Next month Roy Williams and I will give the keynote presentation at a conference in Graz, Austria, which will focus on learning in open learning environments; how we recognize, value and ‘capture’ it. This is the second in a series of posts that we will make in preparation for this keynote.
The first post was Evaluation of Open Learning Scenarios
We have been thinking about what might be the key characteristics of learning in open learning environments since 2008. One of the first visualizations that I became aware of at that time, was the map created by Matthias Melcher during CCK08. CCK08 was the first MOOC on Connectivism and Connective knowledge, convened by Stephen Downes and George Siemens in 2008. For me, this was my introduction to ‘learning in the open’. This is Matthias’ map.
Matthias wrote in his blog
My way of approaching the confusing landscape of countless tools, sites, and resources, was to try and get a visual overview of the salient ones.
Matthias’ map revealed the diversity, distributed and even ‘chaotic’ nature of learning in the open. Interestingly, Roy and I occupied very different spaces in this open course/MOOC and therefore on the map. Roy, for the most part, participated in the course forums. I participated from my blog, as did Matthias. So at the time I had a weak connection with Roy (I was simply aware of him), but a stronger connection with Matthias, who I was connected to through our blogs. My connection with Roy did not become stronger until after the course was over, when we began to research learners’ experiences in this MOOC.  
On reflection, it is interesting that open learning environments can lead to learning in more closed, private, collaborative (as opposed to cooperative), spaces. Since CCK08 this has often been my experience and has led to some of my most significant and fruitful learning experiences. I think this has also influenced how we (Roy and I) have written about the characteristics of open learning environments. We acknowledge the role of seemingly ‘non-open’ factors such as solitude and contemplation and the role of prescribed learning, and are interested in the balance between more prescribed, closed environments and open learning environments. We do not claim that learning in the open is superior to learning in more closed environments or vice versa. We are interested in how and why they are different and in the affordances of both open and more prescribed learning environments. We also recognize that learners will move between open and closed learning environments.
Working across distributed platforms, as depicted by Matthias’ map, is a characteristic of open learning environments that has also been highlighted by Stephen Downes. In addition Stephen has always said that the key principles of an open networked learning environment (a cMOOC) are autonomy, diversity, openness and interaction/connectivity. These four principles have been influential in our thinking about the characteristics of open learning environments. They, along with our past experience and prior knowledge of various learning theories, were our starting point.
Ultimately after many months (even years) of deliberation, discussion, drawing on prior experience, testing and refinement, we now have a list of 25 characteristics of learning in open learning environments (which we call ‘factors’). We have organized these into 4 clusters. These are 1. Open/Structure 2. Interactive Environment 3. Agency 4. Presence/Writing.   For each cluster we have a key question:
- Open/Structure: What is the balance between Openness and Structure?
- Interactive environment: How is the learning design implemented?
- Agency: Do learners develop their own capacity for action, or just compliance with given roles?
- Presence/writing: What traces do you make and leave behind you?
The Table below lists the factors arranged into clusters. In our publications and on our open wiki, each of these factors comes with a description and question (see references at the end of this post).
Our thinking about open learning environments and the factors that influence learning within these environments is ongoing, so we do not see this list of factors as definitive. We offer them as a palette, rather like an artist’s palette of colours, to be selected from according to the most useful and appropriate in any given context. We also recognize that the palette might be added to or the factors changed. Our experience is, though, that a consideration of the complete list of 25 factors provides the richest picture of learning in an open environment. We visualize this picture as a Footprint of Emergence , as depicted below.
This ‘Footprint’ is a visualization of experience of learning in the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge MOOC (CCK08).
On the Footprint image, factors can be seen as points (black dots) located on the footprint line within the circle. Each factor relates to the list of factors above, but is represented on the image by an abbreviation. So ‘Lim’ relates to Liminal space and ‘Amb’ to ambiguity and so on.
To interpret and understand the footprint visualization, we need to know that in the dark centre of the circle learning is experienced as prescribed. In the white zone learning is experienced as ‘sweetly’ emergent. Moving outwards from the white zone to the darker blue zone, learning is experienced as more challenging and ‘sharply’ emergent. On the dark outer edge of the circle learning is experienced as chaotic.
CCK08 was designed to be open and challenging, and therefore it is no surprise that most of the characteristics/factors that we have identified were experienced as being between sweetly emergent and chaotic, for the point in time at which this footprint was drawn in the course. Footprints visualize an instant in time. We have provided details of how to draw footprints of emergence on our open wiki  and in this video below.
The footprint visualization makes explicit the relationship between open emergent learning and closed, prescribed learning. If, as we believe, open learning environments lead to increasing incidents of emergent learning (I will come back to this in my next blog post), then we, as learners, teachers and designers, need to know more about what this learning might entail, how we will recognize it and how we will value it.
- Mackness, J., Mak, Sui, Fai, J. & Williams, R. (2010). The Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC. In Networked Learning Conference, Aarlborg (pp. 266-274). Retrieved from http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fss/organisations/netlc/past/nlc2010/abstracts/Mackness.html
- Mak, Sui, Fai, J., Williams, R. & Mackness, J. (2010). Blogs and Forums as Communication and Learning Tools in a MOOC. In Networked Learning Conference, Aarlborg (pp. 275-284). Retrieved from http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fss/organisations/netlc/past/nlc2010/abstracts/Mak.html
- Williams, R., Karousou, R. & Mackness, J. (2011) Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/883
- Williams, R., Mackness, J. & Gumtau, S. (2012) Footprints of Emergence. Vol. 13, No. 4. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. Retrieved from: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1267
- Footprints of Emergence open wiki – http://footprints-of-emergence.wikispaces.com/