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Project-Based Hyper Learning: Intrinsic Student Learning Experiences at Their Best

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
Related Tags: Education Trends, All Grades
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How do students learn? What is the best way to learn? How can technology make students learn better?

How would you answer that last question? Most likely, you will say something about the inherent interest that students have in technology. Some of you might describe the multimedia nature of technology and how it brings life to otherwise boring material. Certainly, some will mention the research capacity of the Internet, and a few may even name some specific content-driven learning-software titles such as Plato, A+, Accelerated Math, Reading, or Study Island. All of these have their place, but I'll bet that almost nobody will mention the most powerful learning-enhancement technology tools out there.

The tools I'm talking about are the kind that help students think better. In other words, they encourage students to organize and clarify their thinking. These are the technology tools that force students to use the capacity-building characteristics of higher-order thinking. (Read my earlier post "To Sink or Swim: Creating Effective Learning Systems," which discusses Bloom's Taxonomy and the importance of teaching higher-order thinking skills.)

These tools inspire students to create sense out of chaos, and they release students to think nonlinearly. They empower students to design and share open-ended learning experiences. In short, these are the technology tools that fundamentally promote intrinsic student learning experiences. I would like to talk about one of these technology tools in particular.

Several years ago -- OK, many years ago -- all Macintosh computers came installed with such a tool, a "hyper" programming language called HyperCard. For us techno geeks, it was way cool, but for everyone else, it was pretty complicated to use, and it came only in black and white. An enterprising programmer, Roger Wagner, took that idea one step further and made HyperStudio, a colorful, easy, and fun way for anyone to create "hyper-learning" stacks.

Just so we are all talking the same language, hyper learning is the first child of the information-on-demand generation. (By the way, that's us.) It is based on the concept that you learn best when you are asking questions, and nothing frustrates us more than to have to wait to get the answers.

The simplest illustration of hyper-learning programming is when you are reading a text on the computer and you come across a word you don't know. You just click on the word, and a window pops up, giving a definition or added information about the word. If the information does not fit in a pop-up window, it might play a movie or a sound clip or take you to another page or series of pages. When you are done learning, you click on Return to go back to the original document and continue reading.

Hundreds of electronic storybooks take advantage of this concept, and the Rosetta Stone language-learning software is founded on this principle, too: Click on a word, and you find out not only what it means but also how to pronounce it.

As a high school Spanish teacher, I instantly recognized applications for this kind of hyper learning. (I know what you are thinking, but no, I did not create my lessons in this format and then let the programs do the teaching.)

I had a better idea. I had my students create a hyper-learning program for younger students learning Spanish. It was easy enough to show the students how to use the controls in fifteen minutes, and they spent the rest of the time designing and creating the lessons and evaluations -- all the while further cementing in their own minds the concepts we had been learning in class. They had to know the concept well enough to teach it and test it, and, as a bonus, they had a blast creating a fully functional product. Their learning came to consist less of what I could put into them and more of what they pulled out of themselves. (To discover ways tech integration can deepen and enhance the learning process, read "Why Integrate Technology into the Curriculum?: The Reasons Are Many.")

Well, that was in 1996. HyperStudio kind of disappeared for a while, but I ran into program creator Roger Wagner at the world's largest educational-technology conference for teachers and technology coordinators, the National Educational Computing Conference. He told me good news: HyperStudio is back with a vengeance. It has all the old features and a bunch of new ones, such as podcasting and movie-making capabilities. It's completely modernized for today's techno-savvy students (and teachers). Needless to say, I was ecstatic that teachers once again had another option besides the sequential lecture crutch that is Microsoft PowerPoint and the mindless drill-and-kill of content-based learning.

So, now, let's get back to my original set of questions. What is the best way for students to learn? I would hope the answer is obvious. Students learn best when they teach themselves, when they learn by doing, and when they create. That is true hyper learning.

What kinds of hyper learning have you had success with?

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (10) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Shane Krukowski's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Ben,

Right on! The hardest, yet most energizing practice a teacher/project advisor can do is allow students to prepare the plan or outline for a teacher driven thematic project. At first it will feel a bit uncomfortable, but at the end of the day students will take what you've described and get pretty close to what you were hoping they'd anticipate. Best yet, they have more ownership to the project. The prize inside, if you will, is students begin to understand the process involved in any experience they'll encounter in life. Whether it be submitting a grant to a foundation, submitting a business plan to an investor or inventorying needs for managing a group of people, students will undoubtedly need to become good at preparing a plan, getting it approved and ultimately showing what's been accomplished as a result.

This approach seems inline with what you are suggesting. We work with ~70 schools across the country that are doing more holistic project-based approach to learning. In so many cases, giving up the reins is the hardest thing for teachers, but I would argue the most liberating for students when managed well.


Shane Krukowski
Managing Director
Project-Based Learning Systems
Milwaukee, WI

Charles Ferris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that anything that can be done with technology that gives students, of any age, the ability to learn, is probably good. I never understood hyperstudio, but then we had no one on staff who did either. There were a few rather lame attempts at explaining it, but we had no one using it for any understandable purpose. It was rather like being one page ahead in the manual, making one the "expert". I do hope that this trend--students being challenged to learn, question, and create, continues. Filling in bubbles (no child left behind)doesn't quite compare. Thanks for the post Ben.

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Charles (Eduskeptic):

An empty canvass sometimes appears to have no understandable purpose at first. The nice thing about electronic canvasses is that there is an unlimited supply and they are correctable. Hyperstudio has that sort of capacity as well as several other programs to a lesser extent. There is nothing wrong with being one step ahead of the student. In Spanish, there is a saying, "En el reino de los ciegos, el tuerto es rey." "In land of the blind, one good eye makes you king." The problem is not really in who knows how to use a program like Hyperstudio, but the purpose behind using it. If you got this really neat program and want to teach students how to use it, then just as kids will soon forget the Christmas gift and play with the box it came in, the novelty of the program will wear off and students (and teachers) become frustrated and bored. However, if Hyperstudio is a tool that is used to solve a problem or meet a need, then the details of how to use the program will work themselves out, and both teacher and student will continue to be motivated long after the initial stage of novelty, because the need is the motivating factor, not the computer program itself.

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


You have an interesting organization. I completely agree that one of the hardest things for teachers to do is to trust students to learn by themselves. Somehow the concept of being "teachers" means that they have to be the ones to provide all the knowledge. But the act of letting go of some of the reins does not mean a teacher is losing any control of the student's learning. In fact, it is increasing the control that they have over student learning. Project based learning as well as any learning that engages students in higher order thinking skills requires that the teacher plan and prepare to much higher levels. The teacher must create the sequential and increasingly more challenging learning environments that he intends to release the students into. That takes work and provides incredible control of what is learned, especially in terms of project based learning. The level of learning is obvious to the student and the teacher as a matter of course. Teachers who are dependent on the text book or ancillary materials provided by the publisher find it difficult to make this transition.

Krystin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think you just accomplished a very rare task. You discussed the use of technology to do different things, but also actually used it to do something differently. Your students gained valuable technology skills while reviewing content. It was an ingenious idea. Thanks for sharing.

Brianna Lehning's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading your posting. Your words truly reflect the values and interests of today's technology-savvy students and the importance of teaching such students to be independent-learns by teaching them how to learn. I was reminded of an article I read by Phyllis Muldoon on "Challenging Students to Think: Shaping Questions, Building Community." Muldoon focuses on teaching students how to think rather than teaching them what to think. Additionally, she believes on changing the perception that "knowledge" is something "extracted" rather than something that is "created." According to Muldoon, knowledge is, or should be, created collectively as a class where students engage in a "brawl of ideas and wonderments" (Muldoon, 1990, p. 34). Doesn't that sound like a lot more fun than the "knowledge" teachers "impart" upon you while you sit passively in your seat taking notes? Too often as teachers we concern ourselves with, "How can we lead students to the right answers?" rather than, "How can we lead students to ask the right questions?"

A writing exercise I did in one of my undergraduate communication classes involved writing a paper with only questions. You were required to ask questions and then ask questions about those questions. The only time during the paper where you did not have to question is when you used an example from your life that related to a question you had posed. It is incredible the kind of depth you can get to when only posing questions without any answers. It is also incredible how your "writing voice" comes into its own while asking questions; you can boldly ask the questions that you would of perhaps only hesitated to answer. There is a sense of authority in being the one to ask the questions and it is an empowering writing experience, and one I hope to bring to a class of my own.

After we wrote the papers, we would bring them to class and choose one question to pose to the other students. Another stipulation for the paper was that the questions not be able to be answered in a word, they could not be "either-or" questions, and often took the form of, "to what extent..." For example, "To what extend are time and money the same, and to what extend are time and money unrelated? To what extend does equating time as money affect how we experience time and how we treat people?" In these class seminars, we would sit a circle and the teacher would participate in the same manner as all the other students, sometimes posing questions, sometimes giving life examples, sometimes playing the devil's advocate.

I would leave these seminars half confused and sometimes half dissatisfied with all the questions still rolling around in my head, but, to tell the truth, my head felt more full with all those questions that it ever did with all the "answers." Looking back, I am certain I learned more in that class than I did in practically all the rest combined, and who knew- the teacher hardly ever "taught."

-Brianna Lehning

Muldoon, P. A. (1990, April) "Challenging Students to Think: Shaping Questions, Building Community," English Journal, 34-40.

derrick's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Very nice post. I would say student learn, when they really "want" to learn and they have professors, who "know" how to tell something ;) Folklore

guide's picture
Counsellor with a passion to build world class assessments

You can teach your students but more important is to initiate learning process in them.

Learning has two accelerators Goal and Challenges . Understand Goals and Conquer Challenges

If possible train students to set your learning goals

Goals fuel achievement. The more your students see their goal and feel his steps covering distance each day towards goal, more will be desire to reach the post

Challenge in learning is the best motivation for Learning
Challenge will keep boredom far away and instead initiate involvement.
Challenges motivate to excel but challenges should be graded i.e difficulty should increase step by step. Impossible tasks kill enthusiam

But important question is from where will the challenge come or who will daily pose a challenge to student for him to conquer. One website which can pose challenge to you through your self created tests on vast number of subjects their topics, subtopics and key concepts is You can get lots of detail on this portal on learning

Let me give you one example

Set you goal to learn anything . Lets take example -

Goal is to understand and master Cell Structure - say in 5 days
Start studying Cell Structure from any good book. Say Cell Biology by De Roberties.

Day 1 you studied CELL THEORY,TYPES OF CELLS, CELL MEMBRANES AND TRANSPORT, CELL WALL. Complete you study. Immediately take a objective test on these areas. You can create test on each subtopic if they are available or you can input these key concepts in keyword box and create tests
You will come to know of gaps in your knowledge. Refer back to books, peers or teachers. This will not only be a challenge to you but also to your peers and teachers. They will start appreciating you and this interactive mode will make you study interesting, easier and understanding will be far quicker
Repeat above steps


Repeat above steps


Repeat above steps

Day 5 Take a test on complete test Cell structure

Mastered it. Be happy and satisfied. Move to next learning has a vast knowledge pool to create quite flexible tests and can probably give you a good challenge to conquer each time. There will great sense of achievement each time

Hope you will fall in love with your studies and will keep waiting eagerly for those exams to be conquered with confidence

This has happened with others and possibly should happen with you

Learning is gaining of Knowledge. Learning is construction of knowledge in your mind.
Remember learning can be effectively undertaken
When you understand what is known to you What remains to be known And initiate steps to bridge the gap

Happy and Enjoyable Learning
Goals Challenges Experiences
Understand Goals Conquer challenges Put (exam)Fears to Rest

Bekim's picture

In my opinion parents has to get more engaged in their kids education
fruthermore the educators and experts has to contribute their knowledge on how kids can learn better. Actually I am convinced that technology doesnt help in learning ! shqip

Daniel Bergman's picture

Hi Ben,

I agree that the learning power of software tools such as HyperStudio can definetely be harnessed by allowing students to use those types of programs to solve problems or even create projects that teach a specific topic. In fact, I learned how to use HyperStudio by creating an abacus project. The abacus project was motivated by my curiosity of understanding how they actually worked. The abacus was the very first project that I had ever built using HyperStudio, and I did so without ever having been taught how to use the program. Working on the project is actually how I learned how to use the program. In the end, the creation of the abacus did, in fact, teach me a great deal about how abaci work.


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