M. R. P.

Make App

Making thinking visible…

a Major Research Project

“Thick Situations: paths towards a framework for 21st-century learning design.”

Wordle made from essay.


This project seeks the future of technology-enhanced design of learning experiences, documenting and demonstrating many of the ideas it exposes. A recognition emerged in the 1980s, bolstered by research into centuries of apprenticeship, that all learning is social. It was accompanied by an intuition that technology might someday accomplish that, and free it from restrictions of time and place. But who provides the software and why? The search leads to the single most effective free tools now available to plan, organize, deliver and assess situated learning: open source mind mapping programs. I discuss tools and techniques that have proven ability to aid in taming  wicked problems. But until users can program, and we teach programming as we do reading and writing, and unless policy overtly supports creativity and exploration in areas beyond profit-making they will remain disjointed, and education will continue to fall short of its potential for social transformation.

In part 1 of this paper I revisit the work of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger into communities of practice, and of John Seely Brown, Alan Collins, Paul Duguid, and Ann Holum into cognitive apprenticeship…

…I establish the importance of ethnography to the search for new paradigms of schooling enhanced by technology situated in an asynchronous, digital, global society. I describe the cognitive apprenticeship framework (CAF) and help the reader situate it historically and philosophically, and, I hope, holistically within the context of architecture, ethnography, psychology and computer sciences from which it comes to the design-based practices whence it leads. I explain what I mean by “thick situation.”

In the second part I discuss what I call the “deeper, wider document,” and show how it might be used to collect digital thick descriptions (e.g., Geertz, 1973 “thick descriptions”). I present evidence the 21st century classroom now calls on us to define new literacies for multimedia presentation and instructional design…

…and thicker, deeper skills for digital storytelling, including scripting and programming. Looking at each piece of the learning environment in turn—content, methods, sequencing, and sociology—I report on efforts, and make some of my own, to map the cognitive apprenticeship framework to real-world applications, and to name promising software. Presenting practical examples including code of my own, I relate my story—digitally, of course and—using a deeper, thicker definition of the word “situation” informed by part 1—suggest a starter kit for a variety of project-based learning (PBL) “situations”; Making thinking visible

In the final part I discuss wider implications of the sociology of online learning and apprenticeship within the context of such situations as Twitter, the blogosphere, and such macro events as the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall St.…

…or trends in education reform such as neo-liberal movements that may place “entrepreneurship” high on the list of 21st century competencies, or presume high-stakes testing as a viable basis for policy. I find that open web technologies, particularly HTML, CSS and JavaScript, are themselves beginning to define a 21st century literature. I conclude that frameworks for 21st century schooling are inevitably transformative. They as yet require a common language, and demand that educators expand their vocabularies, repertoires and tool sets. We can build and adopt tools and literacies that empower online communities to illustrate and visualize ways of thinking, purposefully designed in contexts that enable participants to visualize and illustrate their learning, to create situations both meaningful and enduring.

The Activity

Create a mobile-style web app… (…like the one you're looking at now). This puts theory to practice. I see it as pre-requisite to a larger online group activity in which each participant is responsible for a folder of "pages" that are assembled to make one coherent project.

The activity below mapped with CompendiumLD, the closest thing I've seen to the ideal learning design tool. Alone or in collaboration you can plan a unit, link its rationale, collect the resources, and sequence activities. You can provide rubrics and assessments. You can follow the activity and access its resources, although the web interface still leaves some things to be desired. Open full page


…Web applications are at once complex multi- and meta-modal artifacts, and simple human stories, with all the potential for individual, social, and cultural disruption and/or cohesion—or trivial, mundane repetition—we find in any of the Arts and Sciences.

We apply the Web to the solution of problems and the creation of meaning, to communicate ideas and values, and so Web apps will become a literary canon; the study of certain literacies will enhance both their scientific relevance and their design. Their sociological significance will present from within, due to the inherently transformational quality of pedagogy, and will continue to manifest in surprising ways, often suddenly. …Situated pedagogies "…allow interventions in the multiple facets of exclusion according to the specific forms that discrimination adopts for each group and in each educational context…" (Rodriguez-Romero, 2008).

Cognitive apprenticeship believes technology can improve upon the traditional apprenticeship model …informal learning is one heuristic strategy humans typically employ. …we naturally both learn and teach. If we all agree that “learning how to learn,” “critical thinking skills” and “collaboration” are desirable 21st century competencies, …Understanding how Internet systems work at the system level and how applications are coded are desirable 21st century literacies. Experts are readily available, but informed amateurs will accomplish more when they can speak each others languages.

The Internet is rife with learning objects — data, case studies, tutorials, and tools galore — so all those responsible for the design of thick learning situations should reflect on how to bring them together (Conole et al., 2008:footnotes 1-2). A newer paradigm for elearning is emerging that is not teacher-in-a-box or talking-PowerPoint, and not do-it-yourself, but “real, honest-to-goodness learningrdquo; (Silvers, 2012b). It's learner to learner, learning situation to all. “The potential of these technologies to significantly enhance learning, community and society will be unlikely to be realised without effective policy supporting new holistic approaches…” (Smyth, 2009).

Communities of practice improve through the strength of the individuals who compose them, and their commitment to constructing community knowledge… “…we need a language that is both critical and hopeful, …of critique and possibility.” (Giroux, 2012). We need language, with accompanying media literacies, to describe information, transport and transform it, all the while keeping its relevance visible.

This is my M.R.P. “paper” in HTML, CSS and JavaScript

This is my M.R.P. as a Map

I used Visual Learning Environment to make this map of my entire project, including the concepts and research behind it, but I used CompendiumLD to map the activity I embedded.

VUE has a more modern and intuitive interface, but when it came time to export to a lovely HTML5-with-(very old)-jQuery Web file I learned it doesn't handle HTML within its "node notes" well, and even double-quotes had to be removed. It's easily cleaned up if you know HTML, but still a time killer. CompendiumLD exports older-style HTML4, but it just works. You can store and share instructions, attachments, copy/paste text templates, link to anywhere. I found CompendiumLD to be an idea/concept mapping tool with immense potential for instructional design and delivery.

You can grab or swipe the edge of the map.