The Butterfly Learner: chaotic learning

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!

12 Responses to The Butterfly Learner: chaotic learning

  1. AJ Cann says:

    A pragmatic answer to such concerns would be to say, “Let’s stop worrying so much about learning design and concern ourselves more with competence-based learning outcomes”.
    Unfashionable, but if learning/learners really is/are chaotic, probably the only possible response. We know we can’t stop hurricanes/floods, but we can minimize the impact of the damage.

  2. Nigel G says:

    I’m fascinated by this as I’ve seen the Finbar Factor first-hand year on year. I’m less convinced by the Butterfly Punctuation though. I think it’s probably a conceit to think that many readers are deeply moved by minor punctuation changes 🙂

    I’m more interested in how we can move the furniture back to give more space for this/these chaotic learning/learners. Is this another part of the current trend (fad?) for “democratisation”? (Can I use that word without also saying “Web 2.0”?) Are we looking at moving even further away from the idea that “teachers” mediate and control learning?

  3. Patrick McAndrew says:

    Thank you Alan & Nigel,
    I have to agree with both of you! I certainly feel on weaker ground for Butterfly Punctuation, after all every time you try to test out these ideas the Butterfly Learners are waiting to mess up results. Probably should have left it out but such small changes are what makes me think that capturing all everything in one great learning design will never give consistent results, though for human factors rather than typographic!

    What the consequences are is the interesting point: should we abandon learning design as pointless? My feeling is no as the framework of the designs can help spark ideas and serve as an aid to communication, but perhaps we need to avoid getting bogged down in detail. My instant reaction is also that competences and learning outcomes do not feel like the solution: do we really believe these are the same for everybody? Does it matter if they aren’t?

    Moving into a more chaotic approach on the other hand does feel interesting and to offer something. Only problem is I am not too sure what it means :-).

  4. Nigel says:

    I am called upon to talk about OpenLearn from time to time – usually to groups of educators eager to grab quality materials from wherever they can. I use the term “Glen Miller design”. I imagine a course being created from separate modules (learning objects anyone?) strung together with locally provided context and assessment – a string of pearls.

    Would this looser assembly of gobbets of learning meet the idea of “design”? Does it offer enough space for chaotic learning? Might less confident learners (and educators!) flounder if there is less scaffolding?

  5. Gill says:

    “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.”

    This rang a bell for me. I did three online courses and my experience was that some people enjoyed the conferences and got alot out of them, posting deeply reflective posts. Others were less taken with the collaborative model of learning and avoided posting. Some were initially a little nervous and were either encouraged by the frequent, confident posters, or put off. Not sure how to effect a change other than the superficial one you describe, Patrick. Although I suspect that more scaffolding from fellow learners is the answer. Once learners feel a part of a group, I think social factors come into play which may help.

    As for the chaotic butterfly learner who does what he/she wants with the learning materials. I was on one course, I and three other learners from other tutor groups wanted to collaborate cross-group. However, due to the organisational headache that would give the poor tutors, we were told that we couldn’t do this.

    … we went underground 🙂 We collaborated “behind the scenes” via email. Whenever anything got posted or discussed in either group, whoever was in that tutor group would simply email it to the others and we carried on the collaborative discussion by email.

    I love the concept of the butterfly learner who subverts learning materials to suit his or her own ends 🙂 Trouble is, the course designers may never be aware that it happened.

  6. Patrick says:

    I think subversion is happening all the time and quite rightly so. The impact of more online and open courses though means that subversion can spread more quickly. So online courses operate at the cusp of chaos without the stability imposed by face to face presence. This can be a good thing as options open up for different ways forward if choices really do bifurcate and life gets more interesting. Or it could just be a mess. Your example is of a very nice alternative operating behind the scenes.

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  9. Pingback: Is this course chaotic or complex? « Jenny Connected?

  10. Terri Rees says:

    I found this site by chance, and also by chance I am currently trying to co-write a series of journal articles about an implementation of chaotic learning that my colleague introduced a little over a year ago. We think that increased use of technology in H.E. has highlighted that way students learn chaotically for themselves – despite being channelled in any particular direction from tutors.

    Have your thoughts about chaotic learning and the butterfly effect developed any further since your initial post on the subject?

  11. Terri Rees says:

    Sorry for this post – forgot to tick the boxes below on my last post.

  12. Patrick says:

    Hi Terri,
    What a coincidence – I have just been having some after dinner chat at the OER10 conference and was saying that I was still interested in the role of chaos in learning. So I went back to this post and found a fresh comment.
    As for your question – I do think my thoughts have moved on but not in a written down way. Since writing that post I have been heavily involved in Open Educational Resources and how we can share them, learn with them, and research them. Part of this has been to look at the behaviour of those who come across the content and the spark it gives to those users – some of whom do become learners, and some of whom become social users of the OER. In everyday terms the experience of the open learner has become chaotic with many alternative paths and tools, different connections to be made and potentially benefits in embracing the chaos to open up options and still find a learning experience.
    On the other hand I have not followed up as intended on considering the system as a chaotic model – i.e. looking at the difference between stable situations and unstable and seeing how in practice we can measure the uncertainty. Ideally with a Mathematical model to at least provide a comparison. So good intentions remain, and my interest does as well so I will be interested to see your thoughts on chaotic learning when they appear.

    Thanks for the comments,

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