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Developing Online and Hybrid Courses with the Learning Ecology Matrix

By Malini Bhargava, Anita Samuel / May 2024

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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed education in many ways. One key change has been the adoption of technology-enhanced teaching. Learners are demanding, and administrators are encouraging blended forms of education. However, designing blended learning requires planning and has different pedagogical strategies than face-to-face or online learning. Bonk and Graham’s Handbook of Blended Learning: Global Perspectives, Local Designs (Pfeiffer, 2005) illustrates the uniqueness of blended learning [1]. While the handbook is almost two decades old, the concepts put forth are more relevant now as faculty in higher education increasingly move into designing blended learning experiences and adopting educational technologies. Thus, this topic is for instructors, instructional designers, and anybody connected with the online delivery of classes; or teaching and learning.

Educational technologies are now an integral part of the educational landscape. Educators are increasingly expected to be able to use technologies such as learning management systems, assessment software, and video and picture editing software to create lecture videos. The educational benefits of these technologies are the impetus behind this move. For example, virtual learning environments such as simulations are great practice environments that are safe and reduce risk [2]. However, this requires faculty who are trained in effectively using these technologies.

The Learning Ecology Matrix (LEM) is one framework that we have found helpful in guiding the course design process. First was introduced by Mike S. Wenger and Chuck Ferguson based on their experiences at Sun Microsystems [1], LEM was developed in the context of blended teaching.  The uniqueness of this matrix is that it is one framework that can be useful for designing face-to-face, blended/hybrid, or fully online courses. This is particularly helpful to faculty as they cross between teaching in these different modalities.

In this opinion piece, we share strategies to use the LEM to guide faculty in their course design process. Thus, this new perspective can help instructors, or course designers, design courses that fit their needs based on whether their course will be more learner-centered or teacher-centered.

What is the Learning Ecology Matrix?

According to Wenger and Ferguson, the LEM arose from the need to “…express coherence in the multimode whole yet not be overwhelmed by the endless stream of apparently disconnected parts” [1]. Wenger and Ferguson’s original LEM had an x- and y-axis where the left end of the x-axis is focused on the delivery of the content and the right end of the x-axis is focused on the experiences of the instructions. Additionally, the top end of the y-axis focused on the learner-controlled navigation and the bottom of the y-axis focused on the instructor-guided navigation [1]. Further, Wenger and Ferguson, proposed that in their matrix, there were “…four general families of learning modalities that comprise potential parts of a learning ecology: teaching, coaching, studying, and practicing…Each of these learning modalities can be accomplished with classroom learning or e-learning.”

According to Maestro, the LEM promoted by Wenger and Ferguson for Sun Microsystems: “…helps learning professionals understand the different elements of a successful blended learning experience and who should be leading it (learner-navigated or instructor-led) … provides a clear framework for selecting the right learning elements for your learners and thinking through the best way to deliver them” [3].

When implementing an educational technology such as a teaching and learning tool, a “one size fits all” does not account for the diversity of learners or different contexts. The LEM places learner autonomy in the learning environment on a continuum. Typically, adult learners appreciate more freedom when navigating their course and learning needs. However, sometimes instructor or faculty-guided closed navigation is needed to get learners started and focused on the topic when navigating the course or learning process. Moving the y-axis from instructor-guided to learner-guided navigation allows both approaches to be explored. Adult learners value authentic tasks that relate to their work environments; thus, opportunities need to be provided for learners to bring their contexts to the learning environment and to apply their learning. Having a constructive and collaborative environment is also essential. The matrix allows for this as the x-axis moves from a didactic focus to application.

The matrix proposed by Wenger and Ferguson presents a holistic design model to understand any learning environment (face-to-face, online, or blended). According to Wenger and Ferguson, “The learning ecology enables us (and our customers) to make choices about which options we will bring to a learning offering to meet the specified learning and cost objectives” [1]. While this matrix was developed for the workplace context, they felt it could also be applied to academic settings.

The strength of the LEM is that the matrix is technology-agnostic. However, the matrix takes into account that learners require different levels of support and accommodates this. Rather than being a prescriptive model, this matrix could allow faculty to self-reflect on their current educational practices and explore where they could make changes.

Course Navigation

In this article, navigation describes both the course layout, sequencing, and the instructor’s influence when accessing the course materials, and the degree or the extent of their influence may depend on the instructor’s choice.

Context and your target audience are crucial when designing your course or teaching strategies. Having an idea of how much instructor or faculty-guided course navigation you want learners to experience when they take your courses is equally important as it depends on the learners being taught. For example in the case of adult learners in academic or corporate settings, knowing how adults learn is important as they value authentic tasks that relate to their work environments. This necessitates the consideration of the science and practice of andragogy or adult learning and heutagogy, an extension of andragogy where adult learners are self-directed, more self-determined, and capable of defining their own learning needs and assessments [4, 5, 6].

From our perspective, the LEM can provide deeper insight when designing course activities, course content, and assessments, or even when thinking through the entirety of course content and design.

LEM in Practice

For our purposes, we have modified Wenger and Ferguson’s LEM (see Figure 1). The matrix is divided into four quadrants; each has its strong points and position depending on what kind of course design or strategy is used in the classroom. In the following paragraphs, we provide a few examples of how faculty can use this matrix to guide their course development.

When designing a course to include learner-centered course navigation, course activities, and assessment tools, instructors should focus on Quad#1 and Quad#2. This will ensure the course and course navigation will be in the hands of the learners. For example, if course content, such as books, e-books, OER (Open Educational Resources), PDFs, or video lectures, are delivered electronically and face-to-face (blended/hybrid), learners can choose to navigate their online course materials or learning process in whatever order they prefer. Additionally, formative assessments, such as small built-in online exercises,  asynchronous online discussions, or face-to face roleplays, focusing on Quad#2 can be built into the course designs to assess learner knowledge and provide opportunities to practice skills. In the first two quadrants, instructors/faculty primarily facilitate or guide learners if they have any questions; it is expected for learners to be more self-directed, self-determined, and self-motivated. However, it is important to know how much instructor-guided course navigation you want learners to experience when they take your courses, as it depends on the learners being taught.

The course might need to be more teacher-centered when designing blended courses or fully online courses for learners who might be new to these learning modalities. That course design can be guided by Quad#3, which includes forced learning sequence, live video lecture sessions or face-to-face classes, and content delivered primarily through synchronous online classes or face-to-face. In addition, by focusing on Quad#4, face-to-face labs, mentoring sessions through synchronous online sessions or on a one-to-one basis in a face-to-face setting, or group discussions could be employed as formative assessments.

This matrix can also be helpful for evaluating online courses, course activities, assessments, and the technology tools used. Faculty can map their course content, assessments, and navigation on this matrix and gain a snapshot of where their course lies. This matrix gives a good perspective as to how much weightage can be given to a learning experience to be learner-centered or teacher-centered. For example, when talking with an instructor about his concern of learners skipping his online course content, this matrix helped suggest a forced sequence and a more teacher-guided navigation in his course design. It can be illuminating for faculty to realize precisely how learner-focused their course design is. This can be a moment of reflection for faculty. Faculty can then use this matrix to identify new activities to move students into other quads. This matrix allows for a dialogue on course design in a non-judgmental space.

Even though course designs, especially for online or blended learning environments, have come a long way, the relevance of revisiting this matrix in a modified way can help address the growing needs of technology in an educational landscape. Additionally, revisiting this matrix can help instructors navigate whether they want the course design to be learner-centered or teacher-centered.

Figure 1. The four quadrants are adapted from Wenger and Ferguson’s  “Learning Ecology Matrix” in C. J. Bonk and  C. R. Graham’s  The Handbook of Blended Learning: Global Perspectives, Local Designs. Used with permission.
[click to enlarge]

Figures 2 and 3 offer a diagrammatic perspective of the Learning Ecology Matrix and were adapted and further modified from Wenger and Ferguson’s original design to demonstrate its use in how a learner-centered or teacher-centered approach can be illustrated in course designs.

Figure 2. Quad # 1 “Studying” and Quad # 2 “Practicing” leading to learners guiding their own learning process or course navigation.
[click to enlarge]

Figure 3. Quad # 3 “Teaching” and Quad # 4 “Coaching” leading to the instructor/faculty guiding the learning process or the course navigation for the learners.
[click to enlarge]


Drawing from our experience in teaching, we believe this matrix can be a valuable resource. This belief stems from our personal experiences and the anticipation that this tool or methodology could benefit future educators, instructional designers, technologists, or anyone involved in the realm of online education. It offers a solid foundation for faculty and instructors embarking on the course design journey, providing a lens through which to examine their teaching and learning environments. This matrix is just one of many strategies that can be adopted, allowing for a flexible structuring of courses. For instance, the notion of a "one-size-fits-all" approach is ineffective here. Educators have the liberty to allocate, for example, 50% of their course content and activities towards quadrants 1 and 2 and the remaining 50% toward quadrants 3 and 4, or the reverse. This flexibility enables them to balance between learner-centered and teacher-centered methodologies according to their preferences in the online teaching landscape. From our viewpoint, the matrix provides insightful guidance on the types of class content, activities, and assessments that could be integrated when designing or tailoring a course.

We hope this opens a collaborative discussion among readers to use the Learning Ecology Matrix to design their courses and share their experiences and perspectives to benefit us all.


[1] Wenger, M. S., and Ferguson, C. A learning ecology model for blended learning from Sun Microsystems. In Bonk, C.J. and Graham, C. R. (Eds.), The Handbook of Blended Learning: Global Perspectives, Local Designs. Pfeiffer: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2005, 76–91.

[2] Schank, R. C. Designing World-class E-learning: How IBM, GE, Harvard Business School, and Columbia University Are Succeeding at E-learning. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2002.

[3] Maestro. How to use the learning ecology matrix to make better learning. Dec. 7, 2021.

[4] Kaushal, B., Singh, D., Magoon, R., and Kashav, R. Pedagogy-andragogy-heutagogy: Towards transformative educational epistemologies. Journal of Anesthesiology Clinical Pharmacology 38, 3 (2022), 497–498.

[5] Akyildiz, S. T. Do 21st century teachers know about heutagogy or do they still adhere to traditional pedagogy and andragogy? International Journal of Progressive Education 15, 6 (2019), 151–169.

[6] Heick, T. The difference between pedagogy, andragogy, and heutagogy. Teachthought, October 10, 2015.

 Disclaimer: The opinions and assertions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences or the Department of Defense.


About the Authors

Anita Samuel, Ph.D., is Assistant Dean for Graduate Education and Associate Professor at the School of Medicine and Vice Chair of Distance Learning at the Department of Health Professions Education, Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, Maryland. Her areas of expertise are online learning, educational technology, and adult education. She is the Editor-in-Chief of ACM eLearn Magazine.

Malini Bhargava, Ph.D., has worked as an instructional technologist at a community college in North Dakota.

© Copyright is held by the owner/author(s). Publication rights licensed to ACM. 1535-394X/2024/06-3637842 $15.00


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