The Science and Art of Creating Connected Learning Environments

By Bucky Dodd, Ph.D., Chief Learning Innovation Officer, University of Central Oklahoma

Bucky Dodd, Ph.D., Chief Learning Innovation Officer, University of Central Oklahoma

The Internet continues to revolutionize the way people share information. It makes tasks that would have taken significant time and investment more efficient and sustainable. The Internet has given us new spaces for learning and at the same time it has created a host of new challenges.

"Connected learning environments are quickly becoming the norm rather than the exception in education"

The growth and transformation of the Internet sparks the need to re-envision the very definition of a learning environment.

In this article, I share my perspectives about rethinking the role of design for educational environments and how ‘connection’ can empower new and transformative learning methods.

The Connected Learning Environment

A quick scan of popular and emerging education topics reveals an important problem: for the most part, these insightful articles talk about nouns, not verbs.

For example, when we discuss the latest technique, technology, or policy, we seldom think or talk about the connections between these issues. Even the most robust technologies can fail in an environment that does not value the connections between technology, people, and policy.

For this article, I define a ‘learning environment’ simply as the spaces and places where people learn. You might think of a classroom space. However, a learning environment can be an online learning platform, a marketing campaign, mobile app, work environment, coffee shop, or a host of other spaces and places.

As the complexity of these environmental options increase, the need for design becomes more and more important. Success is not attained by adding a single technology or technique, but by the careful and intentional integration of multiple learning elements into a unified and connected learning environment.

Why Great Ideas Get Stuck

For many people, the shift from thinking about connected education as a single space to an environment made up of multiple elements is not simple. It requires going back to the basics of “what is learning” and how do different spaces support or hinder the learning process.

In order to make this shift, educators and leaders must think differently and allow ideas to grow and create value.

Every change that happens to a learning environment goes through an innovation cycle. This cycle shows how new approaches to learning are tested, scaled, and operationalized.

A functional innovation cycle is critical to the growth of connected learning environments. Without the proper support and investment, even great ideas will get stuck because they are not properly nurtured. Connected learning environments are especially susceptible to this challenge because the cycle does not deal with a single idea or technology, but rather the connection of multiple spaces within a unified vision.

Let’s take the example of transitioning classroom curriculum to a mobile learning environment. We have to think about the technology platform itself including compatibility and connectivity, but we also have to consider how the mobile, digital environment will support (or not support) classroom or workplace learning interactions.

Bridging the Gap between the Science and Art of Designing Learning Environments

The art and science of design plays a critical role in the success of connected learning environments. There is a constant relationship between learning experiences and the environments where learning happens. But being aware of the dynamics in a connected learning environment and influencing learning experiences using the environment are two different things. The process of design has the power to shape learning experiences in much the same way an architect can shape the experience of walking through a building.

In order to bridge the gap between the science and art of designing learning environments, educators, and leaders must first think of their role as the architect of the learning environment. Even the smallest design decision can have a significant influence on learning experiences. A learning environment architect views their role as shaping the environment so that certain experiences are supported. Within connected learning environments, this role is even more influential because the environments are typically more complex.

Making the Invisible, Visible

The more complex a learning environment, the more difficult the design process becomes. The reason being that most important decisions in the design of a learning environment are invisible. For example, most ideas are communicated verbally or in a narrative form. Until now, we have lacked any visual tools that take ideas about the design of learning environments and communicate them in a way that is easily understood and actionable.

For the design process of learning environments to be successful, we must take what is invisible in the design process and make it visible. Designers should always be thinking of how to make the ideas or decisions more concrete and understandable for others. This understanding leads to better decisions and critical thinking about how the environment can help people learn.

Concluding Thoughts

Connected learning environments are quickly becoming the norm rather than the exception in education. With this transition comes the need for educators to re-think their roles in designing environments to be connected and unified around the needs of learners.

This transition is not easy. It requires redefining what a learning environment is and how we bridge the gap between the art of teaching, the science of learning, and the value of design.

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