Of rainforests, Ferraris and open distance learning (#change11)

[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.


About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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15 Responses to Of rainforests, Ferraris and open distance learning (#change11)

  1. jaapsoft2 says:

    Hi nice to meet you.
    Thanks for the explanation of this Thirdspace.
    The pictures are fine.

  2. Hi Jaap – glad you found it useful/of interest.

    Happy moocing!

  3. Pingback: Of rainforests, Ferraris and open distance learning (#change11) | E-Learning-Inclusivo (Mashup) | Scoop.it

  4. Pingback: Of rainforests, Ferraris and open distance learning (#change11) « juandon. Innovación y conocimiento

  5. Pingback: Of rainforests, Ferraris and open distance learning (#change11 … | Educations Club

  6. teresa says:

    Ola, gostei muito do que escreveu sobre a EaD na Amazonia,
    deixo um link. http://www.eadamazon.com/

  7. brainysmurf says:

    Thanks for this summary. I am reading between the lines here that open distance learning isn’t just a ‘virtual classroom’. It’s a different beast entirely and simple comparisons to the practices of bricks and mortar classrooms with their ‘right’ answers don’t do it justice.

  8. Robert Snell says:

    Hi, I enjoyed reading the post. I liked the concept of the third space, a challenging enough environment without the postal strikes and blackouts etc no doubt. Leaving the blackouts aside for a moment, is it possible to embrace the turbulence and flux, or will the complex nature of the space always need to be tamed?
    Are students aware of it and able to adapt the way they learn? Perhaps Teachers who are very much aware of the turbulence and flux are restricted by external pressures that limits their ability to change? Lots of questions, – I’ve got no answers 😉 But I find this topic fascinating, thanks for the post.

    • Robert, you make a very interesting point regarding whether students are aware of the complexities awaiting them. The answer is easy and frightening namely “no”. The demand for higher education is so huge in South Africa, places in residential universities few and costly – therefore distance education is for many of our students their only hope of entering higher education. In general they overestimate their abilities and underestimate the flux that awaits them. Most students take too many courses/modules – and only realise after registration or as they start scrambling for prescribed materials or access to the Internet – how much work their registration entails. Despite various initiatives such as marketing materials, etc – the pressure to complete a qualification in the shortest possible time (finances allowing) is huge. Whole extended inter-generational families depend on students completing their studies as soon as possible. It is really an immense challenge.

      But it is not only students who underestimate the “cost” of distance education. Many (most?) faculty has never studied through distance education and have very little (if any) understanding of the challenges facing our students. Add to this mix the fact that management often underestimate the complexities of being an educator in a distance education institution – then one starts to realise how messy this “Thirdspace” is.

      This sound all very depressing – but there are also many amazing and touching success stories of how this Thirdspace changes people’s lives.

      Thanks for the engagement.

      • You are absolutely right – see my response to Robert above. I suspect that is why I am a bit apprehensive when institutions decide to go for “multi-access learning” as discussed last week, without acknowledging the cost and implacitations for everyone involved. While I think the notion of the Thirdspace is applicable to any training or education scenario, it functions in a particular way and provides (at least for me) an apt description of the flux and turbulence awaiting students and institution in teaching and learning through distance education.

        Thanks for your response.

  9. Nicola says:

    Hi Paul, We have created an open, non-profit calendar blog called One Change A Day http://moocblogcalendar.wordpress.com/ which will feature 365 blog posts from around education and mooc worlds. This blog will also tell a story of how new ways of connecting with each other online are irreversibly changing education. It will also be published as a shared artifact of everyone’s experiences in print and digital calendar format at the end of the year.
    We would love to include this post with your kind permission. The calendar blog is using the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License licence. Would this cause any conflicts with your current publishing permissions?

  10. Pingback: #Change11 Traineeship Programs and Cynefin Framework based on Dave Snowden – Part 1 | Learner Weblog

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