Emergent Design
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The Concept of Emergent Design and It's Application in a Decentralized Learning Environment

Carol Caldwell-Edmonds 9/25/00--2/5/01

Vermont College Graduate Program



A Cross Section in Time


Slice a segment of time from 3:00 PM—3:15 PM Wednesday afternoon in the relatively small city of South Burlington,  Vermont in the library of an elementary school in a room full of computers running MicroWorlds software. Maggie,  a first grader,  is one of several students ranging in age from 5 to 9 in the computer area.  She is very quiet and focused. She is creating something in MicroWorlds. A small turtle on a screen draws lines and turns as she types instructions into a command box. She notices that 9-year-old Myron next to her has a tune playing from his computer’s speakers.  “How did you do that?” Maggie asks.  She watches Myron repeat the steps for putting an original music clip into a MicroWorlds project and then begins to experiment with the sound box herself.  I am present,  since I run the after school Computer Club.  I watch quietly as more students turn from the original project,   “Draw a square and color it” that I suggested as a way to begin experimenting with the MicroWorlds programming language,  to experiments with sound and music.   I follow the children’s lead and answer any questions children direct to me about putting music into a project.   The school librarian stops by to say that she must leave early for a District Technology Committee meeting so I should go ahead and shut down the computers after computer club closes.   Down the hall,  the school principal,  who welcomed the suggestion of starting a computer club and co-signed a federal grant proposal to purchase software and equipment for the idea,  works on other aspects of a principal’s busy job,  content that her school staff and volunteer community members have worked out the details of the computer club.  Somewhere in town,  a person running for the Vermont State Senate reads an email inviting him to visit the Computer Club to see how technology can really change the way our children learn and offer new learning opportunities to all members of a community. 


Many Levels



When I look closely at the cross-section,  I notice many levels are involved: levels of government,  levels of society,  levels of community and school administration,  and levels of learning. 


This is one possible view of the levels described.


Federal Grants for education    Vermont Title VI mini grant program
School Principal interested in programs for technology in education
Parent volunteer interested in programming computers with children
Teacher who welcomes parent participation in her classroom
Children who enthusiastically catch on to programming with amazing speed
Other parents who become interested
School district technology committee member who notices student work
Community members involved in local leadership are notified


A design for one kind of community learning environment begins to emerge from the interaction of people who represent some of these levels.  Their experiences in turn affect broader levels of society in new ways.  On another level,   children interact with each other and with computers and new styles of learning emerge.   In the minds of all the interacting participants,  inner levels of learning and understanding focus and fade as ideas lead to ideas.   Many levels,   different kinds of interactions,  and different time progressions all are acting in this time slice in this place.




No One Is In Charge



Notice that the cross-section of learning activity in this segment of time reveals no one person as central to the integration and interaction of the many levels present. There are people working to make learning available and people to facilitate processes from funding to thinking,  but there is no central person in charge.  In the computer club,  the interaction and interests of the students determine the focus and process of the learning.   Each child can pursue an activity that is individualized and yet still can benefit from ideas from the other children in the group.   Everyone at all levels has chosen to be apart of this cross-section in some way at some level.  Consider it a video clip of a decentralized learning environment.




The Computer



It would be very difficult to recreate this cross-section of learning activity with any other educational tool.   The personal computer is revolutionizing learning.  A computer is interactive or passive. Computers can be used individually,  or they can be shared.   Computers are often networked allowing other kinds of interactions on different levels. Learning at the computer is changeable and active; what is written can be changed immediately allowing for a whole different sense of learning as a process never finished.  


Life is a journey…

It’s how you play the game that matters…

Learning is a lifelong process…


The computer can make such poetic,  lofty educational goals understood in a very concrete way because process and product are milliseconds apart and always changeable.




Emergent Design



The approach to the design of the educational intervention I describe here resembles that of architecture,  not only in the diversity of the sources of knowledge it uses but in another aspect as well—the practice of letting the design emerge from an interaction with the client.  The outcome is determined by the interplay between the understanding and goals of the client,  the expertise,  experience, and aesthetics of the architect,   and the environmental and situational constraints of the design space.  Unlike architecture where the outcome is complete with the artifact,  the design of educational interventions is strengthened when it is applied iteratively.   The basis for action and outcome is through the construction of understanding by the participants.  I call this process Emergent Design .


In the “video clip”,   a design emerges for a decentralized approach to educational activities.  Although the overall activity—learning to program a computer using MicroWorlds LOGO—is common to all members of the group, including me,  the adult facilitator,  how we as individuals do this is a mixture of our individual choices based on preferred learning styles,  peer interaction and personal interests. This “multilevel interactive learning” is made possible by the way computers are used in the activity.  Instead of integrating the computer technology into a classroom,  there are learning experiences on many levels integrating the school environment by using a room full of computers.   I am learning alongside the children who are learning sometimes from each other and sometimes from individually trying things. I learn about what matters to them at the time and begin to follow them so that together we learn something meaningful on some level about computers,  or programming,  or music,  or how to debug problems.  Individuals’ self-expression interacts with ideas popular to that particular group at that particular time.   Learning about computer science is not incidental; programming the computer acts as a catalyst and an educational medium uniquely capable of this kind of multilevel interactive learning.


Observing group interactions in open learning environments and allowing such interactions to go on between children and computers begins the design process.   Children discuss valued learning experiences at home and this begins to move the design to another level.  If parents value this kind of learning,  what will they do about it? A design for broader ideas and programs may emerge.   A parent of a student who attended one of my robotics summer camps later wrote a grant and she began a similar program in another elementary school in the district. A student who was in one of the computer clubs brought me an article about a new Lego robotics competition and said he thought a group of students could enter it the following year.  They did.  The experience is documented at http://www.techlearninglink.org (follow links to S. Burlington Projects—FLL Team Challenge).   Design builds on new levels of design.


An emergent design process allows interactions from many divergent sources to build it.   In fact,  that’s how it works. Design emerges from interactions happening on many levels at the same time, though not necessarily at the same pace. I believe it makes this design process effective and resilient. Having experienced a wide variety of emergent levels of learning myself since I first downloaded LOGO and then having observed the rapid changes in the computers and software I’ve used since that time,  I also believe it may be the only design capable of integrating school into the computer of culture of children.