Ecologies for Learning

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Project Participants

Previous Participants

  • Dr. Alex Endert Center for HCI
  • Haeyong Chung PhD candidate
  • Blake Sawyer PhD candidate

Project Overview


Since the invention of the printing press, we make use of a paper ecology in education. Often unbeknownst to us, the paper ecology provides an appropriate context, facilitating conditions, and support materials to support learning at all times and in all places. All the materials in the paper ecology have been designed to fit into the ecology and to support particular parts of our learning workflow over centuries. With our embodied capacity, we have learned to function seamlessly into this paper ecology, and we now know how to bridge 'gaps' into the ecology in the face of barriers and obstacles. We have also learnt how to design the materials to be flexible enough to allow us to perceive how to bridge 'gaps' whenever needed.

As more technologically advanced devices become available, and most tasks in our learning workflow are reduced to the manipulation of 'bits' and 'atoms', we have started building device ecologies as well in parallel with the paper ecology. One prominent example of a task in our learning workflow that has been migrated in large part to the digital world is the preparation of paper and reports. The process of paper writing involves many different sub tasks such as the initial brainstorming and idea generation, looking up information, taking down notes, organizing and structuring information, finding references, and the actual act of writing drafts. Collaborative paper writing involves other processes such as information sharing and coordinating meetings. Broadly, the processes follow Pirolli and Card's model of sensemaking that consists of tasks like searching and filtering, reading and extracting, schematizing and telling the story.

Technological devices are used for these tasks because they are advantageous in certain respects, such as for speed of processing, ease of duplication, quick search and mass storage. No longer do we go to the library and leaf through books anymore, or write paper references on colored index cards. Instead we access digital libraries and search engies, and open up citation managers on the laptop, desktop, large display, tablets, or even smartphones. However, in device ecologies, we often stumble and derive more frustration in completing tasks. Device ecologies seem to lack the careful design of paper ecologies to allow us to operate fluidly and focus on learning tasks, not materials or devices. We believe that at least a basic set of guidelines is needed to help us understand how device ecologies may start to be truly effective in supporting learning.

The Physicality of Technological Devices in Education

Technological devices are being rapidly adopted into schools for education, but we have limited understanding of the value and ways through which the devices can benefit learning. As opposed to research placing the value of these devices in terms of digitality, we make use of theories of embo- diment to understand how the physicality of the devices can support learning and sensemaking. We conducted a month-long exploratory study to collect data on students’’ strategies, patterns, attitudes and behaviors toward the use of a suite of devices, for the completion of a course assignment.

Themes that were uncovered include:

  • Objectification of information
  • Immediate awareness of possibilities
  • Expectation of interaction
  • Coherence of interaction
  • Territorialization of technology spaces.

Learning in Device and Display Ecologies

Although similar concepts of device ecologies has been proposed by others before, few have looked at how a device ecology functions specifically in a learning context, where it can have one of the greatest impacts. Moreover, learning is an unwieldy concept and there are no consensus on a 'good' way to assess that it has occurred. This research proposes a way to analyze device ecologies for their potential for learning through the concept of objectification, based on the mediation theory of Lev Vygotsky.

Our specific research questions are:

  • How can learning, in the form of objectification, take place in device ecologies?
  • How can device ecologies be better designed to amplify or better support objectification?

This project is currently still in progress.


Chu, S., Quek, F., Endert, A., Chung, H. and Sawyer, B. "The Physicality of Technological Devices in Education: Building a digital experience for learning". In Proceedings of the IEEE International Conference on Learning Technologies (ICALT 2012).


This project is partially supported by NSF grant 'II-EN: Device and display ecologies IIS 1059389'.