21 Century Learning Ecosystem Opportunities: Research and Findings

When considering what makes up learning ecosystems, we examined their features and how those worked together, what sustains a healthy ecosystem, and what must be acknowledged when designing learning ecosystems.

Ecosystems are made up of multiple elements and operate best when all the elements work together. Although a learning ecosystem can continue to function when one or more elements is not fully functioning or is absent, the health and sustainability of an ecosystem may suffer and the ability of working learners to succeed and advance may be limited. As such, the contributions of the various members of an ecosystem (including working learners) need to be valued and efforts should be appreciated. Additionally, when creating education and training initiatives, interested parties should acknowledge the realities of change, systemic issues of race, and learners’ individuality as key facets.

Through our research we have come to define learning ecosystems through consideration of 1) the learning goals of working learners, 2) the initiatives offered by employers and other organizations, 3) how working learners are active participants in an ecosystem, and 4) how learning ecosystems are complex and dynamic.

Learning goals: Employer-supported education and training initiatives are defined based on the goals of the learner: learn foundational skills, advance in a career pathway, earn a degree, meet job specific skill requirements, and learn for future possibilities.

Education initiatives: An examination of the characteristics of education and training initiatives shows that while individuals within organizations strive to support working learners, support tends to occur at the level of individual practice and do not acknowledge systemic racism as a problem. Working learners appreciate and benefit from the personal touches of individuals within the sponsoring organization. 

Active participants: Data analysis reveals learners’ resilience and perseverance, the strategic choices they make, and the independent learning in which they engage. Learners make strategic decisions about where they want to put their time and effort, and that learning often is done outside the confines of employer-supported programs.

Complex and dynamic: Similar to ecosystems found in the natural world, the learning ecosystems we explored have no center but instead respond as a whole when a change is made to any of the components. Through our research we see that the working learner is a key component of the learning ecosystem rather than a passive recipient of a system designed and handed down by organizations.

Similar to natural ecosystems, learning ecosystems need to be sustained.

The data indicate three key components of a sustainable learning ecosystem. First, learners need to be engaged in opportunities that they see as valuable. Second, employers need to value and appreciate the participation of working learners in education and training initiatives. Third, employers, educators, and others involved in supporting working learners need to help those learners make connections to their job or see how learning will help in advancement.

It is important to consider that learning systems are complex and change, are impacted by societal issues such as systemic racism, and that there are many types of working learners.

There is no single model of what a learning ecosystem looks like. Learning ecosystems are complex and differ across contexts. Our data and analysis explicitly point out that systemic issues, such as racism, play an important but often unacknowledged role in the health of a learning ecosystem. However, in all cases, there are many types of working learners, and they are an intrinsic part of the learning ecosystem and are agentive in their learning. They weigh the benefits against the time required, level of convenience, and potential outcomes and act of their own accord. When organizations are examining the educational and training initiatives being offered, it is important to consider how the working learners will take up what is offered and fit the initiative into their own lives and goals.

In sum, learning ecosystems are not fixed but fluid. What is contained in a learning ecosystem is shifting and changing given the contexts and conditions in the economy, society, and in workplaces.