Complexity, self-organization, and #Change11: reactions to Siemen’s presentation on online courses

I read a recent presentation from George Siemens on Self-Organization in Online Courses (embedded below) that addressed some aspects of learning complexity (through the context of a MOOC) that intrigued me. In particular, I enjoyed several of the sources/quotes as they gave me pause to reflect on my own learning as it progresses through Change 2011 (complex), and my everyday life (more complex). However, I am quite confident there is gold in them mountains so we need to sift through the chaos to create signal, perhaps even a pattern language.

I liken this process to language itself and the alphabet. The alphabet developed to take a series of meanings and weld it to one symbol (a process more pronounced in Chinese and ancient Egyptian perhaps) that everyone might recognize and accept. The numbers are like this as well. Monetary currency is a symbol of immense complexity, at least it represents a structure of such complexity that it proves inaccessible but for only the most astute among us. Hence, money. It is paper and metal and we understand it and it gets us things. It reduces the complexity, yes, but more importantly it provides a starting point for a common process. Without it, we would be lost in theory. 

The same holds for learning to some degree. We look for structure, but if none exists on sight, we combine things until some structure emerges. That structure can be represented in a single symbol, but its foundation might shift as new understanding emerges. Occasionally, there is need to ditch the symbols or invent a new one altogether as emerging learning dictates. That is a healthy and complicated process. The MOOC captures this process a bit and adheres to an open structure to allow pattern language to emerge, a shared vocabulary, a knowledge construct (however ephemeral). I digress. 

Complex systems: “a set of diverse actors who dynamically interact with one another awash in a sea of feedbacks”-Miller and Page, 2007. 

Feedback as friction as forces interact. A spark, a collision, waste, and occasionally a nova. A big (learning) bang. This makes me think a learner’s responsibility (among many others) is to be open to this collision of actors, agents, feedback, waste, noise, and then, ideally, pattern, understanding. The only way out is through. It is a good way to not only look at the complexity of an open learning system (MOOC), but rather at life itself. Substitute actors for countries, actors for cultures, actors for learners/teachers/professionals and you have a healthy, relatively sturdy framework for life and interaction on this earth. A good learning environment to model a course after. 

Complexity: “disturbing traits of mess, of the inextricable, or disorder, of ambiguity, or uncertainty”-Morin, 2008. 

The vocabulary just jumps off the page here and much of it is valid.

Disturbing- an ontological disturbance, an unknown, an uncanny sense of veering through uncharted, potentially treacherous waters. It is a good place to be as a learner, but it requires a strength and confidence that only an empowered learner could put forth. But in that disturbance, that mess, there is the friction, that meat-grinder of understanding. A rough strife of openness, interaction, collaboration, failure, and ultimately understanding. We should never dismiss the power of uncertainty in sharpening our senses and our intellect. Is it possible to know something that you knew before? If it isn’t uncertain, is it worth knowing? This is learning as curiosity and sometimes it can be quite scary. 

Coherence-“an ancient urge to seek a comprehensive picture of the world- for the sake of understanding ourselves, for knowledge’s sake, and not the least for acting as best as we can” -Cordero, 2007. 

That is a great quote and quite possibly the impulse for much informal and formal learning. Informally to comprehend that what is happening to us, to see through the veneer of randomness and find pattern from the complexity, to know how to subsequently act and navigate through it, to be soothed simply by knowing how something works even if we lack the power to change it. Often we seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge (anyone subjected to my endless banal history lessons will understand this), but I do believe that most learning is action oriented. To learn not only to get a job, to live in a world, to subsist, but rather for acting as best as we can. For improvement, for progress, for self-actualization. While it might seem askew that self-actualization (the development of self) can only be realized through sharing, group interaction (the development of the group), that is the power of collaboration. It is a disaggregated, emotive, functional machine of interaction. One that has to be tinkered with constantly. 

Many thanks for the presentation, George. 

Self-Organization in Open Online Courses [slideshare id=9353004&w=425&h=355&sc=no]

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About Author

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.


  1. Hi Michael,How do you cope with the cognitive load of MOOCing? So many potential connections, so much content, so many ideas, so much complexity. What does this require of the learner? Jane Wilde, #change11

  2. Hello there, Jane,For MOOCs, the cognitive load issue is a highly significant one, but I suppose the hope is that by designing our own learning environments (what we choose to follow and ignore), we reduce the cognitive load necessary to learn any new system (someone else’s system). So rather than spend my time learning Blackboard, I can simply focus on configuring my familiar environment to the new learning activity (MOOC). I think the complexity part is what we want to save our cognitive ability for. The complexity is the engine of the whole MOOC, or its source of strength. I have only done one other MOOC before, but I am very comfortable with #Change11 in that I just linger. I take energy from the discussions and then bring that energy and those ideas here and reflect. It lowers the overload a bit. I think every learner should have a place of sanctuary and solitude and for me that is this blog. A place to reflect on the energy and complexity of the MOOC format. So it is important to engage and learn and interact as much as possible, but it is equally important to introspect, to reflect, to make sense and to compose. A blog is perfect for that. A place where I transform data into knowledge. That is just me. How do you deal with the complexity, Jane?

  3. Thanks for posting this.I’m not sure educational instituions have ever, can ever, address complexity. It is after all, everything :)Nonetheless, a mooc allows for it because the user decides which complex areas of interest to follow. I love the description of a “disturbing trait of mess” Seems to suggest that this is not desirable- however isn’t this the continual state of flux of interactions in a world?Not undesirable, just acknowledging that this is reality and that a navigation system is therefore needed.And encouragement then to set one’s own. Can I be trusted, again an interesting opener from George.Presuming this is something that those bounded by institutionalised thinking might espouse.If networked learning doesnt have a hierarchy, of someone telling me what i should or must do…if top down and inside/outside binaries can be abandoned with networking…then who gets to decide if Im trustworthy?I learn because i want to, i engage as Im able, that I choose or elect to do it here is because the course makes a possibility more accessible as others with like interests can mingle and share thoughts.ailsa

  4. Hello there, Ailsa!,You raise some good points and many thanks for the interaction as it helps clarify my thinking a bit. I wanted to address a few of your points below:”I’m not sure educational institutions have ever, can ever, address complexity. It is after all, everything 🙂 Nonetheless, a mooc allows for it because the user decides which complex areas of interest to follow. “Agreed; although I would argue that educational institutions can prepare (to some degree) learners for dealing with complexity in open systems (ie, life). I think of an educational organization as a scaffolded learning environment and the complexity of real life would be taking the training wheels off (mixing metaphors here). So, a purposeful thinking, a philosophy of logic, teaching discernment, evaluation, self-empowerment, self-reliance, while not the purview of schools in general (at least not my formative schooling), should be their focus going forward. MOOCs are open systems, but I think schools (as closed systems) complement them well as they can (should) prepare students by teaching evaluation, reflection, application. They can’t deal with complexity, that is true. “I love the description of a “disturbing trait of mess” Seems to suggest that this is not desirable- however isn’t this the continual state of flux of interactions in a world? Not undesirable, just acknowledging that this is reality and that a navigation system is therefore needed.”I like the mess description as well as that is what chaos/complexity is all about. It is only after we engage and take our first action and receive our first feedback in this complexity, do we know what the parameters are (if there are any). Until then, it is a theoretical exercise. “I learn because i want to, i engage as Im able, that I choose or elect to do it here is because the course makes a possibility more accessible as others with like interests can mingle and share thoughts.”Agree with you here. This is the ultimate goal of this type of education/learning. A self-reliance, a self-empowered learner. Confident, but open to newness. Structured, but not rigid. Networked, but with a voice. Thanks Ailsa!

  5. Hi Michael,I blogged my response here Thanks for asking.”I’ve just read two posts by Michael Gallagher Complexity, self-organization, and #Change11: reactions to Siemen’s presentation(1) and Multiple interfaces, cognitive load and learning design: My appartment in Seoul (2). In the former Gallagher discusses the pattern making process we use to make sense from the chaotic stuff of life (and learning in a MOOC). In the latter he takes us on a fanciful tour of his high tech Korean apartment, a device to explore interface design and cognitive load.Complexity and cognitive load – two of my favorite topics….”

  6. Thanks for letting me know, Esme! I added a comment on your blog as well discussing some of your points on cognitive load, at least the distinction between germaine and extraneous cognitive load varieties and how MOOCs toy a bit with both.

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