Free LearningFree running* invites participants to use creativity, skill and strength to find new ways to navigate a landscape. It is fun, engaging and highly motivating for those who participate. It takes a space (urban or otherwise) and turns it on its head, drawing new function from an existing, very fixed, form.

In much the same way, Free Learning aims to provide students with an intellectual landscape through which they can playfully discover their own path. It promotes creativity, individuality, team work, freedom and taking responsibility.

* In its spirit what we are talking about is slightly more like parkour, than free running. I thought they were the same, but as @isaacklw taught me, they are slightly different. Read here for more.

Free Learning Map Interface

A view of content in Free Learning. Click for a larger image.

Tell Me More

Free Learning developed in response to my own experiences teaching ICT at International College Hong Kong, where I found myself slowly running out of steam as a classroom teacher. My experience was that as a teacher, working in the traditional school paradigm, I could construct teaching and learning opportunities that focused on all students, and that reached a minimum standard for most. However, to make these engaging and motivating, I had to work myself ragged, and in time, teaching and learning became rote and sterile. We (my students and myself) jumped through hoops together, to achieve things many kids were simply not interested in, or were encountering at the wrong time. Those who were engaged soared, a mass in the middle pushed on through in spite of it all, and the remainder suffered my terrible jokes for 3 years of ICT classes.

In this model, motivation is predominantly extrinsic, hinging largely on the energy and charisma of the teacher.

Free Learning dispenses with the pretense that students need to follow a set path as a group, by simply:

  1. Offering a large online menu of learning choices for students to learn from (we call these units, and they look like this).
  2. Allowing individuals and small ad hoc groups to chose their own path and pace through the units on offer.
  3. Providing a way for students to record which units they have chosen as they progress, and then to submit evidence (e.g. photos, work itself, text) for each unit. This can be done via our Free Learning Gibbon module, or some other method.
  4. Providing a way to map learning outcomes to units, and ways to see what students are currently working on, where they have already traveled, and what outcomes they have covered (or not)
  5. Assessing learning formatively based on observation and discussion, with aspects of summative assessment based on student submitted work and other evidence.

In this way, we can provide more choice, more personalised pathways and more motivation for students to learn. Students spend less time sitting and listening to the teacher, and more time working hands on in ways they enjoy.

By asking students to cover a range of outcomes, we can still help them cover broad swathes of content, but this need not be a focus (and for me it no longer is). If we can free ourselves of the delusions that kids currently cover everything (which they don’t, in any meaningful way) and that we can meaningfully measure learning (which we can’t, in any meaningful way), then we can be comfortable with something less regimented and less like an assembly line. Do all students really need the exact same experience? No.

Free learning, as a model, affords us a chance to set the classroom up for success by throwing out baggage brought along from industrial, conformity-driven, pre-Internet education. It represents the use of technology to finally revolutionise classroom practice.

Have A Go

As a teacher, you can experience Free Learning as a professional development tool using GorillaPD, which gives you roughly the experience of a student. This is a free-to-the-public installation of Gibbon, with Free Learning installed on it, and a growing range of units to help teachers become better at what they do.

Real World Progress

We have now (as of April 2017) been running Free Learning at ICHK Secondary for two years, for a minimum of 50% of student contact time in ICT, and the result is more student engagement, improved classroom energy and zero focus on grades. I learn more and have more fun, and all the evidence suggests that my students do to. Learning new, interesting and useful things is now the prime concern. The proof, so they say, is in the pudding, which you can see via our Free Learning Showcase.

Excitingly, I have been in a position to ask some current and former students to write units, a couple of which are already under way.

For those units involving gear not available in school, students can negotiate with parents to purchase what is needed (this is already common practice in Year 9 where students do an independent unit).

Learning Outcomes

As well as the assessment tools provided in Gibbon’s Free Learning module, I have also been using the Visual Assessment Guide with my Year 7-9 ICT, to enable longitudinal tracking.

Professional Development

Free Learning has featured as a presentation at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, 2015 Asia Pacific International Schools Conference, the 8th 21C Learning Hong Kong and RCHK Transform. If you are interested in running Free Learning in your classroom, school or organisation, please do get in touch. If you are looking for the slides used in a presentation you have seen, download them here, or browse it using the embed below:

Testimonials

“You had the presentation of the conference man. Your ideas resonate with me more than anyone else’s. You are a true inspiration to all educators. Keep spreading your message to the masses!” – Ryan Krakofsky, ICT Coordinator, Kingston Internal School

“I attended your free learning session at RCHK and I decided to use a modified version for our current media unit.  I wanted to thank you for the inspiration for this…it has inspired me to see how I can use this type of workflow more often. I am certain that it has met my students needs much better.” – Patricia Thomson, PYP Teacher, RCHK

“It is less stressful without peer comparisons and deadlines. You can choose the subject you want to focus on, it makes the lessons all the more interesting.” – Student, ICHK

“For me it’s fun but hard ; )” – Student, ICHK

“I feel like it is great to let students study what they want to, but still have to complete certain units to be able to move on to the next one, that sort of makes it like a game with levels and different paths.” – Student, ICHK

“It is AWESOME!!!” – Student, ICHK

Acknowledgements

Some of the ideas here are based on the work of Sugatra Mitra and the related work shown in Good’s Future Learning video. Others have emerged from Toby Newton’s work on independent student learning in Human Technology at ICHK. This work is very much an extension of the work already being done by students at ICHK in their Year 7-9 ICT studies.

Credits + License

Free Learning is an original idea by Ross Parker (http://rossparker.org, @rossparker), created in December 2014 whilst working at ICHK. It is shared under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 License.

Free Running thumbnail image by Alexandre Ferreira on Flickr under CC BY.