Footprints of emergence


  • Roy Trevor Williams Dept. Mathematics University of Portsmouth
  • Jenny Mackness Independent Education Consultant
  • Simone Gumtau University of Portsmouth



emergent learning, prescribed learning, footprints, topographies, complexity, adaptive, complex adaptive systems theory


It is ironic that the management of education has become more closed while learning has become more open, particularly over the past 10-20 years. The curriculum has become more instrumental, predictive, standardized, and micro-managed in the belief that this supports employability as well as the management of educational processes, resources, and value. Meanwhile, people have embraced interactive, participatory, collaborative, and innovative networks for living and learning. To respond to these challenges, we need to develop practical tools to help us describe these new forms of learning which are multivariate, self-organised, complex, adaptive, and unpredictable. We draw on complexity theory and our experience as researchers, designers, and participants in open and interactive learning to go beyond conventional approaches. We develop a 3D model of landscapes of learning for exploring the relationship between prescribed and emergent learning in any given curriculum. We do this by repeatedly testing our descriptive landscapes (or footprints) against theory, research, and practice across a range of case studies. By doing this, we have not only come up with a practical tool which can be used by curriculum designers, but also realised that the curriculum itself can usefully be treated as emergent, depending on the dynamics
between prescribed and emergent learning and how the learning landscape is curated.

Author Biographies

Roy Trevor Williams, Dept. Mathematics University of Portsmouth

Senior Lecturer, Dept. Mathematics, with responsibilities for e-learning and e-assessment in Mathematics and in Computing, and Honorary Research Fellow, University of Kwz-Zulu Natal, South Africa. Previously visiting Prof. in Education at Reading, visiting Examiner at Univ. of London in Open and Distance Learning, Chair and Prof. of Communication at the University of the North in South Africa, CEO of the broadcast regulator, the IBA in South Africa.

Jenny Mackness, Independent Education Consultant

Jenny Mackness ( is an independent online education consultant, specializing in content authoring, teaching and facilitating national and international online courses in Higher Education. These have included courses on leadership, e-facilitation, reflective practice, professional and personal development. Her work also includes supporting e-learning projects, such as within the JISC Institutional Innovation Programme and the Autism Centre for Education and Research, and the development of communities of practice, such as ELESIG. Jenny’s current research interests include learners’ experiences of e-learning, particularly within communities of practice and online networks, connectivism and connective knowledge, networked, emergent and embodied learning.  Her most recent publications can be seen here -

Simone Gumtau, University of Portsmouth

Senior Lecturer, Art Design and Media



How to Cite

Williams, R. T., Mackness, J., & Gumtau, S. (2012). Footprints of emergence. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(4), 49–90.



Research Articles