Intellectual Estuaries

In nature, estuaries are meeting places. Fresh water, salt water and land come together, enabling productivity and biodiversity that is greater than the sum of its parts. Similarly, university faculty members and learning and development professionals may be able to create—or enable the creation of “intellectual estuaries.” These spaces bring together often-unlikely groups of people for learning that can be greater than the sum of the knowledge they bring.

Design of these spaces involves boundary spanning or blurring, openness to possibility, productive tensions and inherent ambiguities. Intellectual estuary design is to traditional instructional design what the un-conference is to the conference.


Overview from Alice MacGillivray

Organizational Charts - Why is this model so tenacious?


Underneath, workplaces look like this


What Alice has to say about that

The problem?

Creative work and progress in communities of practice doesn't filter back to the centre.

From Gerald Midgley et al: Theory and Practice of Boundary Critique

Our challenge

Interesting Stuff happens at the boundaries. How can we pay attention to that?
How can we apply these ideas to our own contexts?
What are the boundaries we have set up? How can we make them more permeable?
How can we bring together unlikely groups of people? Who would they be?

Alice's Examples

Example 1:

Can the intellectual estuary concept be applied to instructional design in higher education? A doctoral example of deliberate under-design for enriched learning.

Example 2:

Can formal education courses be designed to encourage intellectual estuaries and emergent learning?

Activity: 25/10

(from Liberating Structures)
After our discussion of possibilities, what is one bold idea you can do to apply the ideas of intellectual estuaries in your work?

1. Write down your bold idea
2. Discuss with a partner. Make any needed modifications.
3. Mill around, pass your card to someone else, quickly review


4. Stop passing cards and pair up with someone nearby. Exchange thoughts.
5. Rate the idea on the card you are holding using a score of 1-5 (5 is high). Write the score on the back of the card.


6. Continue to pass cards around


7. Repeat 3 more times | Exchange > BELL > Exchange > BELL > Exchange > BELL

8. Add up the score on the card you are holding

9. Report out from those holding a score of 25, then 24, and so on until top 10 ideas have been shared

10. Comments on process?

Trio conversation

What emerged -- brief conversation about intellectual estuaries and what's happening in your workplace?
  • There are out-of-necessity barriers rather than out-of-necessity innovation
  • The challenge can be what is perceived as necessity
  • What new metaphors can we offer that will help people to break out of silos?
  • Network structures don't get useful until they're used and the don't get used until they're useful
  • Incentives are like invasive species
  • Sometimes there is a natural balance
  • Sometimes meeting of edges is deliberate
  • Semiosis - ideal if it can be seen as natural benefit
  • Often this is evolutionary, so need to understand where we are
  • There are so many amazing practitioners who don't know how amazing they are. How to discover these people?
  • Often with the right leader can make silo issues disappear
  • Someone new in a leadership position can make all the difference
  • People who do the bridging, know and understand the social fabric, can be in a position of influence (different than authority)

Notes From Cards

Ideas from top ranked to lower ranked:
  • Invite students into course design
  • Encourage interdepartmental communication
  • Bring more students into our design processes
  • "Faire" for sharing ideas among departments
  • Bring in an Aboriginal elder to plan diversity MED course
  • co-op existing event (executive) or volunteer to design
  • find language to bridge differing perspectives
  • bring writing, research, design, development to disciplines for students
  • energize our university-wide social network
  • Pair ID in projects - mix experiences
  • meet as many people as possible
  • add a F.G. student to my thesis committee
  • do a hallway plan for a learning event
  • conference
  • provost task force for learning tech. Reps from 14 faculties and library and IT and Ed. Dev + ... Students union, grad student assoc. Cross pollinate. Intentional edge effect

Reflection on Process

  • Time was too short
  • Good stuff on what. now want to talk about HOW
  • liked the 25/10 process
  • See the book "What the Robin Knows"