Emergent learning in open environments

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This is the third in a series of posts we are making in preparation for the e-learning conference in Graz, Austria, at which we are speaking on September 17th. The title of the presentation is Surfacing, Sharing and Valuing Tacit Knowledge

Previous posts relating to this presentation are:

  1. Evaluation of Open Learning Scenarios
  2. Characteristics of Open Learning Environments

In my last post I wrote that I would come back to further discussion of what we mean by emergent learning. In our first paper [1], when we started to think about the significance of emergent learning in open learning environments, we wrote:

In this paper we argue that it might be useful for educational institutions to actively explore alternative frameworks such as connectivism (Siemens, 2005), complexity theory (Cilliers, 2005, 2010), communities of practice (Wenger, 1998, 2006), and the underlying threads of emergent learning to inform their planning and strategy. We will attempt to bring together elements of all these areas of research and practice to develop a framework for emergent learning that can be applied across education, work, and social networking, with their increasingly blurred boundaries.

Emergence has been discussed and defined by a number of authors, such as Cilliers (2005), Goldstein (2009) and, at the international systems level, Knorr-Cetina (2005).  For the purposes of this paper, we interpret emergent learning as

learning which arises out of the interaction between a number of people and resources, in which the learners organise and determine both the process and to some extent the learning destinations, both of which are unpredictable.  The interaction is in many senses self-organised, but it nevertheless requires some constraint and structure.  It may include virtual or physical networks, or both.

We still use this explanation of emergent learning and have summarized it in this image……

Emergence is

… but have discussed and expanded on our thinking on our open wiki [2]

Learning in the open (open networks, open courses), particularly where these courses are massive (MOOCs) requires learners first and foremost to be autonomous. Learners must make their own decisions about what to learn, how to learn, where to learn and who to learn with. In open online learning environments there are multiple paths that a learner can choose to follow, multiple resources (the whole of the internet) that a learner can choose to work from and a huge diversity of people from across the globe to interact with. Once learners move into a truly ‘open’ learning environment, the teacher (if there is a teacher) is likely to lose sight of them and therefore cannot plan for the learning experiences that the learner might encounter.

Learners are increasingly moving into open learning environments (such as MOOCs) from choice, but even when enrolled on a ‘closed’ course where the teacher has planned prescribed paths, learners can and do move into their own spaces out of sight of the teacher, e.g. into a Facebook group. This freedom of choice over where to learn is a recognized affordance of the internet and social media.

When learners are not on prescribed paths we cannot know where their learning journey will take them or what they will learn. Learning in these environments is unpredictable and can be surprising and emergent. The more a learner is out in the open and able to cope with uncertainty, the more likely it is that emergent learning will occur.

If you have read this far you might be thinking ‘so what’ [3]?

The answer for me is that if ‘open’ is going to become the ‘name of the game’ in education, and there is plenty of evidence that we are increasingly moving learning into open learning environments (and learners themselves are taking control of their learning and doing this), then we need to recognize that these environments are complex and learners will need new skills to cope.

We are interested in what these skills might be, but we are more interested in the effect that these complex environments will have on learners and their identities. Learners will not only need to be able to navigate these environments and manage their own learning, but they will also need to develop the ability to reflect deeply on their learning and surface their tacit knowledge and understanding. The Footprints of Emergence [4], described in my last post, is a tool for doing this.

The notion of ‘open’ learning environments is, I think, here to stay. This does not mean that there will be no more closed courses or closed learning environments, but we can expect that learners will no longer feel constrained by these and will go wherever they choose. In addition the world is now wide open, as it never has been before and successful learners will be those who understand this, recognize the significance of this for their lives and future development, and learn how to operate in open environments.

Surfacing, recognizing and valuing emergent learning has always been important in teaching and learning, but will become more so as learners move increasingly into open learning environments.


  1. 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
  2. Footprints of Emergence open wiki – http://footprints-of-emergence.wikispaces.com/
  3. Mackness, J. (2013). Footprints of Emergence – so what? Retrieved from: https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/footprints-of-emergence-so-what-2/
  4. 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


4 thoughts on “Emergent learning in open environments

  1. fred6368 September 7, 2014 / 9:14 am

    Hi Jenny, I find it quite disappointing that you dont quote our work on “emergent learning in open environments.” I developed the Emergent Learning Model http://www.slideshare.net/fredgarnett/fg-ouemergenttable when Roy and yourself were working on Footprints, and I dropped out of working on that with you for the practical reason of making the Ambient Learning City project in Manchester work. Not only have we developed emergent learning (MOSI-ALONG) in an open environment (the city of Manchester) but we have drawn lessons from it – in Social Cities of Tomorrow (http://www.slideshare.net/fredgarnett/social-cities-of-tomorrow-2012) and developed a socially inclusive model of learning with social media – Aggregate then Curate. http://www.researchinlearningtechnology.net/index.php/rlt/article/view/18677

    Furthermore the WikiQuals project also used the Emergent Learning Model as a design tool and is having some success, not least in raising discussion about Open Learning http://www.slideshare.net/fredgarnett/wikiquals-and-open-learning
    Unlike the theorists that you do quote such as Siemens and Wenger these ideas have been developed in the UK out of British practice (whilst benefitting from many ideas from nay places) and are not simply ideas imported from North America. So I am completely baffled why you do not reference our work in any way. Is it because it is not written up in the right way for academia?

  2. jennymackness September 8, 2014 / 7:52 am

    Hi Fred, thanks for your comment. We are making the last preparations for going to the Graz conference which is in a week’s time, although I leave tomorrow – to take the opportunity to travel through Switzerland to Vienna, before finally arriving in Graz next week. I have never visited Switzerland or Austria before.

    I have been in touch with Roy and this response to your comment is from us both.

    It’s great to get an update on your work on emergent learning, and the UK case studies. The more people who work on emergence the better. It will take quite a bit of work to gain general currency yet.

    We think our basic framework is a little different, as although we have been fascinated by emergence per se, we are more concerned with the balance between prescriptive and emergent learning, and how different approaches might be appropriate for particular contexts. We also find the resonances with complexity theory and ecological psychology directly relevant.

    In our own work, we have engaged with people and ideas – and have benefitted from theoretical and practical work – across a range of countries, and are happy to do so. We reference Wenger’s work, as you do, as well as people working on emergence and complexity theory in many countries and contexts – Rihani (in international development), Cilliers (in South Africa), Snowden (in many contexts and countries), etc.

    Context (e.g. British) seems to be crucial to your work just as it is to ours, but we are interested in engaging with context-sensitive work across many different countries, which we find enriches and challenges us. We know you are too, with your trips to Romania and other countries. Our trip to Austria will be particularly interesting, because of the mix of people from different backgrounds (universities, schools, training companies and other organisations) who will attend.

    I expect we will write more blog posts after the event and share what we learn.


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