on non-accredited entities.

Students are increasingly interacting within a globalized, networked, technology-based, and culturally diverse world in which both the informal and formal learning they encounter is linked simultaneously and without distinction to both the public and private social worlds of which they are a part. Information and communication technology, by virtue of its ubiquity and immediacy, facilitates a diminishing distinction between what is sharable, when it is shared, and with whom it is shared such that boundaries between the two previously distinct domains are becoming quite porous. There also seems to be growing expectation that an individual’s ability, their sense of self-efficacy, and the construction of their identity and feelings of connectedness are capacitated in these types of blended transactions. A learner must be fluent in many forms of social interaction and modes of communication to make sense of the world or create meaningful communication. As such, they are not always served best by engagement through a single system of pedagogy or epistemology that first must truncate many forms of knowledge to arrive at a manageable learning solution. Such pairing down also often precludes the use of a student’s engagement with multiple communities of interest or informal learning apprenticeships.

For the purposes of this discussion, it is useful to take inventory of what it means to be a knowledge-based and multi-literate person operating with a high degree of self-efficacy in a globalized and networked world. To that end, we might inquire as to what values and features the phenomenon of literacy presents today.

Some of the observable pillars for new forms of literacy can be described as follows:

  • Literacy exists in various modes of meaning and social contexts as a result of being networked and connected to multiple social communities or life-worlds of the individual (See Husserl and Heidegger for life-world and New London Group for multiple life-world).
  • Literacy as a human technology can experience disruption just like other human technologies in that it is subject to revision of the human experience and narrative. These disruptions have been less visible in that they have in the past taken place over centuries subject to the changes in communication technology. However, the disruptions taking place in the modern world are happening largely in the span of single generation, often multiple times in one generation.
  • New literacy can construct meaning through multiple systems of representation and is not limited to being meaningful in a single form. This implies that literacy is also somehow influenced by its mode of transmission in that each mode brings with it a symbolic way of representing meaning (see McLuhan).
  • Learning and communication that use new forms of literacy have the capacity to engage students both cognitively and emotionally. The importance of this assertion is brought about by the way in which multiple interests vie for a share of an individual’s attention and loyalty—eduction among them. In particular, commercial media producers engage and connect with young people through new forms and combinations of media that education could and should learn from.

The primary point being illuminated here that may be helpful for literacy educators to better understand this shift is that, the form of literacy education taught at many schools is often limited in scope compared to the experience students have outside of school. Meaning is seemingly constructed across many modes for students today and literacy education should therefore be taught as a process that takes various forms. The proposition that proceeds from this way of thinking about media and technology in the education environment is that there are tremendous benefits and advantages in the business and academic worlds for students who are literate in multiple forms of digital media creation and schools should model pedagogy that reflects learning that is fully integrated to take advantage.

Media Literacy

There are several frameworks for working with media that structure the learning process and help facilitate critical interactions. Most of them emphasize a) the constructed nature of media messages and b) the intent of such messages. Intent most commonly has a goal of gaining power or wealth, or to sway opinion and actions of others to achieve the same. It is also worthwhile to include analysis of the form that a media takes as each form both articulates to the construction and intent of the message. McLuhan, of course, most famously phrased this hypothesis as the media itself being inseparable from the message in terms of how and why the message is fabricated.MediaLit.pngMedia Literacy is conceived as the interaction of a media messages originator, aim of the message, and cohort of interested users linked through a Symbolic Meaning System.

Messages being constructed means the existence of an originator (sender or author). In traditional media literacy theory, the person that originates a message has been inseparable as both a creator and beneficiary of the messages intent. By extension, the message as conceived has been thought of as being authored for a particular audience or receiver, and carrying the beliefs and values specific to achieve the messages intent by way of its component form and content. The audience, for their part, receive messages through their particular emotional and sensory filters resulting in a particular interpretation and understanding of the message. This conception has been largely modeled on the qualities of mass media as related to messages chiefly moving unaltered from an originator to a receiver. Contemporary digital media messages have proven over the last few decades to have far greater plasticity in their capacity to morph in their meaning due to the ease with which they can be translated to new forms and context by a community or cohort of interested users. In many ways, it is the cohort rather than the originator that ultimately determines the meaning of a message as it weaves its way through the process of being received, interpreted, and re-originated. In the process, new cohorts may incarnate around a particular variation of the message that either maintains fidelity to the original intent, or may come to carry an extended or even an entirely new set of beliefs and values targeted at an alternate intent. For this reason, the concept of author, audience, and intent is re-imagined here as a triad of a messages originator, the aim of the message, and the cohort of interested users. At the center of this triad is the Symbolic Meaning System that consists of the coding and modality or form that a particular message takes. In this way, the meaning of the message is visualized as an emergent rather than determined process that materializes from the dynamics of each of these components interacting.

Information and Communication Technology Literacy

ICTLitCircle-small.pngICT Literacy entails the development of a progression of abilities for interacting with information in a digital environment. Accessing and using information is a critical feature of 21st century literacy.

ICT Literacy, as defined in the California Basic Elements of Digital Literacy – Continuum of Assessment Skills, is ability to use digital technology and communications tools, and/or networks to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, create and communicate information in order to function in a knowledge society.

ICT Literacy differs from Media Literacy in that the primary focus is on the content of the communication rather than on the the particular meaning that is constructed from it. In other words, while the information may take the form of a mediated representation like a Web page or video, ICT Literacy deals only with how that information is managed in the pursuit of meaning making. This is an important distinction as the task is to manage and use information efficiently and effectively, but not necessarily creatively. This does, however, beg the question as to primacy of theories. In the context outlined here, ICT Literacy can be useful in developing skills in the validation, organization, and general management of digital resources in the service of furthering abilities in mastering Media Literacy.ICTLitCycle-small.pngProficiency, or fluency in relation to information and communication media can be defined in a cyclical fashion where the purpose of information gathering drives the inquiry process while the ICT framework guides the progression of integrating with information.

According to the California ICT Literacy Council report, we benefit from the development of ICT Digital Literacy in the following ways:

  • The framework comprises the competencies to recognize information needs and to locate, evaluate, apply and create information within cultural and social contexts;
  • it is crucial to the competitive advantage of individuals, enterprises (especially small and medium enterprises), regions and nations;
  • it provides the key to effective access, use and creation of content to support economic development, education, health and human services, and all other aspects of contemporary societies, and thereby provides the vital foundation for fulfilling the goals of the Millennium Declaration and the World Summit on the Information Society; and
  • it extends beyond current technologies to encompass learning, critical thinking and interpretative skills across professional boundaries and empowers individuals and communities.

Literacy Competency Framework

Freebody and Luke define a Four Resource Literacy Model that expands the idea of a reader as a consumer and decoder of text–the primary focus of traditional literacy education. In this conception, literacy is defined in terms of a repertoire of capabilities (Luke & Freebody 1999) that enable effective analysis of text and constructing meaning from it within the broader socio-cultural context in which it occurs to create effective literacy for a world driven by multimodal forms of communication and technology.

Being literate not only means being able to decode written text in this model, but also being able to understand and compose meaningful texts; to use texts functionally, and analyze them critically. These practices are conceived as equally important and often happening congruently.

In the context of discussing transliteracy, texts can be conceived as encompassing multiple media forms with interdependent, yet distinct semiotic systems and modes. For this reason, it is helpful to change the word “text” in the original model, to “media” as a means of distinguishing the broader context through which meaning making is currently occurring.

Informal LearningCompetencyFramework
The Four Resources of New Literacy Competency adapted from Freebody & Luke “Four Resources” Literacy Model.

Serafini (2012) further extends the model of four resources to include a set of accompanying social practices for reading–viewing when transacting multi-modal texts in these various capacities. These include the reader-viewer as correspondingly (1) navigator, (2) interpreter, (3) designer, and (4) interrogator, as a path to defining the reader-viewer as an active participant, in partnership with the text and media, for constructing significance and, as skills develop, possible responses in the form of creative synthesis into new forms and meanings.

For more, see Serafini, F. (2012).

A brief synopsis of each element in the repertoire of abilities that incorporates both an updated view of text as media as well as Serefani’s reader-viewer role in relation to the four capacities of literacy can help bring a sense of how literacy education might approach an extension of language arts development, or indeed, just about any topic area.

As a Code Breaker: Students need to be able to “read” and navigate the semiotic system that governs their chosen mode of communication. In many cases, this may mean fluency in the forms associated with visual and other, non-linear designs and structures co-occurring with the language in a particular media that leads to a capacity for interpreting meaning.

As a Meaning Maker: Students need to have semantic competence in the symbolic system governing their mode of communication and participate in the construction of meaning. Again, competency with the acceptable forms that govern different modes of delivery and a student’s ability as an interpreter who is able to extract “viable meanings and responses” (Serafini, 2012, p. 155)  from various media forms and contexts can contribute to an updated view of literacy.

As a Media User: Students need to develop their practical skills and knowledge in creating communications with various forms of media such that they are able to utilize appropriate “sub-text” or qualities of the media to convey meaning and design proper representations through the media. This concept applies to both interactions with existing texts and in the production of new texts.

As a Media Critic: Students need to critically evaluate and analyze their own work and the work of others, such that the meta-cognitive process incorporates an interrogation of various layers in the interpretation and design of media to include the socio-cultural context in which many communications occur as well as linguistic and semantic concerns.

Practical Production Skills and Knowledge

In defining transliterate tasks for education, it may be helpful to attend to various practical skills and knowledge that will facilitate students in attaining a status as proficient producers of media in addition to the considerable consumption practices they already engage in. These qualities tend to be less emphasized as literacy practices, but can have an influence on the depth with which students can navigate and interpret new media forms they might encounter.

Technical Proficiency: Many media have specific sets of technical skills and knowledge that can have profound impact on the design and context of the form as well as how it may be navigated and interpreted. Having some ability in the technical aspects of different media form allows students to develop sensitivity to how authors may utilize these elements in manipulating a reader-viewers perceptions and sense making.

Contextual Relevance: Media forms often possess well established conventions, traditions, and history of symbolic design and aesthetics that are used to convey values and beliefs. This quality is sometimes amplified in newer forms of socially mediated communications where a cohort of authors and consumers might contribute equally to meaning making. A certain level of social and psychological understanding can also add additional depth to the interpretation of mediated communications.

Design Semiotic Thinking: Understanding the creative process by which humans represent their world can be a powerful tool in converting a reader-viewer into an author. This transition gives a student the ability to more fully contribute their voice to the growing chorus in new media forms.

Critical Framing and Response

Rigor and critical thinking in education is largely associated with scientific processes that strives for some form of quantitative result. This perspective is mirrored in standardized assessments. Scientific thought looks for a convergence of thinking on a single solution for the purposes of predictability and technical control. These processes, of course, work beautifully for the pursuit of technical knowledge in relation to technological advances. However, they do little for the aesthtetic, social, cultural, and psychological advancement of knowledge and understanding. To active what I would call depth of understanding, we need to go further with a critical response that asks questions not only related to traits, but also to purpose. Rigor in media education is derived from framing the cultural clearing in which knowledge construction exists and the type of consciousness that is constructed from it–questioning the points of view, bias, and power relationships present in mediated relations. We interpret the social and cultural context of the media and view it with a critical stance to tease out its purpose.

Center for Media Literacy Five Key Questions and Core Concepts (Q/TIPS) for Media Consumers and Producers

Key Word Core Concept Key Questions in
 Key Questions in Construction (Producer)
Authorship All media messages are constructed. Who created this message? What am I authoring?
Format Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention? Does my message reflect understanding in format, creativity and technology?
Audience Different people experience the same media message differently. How might different people understand this message differently? Is my message engaging and compelling for my target audience?
Content Media have embedded values and points of view. What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in or omitted from this message? Have I clearly and consistently framed values, lifestyles and points of view in my content?
Purpose Most media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power. Why is this message being sent? Have I communicated my purpose effectively?

A media literacy critical framework provides a way to teach a methodology for critical thinking and a process of inquiry as it relates to encounters with multiple modes of media. The Five Core Concepts shown here are based on the work of Len Masterman and have been formalized into the above framework by CML to be used as an underlying structure of critique and analysis in various curricular situations.

Media analysis is the place to start in being able to deconstruct or “take media apart.” Keep in mind that media literacy involves both “taking media apart” through deconstruction, and “putting media together” through construction or production. Media literacy involves both sides of the coin, like reading and writing, and like reading and writing, before one can write, one must be able to read.

The above “Q/TIPS” serve as a “metaframe” that teachers, students and parents can grasp and begin to use immediately as a starting point; to build training, curricula, and assessments around the metaframe. The inquiry process deepens and takes hold as the central methodology for critical thinking and learning across a curricula.   Furthermore, this metaframe is an easier way to introduce 21st century skills (as described below) than some of the more complex frameworks which, although representing desirable outcomes, are very difficult to implement and immediate engage teachers.Alphabet

The alphabet above serves as a simple way of demonstrating how meaning is embedded into the most mundane of media designs. It carries the deeper values instilled through encounters through multiple modes of encounters by their viewers.

Core Concept #1: Authorship or Constructedness

All media messages are constructed.

Key Question for Deconstruction/Reading-Viewing

  • Who created this message?

Key Question for Construction/Production

  • What am I authoring?


When we construct media, we put media together, in much the same way that we construct other human objects. Someone is the author of every message and piece of media, so we ask the question, “Who created this message?” Understanding this idea of media construction and being continuously aware of this constructedness can be exemplified in a simple thought practice: When you watch a TV program on Animal Planet about bears (like those pictured above), what does one see the most of?

The obvious and most common answers might be bears, but the critical answer is that we see images of bears framed by a photographic author; not bears in actuality.

The point being in every such encounter is that, someone is the author!

Re-Presenting or Representing

In putting media together or constructing it as authors, we are, in fact, designing and building something. And so we ask the question, “What am I authoring?” As we think about this question, it’s important to recognize that we are re-presenting – or representing – something. This is the most important idea behind the Key Questions: that all media messages are constructed, that we make them to Re-Present something.

As we construct, we simultaneously deconstruct…and so both skills and both sets of questions work hand in hand as each key concept is explored.

This video clip has three parts to it. Note the feeling tone difference of each part as it is watched.

The first clip: Might be characterized as static or boring. Why? Because the sound is missing! This is a “quick trick” in working with students: shut off the sound, and it’s amazing how the visual message becomes the focus.

Second Clip: happy, light, airy….Here’s a question: was this the same text as you saw at the beginning?

Third Clip: scary, tense, foreboding. Again, was this the same text as you saw before?

The text is the same. But think about the message and how different it becomes, depending upon the sound and the music. Music is the language of emotion; it tells us and cues us as to the feelings that the producers of the text want us to experience and feel. For that reason, sound is probably the most influential component of media.

Core Concept #2: Format and Technique

Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.

Key Question for Deconstruction/Reading-Viewing

  • What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?

Key Question for Construction/Production

  • Does my message reflect understanding in format, creativity and technology?

Knowledge of technique: visual, music, performing, dance, each with a creative and unique language

This core concept and key questions relate to knowledge of the design arts: visual arts, music, performing arts/theater/storytelling, dance – all of the design arts play an important role in media messages. The type of technology used to convey the message also has an impact on the message, so that, for example, a webpage requires a different display and amount of content than a cell phone screen. In every case, there is a creative language associated with the particular forms being used. For example, music has notes and a distinct way of describing sounds. Dance has choreography and ways of describing dance steps. Websites have home pages and navigation bars and other words to describe their functionality.

Core Concept #3: Audience

Different people experience the same media message differently.

Key Question for Deconstruction/Reading-Viewing

  • How might different people understand this message differently?

Key Question for Construction/Production

  • Is my message engaging and compelling for my target audience?

When you go to a movie with a friend, do you “see” the same movie? We may see the same text, but we experience a different movie because we are who we are. Every time a movie r other media is released, there are sometimes multiple versions of the movie dancing in people’s heads.

Core Concept #4: Content

Media have embedded values and points of view.

Key Question for Deconstruction/Reading-Viewing

  • What lifestyles, values and points of view are represented in or omitted from this message?

Key Question for Construction/Production

  • Have I clearly and consistently framed values, lifestyles and points of view in my content?

This core concept and key questions refer to the content that a producer represents in their work. No content can represent every possible lifestyle, values, and points of view, so choices must be made by the author to include or omit material in the construction.

If you make a circle with your hand in front of your eyes, just like a camera lens, you’ll see that you choose to include or omit certain visuals you are framing your field of vision. When you are choosing, you will automatically represent yourself in those choices. You “bring yourself” to every decision you make, and although you may try to be fair and impartial, you will, by definition, always have bias because you cannot possibly show everything from everyone’s point of view. By definition, media is always biased and mediates a communication via these biases.

This video was produced as part of a parent media literacy program that CML conducted at Leo Politi Elementary School in Los Angeles from 2002-2005.

(Some guiding questions:   Whose point of view is the story told from? What kind of person do you think this lady is? What are some values, lifestyles and points of view that she represents? Who is omitted? What other values, lifestyles and points of view are omitted? ).

In a very brief encounter with this person, we learned a lot about her story. And keep in mind, since this clip was also constructed, we could analyze or deconstruct the clip itself as a way of determining the authorship and the purpose of the video clip.

Core Concept #5: Purpose

Media are organized to gain profit and/or power.

Key Question for Deconstruction/Reading-Viewing

  • Why is this message being sent?

Key Question for Construction/Production

  • Have I communicated my purpose effectively?

Young people do not always know what the word “profit” really means. A simple definition is: Profit (or Loss) = Income – Expenses. It’s worth reviewing that definition to make sure that everyone has a consistent idea. In regards to the word power, CML’s intent is to use the word power in a broad sense, meaning “influence.” Everyone who communicates is trying to influence, every day, in some way or other.MLK

This screen shot of was taken recently and is an exact reproduction of the website’s homepage at that time.

What do you notice about this homepage?

What are some “flags” on how this website might depict Dr. King?

(The hotel room references and obscenities/sexual intimations; Why the King holiday should be repealed; Black invention myths; Jews and civil rights/Who led the civil rights movement).

There are definitely mixed signals from this homepage; this is a well-known hate site promoting a world view of racial discrimination.  This website is a prime example of a power motive, in which influencing people’s hearts and minds is the most important objective.

Certainly, there are situations in which both profit and power are motivations (generally one reinforces the other), but it is important to recognize that in some cases, power is more important to people than money!

The need for students to possess the ability to both decode and encode the various forms of digital communication requires that educators rethink critical thinking in such a way that it encompass a broader definition of what constitutes knowledge of various subjects so that it includes analysis of context and critique of both content and form.

While being a strongly constructivist view of education, the free form nature of new media has the ability to be a strongly disruptive force in the very process of construction. We see this readily in the spontaneous and rapid utilization of new media in public and private realms of social discourse and in cultural references that form and die sometimes over night. It is this very impermanence of specific technology that drives the need for a structured approach to knowledge when it comes to communicative media. If we extend the Four Resources Model of Literacy to include a broader range of media other than text alone, we can develop media literacy practices that can help guide student learning in technical ability and in content literacy.


One approach to this from the perspective of teacher and student development and pedagogy is the TPACK model that looks at the integration of technology as a function of interacting with and delivering content knowledge. The implication of all these models are that digital media technology is inextricably merged with education practices wherever learning is taking place and literacy practices, to a large extent, are no less effected by this trend. A pedagogical practice needs to take into account how semiotic development operates within a technologically sophisticated environment for it to be relevant in education moving forward.

Adjoining 21st Century Competencies: Six C’s

Many institutions are adopting a core set of what are termed 21st Century Skills. These are also referred to as Soft Skills and have been a staple in the world of vocation or career-oriented work and training for many decades. In this particular context, we are interested in how these skills might serve the needs of building transliteracy proficiency throughout various curricula.

The Six C's The Six C’s

  • Communication (Multiliteracy): Literacy learning needs an extension of practice and assessment to include multiple modes of representation and meaning making, as well as understanding the utilization of multiple semiotic systems and how they can potentially be used, combined, and, innovated vis-a-vis the Four Resources Model.
  • Critical Thinking (Design and Semiotic Thinking): Literacy learners need to deepen understanding through a rigorous exploration, iterative prototyping, and elaboration and refinement (extension) of  practices via adherence to a critical, analytic framework that can serve to deconstruct literacy practices as well as inform the construction of messages in all their forms.
  • Collaboration (Connectedness/Networked): Learners will participate and connect to an extended, networked or linked learning community that is interest and peer-based within the ecology of an open, public learning commons.
  • Creativity (Elaboration and Innovation): Involves exploration, discovery, innovation, and an abundance of imaginative, complex, and diverse ideas through purposeful play with established meaning systems to discover their potential for new expression and representation.
  • Citizenship (Global Audience Awareness): Learners need to be conscious that the messages they send and receive are no longer limited in scope and audience. Communications are radically public and will be consumed and re-mixed relentlessly into a cavalcade of personalized meanings.
  • Character (Personal Narrative): Learners above all need to understand that their experience and voice matters. To that end, developing a series of Habits of Mind which structure a learners encounters with multi-modal media sources can reinforce the individuals engagement and success with the Four Literacy Resources and Social Practices.

 The 16 Habits of Mind



While challenges in literacy education can be present in any setting where student’s learn, some of the challenges to be navigated in a multi-modal or transliterate pedagogy are:

  1. An expanded Participation Gap, where students who may already experience gaps in literacy education can be further marginalized by unequal access or ability to participate and use the necessary tools and resources associated with multi-modal literacy. Solution: Capacity building within the literacy education system.
  2. There may also be present a Transparency Issue that lacks understanding and practice of how and when media and language shapes human perception. Solution: Critical Media Framework and Multi-modal Literacy Pedagogy.
  3. There is a distinct Ethics Challenge for the producer and user of media tools and resources that requires training and socialization to prepare students as media makers. Solution: Education on Copyright, Fair Use, Privacy, Safety, and Digital Ethics.

For more on these challenges, see Jenkins (2009)

Emerging Practice and Genres of Participation

Ito el al (2009) describe a literacy ecosystem in which individuals operate within a highly networked public commons and are developing a more interest and peer-based system of learning that is driven by various genres or levels of participation.


From the summary of their report, they identify the following Genres of Participation that govern a participants level of commitment and intensity of participation.

Hanging out is primarily a friendship-driven genre of participation in which young people spend their casual social time with one another. In interest-driven groups that result in friendships, we also see hanging out activity, but most youth hanging out is with local friendship-driven networks. Sites such as MySpace and Facebook, and communications technologies such as instant messaging (IM) and text messaging, provide a light-weight means for youth to stay in ongoing social contact and to arrange real-life gatherings. Furthermore, new media provide a topic for conversation, in the form of forwarding and linking to interesting pieces of online media, as well as a focus for activity, such as when youth play social games together or share music. As we will illustrate, hanging out may also take place within the context of home and family life. Messing around represents the beginning of a more intense media-centric form of engagement. When messing around, young people begin to take an interest in and focus on the workings and content of the technology and media themselves, tinkering, exploring, and extending their understanding. Some activities that we identify as messing around including looking around and searching for information online as well as experimentation and play using a range of media, such as digital and video cameras, music and photo editing software, and other new media.

Messing around is often a transitional genre, in which kids move between hanging out and friendship-driven forms of participation to more interest-driven genres of participation. Geeking out involves the more expertise-centered forms of interest-driven participation surrounding new media that we found among some of the gamers, fans, and media producers we encountered in our study.

Geeking out involves intensive and frequent use of new and, at times, relatively obscure media, high levels of specialized knowledge, alternative models of status and credibility, and a willingness to bend and/or break social and technological rules.


This short video presents some of the concepts shared in this work in a brief Ignite-style format. While not a comprehensive summary of the above sections, it will serve as a brief recap of some of the more salient ideas that have been focused on here.

Ignite presentation at the New Tech Network Annual Conference. Grand Rapids, MI. July 11, 2012.

Partial Bibliography

Itō, M., & Antin, J. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out kids living and learning with new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. Retrieved from

Ito, M., Horst, H., Bittanti, M., Boyd, D., Herr-Stephenson, B., Lange, P. G., … Robinson, L. (2008). Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Retrieved from

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: media education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Luke, A., & Freebody, P. (1999). Further notes on the four resources model. Reading Online, 3.

Serafini, F. (2012). Expanding the four resources model: reading visual and multi-modal texts. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 7(2), 150–164.

Van Leeuwen, T. (2005). Introducing social semiotics. London ; New York: Routledge.

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The Integral Journey by James D Brown, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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