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Participatory Learning and Assessment Network (PLAnet)

Participatory Learning and Assessment Network (PLAnet)

Written by Indiana University Learning Sciences
November 16, 2011

Digital knowledge networks are a growing phenomenon, and our students are actively participating in them. We know very little about the places in which our students will use the knowledge they learn in our classrooms. What we do know is that these spaces will consist of user-generated content, and will feature the characteristics of “participatory culture” including low barriers to entry, support for creating and sharing, informal mentoring of newcomers, and a strong sense of social connection; as such they will be spaces where “not every member must contribute, but all must believe they are free to contribute when ready and that what they contribute will be appropriately valued” (Jenkins et al., 2006, p. 7). But with all of the challenges that face teachers today – including overloaded classes, grading, and pressure to directly increase high stakes test scores – it can seem overwhelming to add one more thing to the list.

The Participatory Learning and Assessment Network is a growing professional development network of practitioners, researchers, and innovators. Participants help each other in developing, implementing and refining new media curricular modules. In general these models (a) are aligned to the Common Core Standards, (b) meet existing curricular goals in the context of new knowledge practices, and (c) are exciting, efficient, and engaging.

Work on the modules is collaborative, and network participants have professional support from the time they begin thinking about their design through implementation. This network, like the spaces we strive to create in the classroom, fosters a participatory culture; the public discourse around the modules allows newcomers to “lurk” until they feel comfortable joining the conversation, and then contributing as much as they wish.

Our driving question: How do we foster participation in ways that typical teachers can do in typical classrooms and that take into account accountability concerns?

For more information, read through this Resource and click on the Working Example link below.

What is the Participatory Learning and Assessment Network?

What is Participatory Assement?

Participatory assessment is a comprehensive approach to instruction, assessment, and accountability. It is grounded in the notion situativity theory brings that assessment is central to learning; students are constantly assessing themselves and being assessed, and it is through these constant self and external (however informal) assessments that learning occurs. All participants in a particular setting are potential learners, including students, teachers, administrators, parents, designers, and researchers, and all have valuable insights to share. Participatory assessment includes multiple levels of assessment; this approach (1) aligns communal discourse to (2) maximize individual understanding in order to (3) indirectly increase aggregated achievement.

Participatory Assessment and the Participatory Assessment Network

We believe that writing – particularly multimodal writing – is the 21st century skill, but 21st century skills are so assessment driven, and writing is difficult to assess. Students need to practice writing about important things in different contexts in ways that are appropriate for those contexts. And they need to write about writing, because in use-generated knowledge contexts, the leaders are naturally those who write about writing. As Henry Jenkins and Rebecca Black remind us, the explosion of digital knowledge networks have made multimodal writing the mass literacy at the start of the 21st century the way the explosion of print made reading the mass literacy at the start of the 20th century.

The Participatory Assessment Network works to foster this type of writing through reflections. This network and the modules designed and implemented within it are organized around three core participatory assessment principles:

1. Let contexts give meaning to concepts and skills: Foster increasingly sophisticated discourse around valued concepts and skills by considering how they get their meaning from the contexts where they are used;

2. Assess reflections rather than artifacts: Rather than assessing student-created artifacts directly (i.e. with a rubric), assess student reflection on how creating the artifact gave meaning to valued concepts and skills;

3. Downplay assessments and isolate tests: Protect participation by using formal assessments to assess curriculum (rather than students), and using tests to evaluate the curriculum-assessment ecosystem. These principles are rooted in the implications of situative theories of learning for assessment (e.g.Greeno & Gresalfi, 2007).

These participatory assessment principles are part of a larger curricular design framework called Designing for Participation (DFP). To learn more about DFP, visit the Working Example at

“Spreadable Educational Practices”

In his blog If it Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead, Henry Jenkins discusses the notion of “spread” – “[t]he re-use, remixing and adaptation” of an idea – and this “spread” is exactly what is happening to the modules in the Participatory Assessment Network. Extending Jenkins’ argument to education, Daniel T. Hickey wrote If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Current Educational Practice. Here Hickey explains the importance of allowing curriculum to be spreadable, so that it may adjust to the situation and population in which it is being implemented. Teachers are encouraged to take up modules that have already been designed and remix them for implementation in their own classroom, as well as use the broader DFP framework and principles to create their own modules and then share them and the methods they used to create the modules with other teachers. As Jenkins mentions, copyright is not at issue here – the point is for the material – in this case the modules – to be continuously updated, adjusted, modified and remixed to fit the situations and populations they touch.

Aims of the Network

The Participatory Assessment Network aims to:

  • … assist practitioners in adjusting and remixing existing modules that follow the DFP framework and foster participatory leaning
  • … connect practitioners, researchers, and  innovators to encourage rich collaborative engagement and curricular development
  • … provide support for practitioners, researchers, and innovators in developing curricula that foster participatory learning, hone 21st century skills, and align to the Common Core Standards
  • … enhance curricular modules through participatory learning and assessment
  • … guide the development of new curricular activities and modules that foster participatory learning and assessment, hone 21st century skills, and align to the Common Core Standards
  • …assist teachers in preparing students to operate in a world of digital networks and a participatory culture

Join the Network

How to Participate

  • Lurk.
  • Comment.
  • Try a module, or part of on!
  • Tell us what you are doing with the module or activity.
  • Ask for assistance in remixing a module or activity to work in your classroom.
  • Have an idea for a new module? Contact us!

The Modules: Use Them!

What follows are descriptions of each module and a link to their resource and leson plan. This list is updated as new modules are developed. We hope you will add your voice to the conversation.

Remember that the reflection questions before and after each activity are a large part of this method, and are key to the success of each activity and module.

Learning the Art of Persuasion: From YouTube to Formal DebateThis module takes students through the process of learning about argument and persuasion. Students discuss what constitutes an argument, learn how to recognize an argument and its elements, and how to use persuasive techniques. They then use these techniques to critique a famous persuasive speech, conduct a debate, and turn a previously written paper into a persuasive speech.

Literacy In Our Lives: Expanding the Definition of “Literacy” In this module, students create a short video clip in which they introduce themselves (individually, or as a class) to a collaborating group of students in the network by sharing their literacy identities and practices. The videos provide a way for students to get to know one another through their literacy lives, and to analyze the literacy identities and practices of themselves and the group as a whole. By broadening the students’ definitions of literacy and texts, they will be more inclined to discover the multiple identities they have as readers and writers, understand that “texts” can include a wide range of print and media, gather that there are different ways we approach the reading of texts, realize that the resources they bring as readers and writers contributes to the collective knowledge of the class, and recognize that the strategies they use to read and write texts outside of school may also be useful in school.

The Consequences of Ignorance: Analyzing Character Action and Motivation in Contexts To become highly literate, students first need meaningful opportunities to test out seemingly abstract concepts like character analysis and begin using them. That initial use provides a context in which they discuss and learn what it means to use the concept appropriately in different circumstances. This module consists of several activities – some of which were obtained as open educational resources (OERs) – that foster this initial use and gradually leads to students’ independent use of character analysis as a tool for exploring and understanding literature. The activities – including whole class discussion, Literary Characters on Trial, a Multi-Textual Digital Poster, a formal essay, and informal and formal reflections embedded within each activity – all focus on characters’ actions and motivations within The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, and how those actions and motivations reveal themes of ignorance and wisdom.

Empathy and Elaboration: Using 21st Century Tools to Enhance Creative Writing This module focuses on appropriation and remixing – drawing tools and ideas from a text and “remixing” the stories in a new way. In this case, students explore and take on the personality traits of a character in Homer’s The Odyssey and, after developing sufficient understanding of and empathy for that character, extend their story in the medium of a fanfiction piece. In addition to students practicing skills related to character analysis, plot development, and creative writing, they also learn to use social networking sites productively and safely, as well as to publish their story to a closed site on the web. Define Fanfiction: The encyclopedic ambitions of transmedia texts often results in what might be seen as gaps or excesses in the unfolding of the story: that is, they introduce potential plots which cannot be fully told or extra details which hint at more than can be revealed. Readers, thus, have a strong incentive to continue to elaborate on these story elements, working them over through their speculations, until they take on a life of their own. Fan fiction can be seen as an unauthorized expansion of these media franchises into new directions which reflect the reader’s desire to “fill in the gaps” they have discovered in the commercially produced material (Henry Jenkins).

History of and Theory Behind the Participatory Assessment Network


This network was initiated in 2008 with a collaboration involving Indiana University, Project New Media Literacies, and a gifted Bloomington English Language Arts teacher.  This collaboration was organized around Project NML’s Teacher Strategy Guide and resulted in the three core practices. Dozens of netbooks from a 2009 federal Educational Technology allowed us to bring in English teachers in Bloomington and in the neighboring rural Eastern Greene County.  The resulting Monroe-Eastern Greene Network (MEGN) has continued to develop, implement, refine, and spread modules that support participatory learning.  Each module bundles a range of open-source learning resources and informal assessments around one or more Common Core English standards; the modules are refined using high-quality performance assessments and evaluated using discreet online testlets.  Behind these modules is a comprehensive curriculum design model called Designing for Participation (DFP).  We are showing that DFP can foster participatory learning around new and conventional literacies, while indirectly but consistently impacting individual understanding and group achievement


Designing For Participation (DFP)

DFP embraces the notion that “participation” does not necessarily mean talking, but listening to and taking in insights made by more articulate peers who are struggling to grasp a concept. Much like “lurking” in social networks allows newcomers to become familiar with and comfortable in joining in the conversation when they are ready, DFP works to foster a participatory culture and assessment setting where “not every member must contribute, but all must believe they are free to contribute when ready and believe that what they contribute will be appropriately valued” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 7).

Design-Based Implementation Research (DBIR)

The network and the DFP framework in general exemplify the four aspects of what Penuel et al (2011) labeled Design-Based Implementation Research (DBIR), and how participatory assessment can support DBIR. The first aspect of DBIR is that teams form around a focus on persistent problems of practice from multiple stakeholders’ perspectives. In our work, the team was formed around the “persistent problem” of the obstacles to participatory curriculum described above while the “multiple perspectives” were embodied in the three very different kinds of learning outcomes that participatory assessment aims to align and foster (shared participation, individual understanding, and aggregated achievement). The second aspect is to improve practice, teams commit to iterative, collaborative design. In close collaboration with the assessment team, the teacher made continual small refinements with the feedback she received from the informal reflections in each activity; additionally, she discussed the progression of the implementation with the researchers to make larger adjustments with the feedback from the more formal reflections as the module progressed. 

The third aspect of DBIR is teams develop theory related to both classroom learning and implementation through systematic inquiry. The design of the module was based on the DFP framework and guiding principles, which evolved out of situative theories of cognition. The fourth aspect of DBIR is that it is concerned with developing capacity for sustaining change in systems. Because the DFP framework invites practitioners and researchers to work collaboratively to develop and iteratively refine modules with each implementation, the modules themselves stay relevant and useful for each classroom in which they are used. Teachers are encouraged to adapt, adjust, and remix these modules (and activities within the modules) as necessary to keep the content relevant for their curricular needs and student population.


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