Designing a Web-Based Learning Ecology

by Jay Cross on January 18, 2007

Learning Circuits has pubilshed my recent thoughts on building an ecology to support informal (and formal) learning.

Excerpt:

Informal learning is about situated action, collaboration, coaching, and reflection, not study and reading. Developing a platform to support informal learning is analogous to landscaping a garden. A major component of informal learning is natural learning, the notion of treating people as organisms in nature. Our role as learning professionals is to protect their environment, provide nutrients for growth, and let nature take its course. Self-service learners connect to one another, to ongoing flows of information and work, to their teams and organizations, to their customers and markets, not to mention their families and friends.

Because the design of informal learning ecosystems is analogous to landscape design, I will call the environment of informal learning a learnscape. A landscape designer’s goal is to conceptualize a harmonious, unified, pleasing garden that makes the most of the site at hand. A learnscaper strives to create a learning environment that increases the organization’s longevity and health, and the individual learner’s happiness and well-being. Gardeners don’t control plants; managers don’t control people. Gardeners and managers have influence but not absolute authority. They can’t make a plant fit into the landscape or a person fit into a team.

A learnscape is a learning ecology. It’s learning without borders.

The full article appears below the fold.


Designing a Web-Based Learning Ecology

Informal Learning

Informal learning fundamentally reframes the learning process. For sixty years, we’ve thought of learning as residing in the formal models exemplified by schools, universities, and training programs. Common to these top-down formats is a curriculum that rests on the beliefs and worldview of the authorities in charge.

Informal learning is more democratic. It’s responsive to learners and often ad hoc. It’s not the opposite of formal learning so much as a different range on the spectrum of all learning. Most learning incorporates a bit of formal along with some of the informal kind.

Those who look at the world through industrial-age goggles devalue the unseen, informal aspects of learning. Thus, the age of intangibles dawns on organizations where informal learning is but an afterthought. Righting the balance of formal and informal requires a fresh approach to instructional design.

Even if you subscribe to the ADDIE* model, you’ll have to admit that it’s tough to apply when the future is unpredictable, the content emergent, and implementation learner-directed. In a world of fluid content, programs that describe the status quo are so, well, yesterday. Let me share a glimpse of an alternative approach to channeling learning.


*ADDIE = Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate.

Learnscaping

Informal learning is about situated action, collaboration, coaching, and reflection, not study and reading. Developing a platform to support informal learning is analogous to landscaping a garden. A major component of informal learning is natural learning, the notion of treating people as organisms in nature. Our role as learning professionals is to protect their environment, provide nutrients for growth, and let nature take its course. Self-service learners connect to one another, to ongoing flows of information and work, to their teams and organizations, to their customers and markets, not to mention their families and friends.

Because the design of informal learning ecosystems is analogous to landscape design, I will call the environment of informal learning a learnscape. A landscape designer’s goal is to conceptualize a harmonious, unified, pleasing garden that makes the most of the site at hand. A learnscaper strives to create a learning environment that increases the organization’s longevity and health, and the individual learner’s happiness and well-being. Gardeners don’t control plants; managers don’t control people. Gardeners and managers have influence but not absolute authority. They can’t make a plant fit into the landscape or a person fit into a team.

A learnscape is a learning ecology. It’s learning without borders. Let me provide an example.

The Learnscape of the February Workshops

This weekend I’ve been pruning and adding amendments to the learnscape for the upcoming ASTD workshop on Learning with Blogs, Wikis, and Web 2.0. Working on the web is exhilarating. In fact, as I write these words, I’m in a flow state, words appearing on screen as if by magic and my clock frozen in time. New approaches are challenging.

Putting things together, I’m not designing learning experiences. Rather, I’m sculpting an environment in which I hope great learning will evolve. It’s a holistic endeavor. It’s also incremental. The web is a wonderfully forgiving place to prototype. The February sessions are the fourth set of unworkshops, yet we’re still making frequent improvements. Participants in last year’s Unworkshops used a wiki as home base. It proved to be too much, too soon. So next month we’ll be using a combination of chat board, group blog, and shared online documents; it rocks. (We realized there is no center in a network and want to get that lesson across.) Along the way, we experimented with several packaged learning environments and Backpack but determined that cobbling together our own package would make for better learning down the road.


Outcomes


      While I intend to let the Unworkshops evolve, I still need to think ahead with the end in mind. Am I raising flowers or tomatoes? I’m assuming participants will attend with intentions of

      • becoming proficient in finding and trying new applications on the web
      • getting the big picture of bottom-up informal learning
      • understanding the role of blogs, wikis, podcasts, tags, RSS in learning
      • relating the best web-solution to a given learning need
      • participating and learning in an online community.


      Technology

      Working with web technology enables you to build and implement solutions incrementally. It’s often simple and inexpensive to create a prototype application and test it as a proof of concept, reducing what once took thousands of dollars and months of time to something you can do in less than a day. For free. However, you’re not going to learn how to do this without practice and reflection.

      This is why our Learnscape uses only free software. It’s simpler to learn and it’s readily available. Our expectation is that after our month together, participants will be tinkering and experimenting with software they were introduced to in the Unworkshop. Participants also have free access to our resource center for the following year. The February workshop will be using Vyew, Skype, Google-Docs, QuickTopic, pbWiki, Del.icio.us, Flickr, Authenticity, WordPress, both as examples and to deliver the Unworkshop experience itself.


      Structure


      Unworkshops are participatory. We have coaches, not instructors. Participants receive guidance, not assignments. Our subject matter is fluid, not fixed.

      Our entire group meets online Tuesdays in a row from noon until 1:30 Eastern time, starting February 6. These sessions are the most formal part of the package. We share tricks of the trade, where to find things, tips on internet culture, and case examples. The Tuesday meetings build the scaffolding on which to hang subsequent discoveries.

      • Our first group session builds confidence in navigating the web. Participants tour our agenda, schedules, exercises, locations, research, communication, chat, and FAQ. They learn how to connect with others, search for information, and get help when they need it. They learn how to use the web for personal information management and are introduced to informal learning theory. They become familiar with the learnscape.

      • Our next sessions get to the heart of web tools, techniques, and conventions. Podcasts, communities, tags, subscriptions. We explore the functions and capabilities of web 2.0, all of the items in the Informal Learning Toolbox. These sessions marry the web toolset with learning requirements. Building learnscapes. Applications. 
      • Our final session deals with community. Alumni are invited to participate. We go over resources, how to’s. Continuing interest groups form. Novices are initiated into the club.


      In addition, five-person learning teams meet several days before each group session. These online meetings are participants’ primary means of hands-on exploration. Teams collaboratively investigate techniques and solve group challenges (e.g. “Tour these web sites and discuss their utility in learning with your Team”). Teams share their findings with everyone in the Unworkshop by blogging their results. Team blogs are aggregated on the Unworkshop website for all to see. This is where we expect most of the learning to take place.

      To monitor quality, each team provides feedback weekly. Participants are encouraged to explore on their own. Our resources are plentiful.

      Personal coaches are available for one-on-one conversations, but you will have to ask. The Unworkshop is based on Pull learning rather than having everything Pushed to you. Our hot lines on Skype are available whenever the coaching team is awake.


      Scaffolding


      Our first Unworkshops spewed so much information, I’m surprised everyone survived. (It probably required gallons of coffee.) Now we provide customizable job aids as outboard memory. For example, our first session deals with Personal Knowledge Management. Some people will set up a home page with Google or Netvibes. People who prefer to design their own can download this starter sheet and edit it with Google-Docs.

      Your Personal Learning Environment

      If you’re participating in an Unworkshop, right-click and download this file to your desktop.
      Open it in your browser (File/Open File/…) and bookmark it. Modify it as you wish.


      Information


      Collaboration


      Unworkshop Resources


      Reference


          Amazon
          Delicious
          Delicious – tag = informl
          One Look
          Ref Desk

      Aggregators


          Boz
          SpeedFeed
          Pop URLs
          Original Signals
          Buzzfeed
          Tag Jag

      Blogs


          informL Blog
          Jarche.com
          Stephen Downes
          Learning Circuits
          George Siemens


      Skype is for phone calls, conference calls, and instant messaging. Download it and get on board.

      Vyew

      Discussion

      Chat

      Our Unworkshop blog


      Unworkshop 4 announcements
       
      informl.com blog

      Informal Learning Research Center

      One job aid I’m quite proud of forms the backbone of our second and third group sessions. It a matrix that maps web technologies to learning needs. Here are the first few rows of a six-pager.

      The Toolbox 


      Title/link


      Description


      Learning Need


      Example


       Creating, finding, & sharing info


      Conversation


      Talking with another person, the greatest instructional technology ever devised.


      Share knowledge and understanding. Differing viewpoints lead to innovation.

      Dave Pollard says, “People like information conveyed through conversations and stories because the interactivity and detail gives them context, not just content, and does so economically.”


      Asynchronous: e-mail, blogs, wikis, Podcasts, video

      Synchronous: voice over IP


      Blogs


      Anyone can post essays, reference information, or news on the web.  


      Capture ongoing knowledge, give voice to workers, experts, customers. Blogging’s direct benefit to individual learning is that it  helps make implicit knowledge more explicit and as a way of personal knowledge management.


      WordPress

      Blogger

      TypePad


      Blogroll


      List of blogs a blogger frequently reads.


      Point to others with similar interests. Less important when you can search for whatever you’re looking for.


      Blogroller


      Tags, folksonomy


      Informal descriptions added to blogs, photos, articles and other digital data, enabling access from anywhere on the net. Used to index Technorati, Flickr, Del.icio.us


      Recall by topic, hassle-free, any digital asset on the web by its tag. Build a knowledge base incrementally. Find out what others are reading and what’s popular.

      Using del.icio.us to foster collaboration.


      Del.icio.us

      Furl


      Metadata, taxonomy


      Tags which are drawn from an approved set of codes and labels


      Recall information by topic. Rigid but orderly. Appropriate for things that do not change much. Can be constructed collaboratively for communities of practice.


       

       

       

       


      The Informal Learning Research Center is a collection of information and resources on informal learning. It includes areas for discussion. Unworkshop participants use it as a jumping-off point. It is open to the public.


      Unconclusion

            This learnscape is not over, but, then, learnscapes never are. Seasons change, people grow, and climate shifts. Unlike design, evolution is open-ended.

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