Describing open learning environments and emergent learning

Recent work on developing our framework for describing emergent learning (see Footprints of Emergence   and Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0 ) has been taxing our powers of description. By we, I mean my colleague Roy Williams and me. The work of Paul Cilliers has been helpful (see below)

How can we have confidence in the footprints, when the footprint (a graphic description of a learning experience), if individually drawn, depicts an interpretation of the learning experience based on subjective personal reflection on that experience, and the scoring factors themselves can be open to personal interpretation?

This ongoing work in seeking to describe and clarify what we mean by emergent and prescribed learning is progressing on our open wiki ‘Footprints of Emergence’. There has been quite a bit of interest in this public wiki with upwards of 50 unique daily visitors, which is very encouraging.

In particular we have been very interested in the work that a colleague from Austria – Jutta Pauschenwein, (FH JOANNEUM, University of Applied Sciences, Graz, ZML – Innovative Learning Scenarios) has been doing in relation to using the framework we have developed. Jutta has written a number of blog posts about this, but here is the most recent one written in English – Footprints for “Emerging Learning” – Variety of a creative method of reflection.

This work of Jutta’s (and her team) and of others who have drawn footprints of their courses or learning experiences, and shared them with us on our wiki has motivated us to further discuss our understanding of the factors we use for scoring the footprints and describing learning experiences. It has become increasingly clear that each footprint is unique to the individual who is drawing it and that if footprints of the same course are drawn by different people, they will be different. Does this invalidate the process or the framework? Our answer is ‘No’. Each person’s learning experience, and perspective on that learning process, is unique to them.  The value of the framework is, we hope, in providing a mechanism for articulating that experience, and in the discussion around this articulation.

Now it could be argued that this is simply an excuse for vagueness and of course this argument needs to be taken seriously. Any research or discussion of learning should be rigorous, and we hope that in our efforts to clarify the meaning/description of the factors that we use in our framework, we will be adding to the rigour of the research.

However, we are also aware that all learning is context dependent and in particular, that the open, emergent learning that we are seeking to describe takes place in complex systems, where there are no straightforward right or wrong answers.

Particularly helpful in explaining our position on this is the work of Paul Cilliers and in particular his article – Complexity, Deconstruction and Relativism

Cilliers, P. (2005). Complexity, Deconstruction and Relativism. Theory, Culture & Society, 22(5), pp.255–267. Available at:

Cilliers writes that we should not underestimate the complexity of much of what we try to understand. It is difficult in complex systems to get agreement on meaning. He urges researchers to be ‘modest’ (not weak, but responsible) in the claims they make, because knowledge is always provisional, always contingent and contextual and the context has to be interpreted. My experience is that it is difficult to maintain a ‘modest’ stance in the face of requests for ‘the answer’.

Cilliers explains that in describing complex systems we have to reduce the complexity, which is what we have been struggling with in our framework. To reduce the complexity we have to leave some things out. In our framework we use 25 factors to describe prescribed and emergent learning and we have, more than once, had the discussion about where we draw the line, because our discussions often raise the possibility of adding another factor. The problem is that what is left out influences the description as much as what is left in.

Cilliers writes that complexity is messy and all frameworks are compromised to some extent.

‘There is no stepping outside of complexity (we are finite beings), thus there is no framework for frameworks. We choose our frameworks.’ (p.259)

‘To talk about the complex world as if it can be understood is clearly a contradiction of another kind and this is a contradiction with ethical implications.’ (p.261)

Cilliers has so perfectly described the issues we are wrestling with in the work we are doing in attempting to better understand open learning environments and emergent learning.

With the advent of MOOCs and a huge surge of interest in open, distant and online learning, how can we best describe learners’ experiences in these and more traditional environments? How can learners make sense of and articulate their own experiences? How how can we design environments which will help learners to work in messy complex systems?

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