September 16, 2011

Extended Learning Ecology versus Virtual Learning Environment

As part of the Open-space Learning in Real World Contexts project I developed the idea of the Extended Learning Ecology (ELE). It's not really a new idea. Rather I'm naming and providing a conceptual back story to the strategy that we have adopted at the University of Warwick (since 2002). Today I will be giving a presentation to a group of academics who teach politics. I was asked to talk about Virtual Learning Environments (VLE), but of course I want to show how an ELE is more appropriate to their discipline and aims. So how do I explain the difference in a single one minute slide?


The VLE is motivated by the wish to put the individual into a more controlled, more predictable, pre-structured, artificial environment in which they will grow according to the desired pattern. They are browser-based web sites with limited configurability and limited inter-operability with real-life activities. VLEs have several obvious advantages: students don't have to think as much, they don't have to understand or contribute to the design of the tools that we use for thinking-acting-evaluating, they don't have to worry about the collective negotiation of practices, it's all done for them. And the disadvantages: students don't have to think, they don't have to understand or contribute, they don't have to collectively negotiate practices etc.

The ELE is motivated by the wish to enhance a collective ability to operate in complex and uncertain conditions. To get connected technology out into the field, into physical classrooms and the many other places where learning happens. It demands a designerly, reflective, collective attitude to the tools that we use for thinking-acting-evaluating. Students have to: adopt and adapt custom assemblages of concepts, practices and technologies, suited to current challenges and transferable to future challenges (beyond the host institution). Assemblages that work collectively and appropriately.

Here's an example. Imagine students undertaking an activity that is both research-based (in the traditional academic sense), community-oriented and socially innovative. The students will have to think about what technologies they should use to support their project - meaning that they will have to think harder about the project, and in this case, especially about the community participants. They might decide to create a web site, perhaps with a blog that will be used to report news, events, progress, ideas. Will they allow people from outside of the institution to contribute to this? What will be the process? Many important design decisions have to be made, all of which force the students to think hard about their project, and to create an appropriate response. They might use a shared notebook system into which they all collect useful and interesting information. Do they allow the latest updates from the notebook to appear on their public site? Perhaps the use of collaborative notetaking tools will result in a useful evolution in their intellectual practices. Maybe these practices will stay with them for life, proving to be a vital adaption to the challenges of 21st century working and living. Perhaps they might cascade out amongst other students and academics. There are many further design issues to be addressed: How will they manage getting feedback from the community on their report? How will they ensure that their report doesn't just disapear into the depths of the internet? And how will they connect all of this back to their course and the requirements of assessment?


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