The Butterfly Learner: chaotic learning
August 17, 2007
An idea that I have passed around for ages is how the Butterfly Effect applies to what happens with learners. This well known application of chaos theory to weather prediction says that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Japan then the way weather systems work means that this could impact on how a hurricane across the other side of the world plays out some months later. This does not mean that we need to go around attacking butterflies but rather that we need to recognise that modelling weather long-term depends on all the details that happen, and so we cannot expect to build perfect predictions. For meterology this meant giving up on trying to build software that goes forwards more than a few days.
[An aside here: having just been on holiday in France and finding it hard to find a decent Meteo forecast on French TV it is obvious that the UK really does have a weather fixation!]
Back to learning. What I have observed repeatedly is that on the teaching side we carefully set up situations where we expect learners to do something and then they do something else. This was probably always true of teaching but online learning seems to emphasise the effect and also make us more worried about the consequences. To give a couple of examples back when I worked at Heriot-Watt University we were trying to work out what was the best way to encourage participation in the course conference (round 1995) – should we enforce posting through assessment or just let things flow. Anyway we changed our assessment rules over a couple of years and had some nice results: assess and get lots of shallow posts, don’t assess and get deeper contributions. But when you actually looked at what happened it was really down to different students acting in different ways, with some deep posts kicking off discussion one year that did not happen the other. At the time I termed this the Finbar Factor after the name of the student involved (who later on became an educational researcher and might well still be out there – so apologies for using your name!).More recently I have seen similar things from year to year with courses where the profile of students was the same and yet each group would have a rather different experience. Even when the same tutor takes on two groups at the same time and does the same thing with each of them I know cases where one takes off and the other doesn’t. I suspect that this happens all the time and recently in a CALRG presentation there was a great example of having split a popular course into two conference areas, I think it was red-group and blue-group with much more heated discussion in the red area!
So if what happens actually depends on some small action by a learner, perhaps we have the Butterfly Learner. Perhaps those who flap their wings a bit more fiercely an change everything.
What applies to conferences I also think applies to material. I made a minor change to a part of my course material from one year to the next bu adding a bullet point. The previous year that aspect (scenario designs in multi-media) had been pretty much skipped across the students on the course. The next it had a real role and came up in what the students where doing.
So maybe there is also the Butterfly Punctuation – minor changes to emphasis also changing everything.
My interest in this strongly links to my interest in Learning Design. At one level it could all be pointless – no matter what you design, what happens in practice could be very different. And certainly trying to code for every possibility starts to look a thankless task. At the other though if we can get a handle on representing designs then maybe we can work out the stable ones and the less stable. I also think that there is a real chance to work on what it means to learn at the edge of chaos, when interesting things happen and there is a lot of dynamic.And what is the butterfly that pushed me to finally write some of this down: see Martin’s post to see that actually this is also an example of responding to the prompt of assessment!