Please note that this is an uncorrected manuscript of:
Kim, B., Tan, L., & Bielaczyc, K. (2015). Learner-generated designs in participatory culture: what they are
and how they are shaping learning. Interactive Learning Environments, 23(5), 545–555.
Learner-Generated Designs in Participatory Culture: !
What They Are and How They Are Shaping Learning
Werklund School of Education
University of Calgary, Canada
School of Education
University of Western Sydney, Australia
Hiatt Center for Urban Education
Clark University, U.S.A.
Interactive Learning Environments (ILE) journal represents strong scholarly work on
giving learners control of their own learning (e.g., Volume 23, Issue 1, 2015) with the use
of innovative learning technologies (e.g., Volume 23, Issue 2, 2015). We believe that
positioning learners as active meaning makers is changing the landscape of what we may
call interactive learning environments. ILE is concerned with “all aspects of the design
and use of interactive learning environments in the broadest sense” (ILE, n.d.). In this
special issue, we purport to interrogate and further our understanding of the commonly-
cited term, design, specifically learner-generated designs. This issue brings together
scholars from multiple disciplines, including learning sciences, literacy studies, science
education, digital media, and pedagogy, to examine the notion of learner-generated
designs in both formal and informal learning environments. Multidisciplinary
perspectives provide ways of understanding how learners take hold of their culture of
learning, shaping it to be more participatory, communicative, collaborative and digital. !
Throughout the special issue, the authors suggest an emergent culture of learning that
engages learners in reifying their knowledge and identity through artifacts and discourse.
This is the common thread weaving through each paper’s examination of learner-
generated designs. We argue that learner-generated designs provide opportunities for
learners to bring in their objects or ideas of significance to engage in pedagogic discourse
with their peers and teachers or mentors. Learner-generated designs focus the discourse
on the learners’ ways of being, doing, and knowing, identity and embodied experiences
of artifacts in different domains of their lives. In this editorial commentary, we draw on
the authors’ research to elucidate the notion of learner-generated designs. !
The individual contributions showcase empirical analyses of learners’ artifacts of
learning and group discourse to examine learner-generated designs and their practices of
participating in both online and offline learning environments. Their research questions
address how their pedagogical designs bring out learners’ agency as well as what
learners’ designs mean in their contexts. Drawing on Engle and colleagues’ (2011) notion
of expansive framing, Zuiker and Wright (2015, this issue) connect gardening practices
with scientific practices, which relocate science learning in the everyday setting of the
school garden. Other authors attend to young people’s digital media productions such as
online writing in a classroom social network site and Storywiki (Schwartz, 2015, this
issue), making music videos using Scratch (Fields, Vasudevan & Kafai, 2015, this issue),
and social networking and designing games as part of the Digital Youth Network (Gomez
and Lee, 2015, this issue). !
We believe that the papers in this special issue point to the important areas of research for
the readership of ILE. Schwartz (this issue) draws on Moll and colleagues’ (2013) work
on the funds of knowledge to provide marginalized adolescents with opportunities to
generate what Jacobs-Fantauzzi (2006) terms as inventos to connect adolescents’ writing
to their lifeworlds. Fields and colleagues (2015, this issue) propose the concept of nested
collectives in promoting collective agency in programming, which emerge from their
work as well as from the literature on collaborative and participatory design (e.g., Enyedy
& Mukhopadhyay, 2007; Magnifico, 2010; Sawyer, 2012). Deriving their research
predominantly from Brown’s (2006) seminal work in the new learning environments and
situated cognition (such as Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989), Gomez and Lee (2015, this
issue) purport to design learning environments that veer away from the traditional Initial-
Response-Evaluation classroom discourse to one that is situated in social interactions
between the mentors and novice experts. Hod and Ben-Zvi (2015, this issue) use the
notion of learning communities (Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999), which has been researched
in K-12 school settings, to foster collective responsibility over participants’ collaborative
learning norms in higher education.!
Learners’ design activities and participatory ways of knowing have great potential to
drive innovative interactive learning environments: learning is interest-driven,
motivating, and engaging, and its outcomes are meaningful to the individuals and the
communities they associate themselves with. We discuss how the authors characterize
and advocate for learner-generated designs and how they have transformed the learners’
practices of designing and learning into participatory ways of doing. !
Defining Learner-Generated Designs!
Children’s understanding of new concepts or of self has been associated with their acts of
designing (i.e., creating, inventing, constructing and expressing with and through various
symbolic and physical means). Drawing on the work of Jean Piaget, Seymour Papert
(1980) suggested “microworlds” as a powerful playspace for children to develop an
understanding of new concepts. In computer-based microworlds, children construct their
own worlds with objects to think with (e.g., turtles in Logo programming environment),
and develop complex understanding (e.g., Newtonian physics). Pea and Gomez (1992),
more than two decades ago in an ILE article, similarly advocated learners and teachers to
be interactive multimedia composers for developing deeper understanding of knowledge.
They argued for the use of distributed multimedia learning environments (DMLE), which
extended communication, community, and resources, thus teaching and learning, beyond
the classroom using computer networks.
In terms of developing understanding of self, there are researchers who draw on the work
of John Dewey to advocate children’s creative expressions and identity development
through arts and media production (e.g., Grace & Tobin, 2002; Greene, 1995). They have
paid attention to children’s need to express and imagine in their own pleasurable ways,
and thus offering visions and possibilities for their own learning and development.!
Nevertheless, the assumption that creative designs and playful learning are appropriate
for childhood only should be challenged. Resnick (2007) specifically asserts that a
kindergarten approach to learning (i.e., imagining, creating, sharing, and modifying
inventions) which promotes learners’ abilities as creative thinkers, should extend to all
ages of learners. Increasingly in recent literacy research, young people’s digital literacies
in community-based creative inventions, Do-It-Yourself (DIY) interest-based projects
and Maker Faires have intensified educators’ gaze into learner-generated designs and
participatory culture of learning. !
The studies in this special issue illuminate learners’ engagement in various types of
design activities, and their growth in knowledge and as participants in communities. Like
the studies we have cited earlier, the authors in this issue have also included learners’
designs as creative inventions. We, however, use the term with some trepidation because
this is a term that is widely used in educational research but seldom explained in writing.
While recent research and practice have increasingly paid more attention to the term,
design, in their pedagogical interventions (e.g., design thinking, design-based learning),
not many have pointed to possible ways of understanding what this term entails in
research. We attempt to offer an expansive notion of this term, based on the research
work published in this issue. We discuss design as artifacts in the making, as identity
negotiation, and as mediated discourse. !
Design as artifacts in the making!
This special issue offers a common understanding that design can be understood as
artifacts in the making. What is important is not the quality of the final products created
by learners but the emphasis on “the coming together of materiality and embodied
humans engaged in particular activities” (Boivin, 2008, p. 167). Artifacts are designed by
embodied values, choices that may be influenced by social and cultural interactions,
including media, family, friends, mentors and peers and the material properties of the
learning tools or resources. The material properties of learners’ artifacts and embodied
intentions shape the emergent culture of learning and hence, the learning environments
they are co-constructing. !
What is worth designing and how learner designs are culturally and socially relevant to
their immediate contexts as well as to the larger communities of scientists, programmers,
media producers are closely attended to by the authors of this special issue. For instance,
in Fields et al.'s (this issue) work, learners created music video mash-ups using Scratch to
learn established programming concepts and processes. The authors argue for the
importance by having students choose the music and supporting authentic practices of
programmers. They also observed the development of nested collectives as the students
collaboratively engaged in multi-layered programming and refinement, leading to a more
participatory way of designing while ensuring individual development of programming
Similarly, Zuiker and Wright’s (this issue) work supports learner engagement in authentic
science learning using cyber-physical systems of gardening, contextualized in their
everyday setting of a school garden. Gardening, situated in the warm and dry location of
the school, challenged learners to consider various conditions affecting the plants and to
engage in an iterative design and modification process in creating their garden plots. The
authors’ connected gardening framework paved the way for the mediation of learners’
collective design process through the cyber-physical system of gardening. !
Design as identity negotiation !
Merchant and Carrington (2009) argue, “the very process of becoming literate involves
taking up new positions and becoming a different sort of person” (p. 63). Nonetheless,
the construction of identities is contentious and this may be problematic when there is
tension between individual agency and authoritative structures within formal schooling
(Willett et al., 2005). Schwartz’s (this issue) work with the Latino students is a case in
point. In her study, she shifted traditional writing instruction that privileged teacher’s
authoritative voice to a more multi-discursive and multimodal literacy practice with
digital media. Schwartz built upon the richness and complexity of learners’ funds of
knowledge and treated home background and media practices not as a deficit; rather, but
as an asset that shaped deep levels of identity (Street, 2005). In Schwartz’s work, the
students made use of their identities to create narratives of the self in their digital media
productions and showed that they knew how to mobilise their identities as resources for
their digital compositions in a classroom social network and StoryWiki. !
Citing Brown and Duguid, Greenhow and Robelia (2009) claim that social learning
becomes meaningful when learning involves “developing a social identity that shapes
what people come to know, feel and do and how they make sense of their experiences”
(p. 1136). Like Schwartz, other authors of this special issue also demonstrate that identity
in learning is a negotiated experience where “[w]e define who we are by the ways we
experience our selves through participation, as well as by the ways we and others reify
ourselves” (Wenger, 2008, p. 105). Students in Zuiker and Wright’s (this issue) study
participated in connected gardening activities, where they learned to make decisions
about their school garden based on evidence and to negotiate appropriate ways of
handling plants in the garden, and thus their becoming of responsible scientists cum
gardeners continue to be reified. High School students in Fields and colleauges’ (this
issue) study participated in Scratch workshop (Collab Camp), through which they also
took part in the design challenge hosted by Scratch.mit.edu and its massive online
community. Within the collective of a team, students negotiated their roles and designs,
supported each other as programmers and creative designers, and tackled programming
challenges. At the same time, the interactions within the larger collectives including
interns, mentors, the instructional team, and the Scratch community, who represented
different levels of programmers and designers and helped them engage in iterative
modifications for improving their work and identify themselves with the community.
Their work demonstrates Wenger’s (2008) argument that there is identity in practice as
young learners learn the “way of being in the world” (p. 106) when they participate in
authentic science communities.!
Design as mediated discourse !
Identity is highly situated in the social practices, and discourse plays a significant role:
practices are represented in discourse and discourse plays a role in structuring practice
(Gee, 2012; Scollon, 2002). When we understand design as mediated discourse, we pay
attention to how the social actors in a learning environment, namely, learners, mentors
and instructors, construct dialectical and purposeful interactions using objects, resources
or learning tools that are meaningful to their evolving identities. Particularly worthy of
discussions is how learners’ talk accomplishes and creates the social practices of an
expert in media production and game design in Gomez and Lee’s (this issue) work in the
Digital Youth Network. Their work attends to the ways in which learners progressively
position themselves into particular expert roles as they interact with their mentors and
peers, resulting in “interactionally situated cognition” (Wortham, 2001 as cited in Gomez
and Lee, this issue). Their work emphasizes the importance of positioning learners in
situated practices and discursive construction of knowledge. !
Bakhtin (1986) uses the term ideological becoming to describe how people develop ways
of viewing the world. He also argues that ideological becoming occurs through the
mediated means of and within ideological environments (ibid). We draw on this
argument to understand how mentors, instructors and learners navigate interactions to
become and think like an expert, and how such mediated discourse itself becomes a locus
for design. Discourse mediated by social actors and their artifacts may guide ideological
becoming of learners in diverse contexts. A negotiation of ideological becoming is
expected when there are struggles to assimilate dissenting ideological viewpoints. Hod
and Ben-Zvi’s study (this issue) demonstrates a context of learners in a graduate school
engaging in designing of their group norms. The group of adult learners assumed that the
instructor held the responsibilities to make changes when natural conflict and difficulties
arose as they engaged in prolonged collaboration. This started to change through
reflective discussions in both the face-to-face setting and on the wiki in the process of
designing norms for becoming a community of learners. The students started to see
themselves as independent selves who had agency in making change in their collective
learning process, shifting from the ideological world of teacher-dominant curriculum to
their ideological becoming of a learning community. The fourth grade students’
engagement in negotiation of new class norms around the garden plot and plant
ownership in Zuiker and Wright’s (this issue) study also demonstrates such shift from
teacher-dominant governance, where young students were inclined to report their peers’
faults, to shared ownership of class norms.!
Learner-generated designs represented as artifacts in the making, identity negotiation, and
mediated discourse in this special issue point strongly to social identification. The papers
in this special issue emphasize that people not only learn tacitly from their environment
across different contexts of learning but also from the social interactions that support
learning and are shaped by the practices in which they are situated in. The key arguments
made by the authors in this issue resonate with Wortham’s (2004) argument that “all
learning necessarily involves social identification” (p. 731), where social identification
refers to the “process through which individuals and groups become identified as publicly
recognized categories of people” (p. 716). The individual and collectives transform each
other in the interactions they participate in. !
Put differently, learning and identity are inseparable. In challenging the assumption that
an interest of the self can be separated from the acts of the self, Dewey (1916) asked
readers to recognize that “[t]he self is not something ready-made, but something in
continuous formation through choice of action” (p.336). The artifacts created by learners
are not just the products of their co-constructed knowledge with others, but are reflective
of the shared practices of their affinity groups (Gee, 2005) and ways of being and
becoming. Learner-generated designs embody choices and formation of the self and the
selves in the course of the designing, be it a competent designer, a programmer, or a
responsible member of a community, and implicate their future choices of actions. !
Participatory Ways of Designing in an Emerging Culture of Learning!
With the aim of promoting learner-generated designs, the authors of this issue are shifting
from the traditional way of teaching and learning to allow the learners to take hold of
their learning environments through tinkering, experimenting, and creating media
products and other artifacts collaboratively (Jenkins, Clinton, Purushotma, Robinson, &
Weigel, 2007; Resnick, 2007) or what Thomas and Brown (2011) would identify as the
new culture of learning. We prefer to use the emerging culture of learning, rather than
new culture of learning although our use of the term does not contradict Thomas and
Brown’s notion of how people learn in participation. The word new is problematic as
being new is context-specific and may not be shared across contexts. !
We begin with the comparison between the conservative way of learning and an
emerging culture of learning that is evident in all five papers (see Table 1). We do not see
the two paradigms of learning as discrete and polarized ends. Nonetheless, for the
purpose of contrasting the two paradigms of learning, we represent them in the form of a
comparison table. !
Table 1. Comparison between conservative way of learning and emerging culture of
Conservative Way of
Emerging Culture of Learning!
(Learning by acquisition)!
(Learning by doing)!
Focus on learner !
Individual in the collective
To learn content !
(Push model of providing
To learn about, to learn to do
and to be !
(Pull model of using resources)!
Sfard’s (1998) seminal article discusses acquisition versus participation metaphors and
rightly cautions researchers about choosing just one side of the continuum and neglecting
the significance of the other in learning. For decades, schooling has been structured based
on the assumption that learning is a direct transfer of knowledge from the teacher (the
sage) to the students (the novice). The model of learning is often described as learning by
acquisition whereby the learner “absorbs” all the information learnt from the teacher. The
focus on the individual learner is rooted in a learning environment that centres on testing
and ranking students in a norm-referenced assessment environment (Bransford, Brown,
Cocking, & Donovan, 2000). In contrast, participatory learning emphasizes belonging,
learning by doing and communicating within communities (e.g., Lave & Wenger, 1991)
whose shared practices are overlooked in a transmissive model of learning. !
Educational researchers are observing how the personal and the collectives are
intertwined to allow one to perform a certain identity and learn within a collective with
digital media, i.e. “a group of people who generally share values and beliefs about the
world and their place in it, who value participation over belonging and who engage in a
set of shared practices” (Thomas & Brown, 2011, pp. 56- 57). The contemporary notion
of participatory learning model now focuses not only on individual’s achievement but
also its contribution to the collective goals, as demonstrated by the authors of this special
issue. The essence emphasized by the authors in this special issue is less on learning to
belong, which we argue is the key thrust in the community of practice (e.g., Lave &
Wenger, 1991), but more on belonging to learn, which we think are more representative
of how young people are coming together online in a collective (Thomas & Brown,
2011). The focus on individual learner in collective is most explicitly designed and
scaffolded in Fields et al.’s (this issue) work on nested collectives. In their study, the
collaborative programming task involved layers of participating in a Collab challenge of
the international Scratch community, while also successfully learning and becoming good
Scratch programmers individually. !
Several authors of this issue shared how young people participate in DIY media creation
through social learning where their “understanding of concepts and processes is
constructed socially in conversations about the matters in question” and “through
grounded [and situated] interactions, especially with others, around problems or actions”
(Brown and Adler as cited in Lankshear & Knobel, 2010, p. 19). This is the essence of
participatory learning emphasized in this special issue. A notion of learning by doing, a
learning model described by Schank, Berman, and Macpherson (1999) is evident across
all five papers. While doing the tasks of an expert and exchanging knowledge valuable to
a community are essential in learning by doing, the role of discourse in supporting
learners’ becoming and being expert-like cannot be undermined. Gomez and Lee (this
issue) correctly point out the importance of situated cognition and the role interactional
positioning plays to drive high cognitive challenges and suggest “talking into being”
(Heritage, 1984) is necessary when learners begin to think about becoming an expert and
participate in a discourse community similar to the experts’.
The same salient way of learning is also observed in other papers whereby the main aim
is to enculturate learners into expert practices through learner-generated designs. When
learners are enculturated into expert practices, this does not mean that there are pre-
determined methods for them to achieve the intended learning goals. Although the
mentors, teachers or instructors may need to design pedagogical interventions, these
designs are intended to facilitate learner-generated designs where the process of creating
involves learning expert practices. In Hod and Ben-Zvi’s (this issue) study, for example,
asking students to participate collaboratively did not spontaneously create a learning
community. Countering the students’ demands for the intervention into the groups’
conflicts, the instructor continued reframing questions in order for students to come up
with their own solutions. This led the students to (re)create, (re)formulate and refine
collective norms in their Wiki and own both problems and solutions. !
The learner’s own resources and identities as well as the teacher’s initial conjectures of
possible learning process constantly evolve throughout the process (cf., Cobb & Bowers,
1999; Dreier, 2003). From the situative perspective, learning progresses “along the
trajectories of participation and growth of identity” (Greeno, 1997, p.9). Learners in
Zuiker and Wright’s (this issue) study modified their garden plots in multiple iterations,
in which learners, together with the teacher, examined the evidence (e.g., soil moisture
and sun exposure data) and argued for the changes in watering the plants. How the
learners went through the iterative process of generating garden plots was not pre-
conceived, but situated in the context of gardening process. The knowledge was socially
constructed and shaped by the learners’ participation in a collective. Similarly, the focus
on learner trajectory was also evident Schwartz’s (this issue) study when the adolescents
drew on their funds of knowledge to advance their personal and academic goals through
writing in the social media. The outcome exceeded the previous expectation of a 5-
paragraph essay and motivated the learners to write authentically and meaningfully.
Fields et al.’s (this issue) study also focused on learner trajectory whereby the studio
model of design led to the development of thinking beyond computation and facilitated
the emergence of nested collectives. Learner trajectories in these examples are dependent
on individuals’ goals and interests, which are constructed jointly with others in a
community; it is therefore learner-defined, individually and collectively, in the
participatory learning process.
Similar points can be made by observing how technology is used in the papers. A
predominant theme among the papers is the use of technology to do what experts do in
practice, rather than using technology for content mastery in a didactic manner. With
authentic problems and meaningful contexts of technology use, the learners in the
research studies featured in this special issue are adopting roles that prepare them to be
more skilful problem solvers, networked collaborators and meaning makers. It is evident
that technology use is accompanied by new ethos of learning and literacies across the
papers, which is more participatory, collaborative, distributed in nature (Lankshear and
Knobel, 2007). Hagel and Brown (2005) describe this transition as moving from push
model of consuming resources to pull model of using resources (i.e., networked creators).
They suggest that pull models are “designed to accelerate capacity building by
participants, helping them to learn as well as innovate, by pursuing trajectories of
learning that are tailored to their specific needs” (Hagel & Brown, 2005, p.4). In push
models, the classroom is considered as an insular knowledge space whereas in pull
models, we argue that the classroom becomes a node in the network of knowledge
spaces. This aspect of technology use is observed in all papers when learners participate
in nested collectives (Fields et al., this issue) or Digital Youth Network (Gomez & Lee,
this issue), create digital media using their funds of knowledge as assets for learning
(Schwartz, this issue), use social learning networks such as Wiki to create new norms to
reframe their classroom discourse (Hod & Ben-Zvi, this issue), and engaged in scientific
practices and problem-solving situated in gardening practices using technology (Zuiker &
Wright, this issue). !
Conclusions: Looking Forward!
In this special issue, we have made some important assumptions. First, we assume that
educators increasingly value students’ voices and perspectives in today’s digital learning
environments. From an educator’s perspective, design requires systematic yet creative
applications of principles and methods (Masterman, 2013). The focus on learner-
generated designs envisages a new approach to education, which places its premium on
learner-defined contexts, their culture of learning and agency. This focus has been clearly
explained by the authors of this special issue. Elsewhere, educational researchers argue
for a progressive informant design approach to understand learners’ ideas and cultural
models and to eventually give them more critical design roles when designing an
interactive learning environment (e.g., Kim, Tan, & Kim, 2013). Second, we assume that
learners participate and shape their own lifeworlds using digital media. This digital
generation’s agency, identity, and voice are often embodied and represented in various
artifacts and practices they create in the participatory culture. The notions of learning and
education associated with teachers, classroom, and the school boundary are being
challenged by the thriving opportunities that surround people across all ages. Third, we
assume that technology, among many purposes, is used pervasively to (re)create and
share user-generated content in ways that blur the boundary between consumption and
production. The exponentially growing use of digital media, such as games, social
networking sites, digital videos, wikis, and blogs, is changing the way we interact with
others and society as well as the way we learn.
Drawing on the authors’ research and our own work (e.g., Bielaczyc & Ow, 2014; Tan &
Kim, 2015; Wang, Kim, Lee, & Kim, 2014), we would like to conclude this special issue
by suggesting the following principles!for! learning within the context of designing in
1) Position learners as active members of epistemic communities;!
2) Capitalize learners’ funds of knowledge as resources for learning;!
3) Situate learners in authentic practices;!
4) Create public learning artifacts for progressive knowledge construction; and!
5) Encourage technology use for learning about content, creating artifacts, and
becoming a member in a participatory learning community. !
We, the authors and editors, equivocally support that the focus on learner-generated
designs defensibly lead to exploration of newer pedagogies and deeper learning that
creates greater propensity for learners to direct their own learning in an ever-changing
world. The editors have been advocates of learners’ ideas and designs as we believe that
they are the core enterprise for growth. The authors of this special issue express similar
conviction in their papers. !
We acknowledge that there may be perceivably irreconcilable tensions when educators
push for learner-generated designs into formal school practices of learning. We are also
cognizant that many questions remain unanswered. One such question includes, if we
need to design for participatory cultures, what aspects of participation we should design
without compromising learner agency. The authors in this special issue have made efforts
to account for the complexity of interest-driven designs and participation, which is
intricately connected to the expansive notion of learner-generated designs. We
acknowledge that all the research presented in this special issue is highly situated in their
contexts of practice and the papers were written at a particular time and place.
Nonetheless, by bringing together these papers as a special issue in ILE, we aim to
elucidate the notion of learner-generated designs and how it can be actualised in the
participatory culture of learning. We hope that further research and scholarship in this
area will build on the work presented in this issue.
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