Learning Ecosystem Participant Model

A group of us had a conversation a couple of weeks ago about creating a learning community(ies) for an existing nonprofit open online learning site. How do you go about it? How do you translate what we believe about open learning to language that will respond to a project plan? Who are the multiple audiences? What do they want? It was a very interesting five or so days of chatting. We had some very smart, very experienced people chime in and while we certainly didn’t all come down to one final conclusion, there was a fair amount of overlap in our thinking.

Near the end of our sprint discussion, I proposed a model that could potentially serve as a starting point for discussions around the planning table. You might use it to talk to people about how someone can come into your ecosystem from any of these points, how people can move from being one kind of participant to another, and how those participants might interact with each other.

The model got bounced around between us with people adding to it and debating one part or another. This is my version. I’d love to hear what you think about it, whether it resonates with you or what you might hate about it.

CC by Non Commercial
Learning Ecosystem Participant Model CC by Non Commercial

When we teach in a classroom, we get to define the start and end times, we decide how much time investment is appropriate, the workload, the content choices etc… basically the syllabus of a course. Students have already committed to learning in a structured way. They have, in many cases, self-selected or at least they know they are going to have to take your course. The reason they are learning is generally clear to anyone.

When we work in an online space, we get all kinds of learners. As a learner, I’m not always going to be invested in a deep learning experience. Sometimes i just need to find out how to cook a turkey – i don’t need to push turkey theory to new levels. Maybe, after cooking some turkeys… i might change my mind, but i’m not going to be able to do ‘turkey theory’ cold.

Four kinds of participants in a learning ecosystem

  • Consumer (What temperature do i take the turkey out?)
  • Student (How do I prepare a turkey from purchase to eating)
  • Rhizomatic learner (How can I come to my own approach to turkeys?)
  • Mentor (How can i help others with their turkeys?)

Moving from one group to another
This model is, in some ways, a directional development model that says that if you want people to learn the thing that you want them to learn… whether mental health, non-profit or whatever… that you generally want (a certain percentage of ) people moving from

  • Consumer to student
  • Consumer to rhizomatic learner
  • Student to rhizomatic learner
  • Rhizomatic learner to Mentor
  • Student to Mentor
  • Mentor to Rhizomatic learner

Spaces needed to support the model
Not all platforms are ready for this kind of interaction, some are focused on delivering content (to consumers) some are lock-step course platforms and others are designed for communities. I think all three of these can be (and probably should be) used together. My feeling is that there is a mix here, a combination of these spaces that can be achieved to reach that ecosystem. I should add… it need not all be on the same website.

  • Information space
  • Course spaces
  • A place for people to gather

Mentors aren’t really a space, which is why this isn’t a space chart. It’s a membership chart. Mentors are going to live across all three spaces. They will, potentially, answer questions in the information space. They will, potentially, be part of the audience, or be the teachers in the course space. They will, potentially, be participants in the community space.

What problem does this solve?
What it does for me is it gives me a framework that allows me to talk about how to create an online learning experience. In a course like #rhizo14/15 (a course on rhizomatic learning) I’m focusing almost entirely on the community. Should I make more of an effort to leave people with answers to their questions? Should I have an onboarding process that people could use that would give them a structured introduction to the idea? Should I make an effort to organize mentors who can help direct traffic for new people?

Community can do a great deal to support an organization in the work it wants to do… but it’s mostly hard work. I’ve spoken to many groups over the years who are willing to do that work, but didn’t have the language they needed internally to plan for what need to be done. In looking long term for any organization that wants to achieve its goals through open learning, these could help with planning by providing some language for a conversation. It could also allow you to keep track of the community over time. Are we seeing fewer mentors over time? Is our student community growing? A different balance is going to be struck depending on your goals…

If you’re looking to enact a change, say, to a more open environment or a more collaborative environment, hopefully this gives you a place to start. Take, modify, share.


  • This model certainly owes some of its inspiration to Dave Snowden’s Cynefin model.
  • There are potential similarities here to the Visitors and Residents model.
  • This chart was built through a sprint process, from October 19th to 24th. Original draft by Dave Cormier. Draft 2 Tayte Willows. Draft 3 Rebecca Petersen & Dave Cormier. Sprint members – John Schinker, Maha Bali, Michael Rutter, Jennifer Maddrell, Rebecca Petersen, Lawrie Phipps, Robin DeRosa, Tayte Willows, Bonnie Stewart, Erin DeSilva and Dave Cormier