Self Organised Learning Environments


This story begins with the now quite well-known Hole in the Wall experiment. If you haven't yet seen Sugata Mitra's TEDTalk Kids can teach themselves (1 million views) maybe now is the time. It is quite long (21 minutes) so if time is short jump to 7m 10s to get the idea, and then to 16m 05s where he says:
"There is one child operating the computer. And surrounding him are usually three other children, who are advising him on what they should do. If you test them, all four will get the same scores in whatever you ask them. They are learning as much by watching as they learn by doing. They seem to be able to acquire very quickly." Sugata Mitra


Out of his observations of children's behaviour at the Hole in the Wall grew a method which Mitra has called SOLE or Self Organised Learning Environments, and he has since published the SOLE toolkit. The TEDTalk that explains the ideas embodied in the toolkit is Build a school in the cloud (2 million views).

Gagnon and Collay 

In 2001 I read a then new book by maths teacher George Gagnon and music teacher Michelle Collay titled Designing for Learning, Six Elements in Constructivist Classrooms. This is the book that made me want to reshape myself as a learning designer. In it they listed and ordered the six elements they considered essential to constructivist learning: situation, groupings, bridge, questions, exhibit and reflections.

Can these ideas be transferred to the methods and practices of teaching adult learners (andragogy)?

Can we take it on into the realms of adult self-determined learning (heutagogy)?

I adapted the Gagnon and Collay model to suit a Moodle design with adult professional learning students in mind.

Use case

Melody comes online and welcomes the participants to her course. Knowing the curriculum, she picks a study question: "What should urban transit look like in Christchurch by 2025?"

She names the three teams: Environmental, Social, Technological. Students self assign to the teams but a system of constraints assures a roughly even balance.

Each team has its own set of resources, and also has access to some common whole group resources.

Each team has an activity but this is only very loosely prescribed, as in: "Work together from the perspective of your team to produce an urban transit plan. Teams can query other teams."

When the team exhibits are ready, Melody calls a whole group meeting. She poses the question: "How will we put these three pieces of work together to create one cohesive exhibit?"

When the final exhibit is ready, Melody calls a final whole group meeting. The whole group reflects on the outcome, the group learning, and the process. Additionally, each student is encouraged to write it up their learning journal.


Moodle is perhaps the ideal technology to implement this design, because Moodle was conceived in social constructivist terms. Plain vanilla out-of-the-box Moodle has all the tools you need to make this happen. Moodle and these ideas are so woven together in my mind, I don't know if I could really say which comes first, the design, or the tool that can shape the environment that supports it.

Here are the Moodle modules (components) you need:

  • Situate > Label (you can embed video in a label)
  • Self assign onto teams > Choice
  • Team meetings > Forum
  • Team resources > Folder
  • Team activities > Wiki
  • Team exhibits > Wiki
  • Whole group meeting > Forum
  • Whole group exhibit > Wiki
  • Reflection > Forum


What you could pour in the top of this social constructionist processor seems almost boundless, but here are some suggestions to give you a feel for it:

Primary: What kind of person will a space agency choose for a mission to Mars? In three teams explore what they need to be like (A) technically (B) physically and (C) socially. Present your findings as an infographic, play or song.

Secondary:  What kind of person will a space agency choose for a mission to Mars? In three teams explore (A) the rationale for the mission (B) the required attributes and (C) the social and ethical considerations. Present your findings as a video with subtitles, as an infographic, and as a website or Facebook page.

Tertiary: What kind of person will a space agency choose for a mission to Mars? Consider the (A) political, economic, (B) social, technological, (C) legal and environmental issues. Present your findings to an invited audience.


This is not for the faint-hearted. If you are to do this is in the spirit of Sugata Mitra, when they ask questions you are going to have to be brave enough to say, "I don't know. You are the clever ones. You tell me." If you don't take that attitude it will soon descend into old-school teaching, with the teacher doing all the work. Once you get practiced at it, you will be able to make like a student and work alongside them instead of in front of them. The groups will need constant encouragement and reinforcement, and sometimes they will need resourcing. But beyond that — step back and watch the fun. If you're ready to be purest, don't define the teams, team resources, or activities. Let the students do that. Growing professionally may mean learning to let go.

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