Designing ecosystems versus designing learning

Educators are a conflicted group. The intended outcome of our activities is a nebulous concept we define as “learning” (some type of change of state or potential in the learner). We assume that through pushing buttons and pulling levers in an intricate process we call “instruction”, we will be able to “create” learning. The best we have been able to do to date is create a series of guidelines and conditions in which learning might occur. Vygotsky, Bruner, Chickering, Bloom, Gagne, and others have sought to pry open the door of “making learning happen” through checklists and best practices. In the end, most educators will admit that we are really rather clueless about the whole learning thing. And we should be. We have taken the wrong approach. We are trying to achieve a task (learning) with a tool (teaching) in an artificial knowledge construct (courses). It’s all about us.

The term learner-centered has been tossed around over the last decade, but still without significant systemic change in organizations. Our theories are coded in a field called “instructional design”, our technology caries names like “learning/content management systems”, etc. We use “objectives” as the framework for letting learners know what they will learn. Pause and reflect on the whole process. It’s really rather comical.

I’ve ranted about this too often to warrant another mention, but old habits die hard: the more rapidly knowledge develops, the more useless courses become. Courses are a snapshot of knowledge at a certain time – much like a balance sheet reflects the financial health of a corporation. They serve a purpose, but more is needed. Freezing learning in a course makes no sense when learning is dynamic, ongoing, social, complex, and diverse.

If courses and programs are not able to match pace with learners needs, what’s the alternative? My response is fairly simple: networks and ecologies. I’ve written about networks before (here and here), so I won’t go into those details now.

Instead of designing instruction (which we assume will lead to learning), we should be focusing on designing ecologies in which learners can forage for knowledge, information, and derive meaning. What’s the difference between a course and an ecology? A course, as mentioned is static – a frozen representation of knowledge at a certain time. An ecology is dynamic, rich, and continually evolving. The entire system reacts to changes – internal or external. An ecology gives the learner control – allowing her to acquire and explore areas based on self-selected objectives. The designer of the ecology may still include learning objectives, but they will be implicit rather than explicit.

What does this “learning ecology” look like? First, it holds “content” in a manner similar to courses, but the content is not confined and pre-selected by the designer. Instead, the ecology fosters connections to original and knowledge sources, allowing for “currency” (up to date). The ecology fosters rich interaction between disparate fields of information, allowing growth and adaptation of ideas and concepts (i.e. “the verge”). Each participant in the ecology pursues his/her own objectives, but within the organized domain of the knowledge of a particular field (after all, some form of learner competence should emerge as a result of existing in the ecology). Nodes (content and people) and connections are the basic elements of a network. An ecology should permit these networks to develop and flourish without hindrance.

What types of tools are needed for learning ecologies? I’ve beaten this one to death too, but here goes: blogs, wikis, groupware, collaborative tools, any connection-forming tool (Skype, phone, email, face-to-face), RSS, social network tools, etc. We are at a rather exciting time in the history of learning – a time where the learner is poised to take back the learning experience. Experts and gurus still exist within an ecology. The key difference is that they no longer dictate the environment.

5 Responses to “Designing ecosystems versus designing learning”

  1. AJ Hoge says:

    Fantastic post! Absolutely!
    I agree. I think the term “teacher” is outdated. I prefer terms such as “ecosystem designer” or “game designer” (in the sense of simulation games).
    The challenge is to create self-sustaining information ecosystems that evolve on their own. The “course”, if used at all, is simply the initial launch of the organism. The goal is to launch it as something viable.. that will grow and live on its own long after the “course” is over.
    Fantastic blog!

  2. Karen says:

    I enjoyed reading your post and wondered if you had run across the article below?

    Evolving a Distributed Learning Community

    I find the whole teaching/learning/instruction/whatever experience is far easier to understand and make sense of as a result of that article where there is room for multiple ways of knowing and doing and multiple ideas about goals and purposes.
    I just recently ran across your blog and have you in my bloglines list. Thanks!

  3. M says:

    I have commented on this post on my blog.

  4. Amy Gahran says:

    Thanks for making me think hard about learning, George. What you said resonates with me in a way that perhaps you didn’t intend — but then, that’s the serendipity of this public conversation.
    Right now, the practice of “citizen journalism” is gaining prominence, popularity, and credence. In a nutshell, this is when people who are not employed by news organizations (or who do not consider themselves professional journalists) participate in gathering and reporting news.
    This interests me greatly because I am a journalist — among other things. The reason why I decided to study journalism in college and work for several years as a professional journalist is that it gave me the license, confidence, and skill set to satisfy much of my own curiousity.
    I’m thinking that perhaps journalism skills might be a crucial aspect of the wider “learning ecology” you described. That is, if more people had a basic grounding in journalism skills, they might achieve more in terms of educating themselves and others, and participating in the shared creation of context, meaning, and options. Understanding how to interview, corroborate, determine primary sources, fact-check, file a FOIA request, seek balance, strive for objectivity or transparancy, and more could aid any quest for knowledge.
    This is, now that I think about it, one of the reasons why I got interested in citizen journalism in the first place, and why I launched my new endeavor “I, Reporter,” which seeks to inspire, guide, and train citizen journalists and the news organizations who work with them.
    I’ll mull this connection over more and will certainly blog about it later. But thanks for connecting these particular dots for me.
    - Amy Gahran
    Editor, Contentious and I, Reporter

  5. eve says:

    Ask young kids to draw what this learning ecology would look like! What amazing images they would create! Where are the references to their views/ ideas? I’m sure they would be adventurous and creative in their suggestions.