Mess: complexity and serendipity

Our final core theme explores a number of perspectives that challenge some dominant accounts of technology, and education itself, as leading to greater alignment, efficiency and seamlessness. These readings demonstrate why such ambitions may be not only unachievable, but also undesirable. Mess, complexity and serendipity may play a critical role in our educational futures – not least if we take seriously current concerns around technological complexity: for example, artificial intelligences that can speak to each other but that humans cannot understand;  and (as we have already seen), complex algorithmic interactions that have significant real-world consequences. To what extent should our digital experiences and information landscape be personalised and ‘curated’ for us? If aspects of teaching and learning are inherently ‘messy’, how will these aspects be valued in our future digital education?


Core readings:

Gough, N. (2013). Towards deconstructive nonalignment : a complexivist view of curriculum, teaching and learning. South African Journal of Higher Education 27(5), 1213-1233. (no official open source version, but a search may turn something up.) Gough critiques educational concepts from the past and the present, especially the concept of ‘constructive alignment’, for attempting to erase or neglect the complexity of education. Drawing on multiple examples of complexity, and complexity reduction, in the sciences, he argues that “complexity offers ways to think about educational inputs and outcomes that do not assume that causal relationships between them are, or should only be, instrumental. Complexity suggests that at least some educational processes ought to be characterised by gaps between ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’” (p.1221). He offers his own alternative to ‘constructive alignment’ – ‘deconstructive nonalignment’, which understands curriculum as ‘story’ and ‘text’ that can be used as a focus for ‘speculation and/or hypothesis to be tested’ (p.1224). He closes by exploring the idea of ‘evidence’ as a site of complexity reduction in education.

Makri, S., Blandford, A., Woods, M., Sharples, S., Maxwell, D. (2014). “Making my own luck”: Serendipity strategies and how to support them in digital information environments. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 65(11), 2179 – 2194. . Open access version at . Drawing on data from interviews with 14 creative professionals, the researchers explore strategies for “propel[ing] users in useful directions they might not otherwise have traveled in” (p.2180). The paper reviews previous research on this topic, and analyses some of the serendipity stories told by interviewees. It goes on to explore the strategies identified, and consider how these can be supported by digital information environment design.

Shepard, M. (2013). Minor urbanism: everyday entanglements of technology and urban life. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies. 483-494. No open access version, but there is a summary of some of the key ideas here: explores, through some fascinating examples, the ways that technology and the city are intertwined, and how they might be further entangled in the future. He urges us to be critical of oversimplified claims about the seamlessness of these entanglements, and tries to show how “this complex intermingling of people, space and data is a messy affair” (p.484), introducing the concept of “minor urbanism” to refer to “stubborn and resistant gaps and interruptions within an otherwise optimized and efficient urban milieu” (p.486).

In the news:

AI Is Inventing Languages Humans Can’t Understand. Should We Stop It? (Wilson, 2017). This article describes Facebook’s recent research into negotiation software agents, and the accidental discovery that these agents could develop their own shorthand which their human programmers could not follow. Wilson poses some questions about the ethical and security implications of such developments.

Facebook fights fake news with links to other angles (Constine 2017). In response to critiques about their role in propagating so-called ‘fake news’, Facebook has been developing mechanisms aiming to address this. The latest is a ‘related articles’ tool which attempts to provide fact checked perspectives on commonly linked topics and stories – to provide more information rather than to block material.

Criticism of India’s Smart Cities Mission is mounting (Chatterjee, 2017). The ‘smart city’ movement is gathering steam globally, and many promises are being made for its potential. How it interacts with the ‘messiness’ of issues around inclusion, gentrification and more is the topic of this article. (and, regarding week 2’s theme, you might also like to check this out: Smart cities to drive video surveillance market in India: Seagate. )


Additional readings:

Bleecker, J. (2006). A manifesto for networked objects — Cohabiting with pigeons, arphids and Aibos in the Internet of Things . Now something of a classic, this 2006 paper looked ahead to the increasing potential for ICT devices connected to the Internet, the so-called Internet of Things, to interact and to mimic human actors by blogging (blogjects) and, by implication, tweeting (tweetjects). It predicts and discusses some implications of a cacophony of inanimate objects murmuring into cyberspace or getting lost in their own private conversations.

Ross, J. and Collier, A. (2016). Complexity, Mess, and Not-Yetness: Teaching Online with Emerging Technologies. In G Veletsianos (ed) Emergence and Innovation in Digital Learning: Foundations and Applications. Athabasca University Press. . This chapter looks specifically at digital education, and uses ideas of mess and complexity to counter the tendency the authors see towards framing the benefits of online learning in terms of “speed, simplicity and efficiency” (p.18). They introduce the concept of ‘not-yetness’ as a way of thinking about emergence, complexity and the unanticipated, and discuss course design, embodiment and accountability through this lens.

Fenwick, T ; Dahlgren, M.A. (2015). Towards socio‐material approaches in simulation‐based education: lessons from complexity theory. Medical Education 49(4), 359–367. . Open access version: . Fenwick and Dahlgren look at simulation-based professional education (which is sometimes, but not always, technology-based) from a complexity perspective, examining how simulations can work with concepts like ‘enabling constraints’, ‘anticipatory action’, and ‘disordering elements’. They make recommendations for educators when developing simulations and helping students and professionals to engage with them.


Discussion questions:

To what extent do you think we rely on concepts of “educational engineering” in digital education, and how can complexity thinking help us here?

What digital education futures might make use of deconstructive nonalignment?

Share your own serendipity story, if you have one, and use it to reflect on what your own ideal serendipity-opportunity machine, bot or system would do. Makri et al’s paper can help you identify functionality that would be important to you.

What is the importance of “mess” (as Shepard calls it) in our understanding of ubiquitous futures for learning?

Watch the video that Shepard refers to early in his paper – “The Catalogue”, by Chris Oakley. How do you respond to this vision, and what are its educational implications?