Local Learning Ecosystems: Emerging Models

We launch the current series of WISE Reports with an exploration of the education ecosystems idea as a potential game-changer for today’s learners.

By Valeria Hannon, Louise Thomas, Sarah Ward, Tom Beresford

Download the full report here.


Fewer young people today experience the empowerment of education through conventional schooling alone. But when they engage with a range of resources within a broader community, charged with the power of social interaction in the connected world, learners of all ages, temperaments, and aptitudes can seize greater opportunities that better meet their needs. As learners around the globe seek both the technical skills of doing and knowing, and the soft skills of management, critical thinking, and many others, the holistic approach suggested by ecosystems challenges conventional education hierarchies and decision making.

In this report, colleagues from Innovation Unit have provided a valuable framing of ecosystem typologies and stages, with a review of the most salient current thinking. The core of the report features nine case study portraits that dramatize a variety of ways education ecosystems are having real impact. The authors pose key questions of each of the initiatives, seeking to identify both blockages and enablers to creating education ecosystems, as well as, most crucially, asking whether and how they might truly represent new learning paradigms, as suggested by some advocates.

The report, through these case studies, bridges the ecosystem theory versus practice gaps. The initiatives come from around the world, and build a wide range of possible new relationships among business, education, government, and community. They are learner-driven and focused, responding to the learners’ need to experience the full complexity of their environments. Importantly, these initiatives embrace innovative credentialing systems that can replace or supplement conventional assessment practices. Such creative disruption holds real potential in transforming how learning happens.

It remains to be seen whether the education ecosystem idea, as expressed in these varieties, will evolve as a truly significant new driver in public education on a large scale. These initiatives reflect ambitious visions well beyond current achievements. Conventional systems, with their excessive assessment routines, pressurized school communities, and entrenched vestigial approaches, are difficult to shift. But this report offers a taste of the creative flourishing in education thinking today that has emerged against, and perhaps in response to, the erosion of resources for public education, often abetted by indifferent, even hostile government.

Eco-systemic approaches ideally reflect and respond to the ambitions and perspectives of observant young people today, vigilant, receptive of learning experiences, and ready to create their own unique paths. Let us hope that professional educators everywhere will also be inspired to continue exploring new resources and ideas, and to seize transformative opportunities as they arise. It would be a great loss to established schooling if teachers ceded their role in leading change –and left the future-- to others.

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Executive Summary

Across the globe there is a growing consensus that education demands radical transformation if we want all citizens to become future-ready in the face of a more digitally enabled, uncertain and fast changing world. Education has the potential to be the greatest enabler of preparing everyone, young and old, for the future, yet supporting learning too often remains an issue for schools alone.

As learning frameworks outlining ambitious global agendas for inclusive education and lifelong learning begin to emerge, and as societies become more connected and intertwined, it is becoming clear that society has a collective role to play in equipping people to create meaningful futures, through lifelong learning.

Deriving from the field of evolutionary biology, an ‘ecosystem’ is a community of interdependent organisms acting in conjunction with the natural environment. Over the last decade, the term has proliferated as a metaphor for thinking differently about the future of education, moving beyond a top-down systems approach. The power of this metaphor has led both to a richness of debate and some confusion about what is meant by the term. We offer a simple typology of ecosystem, to bring clarity to the work and support others navigating this territory:

1 - Knowledge sharing ecosystems

This type of ecosystem comprises complex, evolving networks of organizations including think tanks, foundations, governmental and global agencies and others who are consciously connecting to facilitate the sharing of new knowledge about education and learning, innovation, funding opportunities, and more. It is largely concerned with building the global shared knowledge base, scaling innovation and enabling the better use of resources and opportunities to tackle shared global learning challenges, not only within but between networks.

2 - Innovation ecosystems

Some cities and regions are involved in designing deliberate conditions that drive and accelerate radical innovation - such as new designs for schooling - through the combination of multiple players, policies and platforms. These innovation ecosystems tend to contain traditional and new education providers, formal and informal learning opportunities, the involvement of business, edtech developers and providers and higher education, and are supported by digital technology.

3 - Learning ecosystems

Learning ecosystems comprise diverse combinations of providers (schools, businesses, community organizations as well as government agencies) creating new learning opportunities and pathways to success. They are usually supported by an innovative credentialing system or technology platforms that replace or augment the traditional linear system of examinations and graduation. They need not, however, be confined to their geographic location in terms of resources overall. They may exploit the technologies now available to choreograph global learning resources.

In this report we explore the potential of learning ecosystems: first through a rapid review of recent writing by leading authors, and next, through nine case studies of initiatives at various stages of maturity.

Throughout we ask:

  • What are the barriers and enablers faced by attempts to create or catalyse learning ecosystems?

  • Do real-world learning ecosystems really represent a new learning paradigm, as described in
    the literature?

Through reviewing the literature we found that writers exploring the concept and potential of learning ecosystems appear to be driven by a shared sense of the predicament facing education systems.

They highlight three interrelated issues:

  1. The exhaustion of the existing educational paradigm, on its own terms;

  2. The need for a shift in purpose in the context of rapid, fundamental change

  3. The need for a new organizational paradigm to deliver this shift.

Other questions arise around the extent to which learning ecosystems emerge naturally in response to conditions of twenty-first century connectivity, or whether they require intentional design. It seems that this apparent tension between ‘tight’ design and control on the one hand, and desire for ‘loose’ distributed, organic and dynamic processes on the other, might be central to our understanding of the success of learning ecosystems to deliver on outcomes and the role they might play in challenging or replacing the existing paradigm of organised learning.

Our rapid review of the learning ecosystems literature reveals that a substantial amount of thought has been applied to the concept: however, very little empirical research has been undertaken so far to discover real world examples of learning ecosystems and to notice the changes taking place in and around them for learners and for providers.

In this next chapter of the report we explore nine learning ecosystems at various stages of maturity at the time of writing.

Our set of case studies includes learning ecosystems which:

  • Are diversifying learning resources and pathways for learners

  • Are activating and sharing resources for learning in new ways from diverse sources

  • Are dynamic in composition and porous around the edges

  • Are supported by helpful infrastructure

  • Comprise formal and informal learning institutions, traditional and new entrants

  • Have distributed governance

  • Are learner driven or have learner agency at their heart

  • Make an attempt to meet twenty-first century challenges in some way, beyond academic attainment.

We excluded initiatives that are:

  • Networks of schools alone, however innovative

  • Partnerships between schools and community or business where learning pathways are wholly controlled by the school

  • Constellations of diverse provision without common purpose, intentionality or platform (e.g. the resources of a city)

  • Historic i.e. no longer in existence

Download the full report here.

ArticleVipin Thekk