An ecological learning-design approach
email@example.com, Tallinn University, Center for Educational Technology
I am building my ideas on the papers about the digital learning ecosystems (see McCalla,
2004, Fischeman & de Deus-Lopez, 2008; Gütl & Chang, 2008; Uden, Wangsa & Damiani,
2007; Lukin, 2008; Pata, 2009a,b; Whelan, 2010; Reyna, 2011; Briscoe, Sadedin & DeWilde,
2011; Laanpere, Pata, Normak, Põldoja, 2012), ecological cognition (Bardone & Pata, in
progress) and ecological learning design (Young, 2004; Kirschner, Strijbos, Kreijns, Beers,
2004; Fischer, Giaccardi, Ye, Sutcliffe & Mehandjiev, 2004; Bishop, 2007; Hagen &
Robertson, 2009; Fisher, 2012; Normak, Pata, Kaipainen, 2012). I am also aware that many
interesting discussions with my colleagues Mart Laanpere and Emanuele Bardone have
contributed to this paper.
Learning design concept is used both for marking the design product as well as the
design process. Learning design refers to i) better describing, understanding the pedagogic
considerations for creating supportive conditions for learning and supporting and guiding
learning, and ii) the practices a designer must do for creating a certain learning design.
Learning design product and process both assume the consideration of certain learning
theories that define what triggers learning, how does learning take place, and what is the
result of learning.
I believe that all these aspects of learning design can be approached ecologically, and if
doing so we can initiate, manage and appropriate learning ecosystems, -situations and behaviors that are actual in the modern society (such as ubiquitous informal self-directed
lifelong learning for personal flow experiences and satisfaction from successful responses to
meeting the challenges and contributing for sustainable environments).
I start this paper by defining a learning ecosystem from the point of view of learning, and
in the next chapters I elaborate the structure, functioning principles and productive potential
for learning ecosystem.
Firstly, I will discuss, how to create design products that function as learning ecosystems.
Using the example of a connectivist MOOC as a learning ecosystem I will try to elaborate the
Why learning ecosystem is considered an effective form of maintaining learning?
What are characteristics of a learning ecosystem? Which principles govern learning
In the second part of this presentation, I will claim that the modeling of a functioning
learning ecosystem, presumes the learning design process to take the meta-design approach
that manages the bottom-up formation of a learning ecosystem involving the users into codesigning it throughout the lifetime of the design usage. I am discussing the following issues:
What do ecosystem principles contribute to the ecological design process?
Can meta-design approach be used for maintaining the ecological process towards creating
In the beginning I define the learning ecosystem concept from the learning point of view.
Learning ecosystem is an emergent and dynamically evolving system that is formed as a
result of multiple self-directed actors’ ecological enculturation of some environment for
increasing its productivity for learning.
I will not explain all the concepts in this definition in the beginning, but rather will firstly
discuss, what are the ecosystem components and which principles govern ecosystems, and
then will come back to explaining what way learning ecosystems facilitate learning.
1. What are characteristics of a learning ecosystem?
Ecology as a research field may be fruitfully used for explaining learning designs as
learning ecosystems. We may take the ecosystem concept and use it to map and understand
how learning design components behave as an emergent living ecosystem.
In doing so the following questions might be in the focus:
1.1.Of what components does the learning design product - learning ecosystem – contain
In the design product view to any learning design the following learning and teaching
services should be taken into account.
As a nutshell a learning design product should cover the following purposes:
• Planning for learning objectives and criteria to which achieved learning objectives
• Providing the learning activities and assignments that enable achieving learning
• Using the learning resources (such as tools, artifacts, people) for learning and for
• Getting support (such as how to learn and how to construct knowledge)
• Monitoring the learning success
• Assessing learning
• Evaluating the learning design and the impact of the learning design application
Taking the service view to learning designs we may assume that various actors – teachers,
experts, learners, and the socio-technical system where the learning is taking place – provide
a variety of learning services. All together these services make up an ecological community
of learning services that inhabit one ecosystem. In a closer look we can see that each type
of the learning service may afford certain learning or teaching purposes (Planning,
Activity-provision, Resource-provision, Support, Monitoring and Assessment). A variety of
similar learning services may occupy the same teaching and learning purpose niche. Table
1 shows the examples of learning services within each purpose niche in the MOOC Learning
Example 1. Connectivist MOOCs
Note that each element in the MOOC is mediated by certain technologies, which adds
more diversity to each component type. Also, usually each component that actually is used for
certain purposes may comprise other components.
Elements of the
Teacher or organizationprovided
Goals of the
emergence of sustainable
between people and
Goals of the course
assignments (such as
webinars, forums to
discuss certain topics,
engaged in, getting
learning about and
how to in some
activities for selfdirecting, coconstructing,
accumulated from its
individuals and evolving in
Emerging best practices of
the community members
visible through participatory
surveillance systems and
learning and for
Open learning resources
and experts selected for
guidance how to
participate at MOOCs
Teacher’s and experts’
The instructing structures
in learning resources and
Assignment or artifact
resources and the
Emerging and socially
accumulated concepts, ideas,
resource hubs (both artifacts,
places and users)
Peer comments and
peer support elements
such as in some
provided help how to
find or use some
Accumulated scaffolds such
as tag-clouds, friend-feeds,
ratings to certain resources
about the MOOC
SNA of MOOC participants
Accumulated peer validation
Learning analytics that base
on ecosystem principles (see
1.2.Which is the fitness of these components to the certain learning ecosystem niches, how
do they adapt to the niche, and how they contribute to changing the ecosystem niche?
Niche is a concept that denotes certain range of affordances that are required to achieve
the certain learning or teaching purpose. Niches for certain learning or teaching purposes are
culturally defined, depending on the conceptualizations how learning should take place. For
example, a Support niche in Behaviorism and Social-constructivism is conceptualized as a
different set of affordances. In behaviorism the support means the feedback to learning that is
given as a praise or punishment to shape certain learning behaviors. In social-constructivism
the support is given by teacher and peers to scaffold knowledge construction. Besides being
culturally determined, niches, as abstract affordance spaces of the learning design are also
accumulated from the learning service affordances actualized by the actors and sociotechnical systems that constitute this learning design. For example in socio-constructivist
learning design it would mean, for example, that forum is used to afford peer scaffolding or
alternatively that peer support is maintained in the comments of the google.docs, or the
teacher scaffolding is provided by a set of hints and prompts available in the assignment
templates for blogs. Ecological psychology applications to learning technologies (Young,
2004; Kirschner, Strijbos, Kreijns, Beers, 2004; Bishop, 2007) suggest that learner’s/teachers’
direct perception of the learning environment’s action potentialities (or so-called affordances)
varies and this would give the variability to the actual use of learning services in the elearning system. Due to the internal variety among services, some of them are less and others
more fit to the particular purpose niche. Some of those learning services become frequently
used and achieve much attention, while other competing services appear to be less successful
and become less and less used as the learning design is used for teaching and learning.
Therefore, throughout the lifetime of the learning design usage, the abundance of every
learning service is changing. The teaching and learning services may evolve in response to
selection pressures modified by themselves and their ancestors through learning niche
construction and adaption to the niche.
The learning services may depend on each other, communicate and influence each
other; compete or have coalitions with each other in many ways, similarly as the biological
species in natural ecosystems form trophic networks, communicate and have mutualisms (e.g.
The community of teaching and learning services and agents is a concept for
temporary coalitions (communities) denoting the services at present in the learning design.
From the learning service community perspective we may look at the lifetime of a design
product usage as if it was a growing meadow where different plant species naturally come to
replace others, as the living conditions change. And the species themselves create the new
living conditions to promote this change. For example at the MOOC, initially the community
may contain more the “tamed” teacher-planned learning services and by time the MOOC
users would create the richness of “wild” learning services that would compete for user
attention with the teacher provided services. This succession towards the semi-natural
teacher- and learner-created communities of learning services should not be considered as a
failure, but rather as the ultimate goal of the design. Maintaining homogenous communities
such as ideal teacher-planned sets of learning services (the analogy of an agricultural
grasslands) needs constant care – few learning services prescribe limited learning paths in
order to maximize the productive learning flows for medium learners (just few unified trophic
networks are allowed). The natural learner-created communities, on the contrary, are based on
the richness of constantly changing learning services that can replace themselves in the
trophic networks, that guarantees better self-regulation but also the succession of the servicecommunity in time. In these conditions it may happen that the teacher created services are not
fit enough compared with those created in the wild and do not have a competitive advantage
in the same learning and teaching service niches. The way in between would be the learning
ecosystems that promote semi-natural communities where both the teacher- and learnercreated learning services could co-exist, and the former would be used to facilitate, enable
and prune the richness of wild services and keep it in a state where succession is inhibited. In
Estonian nature the examples of semi-natural communities are alvars, wooded and coastal
meadows, where constant human activity is needed to maintain the rich grassland cultures
from been overtaken by the forest provide an analogy to teacher- and student maintained
1.3.Which is the role of these components in enabling the learning flows within the
The community of learning services at the learning design activated by different users, the
users of this learning design, and the information and knowledge circulated within the
learning design altogether form the learning ecosystem. The main form of ecosystem
existence is through trophic chains of species that transform energy and matter composing
and decomposing energy rich products, thus enabling the one-directional trophic flow
through the ecosystem. In learning ecosystems the relevant concept to trophic flow is a
learning flow. We may assume that in any learning design the purpose of the learning
services is to compose such networks of trophic chains that enable users participating in the
learning flows that transform the information to knowledge. The learning flow is powered
by the proactive creation of learning services and the attention, consideration, communication
and usage of available learning services that teachers, learners and the socio-technical system
as the agents provide. There are several factors that enable the permeability of the learning
flow in the ecosystems, such as the variety of available learning services for learning and
teaching purposes, the density of certain kind of learning services and their aggregation in
certain time moments of the learning design usage. The permeability of a natural ecosystem
to circulation of energy and materials will depend on the nature of the 'architecture' of the
components of the system, the connections in the trophic chains and the side-paths and hubs
in the trophic web and characteristics of individual species.
In MOOCs learners can modify the initial learning objectives provided by the teacher,
everyone creates the resources, and many users offer support to the others. This enables to
keep every learner motivated and in the learning flow – there are always relevant goals,
resources and required support that may replace in the learning ecosystem purpose niches
some of the missing services and allow the continuous learning flows. The more learning
services can capture attention, the more likely it is that they will be constantly used in the
learning ecosystem, The visibility and density of alternative learning services may be
increased by RSS feeds (friend-feeds, category-feds) and mashing.
1.4.How do these components influence each other?
The mutualisms such as symbiosis (mutual benefit of using resources and living spaces)
are one way how in natural ecosystems species get the competitive premise. Such mutualisms
are associated with sharing the resources and associate with energy and matter exchanges in
the network. Mutualisms between different types of learning services are very important also
in learning designs. For example, in MOOCs many learning services provided by the sociotechnical system (such as a resource-provision service: filtering by tag the resources of other
MOOC users) presume the existence of learner-created learning services (e.g. each learner
has a habit of creating new open resources, annotating them with tags and sharing them
In ideal learning design the services for certain teaching and learning purposes should be
used so that maximal synergy was created between them. The learning services must be
aware of each other and able to communicate in order to orchestrate their action. In natural
ecosystems there is a communication between the individual species as well as the crossspecies communication that has influence on trophic circulations (for example certain signals
from species may be read by other members of the species or across species to get advantage
in finding food or escaping for predators). In learning ecosystems, the former –
communication between the similar learning services – may be enhanced by several
technological means in MOOCs, such as tags and hashtags. For example we may imagine
similar learning resources annotated with certain tag to be found easier and to be more fit in
catching the user attention than other resources without tags. The communication across
learning services would for example mean that in case of the signals of the availability of peer
support (e.g. comments in blogs) the teacher could reduce the support.
2. Which principles govern learning ecosystems
I have summarized three principles that may be transferred from ecology to the
The first principle is that the teaching and learning services provided by users, the
user attention and interaction with these services regulates the learning flow through open
learning ecosystem. The permeability of a learning ecosystem to maintain the flow depends
on the nature of the ‘architecture’ of the teaching and learning services in the system (e. g.
connectivity, clustering), the characteristics of learning services, their diversity and
distribution, and interactions between them (such as trophic commensalism). Productivity of
the learning ecosystem is its ability to accumulate information to knowledge in time –
meaning how much users can be engaged in certain time period by the learning services into
the productive learning flow. It must be noted, that a learning ecosystem is usually a social
system where learning and teaching services are provided with some technologies (for
example in digital learning ecosystems they are provided with ICT). So the learners and
teachers as agents who use this system and provide the services should be considered as
counterparts of the ecosystem trophic networks.
The second important ecological principle is the feedback loop to and from the
learning ecosystem - the teaching and learning services must be adaptive to the ecosystem
purpose niches, and these niches as affordance spaces would be changing as a result of those
services in time. The learning and teaching purpose niches in the learning ecosystem may be
mapped by collecting service analytics and used for providing the summarized (visualized)
feedback loop to the users about the availability of certain services in the niche. However,
only the users of this learning design can be interpret the affordances that these niches
currently provide. Affordances of each niche also represent the user-culture in general. An
example of such user culture influence in MOOCs is the tagging of shared resources that
creates the collaborative browsing service.
The third important principle is associated with the communicative interactions
between teaching and learning services, and between the teachers and learners in the learning
ecosystem. Interactions, based on communication require mutual awareness, signaling
between learning services or using the accumulated signals left into the environment. For
example, pulling and pushing feeds may be considered a form of communicating between
services in MOOCs.
Why learning ecosystem is considered an effective form of maintaining learning?
Learning design product and process both assume the consideration of certain
learning theories that define what triggers learning, how does learning take place, and what
is the result of learning.
The learning ecosystem is a learning design that does not provide only the prescribed
learning flows prepared by the teacher, but promotes ecological enculturation in which the
learner can take guidance of the learning flows of the crowd (stabilization factor) or seek for
the chances outside of the teacher-provided or crowd flows (evolvement factor).
In traditional learning design solutions we tend to treat learning as a linear process that can
be somehow directed and predicted. Ecological learning design assumes, however, that we
can come up with a causal explanation about how and why learning has occurred only
retrospectively, so we cannot determine in advance what can cause learning. Yet, to some
extent we can determine more useful learning flows based on many earlier experiences – they
are culturally tested and may pull learners into experiencing the flow. According to
Csikszentmihalyi (1990) the culture with its characteristics and common understandings
creates the environment for the ﬂow experiences, reducing the ontological anxiety by
reducing the perceptible dimensions. Csikszentmihalyi assumes that culture is there to protect
us against chaos and unexpectedness, because it narrows down the number of alternative
goals and choices.
Detecting retrospectively the learning experiences of individual learners in the learning
ecosystem may let us discover the main learning flows in this ecosystem in some time period.
Having a precise intent in mind the learner can turn to such actualized learning flows and use
them for guiding his learning alternatively to the teacher proposed flows. Such an orientation
to the learning flows of the crowd as the effective ones presumes, however, that the
“crowd” prescribes what is useful for an “average learner”. To illustrate this idea, several
MOOCs designs, have explored the learning analytic elements as part of the course design not
only to retrospectively learn about how learning happened, but also with the future aim of
using learning analytics for providing learners with the recent learning flows of the crowd
from the learning ecosystem.
Since we are unable to predict events that will allow learning, learning involves a forwardlooking attitude. It is important letting the teacher- and learner co-defined environment to
play an active role in opening up the learning opportunities. Due to the variety of learning
services and the multiple learning flow options simultaneously available in the co-designed
learning ecosystem, the likelihood to explore alternative flows is promoted. Learning
ecosystems thereby possess the high environmental unanticipatedness in respect to what
learning opportunities they afford. A chance is any unanticipated event in the learning journey
that falls outside of one’s control. Chance-seeking is about how people may come to utilize
chance to their advantage and tentatively amplify unanticipated and yet positive potential of
their actions within the learning ecosystem until they create a useful path through the
ecosystem that may be potentially taken up by other learners. Chance seeking is an adaptive
learning that creates the feedback loop to the learning ecosystem niches.
Both being guided by the learning flows of the crowd or searching chances by modifying
the flows relates with the ecological enculturation concept - the process by which a person
becomes acquainted with a given community of practice (Wenger, 1998) and part of the
environment becomes enculturated, becoming potentially meaningful for certain purposes
rather than others. Ecological enculturation of our surroundings (people, resources, tools,
concepts etc.) is one of the results of learning. Ecological enculturation in learning
ecosystems depends on intersubjective formation of understandings and practices among
learners and teachers, and is prompted if the users at the learning ecosystem share specific
learning-cultural alignment and -belonging. Being the member of certain culture, teachers and
learners are tuned to noticing some affordances of the learning services and ignoring the
others to create for themselves the flow experience – one of the results of learning.
4. Ecological design processes for creating learning ecosystems
4.1. How ecosystem principles contribute to the design process of learning ecosystems?
The following design actions, derived from ecosystem principles (see above), are
important in the ecological design process:
I. Involve teachers/experts and learners to create learning services (experts should
champion this activity)
II. Map the learning ecosystem services created by different users to the teaching and
learning purpose niches. This should be mapped in different time periods of the learning
III. Map the learning flows that use these learning services
IV. Incorporate learning analytics tools for dynamic learning flow visualization (e.g.
visualizing flows in distributed resource networks)
V. Increase the permeability of the learning ecosystem to the learning flows by:
- allowing the variety of services to emerge in each purpose niche
- sustaining learning flows by having replacement services in each purpose niche that
enable switching from one hub to another and keep the learning flow going
- increasing aggregation and clustering of services to promote switching, communicating
- supporting coalitions between learning services for synergy (e.g. by using mashups)
- promoting awareness, connectivity (e.g. easy push and pull) and communication between
learning services - add elements that improve the awareness (e.g. specific tags)
VI. Involve experts/facilitators creating service hubs for channeling the learning flows and
creating attractive “crowded” points for redirecting the learning flows and enabling chance
VII. Use learning analytics as emergent scaffolds that guide learners to the learning flows
of the crowd
VIII. Increase aggregation and clustering of learning contents and -services for promoting
communication, emergence and evolvement of crowd flows.
IX. Involve experts/facilitators in seeding learning activities into the learning ecosystem
that are based on self-organization (e.g. swarming), chance-seeking (remixing, repurposing)
X. Use learning analytics that base on ecosystem principles (abundance of learning
services, learners/teachers, currency in the learning flows in time, network views to learning
services and –flows in the learning ecosystem, interaction acts between learning services
themselves and between services and teachers/learners) to evaluate the learning design as a
whole and provide feedback to the cultures of participation for informed design decisions.
4.2. Using the ecological meta-design in coordinating the design process
An ecological design process presumes the involvement of users. Instead of proposing the
learning designs from the unitary teacher/curriculum/institution-centered perspective, the
multiple perspectives of the learners, facilitators and other persons associated with the
learning-service provision must be promoted. The learning ecosystems cannot be fully predesigned – they appear as emergent dynamic systems to which everyone needs to adapt
themselves for learning and for supporting learning. It will make the learning ecosystems
complex and therefore, difficult to manage.
Learning design process in this case can take the meta-design approach proposed by
Fisher (2012) and associates. Meta-design refers to designing the design process for cultures
of participation (Fischer, Giaccardi, Ye, Sutcliffe & Mehandjiev, 2004). The meta-design
includes users in an ongoing process as co-designers, not only at design time but throughout
the entire existence of the system. Meta-design considers adaptive and dynamic nature of
learning systems. It is essential to design elements that enable self-organization of the
learning ecosystem, as well as to regain some control over what is happening in it. The
control in self-regulated systems may be achieved by using the ecological principles of design
described in chapter 4.1. Meta-design is a largely self-organized, adaptive and dynamic
process, and consequently follows the ecological principles. Autonomous and self-organized
designers in meta-design framework can increase the diversity of design solutions in the
system, allowing diversity and variability to emerge within the system. Hagen and Robertson
(2009) have identified four basic meta-design approaches: 1) Iterate it that uses continuous
users’ feedback, 2) Emerge it that focuses on the use of experimental prototypes and testing
them by users, 3) Source it where initial design is (out)sourced to members of the public, and
4) Open it where the public are invited to participate in and contribute in the whole design
process. These meta-design approaches provide ideas how to organize the ecological design
process for developing learning ecosystems using the participatory cultures in which both the
teachers/experts and learners are active. An example of the design element that participatory
cultures would need is evaluating the learning ecosystem as a whole as it evolves. This would
mean monitoring certain characteristics of the learning ecosystem that have appeared as a
result of the design decisions described in the chapter 4.1 above, as well as their effect on
learning described in chapter 3.
Finally, I can define the ecological learning design as the meta-design process where
participatory cultures use ecosystem principles for enculturing for themselves responsive
learning ecosystems that maximize for each of them possibilities for flow experiences
promoted by the learning flows of the crowd or provide them opportunities for discovering
There are many directions where to move the research with ecological design approach.
For example, it is important mapping different learning ecosystems through the learning
service approach and investigating what the success factors in learning ecosystem design and
usage are. Further important issue in education is how to do the transition towards the
productive learning ecosystems.
In digital learning ecosystems research, more attention must be put on how to initiate and
maintain the meta-design of learning ecosystems, which learning analytics can be collected,
how analytics could be used for fuelling the learning ecosystem design through cultures of
participation, and how it can be used for validating which ecological design principles can
promote productive learning ecosystems.