Learnscapes really work

In his book: Informal Learning, Jay offers wonderful examples of what he calls "Learnscapes". They go beyond performance support aids and are more inclusive than going online to access resources. He has a new briefing to get a glimpse of the concept of learnscaping and I highly recommend the entire book.

I am living proof of how valuable Learnscapes can be. During my undergraduate years, I realized I was learning much more from my fellow students than I was from the faculty. Jay's insights into the ways physical environments support or interfere with informal learning -- make sense of why I learned so much from my fellow students.

I studied architecture at Carnegie-Mellon University. Each member of the freshman and sophomore classes had his/her own locked, drafting tables in a huge room that was open to us 24/7. We built small structures to break up the "sea of desks" into clusters of tables and pin-up walls. We brought in sofas to create places to hang out together. We pulled many all nighters (charettes) together in that drafting room. We had countless opportunities to talk, overhear, and watch each other learn, create and grow.

Faculty would come to an individual student's desk to give us a "board crit" on our work-in-progress during daylight hours. (David Shaffer's book describes the use of board crits in architectural training in some detail). Many of us were in earshot and would learn more than the student getting the crit. We were not under-the-gun and had more presence of mind to absorb the critique. We would then discuss the crits among ourselves, as well as how to interpret the original assignment, what we heard in class that day, and what to think of the designs each other were coming up with. The classroom instruction was included in our "learnscape" but the formal content did not take hold until we chewed on it together or put it to some use in a design project.

We were so inspired by this informal and collaborative learning experience, we took it to the next level. In junior year we were assigned to teams to design a new student union for the campus. We realized that we could design spaces, sightlines, circulation paths and seating to increase informal behaviors. We had in mind increasing the students' awareness and willingness to join campus activities, attend events, to meet other students and to take a moment to relax. Much like Jay's idea of Learnscapes that increase informal learning, we de-regimented the layout of the existing student union.

While I've been critical of the formal education I received, Jay has given me more appreciation of how valuable the informal learning experience was in that huge drafting room.


  1. Tom, seems to me that "learnscapes" are conceptually similar to knowledge ecosystems as described in the various explorations of "knowledge ecology". It is interesting to see this concept taking off in the e-learning space now. It seems that there are a wide range of insights that can be gained from applying parallel bioligical concepts such as ecosystems and landscapes.

  2. Yes indeed Peter! Thanks for the comment. I'm also pleased that biological metaphors are showing up in the conceptualizing of eLearning. Jay appears to have been thinking about self-organizing systems with his use of the term "emergence" and about ecological systems with his proposed switch from "instructional design" to "environmental design". While I was reading Jay's book yesterday, I was reminded of "The Death of Competition" which got me to look up "business ecosystems" on Wikipedia. That led me to research a newer book: The Keystone Advantage" which also uses ecological concepts as metaphors. I'm working on a post to explore this further.