What Is A Learning Ecosystem? (10 Minutes)

Part 1 of 2

Tiny house television shows are quite popular today.  With traditional house prices climbing out of some people’s reach and some desirous of a “minimalist” lifestyle, the fad has generated a lot of buzz.  But is a tiny house lifestyle more than a fad?  Is it a trend?  While it is a compelling, popular TV show topic, that is likely because it is NOT a trend.  Akin to a house-wives reality show or shows about any “fringe” part of society, while interesting and entertaining, to call it a trend is probably a stretch.  Experts tend to agree that tiny houses, while good television, are not a good investment, nor are they likely a good fit for most people.  After all, tiny houses typically require (sometimes extreme) sacrifices to be made around almost every facet of traditional shelter / living.  They are certainly not very scalable (consider the ramifications of an addition of another child, for example) and living comfortably in 400-600 square feet (or smaller) is just not tenable for most people today.

While some may read all of that as a first-world-problem, and indeed it likely is, a tiny house is also an apt metaphor for a learning ecosystem.  As a term that was popularized in the 1990’s, coming back only recently, a learning ecosystem is an omni-channel, multi-modal system that includes all necessary support, resource, and context options by which people learn.  In a formal context, such as a college or university, the learning ecosystem is typically a mix of people, technology, and other infrastructure, leading to certifications and/or degrees for students.  But all of these stakeholders require balance.  The key to an effective learning system is stasis.  The term ecosystem becomes crucial in this context as it connotes interdependence.  In any ecosystem, stasis is reached when interdependence of a (typically) complex system or network is balanced between organisms and their environment.   

Higher Education: 30 Years

All of that said, like a tiny house, a learning ecosystem can be too small.  When the term learning ecosystem was used in the 1990’s, it was during the origination of Learning Management Systems and came out of network architecture.  The first LMS’ were minimally connected with the Student Information Systems (SIS), thereby creating the first “learning ecosystem.”  At the start, any other learning tool was likely disparate, running in parallel, but not integrating with either tool.  As well, human inter-actors were not noted as part of these systems, leaning on system architecture associated exclusively with technology.  But in this limited capacity, the learning ecosystem was like a tiny house.  There were a lot of required sacrifices which led to a lot of frustrated faculty, staff, administrators, and students.  But over time, as the ebb and flow of promise, capability, functionality, strengths, weaknesses, etc., became known, the 2018 idea of an effective learning ecosystem is far more complete, now including people and not solely technology. 

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This article will attempt to illustrate the technological aspect of a learning ecosystem, but notes that the people side of the equation should not be overlooked by system creators within an institution.  In other words, learning, innovation, and progressiveness should never be equated with technology.  Human considerations will be highlighted throughout, but true system architects of learning, should give ample weight to actors vs technology.  (Technology is not a replacement for, nor can likely overcome poorly functioning people networks.)

While (unfortunately) many colleges and universities still have a learning-system consisting of only a few tools, whether due to budget or systems thinking deficiencies, a healthy number of schools are building much bigger systems, with a few bordering on sprawling mansions, if we are to keep the metaphor going.  But notice our pivot to the term “system” vs “ecosystem.”  Partly due to technology’s ability to integrate, partially due to many commercial organization’s unwillingness to provide open (and cheap/free) connectivity, and potentially due to a lack of implementation vision, hundreds of schools may have more than a “tiny house” system, but they also do not have an ecosystem.  How can we say that?  Because there is a serious lack of interdependence, with poor (if any) connection between technologies, people, and support infrastructure. 

The Devil You Know

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Some schools still leverage technologies that they are unhappy with, but which seem daunting to switch out.  One example of this can be seen in the student portal space.  (This nomenclature is unfortunate as it is typically a portal for all institution stakeholders.)  A recent listserv of CIOs illustrated an overabundance of schools using a portal that is more than a decade old, with the satisfaction rating of those link aggregation platforms a dismal 2.7 out of 5

The reasons behind a “tiny house” learning system are many and varied.  From long term contracts to intimidating projects (scope or size), large numbers of schools use outdated technology with very little cohesion between solutions throughout.  Many schools currently use technology from 20 years ago or more in some cases.  This may be due to technology decisions being made solely from a single office, department, or leader.  For example, operational staff and faculty may struggle to see the bigger picture or to think about integration holistically.  Likewise, this could be the result of an I.T. director or CIO who does not balance business needs, communication workflow, or inter-departmental transparency with technological project management, tool acquisition, etc. 

There may also be a programmatic reason for weaker, smaller systems.  A lot of work has gone into LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability) as a “good enough” connector between systems, platforms, and other technology.  While API (Application Program Interface) offers far richer, deeper, and better connections as well as data, while also being easier than ever to code, many education institutions have struggled to build connectivity at the higher level, accepting LTI as adequate.  As a result, the market has satisfied the MVP (minimally viable product) need by building tools that only connect via LTI, unless exorbitant amounts of money are paid for the better, richer (API) solution. 

A New Way Forward

But a few forward-thinking institutions have been creating a far stronger, interconnected learning ecosystem, which takes advantage of modern integration strategies while driving "people connectedness" as well as massive efficiencies for students, faculty, staff, and even alumni or prospective students.  Modern learning ecosystems ensure a symbiosis between people, systems, services, and organizations via communication, collaboration, and integration.  These new systems might finally drive the long spoken but never realized promise of learning analytics.  New platforms often cannibalize 2, 3, or more existing tools, making an even more integrated experience for users.  So, by acting as one experience, non-technical initiatives find synergies with technological platforms. 

While it is true that these systems require time (more than a single year) to habituate, eventually driving innovation and efficiency, there can be “quick wins” for the institution almost immediately upon looking at their learning ecosystem through a lens of system design.  Once technology and human experiences are viewed in congruence, if leveraged within a mature environment operating with the filter that learning does not solely rely on classroom experiences, a learning ecosystem can begin to grow and even flourish.

A quick metaphor that may help you know if you have a learning ecosystem at your institution or not, might be that of a solar system.  You might think of the SIS as the central star, with 3-6 “planets” orbiting via full-API integrations, producing data, etc.  Those planets may have a few moons circling them, via LTI integration, but your learning scientists would have the crucial data they need regarding the whole student experience, to help determine support and risk.  That would mean knowing what is happening both inside the classroom (cognition) and out, including data around personal history (demographics), engagement (affection) as well as grit, mindset, or open-mindedness (conation).  Feeds of that data would be available to multiple stakeholders, including (but not limited to) student success, administration, faculty, staff, and others.  Even students might start to take advantage of the hyper-connected, learning ecosystem data to view what they do or how they might transform their own practices.  (I want to get a GPA of ___ in my major.  What do others do so as to make that possible?)

But know that without a holistic, inclusive view of people, a technology-centric, connected ecosystem will result in weak metrics and small, incremental changes at best.  A learning ecosystem can help administrators as well as staff create a better environment for “total” learning by students, but also a more satisfying, collaborative experience for themselves, assuming the ecosystem was built with both technology and people in mind. 

In Part 2, we will talk about tools, we will illustrate a learning ecosystem architecture, and we will deconstruct that architecture for function and purpose.  In the meantime, do you have a learning ecosystem?  Want to start moving in that direction?  Contact Dr. Jeff Borden (jeffb@iceinstitute.org) at the Institute for Inter-Connected Education any time to receive help, consultation, or simply to find out how your ecosystem stacks up.