Interest and Self-Sustained Learning as Catalysts of Development: A Learning Ecology Perspective.

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My assignment idea is linked to a project I have been working on for a number of years. I will be looking at how an e-Learning platform we are planning to establish for health workers in Tanzania can be used to amplify knowledge-sharing and learning of all people working in the health sector.

The paper I have decided to review this week was published by Brigid Barron of Stanford University. The reason I chose it is that one of the areas I will be looking at is learning ecologies, or ‘’how learning happens across life spaces of home, school, community, work, and neighborhood’’ (Barron, 2004), with a view to identifying the learning ecology of Tanzanian health workers and to explore the synergies and barriers between these spaces so that the e-Platform may be embedded in these contexts.

You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink

lead a horse to waterOver the past couple of years, I have come to be a firm believer that any e-Platform is just a tool, and that in our case, it will not be the stand-alone solution to health worker problems just because it exists.  I feel I have learnt a lot in the past years about how to apply a range of pedagogical approaches to facilitate collaborative learning and knowledge-sharing on an e-Platform, using, for example, Moodle. I understand the efforts required to support users and guide them on a path towards achieving deeper learning outcomes using the e-Platform. I am comfortable with putting strategies in place for digital literacy skills building as a key requirement to allow people to meaningfully engage in technology-assisted learning.

I think that awareness and understanding of all of these elements is key to moving forward, but an equally (or possible more) important consideration relates to how people will actually come on board to use this tool to reap the full benefits of what it will offer.  How can the e-Platform become part of health workers’ lives, and how will their interest in engaging with it for learning be sustained?

Learning ecology frameworks

Barons’ paper is a joy to read. While I had read quite a bit about how students learn in formal settings, this paper looks at how people engage in learning in broader life spheres through the internet, personal contacts, text-based resources, and formal courses once their interest in a topic has been sparked. She begins with an (8-page) overview of theoretical and empirical research on learning ecology frameworks before introducing the specific focus of her work on a learning ecology framework for studying the dynamics of interest-driven learning.

She outlines the three conjectures being explored:

Conjecture 1: Within any life space, a variety of ideational resources can spark and sustain interest in learning

Conjecture 2: People not only choose, but also develop and create learning opportunities for themselves once they are interested, assuming they have time, freedom, and resources to learn.

Conjecture 3: Interest-driven learning activities are boundary-crossing and self-sustaining.

Interviews were used as the main data source to build portraits of three people in relation to the three premises of the framework. I found it interesting to read that survey studies, randomized experiments, and design experiments were underway (after the ‘’technobiography’’ work, (Henwood, Kennedy, & Miller, 2001)) to deepen the empirical support for these ideas. I had assumed that it would work the other way round – that large scale positivist research could serve to throw up issues for deeper interpretivist research, and was surprised to read in a paper last week the recommendation that “when researchers  have  a  chance  to  combine  the  two  types  of  research  in  their  own  work,  they should  start  with  an  exploratory  interpretivist  study. The  reason  for  this  lies  in  the  ability  of  interpretivist  work  to  suggest  hypotheses and mechanisms that  then can  serve  as  the basis for  positivist research” (Lin, 1998). However, seeing how this approach works in practice, I can now appreciate the logic in using qualitative research to generate theory, and then using quantitative research to test the theory.

The questions asked are very much aligned with the premises she is exploring, and result in a very detailed and clear picture of these peoples’ relationship with a range of learning contexts, and how they cross boundaries to build and sustain their learning from various formal and informal sources.

I would highly recommend this paper to anyone who’s interested in getting to understand a bit more about horses so that they do drink the water!

horses drinking water


Barron, B., 2006. Interest and Self-Sustained Learning as Catalysts of Development: A Learning Ecology Perspective. Human Development 49, 193–224. doi:10.1159/000094368

Henwood,  F.,,  Kennedy,  H.,  &  Miller,  N.  (2001).  Cyborg  lives?  Women’s  technobiographies.  York,  UK:  Raw  Nerve Books.

Lin, A.C., 1998. Bridging positivist and interpretivist approaches to qualitative methods. Policy studies journal 26, 162–180.


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