Friday, 27 May 2011

“Complexity Theory, Wicked Problems, COPs and Jorum, or How I Am Trying to Over-intellectualise Everything”

Just by way of a brief introduction, my name is Frank Manista and I am the new community engagement officer for Jorum. I’ve worked as an academic, teaching English literature as a visiting professor in the U.S. and now here with the Open University. I’ve also worked for the Centre of Excellence in Enquiry-Based Learning (CEEBL) prior to its close last June, at the University of Manchester. I like to kick around ideas and make connections, no matter how strained sometimes, in order to see what happens. I enjoy lively discussions, and this blog is meant to be taken in that way.

Coming to the issue of OERs and national repositories relatively late in my own academic career as a university lecturer, the issues surrounding support for teaching through the use of material deposited, stored, and disseminated in an online repository, such as Jorum, seemed both alien and familiar. At the end of the day, we can only anticipate so much about what a potential user would want; on the other hand, as an academic, I am often struck by the sheer overwhelming amount of material available to me, to the point that I need to walk away. In trying to figure out the direction for Jorum as it moves and evolves, it is clear that we can only determine so much before we allow the eco-system to interact with one another, potentially creating a service we could hardly have anticipated. Who could have predicted how and why a military tool called the Arpanet would breach cultural and national barriers once it became the Internet? Who could have prefigured a non-linear, complex, multi-faceted technological system in place already by the early 90s would morph into Clouds, Web-2, APIs, and Widgets?

At the recent Open Nottingham conference in April 2011, I was struck by Greg DeKoenigsberg’s statement in his presentation that “there is no community of practice for OERs”. He made the comment as much for shock value as for a precise and telling epiphany: we cannot predict with any kind of certainty what will be needed in a service or data centre because there are simply too many variables. While it is true that there is not one, single community of practice for open educational resources, therefore certainly and necessarily means that there are, in fact, a diverse and richly varied series of open-ended, organic and complex communities of practices for any particular set of OERS in a variety of combinations and styles. There can never be one single source, answer, system for all, because the use, dissemination, integration, and interpretation of any source material is necessarily part of a complexity, whose depth and movement can only be asymptotically appreciated. Education is, indeed, a messy business, and there is some value in acknowledging and retaining that messiness.

In short, the use, dissemination, integration, and interpretation of any information must be appreciated in light of something like complexity or chaos theory, defined by Stephen Kellert in In the Wake of Chaos: Unpredictable Order in Dynamical Systems as “the qualitative study of unstable aperiodic behaviour in deterministic nonlinear dynamical systems”: “unstable” and “aperiodic” because the behaviour of the system does not repeat itself; “deterministic” meaning that the behaviour is not random, even though it may appear as such; “non-linear” suggesting that the output of the system is not directly proportional to the input; and “dynamical” positing that it changes over time. However, within this definition, Vincent Valle, Jr. also points out in “Chaos, Complexity and Deterence” that although complex, the behavioural system can stem from simple causes; its predictability may be impossible, even though it is determined; and quite significantly, although not included in the above definition, is that “iteration or feedback, in which the output of the system is used as the input in the next calculation.” It would seem that this definition is both the blessing and the bane of those who attempt to sow the wind of information and educational resources.

In the case of an online repository, although seemingly straightforward (you deposit stuff or your take stuff; what can be simpler?) the number of potential variables remains vast, whether they are involved with depositing, sharing, and re-purposing; we simply cannot connect all the potential causal variants. The idea posits a Wicked Problem, meaning that there is no, one, single “neat and tidy” answer to the issues of information and knowledge creation and use in such a complex, seemingly living system. This idea was recently echoed by Vice Chancellor of Salford University, Martin Hall, in his presentation, “Toward the Triumph of the Commons” at OER11 on the 13th of May 2011. Although it might appear, when we think of “the commons” that individuals are inherently self-interested and will most likely destroy, in the name of self- interest, the thing which is valued by the entire community, the issue of open educational resources and knowledge production and sharing simply do not fit into that reductionist paradigm. For one, knowledge “is non-exlcudable”, meaning we cannot use it up. Citing Manuel Castellis, with the rise of the Digital Revolution, of which repositories like Jorum are a direct result, “knowledge is available everywhere, anytime, in any quantity and at a diminishing price,” and OERs always already successful despite the seeming tragedy of a loss of the communal space. The new public university will need an open access repository at its core, with research, resources and data freely and openly available. There is even the possibility of revenue generation, according to Hall, but from the value-added rather than rents and tolls, and it remains the task of those who work in these fields to ensure that opportunities are widened and deepened rather than creating greater restrictions. As I was listening to the inspiring talk, I realised that, in much the way I’d been planning this blog, it was yet another example of a complex, non-linear, indeed potentially living system which offered the greatest good and could potentially reinvigorate the idea of the university as a place of public scholarship and knowledge production.

So how Jorum seeks to (re)present itself in light of this concept involves some exciting steps: we are set out to be both national, meaning big, and agile, two relative states which do not always sit comfortably with one another – both responsive to the needs and suggestions of the communities who come to us, yet anticipative and lithe enough to create innovations for the possibilities which have yet to arise. All in all, what I am repeatedly hearing from the discussions covering OERs, COPS, and repositories is that we need a both/and approach always; we cannot simply say “we are going to be X” and leave it at that. It isn’t so much that we need to “change for change’s sake” as overly simplistic leadership models often suggest, but that we know definitely that change is coming and we can try to figure out what that might mean, accepting that we can only get so close; like the people in the back of Plato’s cave, we see the shadows. However, put another way, although we may see through a glass darkly, that doesn’t mean we are blind and deaf: we are watching, we are listening, we are responding, and we are changing and will continue to do so and serve both the current and future communities of teachers and practitioners.

The Jorum of the future will enable users to search, store, find, and discuss important ideas surrounding OERs and pedagogy more easily and allow for improved navigation and discovery; we are looking to deepen our relationships across HE and FE institutions and create a strong foundation of robust, sound, challenging, and collegial collaboration with practitioners across the UK and throughout the world.


  1. Interesting. And I certainly agree that all services, repositories included, need to be agile enough to respond to the needs of their users, otherwise they will loose them.

    Incidentally you might find it useful to refer to the report written by John Robertson, Julie Allinson and Mahendra Mahey in 2008, which explores these issues in some detail though the metaphor of ecological modelling. "An Ecological Approach To Repository And Service Interactions." The authors characterise the challenges repositories must address in terms of:

    * A mess - a complex issue that is not well formulated or defined
    ƒ* A problem - a well formulated/ defined issue but with no single solution”
    * A puzzle - a well defined problem with a single solution that can be worked out

  2. Thanks, Lorna. I will have a look at that. Those distinctions remind me a bit of Churchill's comments regarding Russia as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma".