Learning Ecosystems: a case for “reverse innovation”

Special Focus : Learning Ecosystems, Equity, and Underserved Communities
Learning Ecosystems and Leadership November 19, 2021

Learning ecosystems are often described as the next stage of evolution of contemporary education. It appears quite natural therefore that first successful prototypes of such ecosystems are most commonly found in countries and territories that have created robust education systems over the last 150-200 years. Usually, these territories are either “old” industrialized regions in Europe and North America or rapidly modernized nations such as South Korea.

Such territories have benefited from creating a human capacity necessary for industrial operation, including foundational literacies, science, and engineering. A crucial success factor for them – at least, a century ago – was also to develop the ability to obey, to comply with standards and requirements, and to follow orders that came from the top of the hierarchy. Upon the massive social obedience, large military campaigns were won, and mass-scale industrial complexes were built. Some argue that massive obedience and loyalty was also the main objective of the Prussian school system (as designed by Emperor Frederick the Great in the mid-18th century) that has become the master plan for national schooling around the world.

However, in the 21st century, the principal strength of “industrial” education has become its weakness. Societies and economies today need creators, not soldiers – those who can innovate and disrupt, and not just blindly follow orders and standards. The pinnacle of social development today is a knowledge-based economy, and the hero of today’s young generation is Elon Musk, not General Dwight Eisenhower. To comply with such demand, education needs to change – to become personalized, holistic, empowering, and life-long. Learning ecosystems are complex learning environments that, unlike traditional schools and universities, are able to provide such opportunities.

How do learning ecosystems operate? Instead of a predefined “one size fits all” curriculum, they offer a multitude of learning pathways and opportunities. Instead of confining learning to a classroom, they provide it in museums, offices, bakeries, and parks. They blend face-to-face learning with social media and messenger groups. They invite learners to engage in real-life actions and projects that improve the wellbeing of their neighborhoods and cities. They involve a diversity of learning providers and encourage students to choose and design their own learning pathways.

Ecosystems reveal their potential best when students have agency and autonomy. When many social partners, including businesses, civic agencies, communities, take genuine interest in students’ future – that is, create demand for their abilities. When the territory has rich and diverse opportunities for learning and action.

Does this mean that learning ecosystems will only rise in regions that are most endowed with resources, technologies, and infrastructure – including broadband Internet, public libraries, startups, and tech companies vigorously searching for interns? Are they most suitable for regions with a long history of democracy and critical thinking? Are learning ecosystems, to put it straight, a “Western thing”?

I would like to offer a different perspective. What if contemporary industrial education is not a ubiquitous “must-have” for all people in the world, a necessary and unavoidable way of organizing human learning – but a kind of civilizational deviation? Just consider this: a young child is taken from her parents at age of 6-7, isolated from her family, from real work and real life, to spend the most fruitful years of her adolescence with people she would probably never see again when she gets old. These people teach her to suppress her instincts, her natural curiosity, her desire to move around and explore – and to learn things she probably won’t ever need again. Finally, she must pass a standardized test that doesn’t even remotely resemble any of the challenges she will normally face in life. If this is a system that is supposed to bring us into life and support our learning, it is hard to imagine anything more unnatural.

Learning ecosystems, in a nutshell, bring us closer to how humans learned throughout most of their millennia-long history. The place of learning was also the place where people lived – their village or their town. A child would interact with a multitude of experts, hunters, farmers, potters, would learn baby care, animal husbandry, and dozens of other practical skills, and would master the values, morals, and customs of the community. She would then pass through coming-of-age rites that would prove her as a worthy member of the group everyone could rely upon.

Yes, our modern society is much more complex, and requires a lot of specialized knowledge to be perceived as a “worthy human”. That is exactly where modern learning technologies – online platforms, games, virtual reality simulators – can be so helpful. But it is important that such technologies support a natural learning process rather than cement outdated and inhumane formats.

So, are rich industrialized countries best equipped to restore such a natural way of learning? Is it mandatory for all other countries to create schooling systems by the same template, to dismantle traditional forms of learning – and only then create learning ecosystems? I think it could be the opposite. Those rich and well-equipped territories are suppressed by the burden of their own practices and infrastructures – hundreds of thousands of outdated school buildings, tons of less and less relevant textbooks, armies of teaching professionals whose skills rapidly become obsolete. Qualification and compensation frameworks, legislation, and tradition prevent them from finding easy ways to create learning ecosystems. These regions will need to put more effort and invest more resources, to create learning models for the future. Traditional African villages could be better equipped to become a learning ecosystem than a North American mega-city.

I would like to emphasize: we are not simply discussing leapfrogging, an opportunity to cut a few corners in societal development e.g. by employing digital solutions. We need to restore patterns and practices of human learning that are more common and are better remembered in the Global South and indigenous communities than they are in the Global North. I genuinely look forward to our African, South Asian, and Latin American colleagues leading the creation of future learning models.

And so many of them are already spearheading this process. Luis Camargo and OPePA create advanced programs of nature-based learning that connect students around Bogota and Colombia and help them engage in climate action. Indian Dream a Dream helps underprivileged youth of Bangalore and other Indian regions to develop existential skills for life-long thriving. My colleagues in Russian Metaversity create inclusive opportunities for St. Petersburg teenagers that cannot fulfill their calling in conventional education, including social entrepreneurship and environmental care. The list could go on, and it testifies that learning ecosystems can arise naturally and provide more opportunities in regions less endowed with resources.

What are some benefits of learning ecosystems? It allows the pooling of learning resources, including teacher talent and learning infrastructure. For example, Metaversity does not really need to have its own learning premises, apart from a small lab space, to cater to hundreds of learners, as it can use many free spaces provided by its learning partners. It does not need to employ teachers but instead weave teachers & programs from multiple institutions and professional communities. Where it primarily contributes is connecting and navigating learning spaces and opportunities, organizing learning assignments, games, projects, and expeditions into a seamless learning experience.

The learning ecosystem also blends boundaries between online and offline, schools and cities, learning and practice. It prioritizes project-based learning and community engagement. It helps develop existential skills that make us better humans – or, it helps us, in the words of Dutch philosopher Harry Kuitert, “human better”.

Ecosystemic transitions can hence become a source of leadership for countries and territories that have been marginalized by industrial capitalism – and not only those that have been privileged by it. It could become our key to a more just and inclusive future that could, in the words of Buckminster Fuller, work for 100% of humanity.