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Lifelong learning ecologies: The challenge of capturing emergent forms of learning

Juliana E. Raffaghelli

Why does a powerful metaphor of learning in our contemporary society poorly convey empirical research, research transfer and applications?

This appears to be true of the concept of ‘learning ecologies’, which relates to individual activity along a continuum between formal, non-formal and informal learning across different contexts, including material and digital spaces. Raising learners’ awareness of their own learning ecologies will, according to this theory, empower and encourage them to engage in more agentic practices, which in time implies new and better learning opportunities amid the chaotic abundance that so often characterises the digital society. However, while the construct offered a broad semantic space for characterising innovative ways of learning, it is also true that its potential to promote innovative educational interventions may have been hindered by this same broadness.

‘We attempted to dive into the historical development of the learning ecologies concept, and spot its darkest sides.’

In our article, ‘Learning ecologies through a lens: Ontological, methodological and applicative issues: A systematic review of the literature’ (Sangrá, Raffaghelli, & Guitert‐Catasús, 2019), we attempted to dive into the historical development of the learning ecologies concept, and spot its darkest sides. However, let me tell the whole story.

In May 2018 we heard about the British Journal of Educational Technology’s call for papers celebrating the journal’s 50th anniversary. It was certainly a ‘momentous milestone’, as mentioned in the editorial of the special issue published in January 2019, which aimed to ‘…[take] stock of the field and its progress to date, and to look forward to what may be in store in the future and what the community would like to see’ (Hennessy, Mavrikis, Girvan, Price, & Winters, 2019). It presented a unique opportunity to reflect on our practice as researchers and practitioners in educational technology, and we wanted to catch up by contributing with a research topic that had been puzzling all of us here at the Edul@b research group. In fact, we have been long discussing how and why most concepts dealing with learning in our society are viewed through old lenses: the divisions between formal, non-formal and informal learning, the dichotomies of analogical/digital, closed/open, self-regulated/tutored, and so on. Advances in the learning sciences provided a base from which to overcome these separations, and the group chose to work on the promising concept of learning ecologies.

Even if most educational researchers prefer more empirical approaches, a review of the literature is always a necessary step. We believed that the explanatory power of learning ecologies could be fully enhanced if we found the most rigorous empirical research and understood the trends within it. We did this with an ultimate goal in our minds: to support institutions and educators with the process of innovating and improving pedagogical practices.

Our review is ‘systematic’ because we screened all possible articles through an established and transparent procedure. Out of more than 300 articles we selected 85 and analysed:

  1. the varying definitions given to the concept of learning ecologies, including the ontological1 perspective underlying the phenomena studied
  2. the methodological approaches adopted in studying the phenomenon
  3. the research applications to practices.

The emerging picture showed significant variability in the conceptual definitions and the research methods adopted. ‘Where is the problem?’, you might think. Well, while this rich creativity is indeed a good thing, there was fragmentation and a lack of consistency in the way in which empirical research was framed. Moreover, most research was observational, devoted to describing hybrid (digital and on‐site) learning activities that bridge the gap between the school and social spaces, with less attention paid to lifelong learning.

We concluded that the concept of learning ecologies could be harnessed with proper alignment between the ontological, methodological and applicative dimensions – an endeavor ahead!

This blog post is based on the article ‘Learning ecologies through a lens: Ontological, methodological and applicative issues: A systematic review of the literature’ by Albert Sangrá, Juliana Elisa Raffaghelli and Montse Guitert‐Catasús.

It is published in the British Journal of Educational Technology, and is free-to-view for a limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Wiley.

Acknowledgements: this article was possible thanks to the important intellectual contribution of everyone in the Edul@b research group along the way. A special thanks to the Edul@b research assistant Derek Clougher for translating this article into decent English!


Hennessy, S., Mavrikis, M., Girvan, C., Price, S. & Winters, N. (2019). BJET Editorial for the 50th Anniversary Volume in 2019: Looking back, reaching forward. British Educational Research Association, 50(1), 5–11.

Sangrá, A., Raffaghelli, J. E., & Guitert‐Catasús, M. (2019). Learning ecologies through a lens: Ontological, methodological and applicative issues. A systematic review of the literature. British Journal of Educational Technology.

Such a complicated term! However, it is used in science to characterise theory about the nature of being, or the kinds of things that have existence; in poor terms, what is framed as phenomena when you use a concept. In the case of learning ecologies (the concept) you could be talking about a class’s activities as well as open groups of adults learning a hobby, or homeless people learning, and so on – we dealt with a huge number of definitions in our article!