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complexity

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dana boyd has written a post in which she discusses why America is self-segregating and she comes up with a few suggestions such as the role of social media in segregating people into filter bubbles and echo chambers. But a key point she makes is that diversity, which is ‘often touted as highly desirable’ is hard – ‘uncomfortable, emotionally exhausting and downright frustrating’. So instead of using the many online tools we now have at our disposal to become diversely connected, we use them instead to find like-minded people who, as Kirschner wrote in 2015, ‘discuss, confirm, validate and strengthen the group’s position’ (p.622). In doing this we reduce diversity.

(This tendency to try to reduce diversity is not only evident in online networks. It can also be seen in ‘The Big Sort’ and geographical clustering that I mentioned in my last post, i.e. people physically move geographical location to live near those more like themselves.)

More than ten years ago in 2005 in his ‘Introduction to Connective Knowledge’ (revised in 2007) Stephen Downes wrote of diversity as a key principle of ‘knowing’ networks. Downes sees the fostering of diversity as the means to

 ‘counterbalance the tendency toward a cascade phenomenon in the realm of public knowledge’.  

(Information cascades occur when external information obtained from previous participants in an event overrides one’s own private signal, irrespective of the correctness of the former over the latter’ (Wikipedia ). Cascade phenomena can sweep through densely connected networks very rapidly).

Downes writes

the excesses made possible by an unrestrained scale-free network need to be counterbalanced through either one of two mechanisms: either a reduction in the number of connections afforded by the very few, or an increase in the density of the local network for individual entities’.

According to Downes, the only way to avoid information cascades is to ensure multiple viewpoints and alternative perspectives from observers with different sets of prior experiences, world views and interpretations.

Related to this, a couple of years later Downes wrote of the different affordances of groups and networks – Groups vs. Networks: The Class Struggle Begins – saying that a group is about what members have in common, whereas ‘a network is like an ecosystem where there is no requirement that all the entities be the same.’ If we accept this it follows that a group tends towards homogeneity, but a network to heterogeneity (see also my post on the hazards of group work). Diversity is therefore essential to a healthy network.

But what is diversity?  Dictionaries, e.g. Cambridge dictionary, define diversity as being many different types of things or people, ideas or opinions, being included in something. I would add that in addition many different resources are needed to inform these ideas or opinions. In a paper that Carmen Tschofen and I published in 2012, Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience, we also suggested that there is a need to recognise the importance of psychological diversity of online learners, the complexity of their human needs and connections, i.e. that diversity is not just an external manifestation of difference, but also internal to individuals. Each individual is unique. We argued that connectivity needs to be viewed not only in terms of the network but also in terms of individual characteristics and biases, further complicating an understanding of diversity.

But why is diversity ‘desirable’? dana boyd points to more diverse teams outperforming homogeneous teams and claims that diversity increases cognitive development. In my own field of research into learning in open online environments, this point of view is endorsed by the call for more interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and cross global, international working (see for example Haywood, 2016 and Eynon et al., 2016).

However, Cilliers (2010) suggests that there are deeper reasons. These are related to viewing the world in which we live as a complex adaptive system. Complex systems are heterogeneous, asymmetrical and full of non-linear, unpredictable interactions, which means we cannot fully know or control them. Complex environments exhibit the following characteristics (and more!):

  • Distributed knowledge
  • Disequilibrium
  • Adaptive
  • Self-organisation
  • Unpredictable
  • Emergence
  • Connectedness
  • Diversity
  • Openness
  • Co-evolution
  • Interaction
  • Retrospective coherence

Cilliers tells us that diversity is a key characteristic of complex systems and is essential to the richness of the system, because it is difference not sameness that generates meaning.

An abundance of difference is not a convenience, it is a necessity. Complex systems cannot be what they are without it, and we cannot understand them without the making of profuse distinctions. Since the interactions in such systems are non-linear, their complexity cannot be reduced. The removal of relationships, i.e. the reduction of difference in the system, will distort our understanding of such systems. (Cilliers, 2010, p.58)

But this does not mean that ‘anything goes’. To get the most out of diversity and difference, complex systems require boundaries and constraints, negative, enabling constraints, ‘which determine what is not allowed to happen, rather than specifying what does have to happen’ (Williams, Karousou & Mackness, 2011, p.46). There needs to be an effective balance between openness and constraint, structure and agency.

And difference does not mean opposition. Meaningful relationships develop through difference (Cilliers, 2010), but achieving the right amount of difference to support this development, depends on ethical judgement and choice.

To make a responsible judgement—whether it be in law, science or art—would therefore involve at least the following components:

  • Respecting otherness and difference as values in themselves.
  • Gathering as much information on the issue as possible, notwithstanding the fact that it is impossible to gather all the information.
  • Considering as many of the possible consequences of the judgement, notwithstanding the fact that it is impossible to consider all the consequences.
  • Making sure that it is possible to revise the judgement as soon as it becomes clear that it has flaws, whether it be under specific circumstances, or in general. (Cilliers, 1998, p.139)

These points seem as relevant today, if not more so, than when they were written in 1998. Respect for differences and an understanding of diversity is a key ethical rule for complex systems and no amount of retreating into homogeneous groups will help us cope with living in an increasingly complex world.

As Stephen Downes wrote in 2005 when proposing connectivism as a new learning theory appropriate for living and learning in a digitally connected world:

‘Connective knowledge is no magic pill, no simple route to reliability and perhaps even more liable to error because it is so much more clearly dependent on interpretation.’

but

‘Freedom begins with living free, in sharing freely, in celebrating each other, and in letting others, too, to live free. Freedom begins when we understand of our own biases and our own prejudices; by embracing autonomy and diversity, interaction and openness….’

I agree with dana boyd – diversity is hard, but if as Cilliers (2010, p.56) says, ‘Difference is a necessary condition for meaning’ in a complex world, in order to learn we will need to embrace diversity and maintain, sustain and increase our global networks and connections.

References

Cilliers, P. (1998). Complexity and postmodernism. Understanding complex systems. London and New York, Routledge

Cilliers, P. (2010). Difference, Identity, and Complexity. Philosophy Today, 54(1), 55–65.

Downes, S. (2007). An Introduction to Connective Knowledge in Hug, Theo (Ed.) (2007): Media, Knowledge & Education – Exploring New Spaces, Relations and Dynamics in Digital Media Ecologies. Proceedings of the International Conference held on June 25-26, 2007. – http://www.downes.ca/post/33034

Eynon, R., Hjoth, I., Yasseri, T., & Gillani, N. (2016). Understanding Communication Patterns in MOOCs: Combining Data Mining and qualitative methods. In S. ElAtia, D. Ipperciel, and O. Zaïane (Eds.), Data Mining and Learning Analytics: Applications in Educational Research, Wiley.

Haywood, J. (2016). Learning from MOOCs: lessons for the future. In E. de Corte, L. Engwall, & U. Teichler (Eds.), From Books to MOOCs? Emerging Models of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, p. 69-80. Oregon: Portland Press Limited.

Kirschner, P. A. (2015) ‘Facebook as learning platform: Argumentation superhighway or dead-end street?’ Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 53, December, pp. 621–625. Elsevier Ltd. [Online] Available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.03.011

Tschofen, C., & Mackness, J. (2012). Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13(1). http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1143

Williams, R., Karousou, R., & Mackness, J. (2011). Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3). http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/883

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20th August 2016 pm – A 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 2 (pm)

This is the fourth in a series of posts in which I am sharing the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist.

Here are the links to my first previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality

 

The One and the Many (Thoughts about the puzzle of unity versus multiplicity and what the brain can tell us about it).

Some see the universe as an unchanging unity, i.e. ‘the One’, but how would this account for the multiplicity of objects in the universe that are constantly changing. How do we recognise sameness, stability and constancy across objects that change? What is the one unifying aspect behind the universe and everything? How is there unity with diversity?

Everything is connected. All is one, but also all is many, but not in an additive way. Heraclitus used the lyre and the bow to show that although they have a connection, this connection, through a tension of opposites, results in something completely different. Hegel believed that all things we encounter are an equilibrium of opposing tendencies from which something new emerges.

‘All things come out of the one, and the one out of all things.’ (Heraclitus, 500 BC)

171-The+Elephant

In relation to the hemispheres of the brain, there are two kinds of parts. Both the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere see parts, but they see and aggregate them differently. The left hemisphere sees fragments, non-unique referents, which it classifies into abstract categories. The right hemisphere sees uniqueness and individuality. It can distinguish specific examples within a category, ‘individuals of all kinds, places as well as faces’ (p.51 The Master and his Emissary).

‘…it is precisely its capacity for holistic processing that enables the right hemisphere to recognise individuals. Individuals are, after all, Gestalt wholes: that face, that voice, that gait, that sheer ‘quiddity’ of the person or thing, defying analysis into parts.’

The right hemisphere focuses on ‘this ness’, wholeness, quiddity, appreciation of things just as they are, as Gerard Manley Hopkins did in his poem ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’.

Kingfisher's catch fire

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As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; 

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells 

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s 

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; 

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came. 

 

I say móre: the just man justices; 

Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces; 

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — 

Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his 

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

 

‘…. creativity depends on the union of things that are also maintained separately’ (p.42, The Master and his Emissary’).

The problem is that in today’s world we are losing sight of ‘the One’ that can’t be grasped, pinned down, easily articulated. We live in a world where everything is recorded. There seems to be a common feeling that if it isn’t recorded it didn’t happen, it isn’t real and that we must record reality or it doesn’t exist. But a recording is a representation. It is the work of the left hemisphere. So recordings, representations, replicas are becoming reality whilst embodied experience of uniqueness and ‘the One’ is being downgraded. The story of Lieutenant Kijé was mentioned here as an illustration of how someone can cease to exist through a failing in recording (see further information in the list of references at the end of this post).

Every single experience we have alters our brain, so if we live most of our lives in a 2D world (e.g. online) we will lose the experience of uniqueness (the right brain’s view of the whole); we will only do what the machine does (Dreyfus – What computers can’t do).

The question of the One and the Many also relates to the self and whether we have no self, one self or many selves, or all these. Evidence from research into babies suggests that they experience the same things as their mothers, having a self that is both separate and not separate. Babies learn to hear their mother’s voice in the womb, and if read a story whilst in the womb, will respond to this story after birth.

Our selves are diffuse and shared by others; others help to make us who we are (see The Self Beyond Itself by Heidi Ravven). The South African greeting ‘Ubuntu’ is relevant here.

According to Michael Onyebuchi Eze, the core of Ubuntu can best be summarised as follows:

“ ‘A person is a person through other people’ strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance”. 

And for Iain McGilchrist this relates to love. ‘Love is a pure attention to the existence of another’.

The self is a product of both hemispheres. The intrinsically, empathically inseparable from the world self and continuous sense of self is dependent on the right hemisphere. The objectified self, the self as an expression of will depends on the left hemisphere (p.87, The Master and his Emissary).

Personal reflection

There is something in this idea of the One and the Many that relates to my own work in networked online learning – some parallels that I sense are there but I am not yet able to fully articulate. Much of the demise of society was laid at the door of technology in this course, which was a bit hard to take for those of us whose work, which we consider to meaningful and worthwhile, makes extensive use of technology; although, to be fair, Iain made a point of telling us that he uses technology extensively too, but not Twitter. Twitter is an anathema to him

It seems to me that when learning in global online networks we are experiencing the one and the many. We are aware of ourselves as individuals in the network and of many other individuals in the network, but we also know that it is impossible to see the whole network. But is the whole network greater than the sum of the parts I wonder?

Iain talked about the relationship between the right hemisphere’s view of the world and uncertainty. In this digital age, an overload of fast changing information and uncertainty are ever present problems. We know that we have to live, learn and work in complex environments that we will never fully understand and will never be predictable. We know we have to self-organise and that to make our networks effective we have to be open and generous in sharing our work and learning. In my work this is what it means to live with complexity.

I can see a parallel here with the ‘chaotic, super abundant universe filled with a multiplicity of differential being’ that Iain talked about as the right hemisphere’s view of the world. But I can also see the paradox that in my work and research I have been exploring complexity as it relates to global open online networking afforded by technology.

On reflection, it would have been interesting to discuss the ways in which technology can (if it can), rather than can’t, promote right hemisphere thinking.

Authors/people referred to during the session

Matthew Crawford (2015). The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction Bergson 

Henri Bergson (1912). Bergson Introduction to metaphysics

Hubert Dreyfus (1972). What computers can’t do.

The Dunning-Kruger effect – The more you know the less you think you know

William James (1909). A Pluralistic Universe

Anthony King (2013). The Blunders of our Governments

Heidi Ravven (2013). The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will. The New Press.

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Recent work on developing our framework for describing emergent learning (see Footprints of Emergence   and Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0 ) has been taxing our powers of description. By we, I mean my colleague Roy Williams and me. The work of Paul Cilliers has been helpful (see below)

How can we have confidence in the footprints, when the footprint (a graphic description of a learning experience), if individually drawn, depicts an interpretation of the learning experience based on subjective personal reflection on that experience, and the scoring factors themselves can be open to personal interpretation?

This ongoing work in seeking to describe and clarify what we mean by emergent and prescribed learning is progressing on our open wiki ‘Footprints of Emergence’. There has been quite a bit of interest in this public wiki with upwards of 50 unique daily visitors, which is very encouraging.

In particular we have been very interested in the work that a colleague from Austria – Jutta Pauschenwein, (FH JOANNEUM, University of Applied Sciences, Graz, ZML – Innovative Learning Scenarios) has been doing in relation to using the framework we have developed. Jutta has written a number of blog posts about this, but here is the most recent one written in English – Footprints for “Emerging Learning” – Variety of a creative method of reflection.

This work of Jutta’s (and her team) and of others who have drawn footprints of their courses or learning experiences, and shared them with us on our wiki has motivated us to further discuss our understanding of the factors we use for scoring the footprints and describing learning experiences. It has become increasingly clear that each footprint is unique to the individual who is drawing it and that if footprints of the same course are drawn by different people, they will be different. Does this invalidate the process or the framework? Our answer is ‘No’. Each person’s learning experience, and perspective on that learning process, is unique to them.  The value of the framework is, we hope, in providing a mechanism for articulating that experience, and in the discussion around this articulation.

Now it could be argued that this is simply an excuse for vagueness and of course this argument needs to be taken seriously. Any research or discussion of learning should be rigorous, and we hope that in our efforts to clarify the meaning/description of the factors that we use in our framework, we will be adding to the rigour of the research.

However, we are also aware that all learning is context dependent and in particular, that the open, emergent learning that we are seeking to describe takes place in complex systems, where there are no straightforward right or wrong answers.

Particularly helpful in explaining our position on this is the work of Paul Cilliers and in particular his article – Complexity, Deconstruction and Relativism

Cilliers, P. (2005). Complexity, Deconstruction and Relativism. Theory, Culture & Society, 22(5), pp.255–267. Available at: http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/22/5.toc

Cilliers writes that we should not underestimate the complexity of much of what we try to understand. It is difficult in complex systems to get agreement on meaning. He urges researchers to be ‘modest’ (not weak, but responsible) in the claims they make, because knowledge is always provisional, always contingent and contextual and the context has to be interpreted. My experience is that it is difficult to maintain a ‘modest’ stance in the face of requests for ‘the answer’.

Cilliers explains that in describing complex systems we have to reduce the complexity, which is what we have been struggling with in our framework. To reduce the complexity we have to leave some things out. In our framework we use 25 factors to describe prescribed and emergent learning and we have, more than once, had the discussion about where we draw the line, because our discussions often raise the possibility of adding another factor. The problem is that what is left out influences the description as much as what is left in.

Cilliers writes that complexity is messy and all frameworks are compromised to some extent.

‘There is no stepping outside of complexity (we are finite beings), thus there is no framework for frameworks. We choose our frameworks.’ (p.259)

‘To talk about the complex world as if it can be understood is clearly a contradiction of another kind and this is a contradiction with ethical implications.’ (p.261)

Cilliers has so perfectly described the issues we are wrestling with in the work we are doing in attempting to better understand open learning environments and emergent learning.

With the advent of MOOCs and a huge surge of interest in open, distant and online learning, how can we best describe learners’ experiences in these and more traditional environments? How can learners make sense of and articulate their own experiences? How how can we design environments which will help learners to work in messy complex systems?

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Dave Snowden made a number of provocative statements  in his presentation to Week 17 of ChangeMooc, but ‘open space leads to consensus’ and ‘consensus is rewarded, dissent is punished’ were two that caught my attention.

As with all such statements, they have to be taken in context. He was arguing that spaces that lead to consensus are a constraint on innovation and creativity and that more conflict and processes such as Ritual Dissent, where people are literally harangued for their ideas, are needed in today’s education system. He denounced what he called ‘fluffy bunny’ approaches to learning and even suggested that good facilitation could be counter-productive.

So – what should we make of all this.

In some ways it is easy to understand and have some sympathy for these ideas. Open space (and it’s important to remember that he was not talking about ‘openness’) allows people to come and go as the please into the learning network or environment.

So would it be fair to say that the people who stay are those who can find like-minded people and ideas of mutual interest in the environment and feel reasonably comfortable there? We don’t often find out much about the reasons why many people don’t stay, but it could be that those are the people with alternative perspectives who either try and fail to ‘rock the boat’ (dissent), or just don’t have the patience to engage in ‘dissent’/posting counter-arguments, or for one reason or another can’t cope with the environment.

Are dissenters punished? My experience in Moocs (where most of my experience with open space has occurred) is that they can be, particularly if they make strongly dissenting posts. Usually the punishment is subtle. Dissenters are ignored. Or sometimes the dissenter receives a volley of angry posts and may even be openly asked to stop dissenting; these dissenters may be labelled as ‘trolls’ as happened in CCK08

A strong dissenting post into an online environment may be accepted if there is already a consensus that the dissenting person is ‘OK’ or has some authority and a respected reputation, as in the case of Stephen Downes and George Siemens, for example, and even Dave Snowden himself. For those not in this position of authority, any dissenting comment is often made tentatively, apologetically or politely, in the knowledge that it could be completely ignored or receive a lot of flak. On the whole, people don’t seem to know a lot about how to constructively handle conflict or dissent in open online spaces, so that we can learn from this and avoid group think.

So does this mean that ‘open space’ leads to consensus and if it does, is that a problem? We have to remember that Dave Snowden’s context for his work is in areas such as counter-terrorism and highly complex situations, where innovation and creativity, rather than consensus, is essential for effective decision making. But the open space offered by the net and open courses such as Moocs, allows those of us who are not learning in such highly complex situations to encounter a greater diversity of alternative perspectives than might otherwise be the case.  That is the point of Moocs, along with learning from these alternative perspectives through interaction and having the autonomy to vote with your feet (i.e. walk away) if you so wish.

I would suggest that if we see consensus as a problem (and it may or may not be according to the context), then it is not the ‘open space’ itself that is the problem. Rather it is knowing how to engage constructively with alternative perspectives, such that this engagement will lead to learning and higher levels of innovation and creativity. I don’t see an engagement with alternative perspectives as necessarily requiring dissent or conflict, but rather requiring ‘openness’ – an open environment, open resources and an openness of mind, self and spirit.

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Is a critical literacy for networked learning to know something about Complexity Theory?

Dave Snowden was today’s speaker on the Critical Literacies open online course, talking about complexity. We had technical difficulties and had to move from ‘Open Meetings’ to ‘Elluminate’ (many thanks to Carmen) and when we finally got going it all seemed like a bit of a rush.  I’m not completely ignorant about complexity theory, but it was too fast for me and I will have to listen again to the recording when it finally gets posted (probably more than once), as there was a lot packed in there. We were also given this link which I have dipped into and looks as though it will be very useful.

http://learningtobeprofessional.pbworks.com/From-induction-to-abduction,-a-new-approach-to-research-and-productive-inquiry

My interest in complexity theory is related to what it has to say about teaching and learning – which comes back to critical literacies. My understanding is that a complex system is one in which you cannot predict what is going to happen and just that over-simplified one statement presents huge challenges for our education system (UK), which seems to want to prescribe and measure everything in sight. In an article that I read this afternoon, this question was asked about what complexity theory might mean for the philosophy of education:

Complexity theory poses a major question: What do the following mean for the philosophy of education: emergence and self-organization; connectedness; order without control; diversity and redundancy; unpredictability and non-linearity; co-evolution; communication and feedback; open, complex adaptive systems; and distributed control?

Any teacher will know the challenges that these ideas present,  just as anyone who took part in CCK08 might also recognise these as characteristics of a complex system.

I found this article (cited below) very helpful as an introduction to thinking about teaching and learning in terms of complexity theory.  Unfortunately it is not available online and I can’t post the pdf because of copyright restrictions, but it is likely to be in a University library if you have access to one.

Morrison, K. (2008). Educational Philosophy and the Challenge of Complexity Theory. Philosophy, 40(1).

So plenty to think about and plenty to come back to! Is complexity theory ever included in a teacher trainee’s degree course? It wasn’t in any of the courses that I was ever involved in, but it seems to me to be important in helping teachers to manage the inevitable uncertainty, unpredictability and emergent learning which is going to increasingly occur as students become more and more connected and networked.

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George has a great way of making what could be very confusing, easier to understand. He also manages to do this with concise papers. His Complexity, Chaos and Emergence paper is an example of this.

There is also an interesting post on  Patrick McAndrew’s Padded Thoughts blog about chaos in relation to learning.

George has posted two questions in the Moodle Forum this week

  1. In what way is learning chaotic?
  2. In what way is learning complex?

He defines chaotic learning as learning that happens within a bounded and predictable frame. So if we think about teaching physics, for example – we know what is the curriculum and we know that the expected outcome is that people will, by the end of the course, have learned the content of the curriculum. But we cannot predict how people will learn this curriculum. So we know the big picture of the curriculum, but the learning processes that go on within the curriculum are unpredictable and chaotic.

In complex learning there is no agreement about what the big picture is. There might be several views of it, but no consensus. So in the case of the physics course, there is no agreed curriculum and no agreed outcomes. There can be many surprises and examples of emergent learning. However, this doesn’t mean that there can’t be an ordered investigation into the area of knowledge being studied.

Is this course chaotic or complex? I would say it is more complex than chaotic. We are not sure where we are going to end up, but we have a semi-organised way of discussing the content.

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I have just read Renata Phelps’ article – Developing Online From Simplicity toward Complexity: Going with the Flow of Non-Linear Learning.

It is interesting from a variety of perspectives and has certainly made me think.

1. I don’t find all aspects of the article very clear. The development of a non-linear course structure is described. The author presents a non-linear curriculum as one that is not presented in a linear format, that can be accessed in a non-linear way by the learners and that is open to choice about how much and what is studied.

2. The article describes the development of a teacher training course – ICT in primary and secondary education. I don’t think enough is made of the fact that the context is ICT education, as I do think that when talking about non-linear learning, going with the flow and that the ‘curriculum becomes a process of development rather than body of knowledge to be covered and learned’, the context is important. I suspect that some subjects can have a more flexible curriculum and course structure than others. I’m not so sure how selective a trainee medic can be about curriculum. 

3. The article doesn’t really evaluate the success of changing the curriculum from a linear to a more complexity-based model, other than to quote two positive remarks from students. In the 60s it was very fashionable to ‘go with the flow’ in school classrooms in the UK. I remember on being appointed to a new job and asking for the maths syllabus (so that I would have some idea of what we should cover in the term), being told by the headteacher that they didn’t teach in that way in his school – they followed the children’s interests, so if the children wanted to talk about birds’ nests all week,  they could.  The very strictly linear National Curriculum was introduced in the UK to combat the massive gaps that were becoming in apparent in children’s knowledge as a result of ‘going with the flow’ and ‘discussing birds’ nests for a week’ at the expense of time spent on the 3 Rs. My experience suggests that a curriculum is actually a good thing, so long as you don’t expect learners to learn in a linear way. You only have to observe young children learning mathematics to know that they don’t and won’t.

3. The article then equates learning objectives with domination, control, reductionism and an undermining of emergent learning. I have always thought about learning objectives as being about clarity of forward thinking and about knowing what to assess. I don’t see that learning objectives need to control or undermine emergent learning.  Assessment isn’t mentioned in the article and that seems to me to be a big omission.

4. There is a lot in the article about ‘authentic’ and ‘problem-based’ learning that encourages reflective and self-directed learners. This is not new. Donald Schon’s book on the reflective practitioner was published at least 10 years before this article was written and my teaching colleagues have been discussing how to encourage learners to become independent, motivated, self-directed and reflective since the 60s and I’m sure previous generations of teachers have done the same.

So although any article which promotes this way of working is welcome, I don’t think the ideas presented in terms of learning are particularly new. However, it is interesting to think about to what extent you want your curriculum to be ‘flexible, open, disruptive, uncertain and unpredictable ….accepting …tension, anxiety and problem creating as the norm’.

I would be interested in knowing whether a course structure such as the one described in the article would work for a curriculum such as medicine.

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