Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 28 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Embracing Emergence


Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 28 seconds

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Embracing emergence. This is something that’s being talked about simulataneously in different places (not sure if it’s because I am in all of them or if it’s a coincidence; I assume a combination of both since I am pretty sure I did not influence Gardner Campbell’s #et4online talk or Amy Collier’s not-yetness, but I do know I influenced the #rhizo14 CAE and untext, and asked Matt Croslin to write about emergent outcomes in instructional design).

flickr photo shared by Leonard John Matthews under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

So what is emergence, to me?
First, let me start with Matt Croslin – I agree with the idea of looking at a course design or learning design as play-doh and legos. I generally like referring to it that way (thought I sort of had invented it, but apparently not since Matt uses the same terms). So in some ways, when I think about how I am going to teach a course, I have several possible Lego blocks of things I might want to do, not in any particular order, or in some order that I could shift later and would still fit with the rest. Sometimes I have play-doh, raw material whose shape I don’t know in advance. I am not sure if Matt is suggesting faculty need to sit and list all their Legos or play-doh on their syllabus? It seems like it would take forever. On the other hand, I actually DO usually blog about all the ideas I am thinking of for a particular course, over time. Just not all of it goes into my syllabus.

Second, beyond the above, there are ideas that emerge much more spontaneously than this. So yes, I do what Matt suggests which is leave room for things unplanned. But I also modify things completely into things I’d never thought of before – sometimes a day before class, sometimes an hour before class, sometimes in the middle of class in response to my students’ reactions to what we’re doing.

Third, it means embracing distraction. In a recent talk by Jesse Stommel (which he generously asked Tracy to Periscope and tweet me the link) he talked about harnessing distraction rather than worrying about managing it. For me, this is a kind of embracing emergence. For example, I started a research idea for #rhizo15, then got busy with other stuff, and other people started chiming in their ideas – some of it on track with what I had in mind, some of it not, but it still ended up being something interesting and much better than what I would have produced if I had decided to lead and direct and focus everyone.

The untext we wrote for #rhizo14 is the biggest embracing of emergence I’ve ever had. It started with a Twitter DM convo with Keith then we opened it up to others… and we just let it flow. It was not meant to turn out the way it did, but it is much better for the lack of control we exerted over it. Sure, we tried to publish it “as is”, as an artifact of digital, rhizomatic collaboration in its own right, but folks at HP persuaded us to write a legible text around it – and it’s so much better for having both the legible and chaotic elements in it.

When you produce dissenting work, different from the norm, following a path you are passionate about and you know others might not understand… you take a lot of rejection, you face a lot of resistance… and then you find champions who try to understand you, to help you get heard… and some of these people are the ones I have met through #rhizo14 and Hybrid Pedagogy. In giving us feedback on this piece, Jesse said “I think this is quite likely the best article we’ve published on Hybrid Pedagogy to date. I’m in love with almost every single word here.” Upon seeing the second draft of the document, both Sean and Chris barely had any comments to add. Here’s what Chris said:

Rarely do I make suggestions on a document, wander off, and come back to find the entire piece more coherent, effective, and powerful without additional interaction.

This was really interesting because Chris gave very open-ended feedback on the piece. I thought it was a very pedagogical approach – to give such open-ended feedback and trust that the authors would find a way to make their own voices heard, their message clear, without pointing out the nitty gritty details of how to do any of it.

How often do we trust our students to do that?

Every time I give my students detailed instructions on how to do something, I fail. I don’t say “they fail” because I’m not sure where the communication breaks down. But when I give really open-ended feedback, or an open-ended assignment, they tend to blossom and flourish. Sure, it’s not always what I thought I wanted from them. It’s usually better 🙂 Almost always beyond what I could have imagined.

So I try to keep my instructions and feedback simple and open – creating space for emergence, rather than planning it. Planning the negative space that will nurture emergence.

I’m still not sure how to write that out into a syllabus short of a narrative explaining how I go about things.

What committee in the world reviewing syllabi would understand? would trust me to still be “rigorous” with my students? To still expect quality learning?

Fourth: complete spontaneity & letting go

Parenting, of course, is about embracing emergence. I should probably write a post JUST on the parenting aspect of this. But being a parent and appreciating how your child goes “off the plan” so regularly makes you realize the value of this. Almost always better than whatever you had planned!!!

I totally embraced spontaneity and took a big risk at Cairo University, at this really formal event where I got off the stage and started walking among the audience asking them questions instead of presenting like a dignified person on the podium. This is totally unheard of there. I made the decision during lunch time (just a few minutes before my presentation) and asked a colleague to change my slides as I spoke. It could have gone awfully badly. I’m lucky people enjoyed the “performance”. I learned a lot, too. I’m still not sure if the person who invited me to the event will ever talk to me again. But oh, well 🙂 We’ll soon find out.

All of our buddy/virtually connecting hangouts are emergent. Sure, a lot of planning goes into who we will meet when and who else will join; but often, someone will not make it; a new person will ask to join a few minutes before, and all kinds of things will happen (like my girl showing up on video in the middle of one; or someone’s connection dropping out and us having something else that’s interesting to say for the rest of that time).

Speaking of which – we have two events where we’re planning to hangout this week.

#DHSI (Digital Humanities Summer Institute) where Andrea Rehn has volunteered to connect us – we’re planning one today at 12:15 Pacific time (3:15pm EDT) with Alex Gil (and maybe also George Williams) and probably another tomorrow with Jesse Stommel and Chris friend (Will announce as we go).

#DML2015 (Digital Media Learning conference) where Mia Zamora is helping us connect with (hopefully) Howard Rheingold, Mimi Ito, Anna Smith and possibly more people. Will announce those on Twitter when we plan them.

Tweet me if you’re interested in joining any of these. Rebecca is not online these days which means there is space for 8 virtual people to join in


  1. Maha what may emerge may be fascism. Not all parenting is about nurture.

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