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  • Writer's pictureBianca Le Cornu

Topic 2: Open Learning - a digital ecology?

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

Before I fell in love with design and academia, my first love (which is still present) is the world around me. I take delight in simply being amazed at seemingly unimportant things. There are pictures of me as a child looking at the world through a drop of water and my mom always tells me how excited I was that everything was upside down and trying to rationalise this as a small girl of about 5.

You might be wondering what all of this has to do with Topic 2. Well, I couldn't help but keep going back to this moment in time when thinking about Digital Learning, and I could not for the life of me understand why. However, I think that I now see why this is, having read a bit more about the 'openness' of digital learning (or the potential for openness at least).

You see, the day I looked at the world "through the looking glass" of that tiny dew drop - the world was topsy turvy but it was fascinating nonetheless. It was still the world, but a world like none other I had experienced. It made me want to explore because I saw things that I had taken for granted when I usually saw them the right way up. I didn't know it then, but it was something I learned to appreciate later on in life (and even used the metaphor in my copywriting classes a few years ago).

The world is not merely a bunch of random items thrown together in the hope that stuff will just work. The world is probably one of the most incredible designs ever because everything works in tandem so that life, as we know it, can function properly and keep us all alive. Now obviously, it is a lot more complicated that that, but this is the gist of it really.

So how does this all relate back to digital learning (and more importantly OPEN learning)?

Well, the reason we find ourselves in the symphonic masterpiece called earth is due to the concept of 'ecology'. According to ESA, "ecology is the study of the relationships between living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment; it seeks to understand the vital connections between plants and animals and the world around them. Ecology also provides information about the benefits of ecosystems and how we can use Earth’s resources in ways that leave the environment healthy for future generations." (ESA, 2022)

You will notice that I highlighted certain words in the text above, because I feel that these words embody the likeness I find in both Open digital learning (including MOOCs) and the ecology in the world around us.

First and foremost, ecology can be broken down into ecosystems which are geographic areas where animals, plants and biodiverse organisms exist, along with weather patterns, landscapes and specific sources to keep the organisms alive and well in that particular space (or bubble if you will). Everything is linked in energy flows to ensure that the cycles of life are maintained. Now, it is important to note that we, as humans, have been known to mess with ecosystems by interfering with them, and this causes havoc - so an ecosystem works because all the constituent parts (while important) are responsible for the whole space to function correctly.

There is a term we refer to in art and design called, 'gestalt' which explains this further. Gestalt is defined as, "an organised whole that is perceived as more than the sum of it's parts" (Oxford, 2021). This is because the human brain organises elements into a big picture and assesses it as such. However, if one thing is off, then the image we are looking at can feel 'off' or 'awkward'.

Let us, for awhile, assume that an online learning opportunity is an ecosystem. For this ecosystem to function we would need the relevant constituent parts to initially be present, and then to work in relation to each other to produce an environment where learning could happen naturally as 'energy flows' and keeps everything in flux.

At it's very basic, an online learning ecosystem would need academic content, learning providers/ facilitators and students. However, the more important questions is, is this enough? The quick and simple answer is, yes, but in reality it just isn't the truth. The same way that the loss of bees in an ecosystem can lead to catastrophic results in relation to food production (which cannot be rectified by simply finding another random insect), we cannot place "any" content, any facilitator and any student into the mix and hope for the best.

Are you saying that MOOC and Online digital environments are not for everyone?

No! I'm definitely not saying this, what I am saying is that it will require that the constituent parts become one with the online ecosystem so that each part becomes the whole (so to speak). This then becomes more complicated because we need to break down certain assumptions. Much like the day I saw the world all upside down in a drop of water - the online space for learning can appear to be a very scary place for some, and an incredibly interesting place to others. It's all about perspective.

You see, the day I saw the world turn upside down, I had my mother right there beside me and she explained how it happened, why it happened, and how it could be replicated. I was amazed and impressed and it made me want to know more. That same moment in time could have been really scary if I was alone and confused - and herein lies the issue with some digital online environments ... they can be overwhelmingly scary and make people feel incredibly alone if not planned properly.

Remember those words I highlighted above? Let's remind you:

  • Relationships

  • Connections

  • Resources

  • Future

The ecosystems are made up of organisms but they each have a very important and specific connection and relationship to each other. They also require resources to ensure their survival and all of these elements must work to ensure a continuation of the aspects into the future.

The online digital environment should also be developed in much the same way. It is not good enough to merely provide a space and to place the people into a space. The space must be designed in such a way as to ensure relationships and connections are built, that resources are easy to come by and that when everything works well together, that the system and all the parts continue developing together into the future.

A research paper (A new ecology for learning: an online ethnographic study of learners' participation and experience in connectivist MOOCs) by Mohsen Saadatmand states both the pros and cons of the MOOC environment and brings to the fore the importance of the design of such spaces. The paper is dotted with incredibly important quotes from other researchers, but one that stood out was from the symposium of international higher education institutions and highlights how MOOCs have the ability to change and impact higher education moving forward:

Higher education is going digital, responding to the architecture of knowledge in a digital age, and MOOCs, while heavily criticized, have proven a much-needed catalyst for the development of progressive programs that respond to the changing world…. As we enter fully into the knowledge age, the relevance of universities will only increase, provided that faculty and leaders are able to create a compelling vision for higher education that serves the needs of all learners in society. The specific tools, services and experiences of a traditional higher education will continue to be unbundled by a range of companies and startups. It’s up to colleges and universities—cornerstones of democracy—to rebundle and re-integrate these new elements in a way that embodies the high ideals of education with the practical life-long learning needs of individuals. (Salisbury, 2014)

Once again I have highlighted important aspects that go back to both my initial story (of being in a topsy turvy world) as well as to the concept of ecology and ecosystems. If we are to succeed effectively using MOOCs to inspire and promote education then we, as the developers of these spaces, need to ensure that they are produced with all the parts in mind. Each part needs to be an integral aspect that promotes the further development of the system, and the system should essentially support itself through the parts that it houses... allowing for the flow of energy* to keep learning and production of learning continuous.

​* Energy flow in the online environment could be through multiple opportunities that would include connecting, socialising, debating, providing spaces for communities of practice, research etc. However, the energy flow can only continue if the participants keep producing and engaging, and they can only produce and engage if the facilities have been provided for. This may include training for some individuals, it may include a need for connectivity, finance, data, etc. for others. These are some aspects that I have not dealt with in detail but must be taken into consideration. An ecosystem works irrespective of money and finances, but the digital environment requires this to be available for both design of, and engagement with the space.

Having discussed this with other academics, it has become apparent that in many academic spaces, opportunities are explored - some from a financial perspective, others from a participant (student-centric) perspective, and even more from an institutional requirement, but very few from an holistic space that considers the MOOC offering as a "tiny bubble of life". I highlight this term because it comes up in many definitions of an ecosystem - the idea that all elements within a space (both organic and inorganic) should work together and function effectively through a flow of energy to form a unique bubble of life.

While there is never a clear cut way of doing anything due to multiple issues around institutional, personal and traditional aspects, the ideal would be to try and create the "perfect open digital ecosystem" to encourage a constant flow of energy through participants - that is ultimately seen in the production of good content which ultimately provides more opportunities for the participants based on that (and so on and so forth) i.e. exchange of energy. We need to pursue and aspire towards the open digital ecology for everyone involved.

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