Rethinking the student as a co-creator

Marius Foley 2011

The type of media now emerging out of the conflation of new social practices and technologies will require practitioners who are attuned to the immersive nature of contemporary media. Most likely they will come from university Media courses or related disciplines. To get closer to what this means for education I put forward a radical proposal, starting by re-thinking the ‘student’ as a co-creator. Implicit in this is a challenge to the institution and educators. A radical proposal intentionally pushes beyond a realistic ambition to open up ideas that might otherwise be neglected.

Ideally, in re-thinking what a contemporary student is, we would involve students, in the same way we would involve users as a first principle in any user experience research or design project. This includes observing behaviours, inquiring into motivations, looking for patterns that might reveal insights and talking to the user to construct more viable and satisfying experiences. Interestingly this stage is often missed in education renewal, which reveals the depth of challenge we face. That is, if the student is not seen as a valid user of education, with opportunities to input into it, how can we expect to create something that will connect with them? I include myself in this criticism. Using the idea of user experience to consider what the contemporary student will need from education in the near future is intentionally disruptive.

What we find in social and participatory media can unsettle conventional teaching methods and shape a future educational model.

We see large corporations, particularly in the media, but not exclusively, having to change the way their business model in response to a number for contemporary forces. Not the least is the way the internet and specifically social media have changed how people consume media and design. Media and design audiences, users and consumers are more informed, have new expectations and are participating more readily in communication and meaning-making via social media forms. Yet, so far academic institutions seem to insist that the academic ‘product’ is immune to the changes impacting on other established sectors. As far as universities are concerned it remains an issue of knowledge delivery to the student rather than knowledge generation by the student.

What if we reconceptualise the student’s relationship to the experience of communication, meaning-making and knowledge formation, and indeed education itself? What would it look like and how would it work? I’ve been working on the notion of the student as co-creator (specifically an initiating co-creator) to think through these questions.

To start it is necessary to dispel the notion of students as receivers of education, despite 12 or so years of schooling. Student-centred learning purports to refocus the learning experience to the individual, but it doesn’t go far enough. The student-centered approach is still predicated on an authority deciding what a student needs, and too often falls back into a delivery system rather than a relationship. It also misses a crucial aspect of is the social construction of knowledge. Equally, simply calling a student a co-creator does nothing towards understanding what it means and what it requires, to become an effective co-creator, contributing to the formation of knowledge.

I’ll come back to the education of a co-creator, but first I’ll define what I mean by the term.

The modern usage of co-creator stems from the Open Source movement where a node of people would initiate a project— such as open source code—then open it up for others to work with. This was done on the agreement that any development would be feed back to the node and the broader community to be used accordingly. Creative Commons licensing emerged to underpin the agreement, literally to enable sharing intellectual property.

More recently the term has been used to describe a range of interactions between people who in some way contribute to the making of media, or creating social knowledge. This can be as simple as giving feedback to editing a wiki post. Or, at the other end it covers the role of the initiator or key people in the project.

The most significant change, I think, is that the co-creator engages on his or her own volition, opting in and out by choice. He or she is an independent actor; with his or her own motivations; bringing his or her own expertise to the project and determining how much to contribute; and who can negotiate their own outcomes. In other words the relationship is not predicated on the co-creator being part of a pre-determined community or other entity. Naturally some conditions need to be met in a production situation, but let’s not worry about those for the moment.

I use Michael Warner’s definition of a public to understand this. Warner is a cultural studies writer. He notes that a public is the pre-condition of modernity. And enumerates seven characteristics of how a public forms and works public. I map 4 of those over the term co-creator as I use it here. In Warner’s mind “a public is:

  • self-organized
  • a relation among strangers
  • constituted through mere attention
  • the social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse” (Warner 2002)


With this in mind a co-creator can be seen as someone who acts independently; notices when they are being addressed; knows how to pay attention in return; and engages in a discourse. And who comes to this position out of his or her own volition.

Education of a co-creator

Each of the characteristics of a co-creator needs to be developed and practiced, and in some cases taught. The ability to co-create is not, I think, a natural trait that people come with. In fact, I propose that learning how to be a co-creator is what a future university will scaffold for participants. The question is: how can this be done in an academic situation?

The solution requires creating a new education design, and most of us would argue that the most effective interfaces are co-designed. Therefore the student/co-creator needs to be part of the design process – designing his or her, own learning. Indeed, that this process of designing is continuous and constantly re-engaged with

Implicit in the notion of the student is an assumption on the authority of expertise (in this case normally held by the teacher) and the participant who is seeking knowledge (seen as the student). The challenge is to both acknowledge expertise, but to de-couple it from authority at the same time. Indeed to invest authority in the co-creator (student) as the leader in the learning process. Then the question becomes: “what does this co-creator need to know about leading the process?” This is where we can learn from social media itself, and its participants. Who are the best performers in the space, how do they do perform, what motivates them, and how sustainable is it? Social media is currently a transparent, clunky and unsophisticated organisational structure. It is easy to see how it works, and how people perform within the structure. This will change as it develops, but for the moment it is still like a see-through infrastructure.

Some initial answers to the question of what skills a co-creator who leads their own process needs, are: observation, especially to see through complexity; negotiation to position oneself in relation to others and relational intelligence to manage this; and communication to clearly articulate one’s requirements.

When we ran a course on social and participatory media for media students, we noticed the way students took to the idea of modeling behaviour as a way to engage participants and indicate what type of contribution they wanted in the project they ran. It is these types of communicative and experiential situations, which allow the student to shift their own perception of his or herself that become the key to re-configuring the relationship between the (student) co-creator, the institution and the person formerly known as the teacher.

Warner, M. (2002) Publics and Counterpublics. Public Culture

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