The Dynamics of Learning Ecosystems: literacies and resources
“The most profound impact of the Internet… is its ability to support and expand the various aspects of social learning”.“Attention has moved from access to information towards access to other people”. “Web2.0 blurs the boundaries between the producers and consumers of content”. (Seely Brown, 2008)
These claims were made some years ago by John Seely Brown in his review of the potential impact of Technology on learning, Minds on Fire (Seely Brown, 2008). In his critique Brown claimed that the ‘Open Educational Resources (OER) movement’ – the network of people who support the development and embedding of a culture of open sourcing, open resources, open knowledge, free sharing and peer collaboration in society – have assembled building blocks that allow the emergence of ‘open participatory learning ecosystems’. The relationship between social technologies and learning ecosystems has been highlighted by several technology Enhanced Learning groups. One example is this paper on Emergent learning and learning ecologies in web 2.0 by Williams, Karousou and Mackness (2011).
These sorts of open, participatory learning ecosystems seem ideal environments for collective learning though they need learners and teachers to
fundamentally change learning and teaching practice to ‘open’ learning and knowledge sharing processes
What sorts of learning practices and literacies do learners need for collective learning?
One reason collective learning has become popularised in recent years is because,as society becomes more networked and knowledge more distributed across networks, we need to bring together knowledge from different domains to create new knowledge at the boundary of our understanding (Paavola & Hakkarainen, 2005; Nardi, et al 2000). People have to either a) develop an understanding of these domains or b) learn how to work with others from different domains. However there are few well-defined ideas on how learners make connections across distributed networks, how they self-regulate their learning by setting goals and moving forward in (or ‘charting’) their learning pathways.
Knowledge resources can be the raw materials that learners connect with while they navigate their own learning pathway within a knowledge network. If several learners bind to an resource, then the resource acts as a node that connects them. People learn through negotiating their own understanding of knowledge within the network, connecting different fragments of knowledge within a rich, open participatory learning ecosystem. Learners articulate the meanings they derive from these resources by developing new knowledge artefacts and products through collaborative knowledge-creation processes (Paavola, & Hakkarainen, 2005; Paavola, Lipponen & Hakkarainen, 2004).
Research around sensemaking and the ‘collective’ conscious previously evidenced how social software can help learners connect with
learners, teachers and knowledge resources to support learning (Dron, 2004; Dron, 2003). Learners co-operate within different constructs, including groups, networks and collectives (Dron & Anderson, 2009).
What are the binding forces within a knowledge ecosystems?
To understand the binding forces within an open participatory learning ecosystem, we have to have an idea about what brings the different elements of the system together. One idea from socio-cultural theory is that people connect via so-called ‘social objects’ (Knorr-Cetina,
2001). For example, health professionals working on a common case will bring knowledge together from different disciplinary domains into a single case report (Edwards, 2010). The case report is the ‘social object’ that connects health professionals who are working together.
Some research suggests that a ‘learning goal’ could be a social object that binds people (Littlejohn, Margaryan, Milligan, 2009). However, knowledge resources could also serve as social objects, binding learners and teachers as they work on a common problem around a knowledge artefact (including resources such as Open Educational Resources) have already been used to draw people together from diverse domains and to connect learners who have different starting points and different learning approaches (Littlejohn et al, 2010).
If we try to visualise where knowledge resources are located within a network, the resources are the nodes of the network while the process
of learning occurs between these nodes, sometimes binding them together (Falconer, 2008). Viewing resources as potential nodes in a network and learning as the dynamic interactions (of learners and teachers) that link these resources gives a clearer perspective on how we think about knowledge resources and the role they play in learning.
One of the factors that distinguishes an expert from a novice (who has a much simpler concept map of the collective knowledge space than a novice) is the ability to navigate knowledge as a holistic network with multiple links (Bradley, Paul and Seeman, 2006). Becoming competent could be viewed as the ability to perceive the links between loosely related knowledge fragments (Falconer,2008).
Learners co-operating across different subject domains produce diverse sorts of knowledge resources, as by-products of their learning
knowledge moves out of conventional domains into new contexts. While diverse knowledge can be useful in sparking creative ideas, it can also lead to a number of problems related to learning and using and creating knowledge across
boundaries (Schmidt, Norman & Boshuizen,1990).
The fragmentation of knowledge across subject domains inhibits connections of learners and their use of knowledge resources. Different types
of knowledge artefacts (resources people collaboratively build, open educational resources, and other forms of participatory resources) could act as a ‘boundary object’ that helps knowledge flow across geographical, temporal and subject domains. This issue is particularly problematic in social and collective learning, when learners (sometimes located in different places) try to connect.
Diversification of knowledge can inhibit learning where learners do not have the knowledge practices to deal with it. Previous research has
evidenced that, as different types of learning resources come on-stream, learners are unsure as to how they can use these resources for learning (Littlejohn, Margaryan & Vogt 2010; Margaryan, Littlejohn & Vogt, 2010; Margaryan & Littlejohn, 2008).
What factors drive the growth of a learning ecosystem?
A ‘culture of reuse’ is essential for the growth of a knowledge-rich learning ecosystem. A range of benefits models have be
identified through evaluation of the UK JISC Open Educational Resources Programme (Littlejohn et al, 2011). These benefits models have been shown to drive change at individual and institutional level and to improve open sharing and release of OERs. Benefits include individual showcasing (for reputation enhancement or personal and professional reward); institutional showcasing (to showcase to potential learners and open new markets); capacity building (to improve staff competencies or for sustainable development); to share and exchange resources
through tightly-knit communities; or for public interest (to open knowledge to the public). Even though culture change was identified as an essential factor in successful open sharing of OERs, few of these benefits models can be found in the case studies in this section. Drivers for change were either at institutional level (eg economic benefits, reputational benefits etc ) or individual level (eg fun, time saving etc).
Reflections on literacies, resources and collective learning
Research is already raising questions around what constitutes ‘literacies’ and how these might support social learning processes (Beetham, McGill & Littlejohn, 2008; Beetham, Littlejohn & Milligan, 2011). However, we need to understand how learners can best ‘chart’ the collectiv knowledge to achieve their learning goals.
The ability to consume and, at the same time, produce knowledge and release it to the collective is important to sustain a dynamic open participatory learning ecosystem. To learn through using and creating knowledge, learners – and teachers- have to have the knowledge practices to become knowledge creators.
Knowledge resources act as nodes in a network and learning takes place around these nodes. Learning can be viewed as the interactions (of learners and teachers) between these resources. This perspective could provides a clearer picture of the role knowledge resources play in learning.
Knowledge artefacts connect learners, however the connection processes are unclear. There are a number of ways OERs can bring together learners and teachers – including those from diverse domains – the connection processes and triggers are still unclear.
Understanding the relationship between the individual and the collective and the implications for learning is fundamental to appreciating ho the potential impact of collective and social learning. Yet we know relatively little about how the individual connects with the collective knowledge.
A culture of open sharing is important in driving the formation and growth of open participatory learning ecosystems. Yet culture change requires ‘unlearning’ ideas, values and attitudes, which can be challenging for learners and teachers.
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