Complexity theory and the enhancement of learning in higher education: The case of the University of Cape Town

Educational Philosophy and Theory 56 (5):469-478 (2024)
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Abstract

In the post-Apartheid era South Africa’s universities have faced serious questions about the quality of their student learning in the face of near impossible challenges. The University of Cape Town, widely seen as the country’s leading higher education institution, has shown remarkable resilience, however, in the range of initiatives it has launched to support and enhance student learning. These initiatives, designed with a common purpose, are of course intended to work together so that their effects might be compounded and realized in enhanced student learning outcomes. Drawing substantially on the power of compounding (which is itself redolent of the claim made by complexity theory that relations and emergence are crucial concepts), complexity theory offers unique insights into how and why things change – and also into how and why things remain largely the same or inexorably grind towards failure. The networked initiatives undertaken by the University of Cape Town constitute a case of learning refurbishment that is also well explained and understood in terms of complexity theory. This paper draws on concepts from complexity theory both to understand how learning might be enhanced in higher education institutions in severely straitened circumstances and to offer insights for education leaders and policy-makers in this domain.

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