Jan 272013

The Santa Fe Institute has jumped into the massive open online course game, launching “Introduction to Complexity” run by Melanie Mitchell, a professor of computer science at Portland State University and author of Complexity: A Guided Tour. The Santa Fe Institute has done lots of interesting work over the years in complexity, chaos, and emergent systems. One thing I’ve always liked about them is their cross-disciplinary tendencies. They thrive on getting people from diverse disciplines together.

The course itself looks to be pretty interesting and starts February 4th if you want to sign up. I don’t expect it to be fundamentally philosophical, but it will likely provide lots of good stuff to think about. Below is the lecture outline.


1. What is Complexity?   7. Modeling Social Systems
2. Dynamics, Chaos, and Fractals   8. Networks
3. Information, Order, Randomness   9. Scaling
4. Cellular Automata  10. Cities as Complex Systems
5. Genetic Algorithms  11. Virtual Field Trip; Final Exam
6. Self-Organization in Nature

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  15 Responses to “Santa Fe Institute MOOC on Complexity”

Comments (15)
  1. Nice, thanks for the heads up.

    Anyone interested in emergentism or process philosophy would do well to check out the SFI’s work. FWIW, AN Whitehead was quoted in one of SFI’s working papers:


  2. It really is great how much free material is online these days. This course perks my interest a lot as someone who is starting a post-grad degree in theoretical computer science.

    I like the point about the cross disciplinary nature of the subject. It’s amazing how relevant theoretical science is to the natural sciences, understanding human cognition, and also information in the general, philosophic, sense.

    I was, however, disappointed to see that quantum computing wasn’t included in the syllabus; I see this as being very important in computational complexity these days.

  3. This is a nice summary and thanks for it, Dylan. I’m currently part of a action team serving the campus I’m finishing my degree at in transitioning to a knowledge-based community (information/higher education community) from a strong manufacturing community. It’s been rough for the community as a whole.

    Although education infrastructure is strong the county is ranking low for post-secondary education and/or employment readiness after high school graduation.

    Anyway, I appreciate all the topics that are interrelated and discussed on PEL, learning a lot reading comments that coincide with my community’s goals.

  4. Interesting article on this topic and it is one I’m wrestling with—the pros and cons of online education. On the other hand, for me at the age of 45 with three children and the rising cost of a private not-for-profit liberal arts education its mind numbing, almost crippling.


    • without adequate state/public funding for salaries these kinds of projects will continue to devalue the work of most teachers. The monied powers that be once again use the needs of those without to exploit others.

      • Not to be intrusive but can I ask what state you’re in?

        I agree state education funding is problematic. Here in PA state funding is highly concentrated in correctional facilities vs. public education school funding. I do believe we have the highest incarceration rate for our youth compared to other states in the US.

        In addition, you know I was thinking about this – is this not only an economic debate (saltwater vs. freshwater economic schools of thought[see Paul Krugman and Keynesian economics) but also now becoming a battle between our elite private schools and a saltwater (Atlantic) vs. saltwater (Pacific) education debate?

        I’ll listen to the link later and thanks.

        • currently in Nebraska where the governor tends to follow trends oozing out from Texas (wiki the national political group ALEC) of all places, but have lived on both coasts and down even down south in Memphis and the problems are all over.

          • Similar Governor here (I doubt I’ll ever be employed with or without a degree – so why not go for broke!). Anyway, thanks for the link. Interestingly, said something similar on my last final question in Abnormal Psychology. I see Erich Fromm also influences him. Fromm is one heck of a thinker.

          • I made a mistake it’s Lawrence J. Friedman speaking about Fromm.

  5. The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex, by Murray Gellman (credited for discovering the Quark) is an interesting view on complexity theory from an original mind, one of the founders of the Santa Fe Institute. Thanks, Dylan for bringing this course to our awareness.

    • Wayne: I’ve followed the pros and cons of on-line education. A good friend of mine finished her Masters in Special Education taking on-line courses and she didn’t like the on-line format. This has not been my experience and when I think about it—traditional lecture setting vs. blended courses—I prefer the blended courses.

      In thinking about my on-line activity, it’s mostly related to education and my field of study. I’m a slow thinker, so even though I enjoy traditional lecture settings, I get distracted in a classroom or too absorbed if, the Professor is passionate about the course they are teaching.

      The D&R study group that you are leading is very structured—which I like. I would think our study group is similar to an on-line course. I also think you’re a skilled writing communicator, which helps me as a writer (modeling).

      Here is the thing, I completely lost my identity living in a community,—not quite rural—in the country. When I did utilizing technology, I assimilated other people’s personalities, rather than my own. I really had very little self-confidence writing and engaging others with like interests. I don’t think I would have been able to find myself without engaging other people with a plurality of religious voices, their experience, and points of view on controversial topics.

      Re: the tradition lecture setting – I enjoy people and like to listen to them, their input on course material but it does not challenge me academically. My close friends know me (glad for their love and support I am) and I lost myself once because I didn’t trust myself. On the other hand, engaging other people with like interests had become an internet addiction. I don’t surf the net just for distraction. I surf the net re subjects and topics that interests me.

      Anyway, I think for me I prefer on-line courses because it’s quiet, structured and it provides the space to be a slower thinker with less distractions. It takes me a longtime to re-focus and write.
      All this to say, although I understand the importance of human interaction in a traditional education setting, I’ve always been this way.

      I prefer the blended courses and will have to find a community to balance the on-line (virtual) and (off-line) to have an integrated normal life. Much of that has to do with friend with tradition families vs. being a single parent.

      I also think my friends aren’t interested in the activities that interest me to engage in conversation. Although, when they call I do. So, in a sense I would say I’m a loner but I’ve learned to go by myself to activities that interests me.

      Do you support on-line courses?

  6. Tammy–
    I’m flat out supportive of learning (D&R, CH4). I have loved learning in traditional college settings with peer companions and teacher companions (when it works out that way) because the body of knowledge was known and acquirable. I have also immensely enjoyed and participated in the intermediate basis of education which is continuing education with colleagues and experts. And then there is the concept of “on-line” courses which both fills in the areas which were not already covered, exposes the areas which were not previously known and basically is open-ended and cumulative, from podcasts to itunes and audible.com to amazon.com. I think the foundation of a real campus provided the basis on which to provide the unlimited possibility of internet learning which increases the learning curve geometrically.

    As a self-starter, and highly appreciative of interaction, I enjoy the advantages of both in-person learning and internet learning. I think we can best adapt our own individual learning styles and interests to either, as you are learning to do–congratulations–Wayne

  7. Me too but first have to finish one last paper.

    Here is an ethical question for you given they think the next financial bubble to burst will be student loans. When is it ethically wrong for a private faith based college to compete with public education schools for state funding?

    I understand because of funding cuts our not-for-profit private college our struggling and between a rock and hard place. But where do you draw the line re SOCAS in our education system? It’s a complicated question because ultimately a college is going to have to raise the cost of tuition, which will effect students.

    Another question – is it right that traditional college student be asked to vote for a particular funding, which is competing with other programs for the same funding e.g; “Big Bother Big Sisters” when a college student isn’t presented with a choice (one of the programs competing for funding)? Is that ethical modeling and teaching behavior from a PhD who supports critical thinking or munipulating students ignorance? Do you think these are question that need to be asked or at least present in asking student who might not pay attention to state/ federal politics re education?

    I think these are fair questions that need to be addressed.

    Look, Wayne, I support traditional institutions and I know funding has been abused when it comes to public education (in my location). Regardless, I think if we are hoping to be better adult role model this not only applies to parents, but to adult educators modeling the behavior they are targeting to change in specifically lower economic communities.

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