Santa Fe Institute

Q&A with Melanie Mitchell on SFI’s massive open online course in complexity

Sept. 17, 2013 2:53 p.m.

In early 2013, SFI External Professor Melanie Mitchell taught the Institute’s first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).

The 16-week course, “Introduction to Complexity,” drew nearly 7,100 students. It marked the debut of a series of free courses and resources for complexity science SFI is providing through the online Complexity Explorer.

Approximately 1,200 participants finished the course successfully, a 17 percent completion rate (much higher than the MOOC average).

SFI is re-offering "Introduction to Complexity" beginning September 30, 2013. See the announcement for more information.

As Mitchell prepares to begin the course again, she offers her thoughts to SFI science writer Jenna Marshall about the first SFI MOOC and what the future holds for future online courses in complexity.

Marshall: In spring 2013 you taught SFI’s first MOOC. What kind of student were you envisioning when you proposed the course?

Mitchell: The person I was mostly targeting with the lectures was anybody who had heard about complex systems, who thought it was interesting but didn’t know too much about it, and was interested to find out what it was all about.

There were graduate students in various sciences and social sciences. There were high school students, retirees, faculty from universities, physicians, managers – you name it. And these were people from all over the world. We had maybe 100 countries represented.

Marshall: How does the MOOC fit in with the Complexity Explorer project?

Mitchell: Complexity Explorer is a more general website for collecting resources for complexity science education, and MOOCs are a subset of it. Right now they’re the main things that are going on with that project, but by the end of the summer we plan to have a lot more. Complexity Explorer will have a library of simulations that people can play with, along with curricula that include write-ups about the simulation topic and exercises for students.

So, for example, if you were a teacher and you wanted to teach your students about fractals, you could take some of our fractal units, which include NetLogo simulations and write-ups, and you could use them in your class.

Marshall: Do you think this MOOC can change the way people see their world on a day-today basis?

Mitchell: I think so. One of the lessons of complex systems is that interactions matter as much as, if not more than, the entities themselves. A lot of things we talk about in the course, including social networks, genetics, and so on, are really based on interactions that cause new kinds of phenomena to happen. You wouldn’t understand by just looking at the entities themselves, and I think that mindset is new for some people. Also, the mindset that complex behaviors can come about without a sort of central controller directing them – they arise just out of the interactions of individuals. People can see that happening in their lives.

The topics are intrinsically interesting. Such topics are also coming up more and more in thinking about issues like climate change, which involves dynamics to a big degree. Thinking about modeling and simulation and how they fit into policy and decisions made by government is important for people given the problems we face in our world.

Marshall: What does the future hold for SFI MOOCs?

Mitchell: I’m going to be re-doing the same course in the fall with more or less the same topics. We have another course lined up for January called “Dynamics and Chaos” that’s going to be taught by Dave Feldman from College of the Atlantic.

I’m hoping that in the future we’ll be offering more such classes, that there will be a path for people to go from beginning to more advanced through this program, and that we may eventually partner with other institutions to offer for-credit options. Right now we’re sort of feeling out the territory, and our SFI program is filling a particular niche that isn’t being filled by other MOOCs.

For more information about the MOOC, visit www.complexityexplorer.org

"Introduction to Complexity" gets a positive review in this blog post

Read about the course on Sean Carroll's blog "Preposterous Universe" (December 21, 2012)

Read an interview with Mitchell in Portland State University's Vanguard (January 23, 2013)

Development of the Complexity Explorer is supported by an SFI grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

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