Online University Credit Course, March 2011

In March 2010 and 2011, Dr. Kenneth Bausch of the Institute for 21st Century Agoras led a global online course to re-examine “The Predicament of Mankind.”  In collaboration with Professor Janet McIntyre Flinders University’s Institute of Public Policy and Management, students may register for academic credit for participation in the course. 

Online Course in Democracy and Global SustainabilityA combined class of Australian and American students participated in an online course in Sustainability with academic credits awarded through the University of Flinders (Australia).  The four-week course ran from March 21 – April 10 with the objective of developing a global “problematique” and identifying the most influential elements in its structure. The course was based on a set of 49 “continuous critical problems” (CCPs) identified in by Hasan Ozbekhan, Alexander Christakis and Erich Jantsch and reported in the Prospectus of the Club of Rome in 1970.  Though 40 years old, this list of CCPs still retains its contemporary relevance.  What has changed, of course, are some of the relationships among CCPs. 

Historically, the Club of Rome did not have group decision support tools at its disposal in 1970 and thus was not informed with a collaboratively-generated systems view which included the many qualitative dimensions of the sociotechnical problems confronting mankind.  Over the years, great progress has been made in the application of expert analysis tools, beginning with early uses of systems dynamics modeling (see Limits to Growth,1972).  The strength of insights based on expert use of systems dynamics over the years has however contributed far more to academic debate than to social action.  The reason for this is that collaborative action requires collaborative participation in shaping an understanding of the situation as a problem which must be solved collectively.  The online course introduced students to tools for shaping shared views.

One of the outputs of the course was a map showing the structure of influence relationships among CCPs.  This task was a reenactment of the use of interpretative structural modeling to “structure” CCPs in 1995.  The reenactment in the class thus comes after 15 years of social evolution across the planet.  Starting the class with labels for the original set of 49 CCPs and an understanding of the challenges faced by the Club of Rome at that time serves as a case for Problem-Based Learning.  In all case studies, the efforts to be authentic to the original situation are at best approximations.  In our course, students were challenged to infer and understanding of what lay beneath the labels in the set of CCPs, and then to seek out current corroboration for those understandings as genuine “continuous critical problems” based upon accounts reported in contemporary sources.  Each course participant was assigned individual accountability for a small set of CCPs.  The objective was to have students engage the content in the role of an expert.  The Students could not be expected to become “expert” in these realms of understanding within the scope of our course; however, perspectives were divided up sufficiently so that all students easily recognized that no one of them could possibly have the whole picture in mind. 

Students entered their assigned CCPs into a wiki, and added clarifications which included URLs to websites where background content could be found to substantiate their understanding of the problem.   After a period of “clarification,” students were convened into an online “meeting” where a screen sharing and voice-over-Internet linkage provided access to a group-ware facilitated dialogue about the strength of influence that the group felt existed among CCPs in today’s global situation.

We will direct you to published works that we expect to result from this experimental online class.  In brief, the resulting “tree” had 6 levels.  The drivers on the deepest level (VI) were in a cycle, that is, they mutually influenced each other.  They were CCP 37 Growing use of distorted information to influence and manipulate people and CCP 34 Fast obsolescing political structures and processes.  Immediately above this cycle was another cycle CCP 49 Insufficient understanding of the Continuous Critical Problems and CCP 18 Growing irrelevance of traditional values and continuing failure to evolve new value systems.  It was the conclusion of the participant that addressing these four CCPs is essential for coming to grips with the global problematique.

In discussing the influences revealed in the map, participants were shown the results of a similar exercise done by a small expert team in 1995 (see Christakis, 2006).  The 1995 team used 24 CCPs to construct an influence map consisting of seven levels.   Their deepest driver was CCP 18 Growing irrelevance of traditional values and continuing failure to evolve new value systems.  One step up on Level VI was a cycle of CCP 15 Generalized lack of agreed-on alternatives to present trends and CC 49 Insufficient understanding of Continuous Critical Problems.
In comparing the 2010 results to those of 1995, several things stand out.  CCP 37 Growing use of distorted information did not make even the list of 24 CCPs picked as very important in 1995.  It would seem that information is either more distorted now or we are now more aware of the distortions.  The other deepest driver in 2010 CCP 34 Fast obsolescing political structures and processes is not nearly so deep in the 1995 influence tree. We may be more painfully aware of this obsolescence now.  The deepest 1995 driver CCP 18  Growing irrelevance of traditional values and continuing failure to evolve new value systems is still a deep driver in 2010, but not so deep.  It could be that value systems have developed and hardened in the intervening years.

Why is this course particularly noteworthy?  On one hand, historic reenactment of the structuring event promotes insights into how apparently modest shifts in some CCPs may have had strong impacts on a larger system of CCPs.  Students capture an sense of systems change through an emersion into the issues that shape that situation.  Second, this class builds capacity for students to explore options for solving actions today through a systems understanding of the moment.  And third, students recognize the critical role that is played by including an appropriate diversity of genuine experts into discussions that are truly of an interdisciplinary nature.

While this course was a challenge students and first time instructors, and while the course most certainly does have some lingering technical and philosophical issues to address, the course represents the tip of the ice berg in Problem-Based Learning which is rattling the cages of educational traditions in efforts to allow students to break into new modes of participation interaction with content and with each other.

Christakis, A.N., 2006. A Retrospective Structural Inquiry of the Predicament of Humankind Prospectus of the Club of Rome, Chapter 7 in Rescuing the Enlightenment from Itself: Critical and Systemic Implications for Democracy (Janet Judy McIntyre-Mills, editor), Springer Science & Business Media, Inc.

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