[Ferrari image retrieved from http://automotivecarnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Ferrari-F430.jpg, 18 January 2012 and the rainforest image retrieved from http://www.squidoo.com/save-amazon-river-wildlife-and-conserve-rainforest-amazon-animals-plants, 18 January 2012]
In this week’s change.mooc.ca, David Snowden is our host and provocateur and what a privilege it is to engage with his work. My first encounter with Snowden’s work was in 2009 when I discovered his Cynefin framework and the excellent article he co-authored with Mary E Boone in the Harvard Business Review (HBR)(November 2007) on “A leader’s framework for decision making”. The article changed my understanding of decision making in the complex, and often chaotic world of open distance learning (ODL) in a developing world context.
Unfortunately management in higher education and in ODL contexts often still ascribe to a Newtonian view of reality which encourages, celebrates and rewards “simplifications that are useful in ordered circumstances”. Snowden & Boone (2007:1) state that “Circumstances change, however, and as they become more complex, the simplifications fail”. Snowden and Boone (2007:1) continue to moot that one-size-fits-all solutions do not translate well into complex and chaotic situations. And from my understanding and experience of ODL teaching and learning environments, ODL as praxis is not a “simple” context where we can import best practices from other contexts (as is often the case in ODL institutions in the developing world looking to the global north for best practices as quick solutions for messy problems). Reality shows that ODL is a complex and often chaotic delivery and learning mode – for institution and students alike.
Snowden and Boone (2007:3) describe complex systems as follows:
- “It involves large numbers of interacting elements”
- “The interactions are nonlinear, and minor changes can produce disproportionate major consequences”
- “The system is dynamic, the whole is great than the sum of its parts, and solutions can’t be imposed; rather, they arise from the circumstances” (emergence).
- “The system has a history, and the past is integrated with the present; the elements evolve with one another and with the environment; and evolution is irreversible”.
- Though complex systems “appear to be ordered and predictable, hindsight does not lead to foresight because of the external conditions and systems constantly change”
- “… in a complex system the agents and the system constrain one another, especially over time”
Despite the fact that management in ODL contexts often think that there is only “one right answer”, Snowden and Boone (2007:5) state that in complex systems “right answers can’t be ferreted out”. They use the metaphors of a Ferrari and a Brazilian rainforest to illustrate the difference between complicated and complex systems (2007:5). Ferraris are “complicated machines, but an expert mechanic can take one apart and reassemble it without changing a thing, and the whole is the sum of its parts” (that’s why I am not a mechanic, there will be some parts left after my attempt to reassemble it…).
In stark contrast to a Ferrari, a rainforest is “in constant flux” where “species become extinct, weather patterns change… and the whole is far more than the sum of its parts” (Snowden & Boone 2007:5). In chaotic systems there are permanent shifts and the only constant is turbulence. There is no time to discern (and discuss and/or predict) patterns, and the main task of management is “to stanch the bleeding” (Snowden & Boone 2007:5).
ODL institutions with huge student numbers in developing world contexts are much more like a Brazilian rainforest than a Ferrari. ODL per se is a complex phenomenon with multiple, often mutually constitutive variables interacting in nonlinear and unpredictable fashion. The interaction between student and institution (both with their respective identities, habitus and histories) can be described as a “Thirdspace” (Prinsloo, Slade and Galpin, 2012) – a complex (and often chaotic) temporary nexus where students and the institution engage and where the interactions incrementally shape follow-up interactions, chances of success and institutional and learner efficiencies. This “Thirdspace” constitutes an unknown, permanently in flux “non-place” where the whole is more than the sum of the parts and where “right answers” regarding student success and retention are often temporal and biased constructs. This “Thirdspace” is furthermore shaped by historical student and institutional identities, habitus, epistemologies and ontologies. These are shaped and changed as a result of the interaction between students and institution as well as the networks surrounding these two stakeholders.
Add to this “Thirdspace” the impact of macro social, economic, political, environmental, technological and legal flux, then we start to get a glimpse of ODL as complex environment. It is when we accept ODL as complex environment that institutional initiatives and strategies to address student success and retention often resemble knee-jerk reactions and/or looking for “best practice” solutions to import (often at great cost).
In this “Thirdspace” unexpected changes in the environment have huge repercussions for the whole learning experience. For example, when the institutional servers go down, or when there are electricity blackouts, or postal strikes; these have major impact on students’ chances on success. Consider the impact of retrenchment, or sickness, or personal crises in the lives of our students and how these then impact on the effectiveness of their learning journey (the “Thirdspace”) – then we start to realise how complex ODL in reality is.
Gracefully there are moments (much to scarce) when ODL functions as complicated environments where “right answers” exist and where best practices from other contexts seem to be effective. “Normal” ODL is complex and chaotic – and accepting this reality chances the way we teach and learn (and manage teaching and learning) in ODL contexts.
Welcome to my world…
Prinsloo, P., Slade, S., & Galpin, F.A.V. 2012. Learning analytics – challenges, paradoxes and opportunities for mega open distance learning institutions. Paper accepted for LAK12, Vancouver, Canada, 30 April to 2 May 2012.