Blended Learning Ecosystems

In this brief blog article, I identify the key contexts at play within a blended learning eco-system, and suggest a that engaging critically with these contexts is a core task for educators, particularly in relation to the question of digital technology.

Broadly speaking, in instances of contemporary work-based learning, three basic contexts are identifiable. These are a. the educational institution b. the practice or workplace environment, and c. the field of digital technology. Within these basic contexts there are various substantive physical, digital and meta-physical aspects, which act, react and interplay within an overall educational ecosystem.

The characteristics of these different contexts, needless to say, will vary considerably from institution to institution, workplace to workplace, digital environment to digital environment.  For example, different philosophies, beliefs or value systems of education will inform and shape the types of interactions between students and educators. We could, in theory, enquire further into these sorts of aspects of education, by asking questions such as :“what are the roles, expectations and ideals an being an educator / student / learner in this context?”. The answers to these will tell us significant things about the qualities and characteristics of the context in question. Symbiotically, the restrictions, possibilities or resources that a given context inherently provides (it’s affordances) will have a significant impact on the nature of the learning within it.

The arrangement of, and use of these various contexts, and the people, resources and activities existing within them are determined by whole range of factors, including philosophy, economics and culture. It is often the case that these factors are beyond the effective control of the educator themselves. This can particularly be the case when there is a close and co-dependant relationship between the sector or industry that a educational institution is working with to provide blended learning of the the type being discussed here. Therefore, a focal task emerges for educators who are seeking to develop blended learning of this type; that of working cross contextually with all of this material; philosophically, narratively and in practice. This task underpins curriculum design, and necessary in order for a programme to make pedagogical sense to students, teachers and those in the workplace. It is this ‘sensible learning process’ that is generally understood by educators to stimulate the possibility of, certain outcomes for individuals, organisations and society being realised.

If we follow this line of thought through in terms of the digital technology aspects of a blended programme, it becomes clear the reasons why the digital environment needs to be be appreciated for it’s inherent qualities and affordances. There are likely to be particular types of of learning and interaction that the digital environment stimulates and supports by it’s very nature, exactly in the same way as the workplace, or the academy. This will be the case both in general terms (ie the nature of digital technology and patterns of human use) as well as specifics (ie the particular platforms being used to represent and mediate teaching and learning. It is also often the case, that unless we take the time to consciously examine these things, we may miss opportunities that digital technology affords us, as much as allowing it to shape educational practice in ways that may be unhelpful in terms of the social, intellectual or spiritual ’goods’, that educators are fundamentally interested in bringing about.

I see this ‘critical constructive’ engagement on behalf of the educator as a three-fold process. I have already identified the need to appreciate the digital environment. I am using the the word ‘appreciate’ in the sense of ‘appreciative enquiry’. This is essentially a way of engaging with the world that positively values it and seeks to identify the basic strengths, worth or value of some entity. This helps us to suspend our prejudgment about that entity in order to ‘see it for what it positively offers’. Of equal importance, is to to appreciate an entity for what it is not, or for what it does not offer; for this enables us to honestly identify its current limitations. It seems to me that this most basic activity – that of ‘proper recognition’ necessarily precedes our use of all sort of things from simple to complex tools, choice of method or approach to learning, structuring professional experience, and many other things within education.

There is however a deeper task at hand; and this relates to societies within which such enquiry and action takes place. If we are operating with the understanding that learning, and consequently education is somehow is basic to the shaping of human societies, then we have an ethical responsibility to engage with questions of technological praxis with an eye on the ideological, economic and philosophical assumptions of our societies. There is after all, deep connection between human values, human interests and the knowledge sought and money allocated. What sort of vision for human existence is being pursued and promoted? How do these ideas relate to and underpin our assumptions and analysis of digital environments? Where we position ourselves and our institution in relation to these questions is will be significant to both our analysis and positioning of digital technology within educational practice.

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