Nobody can properly appreciate your life experiences based solely on the title of your diploma.
Some other traditional measurements of achievement might include the name of your college, and the number on your GPA. These can demonstrate academic accomplishment, but they don’t reveal much else about you.
I won’t discount the value of a good GPA. Good GPAs show evidence of academic excellence, are a huge factor for graduate school, and the “large firms” love looking at these. A good GPA can impress certain friends and family members. The Good Diploma / University / GPA is a great mating signal for some people (and by extension their parents).
The best technical training and theoretical knowledge can’t teach you higher cognitive skills, or social and emotional skills, otherwise known as “soft skills”. You might have memorised every formula from class, but as soon as something doesn’t “hold constant” or isn’t “ceteris paribus”, you hit a brick wall. You might be a coding ninja / UX guru / Excel wizard, but can only work as a lone wolf. This doesn’t just apply to your career – you might be an expert at playing “The Game”, but your date might think you’re unbearable (oof).
Technical training and theoretical knowledge might show what you’ve filled your head with. However, It doesn’t show evidence of your principles, your aspirations, or how you transform the stuff you filled your head with into practical value.
Artifacts can narrate your learning journey in a way that go beyond the prestige of a title, school name, or grade
Learning artifacts are highly visible, practical proofs of learning that other people can easily interact with. You “exhibit” these learning artifacts in a public space. Just like a descriptor of an museum artifact, the documentation of your learning artifact shows how you organisation your ideas and how you communicate it.
Even if the learned content is something “boring” like the Pythagoras Theorem, by showing how a^2 + b^2 = c^2 can be applied to something you are passionate about, say, making perfectly shaped sandwiches, you could get the following benefits:
- Conceptual understanding beyond formulaic memorisation: by replacing water volume in this GIF with sandwich volume, you are now recalling prior experience to help you understand new concepts in a way that promotes long-term retention
- Connecting ideas across multiple disciplines: right-angled isosceles triangle sandwiches bring the rigour of mathematics to the culinary arts, and creativity is associated with connecting seemingly disparate things
- Communication skills and personal flair: no matter what medium you used – be it a video, an infographic, a poster, or an interactive data model – you’ve essentially built your knowledge in a way that is uniquely you, you’ve engaged other people with it, and you brought them value
According to Wikipedia‘s definition, learning artifacts are lasting, durable, public, and “materially present”. However, I argue that while digital artifacts are not materially present, its non-physical nature makes it far more lasting and durable, and very easily shareable with a much larger “public”.
The idea of learning artifacts are a key component of the learning philosophy constructionism. It believes that learning occurs best by creating tangible, shareable “artifacts” for others to engage with. According to constructionism, these artifacts bring sentimental value and ownership. These help learners develop deeper understanding and gain longer-term retention of what they’ve learnt while acquiring problem-solving skills during the construction of the artifact.
A quick history on learning artifacts and why they’re especially important today
Learning artifacts are an extension of Project-Based Learning (PBL). PBL has its roots in Confucian and Aristotlian thought, who were huge advocates of learning through questioning, inquiry and critical thinking.
In the 1950s, education theorist John Dewey, and inventor of the “Montessori Method” Maria Montessori were proponents of active, experiential learning. They believed learners construct their own unique understanding for everything that they learn. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget proposed constructivism in learning to show how humans make meaning through interactions between their past experiences and newly-introduced ideas.
Jean Piaget had a protegé – Seymour Papert , a pioneer of artificial intelligence and founder of computational thinking – who took this idea further, focusing on the practical education method rather than the learning theory, and coined the term constructionism around 1980, believing learning occurs by creating something that other people will see, critique, and potentially use – the learning artifact.
Beginning in the 2010s, PBL started undergoing a “Renaissance” due to the rise of project-based work – small interdisciplinary teams work in series of short “sprints” with short-term targets that build towards an end goal. At the end of the project, members disperse into other project teams. They record their project-based experience in a project portfolio and prepare for their next project-based work.
Every day, work is becoming less structured and more “agile”. In a 2015 survey, 93% of their sampled IT professionals had implemented at least some principles of agile in their organisations, and it’s starting to show up in non-IT functions. These days, pretty much every company requires some of form IT infrastructure in order to survive. The gap between the “guys in IT” and everyone else is becoming less of a thing, and digital literacy is becoming a core life skill. If technology is truly a vital organ for all businesses, then you can be sure that you will be involved in project-based work one way or another in the future.
The sharing economy has already arrived, and freelancing / side-hustling is becoming an increasingly normal lifestyle. Career progression is less about the prestige of your past positions and more about what you’ve done, with an emerging CV format that captures all these trends.
So while the focus of my article is more about wholesome self-discovery / taking control of your life story, learning artifacts are great for your employability and “future proofing” yourself.
How would a learning artifact work in practice?
Seymour Papert’s constructionism has mostly focused on K12, but I think it has great value beyond that as well. Say, you wanted to learn about whistleblower’s rights. I’ll compare three different learning approaches to show how learning artifacts could be implemented.
The first and most traditional way to learn about this is through a “subject matter expert transmitting their knowledge about international law to learners who passively absorb it” (fancy-speak for a professor giving a lecture), followed by some problem sets and evaluative examinations to determine whether you’ve gained the required knowledge.
From several anecdotal experiences of people I know (classmates lol), and from a lot of credible sources on learning, without a lot of internal motivation on behalf of the student, the effectiveness of this method is too correlated to the quality of the lecturer’s instruction. Even then, a lot of the knowledge never really gets retained for the long-term.
A second and brilliant way to learn about this is through an in-class discussion about a case study. The Case Study Method has its roots in Harvard Law School in the late 1800s, and has seen success in business and STEM fields as well. Maybe the case could be about the conditions of Wikileaks founder Julian Assanges’s asylum in London, and how the Ecuadorian embassy exercised extraterritorial power to protect Assange in the UK.
For students don’t prefer speaking publicly in class, some professors provide an online class forum for written contributions. Some ask students to write up an essay or term paper, with a peer-to-peer evaluation component.
These writing projects might be considered “learning artifacts”, but I argue they are quite limited. The viewing audience generally does not go beyond the classmates and instructor, and the learner’s ownership is generally quite low. These characteristics diminish the underlying constructionist philosophy behind learning artifacts.
The final way to learn about whistleblower rights could be for students to design instructional material as if they were the ones teaching. The educator sets very general learning outcome objectives, allowing learners to more freely explore the central theme of “whistleblower rights”, but they can choose to focus on different ideas surrounding it such as international law, ethics, cybersecurity (Edward Snowden), financial systems (Panama Papers), etc.
The main benefit of the Learning Artifact over the Case Study Method is that the final learning product is a permanently recallable, uniquely personalised, and publicly engaging output rather than just a “participation” comment. Learners don’t need to develop a full-lesson lecture with a PowerPoint deck (although they could if they want). They could create posters, videos, infographics, blog posts (ayyyoo wink wink), or whatever medium that they believe best expresses the knowledge they have acquired in a way people can appreciate.
Besides the learning benefits – as cheesy and “self-help” as it sounds – I like to think about the process of creating learning artifacts as a way for discovering your values and purpose. Around half of all long-term learning projects (think papers, presentations, group work) may qualify as a learning artifact, but its learning quality generally suffers from a large external motivator called The GPA, which is not the most reliable source for life inspiration. Furthermore, these projects generally have restrictive scope and evaluation criteria, which might impede the normally free and exploratory artifact construction process.
Without a doubt, many educational institutions will find it difficult implementing such learning methods – artifact construction is highly personalised and interdisciplinary. With current technology, it’s really human-intensive work for the educator, and requires a lot of systemic change on the way education is delivered. Standardised measurements of knowledge and skills attainment (grades) will fail to fully capture the quality and depth of learning.
I’ve had the luck of having a few forward-thinking professors that allowed more freedom in their course projects, but I personally think everyone would be able to reap the benefits of learning artifacts much better if they created them independently, outside the scope and demands of educational institutions, and if they created them almost purely out of intrinsic curiosity.
Like how artists build a portfolio of artwork, you can start building a portfolio of learning artifacts
To start building your own learning artifacts, Here are three overview questions to consider:
- What am I passionate about?
- What should I learn to further fuel this passion?
- How can I share my passion effectively?
To put these three questions into perspective, I’ll follow along using “peanuts” as the example passion. Although peanuts might sound lighthearted, try replacing it with “CRISPR genome sequencing” or “Searching Engine Optimization” (In my case, it’s EdTech). Skip to 3 for concrete advice:
1. I am a peanut aficionado. Literally everything about peanuts is awesome. The way they are grown, cooked, presented and eaten represent the circle of life. The peanut ecosystem provides profound commentary on the socio-economic forces that govern humanity. Every morning, I pop a honey-roasted peanut with peanut better in my mouth while reading the latest news about. Ten years from now, I wish to be a thought leader, and be a keynote speaker at the US’s National Peanut Festival.
2. Right now, I am a mere consumer of peanuts. Online peanut critics inform my peanut purchases and cooking. Today, I am a sheep (or squirrel, since squirrels eat a lot of peanuts), but I am not complacent. If I want to become a true expert, I should not only be a consumer, but a creator as well. A creator in all senses – most people might think of eating peanuts when they hear I love peanuts (like when people think of “teachers” when they hear I love education), but of course, it’s much more than that. It’s a cooking art. It’s the health benefits. It’s how a startup could disrupt the peanut industry currently dominated by monopolists that lobby the government for unsustainable subsidies. Damn.
3. To bring attention to the aesthetic beauty of peanuts and its versatility as an ingredient, I’ll build up a repertoire of peanut-based dishes to capture people’s hearts and tastebuds. It seems like there’s no dedicated Instagram or YouTube account for peanut-based dishes, so I guess I found my niche 😉
If I want to become a keynote speaker, I might as well start creating some presentation slides. I’ll use Slideshare to give people a taste (hahaha get it) of how I would communicate the nutritional value of peanuts, and maybe do a cooking workshop with my university’s Culinary Society.
To bring the statistics and data of peanut health science to life, I’ll use Canva to design infographics that illustrate the benefits of having peanuts in your diet, and how they compare to other nuts.
The world of peanuts is full of macroeconomic problems that need to be brought to light. I might set up a personal website using WordPress for some of my more long-form opinions and commentary on the future of the peanut industry, or the writing platform Medium.
if I feel WordPress is too much of a time investment, I’ll bring together everything on my LinkedIn profile to ensure my learning artifacts are still publicly visible. Who knows – maybe my biggest peanut idols might pick up on it and give me feedback.
Sometimes, a learning artifact can be as simple as sharing content you’re interested in on social media and writing a one-paragraph commentary on it. These posts already demonstrate your learning in a public space. They don’t need to a 50-page academic thesis, nor a super-ambitious endeavour.
Although I used peanuts as an example, the thought process in building learning artifacts can apply to virtually any domain of knowledge. You don’t need to have “that one passion” if you haven’t figured it out yet, just start with something you’re interested in and you feel like sharing with others.
Bruh, if I had to explain Learning Artifacts to a 5-year-old, it’s basically Show-and-Tell for adults :’)