Some Thoughts on Interest-based Pathways to Learning

I have a confession to make. It’s a shameful, dark secret that I fear may be common to many adults around the world. And, when I was teaching, it was certainly one that I saw shared by many students I came into contact with. It’s something you don’t tend to admit to — especially as an educator. What is this thing that I’m reticent to admit? I’m not sure how I learn best.

Do I learn best by listening to podcasts? What about by studying diagrams? I seem to find those useful. I dropped out half-way through the Coursera gamification MOOC even though I found it really interesting. Why was that? I find taking notes sometimes helpful and sometimes not. And why is it that I can fail over and over again in a game like Super Hexagon but keep on playing it until I eventually succeed? How much of this is driven by what’s intrinsic to me, and how much of this is dependent upon context?

Theories such as learning styles and multiple intelligences come and go. They present some important ideas around student empowerment and the personalisation of learning in an interesting way but, to my mind, they lack explanatory power. To borrow a term from Alec Patton they’re the ‘sizzle’ to the steak. I can read literature in these areas until the cows come home and still not know how I learn best. We may need theory, but we also need application.

While I’d struggle to tell you how I learn best, there is one question that I’d always be able to answer enthusiastically: What would you like to learn next? Right now I’m learning JavaScript and have plans to give Spanish another go. I should probably pick up those guitar lessons again soon as well. Thankfully we live in a time when it’s trivially easy to gain access to resources and to learning activities. The problem is finding out the ones that work best for you. Perhaps that’s why we carry around in our pockets devices that can access pretty much the sum total of human knowledge yet use them to LOL at amusing pictures of cats.

What are the barriers here? I’d suggest there are three main ones:

1 Curriculum – the series of activities that build towards a learning goal
2 Credentials – the ability to show what you know
3 Community – the cohort of peers you feel you are part of, along with access to ‘experts’

For those who have been paying attention, especially in the world of Higher Education, the first thing you will think of will be ‘MOOCs’ or Massive Open Online Courses. Because of the various flavours of MOOCs I find the term problematic as a catch-all. Instead, I want to drill a down a bit deeper into interest-based learning and return to these three points at the end.

I came up with the diagram at the top of this article while iterating the latest version of the Web Literacies white paper I’m working on in my role at Mozilla. Because of the messiness of learning it’s an imperfect abstraction, but I hope it serves to illustrate a few things:

  • Many subjects and ideas link together
  • Leveling-up in one area can mean also leveling-up in another
  • You don’t have to learn everything about a subject
  • The learner (with some prompting) can decide the learning goal
  • It’s OK to jump around a bit while learning

This isn’t a learning theory, nor is it a psychological theory. It’s not a prescription for learning in all places and at all times. Instead, it’s an approach we’re using at Mozilla to try and get people hooked on improving their Web Skills, Competencies and Literacies. We’re seeking partners to help us finalise a Web Literacies framework and then come up with a badgeable range of activities for learners to be able to level-up towards their own goal. We’ve already made a start with some Webmaker badges.

In practice, this means that learners don’t have to wring their hands wondering how they learn best. It’s an approach that says “Hey, got five minutes? Try this!” Of course, we hope five minutes turns into ten minutes, and then an hour. It’s an unashamed use of game mechanics to draw people into the learning process.

Some people object to gamifying learning. Whilst there’s an element of “the way I learned was good enough for me” (see, for example, the comments on this New York Times piece) there are more thoughtful critiques. Jane McGonigal, a well-known games designer and TED presenter, tackles this head-on in her seminal book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Citing the observation by the nineteenth-century physicist Lord Kelvin that “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it” McGonigal talks about how game-like feedback systems can focus our efforts and motivate us:

“Real-time data and quantitative benchmarks are the reason why gamers get consistently better at virtually any game they play: their performance is consistently measured and reflected back to them, with advancing progress bars, points, levels, and achievements. It’s easy for players to see exactly how and when they’re making progress. This kind of instantaneous, positive feedback drives players to try harder and to succeed at more difficult challenges. That’s why it’s worth considering making things we already love more gamelike. It can make us better at them, and help us set our sights higher.”
                                                                              (Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken)

One thing you can expect from Mozilla in 2013 is a Webmaker dashboard for learners to gain access to the real-time data and quantitative benchmarks McGonigal mentions. You can find more about this in an excellent post by my colleague Jess Klein. For more about our vision for Web Literacies as an open standard try this post by Erin Knight. And if you want to help with building out the Web Literacies framework and/or to contribute some learning activities, get in touch with Carla Casilli or myself!

Finally, how does this help with the three points I mentioned earlier? How does it help with curriculum, credentials and community? We haven’t finished working out all the details, but I hope you can begin to see how our approach will help address some of the barriers here. By providing a range of interest-based learning activities with the help of partners we’re avoiding a prescribed curriculum. And, as I explain in a bit more detail in the Web Literacies white paper, by introducing peer assessment when learners level-up from Web Skills to Web Competencies (and self-reflection when levelling-up from Web Competencies to Web Literacies) credentials become meaningful.

But what about community? Where does that fit in? Well, as already shown by P2PU it’s possible to have both a synchronous and asynchronous approach to challenge-based learning activities. And examples such as, and Treehouse show us how communities can form around places where people go to learn new things.

I’d love to hear your feedback about interest-based learning. What are your thoughts about this approach? Do you have any suggestions? Please do comment below or get in touch with me directly: doug <at> mozillafoundation <dot> org.

Banner image credit: Doug Belshaw