Organic Learning: Finding a sweet spot between one-size-fits-none and DIY learning


In 2014, Activision’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare outsold all other video games in the U.S. CoD: Advanced Warfare has state-of-the-art gameplay, voice acting by Kevin Spacey, and award-winning visual effects. The success of CoD and similar commercial game franchises seems to imply that heavy investments in technical embellishments draw customers, and it may even appear to suggest that current generations have come to expect (and are disappointed when they don’t receive) this level of sensory stimulation. Certainly these sentiments have more than a grain of truth, but high-end technology isn’t the only pathway to success.

Another top-earner of 2014 was Microsoft’s Minecraft, a game that involves roaming around a 3D sandbox and interacting with textured cubes. The game lacks a formal narrative or given player objectives; instead, players can participate in a number of different ways, from collaboratively hunting monsters to making crafts and building individual cities. Minecraft, which features 1980s-era graphics and a notable dearth of voice actors (either famous or mundane), was released gradually and iteratively. Each new version increased the game’s content and its players’ ability to creatively experiment with the world. The user community is also encouraged to create mods and further tailor the game in inventive ways. In short, Minecraft—now the best-selling PC game to date—triumphed, arguably as well as CoD: Advanced Warfare, by championing players’ creativity and involvement, and without relying on technological bells-and-whistles.

The contrasting approaches of COD: Advanced Warfare and Minecraft are a relevant analogy for instructional designers who want to enhance the engagement of their learning packages. Like COD: Advanced Warfare, instructional designers can incorporate additional bells-and whistles into the learning. (These kinds of technical add-ons aren’t always effective, of course, but well-designed adaptive mechanisms or high-fidelity sensory immersion can certainly have positive effects on engagement!) On the other hand, instructional designers can enhance engagement without bells-and-whistles and instead by creating space for local personalization, encouraging grassroots “ownership” of learning content, and facilitating active creative experimentation within the base content (à la Minecraft).

Organic Learning

My friend, David, and I gave a talk about organic learning at the MODSIM 2015 conference. He came up with the cute moniker “organic learning” (or o-learning) as a label for the age-old principle that “learning should be relevant to the learning audience.” (In military jargon “organic” means something that belongs to a given, local unit; in other words, it’s not just “owned” or operated by some higher-level command.)

Frankly, when we started to write this o-learning paper, I wasn’t sure we’d have much to say. I mean, who needs be reminded that instruction should be designed with the local learners in mind? Every instructional design textbook says that. Then I started to think about some of the required training I’ve endured received, particularly the kind developed by large, bureaucratic institutions: The kind of training that’s created from a central headquarters and then pushed out to multiple distributed sites. Even when local instructors deliver that training, there’s usually not much room to personalize it to the unique needs and experiences of the audience, and this problem is exacerbated when the training is hard-coded into technologies, e.g., e-learning courses. The end result of this “one-size fits none” kind of training is often decreased engagement, distraction, and boredom.

Solution: Increase engagement

When confronted with the problem of un-engaging, not-very-relevant training (assuming someone is willing to name that elephant, in the first place),  the solution is often “let’s make it more interactive!” Certainly, increasing the interactivity of online courseware can boost engagement and learning; however, “increased interactivity” is sometimes just a euphemism for “more technological bells and whistles.” While employing state-of-the-art technology is admirable (if you can afford it and do it effectively), we need to find those technological innovations that truly support learning goals and then pair them with the instructional framework needed to reap the most value from our investments.

What’s more, we need learning that has local relevance for different groups of learning, so that the meaningfulness and utility of the training/education helps boost engagement. In other words, we need o-learning.

Here’s the working definition we invented (it’s still a little wonky…):

“o-Learning” means creating computer-based content that allows learners and local (organic) trainers/teachers to inject personal relevance into the material—without requiring them to necessarily design or deliver any of it. It means creating opportunities to explore, evolve, modify, and personalize the standard, SME-designed foundational content.

To say it another way, we’re talking about how to design a kind of “mass customization” into learning packages. We’re talking about finding a workable middle-ground between (a) rigid, impersonal, top-down-designed instructional content on one hand and (b) on the other hand, just giving local trainers and educators the raw building blocks (and burdensome requirement) to create their own local curricula. Option-A typically suffers because of the previously mentioned issues (e.g., lack of relevance, disengagement), and Option-B typically doesn’t work because it puts too much workload on the local instructors, who in many organizations lack the resources, know-how, and/or motivation to most effectively assemble those raw materials into good quality learning experiences.

Wait! That’s Adaptive Learning


The concept of o-learning sounds kind of like the idea of “adaptive learning” à la intelligent tutoring systems. I think they’re close cousins, and often overlapping, but not necessarily identical concepts.

Adaptive learning experiences attempt to vary the learning content and/or its delivery based upon  different individuals’ or groups of learners’ characteristics or interactions. Although we often think about adaptive learning in the context of adaptive computer-based systems, (good) human tutors are technically adaptive, too. The crux of adaptive learning is that different people get different experiences.

Organic learning experiences incorporate local variation, so that different “tribes” of learners receive more personally relevant learning experiences. O-learning experiences allow space for the local culture (broadly defined) to be incorporated.

So the differences are:

  • “Adaptive” might not mean “local.” An adaptive learning experience might be different for each person, but that doesn’t mean that it’s different in a way that includes local relevance. For instance, if identical twins (one in New York and one in Singapore) accessed the same mathematics tutor and somehow had identical interactions, then it’s possible that they might have the same learning experiences—without consideration of their unique local environments. (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! Maybe the local context isn’t very useful for this math tutor to consider. The point is simply that a system can be adaptive without taking local variation into account.)
  • “Local” might not mean “adaptive.” Similarly, imagine that a standard training package (e.g., how to sign your timesheet) has been developed by a central headquarters and distributed to local offices all around the world. Each office puts its unique spin on the training, but after that, incorporates no other adaptive elements. Every person from a given location who subsequently takes the training receives the same information. That’s not particularly adaptive! (Although, you could argue that adapting the “base state” of a given learning package for use at different locations is a gross form of macro-adaptation, but they seem like slightly different concepts, implementation approaches, and goals to me.)

In the end…

So, in contrast to my initial misgivings, our presentation ended up accomplishing two goals. (1) First, we created a term (a “brand,” so to speak) to help elevate the visibility of so-called o-learning. If you’ve read this far, then you don’t need to be convinced that “learning should be relevant to the local learners;” however, for large, bureaucratic institutions (where the instructional staff needs to explain their craft and defend why the design of learning content requires dedicated time and expert technique) a cute name like “o-learning” helps sell that message. (2) Second, we helped define a subtle requirement for some instructional designers. Namely, when instructional designers who are part of a larger training/education system are creating the instructional content, they need to design “hooks” to add o-learning into their curricula. In other words, we hope that instructional designers in large institutions will take a page out of the Minecraft playbook and design learning packages that enable distributed teachers/trainers, at the grassroots level, to inject their own creativity and personalized local touches, without foisting unnecessary responsibility on these personnel, risking the integrity of the instructional content, or relying on technological bells-and-whistles.


  1. 16 May 2020    

    Peculiar article, just what I needed.|

  2. 16 May 2020    

    I’m not sure why but this website is loading very slow for me. Is anyone else having this issue or is it a issue on my end? I’ll check back later on and see if the problem still exists.|

  3. 21 May 2020    

    Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again soon!|

  4. 21 May 2020    

    When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get three e-mails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Bless you!|

  5. 20 June 2020    

    Its like you read my mind! You appear to understand so much approximately this, like you wrote the e-book in it or something.
    I feel that you just can do with some % to pressure the
    message home a little bit, but other than that, that is excellent blog.
    A great read. I will certainly be back.

  6. 21 June 2020    

    excellent points altogether, you simply gained a brand new reader.

    What might you recommend in regards to your publish that you just
    made a few days ago? Any positive?

  7. 21 June 2020    

    Hello, i believe that i saw you visited my blog thus i came to go back the want?.I am trying to find things to improve my website!I suppose its adequate to make use of a few of your ideas!!|

  8. Jaime's Gravatar Jaime
    21 June 2020    

    I’ve learn a few excellent stuff here. Definitely value bookmarking for revisiting. I wonder how a lot effort you place to make any such great informative web site.|

  9. 21 June 2020    

    Great blog here! Additionally your website a lot up fast!
    What host are you the usage of? Can I am getting your affiliate link for your host?
    I wish my web site loaded up as quickly
    as yours lol

  10. 26 June 2020    

    I have been exploring for a bit for any high quality articles or
    blog posts on this kind of space . Exploring
    in Yahoo I eventually stumbled upon this site. Reading this information So i’m satisfied
    to show that I have an incredibly just right uncanny feeling I discovered just what I needed.
    I most surely will make certain to don?t put out of your
    mind this site and give it a glance on a continuing basis.

  11. 26 June 2020    

    My relatives every time say that I am wasting
    my time here at web, but I know I am getting experience every day by reading such pleasant articles.

  12. 26 June 2020    

    Wow, that’s what I was looking for, what a information! present here at
    this blog, thanks admin of this site.

  13. 26 June 2020    

    Thanks for one’s marvelous posting! I genuinely enjoyed reading it,
    you are a great author. I will always bookmark your blog
    and will come back in the future. I want to encourage continue your great posts, have a nice

  14. 27 June 2020    

    I really like what you guys tend to be up too. Such clever work and coverage!
    Keep up the great works guys I’ve included you guys to my personal

  15. 27 June 2020    

    This is very fascinating, You’re an overly skilled blogger.
    I’ve joined your rss feed and sit up for seeking more of your excellent post.
    Additionally, I’ve shared your website in my social networks

  16. 27 June 2020    

    Woah! I’m really enjoying the template/theme of this website.

    It’s simple, yet effective. A lot of times it’s difficult
    to get that “perfect balance” between superb usability and appearance.
    I must say you have done a superb job with this.
    Also, the blog loads very fast for me on Safari. Outstanding Blog!

  17. 27 June 2020    

    This is a very good tip particularly to those new to the blogosphere.

    Simple but very precise info… Thanks for sharing this
    one. A must read post!

  18. 27 June 2020    

    Hi it’s me, I am also visiting this website daily, this web page is truly good and the people
    are actually sharing good thoughts.

  19. 28 June 2020    

    My spouse and I stumbled over here by a different web address and thought I
    might as well check things out. I like what I see so now i’m following you.

    Look forward to going over your web page for a second time.

  20. 29 June 2020    

    I’m really impressed along with your writing skills and also with the
    format to your blog. Is this a paid subject or did you modify it yourself?
    Anyway stay up the nice high quality writing, it’s rare to see a nice blog like this one today..

  21. 16 July 2020    

    Great beat ! I would like to apprentice whilst you amend your site,
    how could i subscribe for a blog site? The account helped me a
    appropriate deal. I have been tiny bit familiar of this your broadcast provided vibrant transparent concept

  22. 17 July 2020    

    Nice post. I was checking continuously this blog and I am impressed!
    Very useful information specially the last part :) I care for such information much.

    I was seeking this certain info for a very long time. Thank you and best of luck.

  23. 18 July 2020    

    I’m not that much of a internet reader to be honest but your blogs really nice, keep it up!
    I’ll go ahead and bookmark your site to come back in the
    future. All the best

  24. 21 July 2020    

    Hey are using WordPress for your site platform? I’m new to the blog world but I’m
    trying to get started and set up my own. Do you require any html
    coding expertise to make your own blog? Any help would be really appreciated!

  25. 22 July 2020    

    Very quickly this site will be famous amid all blogging and site-building visitors, due to it’s nice articles or reviews

  26. 24 July 2020    

    It’s perfect time to make a few plans for the long run and it’s time to be happy. I’ve read this put up and if I could I wish to counsel you some attention-grabbing issues or suggestions. Perhaps you could write next articles relating to this article. I desire to learn even more things approximately it!|

  27. 24 July 2020    

    I absolutely love your website.. Excellent colors & theme. Did you create this web site yourself? Please reply back as I’m looking to create my very own blog and would like to learn where you got this from or just what the theme is named. Thank you!|

  28. 24 July 2020    

    Wow, superb blog format! How lengthy have you been running a blog for?
    you made blogging look easy. The entire look of your website is excellent, as
    neatly as the content!

  29. 26 July 2020    

    Hi there! I know this is kind of off topic but I was wondering if you knew where I could get a captcha plugin for my comment form?
    I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m having difficulty finding one?

    Thanks a lot!

  30. Great blog here! Also your website loads up fast!
    What host are you using? Can I get your affiliate link to your host?
    I wish my website loaded up as fast as yours lol

  31. 27 July 2020    

    Thanks for finally writing about > Organic Learning: Finding a sweet spot between one-size-fits-none and
    DIY learning – Industrial Knowledge Design (InK'D) < Loved it!

  32. 29 July 2020    

    Whoa! This blog looks just like my old one! It’s on a totally different topic but
    it has pretty much the same page layout and design. Superb choice of colors!

  33. Ahaa, its nice conversation about this post here at this web site,
    I have read all that, so at this time me also commenting here.
    adreamoftrains hosting services

  34. 30 July 2020    

    My brother suggested I might like this website.
    He was totally right. This post actually made my day.

    You cann’t imagine just how much time I had spent for this info!


  35. A further issue is that video games are usually serious as the name indicated with the primary focus on studying rather than leisure. Although, we have an entertainment aspect to keep your kids engaged, just about every game is generally designed to improve a specific skill set or programs, such as numbers or scientific disciplines. Thanks for your publication.

  36. 5 August 2020    

    Heya i’m for the primary time here. I came across this board and
    I in finding It really helpful & it helped me out much.
    I am hoping to present something again and aid
    others like you helped me.

  37. 5 August 2020    

    I loved as much as you will receive carried out right here.
    The sketch is attractive, your authored material stylish.
    nonetheless, you command get bought an shakiness over that you
    wish be delivering the following. unwell unquestionably come
    further formerly again as exactly the same nearly a lot often inside
    case you shield this increase.

  38. 6 August 2020    

    I all the time used to study article in news papers but now as I am
    a user of internet so from now I am using net for posts, thanks to web.

  39. 7 August 2020    

    Hmm is anyone else having problems with the pictures on this blog loading?

    I’m trying to find out if its a problem on my end or if it’s
    the blog. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

  40. 7 August 2020    

    I simply couldn’t go away your website prior to suggesting that I actually loved the standard info a person provide on your visitors?

    Is gonna be back ceaselessly to check up on new posts

  41. 8 August 2020    

    I found your weblog website on google and check just a few of your early posts. Proceed to keep up the excellent operate. I simply further up your RSS feed to my MSN News Reader. Searching for forward to studying extra from you in a while!?

  42. 10 August 2020    

    I am in fact pleased to read this weblog posts which
    includes tons of valuable facts, thanks for providing such data.

  43. 10 August 2020    

    I have to point out my admiration for your kindness giving support to people that have the need for guidance on that issue. Your real commitment to passing the solution all around had become rather invaluable and have in most cases enabled individuals like me to arrive at their desired goals. Your amazing helpful suggestions denotes a great deal a person like me and substantially more to my colleagues. Thanks a lot; from each one of us.

  44. 11 August 2020    

    An outstanding share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a colleague who was conducting a little research on this.
    And he in fact ordered me lunch because I found it for him…
    lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!!
    But yeah, thanx for spending some time to talk about this topic
    here on your blog.

  45. 13 August 2020    

    I’m also writing to let you know of the terrific discovery my cousin’s princess found reading your blog. She realized plenty of issues, with the inclusion of what it’s like to possess an amazing coaching spirit to get the rest smoothly learn about a variety of complicated matters. You undoubtedly exceeded people’s expected results. Thanks for providing these important, trustworthy, informative and cool tips on your topic to Emily.

  46. 13 August 2020    

    Hi there, I read your blog on a regular basis. Your writing style
    is witty, keep it up!

  47. 13 August 2020    

    I’ve been surfing online more than 3 hours today, yet I
    never found any interesting article like yours.
    It is lovely price sufficient for me. In my opinion, if all website owners
    and bloggers made just right content material as you did, the net
    shall be a lot more useful than ever before.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *