Higher Education as a Complex System

     I work in higher education. In my opinion, this is one system that is in desperate need of what Reigeluth (2004) termed transformation. The higher education system, at least the institute where I teach, has not co-evolved along with society. Even though the information age demands a more learner-centered approach to education, many of the instructors who work within my system are very comfortable with the lecture-based form of education to which they have become accustomed. There has not been enough of a perturbance in the system to cause disequilibrium and bring about change.

     There are a few forward thinking individuals at my school who have the vision and desire to change. Thankfully, our new president is one of them. She has been working with the faculty, staff, and students to draft a new academic vision and master plan, and this new vision identifies student-centered learning as one of our focuses. This may serve as the impetus to change, with the vision for change coming from both the top and bottom levels of the system and all levels empowered to bring about the change.

     One good thing about my system is that, at least for the time being, academic freedom permits instructors to determine what they are going to teach without a lot of outside pressure to standardize the curriculum. I haven’t spent a lot of time working on the core curriculum, which is a sort of standardization, but for the most part, even two instructors teaching the same course using the same book add so much of their own flair to the course that there is little collaboration even within departments.

     Unfortunately, when it comes to online learning, this same diversity and independence leads to lack of standards and often poor quality. Whenever we have pushed for standards in online course design, we’ve gotten push-back from instructors who resent being told what or how to teach.

     The higher education system is made up of administrators, faculty and adjunct instructors, students, staff, parents, alumni, local businesses, the board of regents, donors, and other stakeholders. Its resources include its people, funds, research interests, library collections, buildings and land holdings, etc. It is affected by the economic influences of the local community, the state budget and allocations, federal funding, student enrollments, and other factors. Social factors which influence the system include how prepared students are upon entering the system, the availability and types of careers students need to be preparing for upon graduation, student demand, and changes in technological advancement.


Reigeluth, C.M. (2008). Chaos theory and the sciences of complexity: Foundations for transforming education. In B. Despres (Ed.), Systems Thinkers in Action: A Field Guide for Effective Change Leadership in Education. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

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