Using A Learning Ecology Perspective

Barron, B. (2006). Interest and self-sustained learning as catalysts of development: A learning ecology perspective. Human Development, 49, 193-224.

Not all learning is done in school. While such a statement may seem obvious, Barron (2006) denotes that studies of learning often focus specifically on formal atmospheres of learning (schools and labs) and in doing so miss the big picture of how a learner will co-op and connect various resources, social networks, activities and interactions together to create a landscape where their learning takes place.  Using a learning ecology framework, the author desires to understand how exactly a learner may go about learning by examining the multiple contexts and resources they have available to them.  Learning ecology is “the set of contexts found in physical and virtual spaces that provide opportunities for learning.” (Barron, 2006)  By understanding how the learner negotiates this landscapes for learning that surround them, the author believes educators can think more broadly about ways to connect in-class and outside learning together. Using qualitative interviews with students and their families as the focal point of her research, Barron (2006) focuses on creating “portraits of learning about technology” (p 202) to better understand how interest is found and then self-sustained through several contexts. Through this work she demonstrates that there is not one means by which a student may develop interest and maintain learning but that common themes are prevalent. Among her case studies, Barron (2006) outlines five modes of self-initiated learning. These include finding text-based resources to gain knowledge, building knowledge networks for mentoring and gaining opportunities, creating interactive activities to promote self-learning, seeking out structured learning through classes and workshops, and exploring media to learn and find examples of interests.  By examining the interplay of these various strategies, the Barron (2006) demonstrates how the learner was an active participant in constructing their own learning landscape such that “learning was distributed across activities and resources” (p. 218). Because of this Barron (2006) argues that researchers should consider “the interconnections and complex relations between formal learning experiences provided by schools and the informal learning experienced that students encounter in contexts outside of school” (p 217).

To me, the strengths in Barron’s work come from three areas. First, by using the foundation of learning ecology as “a dynamic entity,” which is shaped by a variety of interconnected interactions and interfaces, she is centering the discussion of learning on the learner and how they are an active agent using interest to seek out new sources and applications for knowledge. Secondly, by emphasizing that what a student accesses outside of school may be as, if not more, critical to fostering their own learning, Barron suggests that the science of learning needs to consider how to take in and study these other contexts along side what is done in formal educational settings. Thirdly, by approaching this from a interview perspective, Barron demonstrates how qualitative data enables a deeper understanding of the how and why learning can occur. Such a methodology is time and analysis intensive and does limit the researcher in what they can accomplish. In Barron’s case, she only presents three case studies for analysis and it would be interesting and beneficial to see how these same five factors of self-initiated learning are present throughout the larger in-depth interviews she conducted and if specific variations are present based on different population demographics.

For me, this work is extremely interesting for how it connects to what I understand as I enter the field of education from the field of anthropology.  In anthropology, the marrying of qualitative and quantitative data has always been considered necessary to better understand human endeavors – including that how we learn and what impacts that learning.  In anthropology, the human is not only a receptor of culture but actively participates in the transformation of that culture and thus their agency is a given. Finally, the examination of the interconnections of contexts and the interplay between them mirrors the integrative nature by which humans operate in their world.  Thus the learning ecology perspective married to a qualitative data collection technique seems to hold great potential for deeper exploration of how learning occurs and what impacts technology can have in that process.


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