Emergent patterns in nature and society


Future practice

On the previous post I’ve already introduced what I am going to do with the lessons learnt on my ONL course. I’ve been charged with the challenge of co-designing an online asynchronous introduction to sustainability science. My goal is to make it as accessible as if my mum would take it, people with full time jobs or young parents. It will be leveraging online tools, but also activities that students can perform in their local realities that can teach us what sustainability means in different cultural contexts.

I initially took the ONL course to sharpen up skills for teaching online given the whole pandemic crises and the need to move all courses online in a very short period of time. My motivation was how to do better next year if courses continue being zoom based, how to improve the experience of my students and mine as teacher. But the lessons were far beyond that initial motivation. I’ve learn about learning networks, democratisation of knowledge, or the different meanings and practices of open learning. I’ve also learnt that online courses are a way to enable long term learning for people that cannot afford going to university, either lack of funding, lack of time, or simply difficult circumstances. Online courses do however nurture curiosity. No-one is too old to learn something, online courses make it possible for many.

I’m myself a decent consumer of online content for the sake of learning new skills and keeping my curiosity alive. From computer languages, coursera refreshments in old methods (statistics) and new ones (QCA), to patching up my incomplete knowledge of linear algebra (Khan Academy, good one!). I appreciate enormously when teachers have their teaching materials freely available online, slides, exercises, even videos. One of my favourites, as you already know, is Steven Strogatz. It’s time now to pay back to the community of teachers and people who have made that experience possible for me. So I’ve started doing the same and now when designing content for my classes, I’ll make sure they are available and under some sharable format e.g. under creative commons.

The last closing remark is that there is plenty of resources and science that it is being done on how to teach better, both online and in the classroom. I’ll keep an eye on the education literature, looking for inspiration and ideas of new things to try. Teaching is part of my job, but when I do read science I typically focus on my research questions but not necessarily on teaching methods, or what practices do work well under which conditions. Keeping myself literate about teaching is catching up with those developments as well.


Designing blended learning

On topic 4 of my online networking course we discussed blended learning and how to best design for it. Blended learning has components of face-to-face activities with online ones. The advantage of the face-to-face interactions are perhaps obvious given the covid times we’re in, but worth remembering. They facilitate social bonding, stimulates trust, and an environment where people feel comfortable sharing, listening, and disagreeing. Online activities, on the other hand, allow for some additional freedoms such as asynchronous activities, creative use of other media, or the expansion of resources through the internet. That being said, a few caution has to be taken in mind regarding the digital literacy of students and teachers, privacy concerns, and making sure that the virtual environment enable learning from failure, that is, people do not feel exposed if doing an exercise wrong or by supporting / opposing certain points of view.

The topic could not have been more relevant. We brainstormed on how to design a blended course the same week I was informed that I’ll be co-leading a fully asynchronous online course on sustainability science at my department. Exciting and challenging at the same time. It will be open to all countries, all time zones, all context and local realities. The previous professor had it designed fully asynchronous, so no group activities or face-to-face time. It is an introductory course, so it should speak to the prospect student interested on the topic without lots of technicality, as well as professionals who want to update their knowledge in that area of knowledge. It needs to work for parents with kids, people with full time jobs, everyone! It is not the typical course for freshman or sophomores, it should be a course that my mum would enjoy it!

Our discussions centred on how to make that possible. Some of my colleagues (with kids) suggested that instead of lectures with slides and kind of monotonous faces, why not trying a podcast style lectures? Something more conversational that only uses audio, so people can listen to it while commuting or doing the dishes. The average adult with a job does not necessarily have all the time of a normal student in front of a screen. My mind immediately jumped to who can I invite and that would be cool for the student to listen to? Bringing famous professors to the classroom for a lecture is hard, but perhaps more likely if it is a short conversation over zoom.

We also discussed the design of assignments, whether they should be private and perhaps only shared with the student’s consent after it has been reviewed by the teacher. Either way, I’d love to bring components of the student reality to the class, design exercises or “field experiences” that one could do in your city or neighbourhood and that others could learn from. I thought of using perhaps images (e.g. pictures of plants, or picturing ecosystem services) or something that gives the taste of the different realities of the group. One does not only learn from teachers and lecturers, but the experience of other students shared. How do we make sure to have that as well in an asynchronous mode? Last, this very ONL course I’m taking has some good examples to follow of activities and ideas to play around: the website, the webcasts, the twitter conversations, etc.

I’m excited with the challenge of an asynchronous online based course. It will be very different from the teaching I’m used to, but hopefully enable many people to be interested in sustainability science that otherwise would have not made it to the classroom. That democratisation of knowledge and expanding accessibility are two aspects that keep me motivated.

Dust bowl: symptoms of desertification

The dust bowl was a critical problem in the 1930’s US where large clouds of dust formed over the great plains, accelerating erosion and diminishing agricultural production. Scientist believe it could repeat again with higher likelihood of droughts brought by climate change, and expansion of crops over areas where the soils are already vulnerable. A really nice overview of recent literature is summarised in this Science note.


The discussion topic on my online learning class was networks. Personal learning networks. That was interesting because most of my current research work uses network theory in one way or another, I use networks to study complex systems. But never stop to think too carefully on their role in education. Some of my classmates were a bit irritated by the amount of jargon around some of these terms in pedagogics, which to some extent I agree with. But pass the jargon barrier –where educators call everything a network– and start thinking how networks are created, evolved or nurtured in the physical class room as opposed to the virtual reality.

When I was at MIT I took a class taught by Cesar Hidalgo, it was an introduction to networks. The class was open to students from MIT, Harvard and other universities in the area; and their backgrounds were all over the place, from physics and engineering all the way to the humanities. I knew about networks at the time, at least the introductory material. But I was interested on how Cesar teaches, because sometimes I teach similar content, to a way less diverse groups of students. Cesar, at the time, was the leader of a research group on collective learning. Cesar is a physicist by training, but he has always be passioned about problems in the social sciences: from how economics and information grows, to how people perceive artificial intelligence. I was inspired by Cesar research, but also curious of his teaching style.

We learn in networks, Cesar knows that. In fact, he researches how countries, cities and businesses form networks to hold knowledge, skills, and develop new ones. What economist term a knowledge economy. In the classroom we would always start by discussing 2-3 papers that were supposed to be read before the class. Given the diversity of backgrounds, and the usual one or two free-riders that didn’t read, every one had a different level of understanding of the content. We would reflect on some questions for 10-15 minutes and report back to the class what the group thought of the topic. That exercise would catch up the lazy ones, and also start a collective conversation on what is the fuzz about. After some discussion and scoping a few key questions, he will then go on lecturing for 20mins or so before the next exercise. By the time the lecture arrived, we were all warmed up and collectively tackled questions, problems, and different interpretations.

But how do one reproduce such high quality discussions online? How does one deal with the zoom fatigue or the cameras off? The conversation is not the same. On the other hand, there are alternative channels where conversation can happen. Twitter is one I often use, not in the context of class, but in the context of following scientist whose work I find interesting. I use twitter to keep myself updated with papers, opinions, and sometimes ask the sources what they think about some scientific question. It is a network. This blogging exercise, for example, is how the Online Network Learning course creates the sandbox for casual but content oriented conversations.

There are creative ways of nurturing such networks. In my class at Stockholm University we heavily use flipped classroom to make sure the conversation gets ongoing within groups, and then with the larger class. Similar to the discussion reading groups Cesar uses. On a different teaching class I’m taking, we use Athena, an online platform where we can upload resources and multimedia. It has chat functionality and people can comment on each other’s contributions (e.g. an essay, an exam). The class space is restricted to students and teachers, so it is less public that then blog format for example. Another option are online forums. They are widely use in the programming communities to exchange problems, tips and solutions. They can be both open or semi-closed like stackoverflow, stack exchange, the studio community, or the Earth System Data lab forum. All of them are networks that people use to learn, exchange knowledge, or just trigger curiosity.

Sharing and openness

One of the features that attracts me to open online learning is the democratisation of knowledge. Science and scientific knowledge is one of the main achievements that makes us humans: from the invention of fire to the development of vaccines. Knowledge is a form of power that cannot be taken, once you know something no one can force you to unlearn it. By encouraging open education, we are empowering people to be better, but also to scrutinise, criticise and improve what others have done. But it begs the question of how to be open or what practices are out there for practicing open education?

The first thing that comes to mind are massive online open courses or MOOCs. They have revolutionised education by using technology and reach out to many more people that traditional classroom based courses. There are however some caveats. Learning occurs in the interaction with peers and teachers, through discussions, questions and exercises. Online platforms are good for putting online lectures available to many people, but are more restricted at recreating the wealth of social interactions that a real classroom or lab can offer. Although some MOOCs do offer group work and mentoring by teaching assistants, the content and platforms are not completely open. Most MOOCs are run by companies whose interest include making profit. Courses are open only for a limited period of time and by subscription, they can be free if one does not opt for a certificate, but they are not free all the time so students can follow at their pace or convenience.

But MOOCs are the product of companies like Coursera or EdX. They have state-of-the-art resources to make materials available, make use of interactivity, language translation, or other features. How does one practice open learning if your are a high school teacher or a lecturer at a university? What if you don’t have all the time or resources that companies do, but want to practice some of that openness in your classes?

That got me thinking on content types and looking for examples of teachers sharing materials. I found useful and inspiring, for example, the recorded lectures of the non-linear dynamics and chaos class by Steven Strogatz. He is a famous mathematician and excellent communicator on the topic who has authored several non-scientific books, columns on the New York Times, as well as the Joy of X podcast.

I also found a series of online materials for a Bayesian statistics class (on twitter). The author has the content open and is happy to get feedback from the larger community on how to improve it. As an R programmer myself, I find useful that many books and tutorials are available online, free, and often develop with the input of people who use it and test it as it is written. Examples of these resources I often use include:

Inspired by these people I started collecting all my teaching materials under my website and make it available when possible for students or my future self to revisit, correct and improve. I still need to add creative commons licences to it, and perhaps store the code to create them on a clean repo with a clear open licence. I got inspired by the stats course on developing a website later on if I’m leading courses. I also like how Strogatz uses video, or for example the math classes in the Khan Academy walk students through demonstrations. I’ll need to think more carefully how to create such type of content in an engaging way. For now here I collected some resources for inspiration.