Learning Ecosystems: #WorkingOutLoud on the Learning Science Guidebook

This post is part of #WorkingOutLoud on the Learning Science Guidebook, and considers the notion of the Learning Ecosystem. As with all the work shared at this stage, it’s the output from the weekly workshop writing sessions i’m having with Sae (and now Geoff) to explore structure and ideas. Which is another way of saying that this is not right: it’s sharing the thought process. This last week has been interesting, as we have hit our first divergence: not disagreement, but our conversation on Learning Ecosystems has explored our different contexts and perspectives.

My initial writing has tended to the broadest view, a holistic view of the context of learning, whilst i think both Sae and Geoff have tended towards a more defined and controlled subset of that, to describe Technology Learning Ecosystems. More practical and pragmatic, although our debate so far is that we are all right. Just that one probably nests in the other.

My own thinking has led to my definition of the Learning Ecosystem as the landscape, over time: technological, social, structural and belief based. Within that will sit a more defined subset, which is what an individual Organisation, or other formal entity, may consider: their own specific Learning Ecosystem.

In our conversation, i used this example: if an etymologist wishes to understand the biosphere bubble of an oak tree, they may put a net under it and shake the tree, or smoke it, to catch all the bugs. These can be counted and categorised. Through observation (who flies in and out) and direct collection, we may come to understand that tree. But dig it up and put it into a glass box, with all those bugs, and the tree will die. The biosphere bubble of the oak tree is held within a broader ecosystem, acting upon it and being acted upon.

I think Technology Learning Ecosystems are like this: we can observe and define a coherent system, we can map the interactions within it, and we can articulate it in a common way (so we can describe five of them using a common language). We can even act upon the system in a way that gives predictable outcomes: personalisation, continuous improvement, and broader outcomes). But the system we define is still an abstraction, a subset of a broader landscape.

To be coherent, a Technology Learning Ecosystem (and that language probably won’t stick), there must be at a minimum discernible interconnections between the elements (so we can describe it functionally), as well as intentional interaction. Essentially we are describing a definable and manipulatable system. It’s an attempt to make the invisible visible, and ultimately more coherent and effective, often by applying technology to the purpose.

But around this, surrounding it as the ultimate context, is a broader and more complex domain. So i think we will have to tackle both.

So let me try to define that, and here my language may break down a bit. This is a tentative first effort:

I will tend to define a Learning Ecosystem as the broadest context in which we operate (and hence learn). It is the ‘system’ in which the ‘self’ resides.

Footnote/Aside: I’ve been using this relationship between ‘self and system’ quite broadly in my own work recently, reflecting a few key points:

  • The first is that we operate different mechanisms of ‘sense making’ in each – and that there is a tension between the two e.g. what i think/believe vs what ‘we’ think/believe.
  • That the interesting stuff happens at the intersections – the friction between systems (including certain aspects of learning – like ‘disturbance’ and storytelling.
  • That there is an overwhelming difference in scale, and yet through phenomena of consensus, belief, and the movement of the crowd, the system does change

As i look at the Learning Ecosystem, i would probably describe it in terms of boundaries:

  • The first boundary is between ‘formal’ and ‘social’ – essentially the formal as ‘that which is owned and controlled by the Organisation’, and the social as ‘that which is either unowned, or collectively owned by community(ies) and the self. This first tension is not simply about ownership, it’s also about the specific mechanisms of validation and change that operate (e.g. central validation vs distributed and collective, structural vs group social etc)
  • The second boundary is between codified and dynamic, which often relates to whether owned by formal or social systems, but is essentially about the mechanisms of truth.
  • A third boundary is between past, present, and future, and represents our journey through the landscape, and the marks we leave upon it – this is a representation of learning as scars, as footprints, as change – of both self and system.
  • Another boundary is between the collective and private – this is a view of the landscape that says whilst we may share a common horizon, parts of the landscape are inaccessible or hidden to each of us. So we are in the same space, without the same access. This view incorporate both our individual worldview (which is internal), as well as aspects such as identity and capability, and broader cultural factors (e.g. gender perceptions, social norms etc).

In this view, we learn within a Learning Ecosystem, but we do not hover above it: we are both within it, and change is as we travel. We can share a sketch map, but not the full detail.

So: this definition, or at least initial exploration, shared above, is very imperfect, but it’s letting me consider the vocabulary i may wish to deploy: that of scale, interconnection, and (for the first time) to consider it in terms of boundaries. I think this is where i will take the next iteration.

I feel that i should stress that both Sae and Geoff have shared highly coherent and useful definitions, which we will work into a section and share. The vagueness of what i’ve written here, and the mistakes within it, are purely my own, as i seek a framework for my own thinking which may, or may not, make it any further into the book.

For me, that’s why this week has been so valuable: our approach to this work is to find a central narrative (and we’ve been clear that it should be a pragmatic and usable one) – but also to be unafraid to give each other challenge, and space to think differently.

In my conversations with Sae this week i had a moment where i really suddenly realised firstly that we were talking about very different things, but then, together and through our dialogue, that they had a valuable connection between them. Perhaps we will find a stronger and unified language and understanding, or perhaps we will simply share our divergence, or lean back into a more structured/structural definition. I’m ok with any of that: this work is questing, not regurgitating. It’s about finding a new narrative, not just our old stories.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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