An Ecosemiotic Model for Learning

An Ecosemiotic Model for Learning: Designing experiential curriculum in a distributed globally learning network

Pavel Cenkl, Director of Learning at Dartington Trust & Head of Schumacher College

July 2021

This is a companion post for a poster presented at the 21st Annual Gatherings in Biosemiotics in Stockholm, Sweden, July 26-29, 2021

Please note this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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What could higher education look like if we understand and engage with our world as a complex, integrated socioecological system? 

This post outlines both theoretical framework and practical application of resilient learning networks in an ecologically-focused experiential higher education curriculum delivered in a hybrid online and site-based context. An ecosemiotic approach to curriculum design and delivery is introduced that situates humans as deeply enmeshed in a complex sympoietic network. 

This multi-scale learning network is always already in the process of co-becoming, manifesting a world in which organisms communicate always in an unfinished processual dynamic.

A globally distributed site-based experience can build a far more resilient learning network than existing site-based, online, or hybrid higher education allows. 

Our covid-influenced present and unpredictable future demand radical revision of higher education’s traditional forms of delivery. An ecosemiotic approach to scaffolding distributed site-based learning can help make a pathway toward a resilient, adaptive, and multi-scale curriculum.

For an outline of the distributed learning model, listen to my segment “Experiential Learning in the Digital Age” with Sophie Bailey on the Edtech Podcast

An ecosemiotic curriculum model includes:

    a) Development of new network identities and ecologies for interspecies collaboratory spaces

Experiential learning is grounded in interspecies collaboration through enactivist approaches to help learners explore their relationships with the more-than-human world through embodied practice, site-based experience, and participant reflection.

It is essential to support learner understanding and exploration of interweaving network identities — from online learning networks to socioecological networks to local and bioregional networks that underscore the complexity of a multi-sited, multi-temporal, multi-species, and transdisciplinary learning network. Such an understanding must be embedded in the context of programme structure, delivery, and class rhythms.

For more on ecological models for learning, see my 2017 SXSWedu presentation “Ecology as a Model for Teaching” and my SEAD (Sciences, Engineering, Arts, and Design) white paper, “A New Ecology of Learning: Ecological Systems as Pedagogical Models

    b) Framing learning in a distributed global learning network (DGLN) in the context of our situatedness within a complex socioecological system

A distributed global leaning network is based on ecological systems and affords learners active co-creative engagement with delivery, projects, and assessments. Attributes include: non-linear dynamics; unpredictability; sympoietic co-organisation.

A globally distributed model integrates a diverse range of site-based experience from different locations in the world and thus creates a rich, complex ecosystem of experience shared across students and engaged with across reflections and formative and summative assessments. In a master’s programme, the breadth of socio-ecological engagement can build a broader, more solid and ultimately more resilient foundation for a final project or dissertation.

    c) Deployment of learning clusters of colocated off-site students to enable face-to-face collaboration and experience when travel is not possible

On-site facilitation is key to support learners’ sensual engagement with more-than-human actors that are subsequently shared through both synchronous and asynchronous multi-media. Relationships with global partners able to support and facilitate student experience around the world is a key component to a successful and vibrant DGLN. Indeed, such a network fosters genuine collaborative two-way learning due to the unique nature of global site-based learning. The pedagogy and curricular frame are held online and enriched by a breadth of experience across the different participating sites in an approach that underscores decoloniality through the sharing and application of global ways of knowing and practice.

For example, in a postgraduate module on soil health (MSc Regenerative Farming, Food and Enterprise at Schumacher College), the course would frame theory and research methods whilst drawing on local knowledge, traditions, methods, and understanding of local socioecological networks in sites with very different climates, soil structures, and seasonality.

A good entry to work on ecology and decoloniality can be found at: “Decoloniality and anti-oppressive practices
for a more ethical ecology
” by Christopher H. Trisos , Jess Auerbach, and Madhusudan Katti  in Nature Ecology & Evolution 24 May 2021

    d) Equitable site-based facilitation of experience-based learning for all students, whether on or off campus

A key challenge for hybrid learning is the ability to provide equitable experience for on and off-site learners. An adaptive and distributed curriculum must be grounded in facilitated site-based experience through a robust learning network.

Typical hybrid or hybrid-flexible learning blends synchronous and asynchronous online learning to support simultaneous learning for students both on-site and off-site. The learning in the majority of settings is centralised and focused on the delivery of information and assessment. In a distributed model, learning is the network (to echo George Siemens’ Connectivism: Learning as Network Creation (2004)), and relationships among students, teachers and the more-than-human world are the foundation for a process-based enactivist approach to collaborative experiential learning.

    e) Implementation of Next Generation Digital Learning Environments (NGDLEs) that integrate a self-organised set of tools to complement the use of a VLE or LMS. 

NGDLEs comprise a complexity model and empower learners to identify appropriate tools for connecting ecosomatic practice and ecosemiotic engagement. Tools must be simple, student-aligned, and alive. If the development of a suite of online tools adapts to the systems-approach to learning, they can be adapted from simple platforms already used by students and supported by a learning management system (principally only as a platform for delivering content). In a co-created learning network, the tools may evolve and vary based on need, accessibility (including government censorship and bandwidth access).

For more on NGDLEs, visit the research published at Educause by Malcolm Brown, Jeffery Pomerantz, and D. Christopher Broooks. “The NGDLE: We are the Architects” is a good place to start.

Ultimately, an ecosemiotic approach to learning can help build a more regenerative and resilient model for higher education. A regenerative approach continually enfolds, adapts, and participates in complex socio-ecological system dynamics through acts of interspecies listening, co-creation, and collaboration. Further, an understanding of multi-level and large-scale socioecological resilience factors can help learning programmes to build a resilient relationship between human and more-than-human participants.

These factors include (summarised from “How to conceptualize and operationalize resilience in socio-ecological systems?” by Marjolein Sterk, Ingrid A van de Leemput, and Edwin THM Peeters in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 2017 (28)):

  • Maintaining diversity — among learners, tools, experiences, approaches, and means of access to learning
  • Establish and cultivating connectivity among network participants
  • Being receptive to feedbacks in an authentically regenerative model
  • Embracing complex thinking to enable new connections, new collaborations, and innovative ways of thinking that draw on a diversity of models — effectively leveraging a complex socioecological learning network to build new ways of knowing and practice.

Finally, a regenerative learning model — such as those developed at Schumacher College and Dartington Trust — grounded in an ecosemiotic approach that recognises the essential role that the development of place-based knowledge and practice through experience across diverse sites around the world is a key component of the future in the rapidly changing landscape of higher education.

For further information, contact Pavel at

Recent Podcasts

Over the past year, I have been invited to participate in a number of different podcasts and interviews — on topics from endurance running to resilience to global learning networks. Please see the list below and enjoy!

Experiential Learning in the Digital Age; interview with Sophie Bailey. The EdTech Podcast. 21 June 2021. 

More than Human, conversation with Trewin Restorick; interview by Amanda Carpenter.  The Planet Pod. 26 May 2021. 

Happy Teachers will Change the World: Educación Positiva. 19 May 2021 (Pavel from 1:31:45-1:44:10)

Schumacher College with Pavel Cenkl and Morag Gamble. Episode 39: Sense-Making in a Changing World. 29 April 2021.

Pavel Cenkl: Climate Run. Smart Athlete Podcast. Episode 57. 19 June 2020.

Running, ecology and landscapes. Wild Running: Trail Running and SwimRun Adventures. 19 June 2020.

Schumacher College: Education for ReGeneration. Conversation with Christian Wahl. 30 May 2020.

Open Ambient: Maple Acoustics

Open Ambient: Maple Acoustics

Open Ambient is a soundscape project that employs ambient sound recording, data sonification, photography, GPS, and place-based experience in an exploration of the “Sugarbush” at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. 

Over the spring, summer, and fall of 2018, I spent many hours in a 10 acre section of mixed hardwood forest that is dominated by more than 100 sugar maple trees, most of which are tapped each spring for their sap, which is then boiled in Sterling College’s sugarhouse to make maple syrup for use in the College kitchen. 

One result of my time with the maples is a 4-track playlist of sounds inspired by the relationship between humans, the trees, and climate change.

The four tracks of Open Ambient: Maple Acoustics are a sonic exploration of the potential impacts of climate change on maple syrup production in the Sterling College, VT sugarbush. Data used to drive the music include the 2% ‘typical’ sugar content in sugar maple sap; a projected 20% decrease in sap sugar content by 2100; the 1.6% sugar content projected at the end of the century; and the 40:1 ratio of sap required to syrup produced, which will increase over time given projected warming temperatures. All 4 pieces are overlaid atop ambient sounds from the sugarbush recorded over 2 sessions in summer 2018.

“Open Ambient” is borrowed from the work of philosopher Susanne Langer.

Listen to Open Ambient on SoundCloud



Each Hath One

“Each Hath One,” June Wayne, 1958

It was in reading around in MIT’s Journal of Design and Science — specifically in Neri Oxman’s piece, The Age of Entanglement, that led me to revisit a poem by the 17th-century poet, John Donne that I hadn’t read in more than 25 years.

In the middle of Donne’s 1633 poem, “The Good-Morrow,” in which he reflects on love both sensual and spiritual, he chides exploration as work for others, while he and his lover are satisfied with the love they share:

Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

Oxman’s invocation of the last of these lines in an essay on entanglement is pretty on point, and it’s not hard to see the appeal of a “one world” perspective — particularly when considering the manifold ways in which media of all kinds shapes us and our relationship to the world. To paraphrase Kevin Slavin from the same issue — we are not in the system; we are the system.

Sometimes it seems like all things trend toward a common thesis, and this is without a doubt one of those times. . . . The philosopher Richard Rorty writes, “it is best to think of moral progress as a matter of increasing sensitivity, increasing responsiveness to the needs of a larger and larger variety of people and things.” In his refining of pragmatism in the context of morality and human rights, Rorty points out that rationality and intellect are not necessarily the epitome of social mores and that indeed compassion and sensitivity and a diminishing ego-centrism are far more essential parts of a moral society.

Elsewhere, the artist Sarah Brady recently reflected on her time at the Djerassi retreat and thought about the importance of lichens (as I have elsewhere on this blog):

Lichens require sympoiesis, or making-with, rather than autopoiesis, or self-making. We must follow patterns where humans and non-humans are inextricably linked. Combining past and present technologies, Human and Nonhuman, hybrids reveal their agents in co-evolution within global networks for survival. The future is combining Human/Animal, Life/Nonlife, Ancient/Modern, and Biological/Technological. Our ability to coevolve and think outside ourselves will benefit us when we reorient outwards.

I’ve been teaching an evolving sequence of senior seminars in environmental philosophy over the past several years, and am launching a new course this fall that ties engagement with the entangled domains of self, society, and ecology with the creative application of meaningful and accessible works through an ArtScience lens.

My goal is to engage the students in thinking beyond the self — beyond the dualities of passion/intellect or creativity/empiricism and human/non-human — to touch the world with all their senses and share something of what they find.

It is in the turning from self to world, as Thomas Merton has invited us, “to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance” — a shift from autopoietic to sympoietic perspective — that I hope my students will see new ways to bring us all closer to holding space for our complex, entangled, and messy “one world.”

Instructional Design

There is a deep resonance between architecture, design and thinking about structures and systems of social, pedagogical, and institutional relationships. In my role at Sterling College, I often think in systems and complex relationships across a gradient of different scales of institution, program, course, class, and individual student/faculty interaction. When Neri Oxman last Thursday at UVM talked about the need for more multiscale systems that are interdisciplinary in their nature and structure, I could think of few better examples than the development of a resilient, adaptive, and multiscale curriculum.

spiral rubricI recently introduced students to the concept of an open rubric, which, for most of them, represented a far more open approach to goal development and self-assessment that they had experienced. The very question, ‘what do you want to learn?’ is enough to catch students off guard, and sometimes requires some processing of what that really means, and that, yes, I’m quite serious that they have to co-design their own learning experience.

The larger piece, less easily explained in the context of an assignment overview, is this approach nests into a organic and open curricular system.

Another part of Neri Oxman’s work in which I found a profound corollary with this level of systems thinking is the concept of a single material “catering to multifunctionality”:

The ability to design, analyze and fabricate using a single material unit implies unity of physical and digital matter, enabling nearly seamless mappings between environmental constraints, fabrication methods and material expression. Such unity – like that found in natural bone, a bird’s nest, a typical African hut and a woven basket – might promote a truly ecological design paradigm, facilitating formal expression constrained by, and supportive of, its hosting environment. (Material Ecology)

When a relationship between students, teachers, and experience is co-creative, the strength of that foundation of learning can yield rich, self-organizing, and interconnected pedagogy that is finely attuned, flexible, and resilient in the face of students’ learning goals and aspirations.

In an environment that emphasizes scalability, variability of form, and provides space for organic development, the boundaries between the facilitated learning experience and the larger systems of which college education is a part begin to dissolve and learning and its application begin to coalesce.

Radical Ecologies [call for proposals]

Radical Ecologies: (Re)Grounding Digital Pedagogy

A Special Session proposal for the 2014 MLA Convention

This special session seeks dynamic workshop-style presentations to engage participants in new ecologies of learning and leading edge ideas that connect ecological and educational systems. The session aims to explore the idea that technology and ecology need not be mutually exclusive and that they can play an essential role in the humanities classroom.

Drawing on points of intersection between experiential liberal arts education, digital humanities, biomimicry, sustainability, and ecopsychology, ‘Radical Ecologies’ will engage instructors and administrators in course development strategies and in helping students plan their own learning by using a systems approach to curriculum design.

This session is proposed to be an interactive and engaging series of workshops that enable participants to (1) take away tangible first steps to implementing ecologically-based digital course and curriculum design and (2) recognize the opportunities for learners at all levels in thinking experientially and ecologically about curriculum design.

Questions might include:

  • How can ecological thinking provide a model for a more intentional and dynamic liberal arts pedagogy?
  • Can digital technologies help us develop more ecologically focused learning environments and curricula?
  • How can teachers integrate ecological thinking into new and existing courses, units, and overall curriculum design?
  • Is there a role for ecological thinking in developing humanities curricula?
  • How can ecological concepts (re)shape digitally-inflected pedagogy?

Please email questions and/or a 250-400 word abstract by 1 March 2013 to Pavel Cenkl at

For more on the MLA and convention:



I admit it. I have a weakness for jargon.

I came across the (new-to-me) term postdigital in a tweet earlier this week, and try as I might, I’ve traced but few uses of the term outside of a handful of references — in particular in explorations of technological/human interrelationships in music and art.

In their now more than decade-old-book, The Postdigital Membrane, Robert Pepperell and Michael Punt sketch out postdigital as intending

to acknowledge the current state of technology whilst rejecting the implied conceptual shift of the ‘digital revolution’ – a shift apparently as abrupt as the ‘on/off’, ‘zero/one’ logic of the machines now pervading our daily lives. New conceptual models are required to describe the continuity between art, computing, philosophy and science that avoid binarism, determinism or reductionism.

Some of the stark binaries that Pepperell and Punt see as a challenge to a dynamic human system of interactions and experiences are certainly mitigated by the development of integrative model and thinking in systems and network paradigms that pervade our current moment of technological engagement.

Yet, now that the machine ecology is so pervasive, there is much to be said for thinking beyond the tools and the opportunities they afford to how we actually communicate, collaborate, think, and learn.

Pepperell and Punt go on:

The very unpredictability and ambiguity of human experience – its most valuable features – are being reconciled in the binary codes of digital processing . . . . These amputated descriptions expose the need for more flexible metaphors with which to describe the stable yet dynamic reality of the postdigital age.

In my admittedly superficial, wiki-borne knowledge  about the term, it’s apparent that postdigital has still not migrated far from its origins in acoustics, applied, and visual art. And in spite of its being fairly dated, postdigital makes contemporary sense as part of our technological present as a way to think about our engagement with ubiquitous technology–specifically, how does our use of digital tools and media define new and hybrid forms of discourse, interwoven cultural identities, and a perpetually networked social paradigm?

How, in other words, can we find a way of talking about “the digital” as more than just a quiver of  tools (albeit really cool ones), but rather a way to demonstrate our evoloving progressive, dynamic, and experiential engagement with communities and ideas?


In a timely a short piece at The Wall Street Journal’s Deloitte Insight yesterday, Suketu Gandhi defines “the postdigital enterprise” as one  in which business leaders have a choice to either “take your existing processes and apply these new technologies to them” on one hand, or rethink the process that technologies allow you to engage in.

Gandhi outlines”the big five disruptive technologies” which can help guide the direction of enterprise, most of which resonate quite clearly with aspects of the digital ecosystem I’ve been exploring on this blog:

  • social
  • mobility
  • analytics
  • cloud
  • cyber security

Nice as it is to see postdigital get traction in more mainstream media, it also underscores that much of the ubiquity of computing today is of course driven by opportunities to monetize social interactions and shifts in cultural perception. Not my intent here, but certainly illustrative of how insinuated culture and commerce often are.



machine ecology

A few ideas percolating this morning.

One from an AoIR email thread weighing the intentionality, activism, and idealism of the #pdftribute response to the tragic passing of Aaron Swartz, has me thinking about open access of information not only to human users, but to the machines that in actuality do the vast bulk of information parsing, organization, aggregation, and dissemination. Why not then engage a “machine public” (in the words of danah boyd) as a constituency, to which information should be openly accessible? Such thinking among academics necessitates a different order of thinking than interpersonal file sharing and social network-based link exchange.

Another, in reading around for a nascent book project, I’ve been struck by the clarity of Tim Morton’s premise, which begins his book Ecological Thought“At what point do we stop, if at all, drawing the line between environment and non-environment. . . ?”

Morton succinctly points to the danger of becoming so enamored of place that we may become separate from the ecosystem in which every place is situated. How can we understand our own place well if we cannot see it in a broader context or networks in which we actually live?

Morton goes on: “Ecological art . . . isn’t just about something . . . . Ecological art is something . . . insofar as it is made from materials and exists in the world.” Applying these ideas about ecological art to ecologies of information–to our digitally-inflected networked knowledge economy–only underscores that the network which enables and physically powers our digital interconnectivity is anything but virtual—what with real wires drawn across or buried beneath actual places and really integrated with the physical world in which the virtual is embedded. Kazys Varnelis and the late Anne Friedberg point out similarly, “place itself does not disappear in favor of the ‘city of bits.’ On the contrary, place is as important as ever, playing a key role in the network itself” (Place: The Networking of Public Spaces).

The place is the network infrastructure, and without understanding the nuances and complexities of that network, we are at risk of platial myopia. Indeed, I think that the term virtual world is itself a misnomer, in that ubiquity of digital places and their ability to augment our physical experience changes our corporeal experience of place in very real ways.

In a sense, it is the machines that constitute a tangible network ecology; it is our presence on the network that is virtual.

Of Lichens and Learning

‘Sometimes,’ I shared recently with followers on Twitter and Facebook, ‘the answers are in a book about lichens.’

Deep among the vivid pages of Lichens of North America, someplace between the descriptions of Cladina sterllaris and Cladonia cervicornis verticillata, I may have found the inspiration that I’d been seeking.  The glory of lichenate minutiae, the intricate interstices and curls of lace disappearing into fractal edges–It just isn’t possible to get close enough.

Somewhere among these images is what I am looking for.

To liberally paraphrase Karen Barad from her recent book, Meeting the Universe Halfway, the material conditions of much of our current postsecondary landscape “performatively produces” and reinscribes pedagogies and curricula that persist in sketching boundaries between learning and the world beyond the academy. Reminiscent of Tim Cresswell’s notion that we continually practice and re-inscribe ideologies through our daily practice (how do we know how to act in public spaces–how do we conversely recreate those places through our actions?), such reasoning etches parallel furrows in a granite landscape resolutely lichenate.

As educators, we follow, as a matter of course, such glacial scarring on a panoply of metaphoric stones, through or past, but rarely insinuated with the organic systems that surround us.

What would it be like, I asked students in my first-year Writing and Speaking to the Issues class recently, to jump these lines and devote all one’s life to a single passion and a single aim — and one that steps beyond the mere self-serving to change the ways that others think about the world.

If we choose, as I enjoined my students, to engage in dialogue with moments of the performative everyday, what I hope that may well emerge from the complexity of countless nodes and intersections–imbricated and involuted all–is a dynamic system that yields and demonstrates resilience.

So…how to begin?

I’ll see how the students answer that…tomorrow.

on small data

Maybe it will help to start small.

In the entirety of his poem, De Rerum NaturaOn the Nature of Things, as Lucretius advocates for Epicurus’ atomistic view of the world (and thus, now famously through Stephen Greenblatt’s recent book, helps to precipitate the Renaissance), Lucretius only uses the Latin word, datum, a single time–and then only as extrapolated by later readers from a section of missing text.

It strikes me as a bit odd that the term–from dare, to give, and refers to that which is given, present, extant–occurs only once in a treatise devoted largely to ideas about relationships among elements at the atomic scale. Throughout the text, Lucretius seeks exactly this–the unseen datum–something elemental or essential about which one could make assumptions and which could explain the underpinnings of the universe. No small task.

Today, however, our post-theory scholarly landscape reminds us of the continual subversion of any such underlying or essential truth, which leads almost inevitably to some significantly larger questions:

What is given?

What are the essential constituent parts of our inquiry process?

At this weekend’s THATCamp, a group of us interrogated the very idea of data in a session aptly titled “What is the Opposite of Big Data?” With guidance from Suzanne Fischer and Sarah Werner, we made a few tentative steps into the shallow lake of big data looking for some substantive ideational rafts among the flotsam of small data sets.

Two questions that came from our session that might foster some useful research or inquiry:

1) Do humanistic projects need to meet expectations about accuracy and statistical significance? And, how can scholarship that engages a sample size of n≈1  demonstrate its validity and relevance in an increasingly scientific discourse?

 2) Are big data approaches that advocate a distance-reading to large swaths of text or cultural artifacts in some way a response to continual challenges to the relevance of humanities in society broadly? And if so, how can small-data approaches be leveraged to demonstrate the relevance of humanities-based scholarship and liberal arts education generally?
One model around which we coalesced proposes to turn the traditional big data approach (one scholar, lots of texts) on its head (one text, lots of scholars) to underscore the utility of what are, frankly, some really cool DH tools to explore the materiality of texts and artifacts. By having a range of scholars converge on a small data set (be it a single book, poem, musical refrain, painting, or material object), we can turn attention to the affective response inherent in scholarship and create a network of nuanced meanings in the context of a very narrow slice of data. In such a model, the experience of reading itself becomes the data.

Suzanne succinctly summarized the discussion with what began to approach a mission statement–that as a group, “we do value the small and limited, and we do value modest claims. We believe that big data should try to make more modest claims and to think how humanistic inquiry can be ported over to those claims.”

I was left with a something not quite a manifesto and call for a renewed attention to the experience of reading, to the materiality of texts in an effort to reground and make relevant our teaching and scholarship.

Although I think we’d all admit to only being ankle-deep in this discussion, I think there’s also a lot of much more profound terrain to explore. In particular, trending toward small data can continue to decentralize, destabilize, and complicate humanistic study in ways that can (perhaps even more so when paired with contextualizing swaths of big data) open doors to innovative methods of inquiry that foreground the significance of humanities scholarship.