A Model not for Technology in Education, but for Technology & Learning

For a while now I’ve been kicking around a hodgepodge of ideas about technology and its relationship to learning and education. Having worked in related fields for over five years now and gone to grad school to study more about this subject, I guess these are good questions to regularly ponder. Until  now though, I haven’t had a good opportunity to formalize these thoughts. As an assignment for the course “Computational Technologies in Educational Ecosystems“, we were tasked to create a model of our vision for technology in educational contexts, a really fantastic project that we’ll be refining over the course of the semester and that I’ll periodically post publicly about here on the old blog.

I decided to push the edges of the assignment somewhat, and rather than create a model for technology in educational contexts, I created a model for technology and learning writ large in the lives of youth. I’d be lying if I said the ideas here are all my own – for the most part, they’re a synthesis of ideas coming from emerging bodies of research and from colleagues I’ve worked with and been inspired by within the budding field of “Digital Media & Learning“, which in some respects positions itself as distinct from educational technology.

I share here I call a Youth Technology Learning Ecology, made up of a variety of “learning nodes” that youth interact with and which I believe can form better interconnections with one another in the future for the benefit of young people. What I’m really interested in is what digital culture and technology can offer us in terms of both inspiration for redesigning the learning systems that society has available for young people, as well as practical tools and practices that allow us to do that. I offer some initial thoughts on what a redesign of these systems might include.

To check out the interactive model, click the image below, which will take you to the Scratch website where you can interact with it. For best effect, I recommend enabling full screen.

I realize that right now not everything is totally clear in the model (it assumes some prior knowledge and some terms could use definition) and over the course of the semester I hope to refine it to clarify all of what I intend to be conveyed through it. In the process, I’m sure that the model itself will shift and evolve.

One of the big ideas in the model that I’d like to address is that of looking to “Interest Driven Affinity Spaces” (a fancy name for the places that kids geek out, online or off) as inspiration for reforming other learning contexts. I’ll start by referring to some of the readings that we did for the course this week, which offer some nice perspective on how people generally think about technology and education. In his classic book from way back in 1986, Larry Cuban shares an important insight about the ways that technology fads come and go in schools. The point is well taken. In looking to affinity spaces for inspiration though, I want to be clear that the model is not really advocating the integration of technology, even done thoughtfully, as one of many “passing fads” in schools, but rather for the rethinking of what counts as learning and what pedagogical practice and larger school cultures look like.

What’s hard to convey is that a shift to thinking about learning ecologies also implies a shift in our theory of learning, and both of those imply that schools need to be organizing themselves in much different ways. To engage in this reorganization, I believe that we can take a lot of inspiration from these affinity spaces that might considered “technology in the wild” (online communities, massively multiplayer games, fan sites, blog networks and many others) and what they do well, something scholars like Jim Gee and Mimi Ito have looked at in their work. The big idea about these spaces is that they provide youth with meaningful contexts and communities that not only keep them engaged and speak to their interests, but also are built around the development and learning of extremely complex practices and processes, have authentic and just in time feedback and assessment mechanisms as well as clear standards about what counts as “good work”. Schools rarely embody these qualities. This isn’t to say that we need for school to integrate these affinity spaces and their associated technologies, but rather to look at these spaces to see what makes them powerful learning environments and aim to bring those principles and characteristics into more formal educational settings. More importantly, I believe that we can not only shift the practices of any one setting, like school, but also the larger learning ecologies of which they are a part as well.

In his book, Cuban also makes a big assumption that anyone interested in technology and education is one way or another always going to point to technology’s ability to make content delivery more efficient. To me, this is off for a couple of reasons. First, it assumes that anyone interested in technology has an “accumulation of decontextualized bits of information” vision of what learning is, as opposed to one that uses participation in meaningful activities to foster dispositions, practices and processes that young people can tap in the future. Second, the ways that I think about “efficiency” deal mostly with reformulating pedagogy so that it’s actually effective by actively connecting to the other nodes in a child’s learning ecology. This is the second big point I’m aiming to get across in the model. Affinity Spaces are good to look to for inspiration, but there’s a huge opportunity to be tapped in aligning all of these various nodes a youth’s learning ecology so that they’re working together for the sake of that young person. This is where my (extremely underdeveloped) idea of a technology driven personalization system that accomplished this function comes from, an idea which I hope to develop more as the semester goes on. Importantly though, it represents a reframe of technology from being a “teacher’s helper” (or worse, their replacement), a view that starts not with the priorities of the formal educational system, which has consistently proven that it only values the transmission of decontextualized bits of information, but rather one that starts with the ways that youth are currently using technology in their everyday lives to further their own learning (though they rarely see it in these terms) and aims to connects these to all the other parts of a young person’s life.

Finally, another one of our readings validates this idea of looking to interest driven digital affinity spaces to inspire more effective pedagogy. Roschelle et al. (2000) [pdf] point out a number of processes that effective classroom technologies foster – active construction of knowledge, participation in groups, frequent feedback and connections to real world contexts. It is in fact just these kinds of processes that are at the heart of the kinds of deep learning activities that many youth are engaged in out of school through digitally mediated affinity spaces. The authors even reference these spaces, in the form of (now antiquated) electronic bulletin boards that dominated the early internet. Its heartening to see that in 2000, which is fairly early on in our current shift to a digital culture, there were already researchers that had identified practices technology can foster to provide more effective learning experiences.

I know that as it currently stands this is an incomplete model, and some things might be unclear, so feel more than welcome to leave a comment with any questions or thoughts and I’ll do my best to address them. And of course any critical feedback is definitely helpful on this first draft.

15 Responses to “A Model not for Technology in Education, but for Technology & Learning”

  1. 1 Matthew September 13, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Rafi, one thing I’m not clear on in the emphasis of interest-driven affinity spaces is the place of a canonical curriculum. E.g., assuming that basic competencies in math and language are still expected, should children learn these through affinity spaces? Or are affinity spaces meant to be the locus of a heretofore unacknowledged, different, and yet valuable, form of learning?

    • 2 Rafi Santo September 16, 2011 at 3:38 pm

      Matthew – yes, as Lina mentioned, in an ideal implementation of this idea of taking inspiration from affinity spaces, students would learn the “canonical curriculum” or which currently take the form of the Common Core State Standards. But this wouldn’t look very traditional, with disciplinary boundaries set up as we currently see them. One thing that’s neat about many of these affinity spaces is that they encompass many of the traditional disciplines and students learn their content in the course of solving problems associated with the spaces priorities. But, the interest driven nature of these spaces does raise a big tension in this model, which is that of equal outcomes. If a student is engaged in interest driven learning, what happens if they’re not into the activities within a space that deal with, say, calculus? This is definitely something that I’d love to find some good answers to as I think more about this sort of model.

  2. 3 Asmalina Saleh (@antaera) September 13, 2011 at 8:50 pm


    In the Scratch model, I believe Rafi points out that canonical curriculum or formal education spaces should leverage what students find interesting and relate them to math and science. This could be done in several ways; CSILE, or Knowledge Forum for instance, leverages student interest in this way.


    I disagree that Cuban makes the assumption that technology is merely the vehicle for efficient delivery of content. In fact, he is quite aware that that these views are not-so novel and narrow.

    Additionally, I wonder a little about the notion of ‘popular’ culture; it could very well be that youths may not partake in popular culture or have varying definitions of what popular culture means to them. The reason why I bring this up is the culture of fandom that you have as a subcategory of popular culture. Not all youths will be connected to a fandom or even align themselves with one. If this was merely an example and I missed the boat, then ignore me!

    I like the notion of affinity spaces, but I think a key issue that has not been addressed effectively in these spaces is the presence of the lurker. How can we tap into students’ interests, or assess learning if certain students choose to fit the profile of the lurker? This is a certainly viable mode of learning in these spaces, but if the focus is active involvement, what would this mean for students who prefer peripheral engagement?

    • 4 Rafi Santo September 16, 2011 at 3:43 pm

      Cuban doesn’t say that he believes that efficient delivery of educational content is the purpose of technology in ed contexts, but he does claim that anyone interested in educational technology does. See here:
      “In any list of explanations for the errant passion for technology by educators (but not necessarily teachers), a solid candidate would be this dream of increasing productivity, that is, students acquiring more information with the same or even less teacher effort.”

      With regards to popular culture, I was indeed putting in fandom as a subcategory (sorry that wasn’t clear!).

      Your point about the “lurker” and what Lave and Wenger would call “Legitimate Peripheral Participation” is very well taken, as this is indeed a huge challenge when it comes to Communities of Practice (which affinity spaces hark back to, in my opinion). I think that a lot of attention in this model would have to be given to the design of learning environments, based on affinity-space models, that clearly create low-barriers to entry and many pathways to participation (two things that are touchstones of most “good” affinity spaces). There’s a lot of emerging research on how to design these sorts of spaces to promote desired behaviors and forms of participation, and I’d be looking to tap into the insights of people asking those questions.

  3. 5 johannakeene September 14, 2011 at 8:36 pm


    I really like how your model addresses more than just technology in formal education, and is pushing for a more encompassing view of integrating technology.

    I also like that you included the idea of civics.

    I think I would just echo what you yourself have said, and what Lina said. I’m interested to know how you practically see interest-driven affinity spaces changing formal education.

    I’m also concerned about kids who, as Lina put it, are lurkers. If I understand what she means correctly, I’m not sure how those types of kids will fit in this model.

    • 6 Rafi Santo September 16, 2011 at 3:49 pm

      Thanks Johanna! Yes, I think that civics is actually a key part of this, and is strongly connected to the idea of affinity spaces. People like Joe Kahne and the Youth & Participatory Politics Research Network have been checking out the relationship between participation in these types of spaces its connection to various civic indicators, which is really fascinating work. You can check it out here: http://ypp.dmlcentral.net/

      In terms of what it would look like for formal ed to look more like interest-driven affinity spaces, this is really one thing that I’m keeping my eyes peeled for. I think that the ways that places like the Computer Clubhouse (http://www.computerclubhouse.org/) or Youmedia (http://youmedia.org/) are structured in terms of out-of-school spaces are really promising, and some new school initiatives like Quest to Learn (http://q2l.org/) are starting to break ground on how bring more of these ideas into formal educational spaces.

      • 7 Carolina August 4, 2012 at 4:12 pm

        Much agreed Rafi! Computer Clubhosue helped pave the way for many others to follow and what a great model they have at the international level! All promising yes!

  4. 8 Rosh Dhanawade September 14, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    While it is useful to think in terms of these affinity spaces, isn’t it true that school is by far the largest space in which youths engage in “formal” learning. As such, if this model were to be tuned for school-age children the next iteration of your model should try and represent the degree to which each of these spaces plays a role in the lives of children. I also tend to side with Lina about the Popular Culture space. If this is to be a broad model then maybe the space should be Culture and the definition is co-constructed between the child and their world.

    Situating the technology between the child and the spaces is also an interesting choice. Drawing on both of the articles, I think an important thing to represent in all of our models is the presence of technology not just as a means to an end. Rather the way in which technology is situated in a person’s life should be something of a facilitator between spaces, so maybe your model should expand the technology rectangle to path between the spaces and through the child. Please let me know if I misinterpreted your definition and placement of the technology portion.

    • 9 Rafi Santo September 16, 2011 at 3:57 pm

      The LIFE Center has a really neat graphic that actually shows how little time is spent overall in formal learning environments as compared to informal ones. You can check it out here by scrolling down a bit:

      (Also the LIFE Center is pretty neat to check out too.)

      It’s a very good question about the breakdown between all these spaces, I don’t know that anyone’s synthesized all that info in one space, but I think it’s all out there in one form or another (like Kaiser’s M2 report in terms of media usage, reports from the afterschool space about how much time/how many kids are involved in afterschool, etc.). It would be *awesome* to have these synthesized in one placed and broken down by different demographics, though would be really powerful as a resource.

      In terms of your point about situating technology *between* the child and the various nodes in their learning ecology, really this was mostly an interface/design decision in terms of the visual layout of the model. Ideally, the system would be more like a mesh that’s in the background but connects all these spaces. I’m thinking of something that’s much more ambient but always present (which maybe sounds a little creepy and is something I’d want to address in fleshing this idea out more) so that it’s able to coordinate these spaces well with each other, and better yet, allow a young person to better coordinate their own learning paths.

  5. 10 justin whiting September 15, 2011 at 8:17 am


    This model looks really interesting and your reflection is well grounded. I like that you are using scratch for this. I would never have thought about using scratch to create an interactive model but it seems to be working pretty well.

    Is there a specific reason that you put young person as your center as opposed to any learner. Do you think that your model fits any age learner and different situation or would it be quite different if you were focusing it on a higher ed population, for example.


    • 11 Rafi Santo September 16, 2011 at 4:01 pm

      Well, in general I’ve thought most about young people, though I think the principles that the model is built on likely apply to adults and kids in higher ed as well. But it’s a good point – I’d have to give more thought to how this model would change depending on what age group you’re in. I’m sure that certain nodes would be more powerful at different points in a person’s life.

      Before I came back to school, the strongest nodes in my own learning ecology in my mid-twenties were my workplace, community groups I was a part of, family, and various interest driven online spaces I was involved in. Now it’s shifted and formal higher ed is a stronger place of learning, and is strongly tied to my peer group. So yes, I imagine there’s definitely many age-based considerations in how this model would play out.

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Hi there.

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If you're reading this, then you've reached the web log of Rafi Santo. This is my little slice of the internet where I can share my passion (or whatever) with the world.

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