This is a guest post by Chad Kainz, Principal Strategist with the Enterprise Consulting team at Blackboard.
What is a learning ecosystem? Simply put, it is an amalgam of all the diverse physical, social, technical, operational and technical dimensions of an educational organization (school, college, division, etc.) that provide the foundation, context and scaffolding for learning and discovery. It is important to note that the learning ecosystem isn’t limited to the services and facilities that are directly linked to the learner experience. It includes all the elements (of varying degrees) that are commonly thought of as being part of the student lifecycle and the direct impact they create and the possibilities they indirectly enable.
It is easy to think of a learning platform, classrooms, and a library as being within a learning ecosystem as each has a direct, visible impact on the learner experience. The “academic side of the house” – so to speak, is often clear. But an ecosystem is made up of multiple parts that are often overlooked until something goes wrong. We generally don’t think about the air we breathe (until it is filled with smog), the roads that connect us (until one is closed), or the presence of natural spaces (until a fire, flood or tornado takes them away). These elements are integral to the ecosystem but are generally not considered until there’s a disruption. The same is true for the learning ecosystem. The air, roads and natural spaces are processes, structures and infrastructure that lurk behind the scenes to enable the learning and discovery. Without these elements, we wouldn’t be able to craft the learner experience of school, college or university.
While working with an institution on shaping aspects of its learner experience, participants regularly raised the “pizza problem.” As most know, pizza and students naturally go together. Want to drive awareness? Free food. In this case, the “pizza problem” centered on difficulties staff encountered when purchasing pizza for organized student events. For various programs and services, the staff knew that simply having pizza at an event would measurably increase awareness and improve the likelihood of service uptake to drive student success. However, institutional procurement rules made it nearly impossible to purchase pizza; not out of malicious intent, but rather that the rules were established at a time when the student population was much smaller and pizza could be bought for much less. Solving the “pizza problem” on their own, staff were using their own money to purchase food to increase awareness to improve uptake. In essence, they encountered a closed road within the ecosystem and found an alternative route around it (albeit less than ideal for the staff and procurement officers) until it could get fixed.
Procurement rules, although buried deep within the administrative processes of an institution, are as much a part of the learning ecosystem as any classroom. Lighting, heat, air conditioning, sidewalks, dining halls, athletic programs, research activities, budgetary controls and business processes through to technology-based elements such as accounts, passwords, access controls and databases all impact the ecosystem. While the degrees of impact differ from institution to institution, the learning ecosystem is more than it appears and is far greater than the sum of its parts. It is reflection of its different individual cultures and micro-environments coming together to form a unique campus culture.
Today when we talk about education we often focus on courses, debate cost, and fixate on modes of access. While these pieces are significant, if not critical to modern education, they are merely elements within a larger ecosystem that shape the learner experience. A healthy learning ecosystem will naturally support learner success; an unhealthy one can and does frustrate learners and potentially erodes the perception and understanding of the vision and mission of an institution.
Achieving and maintaining balance within the ecosystem is an ongoing challenge for college and university leaders. For a long time, campuses could operate in silos as the academic, social, and operational aspects of the institution seemed to only intersect at defined points (academic calendar, budgets, shared facilities, etc). But as technology has evolved from being niche and boutique to more pervasive and commoditized, the boundaries between silos and their intersections have become porous and blurred.
Driven by consumer norms that emerged within the last decade, prospects, students, parents, alumni, instructors, legislators, and donors have grown to expect more holistic learning experiences. This holistic experience is less defined by business units and unit-specific processes; it is more driven by student performance and outcomes regardless of who or what was involved along the way.
As a member of Blackboard’s Enterprise Consulting group, I and my colleagues work with colleges, universities, agencies and organizations to find ways to achieve balance within each learning ecosystem. It is not uncommon for us to encounter instructors, students, administrators and technologists who all recognize the problems, but are stuck in committee and unable to find ways forward. Because we are not tied to day-to-day activities of a specific campus, we can view the learning ecosystem from a neutral position from the outside in, and observe it as one entity. In turn, we often identify patterns and gaps that would otherwise go unnoticed, and find ways to break through the roadblocks and dismantle unproductive silos that slow progress and frustrate learners.
Campus leaders are realizing that a holistic understanding and active support of the learning ecosystem that transcends silos can be a path toward the tangible realization of the vision and mission of an institution. Breaking down silos and working as one institution can lead to sustainable and iterative success for subsequent generations of learners.