Students as designers of learning

Jonassen’s (1995) “cognitive affordances” resonated with me.  I like how it frames the technology as a tool that provides opportunities and keeps the learner at the centre of the process.

I think design of learning experiences should be a shared experience between teacher and learner.  Kafia (2006) laments that “In the case of instructional games, a great deal of thought is spent by educational designers on content matters, graphical representations, and instructional venues.  The greatest learning benefit remains reserved for those engage in the design process” (p. 38).  I like this idea that the act of design itself is a great way to organize concepts and “make meaning”.  Shouldn’t we involve our students in this process?

I have found projects to be a great compromise between student/teacher design of a learning experience.  In this ideal model, the teacher is providing the overall structure and scope of the project, while the student(s) are designing the content and purpose.  Our school is currently exploring how to optimize this process, with much help from the Buck Institute for Education (BIE).

Jonassen, D. H. (1995). Computers as cognitive tools: Learning with technology, not from technology. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 6(2), 40-73.

Kafai, Y. (2006). Playing and making games for learning: Instructionist and constructionist perspectives. Games and Culture. 1(1). 36-40.


  1. Once students are given the tools to control their own learning they can create artifacts that go far beyond what the teacher had originally intended. I think that transformative learning certainly opens up the idea that goals and pre defined outcomes that teachers create can be changed and altered as the technology that the student becomes comfortable with can be applied in ways that the teacher could not for see. It happens a lot in my Scratch classes as I probably learn more from the students as they take the block based language then combine and reshape the original purpose I had created the assignment for.

    1. Hello Nathan,

      Glad to hear that somebody else is seeing that too! My students come up with better ideas than I do all the time. Check this out:
      This is one of 10 projects completed by my grade 9 STEM students in the last 3-4 weeks of school. These kids find the place they are comfortable to push and they get a ton done! So much more fun than regular school.


  2. I had the similar thought as Nathan. I am using Scratch with my students for the first time this year. My guiding thought to them was to design a game that had a story or taught an idea. After that I let them go. As our projects come to a close I am in awe at the complexity of the projects and coding these students have developed. Let’s google that has become a common place phrase as together my students and I learn how to do things and their focus and commitment to the project has outlasted any of my wildest expectations. It really did show to me, the importance of students being active in the process of learning and that they are capable to challenging themselves more than any one lesson could. Great ideas around student/teacher design of a learning experience.

    1. Great conversation all!

      Sarah, its great how you encourage students to find answers to small problems they may have through tools like Google. I think as an educator, one of the most powerful things we can do is to relinquish control of the “knowledge” and let students know that you don’t know everything – but we can find the solution together.


  3. Hello Sarah,

    Great to see that we are enjoying the same thing! I have never used Scratch, but two of my girls in STEM 9 wanted to learn more about coding (instead of, say, building a motor powered skateboard) and came up with this:
    I am increasingly wondering why us teachers don’t focus more on finding out what engages students within the domain we are exploring. The girls really enjoyed the project, learned a lot about coding, and were way more invested than in any project I could have assigned. Also, I hate squirrels, so I was instantly sold.

  4. I appreciated your quote “I have found projects to be a great compromise between student/teacher design of a learning experience.” I went to one PD session who was showing how to use Scratch with Makey Makey. He talked about creating projects that have a low floor, high ceiling and wide walls. I thought it was a great way to describe what makes a good project design.

    1. Hello Derek,

      Glad you mentioned Scratch–it is pretty awesome. Two girls in my class chose to do a project in Scratch to become more proficient in coding. They really enjoyed it and it seems like an important tool for introducing students to a field that can be pretty intimidating. Vex and Lego Mindstorms apparently have similar benefits, although I have not used them.

  5. I like the fact that you brought up gaming in the classroom.

    I wonder if it is true that a “great deal of thought is spent by educational designers” vs actual game designers?

    A good next step might compare educational games vs games students play at home. And why students do not play the educational games until the wee morning hours.

    BTW you did not reference Jonassen properly in your post or your reference list.


    1. Hello Chris,

      Some ink has been spilled about the paltry efforts of educational games vs. big name games like GTA. Although the budgets and time allotted for educational games are not as good, I think there is great value in the design of a project, game, or anything conceptual. Ordering, connecting ideas, creating a framework etc. I like the exploring that James Gee is doing that attempts to tap into the value of video games for learning. Although there is no blueprint, he has great ideas, like the importance of “leveling up” as a way of breaking larger skills into discrete bits.

      I have updated my post to include the Jonassen reference, sorry about that. The original reference on this page
      appears to be wrong? I spent some time search through multiple Jonassen references from 2000 before finding the 1995 article, and another from 2003.

      Gee, J. 2007. Semiotic Domains: Is playing video games a “waste of time?” In What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy (pp.17-45). New York: Palgrave and Macmillian.

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