User Generated Education

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Overt and Covert Lessons from Avatar: Skills, Knowledge, and Attitudes Relevant for Today’s Learners

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I joined the masses this holiday season in viewing the movie, Avatar 3D, and I, as did so many others, loved this movie (although I could have done without the ½ hour end-of-movie clichéd good-prevails-over-evil battle scene).  As I tend to view life through the lens of an educator, I gleamed messages and metaphors for today’s learners. What follows are the overt in-your-face and subtle not-in-your-face messages intended by director James Cameron as well as those I received through my own subjective lens.

Everything is Connected

Several years ago I became interested in brain science.  What fascinated me most about this science was how learning, on a biological level, can be defined as the connections between neurons.   These cellular connections matched my ideas that learning occurs through human interactions – through social connections.  In essence, learning is all about the connections.

In Avatar, Cameron takes this idea of neural connections to another level when describing the vast bio-botanical neural network that all Pandoran organisms are connected to. Obviously, Cameron’s plotline is that survival of each individual, each species, the world is dependent on each individual’s actions.

Classroom Applications: Concern and stewardship of community – classroom, school, local, global – can and should be a prevalent and overt purpose of education.  There are a lot of how-to’s I could include here . . . cooperative learning structures, green (teaching paperless) classrooms, networked learning . . .

One effect of information technology is a stronger sense of the social aspects of learning and the ready connections now available to groups of people, groups in many cases that have formed because of their access to the Web and the Internet.

. . . . but the bottom line is to infuse, model, and practice the values of initiative, responsibility, interdependence, and global stewardship within the learning environment.

All Energy is Borrowed and Some Day You Have to Give It Back

This was my favorite quote from the movie.  How, in my mind, this relates to learning in our connected world is that we need to get away from ownership of knowledge and intellectual property, the prevalent paradigm of the 20th century. Scholarship, in its purest sense, means that once knowledge is developed and articulated, it is freely shared with others.

Scholarship is creative intellectual work that is validated by peers and communicated broadly.

Today’s youth have taken naturally to this idea – sharing and remixing ideas and media, basically ignoring the archaic laws associated with copyright (for more on this topic see Lessig’s “Against Perpetual Copyright”

Classroom Applications: The culture of the educational system needs to be changed from competition to collaboration, from hoarding and owning knowledge to openly sharing it and inviting its use, reuse, revision, and re-mixing.  Educators should establish and encourage learners to publish in public areas such as Media Hosting Sites, Wikis, Nings, and Google Apps.

Good Science is Good Observation

This is a direct quote from the movie.  In terms of practice, the scientists in the film reflected about what they learned via video logs.  Brain science has suggested the power of reflection to enhance and understand new learnings.

The optimal learning environment provides sufficient time for both action and reflection.

Classroom Applications: Reflection of learning is one of those instructional activities that many educators agree about its importance.  But due to “not enough time” syndrome common in many educational settings, it is often overlooked.  When it is done, it often occurs in a written format as a homework or end-of-day activity such as with journals or exit cards.  Given emerging technologies and media, reflection of learning can be integrated within content-related activities through a video log similar to the one used in Avatar using Flipcams or Camcorders, through Blogging, or through a Flickr-type photo imagery project.

The World is Understood Using All the Senses

Although technology has infiltrated almost all areas of our lives – work, recreation, consumerism, telecommunications (and ironically with schools being the least technology-“enhanced”), understanding of the world often occurs through the whole-person using all of the senses.  For the past few years, I taught gifted kids with opportunity to develop my own curriculum. I used a lot of hands-on and technology integration. I found that the kids almost always selected the hands-on experiences over the technology (even the technology games) when given a choice.  They intuitively and instinctively understood the value of the use of all the senses.

Classroom Applications:  Technology-enhanced experiential learning addresses both human’s need to fully engage in the world using all the senses and use technology to further understand it.  Examples of such learning include GPS/GIS games/learning, using digital media to make scientific explorations, and learning with Wii, Augmented or other haptic technologies.

Learn Fast or Die

Although this direct quote from the movie is a bit extreme for a discussion about educational applications, it’s relevancy comes in the need for rapid learning, flexibility, and learning in today’s climate.

To believe that somehow teaching and learning can occur now in a bubble as if the information technology revolution has not occurred is to live in a delusional world. It is not that we all have to be pioneers or early adopters, but we educators have to be at least curious and willing to better understand how the entire knowledge culture in our world has been altered and about how all assumptions about knowledge have been disrupted.  Education in the connected world has experienced an analogy to punctuated equilibrium [ . . . ] which offered an alternative to the common assumption that evolution is a gradual and slow process. Instead, a chance mutation suddenly changes the balance and a new species explodes onto the landscape.

Classroom Applications: First, foremost, and now more than ever, the teacher needs to be a learner.  A hand on the pulse of emerging technologies, educational networking initiatives, and 21st century learning competencies is needed by every educator on a constant and continuous basis.  To not do so is a disservice to the learners (and I personally believe it borders on educator misconduct but that is another Blog).  It means that the teacher-as-a-learner brings this attitude into his or her classroom environment modeling, “Hey, the world is changing  and evolving at a rapid pace.  Let’s learn about it together.”

Brain Science will Permit Greater Understanding of Human Learning

The science-fiction of Avatar displayed an intimate look of the brain.  Although this was science fiction imagery, these types of glimpses into the brain are rapidly developing. “New teaching techniques could be developed based upon what brain imaging research tells us about how the brain reacts to learning various types of things” (

Classroom Application: The brain-compatible classroom movement popular in the 1990s has seemed to lost momentum.  I believe that this movement needs to be revitalized using what we are currently learning about the brain.  Brain Rules (, for example, provides such a model.

Students can also be taught about how their own brains work in order to develop the skills for self-directed learning, a theme of this Blog.   In a recent issue of Educational Leadership, Judy Willis describes “How to Teach Students About the Brain”

The World (eventually the universe?) is Flat: Global Connections Require Respect and Understanding of Other Cultures

James Cameron, in discussing the themes of his movie, states that he had a desire to “make you think a little bit about the way you interact with nature and your fellow man” (

Classroom Applications: Respect and sensitivity towards other cultures comes through an awareness and understanding of those cultures.  The educational networking opportunities afforded by technology are far-reaching, easy, and affordable (free!).   I believe that global-collaboration projects should be required by every student at every grade level.

Digital Storytelling is the Storytelling Tradition of Our Times

Storytelling is as old as human history and has an evolutionary progression that matches the medium and media available during that historical time period.  This progression possibly started with drawings on cave walls.  Then prior to a culture’s adoption of written language, oral storytelling was used to tell a story.  Later, with the invention of photography and film, stories were told using this medium.  Now, as Cameron has demonstrated with the huge financial success of Avatar, folks are now being drawn into 3D storytelling.

Classroom Applications: The classroom application for this area is obvious.  Learners can demonstrate what they know through the use of digital storytelling.  The use of digital cameras, graphics software and online tools (see “How To Animation Series on ISTE Connects” for example), and 3D virtual worlds for Machinima ( see not only have learners using tools and media they enjoy but also provide them with some skills that they may, more than likely, be using in the workplace when they get older.

The World Is Depicted in 3D

In Avatar, not only was the film, itself in 3d, the maps used by the film’s characters were 3D renderings of the environment.   The number and rate of 3d tool development during the past few years has been outstanding – more than even the best futurist or science fiction writer could have imagined a decade ago.

Classroom Applications: 3D tools such as Google Earth, Virtual Worlds, and Augmented Reality technologies not only have the potential for strong education value but are teaching learners about the tools they are and will be using in their future work and recreational experiences.

Vision and Perseverance is Often Necessary to Achieve Your Dreams

Although this was not a theme in the movie, James Cameron’s vision for and development of Avatar occurred over a decade .

Avatar had been in development since 1994 by Cameron, who wrote an 80-page scriptment for the film. Filming was supposed to take place after the completion of Titanic, and the film would have been released in 1999, but according to Cameron, “technology needed to catch up” with his vision of the film

Classroom Uses: At a very young age, most people develop a strong specific interest or passion.

A spark is something that gives your life meaning and purpose. It’s an interest, a passion, or a gift. What do you bring to the world that is good, beautiful, and useful?” (

Savvy internet users are pursuing their own passions through user groups, Facebook, social media, and online social networks.  Educators, in this era of learning, should provide the tools and means for learners to pursue their passions.  I believe the future of education lies in user-generated learning experiences where learners pursue their passions while demonstrating core competencies. Opportunities need to be provided for learners need to develop the skills for autonomous, independent, and self-initiated learning. The technologies are ripe to permit this type of genuine differentiation.

Interestingly, what began as a simple reflection of the connections I made between Avatar 3D and 21st century teaching/learning developed into a deeper exploration of those themes or threads that I believe are integral in living, working, and playing in today’s world.  Each one of these individual themes could be a major article in itself.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

January 4, 2010 at 7:23 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Awesome blog post. I too particularly like the idea “everything is connected” and was beginning to hatch a plan about using it to set the scene for the start of our new school year in a few weeks. I’m going back to see the 3D version this week and will excitedly view it with your ideas in mind.

    Linda Pilkington

    January 4, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    • Thanks, Linda. The concept of connections on so many levels is very exciting. Sounds like a great was to set the scene for a new school year.


      January 4, 2010 at 11:38 pm

  2. Very eye-opening. Connectivity is a basic concept, but is probably the most ignored concept. Thanks for the post.

    WI Snowflake

    September 3, 2011 at 7:09 pm

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