Co-Designing Learning for Complexity

It is challenging for students to understand the complexity of the real world while sitting in the classroom. Without direct access to the business context, students’ ability to successfully apply theoretical concepts in their future workplace is limited.

In response to this challenge and calls for embracing complexity in higher education, we designed a learning environment that was reflective of the business context, whereby students learn through a process of discovery of the real-world complexity.

We achieved this by viewing the classroom as a living community, where students, educators, and industry partners co-create learning.

Complexity-In-Use Educational Design

We brought the real world to the classroom by creating an interdisciplinary learning environment with input from educators, pharmacists and industry partners. This educational design enhances students’ ability to understand the complexity of information systems (IS) within a community pharmacy. Students observe scenarios filmed in a simulation pharmacy – what seems like a simple, 2-3 minute interaction between a pharmacist and consumer is then dissected into its parts, with multiple processes, systems, legalities and technicalities requiring consideration.

Learning is co-created through a scaffolding approach (Jonassen, 2011) where students, educators, and pharmacists integrate their perspectives. This approach allows students develop a holistic view of the real world complexity.

Our co-design approach (Leonard et al., 2020) is rooted on the three theoretical pillars of educational design theory, general design theory, and complexity theory and it follows two loops:

An educational design for complexity-in-use (adapted from Carroll 2004)
Loop 1: Iterative Co-design Among Students, Educators, and Industry Partners
  • Scaffolding for complexity – the video cases scenarios expose students to the complexity inherent in the pharmacy systems and processes (Hanseth and Lyytinen, 2010). Students are required to document their knowledge gaps via questions and assumptions about the systems and processes they see in action. We use structured templates based on categories or systems maps to guide students’ journey when unpacking complexity. 
  • From scaffolding to co-design – in a live Q&A session, pharmacist educators answer students’ questions. Students then receive feedback as we mark their questions and assumptions.  
  • Revealing complexity – students reflect and negotiate their assumptions, questions and answers via frameworks or systems mapping tools. They integrate different perspectives and their discussions reveal new layers of complexity that require further research. 
  • Embracing complexity – students then produce process diagrams or refined systems maps that reveal an enhanced understanding of the complex systems and processes. In small groups, students identify problems and recommend solutions based on a negotiated but more comprehensive understanding of the complexity inherent in the domain.  
Loop 2 – Appropriation by Alumni and Industry Partners: “Complexity in Use”

We engage alumni and industry partners in learning activities because the awareness of complexity can only be fully understood through the tacit knowledge acquired through practice. They act as boundary spanners and expose students to new knowledge rooted in their practice, i.e., reflecting on complexity in use. They prompt students to think outside the “box” and emphasise how relevant their learning is in the real world.


We have engaged over 2,000 students across six units of study in both the Business and Pharmacy Schools since 2018. We continuously refine the learning environment based on participants’ engagement, feedback, and student impact. 

Students’ feedback and high evaluation scores prove the effectiveness of this innovation in enhancing students’ understanding of complexity and workplace readiness.

“Thinking in and outside the box considering all dimensions of a system, it forced us to think as if we were actually working with real organisations and their problems.”  

“Understanding a complex process takes a lot more work than expected – the human element plays a huge role.”

Learning Tips
  • Scaffold learning to facilitate the understanding of complex concepts
  • Involve as many perspectives as possible and facilitate knowledge integration so students can develop a holistic understanding of complexity
  • Use mapping tools and templates to guide students through the journey of unpacking complexity
  • Engage students with scenarios inherent in real world complexity through innovative learning activities

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