The fractal potential of microlearning



I read James Gleick’s introduction to chaos when it appeared in 1987. It fascinated me then and still does now.
Three recent posts by Audrey Watters, Alex Ellison and Mike Crowley brought back memories of chaos, Mandelbrot sets, Lorenz attractors and  fractals.
They brought back memories too of Benoit Mandelbrot’s paper How Long Is the Coast of Britain?.
Audrey, Alex and Mike write about learning. I see in their arguments opportunities to contemplate the fractal properties of learning within and beyond organisational settings.

Audrey, Alex and Mike


I am not sure why I am constantly surprised by Audrey Watters. I should, by now, expect the unexpected. I think it is her imagination that prompts my awe. She sees, she connects and shares with distributed knowledge networks (“small pieces, loosely joined”).

This morning I read her Medium post ‘I Love My Label’: Resisting the Pre-Packaged Sound in Ed-Tech. The points that struck me forcefully in her discussion of Indie ed-tech (and her focus on the ‘indie’ part were:

  • I consider myself very fortunate that, even without all the proper credentials, I get to do some of the things I liked most about the “academic” part of my life: that is, I’m always learning, I’m always tackling new research projects.
  • I call myself a writer, and some days, when I’m feeling serious, I think of myself as a scholar. I’d like to believe that I’m pushing the boundaries, helping shape the future of my field.
  • I also consider myself fortunate to have peers who believe in the value of “open scholarship” — that is, we share our work online (mostly via our blogs) in ways that bypass the paywalls of the academic publishing industry.
  • “Indie ed-tech” offers a model whereby students, faculty, staff, and independent scholars alike can use the “real-world” tools of the Web .
  • The learning management system has prepackaged the university for the Internet, circumscribing scholarship, pedagogy, communication. The LMS is our major record label. Prepackaged software. A prepackaged sound.
  • Many of the industry-provided educational technologies we use create and reinforce a “templated self,” restricting the ways in which we present ourselves and perform our identities through their very technical architecture. The learning management system is a fine example of this …
  • We need a space to be unpredictable, for knowledge to be emergent not algorithmically fed to us. We need intellectual curiosity and serendipity — we need it from scholars and from students.

The Medium aggregator that brought me Audrey’s post, delivered a link to Alex Ellison. She suggested Why Going Micro in Education Might be Bigger Than You Think.

Her post discusses micro schools and micro learning. The points in her article that resonated with me were:

  • The micro movement as not only a solution to many perils in education, but to many of the social and political challenges we face as well.
  • Create something really small and really meaningful for a few people.
  • Let’s stop and question why we say we want education that works for everyone.
  • What would happen if we multiplied the number of schools in a city by 20 and lowered each school’s population to about 50 kids? Like the locally-owned bakery appeals to the needs and wishes of its local customers, so too could a micro school appeal to and meet the needs of its students.
  • Imagine a city where 100 micro schools, each with its own unique theme and character, appeals to students and families because of shared interests and values.
  • Perhaps the real way to make big change is to build up the courage to go in the absolute opposite direction and go smaller than we’ve ever imagined before.



The third present from my Medium aggregator was a link to Mike Crowley’s The Need for Discontinuous Improvement. In the post he explores Ross Ackoff’s observation “It’s better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right”. Mike’s post included these points:

  • Wisdom is concerned with effectiveness. … Doing the right thing is wisdom, effectiveness. Doing things right is efficiency.
  • How does a school manage to discontinue current practice?
  • There would appear to be two essential elements that will enable an organization to make the leap from doing the wrong thing right to doing the right thing (even if not perfectly at first) with confidence. These are: (1) an organizational culture that embraces change, and (2) an organizational conviction to break the status quo.
  • The things we should want for our children are much bigger than those offered by a traditional education.
  • “Continuous improvement isn’t nearly as important as discontinuous improvement. Creativity is a discontinuity. A creative act breaks with the chain that has come before it.” (Ross Ackoff)


Today was one of those bisociative days. I had an opportunity to connect different stories with a narrative that is emerging in my thinking and practice. I am very interested in the connections between indie forms of expression, micro learning and discontinuity. I am contemplating how any one of these components can be scaled whilst supporting differentiation in learning experiences.
Are Audrey, Alex and Mike pointing to a fractal possibility in learning?
Benoit Mandelbrot (1967) discussed the concept of “self-similarity”. My interest in this is more epistemological than mathematical. The same is the case with Karl Menger’s sponge. I wondered if these interests resonate with another of James Gleick’s discussion about a Lorenz attractor.
The Fractal Foundation defines a fractal as “a never-ending pattern”. Fractals are “infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales”. I like the notion that driven by recursion “fractals are images of dynamic systems”.
If we are fortunate, our experiences as a learner enable us to connect with others in distributed knowledge networks. I take the force of Audrey, Alex and Mike’s arguments to be that these networks can be pervasive and are fundamental to personal and cultural flourishing. Small is big and big is understandable as small.

Photo Credits

Beedruthen Pnaorama (Robert Pittman, CC BY-ND 2.0)
2016/366/79 Best binary literary tattoos in the universe (Alan Levine, CC BY 2.0)
Frame Grab Interview with Alex Ellison
Mike Crowley’s About Me page.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here