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Using Personas, Skill Trees, and Playlists to Design Engaging Online Learning for Youth

Written by Paul Allison
December 17, 2016

This post was written by all the teacher-leaders in Sandboxes for Learning who attended the meeting described below December 9-11, 2016: Paul Allison, Christina Cantrill, Joe Dillion, Jenny Lockie, Jo Paraiso, Dawn Reed, Shantanu Saha, Chris Sloan, and Trixie Smith.

Designing curriculum for engaging learning opportunities always requires careful thought and planning. The second weekend in December 2016, nine educators from six different states gathered at a snowy Michigan State University campus Writing Center, home of the Red Cedar Writing Project ( to do just this careful work together. Our design work was animated by creating personas of our learners, helping us to be clear for whom we were designing and why. Descriptive processes in small groups helped us to look closely at the student-facing curriculum for online inquiries and projects that we had been developing with our colleagues back home for the previous three months, and the gaming concept of skill trees helped us to organize these playlists into possible paths for our personas. We brainstormed practical and inspiring possibilities for using these playlists with youth in classrooms, in after school programs, in credit-recovery programs, and in weekend writing camps this spring. And we planned both how we were going work with each other to assess the badges the youth would be applying for and how to we would keep open the lines of communication among the assessors and the curriculum designers in the spring. The nine of us were there to represent the work of twenty-five teachers throughout the country who are creating “Sandboxes for Learning” ( on the LRNG ( platform to inspire and guide youth to create and post digital media and writing on Youth Voices (, a site that has been nurtured since 2003 by teachers at local sites of the National Writing Project (, in partnership with the Educator Innovator ( network. Youth Voices was born thirteen years ago (a year before Facebook and three years before Twitter) in a National Writing Project initiative, Tech Matters, that for five years in the early aughts gathered teachers from around the country for week-long summer institutes to explore how digital media was changing our approaches to the teaching of writing. Several participants in these workshops had classroom blogs and podcasting projects, and we decided to merge these efforts into one site where youth from all over the country could build a community of learners, guided by their teachers. From the beginning, the students published their work alongside the teachers’ prompts and guides for that work. Over the years, we have found that there are many advantages to bringing students together in one site that lives beyond any particular class. It’s easier for individual students to read and write about their own passions, to connect with other students, comment on each other’s work, and create multimedia posts for each other. Further, it’s been exciting for us to pool our knowledge about curriculum, connected learning, and digital literacies. This fall we’ve been able to expand this work of building and publishing curriculum together and bring it to the LRNG platform through a grant from the 6th Digital Media and Learning Competition, ( which is supported by the MacArthur Foundation. Our focus this fall has been to have four groups of five or six teachers each creating LRNG Playlists, XPs, and Badges in different locations:

  • Red Cedar Writing Project at Michigan State University (MSU)
  • New York City Writing Project at Lehman College, CUNY
  • Public Schools in Oakland, California
  • A distributed, online group that includes Writing Project teachers from Montana, Utah, Colorado, and Texas.

In the second weekend of December the facilitator and one other teacher from each of these groups met at MSU to review the Playlists and XPs, to organize these online inquiries and projects, to discuss how this curriculum will be used in classrooms and in after-school programs in the spring, and to plan how we will be assessing badges.

Personas Workshop

This December weekend was a significant moment in our work together as lead teachers on Youth Voices and in the DML 6 project, “Sandboxes for Learning.” We started our design work by looking at personas, inviting each other to imagine the youth who might be interacting with the learning opportunities that we and our colleagues have been creating as playlists, XPS, and badges on LRNG. Before the meeting, each of us had written descriptions of a student, and in groups of threes we read these to each other, talked through the different traits described, and then drew out on chart paper a more generalized, amalgamated set of avatars with new names and characteristics. Each avatar was drawn from their descriptions of the youth we teach but were changed to reflect a more generalized learner in the populations we serve. Our purpose in creating the personas was to revisit the curriculum or learning experience we have been building with our colleagues and to imagine what each of the playlists and XPs offers for a learner or persona, in this case. The curriculum that we had brought to this meeting had been designed into playlists of online experiences or XPs that end with the youth applying for digital badges that have links to standards and to the work the youth submit to earn each badge. We asked each other: What takeaways are present for the learners? What challenges do they face in the learning? Where is the growth? Where does the learner go next? We thought about the ways these personas would change through the different learning experiences we were designing based on the simple idea that learning experiences should resonate with someone and bring change.

Skill Trees Workshop

After creating personas together (and after taking a walk in swirling snow), we began to organize each of the playlists that we had been creating along with our colleagues in the groups (NYC, Oakland, Michigan, and the online group). We used a design concept lightly adapted from role-playing and video games called “skill trees” to position each playlist in relation to some of the others. One of the skill trees we developed has playlists for new users of Youth Voices, the others we organized into large categories: “Research and Argument in Areas of Interest” and “Visual and Literary Arts” as well as a planned skill tree for “Literature and Social Issues.” Once our initial presentation and organization of playlists from all of our colleagues were up on a white board, we took some time to discuss the framework for this design with Dr. Lucas Blair in a Hangout. On NowComment, we had been reading and commenting on Dr. Blair’s chapter “What Video Games Can Teach Us about Badges and Pathways,” in the book “Digital Badges in Education: Trends, Issues, and Cases” by Lin Y. Muilenburg, Zane L. Berge (2016). This was an opportunity to explore these ideas more deeply, with the purpose of designing a system of LRNG Playlists, XPs, and Badges to take back to our “Sandboxes for Learning” colleagues and to youth in the spring. We began to reimage and to reframe the online learning experiences that had been designed, asking, “Where does the learner go next from one playlist to another?” We could see how these skill trees or mind maps could be instrumental in helping youth to see possible pathways for their self-directed or mentor-directed moves within the LRNG opportunities. We used game design to challenge each other to think about learning in a different frame, and this helped us to make more sense of the notion of getting lost in learning (, which is part of the premise of the LRNG platform. To rethink the notion of grades as the exchange of goods: Complete work; Receive grade.

Describing Playlists and XPs

After lunch, we split up into three groups with three in each group, and each of us read through every element of one playlist and each of the XPs and the associated badge. It’s a slow, descriptive process in which we bracketed judgment, while also encouraging each other to wonder how the five personas from the morning might respond to the prompts and resources that we were studying. We worked to bring together two powerful ideas: personas and end goals. What changes might the personas have through the experiences and learnings in the playlists our colleagues and we are have been building on LRNG? The personas were helping us to envision the various ways and reasons why youth might want to follow the different pathways and earn badges within the Youth Voices (and other) Playlists on LRNG. Did our curriculum provide creative outlets, proving grounds, activist work, places to find a community that may not exist in our schools, extracurricular work–to keep them busy, out of trouble, moving forward, exploring interests? When we reported back in the large group, one of the things that began to stand out was the use of our playlists as alternative paths for students who don’t necessarily excel at standard school practices but who are still bright and gifted and engaged and have much to offer. We also thought that these approaches we were using would support the high/over achievers who are bored with standard practices and who want more topics, more action, more experiences, more challenges, more learning. Still, we also wondered about the middle of the road students. Who are they? What are their motivations? In addition, we began to ask how the learning spaces like the LRNG Playlists and XPs that we are designing help students engage with other youth in their own communities of practice. How do these learning spaces and content provide opportunities for students to get lost in the learning?

Redesign Workshop

Thinking across the dozens of playlists that we had just described to each other and that were displayed as skill trees on the white board, one of us on this wintry weekend wondered about the possibilities of connecting youth to other creative young people and where these opportunities might be. “Youth Voices is clearly one community of practice to which they all belong.” Others of us agreed and we talked about connecting youth with their peers on Deviant Art, Flickr, Scratch, and Wattpad. We started looking for communities like Youth Voices that are supportive of youth and new community members, and we talked about adding connections in our XPs to other online communities as part of their graduating or aging out of Youth Voices? Another one of us said that the personas were a wake-up call for designing his playlists for diverse audiences. When he wrote his version of the persona that eventually became Mary and then discussed his playlist in a group, he realized that he was writing for a student like her, someone who will follow a list of instructions without asking why, and trust the process enough to see what happens. Seeing how other personas would react to his playlist, his group found that he would need to provide additional motivation to personas like Angel and Jordan who might be interested in the work but not see the point in doing what might seem irrelevant pieces to them, and ELL students like Anthony who might not be ready for the technical language used in the XPs. This teacher is going to go back over the XPs and rewrite them, keeping in mind the diverse needs of the different personas in the audience. This was a good moment for Kylie Larson, Director of Learning Content and Research at LRNG, to join us via Hangout. We asked her questions about whether our students could use the National LRNG playlists (yes), about sharing work with others on LRNG (yes), and new interfaces that are about to be released (in February it’s hoped). One thing we’ve been reminded of this fall is how important it is to start with a teacher’s interests when we ask them to design engaging online curriculum for youth. It has been exciting to see each teacher in Sandboxes for Learning choose a piece of instruction to share in an online environment so that other students in the Youth Voices community might do this project or follow this inquiry as well, and it doesn’t end there. Moving in concentric circles out, the power of this work grows when teachers begin to associate their playlists with other playlists within the Youth Voices LRNG organization (e.g. in skill trees), then we find more sets of playlists, XPs, and badges available to our students on LRNG, and soon these will be available for us to remix when we build more playlists. Kylie’s answers to our questions and her requests for our feedback on proposed changed at LRNG helped us to see the many possible communities of learners where our participation as educators might grow and where our students might get lost in learning!

Personas in the Design Process

Who are the learners using LRNG to get lost? What’s the impact of the playlists, XPs, and badges we are designing on these youths? Here are a few examples. Much more could be said about each of these personas, but these are some of the snapshots of our personas after they finish some of our playlists. This might give you a sense of how we have begun to give body to each of these creations and how keeping youth central to our design process is helping us to keep it real while also imagining new possibilities.


When we thought about Anthony, we realized that at least some of the playlists, maybe particularly the introductory “Welcome to the Community” ones, need to encourage the use of multiple languages in the posts. We wonder about the playlists themselves and how they could be translated by those with different reading skills in English. When Anthony completes all three parts of a project that has him making a storyboard, writing a script, then creating a Scratch animation of a fractured fairy tale, he may realize that by translating a story into three different media, essentially three different modes of expression, that he might see how this is related to his strengths as a bilingual student. We also talked about the importance of using Youth Voices “guides”–highly structured rhetorical prompts and outlines (based on Graff’s and Birkenstein’s models in “They Say / I Say”–for ELLS, and some of us have guides built into our XPs. Others use an approach that is more about having students draw the expectations from looking at a few different examples. A draft of one XP asks youth to “read three different Room for Debate introduction pages at the New York Times, and choose one that neatly introduces the topic or question.” Then this XP prompts the youth: “After identifying a debate topic you would like to host on Youth Voices, write an introduction post patterned after the professional introduction you liked.” It’s here that we began to wonder if our ELL persona, Anthony might need a guide. Perhaps all agreed we could provide both approaches in our XPs.


Many of the Playlists seemed to be perfect for a student like Mary. The many media projects, photography, video, Scratch, all seem to be ideal outlets for her repressed creative energies. She would be able to express herself in many different media while using the requirement for consistency of the process to both satisfy both external and internal demands for academic rigor.            


When thinking about Precious, we agreed that we need to work harder to think about the supports Precious needs to engage with the more complex playlists. We also have concerns about the costs of the technologies needed for these as well as those of the photography playlists. One teacher said, “While I think the right technology makes a difference I wonder because of her demographics if it will just simply be prohibitive. Are there ways to work outside of these tools that still support her in growing her collaging work and connecting with larger communities?” We also committed to finding ways to foster her leadership in Youth Voices. Also, we began to imagine ways to support her in sharing the work she does at home (which sounds like it might be stronger than what she does at/for school) in on Youth Voices. One of asked, “What would motivate her to do that? What could be the implications?”  


We saw Angel as an old soul, wise beyond his years but not successful at school. He’s searching for a creative space that he still hasn’t found in any of his formal learning environments. Although he takes an art class at his school, his teacher and he don’t get along. There are safe havens where teachers allow him to be at ease and focus more on his sketches in his down time, but overall his identity places him on the margins of his schoolmates and is at best a mediocre student. How excited we were to project that the first XP of the portrait photography playlist might connect him with a local photographer who had taken a series of portraits of local artists. One of us imagined what might happen for Angel: “As a result of a conversation with this mentor, they decide to create portraits of artists at a local art space. Angel’s portraits were then showcased in the artspace as part of a ‘Meet the Artists’ display during a gallery stroll. While Angel has gained a greater appreciation for portrait photography, his passion is still primarily his own sketches. His apprenticeship with the local photographer fostered relationships with working artists and provided the support he hadn’t found at his school. This is great, we all seemed to agree, yet one of us cautioned, “Without that connection with his mentor, though, this playlist might not have even got past the first XP.”


Both Jordan and also Precious have challenges with mathematics. One of us pointed out, “As young women, they fall into a demographic that tends to not less in STEM pipelines. Are there ways that our playlists — or tapping into playlists others are making like the Fashion/Designs ones from LRNG — could really support them in leveling up in those areas?” Another one of us highlighted that Jordan’s interests potentially make the Best Buy playlists really interesting, and they do require a math-centered thinking to complete. We were left wondering what other supports could she get to do those playlists in LRNG since this isn’t built into the Youth Voices community.      

Hopes and Plans

In the last few hours of our weekend together, on Sunday morning, we began to work out some of the logistics for our work together this spring in different schools and after school programs throughout the United States, all tied together through Youth Voices and LRNG. We have more thinking to do about how the sequence of playlists that we have envisioned will affect the personas. The snow didn’t stop, and neither did our questions:

  • How do we help students understand learning within less than traditional environments?
  • For high-achievers how can they get at an opportunity to see it as valuable and not just cheating or taking it easy?
  • For struggling learners, how can we help them to connect with learning to see that their learning is valuable in other spaces?
  • What makes a good playlist?

On that last question, it doesn’t take too much reflection to realize that it depends. It depends on how much ownership a youth feels, how much trust there is, how interested and committed a young person is to the work. “For someone new to Youth Voices,” one of us explained, “a playlist needs to be short, with quick rewards and feedback, and it needs to be fun! Later, a good playlist can have more steps or XPs, be more challenging.” Another of us added, “Although it should always be as engaging as possible, playlists for students who are connected with other youth and teachers on the site and who care more about their inquiries or the projects they are making would need less immediate, encouraging response and less intrinsic fun.” End goals, shared learning outcomes, transformations to personas are the things that we kept coming back to when we tried to think about how to organize the sandboxes, skill trees, or pathways of playlists XPs and badges. This weekend reminded us of how important it is to start with the end goals and work backward to find where youth should start and how they should/might get there. We understood more deeply that the paths may vary, and it seems easier to envision these varied paths if we can get all the available playlists and badges displayed for the personas/their students in skill trees. This is our next step in our work together of careful curriculum planning. We are filled with gratitude to be participants in the Youth Voices, National Writing Project, Educator Innovator, Digital Media Learning, HASTAC, LRNG communities of learning!

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