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The [insert force of nature here] is nigh: Rethinking the future of Higher Education with Complexity Theory

Despite the individual themes that have marketed each HE conference I have attended recently, all the keynotes seem to be addressing the same issue: how will educators respond to the influence of technology that is challenging/threatening the landscape of HE in the 21st Century?

At the Higher Education Academy’s Annual Conference (July 3-4 2013, University of Warwick), the keynote, Chief Education Strategist at the publisher Pearson, Sir Michael Barber, gripped the 400+ audience with the title of his speech: ‘An Avalanche is Coming’. This report, headed up by Barber, aims to challenge the current complacency of educators’ responses to the changes that are occurring globally: shifting power and (developing) global leadership in Asia, climate change, economic uncertainty, the higher cost of a ‘university degree’ but lower perceived value, and, most importantly for HE, how technology is ‘weakening’ the walls of the traditional university through the introduction of competition from alternative education opportunities.

The influence of technology and globalisation on economic sectors began decades ago, and now it is time for the education sector to feel the force. Others in education have likened this pressure to a landslide or a tornado. Whatever dramatic force of nature metaphor we use, the idea behind it is that while the landscape of HE may still appear smooth and solid on the surface, underneath little changes are occurring. Momentum has been steadily gathering and when, not if, this movement comes crashing in, ‘standing still is not an option’ because, if we do, ‘an avalanche of change will sweep the system away’[1].  Boom. The landscape of HE will be forever altered.

So how to react? Barber argues that instead of viewing this technological onslaught as a threat, those involved in HE need to positively anticipate this change. In fact, the opportunities for British education are much greater if universities mobilise partnerships in government, education, industry and society. Leadership and innovation need to be at the heart of universities’ mission in order to best harness the power of globalisation and technology and tackle the huge issues facing the next generations. A radical and urgent transformation is needed in HE to realise these capacities, but anxiety, complacency and perhaps fear are presenting themselves as barriers to this call to ‘ponder anew’ HE’s role in contemporary society.

After a recent introductory lecture on complexity theory in education, I thought Barber’s words resonated with some of the ideas current researchers interested in complexity theory and education are discussing. Furthermore, some writers have used complexity theory and the thermodynamic models of Ilya Prigogine to conceptualise revolutions and, indeed, the subheading in Barber’s report refers to this – ‘Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead’. So I thought it’d be fun to have a play with some of Brent Davis, Dennis Sumara and Rebecca Luce-Kapler’s[2] work on education and complex worlds. I start with a disclaimer that as I have only read a few articles about complexity theory, in this blog post I am merely skipping about and making daisy chains in the foothills of this theory and would love to hear from others who are more committed and have bought the OS map to use their work in more depth.

So complexity theory is a way of investigating and considering a phenomenon that is resistant to, or unhelpfully seen as, a reductionistic analysis. Complexity theory begins with distinguishing between a complicated system and one that is complex. A complicated system would consider the behaviour of things, such as washing machines and cars, as linear, rational objects that are the predictable sum of their parts. This mechanical, reductionist way of thinking, with cause and effect at the heart of it, has often been adopted in Western science to understand how most phenomena work and behave.

Complex systems, on the other hand, are NOT reducible to the sum of their parts. For example, the human body and weather systems are complex systems:

The human body arises from, but is something more than, the interactions of a heart, a brain, and other organs. These organs in turn, are comprised of and supersede collections of living cells and neurons. And so on. (Davis et al, 2000, p. 55). 

These systems are reacting to dynamic, nonlinear interactions from other parts that are unpredictable and, quite likely, invisible.

I want to take this perspective and use it to problematise current understandings of HE institutions, such as universities. Let’s say that universities are seen as complicated systems: it could be argued they are management-orientated and highly regulated, bureaucratic institutions. Their focus on skills-based conceptions of learning commodifies knowledge, champions the individual leaner and positions learning as a result of deliberate planning. They are (trying to be) predictable and rational.

Instead, if we were to envisage universities for the next generation as complex adaptive systems – or, in fact, complex learning systems – we can begin to locate universities in an ecology of interdependent, unfolding events. A complex learning system is one:

where learning is understood as a process through which a unity becomes capable of more flexible, more creative activity that enables the unity to maintain its fit to its ever evolving context. (Davis and Sumara, 2006, p. 92)[3]

In line with complexity theory then, such a system is characterised by its ability to adapt itself to changing circumstances: the emergence of endless possibilities, continual uncertainty and disordering dynamics can enable a system to transform. It is only through this disorder that a healthy system can function – disturbances are always needed if there is going to be learning. So the disturbance by partnerships, by competition, by the Internet and by developments in Asia can be envisioned as positive disturbances that have the ability to transform the systems of HE. Therefore, instead of complicated systems that can run down, complex learning systems can defy entropy and spontaneously generate order.

I think I may now be playing with laws of thermodynamics that are far beyond my understanding but what is most important here, I think, is this idea of uncertainty. We don’t – we can’t – know what technology advances will hold for the education sector. The rapid innovation of technology has, at its essence, this element of the unknown and the unpredictable and, with it, an interdependent (unknown) influence on educational practices. So, if we can think of ways to keep open these tensions and disturbances, to encourage educators to attune to emerging ideas and possible actions, and to work positively in uncertainty, then we can seize Barber’s challenge, rather than remain complacent.

Surely then, this is a healthier way to conceptualise the future of HE. However, I’m sure that in our neoliberal era of accountability, the idea of a self-organising system seems just too radical. This would present more of a challenge than one would possibly like to imagine. But it’s nice to mess about and make those daisy chains!

[1] Cited from the Preface and Executive Summary of Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly, Saad Rizvi (2013). An Avalanche Is Coming Higher education and the revolution ahead. Institute for Public Policy Research.

[2] Davis, B., Sumara, D., and Luce-Kapler, R., 2000. Engaging minds: Learning and teaching in a complex world. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., London.

[3] Davis, B., and Sumara, D., 2006. Complexity and education: Inquiries into learning, teaching, and research. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mawah, NJ.

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