In Houghton’s (1989) review of educational paradigms, he highlights the gaining importance of chaos theory. Chaos theory is often characterized by the term non-linear. Chaos theory can be found in many disciplines; in structural engineering, the behaviour of a structure under earthquake loads is often seen in terms of non-linear behaviour. Another characteristic of chaos theory is unpredictability. The implications for educational theory, as Houghton suggests, is that we have a realistic model for what happens in highly interactive systems. If the process of teaching and learning is seen as a highly interactive environment, then the parallels to chaos theory can be easily seen. The nature of a lecture can change when a student asks a question. This results in a non-linear learning environment. Students affect how something is taught by their own unique ways of understanding. Houghton (1989) suggests that the use of computers in education is supported by chaos theory. He suggests that computers should play a significant and active role with learning. Chaos theory not only supports the concept of using computers in education, it suggests that with non-linear programming (e.g., hypertext), education can change from the traditional linear format to a non-linear methodology that is alive and vibrant.
Many theorists have been focusing on the importance of introducing non-linear methodology into education. Often, computer software is seen as the ideal method for implementing such a methodology. Saint-Germain (1997) identified teaching styles as an important factor in the use of multimedia and non-linear capable teaching software. She notes that previous conceptions of non-linear education were centered on developing software that complemented teaching styles rather than the other way around.
Gardner (1993), in his theory of multiple intelligences, theorized that people learn in different ways and, traditionally, education is not equally effective for all people, as it tends to favour certain types of learning. Lampropoulou (2001) recognizes the potential of computer-based or computer-assisted learning to address this concern. Well thought-out multimedia instruction could focus on more of Gardner’s learning styles than traditional lectures and improve access to education. Computer use could not only help to improve student understanding, but also allow traditionally marginalized groups to access education in a manner that might be better suited to their learning style. Lampropoulou describes learning as often being of a non-linear nature and sees multimedia as one of the possible applications of computer technology, with a great potential to learning.
Boger-Mehall (1997), drawing on the work of Spiro, Feltovich, Jacobson and Coulson (1992), supports the use of a non-linear teaching methodology for teaching complex, ill-structured subject matter. The basis of this approach is rooted in the theory of cognitive flexibility. This theory is based on constructivism and the idea that students construct their own learning based on their own experiences. Spiro et al. suggest that when the subject matter is complex, traditional linear instruction may be ineffective (Boger-Mehall, 1997). The traditional linear instruction model will cause an oversimplification of key factors, resulting in a student’s difficulty in transferring this knowledge into a new situation. She suggests that the goal of many professional educational programs is to help students transfer their knowledge into new and unique circumstances.
The use of computers to facilitate non-linear instruction is seen to be a natural progression. This approach is wellsuited to the subject of mechanics of materials, where the application of principles is needed for success. The various components of mechanics of materials are not organized in a linear manner. Often, components from one theory are needed to explain another theory, and vice-versa. Cognitive flexibility theory provides a potential solution to the problem. Again, the use of computers is seen as the ideal mechanism to accomplish this. This process can be explained with the following statement:
Key Terms in this Chapter
Cognitive Flexibility: The ability to spontaneously restructure one’s knowledge, in many ways, in adaptive response to radically changing situational demands.
Beam Analysis Tool (BAT): A non-linear capable, online software developed using the Macromedia Flash programming environment and which focuses on beam deflection problems using the moment-area method.
Non-Linear Learning: A system in which learners are provided with a variety of options, they choose their own path, different learners can follow different paths, and the outcomes are emergent and cannot be foretold.
Computer Algebra Systems: Generic mathematical tools that allow users to perform complex calculations and algebraic manipulations of equations.
Flash: A tool that is a registered trademark of Macromedia and originally created to allow developers to create simple animations or movies that could be inserted into a Web page and displayed on any computer that had the appropriate browser plug-in.
Actionscript: A full object-oriented scripting language developed by Macromedia to work within the Flash environment that allows developers to add more complex interactivity to their movies. It is capable of handling the complex mathematical formulations normally associated with more conventional programming languages.
Multiple Intelligences: A theory that suggests there are a number of distinct forms of intelligence that each individual possesses in varying degrees. The seven primary forms are: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, body-kinaesthetic, intrapersonal (e.g., insight, metacognition) and interpersonal (e.g., social skills).
Chaos Theory: A theory that describes systems that are apparently disordered or uncertain, but which may have an underlying order. An underlying tenet is that a small change in the initial conditions can drastically change the long-term behaviour of a system.
Random Access Instruction: The principled use of flexible features inherent in computers to produce non-linear learning environments.
Constructivism: A learning theory based on the premise that students construct their own learning based on their own experiences.