3 Complicated vs. Complex Challenges

Moving your teaching to the internet probably means a greater emphasis on complexity.

A complicated challenge often corresponds with step-by-step responses. For example, it’s something you could copy and paste. It’s something ‘most’ people in your field would agree is the correct answer.  Think of building an airplane. That’s a complicated process, with potentially millions of steps. But it doesn’t require, and indeed would probably suffer from, creativity. There are specific steps to take, and those steps should be agreed upon by various folks in the airplane-building industry.

But, asking these ‘complicated’ questions only really works in the zone of artificial scarcity that is our face-to-face classes, where students don’t have a world of information at their fingertips (see chapter on abundance). In a classroom, the students would have to think hard to remember what step to take when. If this piece fails, what do I check first? What’s the formula for that? Online, they can just copy and paste the answer from any number of websites.

Complex challenges don’t have a single answer. They are difficult or impossible to measure. How much do you love cookies? What’s the most ethical way to eat? Only one part of the challenge can be addressed at a time. Focusing on and assessing students’ learning of complex challenges will necessarily engage students with the content and promote their autonomy as learners. If you are looking to evaluate students’ work online, add some complexity; something that brings their perspective to bear. Instead of asking “what is…” or “how does…” ask “what does that mean?” or “why do you think that?”.

We’re not saying not to teach basic or complicated that learners need to remember; just make them part of other things that include complexity if you want to do an assessment.


Categorize some of your assignments into complicated and complex. Take a complicated question from your existing curriculum, ask yourself “how can I transform this question so that it can no longer be answered by copy/paste?” “How can I add complexity to this question?”

Optional Resources


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12 Key Ideas: An Introduction to Teaching Online Copyright © 2020 by Dave Cormier and Ashlyne O'Neil is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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