Footprints of Emergence – so what?

I anticipated that we would get this question at our ALT-C workshop, Learning in the Open, and we did get it. Or rather, we got the comment – ‘I can’t see the point of all this’.

I anticipated the question because it’s a question I have been asking myself, and Roy and I had a long discussion about it on Monday evening.

Having written a couple of research papers and run a few workshops on our ideas about emergent learning we know that this is not an easy question to answer. We also know that what we have been thinking about and discussing since 2008, is not easy to put over in an hour’s workshop.

So I will try and answer this question, ‘Footprints of Emergence – so what?’ in this blog post, as succinctly as I can.

For details of what we mean by Footprints of Emergence, see the Executive Summary on our open wiki.   Briefly, we see the drawing of footprints as a means of creating a visualization of a description of learning in any given learning environment.  Here is an example of one (click on the footprint to enlarge):

Vicki Dale ELESIG workshop

This description and visualization will tell us something about the balance between prescriptive and emergent learning. It is a snapshot in time, which describes the perspective on learning, from a learner or designer viewpoint, or a collaborative group viewpoint. In this process we are increasingly aware of the difficulty of describing the learning process.

So that’s the ‘what’ about footprints of emergence – what about the ‘so what’?

Imagine you have now figured out what we are talking about, you know what a footprint is and you know how to draw one and you now have one that, for you, describes your learning experience in a named learning environment or course. So what?

Roy and I have had to consider why we have invested so much time on this and continue to spend literally hours discussing it.

What follows is where I am up to with my thinking.

As was discussed at the ALT-C conference, we live in an age, where much of what we know about traditional ways of learning and teaching, is being challenged. As someone said to me at the conference, students know a lot more about social media and IT than their lecturers and always will, and they are no longer content to ‘sit in a VLE’ and do what they are told. They are literally all over the web, doing their own thing, in spaces of their own choosing, interacting with people far beyond the confines of their own course or learning environment. They have scaled the valley sides of the prescriptive learning zone of a traditional course and are out on the open plateau.

3D view of footprints

Source: Williams, R., Mackness, J. & Gumtau, S. (2012) Footprints of Emergence. Vol. 13, No. 4. IRRODL

In these complex open learning environments, it is impossible for the tutor to see or know about everything that is going on. Much of the learning is surprising, unpredictable and emergent. MOOCs in particular, which are designed as open learning environments promote a wealth of emergent learning. This emergent learning will have a profound effect on learner identities and their sense of who they are and who they are becoming. You only have to scan through the discussion forums of cMOOC to see evidence of this. Since more and more learners seem to be gravitating towards open learning environments, emergent learning can no longer be ignored. But how can we ‘capture’ and articulate its meaning?

This is what we are trying to do through the process of drawing Footprints of Emergence. The drawing process relies on consideration of 25 factors which influence the balance between prescriptive and emergent learning. 25 factors is a lot – so it is not a quick or easy process. It is messy and difficult, but then learning is messy and difficult. Determining how these factors influence the learning or design process requires careful thought and discussion and the surfacing of tacit knowledge and understanding. It is this surfacing of tacit knowledge and understanding that we believe to be the ‘so what’ of Footprints of Emergence.

To learn and work effectively in open learning environments, learners will need to have the ability to reflect on who they are and who they want to be. Depth of reflection is a skill that all learners need, and will increasingly need for professional development in an age when they can no longer easily predict their career paths. We believe that the Footprints of Emergence offer a process for supporting this development.

11 thoughts on “Footprints of Emergence – so what?

  1. Glenyan September 11, 2013 / 11:40 pm

    I really like this post, Jenny, and the ‘so what?’ question is always so important and usually valid. In this case, do you think there’s any relevance in the Footprint of Emergence to areas/connections/potential of multi-purpose between all of the different complex learning environments that we are a part of at any given time?

    Sorry, maybe I can’t phrase this question so well, hopefully you can get a glimpse of what I mean. I’ll try to think of a better way to phrase my question.

  2. jennymackness September 12, 2013 / 10:47 pm

    Hi Glen – many thanks for your ‘visit’ and comment. I’m not sure that I fully understand your question, but maybe I have got a glimpse of what you mean. I think the value of the footprints lies in the potential for ‘describing’ complex learning. We know that we haven’t exhausted the possible factors that could be used for this description. Maybe there is space for, or a need for, an additional factor about areas/connections/potential of multi-purpose between different complex learning environments, although the footprints we have drawn so far all relate to a specific learning environment.

    It would be great, if you have time to come back, if you could explain a little more about what you mean.

  3. helinur September 15, 2013 / 11:41 am

    Hi again, Jenny

    I could not follow ALT online because I had a grandmother week in Helsinki, but I have some ideas about my following steps in using footprints. My interest is to understand open online studies (adult people mostly) and I intend to become conscious about choosing the right factors.
    For instance Agency: cross/multimodal synaestesic embodied holistic interaction is not needed (or seldom needed). I is useful while assessing autistic children, but not in every online course.

    It is a paradox that I want to make the model simpler after admiring its complexity. Time will tell.. next week I’ll be in Salamanca, Spain and ponder on the history of mankind. There is a university from 1100 and still working (I checked their open online courses – statistics or Spanish language are available)

  4. jennymackness September 15, 2013 / 6:59 pm

    Hi Heli – thanks for your comment. You say:

    >For instance Agency: cross/multimodal synaestesic embodied holistic interaction is not needed (or seldom needed).

    I think this depends on the discipline a person is coming from. For example I could imagine that for artists and dancers and possibly even musicians this would be very important, not matter what their age. We have a paper coming out in 2014 (to be published by the Leonardo journal) that explores this in more depth – but you are right – we did start to think about this because of Simone’s work with autistic children.

    I think there is always the tendency to shy away from complexity. We saw this at the ALT conference last week. People are often uncomfortable with uncertainty and unpredictability and want to ‘fix’ things for their own sense of order and peace of mind. Could it be, that ‘artists’ are more comfortable with uncertainty – whereas at the ALT-C conference we came in contact with a lot of learning technologists.

    Thanks Heli. Please continue to share your thoughts about the factors. It’s really helpful.

  5. roy williams September 15, 2013 / 7:33 pm

    Hi Heli, I worked in adult education for many years, and much of what I know about good pedagogy, and open and emergent learning, comes from adult education workshops, so I am keen to see how you use the footprints.

    You have identified one of the crucial paradoxes exactly – many of the things we are trying to do in the footprints is counter-intuitive – our emphasis on the footprint as a ‘palette’ – not a ‘template’ – is one of the most important paradoxes / changes that we are hoping will make sense to a wider group of users / educators.

    ‘Palette’ for us is a metaphor, but it should also be taken almost literally – the ‘palette’ of factors is exactly like a ‘palette’ of colours that an artist would use in painting – the artist only uses the colours that are relevant and useful to the task of the painting that is being created, and leaves out the rest.

    Similarly, you should only use the factors in the footprints palette that are useful and relevant to the task to creating a ‘picture’ of learning, and leave out the rest. (And you can create and mix-up new factors too, like new colours)

    I would be very surprised if anyone used only 15 of the factors (emergent learning just seems to be so much richer and more complex than that), but in principle it is quite possible – I hope someone tries it sometime, and writes up their reasons for doing so.

  6. Christina Hendricks October 27, 2013 / 1:04 am

    Hi Jenny:

    I’ve just spent a good deal of time with the research papers and the footprints of emergence wiki, and your very helpful video on the wiki on how to draw a footprint for a course, and now I think I have a decent sense of what a footprint is. And I think I understand a bit about the “so what”: this helps us to see better, to be able to visualize and therefore compare/contrast, what is going on in various courses and learning environments.

    But I have another couple of questions, one of which is maybe a “so what” question, and the other is more about the “what.”

    1. I understand from this wiki page that the idea with the footprints is not to be able then to say whether any of them look like some ideal footprint for learning. Rather, what these footprints allow us to do is to better clarify what is actually happening in various courses and environments so that we can better reflect on whether they are meeting our goals as participants or designers.

    If that’s right, then what I’m thinking is this, and I’d like to know if it fits what you all are thinking. The footprints are not a means of evaluating learning environments per se, but they would make such an evaluation (based on other criteria, such as purposes one might have in taking or designing a course) easier to undertake.

    I think this is the case, even though there may seem to be some evaluative elements in the footprint design, such as the zone of chaos on the edge and the sense that if a course were all in the prescriptive zone there may be missing some valuable ways of learning. But depending on context, as I’m understanding what you all are saying, having a fair bit of (or maybe only?) prescriptive learning or chaos might still work (assuming it wasn’t all chaos, I suppose).

    Does this mesh with your thinking?

    2. I haven’t been able to find a clear answer to the question: where did the 25 factors that go into the footprint come from? On what are they based? If someone asks, “why should we accept these as the kinds of things we should use to help us be able to evaluate learning environments, as opposed to other things,” how would you answer?

    Thanks so much!

  7. jennymackness October 27, 2013 / 5:10 pm

    Hi Christina – it’s really great to hear that you can make sense of the Footprints of Emergence. Thanks for your interest and taking the time to explore the wiki.

    > And I think I understand a bit about the “so what”: this helps us to see better, to be able to visualize and therefore compare/contrast, what is going on in various courses and learning environments –

    Yes – that’s it, but the main aim is to provide a mechanism for surfacing tacit knowledge and understanding about learning and/or design experience and a vehicle for discussion.

    > The footprints are not a means of evaluating learning environments per se, but they would make such an evaluation (based on other criteria, such as purposes one might have in taking or designing a course) easier to undertake.

    Yes – our intention has not been evaluation – which implies some sort of measurement and that one outcome might be better than another, which is not the route we are interested in going down – although I agree that they could be used for evaluation, e.g. a colleague in Austria – Jutta Pauschenwein has used the footprints quite extensively with her colleagues and students. Heli Nurmi – – has also used the footprints to reflect on her learning experience in EdcMOOC. Interesting to consider where reflection and evaluation overlap.

    > But depending on context, as I’m understanding what you all are saying, having a fair bit of (or maybe only?) prescriptive learning or chaos might still work (assuming it wasn’t all chaos, I suppose).

    Yes – we don’t think that the prescriptive zone or the sharp emergent zone are better or worse than each other, although I can’t imagine that anyone would want their learners to fall off the edge of the chaotic zone (i.e. out of the course). We have had many discussions about how we can get away from the idea that the footprint goes from negative to positive, from the centre to the outside edge. Some courses are necessarily prescriptive (e.g. standards driven courses, such as nursing and teacher training), although the footprints might help leaders of these courses to consider whether a totally prescriptive course is appropriate or if they want their future nurses and teachers to have emergent learning experiences. They may not. Likewise, drawing the footprint might reveal that a course is too open and challenging in some ways. It has been interesting when running workshops on drawing footprints how often the outcome of the drawing process can surprise the person who has drawn it.

    > If someone asks, “why should we accept these as the kinds of things we should use to help us be able to evaluate learning environments, as opposed to other things,” how would you answer?

    You are not the first person to ask this question and it is something that Roy and I have often discussed. In our papers we explain that our research has been informed by our past experience and a number of different theories e.g. constructivism, Communities of Practice and social learning theory, knowledge management, the theory of affordances, Connectivism and complexity theory. I think it’s fairly easy to see, for example, that the factors diversity, autonomy and frequent interaction are informed by connectivism, negotiated outcomes and identity are informed by social learning theory, risk and unpredictable outcomes by complexity theory and so on. But I want to stress that the development of the factors has been an emergent process and is ongoing. If you look at this post – – you can see that our starting point was a long way from where we are now. We also say on the wiki, I think, that within the terms of our Creative Commons license (basically non-commercial and attribution), we are very happy for people to add to/change factors to suit their own purposes, but we would really like to know of any changes that are made, i.e. we hope that anyone using the footprints will share their experience with us. We are very keen to establish a dialogue around the footprints, which ultimately would be a dialogue about learning.

    Hope this answers your questions Christina and isn’t too much/too little information. If you are drawing footprints we would love to discuss them with you; feel free to upload your footprint to the wiki, or send to us for uploading.

    Look forward to hearing more about how you get on with the footprints.


  8. Christina Hendricks November 7, 2013 / 11:27 pm

    Hi Jenny: Sorry for the delay in replying! This was really, really helpful to me. I’m doing a presentation (tomorrow!) at the Open Education Conference 2013 on evaluating cMOOCs, and I wanted to talk about this project. Your comments helped me make sure I’ve got the general idea!

  9. Wayne Barry July 12, 2014 / 2:34 pm

    Hi Jenny,

    A few years ago, I was part of a JISC project, called iBorrow, that looked at how we could deploy a client-thin netbook within a learning space using wi-fi connectivity. In the very early stages of this project I wanted to see the students’ studying activity within the large library and learning centre, what books and journals they used, the spaces they occupied, the websites they visited to support their learning – in short I wanted to know their “learning footprint”. For various ethical and methodogical reasons (and quite right to), this particular approach didn’t happen. Instead, we were able to track their movements (via the netbook) within the Library. Needless to say, there was way too much data that was also very messy to interpret.

    I am a learning technologists currently in the throes of an EdD and starting to think about my theses around professional learning (i.e. how do academics in HE go about self-directed learning, be it formal, informal and non-formal) and what kind of technologies (in the broader sense) do they use to help and support them – so I have found myself coming back to “learning footprints” or “professional learning footprints”.

    I am currently doing some reading around Deleuze & Guattari’s concept of the “rhizome” as a means of making some sense of this messy and complex activity. I have also come across Engeström’s concept of the “mycorrhizae”, which is how I serendipituously come across your “footprints of emergence” concept and can see (though I need to think on this a little more) how it might be used within the context of professional learning. I wonder if I can come back to you at a later day (once I have given this some more thought) to discuss your concept in relation to professional learning? I feel I need to get a better grip of your concept before I can have a sensible conversation with you 🙂

    Many thanks for the great idea.

    Best wishes,


  10. jennymackness July 12, 2014 / 5:35 pm

    Hello Wayne – thanks so much for contacting me. I am aware of the iBorrow project because I was a critical friend for the JISC institutional innovation programme and was ultimately responsible for synthesising the outputs from a number of projects including iBorrow. I remember finding what you were doing (and I do remember your name from the project) very interesting.

    I have been involved in research around the Footprints of Emergence for a few years now – with my colleague Roy Williams from Portsmouth University – and we are beginning to think about this in terms of transformative learning in relation to learner experiences in MOOCs – and of course the data shows that the majority of MOOC participants are professionals who already have HE qualifications.

    I have also very recently started research into rhizomatic learning with Frances Bell and we recently gave a presentation on this to the ALTMOOCSIG conference and wrote a series of blog posts in preparation for this. A search on this blog for #rhizo14 will bring these up.

    So it seems that we have a lot we could talk about.

    You might be interested to know that we are currently in the process of developing some software that would make the footprints easier to draw and engage with and hope to have this ready by September, when Roy and I will be doing a keynote presentation on the footprints at a conference in Austria.

    But in the meantime, if you want to know more about drawing footprints and our understanding of emergent learning, there is a video explaining this on our open wiki –

    If you would like my email address, please message me on Twitter @jennymackness and I can send it to you – or I can contact you via your email.

    Looking forward to talking to you further about this when you are ready. I’d be really interested to know more about your work.


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