Structured Anarchy

A year has passed since I first talked about the concept of Global Success vs. Global Failure of the LMS.  I am writing now to talk about how I’ve begun working towards that goal that you might better plan for a decentralized future as well.  Decentralization can be scary, after all, it’s everyone for themselves.  The fear was well expressed to me in a phone call recently:

anytime I’m told we’re building it ourselves I feel like we must be doing something wrong

And yes, historically this is accurate.  If you went it (truly) alone without any underlying structure you were “doing it wrong”.  Starting from a single line of code and working from there is not the way to go about tackling our problems.

What I’m calling for though isn’t to start from nothing; far from it.  Today I would like to introduce a phrase I heard recently that hit me so hard I had to write about it.  It’s the phrase I’ve been looking for to describe what I’m building towards and what I’m personally calling for in future development strategies: Structured Anarchy (SA).

At first glance this phrase may seem set against itself.  How can something be structured and have order, while at the same time lacking order and structure entirely?

Take the forest as an example:  While you can look at the forest and say that the trees have been chaotically dispersed; you can see the trees as individual components of that random landscape.  They have defining characteristics and all have a similar underlying structure.  Some trees are different shapes after years of growth, but they are all generally the same (having leaves, branches, roots, etc).

This is what I hope to build with our future implementations of ELMS.  A forest, so dense and seemingly random in layout that there is no organization.  Some trees having more branches than others, or different colored leaves; yet, still all sharing the same underlying structure and coming from the same source of seeds.

I have been implementing our own form of SA in-house by slowly moving us further and further from centralized systems.  Here is a chart of our move towards Structured Anarchy since 2006:

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We start out very centralized, only housing our own core content in Dreamweaver files.  Then you can see we slowly transition from a centralized system, to our own.  The process continues and increases in pace as we shore up more and more of our own Information Architecture.

My plans of structured anarchy, often referred to as project Ulmus, has helped us put our destiny in our own hands and given us greater control of how we want to develop and structure course materials going forward.  The idea being that we can continue to provide better experiences for our students and staff through continued refinement of our own infrastructure while centralized authorities must remain relatively static in order to serve the general population.

Part of our success with SA involves the organic spread of the technology.  We’ve had many early adopters locally but now the time has come to attempt to spread the reach of ELMS further.  Later this year, a full version of the ELMS core platform will be released with more systems to follow by the end of 2011 into 2012.  Currently, I am working on ELMS Core – Alpha 3 but it is planned to be production ready by August 2011 (in-house) with public and internal releases shortly there after.

ELMS Core is just the first in a series of distributions that you’ll see released in an effort to not only nudge us further away from central systems but help increase platform sustainability through adoption.  Currently the second and third distribution releases are:

  • Asset management component to simplify the embedding and copyright management of media
  • Student collaboration component with a heavy focus on critique and community

The idea isn’t to make each of these “products”,if you want to call them that, do Everything.  The idea is to have each one focused on meeting a certain goal and using minor APIs and authentication to knit all the systems together. This has shown to not be an issues for students or faculty (through anecdotal evidence as well as minor surveys) over the last five years that we have been moving in this direction.

So the message hasn’t changed from last year.  Technology has been empowering in the past and it continues to be today.  As such, we are constantly able to do more with less (ELMS is still a one-shop, one-person show) and look to keep moving in an increasingly independent direction.

I look forward to the coming year and where this discussion may take us instructionally as well as technologically.  Please feel free to offer your two-cents on the concept of Structured Anarchy or our direction in general.


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  2. Bren · April 19, 2011

    Hey Bryan,

    I like the concept of Structured Anarchy. It certainly exists in nature, and works well. It is true that systems are more stable when they’re de-centralized, and allow for far more creativity.

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  6. Tess · June 21, 2011

    Chin up, Bryan, and I have found a lot of folks behind you here. I am. Remember, Hewlett Packer told Steve J and Steve W that people would not want computers in their homes. I bet those rascals at a certain company called Blackboard were told the same thing frequently–now they are told some other things, but listening gets to be a problem with success I’ve found.

    I have heard these:

    Why would anyone carry a phone?
    You can email? You’re hired.

    I worked for an attorney for a while, when he bought a computer in (I own’t say when) and we were typing in contracts and wills. He was asked why he would take on the expense with a new practice.

    How about games in education. I hear–where is the research?

    How about:

    Billions of dollars made while our kids get so used to louder, faster, more colorful and even violent…that what we come up with is…BORING!

    Even the 9/11 “pilots” used software simulation in part to learn to fly. 3/4 of them hit their mark. Courage kept the 4th from doing so. Think of how far we would be if we saw the school children of 9/11 as our audience. They are now. And so are their parents.

    Whether it’s the first line of code, the first line of prose, the first of anything and different…there are skeptics. But we can fly and drive and see a loved one across the planet. Hat’s off to the first’s.

    When you get the attention of skeptics and they start talking, the projects just move along more quickly. No, education does not need this stuff tomorrow.

    It needed it yesterday and the day before that and the day before that…

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