Runaway objects and elearning

Etienne Wenger

I’ve just been attending sessions by Etienne Wenger and Yrjö Engeström organised by the Practice-based Professional Learning CETL at the Open University. One quote I particularly liked from Wenger, the communities of practice guru was:

Communities of practice can be terrible things. It takes a community of practice to put a witch on a pyre.

Engeström talked about communities too but his emphasis was more on “objects” as focuses for learning communities. He argued that you cannot have a successful community without an object for it to focus its efforts on. He described the notion of runaway objects, admitting that he had borrowed the “runaway” idea from Anthony Giddens‘ concept of the runaway World we’re living in. And the characteristics of runaway objects?

    They grow rapidly beyond all anticipated boundaries
    They are poorly controlled
    They enable continuous, engaged, self-renewal
    They show remarkable sustainability and expansion in spite of severe adversities and constraints
    They require excessive expenditures of time and energy
    There’s a high risk of failure
    There are minimal monetary rewards
    They’re not supported by institutional structures
    They begin as small problems or ideas and then expand rapidly
    There is constant feedback and commentary, and peer review

Examples of runaway objects with these characteristics include Linux, Type II Diabetes, global warming and mobile phones. Big runaway objects tend to be either natural forces or technological innovations. Can we apply this in any way to elearning or elearning environments? Moodle, of course, has many of these characteristics, and can be compared to Linux. It is perhaps one of the less spectacular runaway objects such as wikipedia and organic farming which Engeström argues that we need more of.

Yrjö Engeström
Yrjö Engeström

Open content might be another example of a potential runaway object, though there’s no evidence of it taking off yet with many of the above characteristics.

Could elearning itself develop then in this almost viral way to become a runaway object itself? Formal learning and institutionally-hosted virtual learning environments certainly constrain this possibility. In my earlier post VLEs and the institutional control of students I argued that opening up Moodle so that students and teachers can create their own wikis and forums spontaneously for example is urgently required alongside the formally-constituted course-based groupings. This will be the facility which empowers students in a way not previously possible; our specification for how this is to be done is currently being drawn up.

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