Key Points

  • Students benefit from a range of learning experiences that happen outside of schools and classrooms. Might it be possible to develop learning ecosystems that stack various learning experiences together to create a formal education?
  • Modularity Theory sheds light on what learning ecosystems would need to be viable for mainstream public education.
  • Forthcoming posts will examine the tradeoffs inherent in “non-integrated” systems and their implications for the development of learning ecosystems.

Sometimes, the best learning experiences happen outside the walls of conventional classrooms. What would it look like if these experiences became a core part of formal education and were widely accessible to all students, regardless of their backgrounds? In other words, what if our education systems were more like education ecosystems? What might it take to make learning ecosystems a viable approach to K–12 formal education?

Learning outside the walls of the classroom

Families with means have long supplemented their children’s formal education with library visits, museum tours, summer camps, and travel opportunities. These experiences may not provide systematic coverage of academic standards, but they certainly offer formative experiences that help young people better understand and engage with the world. 

Working on problems or projects in real-world settings also gives students valuable learning experiences. For example, interning at a tech company, a newspaper, a veterinary clinic, or a law firm makes formal education relevant as students get opportunities to practice and apply some of their academic learning, as well as see how different postsecondary educational pathways lead to different careers. Work experiences also help students develop practical career skills, such as how to prepare a resume or compose a professional email, as well as develop important soft skills, such as how to navigate organizational norms and collaborate in professional teams. Furthermore, working in the real world gives students opportunities to build social capital with adults outside their family and community circles. 

In some cases, even formal academic learning happens best outside of brick-and-mortar classrooms. Khan Academy videos have been a boon to many students who find themselves confused with concepts on their homework assignments. There’s a noteworthy market of private tutoring centers, such as Kumon and Mathnasium, where parents pay out of pocket for their children to get extra help with school subjects. And sometimes, when courses in certain subjects aren’t available within a given school system, supplemental courses from providers such as Florida Virtual School or the Louisiana Supplemental Course Academy may be students’ best options. 

Given the breadth of valuable learning experiences that happen outside of conventional classrooms, some education thought leaders imagine a future where formal education happens through learning ecosystems. In these ecosystems, students would move seamlessly across various learning experiences provided by an array of organizations that all connect to provide a cohesive form of formal education. I find the idea of learning ecosystems compelling. But I also wonder what it would take for them to become a reality. 

To answer some of the questions about the viability of learning ecosystems, I’m going to use my next few blog posts to examine learning ecosystems through the lens of Modularity Theory. My hope in using this lens is to offer proponents of learning ecosystems insights into the advantages and disadvantages inherent in the nature of learning ecosystems. These insights have major implications for the strategic decisions proponents will face as they work to make learning ecosystems viable for mainstream public education. To dive into this analysis, we first need to explore the engineering concepts of interdependence and modularity. 

Modularity Theory

Modularity Theory is a framework for explaining how different parts of a system’s architecture relate to one another and consequently affect the development and adoption of that system. According to the theory, a system’s architecture determines its constituent components and subsystems and defines how they must interact—fit and work together—in order to achieve desired outcomes. 

The place where any two subsystems fit together is called an interface. For example, bell schedules and hallway procedures define interfaces for coordinating the movement of students within a school building. The academic standards for different grade levels and course sequences define interfaces that determine how different classes taught by different teachers build on one another as students progress from year to year through their education.

A system’s architecture is interdependent at an interface if one part cannot be created independently of the other part—if the way one is designed and made depends on the way the other is being designed and made. When an interface has unpredictable interdependencies, then the same person, team, or organization must simultaneously develop both components if it hopes for the overall system to work. For example, one reason why school districts have curriculum and instruction departments is for working out the interdependent interfaces between curricular materials and instructional practices. These departments ensure that the curriculum a district adopts or develops aligns with the districts’ instructional standards and pedagogical philosophy, and then ensures that teachers in the district receive the professional development they need in order to use the curriculum effectively. At the same time, one reason why most teachers adapt and supplement the curricular materials provided by their districts is also to address the interdependent interface between curriculum and instruction. Teachers know that in order to effectively engage and instruct their students, they need to align their lesson plans and their materials with their particular students’ needs.

In contrast, a modular interface is one in which there are no unpredictable interdependencies between subsystems, people, teams, or organizations. Modular components and subsystems fit and work together in well-understood and highly-defined ways. A modular system architecture specifies the fit and function of all elements so completely that it doesn’t matter who makes the components or subsystems, as long as they meet the specifications. Systems that rely on modular interfaces allow people in separate teams or organizations to do their work with little to no effort spent on coordination. For example, a school principal doesn’t need to meet regularly with the bus drivers that provide transportation services to her school. The busing schedule and the processes created for unloading and loading students make coordination mostly unnecessary.

Modularity and learning ecosystems

So what does this have to do with learning ecosystems? 

By and large, school districts are integrated education systems. This means that they have control of the full architecture of subsystems and interfaces that come together to serve their students. As a district works to improve how it serves its students, if there are interdependencies in the interfaces between its various teams, departments, or schools, the district’s leaders have the authority to reorganize the district’s subsystems and their interfaces to resolve the interdependencies.

In contrast, a learning ecosystem is an example of a non-integrated system. Non-integrated systems depend on modular interfaces to coordinate the work of various independent providers. For example, the ecosystem would need rules and standardized processes to determine how learning providers join the ecosystem, how funding flows through the ecosystem, how credit for learning gets counted, how transportation between learning sites gets coordinated, how struggling students are identified and supported by the ecosystem, etc. These rules and processes enable an array of learning experience providers to work at arm’s length with minimal coordination effort. But they also constrain the providers in the ecosystem to only make changes or improvements to their programs that can conform to the pre-established rules and processes.

As I’ll discuss in my next post, integrated and non-integrated systems each have particular advantages and disadvantages when it comes to serving students. Understanding the trade-offs with each approach can help us better understand who learning ecosystems would be best suited to serve and the runway they would need in order to become viable alternatives to conventional education. 

Other posts in this series can be found below:

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages.


  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.