An Ecological Approach to Instructional Design: The Learning Synergy of Interaction and Context

An Ecological Approach to Instructional Design: The Learning Synergy of Interaction and Context

Paul Resta (The University of Texas at Austin, USA) and Debby Kalk (The University of Texas at Austin, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-080-4.ch020
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The confluence of collaborative and social technologies, with the phenomenon of digital natives, creates new opportunities for learning environments, which, in turn, demand innovative instructional design strategies. An ecological approach to instructional design can yield rich learning environments that provide learners with authentic experiences. These learning experiences can be challenging, engaging, and effective, and provide students with deep appreciation of underlying processes, principles, and relationships. It’s a learner-centered design that features collaboration, authentic experiences, and complex environments. Designing for these complex systems requires thinking outside the boxes of traditional approaches. The ecological approach requires identifying the key contextual factors and interactions that are central to understanding and performing complex intellectual tasks. This non-linear process involves selecting appropriate technologies and social interactions, appropriate levels of scaffolding and support, and giving learners increasing levels of responsibility for their own successful outcomes.
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Traditionally, the instructional designer’s task was to devise a solution in which the learner was situated in a bounded environment that was linear and self-enclosed. The setting provided the designer with a static certainty about the learners, instructor, location, timeline, and resources. Drawing on Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological system theory framework (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1989, 1995; Bronfenbrenner & Ceci, 1994; Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998), this traditional approach can be seen as a series of nested systems, each wholly contained and unchanging (Figure 1). The learner could be clearly identified, and each concentric circle representing expanding layers of the context for learning could be clearly defined. For instructional designers, this ecological landscape allowed for a systematic approach to design:

Figure 1.

Ecology of traditional context for instructional design

  • • The microsystem is the learner who brings a set of knowledge and aptitudes to the classroom.

  • • The mesosystem is the classroom, which includes the instructor and content forming the immediate context for the class.

  • • The exosystem is the learning environment of the school and its resources.

  • • The macrosystem is the society in which the learning environment is located.

The above static and linear approach stands in contrast to today’s rapidly changing, technology and knowledge-based global society that represents features of nonlinear dynamic systems such as adaption and plasticity. Today’s college students are also changing. They are immersed in technological environments that provide ubiquitous access to rich information resources. Social networks allow almost continuous interactions with others across the globe, providing more opportunities for self-organization of their learning, even within a closed instructional system. Now, with the dynamic and unpredictable nature of the evolving digital landscape, the ecology of learning design has also evolved, reflected in the model in Figure 2:

Figure 2.

Dynamic context for ecological approach to instructional design

  • • The microsystem is still focused on the learner but the learner is now immersed in an environment that interacts with the meso- and exo-systems.

  • • The mesosystem expands beyond a classroom and includes peers and mentors, in addition to instructors and content. All interact with the learner and with each other.

  • • The exosystem shifts from a brick-and-mortar school to a dynamic learning environment that might be online or a blend of physical and virtual spaces.

  • • The macrosystem remains the surrounding society, though it may include more than a single society since learners may hail from a broad spectrum of countries and cultures.

  • • The chronosystem includes the temporal factor of changes over time. Changes include technological changes as well as innovations in the structure of education and the blurring of distinctions between formal and informal education.

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