The Creative Forest experience has evolved markedly since we began the digital platform journey over a year ago with our channel partner NetNZ.

Delivering a highly successful classroom programme into a digital environment for the first time was a huge, but exciting challenge. We look back on what we’ve learned whilst giving some thought to future directions.

Our original vision was to support personalised learning through building collaborative learner communities and intelligent knowledge networks, whilst developing soft skills in students as they explored project based technology innovation. That vision remains, but what we quickly discovered was that we could assist students from across a greater spectrum of interests than we originally imagined. In the past we had a big focus on coding and digital game making, but with the assistance of NetNZ we’ve been able to reach students with other creative project interests such as music, writing, photography and art.

The strength of the platform experience has been drawn from this diversity of thinking as we found ways to improve student engagement. They began working together to pool their skills, transcending geographical distance and social boundaries such as age or school loyalties. That was an unexpected bonus which the platform allowed us to adapt to rapidly.

On a technical level we began our trial in 2018 with a minimum viable product in the form of several third party applications held together by sticky tape and glue. This provided a simple chat feature for real time conversations coupled with content spaces for documenting ideas and progress. The format of the digital workspace aligned roughly with the open source Creative Forest framework. It worked surprisingly well, but it soon became apparent that we needed to unify our approach, if we were to scale the project more widely.

Creative Forest founder Renea Mackie spent the Christmas Holidays redesigning and developing a single hosted instance of the platform. Through the use of plug-in applications we were able to add most of the required functionality. Whilst there was additional investment needed to host and bundle these services, the end result was a much better experience whereby students had all the tools they needed in one place. This led to better knowledge sharing through a variety of media such as chat, video and written content. From a teacher perspective, it allowed clearer documentation of progress.

A key finding of these trials has been around the power of conversations. Talking to the students about their passions and interests and identifying where some of those interests could take them was a powerful tool for building trust and opening new thought pathways. So the facilitator becomes more like a guide and muse, rather than a task master. We found many commonalities across what knowledge was being sought by students, the greatest of which were basic digital literacy skills such as creating or sharing documents or using simple design tools. Surfacing and addressing these skill gaps points to opportunities for NetNZ in the future.

Creative Forest may still be a work in progress but there is lots of good juice in the pipeline. We hope to invite some U.S. based students on board later in the year through our relationship with the Nuevo Foundation. We are also looking into how Creative Forest fits into the wider community in terms of supporting youth and adult learners involved in local development projects. In the meantime, check out the links below to see what our talented foresters have been up to.

Ashburton College boys made a video talking about what they love about Creative Forest.

A rock star student from Opihi College in Temuka, writes and records in three bands and releases catchy music clips on his own record label.

By Paul Spence