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Phenomenon-Based Learning and the Impact Upon Cyber Education

30 June 2020 | Kevin Estis

Before we can establish how Phenomenon-based learning has affected the way we educate students in cyber-based skills, we must understand the basics of Phenomenon-based learning and cyber itself.

“Phenomenon-based learning is a learner-centred, multidisciplinary instructional approach that is based on student inquiry and problem solving. No specific subject is taught, nor is there any preset learning objective. Instead, learners investigate and solve their questions by applying what subjects are relevant to the problem.1 (emphasis added)

This does not mean that students do not solve specific questions or projects; it means that they must employ knowledge from several fields and ways of processing information to get to the final answer.

“For example, to understand and solve a question about climate change, knowledge from different subjects such as science, geography, mathematics, and history may be needed."2 In general, “phenomenon-based learning is a question for the teachers3.”

This is because it is about how the teacher approaches presenting questions and projects to the students and how they guide the student through the process. Instead of asking questions as if the answer, or the question, exists in a silo or isolation the teacher must process through both the question and answer as we exist in life: as a multitude of knowledge sources, opinions, and approaches.

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Figure 1: Phenomenon-based Learning in Action4

You will notice that the Inquiry Learning Process and Distributed Expertise looks a lot like what we now call Phenomenon-based Learning, and reflects how people live their lives outside of school to make determinations. The process teachers have typically used for instructing and guiding students through the knowledge process is nothing like real life (as illustrated below).

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So, if Phenomenon-based Learning reflects life, and we know that life is “integrated” (to say the least) then what must follow is the question: “Would Cyber Education benefit from Phenomenal-based Learning?”

If you know the definition of Cyber, especially the one proposed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the answer is implied – a global domain within the information environment consisting of the interdependent network of information systems infrastructures including the Internet, telecommunications networks, computer systems, and embedded processors and controllers.5

So we see immediately and easily that “cyber” consists of many different parts with many different purposes, much like life was used in our previous example.

Further, a quick look at any new SMART city or nation-state information grid shows an extremely complex system of systems with variations of data, transport methods, locations, and purposes.

Introducing the newest and most comprehensive methods for educating students about cyber is paramount to keeping students interested, understanding, and executing new ways to solve problems, and integrating the same skills they use in life in their education process.

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Phenomenon-based learning is just one way that we ensure our students excel not just in cyber, but in their professional and personal lives as well; the way we teach is just as important as what we do (and do not) teach to ensure students aren’t just trained but are educated and mentored.

How Digital14 Implements Phenomenon-based Learning with Cyber Education

The standardized approach at Phenomenon-based learning has four (4) general steps which institutions follow. Below are some examples of how Digital14 has integrated those four steps6 in a client engagement.

The client engagement was a Cyber Awareness Bootcamp for recent graduates. Graduates had various majors, including statistics, information technology, IT engineering, and even law. Students were broken into groups of 5 people with previous Bootcamp attendees spread across the teams.

The training topics were focused upon scenarios students were required to create which illustrate how digital data is disseminated, collected, and used by corporations and nation-states including how that data might be used maliciously and what protections could be put in place.

1. Learners ask a question that relates to real-life that is of personal interest.

Groups focused upon data which could be used maliciously, what the statistics were regarding that data, and even what laws and new technical and non-technical protections could be put in place.

2. Learners engage in research to find a solution by studying the topic from different angles and perspectives.

After the specific problem to be solved was agreed upon the group, each student in the group was assigned (by members of the group) to research a specific area of the problem.

3. Instructors facilitate the process by guiding students to learn the concepts and skills needed to solve the problem.

Mentors from Digital14 guided the teams in different technologies and research approaches specific to cyber and digital methods. Each morning was a teaching session to show the students new tools and research methods that could apply to their scenario; students had to discuss and decide if the tools and methods should be applied and how.

4. Learners present and deliver their solution in a chosen format.

All students were required to present their solution, as a team, showing clearly the vulnerability or risk, who or what groups it applied to, what protections could be put in place to reduce or mitigate risk, and what laws or legal protections could be implemented.


1, 23 June 2020
2, 23 June 2020
3, Dr. Donna Fields, OXFORD National Conference 2019
4 Hakkarainen, K. (1998): Epistemology of scientific inquiry and computer-supported collaborative learning.
5 NIST SP 800-30 Rev. 1 under Cyberspace (CNSSI 4009)
6, 23 June 2020

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