I have done several talks lately about the idea of not-yetness. It’s an idea that Jen Ross (University of Edinburgh) and I first wrote about in our chapter, Complexity, mess, and not-yetness: Teaching online with emerging technologies, to be published in the forthcoming second edition of Emerging Technologies in Distance Education. In the first edition of the book, our esteemed editor, George Veletsianos, wrote about defining emerging technologies. He wrote that emerging technologies can be both old and new technologies and they are constantly-evolving organisms that experience hype cycles. George also noted that emerging technologies satisfy two “not yet” conditions: they are not fully understood, and not fully researched.

These not-yet conditions hit home for Jen and me. Writing from a complexity theory lens, we thought of not-yetness as being related to emergence. Noel Gough (2012) defines emergence as a key attribute of most human environments and systems, and what occurs when “a system of richly connected interacting agents produces a new pattern of organization that feeds back into the system.”

In our context, emergence is allowing new ideas, new methodologies, new findings, new ways of learning, new ways of doing, and new synergies to emerge and to have those things continue to feed back into more emergence. Emergence is a good thing. For us, not-yetness is the space that allows for emergence. Not-yetness is not satisfying every condition, not fully understanding something, not check-listing everything, not tidying everything, not trying to solve every problem…but creating space for emergence to take us to new and unpredictable places, to help us better understand the problems we are trying to solve (to use Mike Caulfield’s wisdom).
This is becoming increasingly important in education, where the rhetoric surrounding educational technology pushes simplification, ease, efficiency, and measurable-everything. This rhetoric goes hand-in-hand with the accountability movements (many call it “evidence-based practice”) at play in educational contexts. Randy Bass wrote that “these pressures for accountability are making us simultaneously more thoughtful and more limited in what we count as learning.” We hear a lot about “best practices” and “what works,” which Jen and others (Sian Bayne, Hamish Macleod, and Clara O’Shea) have argued is a “totalising notion.” There are lots of ways of understanding what our students experience, lots of ways to do things “right,” lots of definitions of right.

Davis and Sumara (2008) argue that “an education that is understood in complexity terms cannot be conceived in terms of preparation for the future. Rather, it must be construed in terms of participation in the creation of possible futures” (p. 43). And yet the push for simplicity and accountability defines a pretty narrow set of possible outcomes for students. Gardner Campbell cautions us to be careful with learning outcomes statements: “Yet these {learning outcomes} are still behaviors, specified with a set of what I can only describe as jawohl! statements, all rewarding the bon eleves and marching toward compliance and away from more elusive and disruptive concepts like curiosity or wonder.” Simplification and an over-pursuit of accountability run counter to our view that education is complex, messy, creative, unpredictable, multi-faceted, social, and part of larger systems.

We argue that not-yetness helps us to make space for critical discussions and experiments with emerging technologies in a way that recognizes the beautiful complexity of teaching and learning. As Jen said in our ET4Online plenary talk, which focused on messiness and not-yetness in digital learning, “We can use it to tell new stories about what teachers, students, developers, designers and researchers are doing in our digital practices, and why it is hard, and why it matters. We can take better account of issues of power, responsibility, sustainability, reach and contact in digital education. We can be more open about the work of education.”
To that end, Jen and I write in our forthcoming chapter, “We need practices that acknowledge and work with complexity to help us stay open to what may be genuinely surprising about what happens when online learning and teaching meets emerging technologies. In this sense, our focus as educators should be on emergent situations, where complexity gives rise to ‘new properties and behaviours… that are not contained in the essence of the constituent elements, or able to be predicted from a knowledge of initial conditions’ (Mason 2008, p.2).”


So what does all of this mean for educators? Here are some ideas. Embracing not-yetness means making space for learning opportunities that:
  • promote creativity, play, exploration, awe
  • allow for more, not fewer, connections, more personalization (true personalization, not necessarily what has been offered to us by adaptive learning companies)
  • transcend bounds of time, space, location, course, and curriculum
  • encourage students to exceed our expectations, beyond our wildest outcomes, pushes back on “data science of learning” focus
  • do not hand over essential university functions and important complexities over to private industry


In my talks, I shared examples of projects that I think embody or embrace not-yetness. I’ll share those examples in my follow-on post.


As I was looking at these projects, trying to better understand them, I started thinking about Legos. I love Legos. I was talking to my friend Mike Caulfield, who is at Washington State University-Vancouver about this idea and he said, “do you remember when Legos used to just be free-range Legos? Now, they are these sets that have instructions and tell you how to build exactly what they want you to build. They were trying to eliminate the problem of kids not knowing how to build Legos, but instead they also eliminated the opportunities for creative expression.”


This really hit home for me, because I was really into Legos as a kid and my son is really into Legos. I decided to run a little experiment—mostly for my own curiosity. I decided to see what would happen if I gave him the same Lego set twice and had him build it once with the instructions and once without. First, this is what happened when Vaughn had the Lego instructions (fyi–the videos have no audio):

I thought that, when I gave him the set without the instructions, he would try to copy what he had done when he had the instructions. But instead, after suspiciously confirming that he could build whatever he wanted,  here is what happened…

Note that throughout the time he was building without the instructions, he was also playing. Note that he is making sounds (though there is no audio, you can clearly see he’s making the requisite “boom” and “fffffsssshhhhh” sounds a six year old makes), talking more, smiling. He’s exploring. He’s enjoying himself.

 Building Legos without instructions may have seemed harder or daunting at first, but instead it opened up space for his creativity. Not-yetness—not specifying outcomes, not predicting what he would or should do, not outlining each step—opened up space for play and for the three really cool ships he built.


I know that my highly scientific experiment may not work for everyone, but what you see in these videos is one reason why we argue for not-yetness. Because of the play, the fun, the opportunity in complexity and not-yetness. The ill-defined, the un-prescribed, the messy can lead to the unexpected, the joyful. Noel Gough (2012) writes, “complexity invites us to understand that many of the processes and activities that shape the worlds we inhabit are open, recursive, organic, nonlinear and emergent. It also invites us to be skeptical of mechanistic and reductionist explanations, which assume that these processes and activities are linear, deterministic and/or predictable and, therefore, that they can be controlled (at least in principle).”


Open, recursive, organic, nonlinear…these things say to me that we can have learning that is unpredictable, fun, emergent, organic, freeing, co-developed, co-experienced, complex, deep, meaningful.


So as I looked for projects that embodied not-yetness, I kept these concepts, and my son’s Lego adventure, in mind. In my next blog post, I’ll share those examples. Stay tuned!

42 Responses

  1. Love the post Amy – and it’s great to hear more about the idea of not-yetness.
    Regarding lego – I am so old that I played with lego before roof tiles – we just used lego bricks to make the roof. Maybe there is a message about commodification and scripts as you suggest.
    For me – the not yetness does not only relate to experimentation in education but also to research. I want to make a plea for qualitative research in learning on-/off-line so it’s not swamped by the analytics tsunami.
    In the last year, I have (with Jenny Mackness) engaged in research on a very interesting cMOOC rhizo14 – a course, offered by Dave Cormier, that was very much within the frame of ‘notyetness’. So alongside the fascinating practice, we conducted research that is looking at ‘issues of power, responsibility, sustainability, reach and contact in digital education’. We can’t come up with scripts, success factors but I hope that we can, even in a small way, inform the notyetness.
    I have also engaged (as non-researching participant) with the very wonderful smallest federated wiki via 2 happenings facilitated by the lovely Mike Caulfield. It’s fabulous and I am learning so much, and I hope contributing in a tiny way to the project.
    So my question is – what are the roles of (qualitative) research and practice in not-yetness?

  2. This is a great reminder, Amy. There is such a gravitational pull when designing online courses to try and keep instruction tidy and aligned. Learning objectives are expected to flow into modules which then flow into learning objects which then track people down ordered pathways towards mastery and credentials. And indeed if you marshal these elements into a framework and harvest the resulting data, it can be exciting to see patterns emerge so that you begin to understand where misconceptions cluster or where engagement is falling off. But there is so much not-yetness in all of these metrics and data. Obviously we know that learning is nonlinear and people will always find their own pathways through content and offline experiences. There are so much about meaningful learning experiences that can’t ever be tamed. I keep thinking about ways that an LMS platform can capture and augment this messy learning, rather than just reduce it to multiple choice quizzes. How can we use an online platform as a gallery or a repository to make offline learning experiences visible? How can online courses enable work-in-progress to be showcased and sorted, but not just mined for data? Looking forward to reading about the examples of projects you found. And thanks for this thought-provoking post.

  3. I have been intrigued since hearing snippets on Twitter about notyetness from a conference talk you gave so I was delighted to read this post and look forward to the next. There is so much in the post that sparks ideas for me but I would just like to make 2 responses.
    You highlight GV’s characterisation of notyetness as “not fully understood, and not fully researched”, and yours and Jen’s ideas of notyetnness ” creating space for emergence to take us to new and unpredictable places, to help us better understand the problems we are trying to solve “. This made me think about research into the use of emerging technologies in teaching and learning. Much critical qualitative research is right on board with notyetness in its acceptance that knowledge is partial and provisional. I just wonder how labour-intensive qualitative research (so important in revealing dimensions of notyetness) will survive the allure of big data and the powerful push to demonstrate return on investment. The ahistorical innovation/disruption rhetoric of Silicon Valley that Audrey Watters unpicks so well is also attractiive to some managers in HE who want to demonstrate Return on Investment.

    My second response is about the lego. I loved the videos of you son and played them simultaneously to see his different responses. I am a generation earlier than you and remember pre-kit and pre-gendered Lego. As a parent, I hated kits as they were irrecoverable once broken up and the range of components was so complex that they were difficult to organise for future reuse in free building. I think there is quite a lot of mileage in tracing and comparing the histories of lego and edtech. I wrote a bit about some of this in the last para of

    Thanks for the read – you are in my feedly:)

  4. This is an innate principle within the creative arts disciplines. Here at the University of the Arts London we even talk about a pedagogy of ambiguity. imho The higher ed sector as a whole could learn a lot from arts based pedagogies. It’s interesting that your Lego example is about emergent practice and creativity…

  5. Wonderful post, Amy!

    Frances: I love your questions! In relation to the first question: I don’t know the answer, but in a forthcoming paper with Amy we argue that Big data and clickstream research dominate the MOOC research space. In a different paper that we will be ready to submit in the next 2 weeks, my colleagues and I provide empirical evidence to support that claim. There are many many implications here… for example, what we know about MOOCs (and open courses) are limited to particular methodologies. I am also concerned when I hear claims from the learning analytics community as to “scaling up qualitative research” which mostly sounds like quantifying qualitative data as opposed to actually doing *interpretive research* (which I think is what you are alluding to here.

  6. “there is so much not-yetness in all of these metrics and data”

    “I just wonder how labour-intensive qualitative research (so important in revealing dimensions of notyetness) will survive the allure of big data and the powerful push to demonstrate return on investment.”

    These two comments struck me as interesting when juxtaposed – making me think that maybe what acts against not-yetness is more often our understanding of what big data, analytics and metrics can do for us (the allure Frances mentions) than the big data itself, which is full of potential weirdness and wildness. I think this relates to what Gert Biesta says about the problem of ‘what works’ as a question informing research: it forgets “that what counts as ‘‘effective’’ crucially depends on judgments about what is educationally desirable. …The focus on ‘‘what works’’ makes it difficult if not impossible to ask the questions of what it should work for and who should have a say in determining the latter” (Biesta 2007, p.5). I guess this is what you’re saying, Amy A, about going beyond mining?

    Biesta, G., 2007. Why “What Works” Won’t Work: Evidence-Based Practice and the Democratic Deficit in Educational Research. Educational Theory, 57(1), pp.1–22.

  7. Yikes, I am not reading all of the internet; how is this the first time I have heard of “notyetness”? Absolutely brilliant, it really encapsulates the kind of area I love to work in. it also breaks away from a lot of the dichotomies we set up in out field, it allows for much in between.

    Like Frances, I was entranced to watch the differences in Vaughn’s affect with the legos. It also clicked for me that it’s not that these approaches are not mutually exclusive. There is value in sometimes building with legos with instructions, it probably can inform the process when you do it without instructions. And going w/o instructions can inform the process when you are given instructions (e.g. learning when to question them, or to expand them).

    The description of “old/new technologies” reminded me as well of Jon Udell’s framing of “trailing edge technologies” (you cannot hang out with Mike too long before leading to Jon’s work).

    #notyetness #4life

  8. This post, especially the latter part, made me think about Ken Robinson’s TED Talk on how “Schools Kill Creativity”. The LEGO videos are a brilliant example of this idea.

    To add to the conversation, I think true learning results from a hybrid of both practiced disciplines and creative play. One cannot exist without the other, but I do agree that since its inception, formalized education has had something of a love affair with the former rather than the latter. I can posit a few reasons for this, including:

    1. It’s easier to teach and assess disciplines than creativity.

    2. The production of goods for the last century has largely relied on disciplines rather than creativity.

    To #1, I think it takes much more expertise in a field in addition to cross-disciplinary knowledge to assess creativity. It’s easier to memorize a process and a result and then lead someone down that specific learning path than to accept that there may be more than one “right answer” and more than one way of getting to that result.

    To #2, I think that computers, automation, and robotics will eventually swing the pendulum back in favor of creative play (instead of disciplined practice). Computers are designed to make replicating tasks easier; Automation sets those tasks in motion at the correct time; and Robotics will remove the need for humans to do repetitive tasks. Therefore, creativity in further solving problems will be the “required job qualification” of the future.

    Evidence of this is most obvious in technology. Open-source software (on sites like Github) award creativity from others in making a product or service better. Why continue to use CSS if SCSS or SASS is a better, or more streamlined alternative? Also, in technology, value is placed on creative solutions to problems. Not enough taxis? Build a different network of drivers–Uber. Too costly to go to space? Find a way to reuse the most expensive part (rockets)–Space X.

    I expect the trend to continue, but practiced disciplines will need to exist as a check on creativity. A creative solution is not always a good solution and a creative solution may not always work the first time. Repeating, revising, testing, etc (practice) mixed with creative approach yields the best result.

  9. Lovely post. We would just raise a query about a dichotomy that seems to be lurking in the background. There seems to be an assumption that we live in a linear world and anything that involves non-linear emergence and feedback and co-creativity stands as a radical opposition to it. What distinguishes the West – its great pride prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain – is its embrace of the market, which is an arena of non-linear emergence grounded on a recognition that economic activity cannot and should not be controlled beyond the tweaking of things like the money supply.

    The idea of the unpredictable, the playful and the fun have become ideologies helping to perpetuate the social reality of a market scoiety that is far from playful and fun, and that is predictably unjust and unsustainable.

    An image: The Belgian king ruled over an empire in which his minions in the Congo cut off the arms of negroes who were not collecting rubber in sufficient quantities. On the other side of the world Dunlop developed the tyre for the automobile. An emergent technology allowing people to drive where they want and give lifts to the people they want to give lifts to.

    The non-linear playfulness of some is grounded in the linear misery of others.

    The discourse of the rhizome has to find some way of connecting with the concern about social justice.

  10. Pingback: Francesbell's Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top