Gnawing on the Bone: Recognizing and Accrediting Emergent Learning

I keep returning to to the connection between prior learning assessment methodologies and abundance of content. Abundant content is insufficient in creating the conditions for learning, but it does significantly change the ecology for learning.

The notion that people design and engage in their own self-directed learning was well documented by Allen Tough in 1971 in his book Adult’s Learning Projects: A Fresh Approach to Theory and Practice in Adult Learning. (The full text is available on his web site, but the url does not appear in the address bar so I couldn’t figure out how to link to it.) The extra-collegiate learning he describes has long been the focus of prior learning assessment for credit towards a degree.

The term prior is a set up for severing connections.  It assumes that extra-collegiate learning occurs prior to and apart from engagement in college. It discounts the connections that learners make to and from formal to informal learning projects, and the self-directed learning that may arises from the confluence of prescriptive learning such as a formal college class and emergent learning that might satisfy a curiosity..

So what about the learning that happens in the spaces in between formal education? in a recent article Karousou and Mackness (2011) describe emergent learning and provide a wonderful example for the higher education context. Their description parallels how those in the field of prior learning assessment describe the learning being assessed through prior learning assessment methods. Since prior learning that is considered for college credit is often not the result of a prescriptive learning plan, the student writes a retrospective reflection and analysis of that learning, making sense of it.

“Since emergent learning is unpredictable but retrospectively coherent, we cannot determine in advance what will happen, but we can make sense of it after the event. It’s not disordered; the order is just not predictable. We can summarize this as follows: Emergent learning is likely to occur when many self-organising agents interact frequently and openly, with considerable degrees of freedom, but within specific constraints; no individual can see the whole picture; agents and system co-evolve.”

Karousou and Mackness go on to say that “Validation and self-correction within emergent learning networks remains an issue. Many academics still dismiss emergent learning and Web 2.0 as peripheral or even irrelevant to “real” formal learning because they see no mechanisms for validation and self-correction.” There are ways to validate and accredit learning that does not occur as a direct result of of formal instruction or even fit the prescribed curriculum. It is incumbent on academe to recognize redefine the recognition and and assessment of prior learning as the recognition and assessment of emergent learning. Trying to come up with a way to use REAL as the acronym that would at least work in English.

I think the example in the article is worth reposting as it make clear the kind of learning that ought be recognized.

“In research conducted for the UK Higher Education Academy’s Learning Observatory programme, learning narratives were gathered to explore how students actually went about their learning (Williams, Karousou, & Gumtau, 2008). One of these narratives, the Learning Journey, illustrates the way in which emergent learning may arise serendipitously, as it were, in the learning of someone enrolled for a prescriptive learning programme.

This narrative concerns the learning that takes place when April, a mature part-time student in an Early Years Childhood Education degree, goes on a visit to a preschool centre of excellence and a related preschool. April is a preschool manager. On her visit to the centre, she notices:

There were certain things that stuck in my mind about their environment that was completely different to my own. For instance, they have glass bottles, glass vases with flowers on the tables. And really, the fact that the children were so well behaved and quiet, made a big impression, thinking: how can I influence my children to be quieter?

April engages with several staff members at the school and the centre and becomes a member of an informal community of practice (CoP). From her interaction within this CoP, she gains enough confidence to embark on a complete change management programme at her own preschool (despite the skepticism of her fellow teachers), incorporating ideas from her visit and from further interaction in this CoP.

April was only required to write up a report on her visit and some lessons learnt. However, her learning journey goes way beyond the requirements of her prescriptive learning programme, particularly at a first-year level, in what might be called emergent learning. April engages in an unpredicted and far more complex task than was prescribed by her course. This learning was retrospectively coherent and influenced by her participation in an implicit and emergent community of practice. Although this community was small and several participants could probably “see the whole picture,” April’s learning within it was not formally managed. April’s case is one of entirely self-organised, small-scale emergent learning with little or no integration into formal, prescriptive learning or the curriculum.”

This example shows emergent learning that is more sophisticated and advanced than the original intended outcomes of the formal course.  If I go back to Siemens and put the assessment of such learning alongside other services that cannot be duplicated including guidance from another human being that can help the learner place such an experience into their formal studies, then there is a possibility of reducing the cost of higher education and time to degree completion by including emergent learning or informal learning as Tough called into the credentialed learning.

Droegkamp, J. and Taylor, K. (1995), Prior learning assessment, critical self-reflection, and reentry women’s development. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 1995: 29–36. doi: 10.1002/ace.36719956506 (sorry its not open content, Wiley wants money).

Siemens, G. (2011) “Duplication theory of educational value” in elearnspace. Retrieved at

Tough, A (1971) The Adult’s Learning Projects: A fresh approach to theory and practice in adult learning Retrieved from

Williams, R., Karousou, R., & Mackness, J. (2011). Emergent learning and learning ecologies in Web 2.0. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 12(3), 39-59. Retrieved from



One thought on “Gnawing on the Bone: Recognizing and Accrediting Emergent Learning

  1. Pingback: More Dissonance: Reconciling Emergent Learning and Student Learning Outcomes Assessment | Clearing the Fog

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