An Ecological Learning Design approach


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This is the paper that wrote for my venia legendi in Tallinn University. The paper is summarizing the an Ecological learning design approach on what i have been working recent years.

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An Ecological Learning Design approach

  1. 1. An ecological learning-design approach Kai Pata, 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 following issues: Why learning ecosystem is considered an effective form of maintaining learning? What are characteristics of a learning ecosystem? Which principles govern learning ecosystems? 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 learning ecosystems? 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.
  2. 2. 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 of? 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 would meet • Providing the learning activities and assignments that enable achieving learning objectives • Using the learning resources (such as tools, artifacts, people) for learning and for supporting learning • 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 Ecosystem. 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 learning design Learning objectives and criteria The learning activities and assignments that enable achieving learning objectives Teacher or organizationprovided Goals of the connectivism: new learning behaviors, emergence of sustainable networked structures between people and resources Goals of the course domain Teacher provided activities and assignments (such as self-learning tutorials, webinars, forums to discuss certain topics, Learner provided Learner’s personal objectives becoming engaged in, getting experiences, finding new challenges, learning about and how to in some domain Learner created activities for selfdirecting, coconstructing, negotiating Socio-technical system provided Emerging community objectives being accumulated from its individuals and evolving in time Emerging best practices of the community members visible through participatory surveillance systems and
  3. 3. Using the learning resources for learning and for supporting learning Getting support co-creation assignments) Open learning resources and experts selected for the course Monitoring the learning success Assessing learning Teacher provided guidance how to participate at MOOCs with PLE Teacher’s and experts’ comments The instructing structures in learning resources and learning activities. Monitoring students’ assignments Assignment or artifact assessment Evaluating the learning design Teacher-reflections about the MOOC User-created open resources and the MOOC community members with different expertise Emerging and socially accumulated concepts, ideas, resource configurations, resource hubs (both artifacts, places and users) Peer comments and peer support elements such as in some discussion the provided help how to find or use some resources. Accumulated scaffolds such as tag-clouds, friend-feeds, ratings to certain resources Learning contracts, reflection portfolios Self- assessment Peer-assessment, peer-credentials Learner-feedback about the MOOC SNA of MOOC participants Accumulated tag-clouds Accumulated peer validation (rating, credentials) Learning analytics that base on ecosystem principles (see chapter 4.1) 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, 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
  4. 4. species in natural ecosystems form trophic networks, communicate and have mutualisms (e.g. symbiosis). 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 learning ecosystems. 1.3.Which is the role of these components in enabling the learning flows within the learning ecosystem? 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
  5. 5. 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 publicly). 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 learning ecosystems: 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.
  6. 6. 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. 3. 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
  7. 7. 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 design usage. 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 between them - 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 seeking 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
  8. 8. 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. Conclusions 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 chances. 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. 14.11.2013