Article Review – Using mLearning and MOOCs to understand chaos, emergence, and complexity in education

As part of my doctoral process, I have to review a lot of literature. A LOT. To motivate me to keep track of the resources as I read them, I am going to try to post summaries of the pertinent articles here. My hope is that I will get in the habit of writing and summarizing so that the literature review portion of my dissertation is easier to write. We’ll see if that works, and if I can keep up with the summaries!


Waard, I. de, Abajian, S., Gallagher, M. S., Hogue, R., Keskin, N., Koutropoulos, A., & Rodriguez, O. C. (2011). Using mLearning and MOOCs to understand chaos, emergence, and complexity in education.The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning,12(7), 94–115. Retrieved from 


The article describes a research-based case study of the six-week MobiMOOC that compares survey results from students in the massive open online course (MOOC) with chaos theory, emergence, and complexity theory.

MobiMOOC was a 6-week MOOC about mLearning that ran from April 2 to May 14, 2011. A total of 556 participants joined the Google group that facilitated course communication, but only 74 participants were active throughout the course. Thirty-two students were memorably active, and 40 students completed the survey.

The authors first establish that MOOCs are open and adaptive complex systems. Because MOOCs are self-regulating, tenets of chaos theory can be used to understand the flow of information into the course, between participants, and out of the course into the environment. Given the wide variety of factors that impact teaching and learning in the Knowledge Age, such openness and adaptability will be crucial to redesigning education for current and future needs.

The authors argue that the MobiMOOC meets the four conditions for emergent phenomena posited by Davis & Sumara: internal diversity, internal redundancy, neighbor interactions, and decentralized control. The participants of MobiMOOC showed internal diversity in age, gender, and geographic location. The MOOC also exhibited internal redundancy in a common language, common interest in mLearning, willingness to share ideas, and a minimum level of digital literacy. Neighbor interactions requires that participants share “ideas, hunches, queries, and other manners of representation,” which occurs naturally in a social and open MOOC like MobiMOOC. In addition, although MobiMOOC was coordinated centrally, participants were responsible for their own learning, which fulfills the decentralized control condition.

Survey results showed that the diversity, neighbor interactions, and decentralized control paid off for participants: 92.5% discovered new interests or ideas from people in other areas of expertise than their own. In addition, 42.5% of respondents connected with other MobiMOOC participants to collaborate on projects after the course. All of the respondents reported sharing learning from the course with others outside of the course, predominantly with colleagues, which facilitated further neighbor interactions and spreading of knowledge outside of the system.

Potential Application/Relevance

This article provides a possible theoretical framework for researching learning within a MOOC as well as interesting methods of interpreting participation data (punch cards).


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