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.

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:

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.