The ontologies of complexity and learning about complex systems

Michael J. Jacobson, Manu Kapur, Hyo Jeong So, June Lee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


This paper discusses a study of students learning core conceptual perspectives from recent scientific research on complexity using a hypermedia learning environment in which different types of scaffolding were provided. Three comparison groups used a hypermedia system with agent-based models and scaffolds for problem-based learning activities that varied in terms of the types of text based scaffolds that were provided related to a set of complex systems concepts. Although significant declarative knowledge gains were found for the main experimental treatment in which the students received the most scaffolding, there were no significant differences amongst the three groups in terms of the more cognitively demanding performance on problem solving tasks. However, it was found across all groups that the students who enriched their ontologies about how complex systems function performed at a significantly higher level on transfer problem solving tasks in the posttest. It is proposed that the combination of interactive representational scaffolds associated with NetLogo agent-based models in complex systems cases and problem solving scaffolding allowed participants to abstract ontological dimensions about how systems of this type function that, in turn, was associated with the higher performance on the problem solving transfer tasks. Theoretical and design implications for learning about complex systems are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)763-783
Number of pages21
JournalInstructional Science
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2011

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgments The research discussed in this paper has been funded in part by support to the first author from the University of Sydney Faculty of Education and Social Work, the Singapore Ministry of Education to the Learning Sciences Laboratory at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and from the Korean IT Industry Promotion Agency. Phoebe Chen Jacobson designed the Complex Systems Knowledge Mediator hypermedia learning environment used in this study. The contributions of the research assistants to this project are also gratefully acknowledged: Seo-Hong Lim, Lynn Low, and HyungShin Kim.


  • Agent-based models
  • Conceptual change
  • Digital media
  • Hypermedia
  • Knowledge transfer
  • Learning about complex systems
  • Ontology
  • Problem based learning
  • Scaffolding


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