Learning Ecosystems: A Powerful Means to Supporting Learners in Underserved Communities

Special Focus : Learning Ecosystems, Equity, and Underserved Communities
Learning Ecosystems and Leadership November 22, 2021

As we dive deeper into the question of Learning Ecosystems – what they are, what are their strengths, their weaknesses, the key concepts and how they can be adapted – at the WISE Learning Ecosystems Living Lab, through our discussions and workshops with our community, we’ve started to notice similar remarks crop up about the accessibility and feasibility of implementing a learning ecosystem. Because learning ecosystems require active and purposeful collaboration from multiple sectors of the society (even from those who might not be directly involved in education), it seems this approach is often thought as “great in theory, scary in practice” as people mistakenly believe it takes a progressive and resourced community, budget, time and people to come on board. 

In April 2015, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote “If the technology revolution only happens for families that already have money and education, then it’s not really a revolution”.[1] The same goes for the education revolution and for learning ecosystems. Indeed, from what we can see happening around the world, learning ecosystems are perhaps better suited to complex environments than previously believed, closely tying learning to the questions of diversity and equity than ever before. In richer, more developed countries we have seen ecosystems flourish as means to support the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, and in countries in crisis, learning ecosystems can actually be the way of supplementing or even replacing an education system that is failing. Learning ecosystems can be a solution for everyone – and in fact, they can be a solution to inequality.  

In England, the RSA Cities of Learning program has become a new model for cities or regions to deliver “inclusive lifelong learning which is tailored to the needs of local people and economies”. Choosing to focus itself on mid-sized cities and rural regions, it federates learning and employment opportunities, as well as learner’s needs on one platform, in a bid to improve economic, social, and individual wellbeing. Choosing Brighton and Plymouth as the two host cities for this program wasn’t just about size – it was about bringing out learning opportunities for regions that can be too often overlooked. 

Meanwhile, in the US, economists Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane observed that affluent families spent nearly 700% more than the poorest families on “enrichment” opportunities for their children (read more here). Although there exists an exceptional offer of extra-curricular learning opportunities available, this figure shows the necessity of human intervention to rebalance the scales. This problem has launched incredible initiatives all over the country, working tirelessly to democratize education in the USA with a learning ecosystems approach. Just take a look at the work Remake Learning is doing in the underserved suburbs of Pittsburgh. In Boston, we find the History co:lab, a systems-change initiative working to engage civic learning in young people. Chicago City of Learning and CommunityShare in Arizona connects underprivileged learners to extra-curricular activities to encourage informal learning. 

Learning ecosystems have also been successful in countries such as South Africa; identifying that great educational outcomes started with great school leadership, Partners for Possibility aims to fill the gap identified by South African school leaders. By building the skills of principals and mobilizing the citizens of a community around them, PfP believes that this will lead to greater possibilities for learners. Through their work they have enabled over 1,557 co-learning partnerships between principals and business leaders, impacting more than 500,000 low-income families all over South Africa. (See their impact report here) Similarly, recognizing it takes a village to lead the next generation to a balanced and fulfilling state of wellbeing, the Tamkeen Community for Human Development in Morocco helps to co-create and facilitate links between people in disadvantaged communities to foster an increased sense of belonging and reciprocity. In fact, the Agence Française de Developpement confirmed in their 2020 report that leveraging informal learning opportunities in countries such as Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal would be key for the future of education. The 200 opportunities currently active that the AFD studied – ranging from informal learning initiatives, hybrid spaces, community ecosystems, fab labs, social impact incubators, and campus-centered initiatives – prove that learning ecosystems are adaptable to any context. 

 The future of learning ecosystems seems even more promising. The 2020 paper by INEE provides insight into how non-formal education is flourishing even in conflict zones – and their necessity as a means to support a failing formal educational system. Perhaps even more so than in other contexts, flexible and responsive informal learning processes in crisis-affected areas have become essential to provide the learners with high-quality education despite the unique circumstances the learners are in.

So how can we demonstrate that it is possible for communities to collectively invest more time, energy, and resources towards education for the underserved, even when those elements might seem to lack in regular traditional schooling?

For this WISE Learning Ecosystems Living Lab Special focus, we have invited four pioneers of learning ecosystems to share their thoughts and to make the case that learning ecosystems are the answer for supporting learners in underserved communities. Gregg Behr and Dr. Valerie Kinloch explain how a learning ecosystem was surprisingly born in rural settings. Ana María Raad tells us the story of the recent mobilization of a Latin American ecosystem of pioneering organizations working in underprivileged areas with highly effective and proven methods that can be easily scaled in a region with limited resources. Finally, Pavel Lushka argues that the traditional approach to learning has become outdated and that the flexible, innovative answer to the future of education will be born in regions that are free of the burden of existing, formal infrastructure more often found in the global South.